Beth Hoffman Faeth December 22, 2019
Scripture Luke 1:57–66
In what feels like a lifetime ago, I was beginning a call as the senior minister of a church not too far from here. As many of you know, and as we are experiencing as a congregation now, the search process for a new minister takes a long time: It is a practice in patience and waiting. Good thing we are in the season of Advent in which these are the touchstones of this sacred time.
I began interviewing with this particular church in December, had my successful candidating sermon in April but did not begin my tenure there until July. Part of the reason is because systemic process in any church is a slow one, and also many churches require a two- to three-month notice of leaving from clergy, so if one is called to a new position from an existing church-based ministry, the gap between the new church settling on the preferred candidate and the availability of the candidate to actually begin working is typically several months long. And I will also tell you what you already know . . . a lot can happen in those two to three months. And sometimes, those happenings can be life-changing. Just days before I began my new role as senior minister, I learned that I was . . . pregnant. While this event did not include an Angel Gabriel or the risk of being stoned to death, I did feel awestruck and exhilarated in ways possibly similar to Mary, the mother of Jesus. For almost a decade I had struggled with infertility and never before achieved such status except through medical intervention. So, while I was certainly surprised by joy, the timing wasn’t exactly great. And although this was over 16 years ago, I was of an “advanced maternal age” and my pregnancy was considered “geriatric.” From previous experience, I knew that the road ahead was to be precarious and I would be closely monitored, and this pregnancy, while providing the most wonderful delight, was also going to take most of my energy to survive. And I had to tell the congregation, who had no idea their first year with their new pastor was going to be so . . . eventful.
This church had had a painful ending with their previous minister, one that included a breach of trust and legal intervention. They were in a protective mode and wary, and many felt they were taking a big risk as I was the first woman to serve them as senior minister. Moving through the proper channels by sharing my news with key lay leaders of the congregation, it was decided I would divulge this information on a Sunday morning, by way of a sermon. And so that morning I did what you have heard me do from this pulpit, and what I encourage you to do with one another as we continue to build relationship—I told a part of my story. I really did not know how folks would respond. There could be frustration or anger or a demand for resignation or . . . something else. After all, I was presenting them with a situation we never discussed in the interview process.
I spoke my truth—about how my quest for motherhood had brought unimaginable loss, about how I believed that my daughter Ellie, then 3 years old, was born to heal me and was truly a gift from God as her name suggests. And while I never imagined it possible, my grand finale on my mothering journey was an unexpected miracle in that I would have another baby during my first year with them. And then? After the briefest moment as the news sunk in, there were whoops and hollers of joy and even a standing ovation. And I let out a breath I did not even realize I had been holding. Following the service when tears flowed and congratulations were expressed, one member decided we needed to change the church sign to read, “Our new pastor is expecting; come grow with us.” My pregnancy became a witness for holy possibility—not just for me, but for an entire congregation.
Hannah was born seven months later, and it was a bumpy road indeed, with many scary and precarious moments along the way, but this beautiful baby with the shock of curly dark hair and eyes that turned into half-moons when she smiled could soften the heart of any person, anywhere, and this congregation loved her with abundance. I baptized her on the first Sunday of my return after her birth—Palm Sunday—and the congregation took their vows literally as she was now their baby, each Sunday passed around the sanctuary with love and devotion while her momma worked. In a church hungry for community and reconciliation, baby Hannah provided the kind of balm they were seeking, and every meeting with her present was conciliatory and productive. How can one be angry or contrary when holding a baby? It is difficult to raise your voice when you are cooing a chubby little human into a smile or a laugh.
I was with this congregation for a long time, and while I thought it would take years to build trust with them following their previous experience, their care for me and their enveloping love for Hannah and Ellie created a solid bond that led to mutuality and transformation.
Our Advent journey is coming to a completion, at least for this year. I do not need to remind you that we are only two days from Christmas. In these last few weeks, we have used the first chapter of the gospel of Luke to guide our way, illuminating meaning upon the words that have become centering to this season: hope, peace, joy and love. Advent means “arrival” or “the coming into being.” Seth invited us to consider hope arriving from loss; Paula asked us to contemplate that peace comes into being through surrender and joy persists through despair and suffering, when we root ourselves in an understanding of the Divine. And on this last Sunday of the season our foundational word is Love. How is love coming into being in this time and place?
