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Blessed is she who believes 

A sermon preached by the Reverend Anne E. Hodges-Copple
On the occasion of the Annual Convention of
the Episcopal Churchwomen of the Diocese of North Carolina
Friday, November 11, 2011 

In the closing days of what we now describe as B.C.E. “before the common era “, in the time before Christ was born, the archangel Gabriel had a busy couple of weeks.

First, the heavenly messenger was sent to the Temple of Jerusalem to speak to , Zechariah, an aging priest serving in the Temple in Jerusalem. Gabriel announced that his wife, Elizabeth, barren all the years of their marriage, would conceive and bear a son. And not just any son, but a son filled with the spirit of Elijah, who will prepare his people for the Lord; the one who will be called John the Baptist. Zechariah responded with incredulity:  “I shall I know this? I am an old man and my wife is advanced in age.”  For his lack of belief he is struck dumb until after John the Baptist is born.

Shortly thereafter Gabriel was sent out again; this time to the the region of the Galilee. He appeared to Mary, a maiden of Nazareth, betrothed but unwed.  Nazareth of Galilee was far cry from the culture and prestige of Jerusalem and the priestly class of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Think Nazareth, think backwater: at least in the prevailing view of the time.

Again, in a manner similar to his annunciation to Zechariah, Gabriel appears unexpectedly. He  tells the startled one,  fear not!  and then delivers a astonishing annunciation: Gabriel greets Mary with this famous salutation: Hail, oh favored one. The Lord your God is with you….you have found favor with God. And behold you shall conceive in your womb and bear a son and you shall call his name Jesus.”

These separate stories of divine intervention, of unexpected and miraculous conception come together and unite in our Gospel account of the Visitation. Mary follows the instructions given to her by the angel Gabriel, leaves Nazareth, travels to the hill country on the outskirts of Jerusalem and arrives on the doorstep of her distant relative Elizabeth.

As soon as she hears her young visitor’s greeting, the older woman is filled with the Holy Spirit and cries out with a loud voice: (gospel’s way of saying: this is important pay attention.) “Blessed are you among women; and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”

The scene begs all kinds of questions: Did Elizabeth have foreknowledge that her kinswoman was pregnant? Did she even know Mary was coming to visit? Whatever Elizabeth did or did not already know about Mary prior to her arrival, it passage infers that the Holy Spirit, not Mary,  reveals to Elizabeth that she is in the presence of someone extraordinary. She being shown evidence of God’s plan of salvation is coming to fruition.  For how else could Elizabeth know to address Mary, her much younger and distant relative, as “mother of my Lord?”

“And why is this granted to me, [Elizabeth says to Mary} that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.”

It is not only Elizabeth who is filled with the Holy Spirit. Her unborn child leaps for joy in recognition that the old, old story of God’s promise of salvation is about to burst on history’s scene in a new and decisive way.  This is the ancient story that began with the daring escape from captivity in Egypt; the story that continued with the difficult passage through the wilderness; the story that continued with the giving of the law and with the scrutiny and admonishments of the prophets; this is  the old, old story: that God hears and answer the cries of God’s people.    

You know, there is a lot of singing in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel. Mary breaks out in song: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior….Late, after the birth of John, Zechariah breaks out in his song of praise: Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free. In faith, all kinds people find their voice.

But I am struck by the faith of Elizabeth and the quickening within her. Not merely the quickening of feeling her baby move and knowing her baby is alive, but the quickening of her faith and knowing that God lives and reins in her life. She believes Mary is the mother of her Lord; though it is unbelievable. She believes God is actin in her life and in the life of her child. though his ways are inscrutable.

Elizabeth and the Baptist are moved in their own bodies; their very faith is quickened that is – brought to new life. And nothing, even wicked King Herod and the rest of  the powerful, elite and entrenched leadership of this world - nothing will or can stop God’s plans for salvation; God’s love for the whole wide world.

