Womb Meets Womb

December 08, 2013

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

The biggest mistake I have made around here in a long time had to do with the way we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. If you weren’t here, we passed around a Kennedy coin and remembered where we were on that awful day. Later, many of you were kind enough to remind me that over half of you weren’t even born yet, so it was hard to remember where you were. My mistake was exclusion, in a so-called inclusive space. It was also bigger than that. It was thinking that my experience and what moves me would also be your experience. I am going to try to avoid that mistake today in approaching this text about Mary and Elizabeth and their great encounter in Zechariah’s house. I am going to try to be a woman who understands more than women’s experience.

Let’s see if it works and let’ start with the text. Upon careful reading, you realize that the text is already a mesclun salad, a mestizo message, a mixed up account. Pregnant Mary sets out on her own to a Judean town in the hill country. Hmmm. I doubt it. She goes to Zachariah’s house, note please it is not Elizabeth’s and Zachariah’s house because of course Elizabeth could not own property. Already we have a little gender confusion, a dollop of economic sexism stated innocently and a brave woman on her own journey. The story is about a profound encounter between two pregnant women who communicate by leaping wombs. Mary’s womb leapt. Elizabeth’s womb leapt. Elizabeth theologizes: who am I to live to see the Messiah born?
For those of you who don’t have wombs or have never been pregnant even if you do have one, please note. That leaping is a great experience. It is a joy. But in this encounter of leaping wombs encountering each other, there is another matter. Elizabeth thinks the baby in Mary’s womb is the Messiah. Most of us overdo the miracle of birth but you have to admit that this is genuine, first class hyperbole.

When women meet, we often catch courage from each other. Today I want us all to catch courage from Elizabeth, womb or no womb.

I’ll start by telling you that I am married to a man whom I often call an honorary woman. Why? Because I love the way he can talk to people and help people say what they are trying to say.

I’ll continue by telling you that I am mightily disturbed by a new phrase, one that I have just heard one too many times. It is this: Grow a Pair. Have you heard that? It refers to a part of the anatomy that women don’t really have, even though we do have many occasions on which to learn courage.

I’ll end this preface by adding more gender confusion to gender inclusion. I want to address this sermon to that part in each of us, male or female, queer or straight, transgendered or transgendering. I want to address what one wise man calls “That portion of herself that all women keep in reserve for a rainy day.” Men have such a portion too. I want to say something quiet to you about the Messiah and do so by introducing you to some people. And I want you to listen with your inner ear, something everybody I have ever met has. Listen for the Messiah is the message of Advent. Let’s try, using some real life people as windows to open in our Advent Calendar.

First let me tell you about Sybil Luddington. My cars are named for her. She was born in 1761 and died in 1839. At age 16, on April 26, 1777, she rode her horse, Star, to alert the local colonial forces in my upstate neighborhood that the British were coming. Stars on signs now remember her on the back roads all around Fishkill, New York. Her ride was similar to the one Paul Revere had done earlier, only she road twice the distance at night. Why tell you about ordinary heroism, in an ordinary girl? Because one of the meanings of the Messiah is that an ordinary man became an extraordinary one. Listen in for what her ride says to you.
Perhaps you also know the remarkable author and scholar, Carolyn Heilbrun, a professor at Columbia until she became fed up with the men running her department. Most days of her life she walked with a friend in Central Park, promptly at 11:30 a.m. A Virginia Wolfe scholar, mother, grandmother, and wife, Heilbrun had great access to ordinary life. At age 68, she brought a house all for herself. She wanted a house away from family togetherness. She also criticized many other feminists for having a masculinist kind of feminism. At age 77 she committed suicide by putting a plastic bag over her head. She was not sick, nor was she mentally ill. Her suicide was an act of will an idea brought to life. It was something she chose by herself, for herself. She had often told others that she was going to kill herself at age 70 because she didn’t want to live a “useless” life. And finally, when she was ready, she did. Personally, I believe she took human agency way too far. I don’t think I have a bone in my body that approves her final action. But consider the Messiah in an encounter with Carolyn Heilbrun. And do learn more about her and her ideas, more than I can state here. The Messiah, born a baby in the ordinary way, chose a kind of death. Perhaps he also overdid human agency? What might he have done if he had lived longer and more astutely? I always wonder about that about Jesus.

By the way, Heilbrun’s favorite movies were Cary Grant the Awful Truth and Judith Bliss in Hay Fever. Her favorite song was Danny Boy. She liked to say that she never denied her own pain or her own anger. What she knew is that caution breeds caution, and courage breeds courage. Mary and Elizabeth would understand too.

