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 leapt 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 leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’ And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
What is a sanctuary? This question has been on my mind for the whole pandemic. I thought about it when Pastor Dexter and I set up a card table in the front of the sanctuary that first Sunday after the shutdown, trying to position our laptop camera so y’all could see the cross in the background as we cobbled together our first Zoom worship service ever. I thought about it when I came to the church to pick something up months later and smiled that our sanctuary appeared to have been semi-permanently transformed by our wonderful FISH food bank volunteers into a bountiful warehouse to feed our community. I thought about this on the first Easter morning of the pandemic when I went to the azalea bush in my front yard to select some pink blossoms to affix on the hand-made cross in our living room before our worship service, still on Zoom, all those months later. And I think of it today as we look towards another Christmas Eve worship service amidst high COVID transmission rates in our community, a time of worship that will not involve sharing a physical sanctuary space together at 3808 Pennsylvania Street. What is a sanctuary?
All that wondering and grief and disorientation followed me as I met Mary and Elizabeth in this text. And I realized that what we find in this passage is a sanctuary embodied. Mary has just said yes to the angel’s invitation from God to bear God in her own body, and though the Gospel writer doesn’t tell us her internal emotions, we can imagine what propelled her “with haste” to her cousin Elizabeth’s house. To be an unwed, pregnant teenager engaged to be married was to have a target on your back to be stoned by your community, according to the law. Mary’s was a bold ‘yes’ to the angel in that moment, and since Mary was a human just like us, I can imagine about a hundred anxious questions per minute filling her mind as she threw some belongings in a bag and headed out the door for her cousin Elizabeth’s house. As one of my favorite theologians, Debie Thomas, puts it, “Needless to say, [Mary] need[ed] safety, affirmation, empathy, and companionship. She need[ed] someone to recognize, nurture, deepen, and celebrate the work of God in her life. Someone who [would] receive, not reject. Love, not judge. Nourish, not condemn.” (Debie Thomas, “A Visit and a Song,” Journey With Jesus, posted 16 December 2018.) Mary found just that in Elizabeth. She found a person whose response to a desperate teenager in need was an immediate word of blessing over Mary. She found a person who saw the trust Mary had put in God and celebrated it with her, speaking a word of affirmation over Mary in the moment Mary probably needed it most. As Debie Thomas goes on to say, “Could there possibly be a better job description for the Church?”
Mary and Elizabeth have embodied for us a working definition of a sanctuary. A sanctuary is any space of relationship where it is safe to simply be, where people are affirmed and reminded time and time again of their irrevocable belovedness and belonging, where humans are ready to have their lives interrupted by fellow siblings who come through their door, ready to see the image of God in them and to celebrate God’s activity in their lives. This definition of sanctuary is good news, the kind of good news that can hold hands with our pandemic grief, the kind of good news that can guide our steps into an uncertain future of being the church. It’s good news because, LPC family, according to this definition, our sanctuary has never been closed. The sanctuary doors have been wide open as we have tended to one another’s faces and voices on Zoom with nothing to distract us from each other’s stories, pains, and celebrations. The sanctuary doors have been wide open as we have have gone deeper than we would have during coffee hour, forming new bonds with those we may not have gravitated towards in our physical building, but who we now call beloved chosen family because of the ways we have shown up for each other week after week to share our lives, lift up our prayers, and learn together. The sanctuary doors have been wide open as the FISH food bank y’all have continued to facilitate has made sure to fill the hungry with good things. The sanctuary doors have been wide open as we have embodied the protest song ushered forth from Mary’s own lips, showing up on Zoom to city and county meetings to resist contracts with ICE that harm our immigrant siblings and pushing for compassionate sheltering ordinances in solidarity with our neighbors who are unhoused. The sanctuary doors have been wide open as the Deacons Fund, which supports friends of our church in times of need, has been more used this year than in any previous year of my time at LPC, while never reaching a balance of $0 because you keep taking action to redistribute your wealth so that everyone can have enough. The sanctuary doors have been wide open every time you have called each other on the phone or mailed each other a card with the sole purpose of encouraging and comforting someone you knew was having a hard time.
None of this erases the grief of not hugging each other during the passing of the peace, of another Christmas Eve on its way without the ability to pass the candle light to the neighbor next to you, of the longing to sing together, shoulder to shoulder, those songs of the faith that live in our very bones. And yet, in Elizabeth and Mary, we find an invitation to continue being a living sanctuary. Because sometimes, we are Mary, anxious and afraid and overwhelmed and in desperate need of chosen family to remind us that we are loved and that God’s got us. When that is us, Mary shows us the power of being vulnerable, of showing up to someone’s door with a longing to be loved. And sometimes, we are Elizabeth, in the middle of something but interrupted by someone who needs a place to stay for a while, a place free of any judgment and overflowing with affirmation and love. Elizabeth shows us today how to be interruptible, how to be in the kind of ongoing relationship with God that opens us up to be ready for the unexpected visitor, ready to speak a bold word of blessing and encouragement over those we meet, ready to make space not for a day, not for a week, but for months of time to deepen connection and nurture safe space for the one who arrives on our doorstep of our lives.
Here’s our homework this week, church: Start each day by asking God, “How can I be Mary today? How can I share with someone else the ways I am feeling vulnerable and in need of care? Who will I call on to remind me that God is with me?” And also start each day by asking, “How can I be Elizabeth today? How can I let my schedule be interrupted by someone who needs a word of blessing or a tangible sharing of what I have to feel safe?” As we have been during this whole, heavy season, church family, let’s keep practicing being a sanctuary together. And by the power of the Holy Spirit that filled Elizabeth and sheltered Mary, may our sanctuary doors never, ever close. Amen.