During the first trimester of my second pregnancy my husband and I didn’t tell anyone we were pregnant again.  As we went to those routine appointments with nurse midwife, we waited anxiously for those indications of a normal pregnancy development: the sound of a heart beat. the appropriate expansion of the uterus. The first ultra sound. Even with all these steps we were still filled with trepidation.

You see, our first pregnancy had ended in a miscarriage around twelve weeks.  It had been a painful and confusing loss.  So we marked each sign of healthy normal development with thanksgiving.

So perhaps you can imagine my joy when I started to feel the baby – my son Daniel – begin to move. Perhaps you have experienced that particular phenomenal yourself. My heart certainly leaped for joy. But oddly enough, over the weeks as the movements continued and strengthened, I also experienced a slightly disturbing sensation.  There was a part of me that felt occupied; taken over. Who is this stranger co-habiting my body?  Giving me discomfort, making demands, requiring limitations on my choices. Do I know you?  Doesn’t sound very maternal, does it? But it is just true: Some part of me was resistive to another having claim over my life and my body.

So think about the quickening, this mysterious fluttering of new life with in us at the metaphorical level. For all the baptized are called to be bear the life of Christ in our own ways and in our own bodies.  Isn’t’ it both thrilling and daunting that God might want to use our lives as vessels for God’s work? Is there a part that wants to say yes and another part that wants to be left alone?

In the dark and mysterious inward parts of our being –as individuals, as men and women – as disciples, as a church, God continue to bring forth new life that will change everything. But it won’t be without pain.  As the prophet Simeon eventually told Mary at the presentation of her son, at the temple:

“Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed—and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” Luke 2:34-35

Being a handmaid (a servant) of the Lord is not easy or without pain. For those who are willing to say yes, God will use us, even and maybe especially in our weaknesses moments.

Back in 1834 Catherine Hankey was born into a well to do English family. From a young age, Kate, as she was known, dedicated herself to teaching others about the love of Christ. She loved to share her faith.  She led bible studies in her home parish in London. She expanded her work to teach girls who worked in factories.

At age 30, Kate became gravely ill and was ordered to bed rest by her doctor. During her illness she was not allowed to teach, but she was allowed to read and write. She wrote some long poems that eventually become the text the verses of “I love to tell the story.”

I love to tell the story
of unseen things above,
of Jesus and his glory,
of Jesus and his love. 
I love to tell the story,
because I know ‘tis true;
it satisfies my longings
as nothing else can do.

Refrain:

I love to tell the story,
‘twill be my theme in glory,
to tell the old, old story
of Jesus and his love.

So even in a diminished state of illness, this young woman found a way to share the story of Jesus. Kate did eventually regain her strength and resumed her work teaching bible studies in the factories and prisons of industrial London as well as the fashionable enclaves of her home parish until she died in her eighties. But the verses written from her sick bed reaches reached far beyond England and far beyond her life.

You and I have a song to sing; We have a song to sing and a story to tell of the faith that has quicken within us and must be delivered to others.

Bishops of the church: I don’t need to tell you that the Women of the Church are well positioned to tell the good news of Jesus Christ in a world that continually and habitually undermines and under values the worth of the lives the many for the sake of the few. Women of the Church I don’t need to remind you that your voices, your stories, your passion to deliver the good news of Jesus to a world yearning for his goodness and mercy is as important and urgent as ever.

My brothers and sisters, we have sisters – ancestors in the faith – who have spoken up for God in word and especially in song for their people.  The prophet, Miriam sister of Moses, spoke  up for her people when she cleverly secured the safety of her infant brother in the house of Pharaoh and much later sang the song of liberation after the Israelites are brought as a people safely out of different waters and into a journey to new life.

The voice of Hannah, also once barren and then given a child late in life,  still speaks for those who ask the Lord to create in us new life and new ways and renewed ways to serve him well as  well on earth as we hope to one day serve him in heaven.

The voice of Rachel who cried for her murdered children should inspire us to proclaim the goodness of the Lord by addressing and ending the needless deaths of children who are stricken by illnesses that are preventable and treatable; diseases  like malaria and conditions like diarrhea.

