Keeping The Faith... Together

Rev. Sarah Buteux
December 23, 2012  
Advent 4, Year C  
Micah 5:1-5  Luke 1:39-56  

I will hold the Christ light for you in the nighttime of your fears.  
I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.  

- from The Servant Song by Richard Gillard  

I think we’ve all heard the term “soul mates,” right? Well I learned this past week that the ancient Celts had a similar concept called anam cara which is Gaelic for “soul friend;” the sort of friend who understands you completely whether you are pouring your heart out with words or just sitting together in silence.[1]  

Now I’m pretty sure the cosmic rules state you can only have one soul mate, so maybe it’s cheating to think you can have more than one soul friend. But I have to say that I believe I’ve been blessed with a many anam caras in this life, and it is thanks to them that I’ve gotten through this last week at all.  

My sister Christin is one such friend to me, and we finally had a chance to talk last Sunday night. It’s funny because when I look back on that conversation I’m not entirely sure who said what.   

We were on such a similar wave-length that it was as if we were speaking for each other as much as we were speaking to each other; helping each other find the words to express what we were each trying to say. It was actually more communion than conversation, which I suppose is the gift anam caras bring to one another.  

My sister lives down in NY. She is a pastor’s wife and the mother of three small children, and so we talked…we talked about how we were feeling as mothers in the wake of last week’s shootings and we talked about what had happened in our churches. They had their Christmas Party scheduled for that very night and went ahead with it. We had our Gospel Concert on Saturday and went ahead with that as well.  

They met for church on Sunday, as did we, and as we talked about all we had done and said and experienced, we both marveled at how grateful we were, not just to lead communities of faith, but to be part of our communities of faith.  

The courage and comfort and healing we each received last weekend as we gathered and prayed and sang and cried and even laughed with the people in our congregations, sustained us through those first few days. The church gave us a place to mourn. It gave us hands to hold. It gave us a reason to hope. It gave us a reason to go on.  

“You know Chris,” I said, “Only 9% of the people in our valley go to church, but Saturday night we could not have fit another soul into the sanctuary. There were so many people who had come out to hear the music, so many people craving community, yearning for joy, longing for light and song…and I think they found it in the midst of all we did.”  

“It’s only 3% down here.” she said. Only 3% of the people in her county go to church. And then she said something that really struck me: “You know I went out today to get groceries and I just stopped for a moment and watched all the people around me.   

I watched all these people trying to go on, rushing in and out of the stores, heading to the movies, trying to lose themselves, numb themselves, distract themselves from all the horror and the sadness… at the mall …at the mall Sarah… because they have no place else to go, nothing better to do.  

They have no other place where they can go and sit and just be in the company of others as they try to come to terms with what has happened.”  

And Christin and I mourned for those people, because that is not how it should be. People need more than that.  They were created for something better than that.  

In times of great sorrow, in times of great joy, and in much of the time in between, we need to be in the company of others - in the company of soul friends - friends who can sit with us in silence and listen without judgment, trusted ones who can handle our doubts without questioning our faith, friends who will stand by us no matter what and hold the Christ light high when we falter, the better to help us find not just our way, but God’s way, as life marches on.  

It is not good for us to be alone. God figured that out by, like, day 6 of creation. He says as much in chapter 2 of Genesis, and you don’t have to take that literally to take it seriously.  

We need one another. We were created to need one another. And when life becomes overwhelming we need each other all the more, which is why– turning to our story for today – I believe Mary was so wise – wise beyond her years - to go and seek out her cousin Elizabeth.  

Now I know that we tend to think of the Christmas story as a happy story of wondrous miracles and joyous births, but the truth is that Gabrielle’s message to both of these women was not an easy one to bear. Each woman’s pregnancy, as divine as it was, would have left her extremely vulnerable and probably completely overwhelmed.  

I think we all know that pregnancy in general was a rather risky endeavor back then, but when you start to factor in Mary’s youth and Elizabeth’s advanced age, Mary’s lack of marital status and the reality that both of these women lived in a time of great unrest at the mercy fickle and oppressive rulers, you realize that bringing either of those babies to term was going to take as much of a miracle as the pregnancies themselves had.  

