Sermon: Blessed Are You among Women
Text: Luke 1:26-42. “Blessed are you among women. The Lord is with you. You have found favor with God.”
Many times we associate being blessed with physical attributes. We say that a beautiful person is blessed. If you own a large house or an expensive car, you are blessed. If you have a high paying job, you are blessed. If you are intelligent and have a quick mind, if you are popular, then you are blessed. If you are in a position of power, if people respect you, if you are recognized for your accomplishments, if others think you important, you are blessed. Blessed are you among women. The Lord is with you. You have found favor with God. But what sense is there to talk about Mary in such terms?
Two thousand years ago, a girl named Mary fell in love and was promised in marriage to a man named Joseph. But then something strange happened. Although she hadn’t had relations with Joseph, Mary found herself pregnant. In a vision, an angel told her that this was a good thing, and Mary wishing to please God vowed to be a servant of God. But then Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant and that the child wasn’t his. So he wanted to undo the engagement. Joseph tried not to cause a public spectacle. But all of this must have been embarrassing for Mary. Joseph’s mother would have known, and his family and her family. Neighbors would have talked. After a vision, Joseph went through with the marriage. He was a good man. But I imagine people continued to whisper.
We again look in on Mary near the time of Jesus’ birth. I can picture Mary preparing the little clothes, folding a blanket, getting ready for the birth. We sense the excitement. But there was a census and Joseph and Mary were required to go to Bethlehem, 80 miles away. We picture Joseph leading a donkey that is carrying Mary–heavy with child, uncomfortable, a four day hike, sleeping on the side of the road, worried that her water would break, that the jolting might cause her to lose the baby. And then the couple reached Bethlehem. But the town was so filled with people coming for the taxation that there was no room in the inn. Joseph and Mary must have looked everywhere. What worry! And the only place they could find was a cave or a stable. And there Mary delivered her baby. We romanticize the manger scene with our Christmas cards, but stables are smelly places—and unsanitary. Blessed are you among women. The Lord is with you. You have found favor with God.
No sooner was Jesus born than there came news that the evil King Herod was doing everything in his power to kill Mary’s baby. The family fled to Egypt, another several days walk with a tiny infant, traveling mainly at night to stay out of sight of Herod’s men. And then in Egypt, Mary would have received the horrifying news that Herod was killing all of the children around Bethlehem because of Mary’s child. A nightmare! Blessed are you among women. The Lord is with you. You have found favor with God.
Mary raised her baby for the first years in a foreign land, away from family, speaking a foreign language. And then news came that Herod had died. But Herod’s son was just as mean as the father, so Mary and Joseph settled for good in the out-of-the-way Nazareth of Galilee.
When Jesus was 12, as of custom, the family went to Jerusalem for the Passover. And then halfway on the return to Nazareth, Mary and Joseph couldn’t find Jesus. They must have been so worried. The parents hurried back to Jerusalem and found the boy with the teachers in the Temple. Mary would have hugged Jesus, kissed him, wept over him. She would have said, “Son, we were so worried about you. Why didn’t you tell us you were staying behind?” And Jesus, loving Mary, would have said “Don’t you understand that I must be about my father’s business.” It must have cut Mary to the quick, when her son said that she didn’t understand him. Blessed are you among women. The Lord is with you. You have found favor with God.
When Jesus started his ministry, Mary must have been proud and excited for him. She along with some family went to see him, but couldn’t get near because of the crowds that pressed about him. Mary asked someone to tell Jesus that she was there. I wonder if she overheard when Jesus said, “Who is my mother? Whoever does the will of God is my mother and brothers and sisters.”
Jesus came to Nazareth. How thrilled Mary must have been. She would have fixed his favorite foods. She would have been so proud. She would have told the neighbors: “You are sick. Don’t worry. My son is coming. He will heal you. You have problems. Jesus will tell you what to do. All is going to be better.” And then Jesus arrived. But he couldn’t do many mighty works there, the Bible tells us, because of the people’s unbelief. Mary would have heard the neighbors murmur, “This Jesus is not a real prophet. Bah, who does he think he is, this son of Mary?” Blessed are you among women. The Lord is with you. You have found favor with God.
