Monroe Congregational Church, UCC
December 15, 2001 Rev Maria Hoaglund
In a United Church News of a few Advents ago, Editor Evan Golder had an
article entitled "Christmas is God's `pastoral presence'."
He began the
article by saying that sometimes all that we can offer and all that's needed
is "Being there." Then he went on to share three instances from, of all
places, a UCC computer network "meeting" in which three pastors shared stories
which illustrated this point: A pastor from Kansas wrote about the lack
of a need to rationalize or defend ourselves when we're "in the presence
of a true friend." A minister from Wisconsin "described the effect of a
hug when no words came to mind." And a third from Nova Scotia commented
on "a ministry of presence, just showing up at the right time to encourage,
to lend a hand, to listen, to reassure."
I believe that actually, the MOST important things in life require our
presence, our BEING THERE. Our relationships, especially our most significant
and meaningful relationships , DEMAND our presence; our marriages, our children our
parents, our siblings, and our close friendships would not be nurtured and
be able to continue effectively without our consistent presence - our physical
as well as emotional and spiritual attention. Who is a good friend but
one we can call and expect to BE THERE for us, be there to listen to us,
to hold us, to let us know that we are not alone in our time of trial.
And so it is with God. Our presence as a people of God is anticipated
and also expected by God. We are here today to worship God together, and
to wait and anticipate tog. The coming of the Christ into our midst. We
came here to BE with this particular faith community because our rel with
God has a significant place in our lives. We respond to God's expectation
of giving God our undivided attn to do our best to LISTEN to God's Spirit
and to obey it!
Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus, thanks to the messenger, angel Gabriel,
seemed to have heard God clearly: and then she certainly obeyed! We hear
this morning and remember with what amazement and fear and trembling, but
also with confidence and joy, Mary heard and responded to God.
The angel Gabriel has just announced to Mary that she will bear a son who
will take the throne of his father David and rule over Jacob forever. And
the sign to confirm this promise is the pregnancy of the aged and up until
recently barren Elizabeth. Not surprisingly, Mary can hardly wait to see
her cousin! She perhaps can't talk to anyone at home about her unusual
experiences - who knows WHAT, if anything, she was able to share with Joseph
at this point, either! But she is quite certain that Elizabeth will understand.
It required three or four days in those days to travel the 80 to 100 mile
distance into the hill country of Judah, and Mary's haste was an expression
of her faith in the angelic annunciation.
So here we encounter two faithful women coming tog and embracing one another
in friendship, in solidarity, in sisterhood! Elizabeth must have symbolized
familiarity and comfort for the young, unwed Mary. We are not told where
Joseph is at this time. What seems to matter is that Mary chooses to BE
PRESENT WITH another woman, an older, wiser woman, as she begins to sort
out the reality which has overwhelmed her life. She stays for an entire
three months, probably her first trimester and Elizabeth's THIRD, a critical
time in BOTH of their pregnancies.
One woman meditates on the visitation of Mary and Elizabeth in the following
Mary, I lost that you rush to see Elizabeth - that you need to have the angel's silence broken for response to the hidden Word growing within you, who presses you to rush to the hill country. Up, up you go! And neither the darkness of the valleys from which you are coming nor the caves and tombs that lie ahead daunt you. ...
I see you skipping over the hills, glad to be alive, glad to feel life within you, ...
When you see Elizabeth, and four hearts leap for joy, your voices flash out your deepest thoughts, pondered long in silence. The words clarion the sign of the new dispensation - joy: "My heart praises ... My soul rejoices ... People will call me blessed!" You are not afraid to be happy, to share that happiness and to sing it out. And what gives you the strength to be happy?
(Bringing the Mother with You, p. 23)
In the midst of all the wonder, the surprise, and the fear, we DO wonder
what gave Mary the strength to be happy. Or "to be joyful," would be my
choice of words. At least in part, it was Mary's love and trust in the
friendship she shared with Elizabeth which gave her strength. After all,
Elizabeth and Mary shared the same family and worshipped the same God.
Eliz also helped Mary to see more than she could have seen by herself.
