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A sermon on Luke 1:39-55
Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church
19 December 2021

From 2010 through 2016, I served as the director of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations.

Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church

Memories of precious people, painful international events, and amazing happenings swirl in my heart and mind.

Among my favorite memory is the moment I have come to call the good night ritual.                   .

Each night, I shut off my computer,
turned out the light,
and left the office.
I walked down the hall to the elevator
and pushed the call button.
When the cab arrived, I pushed “1” to go downstairs.
Hector would be there to see me out.
Always.
And always we spoke.
Sometimes we talked about weather or family.
Often, we talked sports. Conversations got interesting the week my Steelers beat Hector’s Jets.
After some conversation, I made for the door,
As I stepped across the hallway, I heard Hector’s final words:
always the same words,
always in the same, kind voice:
“Good night, Marko.
Get home safe.”

In Advent and Christmas, we think of home in many ways.

“Please Come Home for Christmas,” sings Aaron Neville.

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” sings Oscar Peterson.[i]

Spoiler alert. If you have forgotten the ending of A Christmas Carol; if you have never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, I invite you to plug your ears for a moment. I will let you know when the spoilers are done.

After the visits of three ghosts in A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge sends a feast to Bob Cratchit’s home and then travels to celebrate at his nephew’s home.

After the visit of one rather ordinary angel second class, in the climactic moment of George Bailey’s renewal, he makes his way home. 

I see places I have lived at different times when I hear the word “home”.

Unique sights, smells, and sounds.

Home also recalls people. Beloved people. Family. Friends. Chosen family. Different in different homes. But always people.       

Home is a place.
123 Sesame St.
80 Main St., Apt. 23D

Home is people.

Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri observes that as a poor, unwed teenager, Mary was surrounded by dangers and uncertainty – both physical and societal. When she learned of her pregnancy, Mary sought a haven, a sanctuary, home.[ii]

Home for Mary was a place. The house of her relative Elizabeth.  Home was people. Zechariah was there. Silent, but there. More importantly, Elizabeth and the baby in her womb, were present.

They welcome and affirm Mary. And in a moment that Stephen Sondheim could have written, Mary breaks into a song. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The Magnificat. A song that has been set in many ways over the centuries, including the Canticle of the Turning which we will sing shortly.

The Magnificat holds together the grittiness of life on the margins, the resilient hope of those who trust in God, and the power to image a new way of living.

My friend the Rev. Margaret Aymer suggests that we need to revise our view of Mary. Rather than gentle Mary, meek and mild, Margaret says Mary is better seen as Jesus’ radical Jewish Mama. A woman full of strength and courage and hope. An alternative vision fires her imagination. God’s vision of justice, equity, and peace. This vision, sung in Mary’s song, no doubt found its way into the lullabies she sang to Jesus and the stories she told him. It shaped him. It guided his living. His words and deeds exemplify his mama’s song.[iii]

Consider, church: the Triune God – Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit or whatever formula you use – exists in relationship.

Made in God’s image, we are made for relationships. The late bell hooks reminds us of this when she says that healing is an act of communion. Rarely, if ever, she says, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing comes through relationships. Life comes through relationships.[iv]

We are made for each other. We are made for relationships of integrity, compassion, justice, equity, solidarity, accountability, responsibility, and love. We are made to be home to one another.

The village of Le Chambon in France provided sanctuary and home to Jews during the Second World War. Fleeing the monstrous, sinful evil of the Nazis, Jews would arrive in this Huguenot village. They made their way to the building we Presbyterians would call the manse. They knocked and were usually greeted by Magda Trocme with the words, “Welcome. Come in.” The process of creating home began. Years later, asked why their village and people became a sanctuary of home, Magda replied, “They knocked. What else could we do?”[v]

This theology – that God has made us and called us to be home for one another –  was shared by those who ran the Underground Railroad. It is shared by those who welcome refugees, who support citizens returning from incarceration, and who offer sanctuary to individuals and families at risk of deportation to the violence-filled places they have fled.

Whether they are running for their lives or they are buffeted and battered by life, we will encounter people in need of refuge, haven, and sanctuary. Through Jesus Christ, God who is love, God who is our sanctuary and home, empowers us to say, “Welcome. Come in.”

Part of what allows us to create home is God’s gift of imagination. Our shared humanity allows us to imagine the pain and the fear of people in need.

More importantly, our faith allows us to imagine our relatedness to the entire human family. Each child is our child. Every person created and loved by God is a person to whom we are bound by the unbreakable cords of God’s love.

Imagination is an act of faithful subversion in a world that tells us nothing will change. Things will always be the same. There is nothing we can do about it.

Not so, says imagination. Not so. There can be, there is, another way. Imagination is the root of joy. Imagination is the source of hope. When we dare to imagine that Jesus just might be on to something when he tells us to love one another; we take the first steps toward loving one another.