The jealousy grew. Before too long many people were rejecting Jesus. Even close followers abandoned him. The crowds turned on Jesus and shouted “Crucify him! Crucify him!” How devastating for a mother to hear! And then the mockery of a trial–Mary seeing her son scourged and humiliated, watching him carrying the cross toward Golgotha, stumbling under its weight. Blessed are you among women. The Lord is with you. You have found favor with God.
And finally at Calvary: The Gospel of John tells us that Mary was there—watching; Jesus on the cross; hearing the nails being pounded into her son’s wrists and feet; the derision; the jeers; placed with criminals; her baby boy dehumanized; suffering; a last gasp. It is finished. Blessed are you among women. The Lord is with you. You have found favor with God.
So where is the blessed part? Where is the joy? How could the angel Gabriel have said to Mary, “The Lord is with you, you have found favor with God”? And what sense was there for Elizabeth to have said, “Blessed are you among women”?
Mary was blessed because she was asked to give her very best to God, and she did that. She was asked to give her Son so that through Him God’s kingdom would come and become a reality here on earth. She was asked to give her best so that countless others, people like you and I, might have life and life in abundance. And there can be no greater joy than giving your best to help God.
Years ago when I was eleven and twelve and thirteen and fourteen, I knew a woman called Luiza. She was a member of our church. She was old, with a crooked back. She was a tiny lady, not 4’10”. She was dirt poor. She lived on a small property in a house with a beaten earthen floor; no running water, a well outside, an outhouse for a bathroom, a few chickens running about. In the mission area where Dad and Mama had been appointed, the people had no Social Security; there was no Medicaid. Luiza’s husband was long dead. She had not been blessed with children to care for her. She had a nephew that would look in on her periodically—and she had neighbors. Sometimes she would come to church. In those days, the preaching services were at night. She would walk the two miles from her house to the bus stop, take the bus for the 35 minute ride into town. She would sit always in the sixth pew on the right side. She would be clutching a worn lace handkerchief in her hands, her best, and wrapped in the handkerchief would be coins for the collection plate. Occasionally I accompanied Dad or Mama on pastoral visits to her house and before leaving, after prayer, she would scurry to her cupboard and pull out two or three eggs to send home with us. And even as a boy I would be thinking, Luiza, keep your coins; keep your eggs. You need these. But Luiza was giving her best. She was giving her best to God. Blessed are you among women. The Lord is with you. You have found favor with God.
Heather’s and Andrea’s Best
I want to tell you about Heather and about Andrea. Like you, they were Emory & Henry students. And like you they participated in Encounter.
While here, Heather went on a school sponsored mission trip and got hooked on the idea of helping others. She decided to major in Religion. She spent a semester in Brazil working with the Church. She graduated and went to study theology at Duke. Then she accepted a home-missions position on a Native American reservation in New Mexico. Heather just loved loving people.
And then, one night, I received a call from Heather. She wanted to be ordained and become a pastor in our United Methodist Church, she said. Wonderful! But she had been struggling with her sexuality and she also wanted to be open and truthful about who she was—and you and I know the United Methodist Church’s current position on this matter. What to do?
Heather ended up going public. There was a cost. Heather knew there would be. She renounced her ambition to serve as the minister of a United Methodist Church, and instead took a non-denominational position as the Chaplain in a hospital. Some family and friends were upset when she revealed her identity. Some shunned her. But Heather had decided to love people regardless of how they treated her. The last time Heather was in this area, she visited Dixie and me at home. One of her best friends also came over. He was shaken that Heather had become open about who she was. Dixie and I both felt his unease. And we worried for Heather. But we needn’t have worried. His uncertainty did not stop her. Heather hugged her friend, and loved on him. God loves you. I love you. You can love others too. Blessed are you among women. The Lord is with you. You have found favor with God.
And Andrea, let me tell you about Andrea. In my forty years of teaching, I would count Andrea as one of a handful of my brightest students. All of you are brilliant, of course, but Andrea was unusual. When she graduated, she went on to study theology at Boston University. I wasn’t surprised. I fully expected her someday to become a Professor at Harvard or Yale. And then, after finishing at Boston, Andrea went for further study to St. Andrews in Scotland. I thought, “My! That’s okay, too. Andrea is following in the great John Knox’s footsteps.”
