Ralph Connor Memorial United Church

The Little White Church on Main Street, Canmore, Alberta

Sermon: December 23, 2018 (Advent 4) – Luke 1: 26-45

Sermon: December 23, 2018 (Advent IV) – Luke 1: 26-45
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB – Rev Greg Wooley

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Three years ago, when preaching on Ruth and Naomi, I mentioned in passing a movie-rating test commonly known as the Bechdel test… and on this fourth Sunday of Advent, with its focus on Mary and Elizabeth, a little deeper excursion into this test is warranted.

Essayist Rebecca Beatrice Brooks describes the test and its origins, like so: In a 1985 comic strip by Alison Bechdel, “a couple discusses whether they want to go to a movie and get some popcorn. One isn’t sure, because she has a rule: ‘I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements,’ she explains. ‘One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.’ When her girlfriend says those criteria are good, but pretty strict, she responds, ‘No kidding. Last movie I was able to see was Alien [i.e., a movie 6 years earlier]. The two women in it talk to each other about the monster.’ Having walked past three uber-masculine posters for movies about mercenaries, barbarians, and vigilantes, the two women give up on the idea of a film altogether, and go home to make popcorn.”

Writers as early as Virginia Woolf, in 1929, {see Brooks} decried the lack of meaningful woman-to-woman interactions in literature, and the Bechdel test applies that same standard to movies.  Stunningly, not much changed between Virginia Woolf in 1929 and Alison Bechdel in 1985 and not much has really changed between 1985 and now: if you apply the Bechdel test to the movies you see in a theatre or on Netflix, a sizeable majority still fail.  And even some of those that pass, still portray women as peripheral characters who serve largely male-oriented ideals.  When it comes to movies, male life narratives are told repeatedly, while female life narratives rarely see the light of day.

Although there could be some debate as to whether it really passes the Bechdel test – because the children they would birth were both boys, and because of our human propensity to portray God as male, even though God is infinitely beyond gender – the Biblical account of Mary’s visit with Elizabeth is such an important story for us to consider, as an ancient story that very much values the life narrative of these two women.  Both are told by their society that they are worse than nothing for the situation they are in – Mary, for being pregnant too soon; Elizabeth, for not being pregnant at all in her childbearing years – and both hear, directly from a divine source, that their lives do indeed matter.  God needed these women, as those who would birth God’s holy intention of boundless love into our human realm.

Elizabeth Fletcher runs a website called “women of the bible .net” and offers some helpful insights into the plight of both Elizabeth and Mary.  I have to admit that I have usually thought of Elizabeth having to put up with gossip because she was childless, and Mary being looked down upon as an engaged but not-yet-wed mother-to-be, but Elizabeth Fletcher challenges me to ramp up these understandings, big-time. She writes, “Despite her impeccable family background – descended from a long line of priests – Elizabeth was barren. In those days childlessness was not just a misfortune, it was a disgrace.”  And as for Mary, she writes, “Accustomed as we are to benign images of the Annunciation, and of Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus, we tend to blot out the reality of the situation: a young girl was pregnant, her fiancé knew he was not the father, yet the bride price had been paid. In a Middle Eastern rural community at the time, this sort of situation could easily result in an honor killing of the young girl by her fiancé’s family….Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, about a hundred miles away in Judea, may have been a desperate attempt by her family to save her from this fate, to get her out of the way until some solution had been worked out.”

Looking from the safe distance of 2,000 years and 10,000 km, we are likely to miss how perilous the situation was.  Elizabeth would have been at best, derided and at worst detested, but young Mary’s life was likely in danger.  We miss these details, but the author of Luke’s gospel would have been fully aware of them in choosing to include their stories.

In their co-authored book on The First Christmas, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan wondered aloud (pp.20-21) what it would be like if one were to do a Christmas Pageant based on one gospel at a time – doing a pageant only including Matthew’s gospel, or doing a pageant only including Luke’s gospel, without harmonizing the two  What they found, when looking at mounting a pageant based on Luke, was this:

“First, much of the pageant would be about the parents of John the Baptizer, Zachariah and Elizabeth.  They appear in 43 verses, more than half of Luke’s first chapter… .[They] are childless, and both are very old.  In this, they are like Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament, the ancestors of Israel.  But then, as with Abraham and Sarah, Elizabeth conceives in her old age. The child, known to history as John the Baptizer, will be… the forerunner of the Kingdom of God.  Elizabeth appears in the story when Mary (now pregnant with Jesus) visits her.

“A second feature of a pageant based on Luke” continued Borg and Crossan, “is that women play much more prominent roles.  We have just mentioned Elizabeth, and Mary’s role is much greater than in Matthew, where she is a completely passive figure, neither speaking nor receiving any revelation.  For much of Luke’s birth story, [though], Mary is the central character.  Indeed, Joseph is almost invisible in Luke,  in sharp contrast to Matthew.  Luke’s pageant also has a third woman, the 84-year-old prophet Anna, who [in Luke 2:38] ‘began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.’”

Borg and Crossan continue in their analysis of Luke’s pageant, noting that it would feature the census and the shepherds, it would have lots of music, and that it would run quite a bit longer than Matthew’s pageant; but the key features of their analysis focus on the centrality of Elizabeth and her younger kinswoman Mary in the gospel according to Luke.

