Sermon Advent I 2021 Luke 1:26-38 Rev. Betsy Hogan
Do you try to exercise good self-care? It's seemed to me over the course of the pandemic that this has been a prevailing theme in our cultural zeitgeist – the spirit of this time.
The importance of self-care, of taking time to refuel, of doing what keeps us as individuals emotionally solid and spiritually grounded – rather than empty and exhausted. Or worse – if we've been kind of pouring it out all the time -- taken advantage of, used-up, even exploited for that generosity.
The importance of self-care as a sort of corrective to all that. A pause in that pouring it out: a reminder that we do have limits, that our own wellness matters, that it's okay to say no, to set boundaries, to put our own needs first.
It's clearly an issue in our culture right now. The historical record will show it! Because when the history of this time is written, and all the source materials are gathered, among other things these will include an internet archive that is utterly FULL of inspiring memes about the importance of self-care.
Everything from five or seven or ten helpful tips, to the short and pithy "Don't Be Afraid To Put Yourself First."
And indeed, why not? As Christians we KNOW how often Jesus took himself off into the wilderness to regroup and refuel and restore his own inner strength. And we don't blame him one whit, and it's exactly the example we need, and of COURSE he did that. Because he was pouring it out all the time, and there's a limit. Even for Jesus, there was a limit! So "don't be afraid to put yourself first" and off he goes on his own for a while.
In the gospels it always says that he's going off to pray. And presumably sometimes that IS what he did, but I suspect that at other times it's just what he TOLD the disciples he was doing – while meanwhile he was actually just taking a bit of time. Doing whatever the first century version of putting in earphones and curling up with a book looked like.
So "don't be afraid to put yourself first" and there's absolutely no doubt that in Jesus we're offered an example of the importance of this kind of attention to taking care of our own bodies and our own spirits and our own wellness, as beloved children of God who matter.
But here's the thing. Unsurprisingly, the faithfulness we're called to is a lot more complicated than that. And there really IS an extraordinary irony – even if we completely understand the need for and the worth of lifting up self-care – there really IS an extraordinary irony in slogans like "Make Yourself The Priority" being considered radical and revolutionary in a culture that's frankly – generally speaking – pretty much perfected making ourselves the priority.
What's actually FAR more counter-cultural at this point, it seems to me, is actually the notion of making OTHER people our priority. Simply because it so easily crashes up against those totally important reminders about boundaries and limits and self-care. Which ARE important.
And yet – there's hardly anything else more deeply at the centre of Christian faithfulness than this notion of putting others first. This notion of setting aside our own needs, our own wants, making that sacrifice – because it'll be good for others, because it'll make things better for others, as a deliberate choice.
Because Jesus absolutely looked after his own needs for rest and restoration and self-care. But he also said "if someone asks you to go a mile, go a second mile" and "if someone takes your shirt, offer him your coat" and "greater love hath no one but this, than to lay down his life for his friend".
So it is, to put it mildly, complicated for people of faith. Self-care versus sacrifice. And unsurprisingly not easily dealt with by memes or by slogans. Because in effect what we're presented with in the gospels is the example of Jesus making it absolutely clear that all God's children MATTER, and that our health and well-being MATTER, and that God doesn't want ANY of us to be used-up or taken advantage of or exploited –
And Jesus also making it absolutely clear that what he wants us to choose as our orientation in faithfulness, is to be oriented toward putting others first. Setting aside our own needs – in service, as a sacrifice – for the good of others.
As a kind of default orientation. A sort of general way-of-being. Exactly the kind of default orientation and general way-of-being that I think we've generally expressed in Nova Scotia throughout this pandemic. When none of this is fun, but we're doing it for each other. And on purpose, as Dr. Strang mentioned last week. As manifesting exactly that kind of love of neighbour that translates into putting the good of the community before our own selves.
So we do know exactly what it looks like, meeting a moment with this orientation in faithfulness toward putting others first. We know exactly what it looks like, only two weeks after Remembrance Sunday, when we stand up to honour those who met that moment of the presenting horror of war by anteing up, putting their own selves and safety second in a way that the vast majority of us never have to.
