December 9, 2018: "Through Mary's Eyes: From Shame to Blessing"
December 9, 2018 Rev. Rhonda Blevins
Through Mary’s Eyes: From Shame to Blessing
Luke 1:39-45, 56
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
As it turns out, what the angel told me is coming true! I knew it would! I just knew it. I’m going to have a baby, but . . . not too many people believe me about, you know, the angel. They think I’m just a kid making up a story. But it’s true. I promise. I don’t know how to prove it but it’s true.
My parents are ashamed. I think they want to believe me, but you know how people talk in a small town. They think it’s best that I go stay with my cousin, Elizabeth, out of town. Elizabeth is, like, my mom’s age . . . and she’s pregnant too.
I am anxious about staying with Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah. I’m worried they will judge me too. But what choice do I have?
When I get to Elizabeth’s house, I don’t know how it’s going to be. Will they welcome me? Or will they sneer or scoff or lecture? I just don’t know.
When I knock on their door, Elizabeth answers. She’s so excited to see me! She throws her arm around me and kisses me and says blessings over me! And get this . . . she tells me the baby in her womb leaped upon my arrival. She tells me my baby will be special. Elizabeth believes me!
We don’t really know why Mary left town and stayed with her cousin Elizabeth for three months. We know that a young woman like Mary likely wouldn’t have had agency or autonomy to make a decision like this on her own. So it is speculated that Mary was sent away by her parents—perhaps to spare them all (or at least postpone) the inevitable shame they would all experience as the unmarried young lady began to show.
And there’s the word. . . shame. Shame is a powerful force. Shame is hatred turned inward. In her 2012 TED talk, Brene Brown said, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment.” It seems plausible to me that young Mary’s out of town trip to stay with relatives for three months was the result of the petri dish of shame. Secrecy? Check. Silence? Check. Judgment? Check. It seems reasonable to imagine Mary’s parents were ashamed of her. Maybe that’s why their names are never mentioned anywhere in the New Testament.
Shame can sometimes be used as leverage.
The church I served in Tennessee underwent a major building project. One day during the project, a couple of guys showed up—protestors. They had a huge plastic banner—maybe 20 feet long—that they held up along the busy highway on which the church sat. The sign was white. And in big, bold, red letters, the sign read: “SHAME ON Pastor Singley” (Marty Singley was the senior pastor at the time.) “What in the world?” we all wondered. With a little detective work, we discovered that the contractor for our building project used a subcontractor whose employees had voted not to join a trade union. So the union would pay guys $7-$8 dollars per hour to hold these “Shame” signs at the job sites that employed this company. I suppose the rationale was that nobody wants a huge “SHAME” sign on the highway with your name on it, which might prevent others from hiring this non-union firm. Shame as leverage.
This sign was the talk of the community. “What did Pastor Singley do?” people wondered. “Must be really bad,” one neighbor remarked to me. Some assumed it was church members holding up the sign. One even presumed it must be the church board. Still another couple, upon learning the source of the “SHAME” sign, decided to join the church as a gesture of support of the pastor who was wrongly shamed.
Have you ever been wrongly shamed? Maybe you grew up in a home with parents who didn’t know what to do with their own shame, so they projected it onto you in the form of unmitigated rage, or unreasonable expectations, or a form of toxic religion based on shame instead of grace. And there your shame grew inside you—your young, fragile form the petri dish of secrecy, silence and judgment.
To go just a little deeper into toxic religion—there are so many Christians who have bought into a shame-based belief system. While guilt is important, helping us distinguish right from wrong, shame is nothing more than hate. Brown simplifies this by saying: “Guilt says, ‘I did something bad.’ Shame says, ‘I am bad.’” So many Christians start there—believing they are inherently bad—gravely flawed. But I’d like to point out that the notion of original sin ignores Genesis 1, which declares, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them.” The Bible starts with original blessing, not original sin. Give me THAT old-time religion!
