A Belly-full

Sermon: A Belly-full

Texts: Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55

Date: December 23, 2018

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church

The trivia quiz in the Seattle Times the other day was about “A Visit from St. Nicholas”—the classic poem by Clement Clark Moore. You might not know the whole thing from memory, but you, like me, probably know bits of it. You know what comes after the word “Twas…” Maybe you know the answer to one of the questions in the quiz, “What were St. Nicholas’s cheeks and nose compared to?” Roses and a cherry. How about his belly? A bowl full of jelly. Here it is in context:

His eyes — how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself…[1]

I learned while reading a new Christmas book this year that British people think of gelatin or Jell-O when they call for “jelly” in a recipe. That makes the picture of Santa’s belly shaking all the more colorful to me, when I think of a belly that shakes when he laughs like a bowl full of cherry Jell-O. That’s some momentous belly-wobble.

Let’s compare and contrast Santa’s belly with the two bellies to which our attention is drawn in the gospel of Luke. There is the six-months-pregnant rounded belly of Elizabeth, jam-packed with the youngster who will become John the Baptist, according to Luke’s nativity story. And there is the as-yet-flat teenage belly of Mary, a bellyful of new life that is not yet apparent to outside observers.

If St. Nicholas has a belly full of jelly (metaphorically speaking), what do Elizabeth and Mary have a belly full of, metaphorically speaking? Besides babies, I mean.

Elizabeth has a belly full of joy, apparently. Little as-yet-unnamed-John leaps for joy at the sound of Mary’s greeting to her kinswoman. We all know that (to paraphrase Freud) sometimes a baby kicking is just a baby kicking. But this somersault of itty-bitty John is interpreted as a ripple of joy. One of my commentaries points out that prenatal gymnastics frequently carry deep meaning in the Bible. When attention is called to pregnant bellies in the Bible and there is something go on in there, we are to understand something is going on in there. In this case, we can see the baby leaping for joy as a sign of what the entire world should be doing, if they were as attuned to the good news as Elizabeth is. W.H. Auden’s epic Christmas poem “For the Time Being” has the angels saying to the shepherds “Now all things living, / Domestic or wild, / With whom you must share / Light, water, and air, / And suffer and shake / In physical need, / The sullen limpet, / The exuberant weed, / the mischievous cat, / And the timid bird, / Are glad for your sake…”[2] It’s a delight to think of the whole earth being glad, with tiny John tagged to do the joy-leap on behalf of earth’s inhabitants.

How did they know, Elizabeth and, by extension, mini-John? How did they know that Mary was carrying a miracle in the making? Elizabeth has a bellyful of the Holy Spirit, that’s how. The gospel is clear: “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit gives her powerful insight into both Mary and her child. She bursts into (not song but) Beatitudes. We most often identify that word “beatitude” with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But the first beatitudes—blessings—in the gospel of Luke are these pronounced by Elizabeth. We followed some leads provided by our Bible study curriculum on Tuesday and found out that Mary is blessed in the same way as are a couple of other women in the Hebrew Scriptures: “Blessed are you among women!” The other women who were similarly blessed, Jael and Judith, were powerful, courageous women. Each of them slayed an enemy of their people who intended to attack and destroy the Israelites. I am not enthusiastic about the graphically violent stories (Tent peg to the temple! Head chopped off!); nevertheless this linkage to other blessed women gives a depth to the image of Mary we often miss in our saccharine portraiture of a mild blue-clad youth famous for submission. Where we might be conditioned to think of Mary more like the Bachelorette receiving a rose from God’s Almighty hand, this tie to fierce women of the past should inspire us to imagine Mary more along the lines of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Elizabeth’s first Spirit-inspired blessing is for Mary, courageous mother. The second is a blessing for the unseen child—“Blessed is the fruit of your womb!” This is a Spirit-inspired blessing that foresees greatness in the bean-sized person growing within Mary. Elizabeth has a bellyful of confidence in the next generation, confidence that overrides any judgment about Mary’s unmarried state. She will not let society’s conventions compel her to look down on the out-of-wedlock baby coming, or judge that child a loser before he gets to the starting gate because of his unconventional beginnings. What a gift she is giving to Mary in this moment! She confirms the remarkable potential of the child. It happens that the unborn Jesus would prove to be truly extraordinary, but really any new human being has the potential to lead a wonderful life that could change the course of history.

Our worship design subscription led us to an inspiring short video of Maya Angelou telling us about a strong woman, her grandmother, who saw potential in her that others overlooked. Let’s watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7dxnQQEpXs&feature=youtu.be

Maya Angelou’s grandmother must have had a bellyful of the Holy Spirit like Elizabeth did to see in this speechless girl a teacher who would later inspire millions. Even without a bellyful of the Holy Spirit any of us can confirm the marvelous potential in every new life.

Elizabeth’s third beatitude blesses and confirms Mary’s faith: “Blessed is she who believed there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her!” Luke’s gospel sees Mary as the first believer of the Good News. Elizabeth’s encouraging confirmation of Mary’s faith brings forth a song—the Magnificat—that reveals something of what Mary had a bellyful of.

