Saturday, January 9, 2021

"God speaks" Sermon for Sunday 10 January 2021


The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem


Tomb of Jesus, Thursday 7 January 2021

Sermon for Sunday 10 January 2021

Baptism of Jesus

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

Psalm 29

Psalm 29

1Ascribe to the | Lord, you gods,
  ascribe to the Lord glo- 
| ry and strength.
2Ascribe to the Lord the glory | due God’s name;
  worship the Lord in the beau- 
| ty of holiness.
3The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of | glory thunders;
  the Lord is upon the 
| mighty waters.
4The voice of the Lord is a pow- | erful voice;
  the voice of the Lord is a 
| voice of splendor. R
5The voice of the Lord breaks the | cedar trees;
  the Lord breaks the ce- 
| dars of Lebanon;
6the Lord makes Lebanon skip | like a calf,
  and Mount Hermon like a 
| young wild ox.
7The voice | of the Lord
  bursts forth in 
| lightning flashes.
8The voice of the Lord| shakes the wilderness;
  the Lord shakes the wilder- 
| ness of Kadesh. R
9The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the | forests bare.
  And in the temple of the Lord all are 
| crying, “Glory!”
10The Lord sits enthroned a- | bove the flood;
  the Lord sits enthroned as king for- 
| evermore.
11Lord, give strength | to your people;
  give them, O Lord, the bless- 
| ings of peace. R


Mark 1:4-11

Mark 1:4-11

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”



Prayer of the Day

Holy God, creator of light and giver of goodness, your voice moves over the waters. Immerse us in your grace, and transform us by your Spirit, that we may follow after your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.


Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable unto you O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.



For the last few days, I’ve been awake far too early in the morning, and the first thing I want to do is check news from my home country. What’s happening now? Who is the president today? Who is in charge? Is anyone in charge??

Then I check Israeli news. Are we still in lockdown? Can I go to the store, to work, to school? Are the trains running? How many COVID-19 cases did we have yesterday? Where can I get a vaccine as a foreigner?

Sadly, I could watch or read the news all day and still feel I don’t have any better grasp on the situation in the world. This is a very confusing time. Although I knew better, somewhere deep inside I thought 2021 would magically be better, easier, cleaner, clearer. Maybe you did, too. If last year didn’t provide us with 20/20 vision, maybe this 2021 would be the proper prescription, I thought! But here we are, one week into the New Year—or December 41st, 2020, it seems—and as a friend recently wrote: Thanks for the free 7-day trial of 2021, but I’ll cancel my subscription.

One of the things that makes these times so confusing is that there are so many voices claiming authority over our lives and futures. There are so many opinions to consider, and sadly, so many lies and so much false information being spouted by people in power. It’s hard to know who to listen to, who to trust—and we’ve seen in the last year (and especially in the last few days) how dangerous lies and misinformation can be.

But still, in the midst of all this confusion, we are gathered today from across the city, from across walls and checkpoints, and even across oceans and time zones, to hear, to contemplate, and to celebrate, the voice of truth and love. Thanks be to God!

Sometimes it may seem God is silent—when our prayers for peace or healing or clarity are not answered, for example. Sometimes it seems the voices of kings and tyrants overpower God’s messages of truth and love, peace and justice!

But today the psalmist reminds us:

The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the Lord is upon the mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice; the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor.

On Christmas Eve just a few weeks ago, we heard how God spoke to the world through the Incarnation, speaking not through words but in flesh and blood and bone.

On the Day of Epiphany just a few days ago, we remembered how God spoke through a star, and through the courage of the Wise Ones who followed it, and especially through the angel who spoke to the Wise Ones in a dream, encouraging them to defy the plans of a lying and scheming political leader.

And on this day, the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, the Apostle Mark tells of the day when the heavens over the river Jordan parted, the Spirit rained down in the form of a dove, and God’s voice came from heaven saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Amen.

Dear friends in Christ, hear this Good News for our troubled times: God speaks.

God is still speaking! God speaks to us today, through creation. Through the life of Jesus. Through water and the Word. Through the Spirit of God, on the loose in the world!

