Believing Into Being

The Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan preaches at Sunday ServicesSermon by The Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan, Associate Minister, The Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.


Friends, will you pray with me? Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight. Oh God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

When I graduated from college, I had zero, absolutely no idea of what I wanted to do with my life. The only semblance of a plan was that I wanted to make a difference in the world. I had been offered this tremendous opportunity and privilege of an education and I felt this responsibility of doing something with it. Christian writer, Frederick Buechner, has this wonderful notion of vocation. It's where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need, and it was that place that I was searching for, and I looked for it.

I worked as a case worker helping to connect homeless individuals with job, care, and housing. I put together policy forums for bringing together political walks to discuss international peace building and conflict transformation. I helped start a school focused on ethics and global citizenship for juniors in high school. I worked at a nonprofit building playgrounds in under-resourced areas. I did the books for a nonprofit that supplied HIV and AIDS medication for Zambians. I also was a personal assistant for an ambassador's wife. I even was a hostess at a sushi restaurant, and nothing quite fit.

Newly graduated college students nowadays are entering the world, drifting on an undercurrent of existential anxiety and fear. As Professor Paulsell shared a few weeks ago, students are no longer asking the question, what should I do for a living? They're asking, what is worth living for? So, my journey may sound naive, but this longing of wanting to make a difference gnawed at the edges of my soul. And then, one day, I received a phone call, a phone call from my grandfather out of the blue. Now, my grandfather, my mother's father, is devoted to his grandchildren, but he is not one to call them without a reason. So, I was quite surprised to hear his voice on a random Tuesday afternoon.

And my grandfather told me he had had a dream, and it was a dream about me in which I was a pastor serving in a local church. Specifically, his vision was me sitting on some steps of a chancel delivering a message to a group of young children. He proceeded to say, "Now, Alanna, I know you've been trying to figure out what to do with your life, but I think you could do a lot of good in church. Just give it some thought." I was quite taken aback by his words. You see, my grandfather neither attended church nor even stated a belief in God. He actually had been hurt by some religious leaders earlier in life, which made him quite skeptical of organized religion. So, imagine my surprise to learn about his dream.

God truly works in unexpected ways. Some people describe their call as a nudge, or a feeling, or a gut reaction. Mine was a literal phone call. I then called my father to tell him about the conversation and he said, "So, what do you think about what Pop Pop said?" And without skipping a beat, I said, "I feel like I've been waiting my whole life for someone to say that to me." Sometimes it is someone else articulating their belief in us that enables us to claim it for ourselves. Our world can turn upside down with the turn of a phrase. Just before the start of our gospel lesson for today, that was so beautifully read by Jeromel. Luke shares that Mary has had a visitor of her own, an angel in fact.

And the angel tells Mary the unbelievable news that she is with child and that she will have a son. You will name him Jesus, and he will be called the Son of God. Now, this is a time when religion was inseparable from politics. Politicians automatically held religious office. In fact, Emperor Augustus was both political leader and perceived as a divine being. His title was Imperator Caesar Divi filius Augustus, Commander Caesar, Son of the Divine, and it was a challenging time for Jews in the Roman empire. Around the time of Jesus, his birth, the Roman appointed Herod the Great died and Jews led uprisings all over the land. Now, an important side note, the beloved Herod the Great is very different from the Herod that followed.

The second Herod was awful, unlike Herod the Great, but Syrian legions under the direction of Rome crushed these rebellions, burned the city of Cyprus and Galilee and enslaved the cities Jewish inhabitants. And this is the world where Mary and Elizabeth lived and this was the reality that they faced. Jews believed that their only hope, that the only way to overcome the imperial power of Rome would be through divine intervention. So, it is in this dangerous place and precarious circumstance that Mary sets out to see Elizabeth. Mary is in the midst of war. She's Jewish, she's a teenager, she's pregnant, she's unmarried, she is alone.

She is at the bottom rung of the socioeconomic and political ladder of the Roman Empire, let alone that she's just had this unbelievable mystical experience. And that is just what we know about her from the text. We don't know what emotional, physical, or spiritual state she's in. Perhaps she's elated, overwhelmed, furious, terrified, vulnerable. Well, if Mary is anything like us, it's probably a mixture of all, yet she is compelled to share this news that she has learned, compelled enough to leave the safety of her home and travel 80 miles by herself to visit her relative Elizabeth.

