Expecting Love

Revs. Beth Hoffman Faeth & Seth Patterson
December 24, 2023, Fourth Sunday in Advent

Scripture: Luke 1:26–38

Beth, singing

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

Seth

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 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.”

Seth & Beth

“For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Beth, singing

Al-le-lu, what you gonna do?
Al-le-lu, I’m gonna stand with you

Seth

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Beth, singing

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

Seth, speaking

For a moment
I (Gabriel) hesitated
on the threshold.
For the space
of a breath
I paused,
unwilling to disturb
her last ordinary moment,
knowing that the next step
would cleave her life:
that this day
would slice her story
in two,
dividing all the days before
from all the ones
to come.

Beth

In what feels like a lifetime ago, I was beginning a call as the senior minister of a church not too far from here. 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. It may have only been a few months, but… a lot can happen to one in a short amount of time. 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 20 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.

Seth, speaking

The artists would later
depict the scene:
Mary dazzled
by the archangel,
her head bowed
in humble assent,
awed by the messenger
who condescended
to leave paradise
to bestow such an honor
upon a woman, and mortal.

Beth

This church had had a painful ending with their previous minister, one which 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 place, 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 three 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 was 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 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.

Seth, speaking

Yet I tell you
it was I who was dazzled,
I who found myself agape
when I came upon her—
reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,
I cannot now recall;
only that the woman before me—
blessed and full of grace
long before I called her so—
shimmered with how completely
she inhabited herself,
inhabited the space around her,
inhabited the moment
that hung between us.

Beth

Hannah was born seven months later and it was a bumpy road indeed, with many frightening 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.

Seth, speaking

I wanted to save her
from what I had been sent
to say.
Yet when the time came,
when I had stammered
the invitation
(history would not record
the sweat on my brow,
the pounding of my heart;
would not note
that I said
Do not be afraid
to myself as much as
to her)
it was she
who saved me—
her first deliverance—
her Let it be
not just declaration
to the Divine
but a word of solace,
of soothing,
of benediction

Beth

Have you ever wondered why the one many call a Savior was presented to us in scripture narrative not just as a child but as a baby—completely dependent upon others for his care, fragile yet resilient, a tiny human inviting a love so deep and true as to nurture him into the man he came to be: a transformative agent of justice and peace. Perhaps Jesus’ infant narrative is meant to teach us that to truly love requires our own dependence—a surrender of the heart to lean in to 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 baby Jesus becomes our teacher 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.

Seth, speaking

a word of solace,
of soothing,
of benediction
for the angel
in the doorway
who would hesitate
one last time—
just for the space
of a breath
torn from his chest—
before wrenching himself away
from her radiant consent,
her beautiful and
awful yes.

Beth

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.

Seth

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.

Beth

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 with our 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.”

Seth

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.

Beth, singing

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

Seth

“For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said,

Beth

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Seth

Then the angel departed from her.

Beth, singing, invites congregation to join

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

11 a.m. service

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