God speaks through people: Priests. Prophets. Family. Friends.

And sometimes, God even speaks through strangers.

On Thursday morning, just before Israel imposed another, stricter Coronavirus lockdown, I went to the Old City to wrap things up at church. At Redeemer I chatted with colleagues, checked the mail, locked my office, and then decided to visit the Holy Sepulcher for a few moments of prayer and contemplation.

When I walked around the corner to the courtyard of the Church of the Resurrection I noticed it was, as usual for the last 8 months, nearly empty. Even Mr. Nusseibeh, keeper of the church keys, was missing that day.

Inside the church, the ornate aedicule situated above the tomb of Jesus was blocked by a metal gate. There was just one black-clad sister standing to pray there. No lines of tourists, no priests guarding the door, no photographers or journalists, no candles being lit. Just the sister, and me.

In the Chapel of the Flagellation, one of my favorite spots in the church, I sat to pray. This is an elegant chapel, with a stunning, blue-tiled wall behind the altar and strikingly simple figures of Jesus journey to the cross dancing across a high shelf to the left of the pews.

I love this serene and sacred place. But on this day, I noticed someone had arranged a Christmas nativity scene at the front of the church that could best be described (in my opinion, at least) as….tacky. Here we are in Palestine, but Jesus, Joseph and Mary were white as snow. It’s a tiny chapel, but there was more fluffy white tulle, artificial greenery, and fake snow than would be necessary in a massive cathedral. And to top it off, situated above Jesus, Mary, and Joseph was a bright, blinking, neon star, complete with a neon blazing trail behind it.

It was truly…something to behold.

Still, I sat there for a while, thinking about the voice of God. What is God saying today, for these times? What is God saying in this chapel? To my left was the Way of the Cross and the neon star of Bethlehem. To my right was a stone pillar, thought to be the remnants of the place where Jesus was flogged before his crucifixion. And of course it, too, was decked out for Christmas – with fake greenery, real poinsettias, and lights.

Speak Lord, your servant is listening, I prayed. (1 Samuel 3)

The Lord didn’t say much.

I thought maybe the problem was not that the Lord was not speaking, but was saying far too much in that space, so I decided to leave and head towards home. I was only a few steps away from the church when I heard “Hello Sister!”

I recognized the woman calling to me as the only other person who had been praying with me in the Chapel of the Unfortunate Nativity. “Marhaba” I said. “Merry Christmas!”

My companion, who seemed at least 30 years older than me, walked a bit slower, so I slowed my pace too. She wasted no time on pleasantries. She bemoaned how empty the churches and the streets of Jerusalem are. She talked about Coronavirus, and how alone she feels these days—no kids, no family anymore. She’s lived in Jerusalem for more than 60 years, and before that in a tiny Christian village nearby. She’s never seen the city so empty, she said. “This is a very hard time” she sighed, patting my arm.

Just as we parted—her to her home in the Christian Quarter, me on to Damascus Gate and the train—she grabbed my arm, looked me in the eyes, and said “God bless you, Sister. Merry Christmas! And remember: God is with you.”

And then she turned and walked away.

Did I mention that this woman, this companion on my walk, told me her name was Noel? No, really, I can’t make this stuff up! This stranger, who came alongside me in a moment when I felt quite alone, when I was struggling to hear the voice of God—her name is Noel, which means “Born of God.”

As I walked away, I thought of the words of our Lutheran Morning Prayer service, in which are reminded each week on Tuesdays when we gather: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days God has spoken to us by the Son.” (ELW Morning Prayer)

I thought of Matthew 28, verse 20: “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

And I thought of the psalm for today, Psalm 29, which I had been so diligently praying there in the chapel. And I smiled.

Dear friends, the voice of God is mighty.

The voice of God is powerful.

The voice of God drowns out lies!

The voice of God is also a still, small voice.

The voice of God is Scripture and song.

The voice of God is bread and wine.

The voice of God is Jesus, crucified and risen.

And the voice of God is the stranger who walks alongside us when we need it the most, speaking words of comfort, truth, and hope.

