Dear Creator: May these words be delivered not only under your guidance, but as a living conversation from one heart to another. Amen
December 20, 2015
Luke 1: 39-55
A sermon preached by Christine Hemp at. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
Recently I was staying alone at my sister’s over in Redmond. She and her husband live at the edge of the Watershed and it’s pretty rural, though within a half-hour one could be strolling on the Microsoft campus. Preparing to teach day number two of a weekend writing class in Seattle, I was up early, making coffee, lost in my own thoughts on a dark, rainy Sunday morning. Out of the corner of my eye, through the huge picture window that faces the forest, something moved. Something large. And dark. Before my brain even registered the “what,” my body had already summoned its ancient response. The hairs stood up on my arms and my heart quickened. I never made it to the coffee. I froze.
Outside my sister’s kitchen window, tall as a refrigerator, stood – on two legs – a black bear.
My first response was low and primal “Ohhhhhhh.” And though there was a window between us, three steps would have allowed me to lay my hand in that thick, black winter rug of fur. He – or she – (there were no cubs) was fussing with the birdfeeder, snout snuffling to get the sunflowerseeds to spill. And spill they did–into his open mouth, even as the huge claws— curved, black, and the length of a pair of scissors, ripped the feeder from the house. Thrilling. And absolutely terrifying.
After a few moments, though, I couldn’t help myself: I tapped on the glass. The bear turned slowly, full-bodied, at full height, and faced me. Our eyes locked. It could have been ten seconds or ten minutes, I do not know, but in that slice of time I felt– in addition to awe and fear– a deep sense of recognition. And no small amount of mysterium tremendum.
Weirdly, when I first sat down with today’s Gospel reading — with all its miraculous moments of recognition – that bear kept coming back to me. The more I tried to keep that beast out of this sermon, the more she – or he— would not go away. In fact, it wasn’t just the bear at my sister’s; other bears appeared. Last month, while teaching at a school in New Jersey a mother and three cubs showed up on the dirt road as I left the main campus gate.
And then bears began walking through my dreams at night. Mother bears lumbered by, on two legs, carrying their children, father bears also hefting cubs in their big arms, sometimes four at a time. In one, I lifted a teeny tiny bear, in another a teeny tiny stick baby, hoping to gurard them from unseen danger. In both dreams the bears were, just as in waking life, both dangerous and comforting. After some research—and help from friends, I learned that in most all cultures bears are totemic animals, harbingers of healing, symbols of great power, solitude, and instrospection. And they represent the distinct power of the female: strong in leadership, nurturing and protection.They are also associated with darkness, , not only because of their dangerous strength—but because of their secret hybernation in winter.
Just as the bears began appearing in my dreams at night, a couple of Sundays ago– out of the blue–our rector Dianne surprised me by the loan of Barbara Brown Taylor’s book called Learning to Walk in the Dark, a book that skillfully redefines our contemporary notion of darkness—both literal and metaphorical. From how we’ve clouded our earth with so many electric lights we don’t see the constellations at night, to the emotional and spiritual realms we are often told (as both children and adults) to avoid. “Darkness,” she says, “is shorthand for anything that scares me—either because I am sure that I don’t have the resources to surve it or because I do not want to find out.” She explores how a lot religious language itself has, over time, engendered a kind of scare tactic to keep us from looking under the bed—where God is just as likely to be found–as well as the clean, well-lit kitchen. According to Taylor, even caves (literally! she went spelunking!) reveal the depth God’s presence.
For me, Dianne’s timing was perfect. I’ve been feeling pretty shadowy these days, trying to balance my expectations of the season with how I really feel. We all know how, don’t we– how, when darkness comes on strong and thick, it can feel all-encompassing? Especially with the recent chaotic violence that seems to have risen like a fireweed, engendering vitriol and hatred among even those who are meant to lead us toward stopping it? And then, there are the tendernesses that accompany this holiday — those who will not be with us this year and those who are ill or in trouble. New griefs seem to unearth the old ones and pretty soon they stack up a little too high. I keep asking myself–why am I feeling so low? It’s Advent! I should be faithful and cheerful!! Shouldn’t I be better at this by now? What’s wrong with me?
