Has your life ever taken a ‘left turn?’ Peter was planning on a career in computer programming, when he took a required humanities class in anthropology – the subject he now teaches today. Nancy took a job as a social worker after raising six kids, when she was asked to apply to become the director of the social service agency. She got the job and led that $2 million organization through a decade of expansion of services. Deondre took family leave to care for his mother during her last year of life, and found the experience so meaningful that now he is a hospice volunteer. Life has a funny way of changing suddenly, shaping what comes afterward in profound ways.
Our gospel story from Luke picks up right after a serious left turn in Mary’s life. Luke introduces Mary as an ordinary young woman who is engaged to be married. She is from Nazareth, a small town in Northern Palestine, far from the political, cultural, and religious center of Jerusalem. She is to marry a man from a notable lineage, the house of King David – but that was 14 generations ago, a tale of faded glory now.
But this day is anything but ordinary. For Mary is interrupted from her daily routine by an angel who tells her that she will bear the Messiah. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of this kingdom there will be no end.”
Talk about a left turn! First of all, Mary is engaged, not married. Becoming pregnant before marriage was not in her plans. And not socially acceptable! Second of all, who would believe that this was God’s doing? What a crazy idea! And yet that is exactly the left turn God had in mind for Mary. No more ordinary marriage, no more typical peasant life. Her fate changed in an instant, from the girl next door to the Mother of God.
I think it is worth pausing here to imagine for a moment what this left turn was like for Mary. We have all the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight to give this story a rosy tinge. But consider from Mary’s point of view: An unintended pregnancy out of wedlock meant shame for her and her family. It likely meant being socially ostracized and threatened to end to her engagement. She might even be disowned from her family. All this would have flashed through her mind when the angel Gabriel made his announcement. Luke says that Mary “was much perplexed by [the angel’s] words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” No wonder! She must have been asking herself, is this sudden turn of events a good thing, or bad?
This sort of discernment often comes up when life metes out an unexpected change in circumstance. It reminds me of a Taoist proverb often entitled, “Maybe,” which goes like this: There once was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically. "May be," the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed. "May be," replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. "May be," answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. "May be," said the farmer.
There are many meanings one can take from this proverb, but the thing I take away is that whether a new circumstance is good or bad depends on a much bigger picture than we can see. If the farmer had known that the runaway horse would bring other horses back with it, he might have corrected his neighbors who proclaimed it bad luck. On the other hand, if the farmer could see to the end of a long chain of events, it could alter his whole perception of what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in his life.
As Christians, we believe that God holds the big picture, and that God is trustworthy. So St. Paul can write from a Roman prison: “God works all things for good for those who love him.” And “I am convinced that nothing – not hardship, not famine, not peril or nakedness or the sword—shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul knows that God has the ultimate good in mind for each of us, and all of us, and that even when we can’t see the rhyme or reason, we can trust that God is working at God’s purposes, nonetheless. Through prayer and discernment with others, we can open ourselves to being a part of that work in the world.
That’s what Mary did. She trusted that God was working even in these admittedly dubious circumstances. She had faith that God would work out the details of dealing with her family, neighbors, and husband to be. I think she was aided by her knowledge of how God had already acted in the world. The promises of the prophets were alive in Mary. She knew the scriptures, and she knew of God’s faithfulness. Not only that, but she learned of her relative Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy. God was indeed doing something, and Mary was connecting the dots.
Perhaps that’s why in today’s reading we find Mary, fresh from the news of the left turn in her life, visiting her relative Elizabeth. Elizabeth who was long past childbearing age. Elizabeth, who would become the mother of John the Baptist, the prophet who would prepare the way for the Messiah. When we want to better understand what God is up to, it helps to be with others who have experienced God’s interventions, those who have walked the path of faith.
I think Mary’s story is a good one for us to ponder at this juncture in St. Matthew’s life.
I announced a little over a week ago that I would be concluding my time here as lead pastor. It was a left turn for many. After all, we have shared a wonderful ministry together for almost five years St. Matthew is a gifted community with an exciting future of digging deep, reaching out and changing lives. I have enjoyed my ministry among you, and if my personal circumstances had been different, would have been happy staying. But my own left turn to move back to Ohio after almost 30 years of living in CT has turned into this community’s left turn. We could be like the farmer’s neighbors, proclaiming this as good or bad luck. But I think we might more profitably follow in St. Paul’s line of thought, and recognize that God works all things for good, even the losses we experience as individuals and as a community.
When a left turn happens, it is good to look to Mary, because she too was at first perplexed, wondering about what the changes would mean. Mary can also be a model for us as we move through changes. We can seek out other faithful people, as she did Elizabeth, and be strengthened through the stories of how God works in people’s lives and the world. For just as God provided for St. Matthew in times of transition in the past so will God provide for this community in the coming months as you listen for the Holy Spirit’s promptings.
Our Gospel today ends with the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise. The song begins with Mary’s magnifying God for doing ‘great things’ for her, but quickly turns to proclaiming that
God’s ‘mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.’ Mary’s outlines that God’s left turn in her life is not just for her, but for all humanity. It is God’s way of changing things for the good, so that the lowly are lifted up and the hungry are filled with good things.
In this unexpected turn, a baby’s birth will usher in an end to inequality and hunger and fulfill the promises God made long ago.
God will fulfill God’s promises among you as well. At this time of change, we can lean into the story of Mary. We can ask her questions and sing her song. We can visit those among us who have lived God’s left turns. Together we can proclaim the truth that God is faithful in all circumstances of life from generation to generation.
Pastor Julie, 12/19/21