The Christmas Sermon Sprint in 2018 is by no means as arduous as it was last year, when Christmas had the nerve to fall on a Monday. (Really, WHO ALLOWS THESE THINGS.) The near-universal panic among ChurchEmployed Folk last year, trying to figure out what to do with Advent IV, plus Christmas Eve services was a sight, I tell you.
This year, we just have to do 3 feasts in 3 days, which seems tame, really. But it did result in me having a brain blockage for most of the last week, trying to figure out what a good example of an ‘unlikely prophet’ was.
I was saved when I wandered into our local used bookstore (Autumn Leaves, looking at you) and discovered a rare-to-me copy of Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Knitting Around–a combo autobiography and knitting instruction book. But in the knitting world, Elizabeth Zimmerman is basically the godmother of all things. She is the great encourager, the great un-venter–the woman who, in the mid 20th century, transformed knitting from “look at the adorable woman wasting her time” to “look what I can do with my brain and some yarn; I am a genius and nothing can stop me; also I can poke you with these sharp sticks here.” She is also a fantastic writer to boot, and her voice is one I envy a great deal.
Admittedly, when I cited her in the sermon, I hadn’t yet finished the book, which was not my best idea ever. What if she turned out to rhapsodize at length about gender roles, or go on at length about something awful? Nope, turns out she closes the book with a lengthy musing about how ironic it was that the children of American immigrants can become so xenophobic in their turn, and how, perhaps the greatest folly in the world is that of believing that your own country contains the most superior people of the world, when nothing could be farther from the truth.
I am confirmed in my adoration of Elizabeth Zimmerman.
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
December 23, 2018
Advent 4, Year C
The other day, I wandered into our local used bookstore and happened upon a book that I’ve long searched for by Elizabeth Zimmerman. Now, if you don’t know who that is, don’t feel bad—she’s not at all famous, but she’s basically the Godmother of Modern knitting. In the mid 20th century, through her several books, and her typewritten newsletters (!) She is singlehandedly responsible from transforming knitting into something a few women did, while following a pattern, to something women could do, while trusting their brains, and their skills. Her motto was “YOU ARE THE BOSS OF THIS.” If you made a mistake, go with it! It was probably a new invention! Now it was a design feature! She spent her career angry at the knitting magazines who would publish her designs, only to completely butcher them, so she took matters into her own hands, and change the culture of knitting entirely. Whenever I feel overwhelmed or discouraged, I pick up one of her books, and hear again her words to “Knit on through all adversity”, and “you are the boss of your knitting, and you can do this.” Her trust and confidence in the abilities of ordinary women was literally revolutionary, and when she died, she even got a NYT obituary. One might even say she was a bit of a prophet, of the knitting resurgence that came after she died.
A prophet, after all, is one who tells the truth in a profound manner, and brings the light of day to something that the rest of the world has a hard time seeing. Prophets don’t predict the future, so much as they cast light on what is happening in the here and now; they interpret the present for us and help us understand where God is in the present moment, and what we are called to do. (This is why they have been historically unpopular—you don’t get irritated with someone who tells you that you will lose the lottery drawing next month. You DO dislike the person who points out that spending all your food money on lottery tickets is not the wisest choice. Prophets!)
The story of God is the story of unlikely prophets, in many ways. The prophets we meet in the Hebrew Bible were a motley crew. Isaiah doesn’t have a claim to fame before we meet him. Amos points out that he is “neither a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but is a dresser of sycamore trees” which is such an obscure job we still don’t know what he was up to. Jeremiah was a kid. Micah was a lawyer of some kind. John the Baptist went wandering out in the desert eating bugs and wearing inappropriate clothing.
And today, we meet Mary. Now, I want to say first that there is a tradition of female prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. Miriam, Moses’ sister, is called a prophet in Exodus. Deborah sent Barack into battle for Israel. The Israelite midwives heard and obeyed God during the time of Pharoah—the difference for most of them is that while the male prophets had access to the king, so could speak directly to power, and then have their words recorded, the female prophets mostly did not have that access.
Anyway, Mary arrives on the scene, another in a long line of these unlikely prophets. She’s not a gardener, either, she’s not anyone—she’s a young woman in Roman-occupied Palestine, engaged to be married. And Gabriel shows up, and informs her that she is going to have a baby, and the baby will be very important, so really, how does she feel about that?
This is a pretty big ask. Aside from the usual elements of the unknown (which Mary pounces on when she asks just HOW this is going to happen) there is a real element of danger in what Gabriel is telling her. Unmarried women didn’t get pregnant. That was a great way to get killed in those days—the penalty for this under the law technically was being stoned. At the very least, you would be shunned by your family, village, and friends—which could also be a death sentence. It’s very possible part of the reason Mary immediately goes to visit Elizabeth out of town is to hide what’s happening to her from her neighbors, and to avoid attracting attention.
But once Gabriel gives her some more information, she says yes. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.” She says. “Let it be to me according to your word.” “Here I am” is translated from a specific Hebrew word that is the response given by all the prophets to their call from God. That word can mean a whole host of things—everything from “Behold!” To “Here I am” to “Peek a boo” in modern Hebrew. (Not kidding—In modern Hebrew, this is the word for Peek a boo.). But generally, the word signifies declaration of presence and acceptance. Look! I am here! In an affirmative and positive way!
Mary is saying “Here I am, a creature of God—signing up to be a part of God’s mission in the world.” What every prophet has done before her.
Then, as soon as she gets to Elizabeth’s house, she explains what precisely God’s mission looks like to her in the Magnificat. The poor are comforted, the mighty are cast down, the rich are sent away empty, the hungry are fed. The lowly are remembered.
Now, there are layers here. Mary’s song seems to be a sibling of the poetry of Hannah, Samuel’s mother, from earlier in Hebrew scripture, as she rejoices that God has given her a son. And it was also customary at that time, in that culture, to greet your hosts by reciting their names in a song or poem, as a gesture of respect, which would explain why Mary greets Elizabeth this verbose way.
But if we want to imagine that what Mary says here is anything other than revolutionary, we should also remember its more recent history. During British colonial rule in India, the Magnificat was not allowed to be sung or read publicly. In 1980s Guatemala, it was banned as well. And in under the military junta of Argentina in the 1970s, after the Mothers of the Disappeared wrote its words on their protest signs, the government forbade its public use there as well.
We’re used to seeing Mary portrayed as a quiet and obedient pale girl, thinking only of abstract heavenly matters. She’s there on the cover of Christmas cards, wrapped in pink and pale blue, gazing passively into space. Yet her words have stirred humanity time and again to seek God’s reign in the world, to look for the dawn of justice and mercy, and to courageously love God and neighbor, even in the face of the world’s empires. Generations of people have found hope and courage in the words of a teenaged girl from Nazareth, who declared that God saw even her, and counted her as blessed.
After all, if God saw Mary, then surely God sees us. If Mary could survey her life as it was about to be turned inside out and upside down, and proclaim that God still cared for the least of these, then surely we who know how the story ends, can gaze at our own lives and our own turbulent world and proclaim the same. For it is the most unlikely prophets who bring us the purest truth.