Miriam Greenspan, (who Taylor quotes in her book), calls grief, fear, and despair the “Dark Emotions” not because they are noxious or abnormal but because Western culture keeps them shuttered in the dark as if they are shameful. Over and over again, says Taylor, even in religious settings, we are given subtle messages that if we can’t “move on” or “buck up” we must not have enough faith. Taylor finds this antithetical to what our realitionship with God is all about. Plus, sometimes we find ourselves in circumstances over which we have absolutely not control — and yet we still feel we should have been able to fix it. Who are those voices in our heads telling us we are not good enough? That we should be better? That we are judged by things done and undone?
Which leads us to the two women who are the stars of our Gospel story today. In the canticle we have just sung, we hear the voice of a woman who not only knows who she is, but where the power comes from, the very Source that has given her the strength and courage to enact this outlandish story. In fact, her power is so strong that when her cousin Elizabeth first hears Mary’s voice arriving, she immediatley recognizes Mary as the mother of God and the fetus inside her. (As does, apparently jumpin’ jimminy John the Baptist who dances in Elizabeth’s belly!) In a time when women were, according to a Presbyterian pastor friend “less valuable than livestock,” Luke has acknowledged these women as the poetic narrators of their own story.
But how exactly did Mary and Elizabeth GET to this place of confidence and courage? How did they learn to sing out their destiny and step into it?
I think the bears (who spend a lot of time waiting, a lot of time in hibernation) might know the answer: Mary and Elizabeth spent some time in the dark.
Each woman knows the slings and arrows of public humiliation. Mary, newly pregnant and unmarried is scuttled off to her cousin Elizabeth’s house. Imagine Joseph’s embarrassment. They’d already been through the legal binds of betrhothal and then wham. Mary knows it’s coming (another visitation – our friend Gabriel, who tells her – like all the others, not to be afraid) But it isn’t until later in a dream that the angel tells Joseph what’s up and he follows orders. Mary, on the other hand, traveling alone, must have had to hold her head high, knowing that this was the forest she had to walk through. At night. No moon to light her way.
Elizabeth lived through a more sustained humiliation.Though married to a man of high social standing and strong lineage herself, her childlessness was still a public shame. Elizabeth endures the sorrow until long after menopause until one day, her husband Zechariah, alone in the temple performing an incense ritual, is faced with –yes, it’s Gabriel again– this time to inform Zechariah that he and Elizabeth (collecting Social Security and thinking about finding a smaller house) would conceive a child. Zechariah is stunned and his protest renders him mute, aparticularly noteworthy twist as the women rise to be the singers, the tellers, the prophets of this story.)
Both of these miraculous pregnancies, however, end the shame, period paragraph. The Creator shows them they were more than their social position, more than their small domestic stories, or even what they had done or left undone.
Who among us isn’t crippled by thinking we haven’t done enough to the world? For our community, our church? For Syrian refugees? Or that we drank a little too much at the party the other night? Or maybe we weren’t nice enough to the grocery clerk? Or that we really should be able to clean the house, entertain friends, bill clients, collect socks for the homeless, wrap Christmas presents, feed the cats, AND appear to be strong–and look good while we’re doing it?
The story today–in all its complexity seems to expand the width and breadth available to us from God. It’s not about getting ahead, having a balanced bank account, or being perfect and wonderful in every way. Mary and Elizabeth show us that it’s actually about stumbling our way through the dark, even when we don’t know the way out. How frightening! And yet — how thrilling.
Maybe this is why God sends messengers. Our Creator is too big, too awe-ful and terrifying to encounter face to face. So instead come those who may scare us (bears! Gabriel! prophets! visionaries!) but who also startle us into seeing more of the Mystery. The recognition between Elizabeth and Mary is not just in the fireworks celebrating the coming of Jesus; it’s roots are buried deep in darkness. Not only the literal shade of the womb, but the emotional/spiritual darkness these women lived in for a time, giving them an added heft, a she-bear power.
As I continue to unwrap my own sightings and dreams this Advent, I am learning not only to walk in the dark but to lean into it. Sometimes that means we must endure the mud and the sorrow, honoring the fallow time of hibernation, and other times it means that the dark contains secrets more rare and wonderful than we could ever imagine: A quickening life, a new story, light spilling into the mouth of the cave.