“Passing on our Courage”
Luke 1:24-25, 39-45
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
December 7, 2014
University Baptist Church
A child, finally a child. So sang Elizabeth of old, just like Sarai sang. Just like some of us have sang. We sing in hope. We sing in the wonder of creation and recreation. We sing in terror, too for becoming a parent is one of the most important and weighty of jobs for which there is no adequate compensation.
Crone Elizabeth, with a mute husband, pregnant with John the Baptist, spent her time, I imagine, preparing the way for the one who would prepare the way for Jesus.
What must she have told young John? Was his courage because of his mother or his father? Maybe both. But we know that Elizabeth not only gave John courage. She also gave it to young Mary, her mirror. Maybe they were each other’s mirrors. I imagine conversations about the tension between coddling and protecting their sons, and on the other hand letting them take risks—knowing that while the latter builds character, it’s also dangerous.
Those of us who have become parents know that during that preparation time, that pregnancy time, we are flooded with ideas of what we will pass on to our children. Will they inherit their father’s nose, their mother’s eyes. Their aunt’s musical ability, their grandparents’ patience? Their uncle’s temper, their cousin’s mental illness?
Some things are determined by biology. Some things are determined by environment.
But other things are inherited by parents and community. We all have an influence on the next generation.
I hope that we could pass on our courage.
Courage in the face of illness.
Courage in the face of the unknowns of the adoption process.
Courage in the face of the unknown about how having a child will effect us. It will change us. Hopefully in a good way. Because we can’t be good parents if we are self-focused. Another is depending on us for health (mental and physical). Another is dependant on us to make sense of the world. Another is dependant on us to show them a way to rise above adversity. To not be a victim, not just a survivor, but one who thrives regardless of what the world throws at us. That’s what we hope for our kids.
I imagine Elizabeth wondering what she would teach her child. She needed to teach him how to be John the Baptist.
Ben and Laura, I don’t mean to put any undue burden on you comparing you to Elizabeth and Zechariah. But you know as well as I that you and they faced similar challenges. Oh, I know the circumstances are different. I mean neither of you are old, let’s face it. I know that facing parenthood amidst your own challenges takes courage. And I hope that you pass on that courage to your son.
Elizabeth passed on her courage to John, but also to Mary. Mary didn’t go to her mother for support and wisdom for some reason. She went to her favorite Auntie Liz.
Aunt Liz knew about being shunned. Aunt Liz knew about having dreams and visions and talking to angels. Aunt Liz was also far enough removed from her family that she could be somewhat objective without being objecting to Mary’s situation. I imagine them trying to find the courage to be good mothers and then finding ways to pass on that courage.
Luke’s Gospel opens with the silencing of the priest Zechariah and the pregnancy of Elizabeth, right before the pregnancy of Mary. Mary and Elizabeth are destined to be together, just like their sons. And they need to channel courage in order to live up to their mutual callings.
Elizabeth and Mary experience the peaks and valleys that is part of any pregnancy, but especially because of their mutual extraordinary pregnancies. Mary and Elizabeth together shared in the journey of pregnancy and in the responsibility of bearing the children who would set the world on its end. For three months they stayed together—talking, laughing, crying, cramping, and conspiring the nights away. They created sacred space, even when they were not considered clean or even acceptable, especially when they were looked on with suspicion by others. They had both found favor with God and that was all that mattered.
They both knew a secret, you see. God was participating in a new way through the ultimate subversion of acceptableness. God’s own incarnation was being smuggled into the world through Mary, a would-be outcast. This was going to be God’s presence on earth: with the outcasts. God is one of us! That’s what Mary and Elizabeth figured out. And they determined to give their children courage.
But more important than that, Mary and Elizabeth discovered together what family was all about. Mary and Elizabeth were distant relatives. They were decades apart in age. And yet they had intimate knowledge of each other. They trusted each other. They knew that if patriarchy or racism or classism or anything else was going to deny them and their offspring their rights, there would be someone to stick by each other’s side—watching the other’s back. That is what the best of families do.
Gabriel told Elizabeth and Mary not to be afraid because she has a definite future that is important. And they also had God on their side at all times. Think about this for your own lives. We fear the unknown. There is so much about our lives that is unknown. But this much is known: We don’t go on this journey alone. God is always there holding us up, egging us on, picking us up when we’re down; giving us courage to face the seemingly impossible.
Amanda swam in a meet this weekend at the U. It was great to see her swim again and to catch a glimpse of her. Glimpses are all we get these days and that is as it should be. And I know I join other parents in wondering if we have done our best to give our kids the tools they need to be successful. I know as I watch swim meets that one of the things those athletes have is courage. What distinguishes a good athlete from a great one? Well, part of it is biology and training and technique. But the other part is courage, which is also called heart. Great athletes fight against pain. They tell themselves they can do it even when your body rages in defiance. What did the parents in the stands do to pass on their courage? Was the courage of the swimmers because of or in spite of their parents?
In 1941, Kim’s father, Gerald Spitz, was a college student. Seventy three years ago today he heard on the radio of the bombing of Pearl Harbor while sitting at the breakfast table in the rooming house in which he lived. Without another thought, he left the breakfast table and enlisted in the armed services. There was no air force then, so he enlisted in the army air corps. He was an only child and could have gotten a deferment. But he felt convicted to join with others across the world who left behind a secure place to step out in courage to support the war effort. That story of courage is one that he passed down to his daughter and that now, we pass on to his granddaughters whom he never met.
Of course, I think also of conscientious objectors who stood up for their conviction that war is never the answer. They had courage to face the consequences of their convictions which often meant ridicule and ostracism. They pass on this courage to their children, too.
There are people in the streets this week as another grand jury chose not to indict another white police officer who killed an unarmed black man. Standing in the streets takes courage and conviction. I know of at least one white police officer intimately related to this congregation. He tries to be ethical and brave in the midst of this racialized distrust. I know that he tries to instill this courageous stance to his three young children.
And yet, the history of racial strife is present and needs to be addressed. As I look out at the demonstrations in the streets, I am drawn to the mothers. These mothers tell us to take heart. To tell the truth. To have courage. To not settle for anything less than our children’s lives to be worth something.
Matty Strickler posted on Facebook several days ago: “All I want for Christmas is the abolition of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy.” And you want this by December 24th? No problem.
As we anticipate the coming of Christmas in just a few weeks, consider this: who is your Elizabeth, your Auntie Liz? Who hears your cries? Who is your trusted confidant? We all need that. That person or those people become family to us, whether or not they are related to us. And they help us courageously face the world with all of its beauty and challenge. They encourage us to be intentional about what we will pass on to our children. They watch what we do. They take their cues from us for better or for worse.
Will we always just get along and not make waves?
Will we keep up with the Joneses?
Will we be predictable? Or like Mary and Elizabeth of old, will we be courageous.
Will we be brave?
Will our children be brave enough to stand up to us when our ethics are not the best?
Will our children do the work to dismantle white privilege?
Will our children learn of structural inequality and have the courage to imagine and implement an alternative?
Will our children be the ones who will show us a better way? We pass on traits to our children. May they inherit from us the best of our courage.
John the Baptist, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah looked across his land, and remembered what his mother taught him. He had the courage to stand up and know the system is rigged against you. The courage to see the big picture and the first words out of his mouth were “repent”.
May we pass on courage and wisdom to our children. And may we be worthy of them in our old age.
Let me close with a chapter of the prophet by Kahlil Gibran. This chapter is entitled, “On Children.”
And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said,
"Speak to us of Children." And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.