Neither of these women had any guarantee that they would survive the births of their miraculous sons. Neither of these women had a heaven sent get of jail free card if patrolling soldiers began to act out, or a “Yahweh is my baby-daddy, so back off” certificate if local townsfolk began to ask uncomfortable questions.  

We learned last week that Elizabeth and Zechariah actually went into seclusion after the angel appeared.  They barely knew what to make of them selves let alone what others would make of them, so they stayed home. Zechariah stopped going to work.  

Elizabeth stopped going out. For five months they withdrew, which essentially means that they didn’t go out in public again till she could feel the baby kicking in her womb. They didn’t leave the house till they could prove to others that something real and miraculous was really going on.  

Likewise Mary withdrew too. When she learned that she has been chosen, like Elizabeth, to serve God in this way, she left town immediately. But Mary was smart. She knew she couldn’t do this alone and so she went to be with her cousin.  

It was a journey of some 80 miles, a journey full of risk and danger, but Mary went anyway...not just to escape the uncomfortable questions and dangerous accusations of people in her hometown, but because Mary needed an anam cara, a soul friend. Mary needed someone who could understand what she could never explain, someone who could not only accept the unacceptable and believe the unbelievable, but help her believe it too.  

Mary needed someone who could hold her in her entirety, hold her faith as carefully as she could hold her doubt; hold her present confusion in tension with her future hopes, hold her and love her and stand by her no matter what.  

And Mary found that in Judea. When Elizabeth cracked open the door and Mary saw the bulge of her stomach, the gentle swell of her cousin’s womb, the way the baby inside her leapt for joy at the mere sound of Mary’s voice, Mary knew that the angel was for real.  

Mary knew that the impossible was really and truly happening to her as well. Mary knew that this wasn’t all some trick of her imagination. Being with Elizabeth helped Mary make some sense of what was going on, assured her that she wasn’t crazy, affirmed that the angel and his promises – as unobtainable as they must have seemed - were faithful and true.  

But perhaps even more than all that, when Mary beheld a very pregnant Elizabeth, she knew for the first time since Gabrielle’s visit that she was not alone… and the good news of the gospel for us all today is that neither are we.  

Like Mary we live in a very conflicted time - a time so full of hope and fear, cynicism and faith, joy and mourning, unbelievable generosity and rank inhumanity - that it can be hard to find our way; hard to know what to believe; hard to know how to believe. So hard to live in the moment, live in a present that just breaks your heart, while still holding out hope for a future only God can bring.  

But here in this church, when I am with you and you are with me, somehow all of a sudden what seemed impossible isn’t anymore. Here in church, by the grace of God, we can find the strength to feel the loss of the present even as we sing out our hope for the future.  

We can do both at the same time, for we don’t weep as those who have no hope, we weep as those who do. Which is, yes, a complete and total contradiction; but it is a contradiction we can hold in tension precisely because we hold it together. There is not a one of us that is strong enough to hold it alone. But together, together we can.  

Together we can hold out hope that this world - this great big beautiful broken world that God so loves - might yet become the place of justice and mercy God created it to be:  

- a world where lions will lie down with lambs,  

- a world where the poor will be filled with the good things they really need even as the rich are emptied of all those things they never really needed at all,  

- a world where we can serve God without fear even as he guides our feet in the way of peace.  

There is such tension in the Christian imagination between the world as we know it and the world as we hope it will one day be, but we can hold that tension when we come together.  

I can hold it when you help me, but only when you help, which is why I need you to keep showing up and you need me to do the same, as surely as Mary needed Elizabeth.  

Why we need to keep coming together and lifting up our prayers and reading our scriptures and singing and helping and holding one another through it all.  

I need you to help me believe that a new world is coming even as I weep over what this world has become.  

And you have.  

And you will.  

Because that is what we do here and that is who we are: aram caras, soul friends.  

Thanks be to you and thanks be to God.   

Let us pray:  

Lord my gratitude for my brothers and sisters knows no bounds.  I thank you for each soul who has gathered here and every soul who calls this church home. I thank you that we have the gift of one another as we seek to keep the faith and follow in your way.  Grant us hope and courage, compassion and understanding as we hold the light high for one another until you the day you come.  …Come Lord Jesus, come.  Amen.  

[1] Thanks to Anthony Robinson for this. His reflections this week were particularly helpful and inspired this sermon. God bless you Tony.