At home with Elizabeth, Mary’s imagination inspired her to break into song about what God has done, what God will do, and what God is doing. Mary’s song, Rachel Held Evans reminds us, declares that God has chosen sides. [vi]

God has chosen not narcissistic rulers or leaders, but an un-wed, un-believed teenage girl for the holy task of birthing, nursing, and nurturing God.

God has chosen not the powerful, but the humble.

Not the rich, but the poor.

Not the occupying force, but people pushed to the margins.  

God has made a home. That home, Jesus reveals, is among the people the world casts aside. Women. Children. The poor. Lepers. Samaritans. Tax collectors. Sinners. God’s home includes people of every sexual orientation and every gender identity, people living on the streets, people whose immigration papers do not match the government standards, people battling addiction, people dealing with mental illness, and anyone pushed aside by the culture of domination.

Any time we human creatures seek to keep some of God’s children out and we draw a line to exclude and we say, “you do not belong,” God wipes the line aside. “Hold my beer,” the Holy Spirit says, and she begins the patient, careful work of removing the line and welcoming all God’s children home.

Church, we know that does not happen quickly enough. We know people, too many precious people, are wounded in the time it takes God to erase the lines. That grieves us and God. But we also know that patiently, persistently God is at work. And God invites us to join that work.

In her defiant, prophetic, imaginative song, Mary—a dark-skinned woman who would become a refugee, a member of a religious minority in an occupied land—names this reality: God makes a home for and with those who have been driven to the margins by the powerful. And we are invited to meet God there on the margins and be welcomed home.  

During Advent, we journey home.

During Advent, we work to create home.

During Advent and always, may we journey and work with the stubborn, unsentimental hope of Jesus’ radical Jewish Mama – a woman so convinced the baby inside her would change everything, she proclaimed that:

The powerful have already been humbled;

The vulnerable have already been lifted up;

The world is turning;

And it is turning toward home.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] Many artists have recorded both songs. The versions by Aaron Neville and Oscar Peterson were the first to appear in my iTunes Library.            

[ii] This comes from Vilmarie’s commentary on Luke 1:39-55 in the Sanctified Art Close to Home Sermon Planning Guide for this Sunday.

[iii] I found this image from the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer a couple years ago. I can no longer find the source.

[iv] https://www.uua.org/worship/words/quote/healing-act-communion.

[v] The story of Le Chambon is told by Philip Haille in Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Chambon-sur-Lignon.

[vi] https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/unsentimental-advent.

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Thanks to my village!

A good friend gave me this plaque on Friday: IMG_3419

It speaks profoundly to my experience. We do not travel the Trail alone. We do so accompanied by family and friends who care for us, sometimes in ways we fail to realize. We do so surrounded by neighbors and people we do not know whose lives touch ours in surprising, amazing ways. And we do so supported by sisters and brothers we will never meet, sisters and brothers who work hard, and whose labor is sometimes exploited, to allow us to enjoy the lives we have. There is much to ponder.

For tonight, I use this plaque as an opportunity to thank those who support my self-care effort. Tricia, Sean, and Eric have been great! Certain friends are key to my effort. Many are always there. A number have become part of my community of accountability, receiving self-serving emails with gentle grace. Their support comes in many forms: reading what I write, responding, sending an unexpected text, providing a plaque and vitamins, answering questions, asking on Facebook, “Have you been to the gym?”, and more.

A wider community also takes care of me. People who like or comment on Facebook posts. People who take the moment to say encouraging words. People like Greg, who literally gushed about my progress before and after the service when I preached at the Church of the Covenant.

It takes a village to lose a boatload of weight and take care of oneself. At least it does for me. To each of you – to all of you – in  my village, my thanks. I hope I care for you as well as you care for me.

See you along the Trail.

 

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Self care 1

The details are on my other blog, but today marked a break through in my self-care efforts. For the first time ever, I did more running that walking on the treadmill.

Over the past few days, I have been humbly and powerfully reminded of the importance of a community in this effort.

It will take a village to help me lose this boatload of weight and improve my conditioning.

For those in the village – thank you!

See you along the Trail.

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Cheering section

We both stopped short as we came to the corner. I walked close to the building, too close I admit. Perhaps Ralph and Sally did, too. But we both stopped short; we averted a collision.

“Mark. You are losing weight again. Well done,” Ralph gushed.

His excitement and enthusiasm has remained with me all day. I have reflected on the experience all day.

Today marks the ninth day I have worked at self-care. This time. I have made many efforts in recent years as well. Sometimes I do well for a stretch and then everything falls apart. Eight days, soon nine, represents one of my longer efforts.

Ralph’s encouraging words, reminded me of how this time is different from earlier efforts and how this time is the same.

What is different, is this time I am working with a doctor with whom I feel connected. I have liked my earlier doctors. I have trusted them. But this time, something clicked with my new doctor from my first visit in May. I had a pretty good run after the appointment. Then I spent two weeks eating everything that did not move while at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s General Assembly. My second visit took place on June 23. She gave me advice and now I try to apply it.

