Rev. Danielle K Bartz December 10, 2023
Luke 1:24-45 “Unexpected Joy”
Years ago, back when I was working for the national setting of the UCC, I had attended a multiday meeting in Cleveland about the UCC’s long-standing relationship with the protestant church in Germany. The trip had been enjoyable, I liked sitting on that committee, but it had also been exhausting and I was ready to go home. Now, I traveled frequently, several times a month, for that job – so there was nothing exciting about heading to an airport. In fact, I had become a bit of a grouch about it, and, quite frankly, a bit insistent on claiming the various perks of being a frequent traveler. One of these perks, which all of us on that team had, was membership in an airline club. I became intolerant of sitting at the gate waiting for my flight.
However, the Cleveland airport doesn’t have a Delta club, where I had my membership. So, after that long meeting, I was feeling resentful of having to sit at the gate in the main terminal, waiting for my flight. My sour mood deepened when the flight was delayed. And delayed again. There is no drearier place than an airport gate whose flight has been delayed, in my opinion. So, I sat there pouting – tired and wanting to go home. Next to me sat a UCC clergyperson named Fritz, a man who had been at the same meeting with me and who was also flying back to the Twin Cities, though I didn’t really know him. He was chatting away with me happily, clearly less perturbed by the flight delay than I was.
Now, I had a choice to make. I could have told him I needed to get some work done, put my earphones in and stare at my computer, sinking into isolation in order to nurture my bad mood. Or I could get over myself and pass the time in conversation with him. I am happy to report that I let my better angels prevail. I put away my computer and talked with him.
It was one of those, what I call, 2am conversations, even though it was actually early evening in the Cleveland airport – but it was one those unexpected connections when all pretenses get side aside and you just allow yourself to be yourself with someone else. We talked about everything: his ministry, my ministry, our mutual hopes for the UCC, our families, our regrets, how we imagined our futures unfolding. The delay, which was several hours, passed remarkably fast and joyously. I actually regretted getting on the plane as we were not sitting together. That connection of unexpected joy sparked a friendship, and while we don’t speak often, I continue to consider him a kindred spirit. It was a dreary evening of travel, but my memory of it is one of joy all because I allowed myself to connect with another person.
I wonder: can we experience joy in isolation? Or is joy, true joy, only possible when connecting with another? As an introvert I can assure you that I am happy to be left alone, and actually require it to recharge my spirit. But, am I experiencing joy then? Probably not. Joy is different than happiness. Joy has a healing effect beyond lightening our moods. Joy offers our spirits nourishment and builds our resilience as we face our weary world. I believe joy is an experience that exists when shared – shared with a friend, shared with God, shared during an unexpected encounter in an airport. Joy happens between people, in the space that is created when they come together.
It is joy that is described in the interaction between Mary and Elizabeth from today’s scripture reading. Much has been made about Elizabeth providing sanctuary to Mary – an unwed woman, girl really, whose pregnancy quite literally put her life in danger because it was considered a profound sin. And one of the reasons I love Elizabeth is because she was a safe person for Mary to go to – and I have sought to model that type of care in my own ministry.
But beyond that, there is also in this encounter a reminder of how joy can be created in unlikely and unexpected places and times when two people come together. The scripture reminds us that Elizabeth had chosen to isolate herself after she became pregnant, though full isolation was not a cultural requirement. We can only speculate why she did this. Perhaps she wasn’t ready to trust the miracle growing inside her. Perhaps she continued to feel shame at having been previously unable to get pregnant and was now in her old age. All we know is she hid herself away. At least until a distant cousin, and unwed woman who was also carrying an unexpected miracle, knocked on her door.
They of course shared something profound – the angel Gabriel had delivered the news of their imminent motherhoods. Society would look at them both with narrowed eyes and rumors would likely follow them all their lives. And they were both carrying prophets of God, and what that meant for them they could not possibly fully understand. I have no doubt that they were each weighed down by the weariness of what was happening. But, as we read, when they came together joy was created. Elizabeth, pulled out of her isolation shares her joy at seeing Mary, a joy shared by the child who leapt in her womb. Mary, likely feeling as if joy was out of reach, would have experienced it as well – sharing it with Elizabeth. It is a joyous connection.
Arab-American poet Naomi Shahib Nye tells this story of her own moment of unexpected joy, also, found in airport of all places:
“Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there. An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.” I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly [in Arabic]. The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.” We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours. She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie. And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend— by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere. And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.”
And that is how joy works. When one needs it, it can be borrowed from another. When we have it in abundance it is free and easy to share. As joy is passed between people, it grows. This season of Advent, as we wonder together how a weary world rejoices, it is good for us to remember that joy does not fade as it spreads out, instead it only grows stronger. If, in our weariness this Advent season, we are tempted to step away, perhaps we can allow our better angels to prevail to instead step towards one another. I know that we will all find joy, no matter how unexpectedly, when we do. Amen.
Great and loving God, you created this world and each of us with joy. And so we know then that your joy is a part of our very essence, filling the space between the atoms of our selves. For this joyous creation, we give you great thanks, and it is in that spirit of gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
God, we confess that there are times when we feel that joy is beyond us, and that when we do we can too often retreat into ourselves, trying to shut you and everyone one else out. When we are tempted to do this, we ask that you break into our lives in unexpected ways, showing us that we can never not be connected to you. Help us to take steps towards others and welcome people when they step toward us.
One of the ways God we seek out this connection with you is through time of intentional prayer. In these moments of silence, we open our hearts and spirits to you, listening for your words…
God of joy, you came into this world because you sought a true connection with each of us. So we pray in the name of the person who embodied you, Jesus Christ. And we pray in the way he taught…Our Father…