Mary somehow had BEGUN to understand that she was going to be the bride
of the Spirit, mother of the Son of the Most High; but it was Eliz who called
her by that magnificent title, Mother of God! At that moment of recognition,
Mary's joy could not be contained! It was in the sharing with a friend
who UNDERSTOOD, who was experiencing something familiar and also very special,
that true rejoicing could begin!
But I believe what gave Mary the DEEPEST strength and meaning to be joyful
was her faith and trust in God. In the angel Gabriel coming to Mary and
in Mary's trusting this messenger, Mary was allowing God to move POWERFULLY
in her life. She not only experienced God's amazing presence in her life,
but she believed that what had been shared with her through God's messenger
could and would take place! God's Good News would be possible through her
body and her being. What an amazing thing; what an awesome, and joy-inspiring
And do you know what? Christmas can be like this in our lives, too! Christmas
is about God deciding to show up in our lives, "at just the right time to
encourage, to lend a hand, to listen, to reassure." For me personally this
year, I find myself being grateful for MANY things which God has blessed
me and my family with. I am grateful for meaningful work in these challenging
times - including your church calling me here this December to share in
your midst! I am grateful that my dad and his wife have been able to make
safely, a move to an assisted living facility in the last month. (and their
condo sell JUST at the right time!) I find myself particularly grateful
this Advent and Christmas for the dreams in my life. I have visions of
some new creations and new possibilities in my life, which are bringing
me New Life and hope for the future! I'm also extremely grateful for my
dtr and all the various friends and co-workers in my life, not to mention
my grandparents (who I'd never met!) who graciously SHOWED UP this Advent
and let me know they're WITH ME...
I wonder, with you, too, whether you do not find when you look back at
Christmases past, or perhaps even THIS Christmas, that what truly matters
at Christmas is the special and perhaps unexpected PRESENCE of other people
and friendships in your life. And of the reality of God working through
those rich and amazing rels in your life - just as Mary and Elizabeth were
given one another at a most critical time.
Let me share a number of examples which Golder offered in his article on
pastoral presence, of instances when a person's presence made a significant
different in another's life:
a mom's or dad's or grandparent's presence at their son's or dtr.'s soccer game or school play;
a friend's presence at one of your parent's memorial services
a husband's or wife's presence at your hospital bed;
a husband's or parent's presence during childbirth
a pastor's presence during a long hospital stay;
a church member's or friend's presence when you were griving or felt lonely;
a spouse's or friend's presence through a crucial decision;
a co-worker's presence when you were unjustly accused;
a loved one's presence after failure;
a loved one's presence after success.
All of these instances are of SHARING lives, allowing ourselves the gift
of other people INTO our lives - as an expression of God's love. So is
Christmas. Christmas is about God wanting to share in our lives, and our
response of allowing and making room for God to move into our lives, to
even help transform and heal the broken or stressed places. So really,
Christmas is an experience which happens ALL YEAR LONG!
For some of us this Christmas, the challenge may be to pay attention and
to LET GOD move into our lives. After all, as Fr. Henri Nouwen reminds
us, we are sometimes a fearful and narrow-minded people: "A part of us
clings to our aloneness and does not allow God to touch us where we are
most in pain," writes Nouwen. "often we hide from (God) precisely those
places in ourselves where we feel guilty, ashamed, confused, and lost."
In this way we don't even "give (God) a chance to be with us where we feel
Christmas for each one of us can be a time when we share our presence -
and God's presence - with others. When we do that, we'll probably find
God's presence even more powerfvully and deeply in our OWN lives. Christmas
is also a renewed invitation not to be afraid and to let God - whose love
is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend - INTO our lives
to be our friend and companion. Perhaps the question is: Have we INVITED
God to BE with US???
Whether we are very much aware of it or not, I believe that God is pouring
and will continue to pour abundant grace and blessings into our lives in
these days of Advent and Christmastide. May we be able to respond with
our OWN best present: OUR presence to the Christ, to one another, and to
ourselves, and also our opening up to, our letting INTO our lives, the presence
of Christ which is yearning to be companion to each one of us!