— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 2nd Sunday of Easter ~~~
Sermons often come together from odd combinations. I am like Tom Long describes of his reading as a young pastor – I operate like a pick pocket working a crowd, quickly scanning a multitude of possibilities for the profitable takeaways (The Christian Century, October 17, 2012, p. 40). I am no longer a young pastor but I still pick pockets! The pockets picked for this sermon story were those of the Gospel of Luke – namely the Magnificat – and John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery.” Some of you know the song. The opening line is:
I am an old woman named after my mother…
The refrain goes like this:
Make me an angel who flies from Montgomery.
Make me a poster from an old rodeo.
Just give me one thing I can hold on to;
to believe in this living is just a hard way to go.
Combine that song with Luke 1:39-55,
and this what came out of me.
The way I see this relating to our present world situation is that Mary, like Jesus, can identify with our suffering and the many ways we feel powerless in the face of threats to our lives and the lives of those we love.
Mary, the Virgin Mother
I am an old woman. You would think I should have more to say, but the mystery of my life remains so even to me. More to me, it seems, than it is to others. Already people around me are saying things with a certainty I would not claim. I guess these pronouncements are born of a hunger … for what? Maybe it is hunger for clear divinity? I don’t know, but I am sometimes flattered by the elevation that is given to my place in the unfolding of what is – no doubt – a holy story. Of some things I am certain, but of many others things said of me and of my boy, Jesus, I can only whisper and hope and trust that the God of my ancestors – Adam and Eve – will fashion from clay once again new life.
I have remained here, in this blood-soaked City of Peace, Jerusalem. I can only begin to tell you why I’ve stayed. This is a painful place for me, but somehow the travails of this city have a weight to them. Somehow Jerusalem reminds me that peace always comes with a high price. My oldest son, Jesus, was broken here. He paid the price. Like me, he could not stay away from the place. Something drove him to come back to Jerusalem over and over again even when it became more and more dangerous. He came back until he was broken and his blood poured out into the dirt and grime of a city that is known to kill the prophets; yet, I’ve stayed.
Women are broken here, too, but more often out of neglect than with wood and nails. Jerusalem is my home, and I have, indeed, found some peace here. John, my stand-in son, and my other boys have not neglected me. We have made our way. That’s not to say that I did not (at times) pray that God would make me an angel and let me fly from Jerusalem. I’ve grieved hard; yet, God remains just enough in the dust of these streets and the mud of these walls to keep me connected to the one I suckled at my breast, to keep me connected to the one I laid to a bloody rest.
One of the things of which I am sure is that when I became pregnant, my life changed. I was young, mind you, but I was strong and smart. I hardly knew my own poverty, but we were poor. But I had no doubt that I could make my way. My family was not helpless; I was not helpless. I am not a dainty woman. I could do most any work that folks would allow. My family and I made our way. We did the things we needed to do to get by, to thrive even. As I said, we were poor but we knew how to live, and we loved God. We hungered for a more prosperous and free Israel. We longed for justice and for the poor to be raised up and the rich to be sent empty away. We trusted that God would one day bring into being a world of righteousness and peace. Our family was not desperate. We were making our way and looking for God’s redemption.
My family knew how to survive even in the hard times. We planned for the future even as we awaited God’s perfect future. In our imperfect world, arrangements had to be made to secure the future for children, especially girls. Such arrangements had been made between my family and Joseph’s; he and I would be married. Such arrangements were made out of necessity more than out of love, but I was fortunate. Joseph was a quiet man and much older than I. Some people thought of him as dull or plodding. The man I knew was generous and quietly passionate. His spirit, while private, was gentle and knowing and deep. We grew close in a short amount of time, but our bonds were sorely challenged when my blood stopped and life began to grow within my womb.
At this point in the story, more than the rest, I speak in whispers. How did it happen that I should become pregnant? I was young and not yet married. Such things were not unheard of in my time, but more dangerous than I knew. Women, young girls were stoned for becoming pregnant when the father was in question. This still happens, even now, even among those who follow the teachings of my son, Jesus, though he railed against such acts of violence. My family kept such cruelties from me. I never saw such behavior toward a young girl; yet, such things happened. I did not know how provocative my pregnancy would be. Nor was I fully aware of the danger I was in. Thank God for Joseph, blessed be his memory.