Hear again this Good News: God speaks: in this Holy City and in every city. God speaks in times of isolation, infection, insurrection and resurrection.

God is still speaking! Amen.

On this day of Jesus baptism, we remember how God opened the heavens and spoke words of love and truth: “You are my Son, the beloved. With you I am well-pleased.” In the days to come—in this year to come—let us be opened to follow more closely in the footsteps of God’s Beloved Son, Jesus of Nazareth. Let our minds be opened to pursue a revolution: a revolution of love and justice. Let our ears be opened to the call to be extremists: extremists for love and mercy.

But above all, let our hearts be opened to receive the message of comfort and healing, light and life, which God is always speaking, in ways we sometimes least expect.

O Lord, give strength to your people. Give them, O Lord, the blessings of peace. (Psalm 29:11)



God the creator strengthen you;

Jesus the beloved fill you;

and the Holy Spirit the comforter  keep you in peace.



Go in peace. Be the light of Christ.

Thanks be to God.










Saturday, January 2, 2021

"In the beginning..." Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Christmas 2021


Sermon for Sunday 3 January 2021

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

2nd Sunday of Christmas

John 1:1-18


May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable unto you O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

Hello, 2021. I’m so very glad to meet you!

It’s been a little while since I was so eager to shut the door on one year and welcome a new one.

Maybe the last time was New Year’s Day 2004. 2003 had been a year that started with the sudden death of my father-in-law in January, and things only went downhill from there. Those 12 months included two miscarriages, a risky move across the country from Minnesota to Texas in a moving truck paid for (literally) with pocket change, the end of my sibling’s marriage, a health crisis and cancer scare for our not-yet-3 year-old, and then my beloved grandmother fell terribly ill while visiting us at Thanksgiving.

Oh, I was so very glad to say goodbye to that awful year.

And yet…just like this year, I also remember feeling a strange mix of emotions when the new year 2004 rolled around. Although the move to a new state many miles away had been difficult, my family had been welcomed warmly by neighbors and colleagues and new friends. Although losing pregnancies was terrible, I received wonderful loving care from midwives and friends.

In the midst of our 3 year old’s health crisis, our new church community in Texas stepped up and was right there with us during the scariest parts—praying with us, sitting with us in the hospital, and rejoicing when the results were better than expected. And while my grandmother recovered somewhat, and was able to return home, 2003 was the last year when I knew her as fully herself—warm, faithful, funny, and a wonderful cook.

I heard someone recently say they were so very happy to see the ass end of 2020. I heartily agree. As my uncle said the other day: Don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you, 2020.

And still…as much as has been lost this past year, I am mindful of how much good there was. Memories were made. Babies were born. Love blossomed and grew. Friendships have been strengthened and renewed, even online. New talents have been discovered. Above all, vaccines have been developed and are being distributed! Thanks be to God.

Every year holds exactly 525,600 minutes. Some good, some bad. Some we wish would last forever! And some we can’t wait to forget. As we say in Arabic: Heik ildanya. This is life.

As we welcome the year 2021, I think of the many books I read this year. Some I would recommend, and some I wish I hadn’t spent money or time on. I would say 2020 is in the “zero stars, would not recommend” category. I mean, the plot was terrible! I’m very happy to close the covers on it and put it back on the shelf.

But you know what? I’m not giving up on reading. In fact, I’m eager to dive into the story of 2021. We don’t know the plot yet. We don’t know how the characters will develop. But we do know one thing: We know how it begins.

For as we heard in today’s Gospel reading from John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Dear friends, in the beginning is the Word.

In the beginning is light, and love.

In the beginning is God.

In the beginning is always God.

Each year begins in love—the love of God for this whole messed up world.

Each year begins in creativity—God’s creative power which is the foundation of our very being.

Each year begins with light—the light of Christ, the Prince of Peace, our friend and our brother, who has come to establish justice and set the captives free.

The truth is, we never know what tomorrow will bring. Last year at this time, could any of us have predicted the extraordinary events of 2020? But as the old Gospel song says: We know who holds tomorrow. We know who holds us! That someone is the God of love, of light, of mercy, and of grace.

