A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 19, 2021

By: Amelia McDaniel, Lay Associate for Christian Formation


There are many things that I am proud of when I say that I am from Tennessee. I know there are great people and places in every corner of this earth, but home is home and your people are your people. One of the Nashvillians I am proudest of is Episcopal priest, Becca Stevens, who runs Thistle Farms. She founded Thistle Farms to address the needs of women who are survivors of addiction, trafficking and prostitution. The two-year residential program helps women create new lives through counseling, education and job training. Their motto is Love Heals, and it has been at Thistle Farms for the more than 20 years. And Thistle Farms has grown to serve women around the US and abroad.

Stevens travels frequently and she brings with her women who are about to graduate at Thistle Farms. Their stories are powerful and humbling. Stevens tells of one woman she was traveling with, a survivor of abuse and life on the streets. The woman was so anxious about giving her speech to the group they were visiting she rewrote it multiple times as she was on the plane and in the hotel the night before the event.

The following morning, when Stevens and the woman arrived at the community to speak, Stevens got up and said, “This is making me nervous. I think it will go much better for her and for us if we just go ahead, cut to the chase, and give her a standing ovation now.” Of course, the group complied, and the woman began weeping as did the audience and Stevens says “it was a big love fest without any words.” The woman’s witness to the healing power of love, without one single word being said was enough.

This story reminds me of today’s Gospel reading. A preemptive ovation and witness to what God’s love can do.

As the reading opens Mary has just learned from Gabriel that she has been chosen for some unimaginable work, that she would be bringing the son of God into this world. She “went with haste” to see her cousin Elizabeth who she had learned was also pregnant by the miraculous work of God. I feel like there was some more to this story than Mary simply making “haste” to see Elizabeth. If I were in Mary’s situation, I wouldn’t be “making haste”, I’d be high tailing it to see Elizabeth.

When Mary arrives to see Elizabeth, she called out to her in greeting. And at hearing the sound of Mary’s voice, Elizabeth’s baby leapt in her womb. Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry, in part because she gets a wallop from within.

Here it is, a preemptive standing ovation. Before the story of Jesus even really begins, before he is born, before he starts preaching and teaching, before the miracles, the child in Elizabeth’s womb gives his own version of a standing ovation for Jesus. I would guess this ovation was to Elizabeth’s wonder and delight and also probably brought her a little bit of discomfort. Elizabeth’s baby, the boy who will be called John the Baptist, knows exactly who Jesus is, and jumped with joy at the nearness to the son of God.

And then Mary prays the prayer known as the Magnificat. It is the prayer of someone who knows the proximity of the love and grace of God. A prayer that calls out to those who are in need that help is on the way. A prayer that points out to those who live in power and comfort the changes that God’s justice and love will bring.

I love every beautiful word of this prayer.
Mary prays with clarity seeing the work God is already doing, the work this child she is bringing into the world will be a part of. She prays with confidence that God’s grace is meant for all. That all means all y’all, y’all there in the back, not necessarily the ones at the front of the line.

As much as I love this prayer, I find myself in a particularly difficult spot when I read it because of the life I lead today.

I am someone who has had too much to eat, who sleeps in a warm bed in a more than adequate house. I speak to you as someone who has enough power to navigate the world relatively well and when I can’t there are support systems of loved ones who prop me up.

I also know that at any given moment my honestly easy life can be upended. But I do not want to blindly find comfort in this prayer when I am not necessarily the one being comforted.

In this disease that I feel, I am reminded of the prayer I learned in Catholic school, the Hail Mary prayer. It is now a prayer that is on my heart often. It is often the first prayer I turn to in distress or confusion.

Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

In a recent newsletter, Lutheran pastor and writer Nadia Bolz Weber, points out that we often forget that that the prayer of Mary does not signal her virtue, but her Grace. Hail Mary, full of Grace. Bolz Weber says…”I think that this is exactly what Mary understood: That what qualifies us for God’s grace isn’t our goodness – what qualifies us for God’s grace is nothing more than our need for God’s grace.”

It is through the offering of God’s grace, I find a place for myself in Mary’s Magnificat. Grace. We are given hope through the Grace of this baby we are waiting on in this season. This baby that Mary carries and John leaps for today.

I do not think I will ever come to a peace about disparities in this life. And if I did I think I would be getting it very wrong.

Each of us is called upon to recognize what Mary is praying, that God is about making things right in this world even if we are not the ones who are in need of the righting. For me there are no easy answers for how I am to respond to living in a life where I know I have more than I need and I know that my neighbors do not.

But I pray that through God’s grace I will learn to respond as God would want me to. And the best place I know is to start by seeing God’s grace at work in the lives of others, just like Mary does. And in doing this I can be reminded when it is NOT MY TURN, knowing that in God’s economy of grace my place at the front of the line is not necessarily where He would have me stay and that getting out of the way for His work to be done is often what is in order.

I can be one ready and waiting to jump up with a preemptive standing ovation by seeing God’s grace in all those around me, like the people in the crowd responding to the woman from Thistle Farms or better yet like John leaping with joy at the nearness of Jesus.

There is grace for each of the women at Thistle Farms today and grace for the women who live on the streets still.
Grace for the one waiting for the medicine to work.
For the one who gives her child the food and goes hungry herself.
For the children being picked up to go into foster care this morning.
And grace for the ones who need to be but aren’t.
Grace for the angsty teenager who lashes out and doesn’t mean to.
For the prisoners, both the innocent and the guilty.
For those whose anger consumes their lives. And grace for those who continue to love them anyway.
Grace for the kid in junior high who never gets picked for the team.
For the one who simply cannot pick up the phone to make that call.
Grace for the college kid who has to tell his parents he’s failed out this semester.
For the father who has been looking for work for a year.
Grace for the couple who want to be parents and can’t find a way to make it happen.
And grace for the parents who have a child for whom they do not know what to do.
Grace for the lonely who do not know how very much they are loved.
Grace for us all.

Hail Mary, full of grace. May we all come to know the nearness of Christ.