So we do know what it looks like, this orientation of putting others before ourselves – and the thing is, it IS at the absolute heart of Christian faithfulness.
And if we do need to soften it with equally absolute reminders that God doesn't want ANY of us exploited, used-up, taken advantage of – which God very much does not – it still is at the heart of Christian faithfulness.
NOT if demanded exploitatively by those around us, but as an expression of faithfulness we're invited into, on purpose, as a way of being.
And from the very beginning of the Christian story. When this young unmarried girl named Mary gets visited by an Angel.
And does she actually have any choice about what happens to her? She really doesn't. It's all pretty much presented to her as how things are going to be, and so all our carols about her meekness and her obedience – they're all sort of gilding the lily in a way, since it's not like she has any options.
But what she DOES have – in this moment of the Annunciation, the Announcement by the Angel Gabriel that she WILL be bearing a son and he WILL be called Jesus and he WILL be the Saviour and Messiah and Son of the Most High –
What she DOES have in this moment is clarity that in this, she'll be literally embodying putting others before herself. The Advent, the arrival, of Godness into the world will literally happen as an expression of her sacrificing her own safety, her own well-being, her own body, to the greater good.
Because this WAS a personal sacrifice for her. And she would've known that immediately. Because it is not cool for her to suddenly be expecting. We know Joseph's first reaction was to "put her away quietly" – which is meant to sound lovely and actually sounds a bit sinister – but the fact that she immediately leaves town to go hide out for a while and "visit an auntie"?? The gospel makes it perfectly obvious that this is really not a safe or comfortable situation for her.
And cousin Elizabeth's warm welcome notwithstanding, Mary's future in this moment is by no means secure. This WAS a personal sacrifice.
But she claims this event as an expression of a faithfulness that MAKES personal sacrifice in service of the greater good. Yes, her own future is a little up in the air right now, but "My soul magnifies the Lord" she cries out to Elizabeth. Because God will scatter the proud in the imaginations of their hearts and lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty – and that is WORTH IT.
THAT she can and does lift up as the greater good. For which she will and does set aside her own needs for security and safety and comfort. She's literally embodying putting others before herself, and she claims it. It's at the heart of Christian faithfulness from the very beginning, in her.
And that's a challenge to us. Because notwithstanding all the ink that we spill about the importance of self-care, and remembering to make ourselves a priority and not forget that we're beloved and we matter and God wants us whole and strong and well –
I think the reality is that if anything, in the grand socio-cultural scheme of things, what we really struggle more with, in this culture we live in, is actually the notion of sacrifice.
Making our default orientation not 'what's best for me' and 'what I want', but instead 'what's best for others, what's best for my community, what's best for all of us'.
Mary embodies that orientation as the actual beginning of the Christian story, as an expression of the actual heart of Christian faithfulness. It doesn't deny the place of self-care: we ARE precious, and we DO matter, and we're NOT made to be used-up or exploited. Mary may not have a choice here, but what we see in her isn't just meekness and obedience. Because there's that pause. There's that firmness in her responding "let it be" that speaks to a moment of clarity.
When she recognizes and claims the notion of "what's best for others, and not just me" as the essential starting place, the operative principle, the heart of faithful living.
And invites us into embracing it too, as we prepare alongside her during Advent for this holy birth that's less than a month away.
Which honestly, means that probably at least some of us are going to be needing a few reminders about self-care in the not too distant future. I saw a meme this morning that said "if you feel like you're hitting a wall, that wall's there so you'll lean on it and rest." And amen to that.
But at the same time, I think we've felt, in the past year and a half, the amount of goodness there is in that orientation of making personal sacrifices just because it's better for those who are more vulnerable, just because it's safer for our kids, just because we want local shops and sports and arts groups to stay afloat. It's made us more aware of and invested in each others' well-being. We've been looking out and around when we think about our priorities and what matters and not just within.
And that's been filled with goodness. We've FELT it – like our own version of Mary's moment of clarity – we've felt it as different and new and holy and just exactly the way of being that the world needs.
Mary embodied it, but her power was in claiming it. Let it be, she said. May we go and do likewise. Amen.