I wish I had time to tell you more about Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt’s correspondence and the way they connected womb to symbolic womb. I wish I truly understood Arendt’s greatest idea, that evil is banal. If I could, I believe my inner ear would understand the incarnation better. How God became ordinary, but not banal, in Jesus. I often find myself in tiresome or tired meetings, where people are discussing great things in a ridiculous way. I wonder if I am experiencing the banality of banality. Every now and then I remember that cold day in Chicago when I read Arendt’s book all the way through and shivered and shivered and shivered, and not just because of the cold. I often think of the Hallmarkization of Jesus this way. Mandela may be being hallmarked right now. Thank God his fist remains high as his eyes also twinkle. Indeed, he grew a pair but in the quietest, calmest, most tender ways. Yes, I am transgendering the scriptures and the heroes.

Arendt also said, “Best trick devil ever pulled was convincing people he didn’t exist.” It is important to know how to shiver and shivering, the full body shake of it, is something Mary and Elizabeth knew well. Perhaps shivering is the way a man or woman who has never been pregnant can understand what was happening between Mary and Elizabeth.

I should also speak of the Pope and his excellent use of the Italian word for “sourpuss” and his bold understanding of unfettered capitalism and how we need always to look at the poor first. Why the Pope? Because he is a kind of man who has that portion of self reserved that can help us get excited about the Messiah again. That’s why. Plus he often wears skirts.
Or should I tell you about Phyllis Tickle, former doorkeeper for religious books at Publisher’s weekly, now in her eighties, writing away about prayer and the Great emergence? She is like the Pope when she says that there is way too much religious authority in the cash register. Phyllis is the Mother superior of the emerging church movement. Like the Pope, she opens the door to understanding the Messiah and how he is not banal and intends to shake the big things up.

By the way, not all women are saints. Many have refused to grow a pair and not because they were anatomically offended. I think of Margaret Thatcher, who in her symbolic marriage to Ronald Reagan, actually said, “There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals and families.” From that nonsense, we are watching a health insurance program and a prison system and an immigration policy crash and burn, all while cuddled up to the idea that people should not be dependent and if they are, it is their own damn fault.

The Messiah was revealed in an encounter, between two individuals, who lived in a society. The Messiah grew up to turn that society around. This is important.

Or perhaps you already know Drew Faust, the first woman president of Harvard. As Bill McKibben puts it, she has written a “Weary soulless letter explaining that Harvard would not divest from fossil fuels despite the request of 80 % of the student body. “Drew Faust seeks a position of neutrality in a struggle where the powerful only ask that people like her remain neutral.” Clearly Drew Faust has altitude sickness. Let me open one more window in her Advent calendar here. Jesus did not have altitude sickness.

Or perhaps you know of Gayle McLaughlin, who is serving her second term as major of Richmond, California. She is the first Green party person elected to govern a city of over 100,000 people. Her work on climate change in the home of a big oil company has taught her that “One party is moving us into a brick wall at 100 mph. The other is moving us there at 50 mph. Right now she is working on a plan for eminent domain to acquire troubled loans so as to stop a new wave of foreclosures. There is already a lawsuit against her from Wells Fargo and Deutsche Bank. Note that have offered to buy the mortgages from the bond owners at market value. Half of what Jesus said in his short life was about the economy. When we listen with our inner ear, it may be important to do the same.

Let me include a final and more local example of womb meeting womb and the Messiah being revealed. Since our pop lab on women and sex last spring, dozens of you have worked hard to become tactical and strategic in what Judson can do to preserve abortion and choice. We are sure we want to address women under 40 who have never heard a strong sex positive moral argument for the right to choose. We have written a statement, soon to be revealed. It is the kind of statement that has to go through many editions to get its words right. We have drafted letters to be sent in swing states by swing state residents. We have identified college campuses where we want to engage. One of our members has launched a particularly brilliant idea, the “Scarlet Community,” also close to launch phase as a video, web site and more. Today the congregation will affirm the board’s decision to spend $50,000 of designated funds we have been holding to combat violence against women. We are putting our money and our time and our good thinking minds where our mouth is. I daresay the Messiah can be revealed in action for women, in the ongoing struggle against sexism, so well buoyed by the unchristian right.

So enough. And probably too long. But when it comes to encounters between women, I often find it hard to stop. When it comes to wombs speaking to womb and the great awakening of birth in all those of us who have a pair or should grow a pair, I also find it hard to stop. We rush now to Christmas but isn’t it nice to have so many stops along the way? Amen

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