Count on Me (message for December 20th, 2015

Scripture:  Luke 1:46-55

I was in first grade, so I do not remember the details.   I do however, remember with great vividness how I felt.  The entire grade took a field trip to the Cincinnati zoo.   I do not remember what the animal exhibit was, but I must have become engrossed at looking at something, because when I finally looked around I realized that I was by myself.  The rest of my class, and my dad who was one of the parent volunteers, were gone.   I distinctly remember the panic and fear I felt.  I remember one thought that was blazing in my mind: “I’m lost.”   Now this was whole incident was probably a minute or less.   It did not take long for my dad to open a door and tell me to “come on.”   In the grand scheme of a life’s memories it was a minor occurrence. All of the details of that time have faded, but the feeling of being lost is still stuck with me.   An event that happened much later that I have a better memory of occurred when I was 21.   It was the summer, and I was running a little late for work.  I had driven the curvy country road into town a hundred times, so I felt very comfortable on it.   This comfort, pushed me to go a little faster than I probably should have, especially considering the roads were wet.   This road has a section where there is a small turn over a small hill.   My speed was a little to fast, the roads a little wet, and upon taking that hill my backend started to come around on me.   Only by the grace of God I ended up in a field instead of a tree that day when I went flying off the road.   However, I can remember with acute clarity the second I lost control.   It had to only be a second, but in my memory it stretches on for minutes.  I can remember every detail, but most of all I remember the feeling of complete helplessness and uncertainty because I did not know where this was ending up.    In your life do you have similar experiences?  Do you have times where you felt truly lost, helpless, out of control, and moments where uncertainty were your entire reality?   How do those experiences stick out in your mind?  I know that I am somewhat fortunate, because both of these memoires are things that happened in an instant.  For some the experiences of being lost, out of control, and uncertain last for days, weeks, or even months. 

            I mention these experiences because they are the closest points of reference I have to what it must have felt like to be Mary.   Clearly, I have never had the experience of being an unwed, pregnant teenage girl who was visited by an angel and told she was carrying the son of God.   I honestly do not know and cannot really comprehend what it must been like for Mary to carry Jesus in her womb.  While the details of my experiences are radically different from that of Mary, I imagine the raw emotions probably felt similar some of the time.   When Mary was young, pregnant, and alone she must have felt a little scared, lost, out of control, and uncertain.   How could she not?    Even though she must have felt that way at points, those feelings did not consume her or define her.   This morning’s scripture, traditionally referred to as “Mary’s Song” (or the Magnificant if you like to drop Latin references),  does not seem to have much fear or uncertainty in it.   By focusing on where Mary gained her confidence, we can better learn how to face the uncertainty, feelings of loss, and scariness in our own lives.  

            There are two aspects worth examining to show where Mary’s confidence in the face of uncertainty and fear came from.   The first, is her faith.    It can be hard for us to remember that at the time of Jesus’ birth Mary was probably between the ages of 14 and 17.  The depth of faith she displays in this morning’s scripture goes well beyond the faith we often associate with teens or even most adults, for that matter.    In the midst of all that she is going through, Mary is able to praise God.  She is not just going through the motions either, but her spontaneous song states that her soul glorifies God and her spirit rejoices.”    She recognizes that in the midst of all that she is going through that God is there and that God has been mindful of her.   What stands out most about Mary’s faith as displayed in this morning’s scripture is much of a long view that she had.    She remembers what God has done, how God has been merciful, and how God has kept promises from generation to generation.    Her faith is rooted in a rich tradition, but she is not living in the past.   She praises God in the present, and looks towards the future because God was, God is, and God will be.  

            This kind of perspective helps keep back feelings of being lost or out of control, because it reminds us that God has always been there and it reminds us that God always will be there.   As I have mentioned before, I am big history fan.   I like history for a great many reasons, and I think it is incredibly important for us to teach and learn history.  It is important because of the old adage, “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.”   While this may be true on the grand scale of history, but it is true in our own lives as well.   This is one of the reasons why it is important for us to know the scriptures, because it tells us what we can expect of God and what pitfalls we need to avoid.   We also have to remember and learn from our personal history as well.   How often do we make the same mistakes over and over again?   All of us probably have some life lesson, that we have learned the hard way more than once.   In times of doubt, fear, being lost, or uncertainty we get so caught up and consumed by the moment that we lose sight of the long view.  For all intents and purposes we forget the last time we were in a similar situation.  We forget that during that last time, even if we did not notice it in the moment, God was with us and God helped see us through.  When we face uncertain or scary times in our lives, we need to follow Mary’s example and keep a long view of our faith.  We need to remember that God was with us in the past, God is with us now, and that God will be with us always. 