On Christmas Day, the 9 year old twins of a friend came by for a visit. They are not very familiar with the Christmas story, so they were fascinated by the many nativities I have displayed around the house. One of them, Sarai, said “Carrie—why do you have so many babies? Here’s a baby and here’s a baby and here’s another baby…” I told her that although they all look different, all of them are actually the same baby, and on Christmas, we celebrate the birthday of this baby, whose name is Jesus! I was about to continue the story, but Sarai just looked at me strangely and then went to admire the Christmas tree. For her, the beginning was enough.

But this little interaction got me thinking: of course Christmas is about the baby Jesus. But it’s about much more than that. The story doesn’t end there. Christmas is just the beginning.

When we look at our nativity scenes, with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, the camels and wise men and angels, we don’t only see the beginning of the story. As followers of Jesus, when we see the baby in the manger, we see the whole story. We know that this baby will become a teacher and a healer. We know that this baby will be persecuted, arrested, and beaten for his radical message of love and mercy. And we know that this baby will one day be crucified, buried and on the third day raised from the dead.

When we sing “Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright” we’re also  singing in our hearts “Were you there when they crucified my Lord” and at the same time, “Jesus Christ is risen today”. We know that through this baby, born in Bethlehem, crucified and risen in Jerusalem, the world has received grace upon grace upon grace upon grace. The beginning is beautiful…but so is the end, and so are all the days in between.

On January 2, 1942, the American folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote down a list of 33 things he called “New Year Rulins”—what we might call resolutions. He resolves to eat good, to write a song a day, to read lots of good books, to love mama, papa, and Pete, among other things. But my favorite is number 19, which says “Keep hoping machine running.” As we open the pages of 2021, not knowing what comes next, I pray we can all keep our hoping machines running—for the sake of our children, for the sake of our neighbors, for the sake of the world.

Thanks be to God, we don’t need to do it all on our own. It’s not all up to us to keep our hoping machines in good order! As we are reminded today, the love of God in Christ Jesus is the beginning and the end of every year, it is the beginning and the end of every story, and it is the fuel that will keep our hoping machines running in 2021, no matter what tomorrow holds.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.


Almighty God,

who sent the Holy Spirit to Mary,

proclaimed joy through the angels,

sent the shepherds with good news,

and led the magi by a star,

bless you this day through the Word made flesh.


Sunday, December 20, 2020

"In the middle of the night..then you chose to come" Sermon for 4th Sunday of Advent 2020

Sermon for Sunday 20 December 2020

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

Luke 1:26-38

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen. 



On this 4th Sunday of Advent, we hear the story of the Annunciation, the moment when God’s angel Gabriel came to Mary to say “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.”

Reading this passage from the Gospel according to Luke again this week, I looked around my home to see what the angels in my collection of nativity scenes look like. One is made from an old quilt, a gift from a church member many years ago. One is delicate, made in Sweden. A favorite is from Bethlehem, made from broken glass collected from the streets after the 2nd Intifada. There’s a sweet little angel giving a blessing, from the Sisters at the convent in Beit Gimal. And then there’s my favorite, a very tall serious-looking angel from the Masai tribe. For sure, he’s come to give an important announcement.

I’m sure you have various angels depicted in your home at this time of year as well.

But I have noticed that in the Bible, angels are always showing up and saying “Don’t be afraid!” which makes me wonder: What did they really look like?

Recently a friend suggested that we should start a campaign to have angels depicted as they really are in the Bible, which is generally not as babies with wings and chubby cheeks. Often, biblical angels are appearing as humans, and are not even recognized as humans until after the encounter. In Luke chapter 2, when the shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks by night, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. (Or, as I remember from the story I heard as a child: They were “sore afraid” which somehow sounds even worse!)

Then, in the book of Ezekiel, angels are described in this way:

“Their entire bodies, including their backs, hands, and wings, were full of eyes all around, as were their four wheels” (Ezekiel 10:12).