Mary had a bellyful of consent, a bellyful of YES! The gospel is clear that Mary’s consent was needed for this story to proceed. Her most remembered line in Luke is uttered just prior to our reading today: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” It was a gutsy move on her part, to offer herself as the servant of the Lord in these unusual circumstances. She was risking death by stoning, or at the least disgrace, because of her unmarried state. And any mother risks dying in childbirth, as many women did in Mary’s day. Consent at this crossroads in salvation history was essential.

I find it fascinating that W.H. Auden’s poetry mentions consent, a word that is put on the lips of the angels. The stanza I read you earlier continues; I’ll circle back to the beginning of the stanza and read you the rest of the speech: “Now all things living, / Domestic or wild, / With whom you must share / Light, water, and air, / And suffer and shake / In physical need, / The sullen limpet, / The exuberant weed, / the mischievous cat, / And the timid bird, / Are glad for your sake / As the new-born Word / Declares that the old / Authoritarian / Constraint is replaced / By His Covenant, / And a city based / On love and consent / Suggested to men, / All, all, all of them. / Run to Bethlehem.”[3] The poet wisely perceives that God’s covenant revealed in the baby Jesus is all about love and consent. The poem written in 1945 addresses humanity as men—the city based on love and consent is suggested to men, all, all, all of them. We can read the women into that line as well; though the “Me Too” movement reminds us that a prompt about love and consent may be particularly appropriate for men used to having the upper hand in a continuing patriarchy. Any covenantal relationship needs those elements, love and consent, in order to be holy. Auden’s insight about God’s covenant is nothing new. I think we have seen that all along in the Bible; God’s covenant in its many manifestations in Scripture is based on love and consent.

When Mary starts to sing her song, a new riff on an old song her ancestor Hannah sang, we see something else the God-bearer has a belly full of: Revolution. She sings of the God who reaches down to the lowly and raises them up. Professor James F. Kay points out that she is singing not just a solo aria about her own destiny, but “a freedom song on behalf of all the faithful poor in the land. She sings a song of freedom for all who, in their poverty and wretchedness, still believe that God will make a way where there is no way. Like John the Baptist, Mary prophesies deliverance; she prophesies about a way that is coming in the wilderness of injustice.”[4] She sings of a God who has “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts”; who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly”; who “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” She’s rejoicing in the God who turns the world upside down. A bellyful of revolution.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus will be born with a fire in their bellies, a strong will to live as if this God who turns the world upside down reigns. John warns against exploitation of those who are weak as well as calling for repentance from personal sin. Jesus enacts God’s Kin-dom around the tables of the poor and outcast, rages against corruption, challenges the violent values of the Empire. Yes, John and Jesus had fire in their bellies, sparks kindled by their prophetic mothers.

These timeless stories are still fertile if we let them into the imaginations of our hearts, that place where the proud are scattered in Mary’s song. We might ponder what’s in these bellies of ours? Let your hand rest on your belly. What’s in there? What do you have a bellyful of—metaphorically speaking?

The word “bellyful” generally refers to something of which one has an excessive amount. A parent might say to a youngster, for instance, “I’ve had a bellyful of your sass, young lady!” I’ve had a bellyful of TWEETS IN ALL CAPS and a bellyful of Christmas car commercials. But those are minor irritations compared to having a bellyful of jelly, like the fabled St. Nick. I’m not talking about my literal marshmallowish middle aged belly, but my metaphorical wishy-washy jelly belly—the selfish self that coasts on privilege and comfort. The anxious self that is too easily shaken–not by mirth like St. Nick, but by assorted fears that haunt present and future. The timid self that wobbles in and out of action that might re-construct society in a more just model.

Maybe you, too, get weary of having a bellyful of jelly. Let’s look to the rounded bellies of Elizabeth and Mary as alternatives that are offered to us, metaphorically speaking. Like Elizabeth, we too can have a bellyful of joy that transcends all the usual crud of human ugliness as we observe and put our faith in God who is still renewing the face of the earth. We can have a bellyful of the Holy Spirit, which has been poured out on all flesh since Pentecost. We can have a bellyful of blessing, commending the courage of God’s servants, and recognizing the immense potential in every human made in God’s image—everyone’s innate potential to sway the world toward love and justice. We can have a bellyful of affirmation as we perceive and bless the faith of our friends and neighbors, noticing what a difference it makes that folks still shape their lives around transcendent hopes and dreams. Like Mary, we too can have a bellyful of YES!, a bellyful of consent when God enlists us in the work of the Kin-dom. We can have a bellyful of revolution, seeking to restrain the powerful and raise up the lowly by every means possible.

In a moment we’ll sing a hymn commending Mary; too bad it doesn’t include Elizabeth as well! As we sing, imagine putting yourself into these verses. (This will be easier for all the women in the congregation named Mary, but do your best.) Imagine putting yourself into these verses, especially the first one—[Your Name] woman [person] of the promise; vessel of your people’s dreams: Through your open, willing spirit, waters of God’s goodness stream. May we all be vessels of God’s goodness, each in our own way.

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[1] https://www.teachervision.com/twas-night-christmas-full-text

[2] Auden, W.H. “For the Time Being” Religious Drama 1 Martin Halvorsen, ed. New York: World Publishing Company, 1957 p. 44

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kay, James F. “Mary’s Song—And Ours” Christian Century December 10, 1997, p. 1157

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