And when Mary arrives at Elizabeth's house, she is welcomed by an immediate and silent response from Elizabeth's unborn child, a kick. As often well-timed baby kicks do, it opens one to new awareness and understanding. This time, it is Elizabeth. Elizabeth greets Mary with honor and joy, and this is not to be assumed for her own situation in life could make it very difficult for her to support Mary in her time of need. For up until this moment, Elizabeth has been unable to have a child of her own. In ancient near east cultures, often a woman could either have children, or a family would pay someone to have children for them.

That is how strong the expectation of having children was, and although the cultural and social context has changed, infertility can still be a silent, common, and incredibly isolating experience. In a recent New York Times article, writer Regina Townsend talks about the lasting trauma of infertility. She says that while anxiety, depression, grief, and loss are all a part of this psychological impact of fertility, there is so much more to this experience. Infertility changes how you see yourself and the world. Somewhere along the way, many of us start feeling as though it is something that is happening to us, but instead we believe that it is part of who we are.

You become used to living in a constant state of fluctuating between despair and hope, and this is where Elizabeth could have found herself leading up to the moment of Mary's arrival on her doorstep. Elizabeth has long endured being seen as a failure. She knows what it is like to be the subject of public judgment, and shame, and yet Elizabeth believes Mary. When it is easy for the world to discredit or discard her, Elizabeth believes her, validates her and what she has experienced. In fact, not only does she believe Mary, but she blesses her. She offers a two fold blessing. First, Elizabeth shares that Mary is blessed among women, translated from the Greek, meaning that she will be remembered well.

She will be praised. Present and future generations will speak well of her and her baby Jesus. Second, Elizabeth shares that Mary is blessed by the Lord. Here, blessed comes from a Greek term that Jesus also uses to bless people in the beatitudes. An alternative translation is, happy is she who believed. Mary is blessed because despite all expectation, her social status has reserved, she will be honored rather than shamed for bearing this child. Blessed with divine joy because she has believed that God is able to do what God promises to do.

When Elizabeth says, "Blessed is she who believed," she implicitly contrasts Mary's trust in God's power and promise with that of her own husband. Zechariah, a priest, asked for proof that the angel's words were true. Mary asked for an explanation of what was going to happen to her and then gave over her willing consent. Zechariah doubted God. Elizabeth's blessing celebrates Mary's willingness to say yes to God. Our world can turn with the turn of a phrase. Elizabeth's prophetic witness strengthens and encourages Mary. Mary recognizes her vocation through Elizabeth's description and is emboldened to share that beautiful testimony of the Magnificat.

We were left wondering, would Mary have sung the Magnificat if Elizabeth did not believe her? After all, Mary did not proclaim her faith fully after the visit from an angel. It was only after being received by Elizabeth who confirmed her call and blessed her. This is a small story. It's about a genuine connection between two women who are marginalized by society for different, and in some ways, conflicting reasons. Yet, they find strength to turn the world upside down in one another. God gives Mary and Elizabeth each of what they lacked on their own, community and connection within one another. God removes their isolation.

They are a part of something larger than their individual destinies. Together, they are known more fully and begin to see more clearly. Our God is a God of small beginnings, and the coming of God is not for the mounting of a rebellion but through the birth of a baby. God is at work in deeply personal ways that can change the world. Two marginalized and pregnant women carry forward the future and proclaim the Messiah. This Sunday, we lit a rose-colored candle. This is because it is Gaudete Sunday, and in the liturgical calendar of the western world, we celebrate this Sunday because Gaudete derives from the Latin word meaning to rejoice.

Now, the joy that we celebrate today does not wash away over the trauma or pain of our lives. For Mary, her role in Jesus's birth does not erase the challenges that she will face as an unmarried, pregnant teenager. Joy is not the absence of struggle or conflict. Joy comes from the connection to a greater story, to hope for more than can be at this present moment. Hope and understanding start slowly and quietly. Today, we are entrenched in our corners. Divisions can feel insurmountable, and yet the world can turn with the turn of a phrase, so let us start small.

Perhaps we can begin by being alert and attentive not only to God's call in our lives, but also in the lives of others. Perhaps we can hear that call even better than the one who is being called, and who knows? Maybe we can be called to offer a blessing on another's call, or even perhaps a leap of joy.