But something unexpected happened. While at Emory & Henry, Andrea had become deeply concerned about the conditions of the poor. While here, she and a group of friends had constructed a cardboard city right in front of Van Dyke and had lived in their cardboard city for a week to publicize the situation of the homeless in our area. And after St. Andrews, instead of continuing on the path I had envisioned for her, Andrea moved to Brazil and accepted an appointment to open work in a town so insignificant on the map that it makes Glade Spring seem a metropolis in comparison. And there is where she is now, appointed by our United Methodist Women society as a Regional Missionary in Latin America. Andrea decided to give her best to God not at Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge or Yale but among the poor of the world. Blessed are you among women. The Lord is with you. You have found favor with God.
I knew Genevieve all my life, but I came to know her well when I was a little younger than you and she was in her fifties. Genevieve had led a hard life. Her husband had been an alcoholic and had died when hit head on by a train when coming home from a party late one night. Genevieve raised her children and provided stability for the grandchildren. She cared for her aging parents who lived next door. She herself suffered from emphysema and wheezed terribly. She worked in social services, visiting troubled families, often confronting situations of spousal and child abuse, drug addiction, poverty, debilitating illness. Sometimes she faced dangerous situations, but to my knowledge she never suffered violence. People could sense her tremendous love.
Genevieve began taking into her home young Methodists from overseas who needed a place to stay. Mozart Garcia, my brother Sonny, and I lived with her; then Ricardo Bonfim came; then Maria Lucia. Genevieve loved to play hymns late at night on her piano—but also at worship on the organ in church. And every time the doors of the Rocky Springs church opened, we were there. Genevieve didn’t have much. We pitched in as we could. She accepted money to offset costs from those who could pay. But others, she just took in. Her house became a home for us.
When Dixie and I were dating, and when our courtship got serious, the first person I took Dixie to meet was Genevieve. And when our daughter was born, Dixie and I named her Jenny, hoping that our precious baby girl would turn out just like Genevieve—someone who extended the boundaries of the Christian family and gave her best to God. Blessed are you among women. The Lord is with you. You have found favor with God.
And finally, let me tell you about Ethel. I don’t physically remember Ethel (that is, apart from photographs I have seen), but when I was a couple of months old she held me in her arms.
Ethel was the first in her family to go to college. She graduated at the top of her class with highest honors at Winthrop in South Carolina. But then, instead of taking that high-paying job, she went to a far-away land to tell people about Jesus. There, she made her home into a hospital to nurse the sick into health. Along with her husband, she opened schools and built churches. She fed the hungry, clothed those who were destitute, comforted those who mourned. Wherever she was became a church. She taught about God’s love. Ethel didn’t have running water; never owned a refrigerator. Two of her five children were born in mud huts with pounded dirt floors. She kept a goat for milk. She lived where the train-line stopped in the backwoods of Brazil.
And that was where Ethel died, Brazil. She had been sick and had come to the United States for medical tests. That is how she came to hold me as a baby. Ethel’s tests showed cancer. There would be no cure. The Board of Missions urged her to remain here to live out the last months in comfort. But the world was her parish, and she went back to die with the people she loved.
Now, when I was about your age, on a visit to Brazil, I went with my mother to visit Ethel’s grave. Mother took flowers. It was All Souls Day, Day of the Dead, and it is custom to put flowers on the graves of loved ones in Brazil on that day. But when we got to the tomb, there were already bouquets of flowers there. Keep in mind that this took place more than twenty years after Ethel had died. And a candle had been lit. Written on Ethel’s tomb were her name, the date she was born, the date she died, and one word: “Missionary.” Blessed are you among women. The Lord is with you. You have found favor with God.
Friends in Christ, the greatest blessing you and I have received is our ability to give our very best to God. That is our privilege and joy. When Mary saw Jesus dying on the cross, I imagine the angel appeared again to her saying, “Blessed are you among women. The Lord is with you. You have found favor with God.” Let’s you and I give our best.
The theme of this sermon was borrowed from a sermon of the same title by the extraordinary United Methodist minister and missionary Will Rogers who passed away in 2008.