Can you imagine us decorating our Christmas trees with angels full of eyes all over their bodies? All of our visitors would be “sore afraid” to come to our homes for the holidays!

I don’t think a loving God intends to scare us with these messengers. Still, “Do not be afraid” said Gabriel to Mary. Whatever Gabriel looked like, we know that he came to give her some really big news, unexpected news, news that would change the world. And I think that in this year 2020 we have learned all over again that big, unexpected news isn’t always so welcome. No matter what the messenger looks or sounds like, news that will change the world is scary to receive, scary to watch on the news, scary to experience. Even if it’s good news, it can make us “sore afraid.”

When Gabriel appeared to Mary, the news was not only huge for her. It was huge news for the world. From that day forward, things would be different. Nothing would ever be the same, because God was coming near to humankind. As Anglican priest and theologian Sir Edwyn Hoskyns put it, the Incarnation is “a dagger thrust into the weft of human history.” In other words, the birth of Jesus forever changed the fabric of our world. In fact, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem made us fully aware of how God the Creator is woven into our lives and relationships, into our joys and our sorrows, into our pasts and our futures.

This is Good News, of course, but it could also make us “sore afraid”. Anything this big is bound to give us pause, to make us take a step back and say “Wait—am I ready for this?”

Along with contemplating the size and shape and nature of angels this week, I also thought about how, in my mind’s eye, the Annunciation always happens at night. And yet, in the Scriptures, there’s nothing to indicate the angel Gabriel came to Mary at night. I suppose my own assumption about this comes from a picture I must have seen in my children’s story Bible, or in Sunday School class. I don’t know exactly where this image came from, but I can see it now: It was the deep of night, and stars were shining outside the window. Mary was sitting up in bed (in a room that looked a lot like my own) when an angel with huge wings stepped into her bedroom through a window. (Not an excellent image to show to earnest church kids before they go to bed, by the way!)

Honestly, we don’t know when Gabriel appeared to Mary. It could have been while she was doing laundry. Maybe she was taking a walk, and he stopped to ask her for directions, and then the conversation suddenly took a turn. Maybe Gabriel was a family friend, and she invited him to lunch, and then he shared this big news with her when she least expected it.

The point us: Angels are messengers of the Lord, and in my experience messages from God don’t come in perfectly wrapped packages. They don’t look like we expect. They don’t come on our time schedules. They certainly don’t always appear during the proper season of the church year, when we’ve decorated with the proper liturgical colors, have lit the candles in the right order, and have sung the appointed hymns.

Messages, and messengers, of God come when they will. In God’s time. In God’s way. Through the people (or, I suppose through the creatures with many wings and eyes) that God sends.

But I do think there’s a reason that we might imagine the Annunciation happened at nighttime. The night is magical, and full of promise. When the stars are in the sky and the hours before dawn loom before us, it makes perfect sense to hear the message the angel gave to Mary: “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

I remember as a child I would lie in bed and sometimes, suddenly, I would be completely overwhelmed thinking of the vastness of the universe and my own smallness within it. I would almost become dizzy lying there, wondering if just the contemplation of this vastness would swallow me up and I would become nothing in an instant.

But I had also heard the Good News. I knew that I was not alone in the world. And for many Christmases in a row, I had heard the words of the angel: Do not be afraid.

And so at night time, even if I was a little afraid, because the hours before dawn stretched out before me, I also dreamed the most amazing things: Things I wanted to do and see. The cities and countries I would visit. The family I might have some day. The love I might experience. And I was not afraid.

Some of us are afraid of the dark, and some of us embrace the dark. I think all of us probably do both, at different times. I’m reminded of an amazing Good Friday sermon in which the preacher invited the congregation to imagine the hours of that day, after the cross but before the resurrection, not as the darkness of the tomb, but as the darkness of the womb. As the moment when something new was about to be born.

In this hemisphere, tomorrow is the longest night of the year, and it comes at the end of what feels like the longest year ever. For many of us, this is a difficult time. We can’t celebrate the way we would like. We can’t be with all the people we love.

