I read a column in The New York Times this week about the phenomonon of on-line churches. The author was not talking about churches that live stream services for members who are not physically able to come to church.
Instead, she was making observations about “church by app.” There is no physical structure, no face-to-face contact with fellow parishioners, no personal connection with a pastor or priest.
The entire church exists in cyberspace.
“Is this where American Christianity is headed?” Laura Turners asks. “Your living room, your phone, your television. No longer will you have to leave your house to interact with fellow worshipers. You can do it all from the comfort, and isolation, of your own home.”
I don’t want to denigrate the importance of online communities. I’ve seen real friendships and community develop online between people who may never meet face-to-face.
And cyber church may be a huge blessing for people who are unable to physically get to church, as televised church services have been for decades.
But like Laura Turner, I believe that virtual church has its limitations.
“The truth is that (physical) community is good for us,” she writes. “We need one another.”
Particularly when we are going through transitions and changes in life, it helps to hear from people who have traveled similar paths before us, or are on similar journeys now.
It helps to hear encouragement, and to know that others are praying for us and love us. It helps to know that somebody, somewhere, understands.
An old saying puts it this way – that sharing news with someone halves sorrow and doubles joy.
That old truth is at work in the Gospel story we hear this morning, the pregnant Mary visiting her older cousin, the also pregnant Elizabeth.
The angel Gabriel has just appeared to Mary with the shocking announcement that God has chosen her to give birth to the savior of the world. The angel also gives Mary the news that her kinswoman Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age.
We don’t really know much about what Mary was feeling about this unexpected turn of events. From Matthew’s gospel we know that there was at least a hint of scandal about Mary’s pregnancy – that Joseph considered breaking the engagement. Even though he didn’t, there were probably rumors and whispers and raised eyebrows.
It must have all been terribly confusing and frightening to a young girl, just a teen-ager. And so Gabriel’s news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy was truly a gift.
As Luke tells the story, as soon as the angel departs, Mary “arose and went with haste” into the hill country to visit Elizabeth. Here was a place where she could go for community, for support, for encouragement and love and understanding.
The scene of the two pregnant women greeting one another is one of my favorite in scripture. We have no indication that Elizabeth has known ahead of time of Mary’s pregnancy; certainly there was no way for Mary to have told her the news.
But as soon as she sees her young cousin, Elizabeth explodes with joy. Scripture says she is filled with the Holy Spirit, which means that the words she says are God’s words, too.
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” Elizabeth exclaims. “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 leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believes.”
Elizabeth not only realizes Mary is pregnant; she immediately understands the significance of that pregnancy, and of her own – that the child who leaped for joy in her womb was the one who would prepare the way for his cousin, the savior of the world.
That scene 2,000 years ago was both mundane and extraordinary. Two pregnant peasant women in a humble dwelling in a rural hillside town. Two cousins getting together to talk about their respective unlikely pregnancies.
But in this ordinary, mundane moment God is at work in extraordinary ways, speaking through simple, humble people in a remote village.
Elizabeth is the first to voice this extraordinary thing that God is doing through her and her young cousin, and the sons they both bear.
That is why she cries out to Mary, “Blessed are you, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
In biblical times, “bless you” was not just an offhanded comment, not something you said after a sneeze. This wasn’t even the Southern “bless her heart.” A blessing was a dynamic force, words that created power and actual blessing in one’s life.
When Mary hears these words from Elizabeth, she suddenly realizes that she is blessed, that this unexpected pregnancy is not a dilemma or a scandal, but is truly God at work in her and through her.
Suddenly whatever fears and concerns she may have had are gone. Suddenly she understands that what God is doing in her, and in her cousin Elizabeth is much bigger than the two of them, that this blessing will be for all people, for all time.
Tomorrow evening we will gather here again to celebrate the fruit of Mary’s womb. After today, Elizabeth will disappear from scripture all together, and Mary will be mentioned only in passing.
Attention will shift to their sons, to John the Baptist who proclaims the Lord is near, and to John’s cousin Jesus, who comes to redeem the world.
But for today, let’s stay focused on these two women, Mary and Elizabeth, the first to know and understand what God is about to do through the seemingly ordinary events of two births.
Let’s rejoice in the community they share, in the love and support and understanding they give one another.
Let’s give thanks for their radical faithfulness, a faith that they pass on to their sons.
Blessed is the fruit of their wombs. But blessed, too, are Mary and Elizabeth, faithful women who believed.