(click above to listen along)
Many of you know that 6 young clergy women from all over the country came to Denver Sunday to spend a couple days together. I sort of arraigned a last-minute urban retreat for the 7 of us and so in the midst of Advent, when they couldn’t really afford to leave their lives, they all made haste to Denver because they also couldn’t afford not to. We needed each other. We needed to not feel so weird, and alone…we needed to laugh and eat and embrace and lay around telling stories.
While we were hanging out, the topic of parishioners who offer information about themselves came up.
See, people offer information to their pastors that we welcome but never actually ask for and sometimes I think it would be interesting to compile a list of these things.
Once someone – completely out of the blue said “Hey Pastor Nadia, I just want you to know that when I show up to church and I’m still a little drunk, I don’t volunteer to read the prayers or anything”.
Um, ok. Thanks for letting me know
One of the more heartbreaking ones of recent memory (which I have the person’s permission to share) is that, as someone who struggles with depression and anxiety, they said it’s hard to show up on Sunday nights because they usually spend all weekend isolating. So showing up here means getting dressed and leaving the house for the first time since they came home from work Friday afternoon. Plus, usually they are stoned.
I was like, look, we live in Colorado, so I pretty much assume everyone is stoned. Also, I promise you that you are FAR from the only person in the room for whom coming to church was the only thing they did all weekend. Not even close. You are not alone. I promise.
But isolation is like, an epidemic in our culture. I myself can feel alone much of the time. Especially when I imagine myself to be so unlike others. The more terminally unique I fancy myself to be, the more alone I feel.
I think I feel the most isolated when I feel like no one understands me, when I feel like no one sees me, like I don’t match anyone else.
And on an existential level, yes, OK fine, we are alone. Meaning we are singular. No one is me and no one is you and every snowflake is unique yada yada. Yet, ironically, this is exactly what makes us the same. We all share the experience of being unique individuals who sometimes feel alone. This is exactly what connects us. And I suspect we tend to forget this. At least I know I do.
I thought of all of this as I read this story of when Mary visited her kinswoman Elizabeth. I mean, I’m certain that were the angel Gabriel to visit me when I was a young teenager and tell me that even though I was a virgin I would become miraculously pregnant I would freak out. At the very least I would feel alone and like no one would ever understand me. No one would ever get how weird and amazing this all was. And yet how good is God, that God gave Mary and Elizabeth to each other. Their crazy lives jagged in such a similar way. Elizabeth was totally isolated in seclusion. Mary was quickly going to be ostracized when the reality of her belly full of God grew under the scornful gaze of her small town. How beautiful that they had one another.
I was reading this story wondering, when the Angel said to Mary “You will conceive and bear a son. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be bornwill be holy. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren”
How would this story have been different if rather than running to go be with Elizabeth if Mary’s response was “Elizabeth? Whatever. I mean she’s so OLD. She’s like, my mom’s age!” And then she totally blew off the opportunity to connect with her kinswoman. If this was her reaction, she would have missed out on God’s provision of another person with whom to give and receive love and comfort. A mistake I’ve sadly made more than a few times in my life.
Which is sad because I believe it is our God’s desire that we be together, that we find love where we can in those whom God has given us. These two women were given one to another. They were given the provision of another outcast with whom to make a bond. The angel had said to Mary “guess what – you’re not alone. Elizabeth has also conceived a weird Holy Spirit baby. Is it exactly what’s happening with you? No but close enough…go hang out with her.” So she makes haste to the hill country. A brave journey if ever there was one.
It’s a tender scene, when she arrives – these two women in their exquisite embrace; pregnant with the message and the messenger. It’s one of my favorite images in art…the visitation of Mary and Elizabeth.
You could say that there were only 2 Christians in the whole world that day. Mary and Elizabeth. They greet each other, confess their faith (after all Elizabeth was the first to call Jesus her Lord)
Then John the Baptist does what might be the first liturgical dance – as he leapt in Elizabeth’s womb.
And then Mary sings a hymn about God’s mercy and the upturning of the social order. It’s as though this is the first Christian worship service. Two people for whom life has not be easy, but who have received mercy from God. Mary and Elizabeth – both inappropriately pregnant. One is too young and too unmarried and the other is too old and has suffered a life of shame for not having children (not for nothing, but …any grown woman without children by choice or not by choice can attest to the fact that this is still a reality 2,000 years later, but I digress…).
And since Mary stayed with her for 3 months I imagine them laughing and eating and embracing and laying around telling stories. How good is God that God gave them one to another. “Mary, and Elizabeth,” says the Lord, “you are not alone”.
The same is true of us. We are given one to another. We are not alone. We belong to God and because we belong to God we belong to each other and perhaps this is the message of the birth of Jesus.
After all, Emmanuel actual means God with Us.
What was the incarnation if not God’s love overflowing the heavens and coming to be with us. As though to humanity, isolated from God and from each other God comes as a baby to say, “you are not alone”
I mean, sure, we feel alone. But feelings are different from facts, or as my wise friend Sara says “feelings are stupid”
What’s real is that you are not alone. Not at all.
So, remember how Elizabeth says “blessed is she who believed God’s promises”? Well, we too have a promise. It is that Jesus said where 2 or more are gathered he is with us.
Not where 2 or more are gathered and have the correct doctrine. Not where 2 or more are gathered and have the right kind of worship service. Not where 2 or more are gathered under a rainbow flag. No… just where 2 or more are gathered. That’s all it takes. To be given one to another. To be with God.
God becoming human was God’s message to us: you are not alone. You are not alone in your sin. You are not alone in your joy. You are not alone in your grief. You are not alone. God is giving us one to another. Like a puzzle. Individually, we have such snaggeled edges, such unique contours, but that shouldn’t keep us away from others, since those rough parts are meant to be fitted together with the other jagged-edged sinners of God’s redeeming. After all, the odd, jagged parts of ourselves are what connects us to each other and to God, even if we think the project of religion and spirituality is to sand down the edges of our rough, irregular selves and our stories so that we become nice, and smooth and holy and yet, I cant think of a better prescription for isolation.
Let us pray,
God who gave Mary and Elizabeth one to another we ask that you interrupt our isolation. Send your holy angels to remind us that we are not alone. And on a personal note, please protect all the amazing people who are going home this week to families who don’t know how to love them well. Help them feel not alone and return them to us quickly because, you know, they belong to us.
In Jesus’ blessed and holy name,