And yet, although tomorrow is the longest night, the day after tomorrow, there will be more daylight. The day after tomorrow, more vaccines will have reached more people. The day after tomorrow, we will be one day closer to Christmas. The day after tomorrow, we will be one day closer to the day when Our Lord Jesus will come again, bringing the fullness of the kingdom of justice, peace, and reconciliation for all the world.

We don’t know what this next year will bring, just as at last Christmas, we could never have imagined what 2020 would bring! So much has happened. So much has been lost. It feels like everything has changed.

And yet, so much remains. And there’s so much to look forward to! Above all, the love of God is with us still. God is still sending messengers to bring us good news—through unexpected people, at unexpected times, and just when we need it most. Through friends, through family, through strangers, through Scripture, through bread and wine: God breaks into our regular days, as well as our terrible ones, with love, companionship, and hope.

Thanks be to God!

And therefore, even in the longest night, at the end of the longest year, we heed the words of the angel Gabriel, and we are not afraid. We are not afraid!

Each year at this time, I am drawn back to this poem from Archbishop Dom Helder Camara (1909-1999), and this year it feels even more appropriate:


In the middle of the night,

when stark night was darkest,

then you chose to come. 

God’s resplendent first-born

sent to make us one.


The voices of doom protest:

“All these words about justice, love and peace—

all these naïve words will buckle

beneath the weight of a reality which is brutal and bitter,

ever more bitter.”


It is true, Lord,

it is midnight upon the earth,

moonless night and starved of stars. 

But can we forget that You, the son of God,

chose to be born precisely at midnight?

Sunday, December 13, 2020

"Quarantine Songs" A sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent: Sunday 13 December 2020


13 December 2020

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

Luke 1:46b-55

"Quarantine Songs"


“Let’s pray together” I said to Marge, who lay in her hospital bed propped up by many pillows. “How about the Lord’s Prayer? Do you remember how it goes?”

“Yes of course” said Marge. She sat up a bit in her bed, clasping her frail 90-year-old hands together in prayer, and began:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.”

I could hardly control my face, so I just bowed my head to look at my own folded hands as Marge continued:

“And to the republic, for which she stands, one nation, under God. And give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins.”

I nodded heartily in approval, thinking we were going the right direction. But then:

“What a friend we have in Jesus!”

There was a long pause. Was she done? I wondered.

Then, suddenly: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King! For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.”

I looked up, and Marge had rested her head back on her pillow. I sat on the bed next to her and offered her communion wine and a wafer. Soon after, she fell asleep, and I slipped out of her room and onto the rest of my day.

I remember that as I got into my car, headed to my next pastoral visit, I thought to myself: “Wow. Just wow.” I mean, that prayer was a hot mess!

But most of all I was moved that Marge, at the end of her life, alone in a nursing home, away from her family and friends, and struggling to remember even my name, was SINGING. Marge was praising God. She was lifting her voice to the Lord. As a much younger person than Marge, I wondered: How could that be? How is it that she was still singing praises to God when she was so lonely, so old, and so sick? My thoughts turned to Psalm 137, in which the psalmist says: How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land?

As I read Mary’s song this week—the song we call the Magnificat—I had a similar thought. It occurred to me that Mary…had tested positive. She was positively going to be the mother of the Savior of the world! Her life had changed dramatically because of a momentary interaction. Nothing would ever be the same, and she didn’t know how it would end. How familiar that story feels today!

How do we, in 2020, sing the songs of the Lord in this foreign land of COVID and quarantine, in this new world of Christmas without family and without parties, of remote school and remote church and remote work? How do we sing songs of praise as we await vaccines and governmental change and a return to something resembling normal? How do we praise God when we’ve lost so many people we love, and so much of the life we love?

In the early days of the pandemic, I remember seeing a video posted by a music teacher in the US. In this video, she announced she had written a song expressing her joy and love of teaching remotely. She picked up a ukulele, played a few gentle chords, and then looked directly at the camera and just screamed at the top of her lungs! I laughed out loud, as did many others. This teacher’s silly video went viral because it so perfectly echoed the “song” many of us have had in our hearts the last 10 months, the lyrics of which are mostly:  “Why? What next?” And “When will it be over?”