I am not standing before you today to make any kind of announcement of an impending birth in which I would be the gestator . . . my time for that is long past. But I do offer you love in the form of a baby . . . three, actually. Many of you were here last week to witness the baptism of Mara Kruse-Petersen. This little girl is the embodiment of joy. Smiling through every moment, engaging with you as I walked with her down the aisle, delighting in the water that trickled down her forehead. In post-worship conversation, it was obvious that this baby captured your hearts. And through the baptismal vow that you all shared last week, Mara’s care and keeping has been entrusted to us, and we are to model to her a love that comes from God—one without conditions, one that knows no bounds, a love shared eagerly and abundantly.
In our scripture story this morning, we find another woman of “advanced maternal age” as geriatric Elizabeth gives birth to a son and the community rejoices—only momentarily—before then questioning the non-familial name of John. Upon this little one’s birth, Zechariah’s voice returns and with it comes the prophecy that Seth read earlier. John the Baptist will be a prophet and will prepare the way of the One for whom we wait, the one born to be Love Incarnate, the One who will invite us all into a life of grace, commonality and mercy.
This third baby is Jesus, of course, whose birthing song we will sing in just two days. Coming to us in the most vulnerable of ways in the midst of earth and hay and animals, this babe whom we are called to worship can only become the One we are to follow because of the love and nurture he received as a baby, a toddler, a child, a teenager, a young man.
Have you ever wondered why the one many call a Savior and a prophet named John, whose role it was to prepare us for our heart’s transformation, were presented to us in scripture narrative not just as children, but as babies? Completely dependent upon others for their care, fragile yet resilient, tiny humans inviting a love so deep and true as to nurture them into the men they came to be: transformative agents of justice and peace. And perhaps their infant narratives are meant to teach us that to truly love requires our own dependence—a surrender of the heart to lean into another and to be both the giver and the receiver of love.
For those of us that thrive on an independent spirit and a “go it alone” attitude, this may be a most humbling lesson of Advent: that to love and to truly know love is to submit to the understanding that we must rely on another for that love to come to fruition. The babies John and Jesus, along with Mara and Hannah, become our teachers in this active, sustaining love. For not only do babies rely on us to provide for them, they trust that we will. As babies reward us with smiles that light up a room, laughter that can penetrate the hardest of heart, the soothing feel of breath on our necks as they sleep in our arms, they forever remind us of what might be possible—that with love as their model and justice as their mentor—they will grow up into human beings destined to change the world, because we loved them into their own becoming.
C. S. Lewis, in his book The Four Loves, explains the consequence of a life lived not risking love:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.
In other words, to live as if we do not have need of another is to be destined to a life of loneliness and desolation.
Friday night, singer Sara Thomsen had a solstice concert in Guild Hall, and those of us gathered were blessed by beautiful lyrics sung with soul and meaning and purpose. In her song “Where Did Jesus Go?” Sara wonders what the church has done with the brown-skinned baby whose ministry founded a religion supposedly rooted in love and inclusion. The catchy refrain was easily sung again and again by the audience:
Al-le-lu, what you gonna do?
Al-le-lu, I’m gonna stand with you
Love is all you’ve got
Love is all you do
It’s bigger than me
And it’s bigger than you . . . al-le-lu
Which is true, right? To find a definitive meaning for love would be a fruitless practice because love is too hugely magnificent to define in any kind of succinct way. The journey of faith calls us to recognize the multitude of ways love shows up in our tumultuous path, and spiritual practice invites us to re-imagine love again and again and again. Perhaps in this season we are invited to know love through a dependence. Perhaps God is beckoning us through our understanding of a baby’s ability to create tenderness and gentleness that this is the kind of love we are to offer to each other—that to love one another after a year of difficult conversations and fractured spirits means to lean in to one another, standing together rather than apart, with both compassion and need, and to let a little child lead us: “giving light to those who sit in darkness . . . and to guide our feet in the way of peace.”
Let’s try it, together. Because love is what we’ve got. Love is what we do. And blessedly, indeed it is bigger than all of us.