What is the same, is the community of accountability that surrounds and sustains and supports me. It includes friends and family who have expressed concern for my health – and who have voiced support for my efforts. Some in the group comment on my Facebook posts or follow the blog where I make reports or engage me in conversations, virtual and real. They have made their support known to me and I appreciate it them deeply. They serve as my personal cheering section. Others, such as Ralph, cheer me on even when I am unaware of their presence.

To all the members of this accountability group, family and friends, known and unknown, I say thank you. With your support, I have made a great start. The journey continues.

See you along the Trail.

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I need to try again

Communities of accountability have a way of intersecting.

The same people often appear in different communities to which we are accountable. A person may play a key role in one community and stand on the periphery of others. Or a person may hold a key place in several communities.

Make rosters of my communities of accountability and you will find Merdine T. Morris on many of those lists. A few years ago, I described her in these words:

Merdine T. and I have been friends for more than 20 years. Friend really does not do our relationship justice, she is my mentor, teacher, challenger, comforter, disturber of my peace, guide, anchor . . . the list goes on.

Today I add, Merdine T. Morris is practically a one person community of accountability for me.

Three years ago, Merdine T.’s health failed and I reflected on what I thought might be our last visit.

Merdine T. recovered.

On Tuesday, Tricia, Eric and I went to see her. We arrived and told the receptionist we wanted to visit Merdine T. She paused a moment and said, “I don’t think Merdine T. is here.”

She checked a list and informed us that Merdine T. had gone to lunch with a group. On the one hand, this was disappointing. On the other, it was great, good news.

I carry Merdine T. in my heart and head and will always do so. But I give thanks to know that she can get out and around.

And I need to try to see her again before I leave for New York.

See you along the Trail.

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To a community of accountability – thank you!

My friend Laura Mariko Cheifetz has recently written twice about communities of accountability. As she notes:

I could operate all by myself as an individual, but that would be a lie. I am who I am because of the communities that form(ed) me and support(ed) me.

Laura notes that in some instances, she reports to communities of accountability. In other cases, while that word might be too strong, she still exist in, and nurtures, relationship with that community.

After reflecting on some of the communities to which she is accountable, Laura poses the question:

What are your communities of accountability? Your church? Your neighborhood? How do you stay accountable to them?

I would name a number of such communities in my life. The list that follows is not necessarily in order of importance. It is the communities in the order that they occur to me – bearing in mind that I am on a new allergy medication at the moment. I am accountable to:

  • family
  • the Presbytery of New York City
  • the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
  • the staff of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations
  • the Compassion, Peace, and Justice Ministry
  • the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board
  • colleagues within the UN community and across the church who work for justice
  • the community where I live
  • a circle of friends built through the years – a circle that expands and contracts as we move through life
  • people of color (and white people) with whom I seek to challenge racism
  • women (and men) with whom I seek to challenge sexism
  • LGBT sisters and brothers (and straight brothers and sisters) with whom I seek to challenge heterosexism
  • young people (and older people) with whom I seek to challenge ageism

How do I stay accountable? In different ways with different groups at different times. Sometimes accountability comes in filling in forms and making reports. Sometimes accountability comes through being together and engaging in conversation. Sometimes accountability comes from recalling lessons taught and values shared. Sometimes accountability comes in remembering – allowing people’s faces and voices to fill my mind when we are far apart.

Two areas for further work come to me as I reflect on communities of accountability:

  1. Where do my communities intersect? Who is part of more than one community? What does that mean? Is it something to nurture intentionally? How would I do that?
  2. Where do I need to build new communities of accountability? The area of economic justice and injustice is one area that comes to mind immediately. Where else? What will that take on my part?

I have much to ponder. And I am grateful to Laura for opening this area of thought for me.

But before I close, I want to give a shout-out to a community of accountability that means a great deal to me at the moment. About two months ago, I decided to make another effort at self-care. I have made some remarkable progress although a long, long, long way remains to go. The effort combines exercise (walking at the moment) and reducing calories. I regularly bore Facebook with the information about my exercise for each day. That simple act somehow helps hold me accountable. Friends comment from time to time – different friends each time. Their feedback matters; but it is the posting that makes the difference.

I have also created a community of accountability – pulling together a number of friends and family who have expressed concern for my health – and who have voiced support for my efforts. This group receives weekly and monthly updates on my progress in terms of eating and exercise and weight loss and blood sugar control.

Some individuals have asked to be part of the group. Others I have drafted. I blind copy the group with the emails so they do not necessarily know who else is a member.

Each report receives a few responses – no one responds all the time – everyone responds once in a while. I deeply appreciate the responses. But even more deeply, I appreciate that the group members are willing to receive my updates.

To the members of this accountability group – to my family and friends – I say thank you. With your support, I have made a great start. The journey continues.

See you along the Trail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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