At first I did not even know what was happening to me.
My body was a mystery to me.
The power of human intimacy was a mystery to me.
The child within my womb was a mystery to me.
From where did he come?
I speak in whispers not out of shame or doubt, but only because of what I speak is holy and mysterious. This I know for sure – the new life that entered my body came from God. I do not know why God would bless me in such a way, and I do not know how God works. There were voices and dreams – angels – who came to me in the early days. I never saw those angels again. But they came early on and their words “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” seeped into my heart like a spring rain to the roots of an olive tree.
I do not know just how it came to be that a child was conceived in my womb. I do know – in my old age – that there are moments in any person’s life that are so filled with ecstacy, self-emptying, and beauty as to be holy. There are moments in any person’s life, I know this as an old woman looking back, that are pure, complete, and so much from the heart that those moments are sacred. Virginity – the state of being one and undivided within oneself, the state of being pure – is a gift from God that is offered over and over again. I know this now, as an old woman. I am, and I say this in a whisper and with humility, I am both a virgin and a mother. It is my blessing from God. And Joseph – my love, blessed be the memory of his name – understood.
Another person who understood was Elizabeth. For months I had worried about her. She had secluded herself after she became pregnant. Her husband had ceased speaking. It was all very strange. Elizabeth was past the blood flow; we all assumed she could not have children. Was she embarrassed? Had she become so accustomed to her life with Zechariah that she was angry at the intrusion of a child into their old age? Those were the questions we talked about as we cooked the meals and washed the dishes. It is a perfect example of how frivolous and stupid we can be!
What was happening to Elizabeth and Zechariah was holy.
God was the One doing the disrupting!
God was the One filling the hungry with good things!
God was the One remembering mercy
toward an old woman and her husband!
God was the One scattering the proud
by lifting up the empty and broken ones!
What was happening to Elizabeth and Zechariah was deeply intertwined with what was happening to me; I knew this in my bones. So, I left my home, Jerusalem, soon after I knew I was pregnant and went to the hill country to see and be with one who would understand. We were two women – one old and one young – both of us poor, both of us misunderstood, both of us saying yes to a mystery much larger than ourselves – and we sang and danced for joy at the sheer madness and glory of our babies and the future that would come through these two boys who themselves would dance the world into God’s love!
Those were joyful days.
When the time came to give birth….well, you know that story. It is all true. Joseph and I had to take that trip to be registered. I was heavy and long into the pregnancy. There was no room for us in the Inn. I don’t know how we would have paid the innkeeper anyway. But we found a roof. The dung and dirt filled the room, but so did the sweet breath of animals and the smell of cut hay. The birth was hard and painful. I know now that the first is the hardest. But Joseph, blessed be the memory of his name, stayed close. That very night shepherds came. They knew something was happening. How did they know? You know how the story goes, they heard angels. From my experience I’m inclined to believe what they said.
There are times, even now, when I wish I could go back to the stable. I wish I could brush the hair off his forehead, feel the warmth of my boy, hear the depth of his breathing while he sleeps. There are time when I wish I could go back, but none of us can. I’ve endured the worst nightmare that any mother can imagine; I’ve watched my son be murdered and I was powerless to stop it. Powerless. There was nothing I could do but wail and scream and cry. I still cry.
There are times when I wish I could go back to the stable, but if I had a small part to play in this holy drama it is that I let him go; I let my son go; I let Jesus go. He had to go into the world to be who God had fashioned him to be. I wanted, God knows, to keep him near me. I wanted, God knows, to keep him close. But now, in my old age, I know that my deepest longing was that he find his place, and he did. My boy’s place was on the cross, and in his elevation there he, like me the Virgin Mother, gave birth to something new. I still long to hold him, but I am an old woman and he does not belong to me alone any more than he belongs to any of you alone. He belongs to everyone.
They say I am blessed.
It is so, but pray for me.
I am an old woman who still longs to hold her boy.
Pray for me.
The gift was great; the price was great.
Receive the gift; it is yours,
but, pray for me.
The price was very high and I still cry.
One day, God will make me an angel
and I’ll fly.