Earlier this year when Shannon and I were in the Land of the Holy One, a site that was on our itinerary but which we did not get to was Ein Karem, the village traditionally understood to be the place where Elizabeth and Mary met.  Now a suburb of Jerusalem, this is a popular place of Christian pilgrimage and the home of two Christian Churches honouring this encounter.  And what happened in the encounter – in addition to Elizabeth feeling her baby move in her womb for the first time – was an endorsement of God’s call in their lives.  In verse 45, Elizabeth says to Mary, “blessed is she who believed, for there shall be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.” Mary replies in words we did not hear this morning, the Magnificat, in which she identifies herself with all marginalized people who have been noticed by God. While not specifically underlined by Luke, it is significant to note that these words were spoken woman to woman.  No priest or rabbi needed to enter the room, as a male voice to validate what had been said, and in fact Elizabeth’s husband, Zachariah, WAS a priest whose voice was taken away by God, specifically because he did not believe. 

“Blessed is she who believed, for there shall be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord” said Elizabeth, words which describe young Mary, and also describe the prophet Elizabeth herself.  Both of them are unlikely candidates to forward God’s agenda of light and life, yet these women moved forward in hope and trust and literally embodied the Divine will for the people.  These words continue to describe women’s spiritual experience in the world, as women in every continent, every religion, every branch and denomination within that religious tradition, hear and perceive the presence of the Divine in their surroundings and within their lives. 

One of the things I have always valued at United Church of Canada Conference and Presbytery meetings, was the prominence of women in every aspect of the operations of these courts of the Church.  I have no reason to believe that the new Regional Councils that replace Presbytery and Conference as of January 1st will be any different, but want to take a moment here to give a shout-out to these older structures that have been part of the United Church since its inception in 1925.  In both cases, the membership of the court had to be at least 50% laypeople, so the decisions couldn’t be railroaded through by clergy, and in all my years of Ministry, women made up the majority of lay representatives.  Add to that the majority of women attending United Church seminaries in recent decades, and the stats tumble out strongly in favour of women’s voices.  In my years of Church involvement the leadership of women has been crucial in keeping the Church on track: in congregations, at Presbytery, at Conference, in official capacities such as Chairperson of Presbytery or President of Conference, in voices heard through written reports and at the microphones at meetings, in academic work and in local fundraising, even in studies like the one we recently had on Tuesday nights. It’s clear that the Church would be long-since dead if not for the input, in all forms and at all levels, of women. 

Which makes it all the more curious and scandalous, to me, that there is still such resistance to female leadership within many branches of the Church of Jesus Christ around the world.  Both at the parish level, and in our history, dating back over two thousand years to Mary and Elizabeth, and perhaps another two thousand years to Sarah, it has been clear that the stirrings of the Divine are not experienced exclusively at the male end of the gender spectrum.  It is to the diminishment of the body of Christ, that women’s Ministries, in recognized paid Ministries, as academics and professors, as authorized spokespeople, are not generally valued as much as their male counterparts.  Like the world of wages where men and women often have very different compensation levels, and movies which happily fails the Bechdel test, one blockbuster after another, the Church as a global, ecumenical entity continues to fall short on validating the spiritual and religious narrative of women’s lives.

I know that the Bible often gets rightly blamed as the source of such patriarchy, but on this one shining day the blame lays elsewhere.  For in this first gospel of Luke we have a meeting, unmoderated by men, of two women who had been called by name to birth good news.  Elizabeth would raise a child who would be the herald to the good news, and Mary’s child would demonstrate what Divine virtues look like when lived in a human life.  Both of them are named, both of them are valued, neither of them were celebrated by their peers but both of them were extraordinary in the eyes of GodBoth of them are blessed.  And both of them are the spiritual ancestors for all inheritors of the Christian faith today, regardless of one’s gender.  The words of this gospel stand tall amid human  judgmentalism, empowering everyone who senses God’s urgings in their lives to not be limited by societal conventions or the opinions of others.  In a story that very easily could have featured Joseph and Zachariah as the recipients of the revelation, and Mary and Elizabeth as the obedient hangers-on (are you listening, Hollywood?) – this long-ago author had the audacity to make this a story about Holy Blessings coming directly from the Divine to Mary of Nazareth, and Elizabeth of Ein Karem.

On this day, on the precipice of celebrating once again the birth of Christ, with all the timeless wonder and glory of the Nativity, we give thanks: for Elizabeth, for Mary, for the story-teller who did not hide their story beneath a cloak of patriarchy, and for the God who reaches into each life now and always.  We continue to lift up the spiritual experiences and religious leadership of women, and remain vigilant as a denomination for places where our actions fall short of our policies or our intentions.  We name the ridiculous prominence of male narratives over female ones, in our world of popular entertainment.  And we yearn for a day when the Church around the world will honour the fullness of its sacred story, by opening all leadership roles to one hundred percent of those who embrace God’s boundless and boundary-less love.  

May this be so, Amen.

References cited:

Bechdel Test. https://bechdeltest.com/

Borg, Marcus and John Dominic Crossan. The First Christmas.  NYC: Harper One, 2007.

Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice. http://virginiawoolfblog.com/virginia-woolf-bechdel-test/

Fletcher, Elizabeth. http://www.womeninthebible.net/women-bible-old-new-testaments/elizabeth/

Yudkin, Gila (information and photos of Ein Karem) https://www.itsgila.com/highlightsmary.htm

© 2018 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church