We don’t know for sure the context in which Mary was sent to stay with Zechariah and Elizabeth. But we do know what happened once she arrived. If there was any doubt in Mary’s mind about how she would be received by this older relative, that question was put to rest when Elizabeth exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” And as if that wasn’t enough, Elizabeth added another blessing at the end of her greeting, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Think about a time in your life when you received the kind of blessing that Elizabeth offered to Mary. Consider how good it felt to be welcomed, accepted, loved, embraced—not in spite of who you are, but because of who you are. A blessing like that can empower you to shake off the shame. To release the hate. To settle in and breathe and simply be. That’s the gift Elizabeth gave to Mary. She gave her the gift of sanctuary.
And that’s the gift I want this church to offer. My prayer is that we might offer sanctuary to any, to all who have felt the sting of shame. To any, to all who have been rejected, told they’re not worthy, made to feel less-than, pushed away, shamed. Friends, shame is not on the menu here at Chapel by the Sea. But we’ll serve up blessing any way you want it!
Rev. Janet Wolf was the minister at a Methodist congregation in Nashville, that as she describes, had “people with power and PhDs and folks who have never gone past the third grade; folks with two houses and folks living on the streets; and, as one person who struggles with mental health declared, ‘those of us who are crazy and those who think they’re not.’” Pastor Janet tells a story about Fayette; Fayette suffered from lupus and mental illness, and she lived on the streets. Fayette started participating in a class led by the pastor, and was there when the conversation turned to baptism, described by the pastor as “this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone.” Fayette attached herself to this idea, and began asking over and over, “And when I’m baptized, I am…?” The people in the class learned to respond, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold!” Fayette would cry out “Yes!” Then the class would resume it’s discussion.
On the day of Fayette’s baptism, she came up out of the water and cried out, “And now I am . . .?” And her friends sang out, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold!” Fayette shouted, “Oh, yes!” and promptly proceeded to dance around the Fellowship Hall.
A couple of months later, Pastor Janet got a call. Fayette, badly beaten and raped, was in the hospital. This is how Pastor Janet described it from there: “I went. I could see her from a distance, pacing back and forth. When I got to the door, I heard, ‘I am beloved…’ She turned, saw me, and said, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and….’ Catching sight of herself in the mirror—hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty, and rebuttoned askew, she started again, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and…’ She looked in the mirror again and declared, ‘…and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!’”
Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold, that’s the power of grace. In the face of unimaginable violence, it wasn’t shame that gripped Fayette—it was blessing. She knew she was more beautiful than her circumstance. She knew it because that was the message—the truth she had been given by her church.
That’s the kind of church I want us to be—or more accurately—that’s the kind of church I want us to keep being. If you’re here this morning, and you had a difficult time remembering an occasion when you received the kind of blessing that Elizabeth offered to Mary—you’re in the right place. Because, with every fiber of my being, I believe the message God would have you hear today is the message that got Fayette through her darkest moment: you are, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.”
Fayette’s story inspired pastor and author Jan Richardson to write a poem entitled “A Blessing Called Sanctuary.”  The poem offers us a challenge—“to become the sanctuary that you have found.” I close with her words:
A Blessing Called Sanctuary
By Jan Richardson
You hardly knew
how hungry you were
to be gathered in,
to receive the welcome
that invited you to enter
nothing of you
found foreign or strange,
nothing of your life
that you were asked
to leave behind
or to carry in silence
or in shame.
became settling in,
leaning into the blessing
that enfolded you,
taking your place
in the circle
that stunned you
with its unimagined grace.
You began to breathe again,
to move without fear,
to speak with abandon
the words you carried
in your bones,
that echoed in your being.
You learned to sing.
But the deal with this blessing
is that it will not leave you alone,
will not let you linger
The time will come
when this blessing
will ask you to leave,
not because it has tired of you
but because it desires for you
to become the sanctuary
that you have found—
to speak your word
into the world,
to tell what you have heard
with your own ears,
seen with your own eyes,
known in your own heart:
that you are beloved,
precious child of God,
beautiful to behold,
and you are welcome
and more than welcome
 Janet Wolf, The Upper Room Disciplines, 1999.