The life of ministry that lives within each of us  leaps with joy when we consider the  voice of the Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray, a Durham native and first African American woman ordained an Episcopal priest who spoke up for justice and human rights for all God’s children regardless of ethnicity or gender or nationality in the nineteen thirties and forties, long before the momentum of history moved behind the preachers and the marchers of the fifties and sixties.

Today we might listen to the voices of Nobel Peace Prize winners, Leymah Gbowee (a Lutheran) and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, both Liberian Christian activists who have risked their lives to end to civil war in their country and a build a peace that crosses the divides of ethnic and religious divisions.

Blessed is she who believes….blessed is she who believes.

Think about it: of all the ways the almighty God might have chosen to come in to the world and confront the powers and principalities of this world, God chose a woman to be the vessel of the incarnation.

It is a woman who was the first to know of God’s plan to take on human flesh and become Emmanuel: God with us.

It is a Samaritan woman, a social outcast, who sees that Jesus is the Messiah.

It is three women who are the first disciples to encounter the risen Christ on Easter morning.   Blessed is she who believes….

But she who sees and believes must also be one who is willing to share the story. Yes, my lovely frozen chosen; we are called to talk about faith.

(I always chuckle when I hear or read the conclusion of Mark’s gospel. the women who come to the tomb and see the tomb is empty and angel instructs them to go tell the rest of the disciples that Jesus is risen. Yet it is reported that they ran away and told no one for they were afraid. Well, they clearly told someone else how did the rest of the disciples and the rest of us find out! How did the rest of us come to be here today?!)

She or He who believes must be ready to bear witness. To believe is feel the movement of God within our lives and to recognize the movement of God in the challenges of our world. To believe to leap for joy, tell the story and answer the call. 

Blessed are all those who believe that God  has done, is doing and will continue to be make good God’s promises:

Blessed is she who believes even when the tomb is empty.

Blessed is she who believes even when the community turns their back in scorn.

Blessed is she who believes even she is abandoned by the one who promised lifelong partnership until parted by death.

Blessed is she who still believes after a natural disaster or a personal failure destroys what it took so much time to build.

Blessed is she who believes when a world of skeptics and doubters and naysayers regale you with the question:  where is your God?

Blessed is she who believes when the lab work comes back and the doctor says “we have some difficult decisions to make.

But how can we believe – how will others believe - if we don’t take turns telling and listening to the old, old story of God’s glory.

A challenge is going out to all Episcopal Church Women and you are called to be messengers of that invitation. There are stories to be told.  We have to share the stories. As St Paul writes to the church in Rome : “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone sharing with them? And how can anyone share unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

The Episcopal Church Women have long embodied the spirit of evangelism through service of others. ECW has long been a place where women could share their own stories of faith and another sister find her voice and claim her story.

Blessed are all the church women who believe that the old, old story needs to be told and can be told to new generations is ways that can be heard and retold to older generations who need to renew their own voices.

Blessed are the Sunday school teachers who love to tell help children learn the story; the old, old story.  The story of love.  The story  of God’s love for the world and all its creatures.

Blessed are the musicians who believe to sing the story of God’s love and mercy is to pray twice. Blessed is the church who can lift up old and new songs of praise.

Blessed are the members of the altar guild who believe by giving  loving,   attention to liturgical adornments which help tell of the seasons faith; help  tell how light over comes darkness and how all are welcome at the Lord’s Table.

Brothers and sisters of the church: what leaps for joy within you? Where is the joy of following our Lord Jesus Christ trying to take you?  Follow that joy. Share that joy. Write about it; Sing it. Tell it out –with words if necessary, but more importantly, more effectively with every act of loving service.

What does it mean to believe in God’s promise of salvation? It means NOT only to learn and tell the old, odd story; it means to learn to share with others what God has is done in your life and dare to share with a friend – that quickening sense  - that flutter in your heart that God is not done with you yet. That God is even now up to something even now. Even within you!