            The second aspect of where the confidence Mary displayed in baring Jesus is often overlooked.   Namely, she did not have to go through that ordeal alone.   Yes, God was with her but so were people who cared about her.  The gospel of Luke also tells us about Mary’s relative Elizabeth.  Once Mary was pregnant, she lied low for a bit with Elizabeth who was also pregnant and carrying John the Baptist.   Right before this morning’s scripture, there is an encounter where Elizabeth greets Mary and acknowledges that Mary is blessed, that the child she is carrying is special, and even refers to the unborn messiah as “her Lord.”  Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months, where they must have been a mutual support to one another.  After John is born, Mary returns home where Joseph is waiting for her.   The gospel of Matthew tells us that Joseph, after finding out his betrothed bride was pregnant with a child that was not his, stayed with her.  At what would have been great personal cost, he had her back.   Essentially both Elizabeth and Joseph told Mary, “You can count on me.  I’ll be there.”    Mary was able to have confidence and to keep such a strong faith because she was being supported by people who cared for her.  

            For the past couple of weeks of Advent, we have really emphasized the profound and amazing truth that through all of life’s ups and downs God is with us.   Cognitively we can know that.   Faith wise, we can truly believe that.   However, when everything gets crazy and out of control our more primal, panicked emotions can get the best of us.   We lose sight that God is with us and give ourselves over to fear, panic or despair.   The way that we best experience and know that God is with us, is when we reflect God’s love to another.   We know God is with us when other people serve as God’s hands, God’s feet, and God’s tender shoulder in our lives.   There is a story I once heard from another youth minister about this.  There was a senior in his community, let’s call him Josh.  Josh and his family were members of the church this youth minister worked at.  Josh’s mom was really involved in the church, but his father was not. Josh himself was only mildly involved in the youth ministry. Josh’s mom was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer, and after a short but painful fight the cancer one and she died.  A week after the funeral, the church had an annual picnic, a bit like our outdoor service in the summer.  Josh showed up to the picnic, and just sat, in the back of his pick up truck staring at the ground.  Three of the other teenage guys in the church came to the youth minister, asking “What should we do?” “What should we say?”   The youth minister at a loss for words told them the only thing he could think of, “Just love him.”  For the rest of the picnic.  Josh and three other guys sat side by side in the back of a pick up truck, not saying a word, and staring at the ground.   Even though nothing was said, it was at that moment that Josh’s disappointed soul and broken heart began to heal, because three other people took the time to be present in his life and love him like Jesus would.  By being present, Josh’s three friends became living representations that God is with us.  

            Sometimes in order for us to truly know that God is with us, we need other people to physically be with us.   In order to know that God is mindful of us, that God’s mercy still extends to those who fear him, and that God still helps we need other people to be in our lives who are willing to say, “You can count on me.  I’ll be there.”   Just like Mary did, in order for us to have a fully confident faith, we need to have other faithful people, who have our back and spur us on.   This is not by accident, this is part of God’s design.   We can see throughout the Bible, that people who follow and worship God are not meant to do so in isolation, we are meant to do so in community.   We need each other in our lives.  We need to be the presence that reminds others that God is with us.   

            One of the ways that I experienced this in my life happened close to four years ago.   Abigail’s stepfather had passed away and we were there for his funeral and visitation.  I was a bundle of anxiety, fear, and uncertainty.    Of all the pastoral activities, funerals are the ones that cause me the most anxiety because I realize how important they are for those who have lost a loved one and I do not want to mess it up.  As I tried to be a strong pillar for Abigail and Connor and deal with my own grief, but at the same time I felt a heavy weight because I was doing the funeral.   In the midst of this maelstrom of raw emotions, a visitor came to the funeral home, another United Methodist Pastor.   He had been one year ahead of me in the Ordination process.  We knew each other’s names but not much beyond that.  We were acquaintances in the most general sense of the word.   However, he was appointed in the area, had seen the death notification, and came.   At that time it was a huge reminder to me.  Someone I barely knew took the effort out of his day to make a simple gesture to show care and concern.   His presence reminded me, that if another person can take the time to be present, then in the midst of the grief in the midst of the anxiety God was already present.   My clergy colleague’s presence truly helped me focus on God’s presence, on God’s Spirit and helped me better rely on God’s leading and God’s power over those days.

            If Mary, the mother of God, needed the support of other people then we certainly need the support of each other.   The hardest part of getting support is accepting it.   If you are going through a time of your life right now where you feel lost, then please let others be present.  If you are going through a time of your life right now where you feel out of control, then please let others be present.  If you are going through a time of your life right now that is full of uncertainty, then please let others be present.    Look around this room, these are the people of God, that God has put in your life.   They are not here by accident.  May you be willing to count on them and let them be there for you.   May you be willing to allow them to be present for you.   Through their presence you will know that God is with you, and like Mary you will be able to say “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has been mindful of me.”