Holy Scripture tells us that after the angel Gabriel visited Mary and told her she was positive, Mary went to visit Elizabeth. And there, in the home of her cousin and friend, Mary sang a song.

“Magnificat anima mea Dominum—my soul magnifies the Lord” she sang.

Her song echoes the song of Hannah from 1 Samuel: “My heart exults in the Lord, my strength is exalted in my God.”

Her song echoes the psalmists and the and the prophets of old.

Her song proclaims, in a powerful way, the goodness, strength, and mercy of a loving God: in the past, in the own present, and in the future. In spite of her challenging and unexpected circumstances, Mary sings praises to the one who was, who is, and who is to come. Like my church member Marge, Mary found her voice and used it to praise God. Today, 2,000 years later, in the midst of our own challenging and unexpected season, we can find great strength and courage in Mary’s song of praise and promise. Amen!

But even so, I notice that when Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s home, it was Elizabeth who sang first. The Scriptures say Elizabeth gave a “loud cry” and the baby in her womb danced when she saw Mary. I imagine Elizabeth jumping up from her chair on the porch of her home, dancing and singing with joy. Blessed are you! She sang. God is so good! She sang. I can see the two of them, these two women literally embodying miracles that probably didn’t feel like miracles at the time, embracing one another, giving each other strength.

In that moment, Elizabeth’s song gave birth to Mary’s song.

Which makes me think:

Often, we need others to sing with us, and sometimes even for us. We need others to sing praises to God when we can’t quite do it on our own.

In my experience, funerals are an excellent example of this. Families choose hymns very carefully for these events, and then most of the time they themselves cannot sing them. But when we cannot, the community sings. When we gather to lay loved ones to rest, our people raise their voices, singing hymns of praise and comfort and promise, reminding us of God’s goodness and mercy.

And this is the beauty of a faith community. Community gives us a foundation to stand on—and often something to push against—but it is always a place to come home to.

Sometimes that community is a church. Sometimes it is a group of friends.

Sometimes it is one friend.

And sometimes, it is Mary and Elizabeth, embracing each other on the front porch, dancing for joy.

As Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20)

Our ancestors in the faith have often spoken of the blessing of community.

Our brother Henri Nouwen writes that the story of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth teaches him the meaning of friendship and community. “How can I ever let God’s grace fully work in my life unless I live in a community of people who can affirm it, deepen it, and strengthen it?”

Our sister Dorothy Day wrote: “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”

And our sister Audre Lorde said: “Without community, there is no liberation.” Amen!

In other words: we need each other.

We need each other, because there are many days when songs of praise don’t just leap from our lips. There are days, especially these days, when we may not feel like praising God or thanking God or singing “Joy to the World” at the top of our lungs, not matter what time of year it is.

But as several sisters in the faith have taught me over the years, there are two times when we are to praise God: When we feel like it, and when we don’t.

Or, as the Apostle Paul said it: “Rejoice always: Again I say: rejoice!”

Even when you’re waiting. Even when you’re doubtful. Even when you’re afraid. Even when it seems things will never be the same again. Even then: Rejoice. Give thanks to God! O come, let us adore him! Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her king!

And on those days when the songs aren’t on your lips: dear friends, call on your people. Call them up. Tell them you need a holy Visitation—by Zoom. By text. By phone. Maybe write a letter with good old pen and paper! We need each other!

And, above all: Call on the Lord.

Call on God, who knows we cannot do it alone.

Who knows we need each other.

Who sent us Jesus, our brother, to walk with us. To live like us. To love like us.

To suffer with us and for us.

This God does not watch us, detached, from on high,

But has come close.

This God sits on the edge of our bed,

Offers us bread and wine,

Embraces us on the porch,

Sings with us…and sometimes for us.

For this reason, we sing together this Advent:

Our souls magnify the Lord!

God has done great things for us!

And through Christ, born in Bethlehem, crucified and risen in Jerusalem, God will be with us tomorrow, and the next day, and to the end of the age. 

Thanks be to God…Amen.