A sermon preached by. the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 19 December 2021 [Advent 4]:
Micah 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55
There is, I recently discovered, a Celtic proverb that goes like this:
“Anyone without a soul friend is a body without a head.”
When things are coming apart, when the moorings of life begin to drift with the tide, to whom can you go for ballast? When God seems far away and you don’t know why, to whom can you go for discernment about who lost whom? Who is there that can reliably help to determine if the ache in our chest is God emerging in our life or acid indigestion? Does the restlessness of your sleep have anything to do with God calling you? With whom can you rejoice when the barrenness of life suddenly delivers unexpected fruitfulness? Plainly put, do you have a soul friend? And what might a soul friend be like?
On this 4th Sunday of Advent, this Marian Sunday, the tender story of two women coming together for shared joy, mutual care, and confirming support emerges in what the liturgical tradition refers to as the story of “the Visitation”. St Luke tells us those early days of Mary’s mysterious pregnancy drove her to seek a soul friend’s comfort and counsel. On the heels of Mary’s assent to the angel Gabriel’s Annunciation, that astounding proclamation that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and overshadow her with God’s life, that she would give birth to God’s own Son – on the heels of all this upending news and Mary ‘s “let it be to me according to your word”, the young woman traveled with haste to seek out her cousin Elizabeth, a woman old enough to be her mother.
When I think about this scene and when I reflect on those times when the barrenness in my life overshadowed my balance, it makes perfect sense that Mary would run to the Judean hilltown, to the house of the priest, Zachariah, to seek out her cousin and soul friend, Elizabeth. Yes, it was wonderfully astounding to have an angel appear before her, announcing that God would make her pregnant and be the mothering source of the Incarnate life, God’s Son. Yes, it was also terribly hard for Mary to explain her condition to the few around her who were wise to the sudden changes in her emotions and her body. So it was that Mary understandably wasted no time in getting herself to the Judean hills and into the orbit of Elizabeth. Mary needed a soul friend to help sort all these things out. Therefore, as Luke conveys, Mary made “haste”. Indeed, she did!
Mary and Elizabeth were quite fortunate to have one another. Together, they shared a great and rare gift. As members of the same extended family, they evidently enjoyed a deep connection as first cousins; but there was something deeper that connected them, something that does not come automatically from sharing the same DNA. Yet, as I say, they were blessed twice over to have one another: first as vibrant cousins and also as faithful women who were linked by their souls.
I find the response of both women to one another tenderly compelling and most revealing. First, as I have mentioned, Mary had the understandable need to find someone – a real person – to talk with about her life and the life she carried: someone who had the capacity to plumb the meaning of events. and to note the presence of God. If she were like most of us, Mary would have run off and stayed hidden to mitigate the public scorn and to be alone to protect her troubled heart. But Mary did not curl up like a wounded animal. She acted and did something to help her discern and clarify her circumstance.
From Luke’s description, Mary didn’t even email Elizabeth in advance to let her know of her intention to visit. Mary just made a beeline for her cousin’s hilltown house, the surprise notwithstanding. Luke reports that when Mary entered the house (without knocking?!), she immediately greeted Elizabeth, which in turn caused Elizabeth to return the greeting as a cousin and also with all her heart as a soul friend – the baby leaping in her own womb for joy in recognition.
Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb…And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.
Notice what the two women reveal about what it means and what it takes to be soul friends.
First, both Mary and Elizabeth reveal a fierce honesty about their life and their connection to God. As the ancient canticle proclaims (the one we have sung today), Mary “magnifies” the Lord. She radiates what it means and what it takes to seek and receive the God-life. In this, I think of the prayer that was recently shared with me and specifically its first line: “Lord, let it be seen that I have been with you this day.” Or as pray it: “Oh God, let there be some evidence that I have been with you today! – because too much of me can so easily tend to magnify other things rather than You. Mary’s “Yes” to God magnifies the surprising power and presence of the God-life in our midst. And this magnification of the Holy One is not predicated upon understanding, not smarts – just trust and what Mary’s soul dared to dance to.
The same quality rests in Elizabeth. She was evidently in the painful lineage of biblical women (such as Sarah, Rebekha, Rachel, and Hannah) whose public barrenness was the unexpected place for God’s fidelity and fruitfulness to take root in. I think her experience of being unable to conceive and all that that brought to her life made Elizabeth not a sad victim but a discerning and compassionate figure. Discernment and compassion are two essential qualities to be a true soul friend. Elizabeth’s uninhibited greeting of her young cousin standing in her doorway reflects her awareness and discernment of God’s presence. Elizabeth’s song sings out a holy confirmation of the God-life and its evidence in each of them. A large part of Elizabeth’s ability to discern God’s working had to do with her own experience of God how God desires and promises to replace our barrenness with his life.
It stands, therefore, to reason that the God-life is not a “Do-it-yourself” project, although we are all tempted to control it as such. A soul friend functions first as one who listens with compassion (that is, not pretending to enter the other’s feelings but the willingness to be present to the other person’s pain, confusion, amazement, or suffering). By discernment I mean in part that soul friends make sure we are willing and able to face life with a perspective that is larger than our own perspective, specifically God’s perspective. Especially when emotions run high, we need the witnessing presence of another to ground ourselves into what our feelings actually point to.
Be clear: Discernment never entails providing answers or advice or vain attempt to sweeten a challenging situation. Rather, together, soul friends watch mutually for the evidence of God’s presence. Consequently, both parties learn and grow.
Together in this “Visitation”, Mary and Elizabeth embody what I believe the church is meant to be as Christ’s Body in the world. Under the chastening rubric of “you can’t give away what you don’t have”, being soul friends means that we work on ourselves to love God and love our neighbors: both things at once. As church, the central work you and I must do is to work on our ability to acknowledge the God of our hearts and souls and to keep a sharp, discerning eye on the God who is between us all.
If there is one thing that this dreadful pandemic must teach us is that our basic disease as human beings is our aloneness, our separation that is so prevalent among us that we accept it as normal. No one is an island. And the unspoken truth about the separation and its impact is measured not simply in physical or social terms; it is emotional disconnection and its cousin, spiritual barrenness. The pandemic has stripped us of much of what we use for cover: our busyness; our distracting routines; and the pretense that we are in control
It is important and a good thing to have someone with whom we can share a cup of coffee and talk safely, but a soul friend is different in that a soul friend is willing and able to talk and listen and help discern where God is with us and what aspects of our lives magnify the Holy One who is present.
You don’t need special training to be a soul friend. What is required is the experience of practicing God in our midst and tending to the evidence that one has been with the Holy One. You certainly don’t need to be ordained to be a soul friend. After all, being a soul friend is supposed to be a regular part of what it means to be followers of Jesus. You don’t need to have compiled a large stash of books or attend the latest retreats to be a soul friend. You simply need to be committed to paying attention to more than ourselves and honoring how the barrenness in us and around us is becoming fruitful.
Of all the ways Mary and Elizabeth magnified the Lord and provide faithful guidance to us, perhaps the most cherished and necessary element was their connection at the God-level and nurturing the soul friendship that was the truly surprising fruit of their trusting lives. This can be ours, too, if we follow their examples and allow our lives to magnify the Lord by saying, “Yes” to God. Amen.