BLESSED IS SHE
New Horizon UMC
December 20, 2015
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
From the kindergarten through the eighth grade, I attended a Catholic school run by Benedictine nuns. We learned a lot. For example, along with Catholic kids, Protestant children learned catechism. Catechism was religious instruction about the Catholic faith in a question and answer format. Of the prayers they made us pray, the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary were repeated constantly. I left St. John’s over 60 years ago. But I haven’t forgotten Hail Mary. “Hail Mary, full of grace, he Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” I used to think Roman Catholics owned the Virgin Mary especially the way she was venerated in liturgy, icons and statues. Not true, most of that prayer came straight out of Luke’s gospel from the mouth of the angel Gabriel and an old pregnant woman named Elizabeth, cousin of Mary and the mother to be of John the Baptist. (Luke 1:28-35, 42-48).
Today, we’re lifting up the spirit filled words of Elizabeth. An old woman, who never expected to be pregnant, was carrying John the Baptist in her womb. An old woman who was filled with the Holy Spirit the moment her young cousin Mary entered the house with a greeting that caused her baby to leap with joy in utero. An old woman, whose spirit filled words have rung down the ages, offered a message for our consideration this day. “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” In essence, “Bles-sed is she who believed what God said.”
“You’re blessed,” that’s the first thing Elizabeth uttered to her young cousin. Of all the women who could have been selected to be the mother of God, God picked you. You’ve been favored. One can’t help but ask the question Elizabeth probably asked herself, why Mary? Mary came from the wrong side of town. She was poor, had no royal blood or priestly heritage and was a native of Nazareth. Remember, Nathaniel asked a question that was true before the birth of Jesus and while he lived. Can any good come out of Nazareth? Nazareth had a bad reputation.
Apparently, Mary lacked the family lineage of Elizabeth. Luke’s gospel noted that Elizabeth traced her roots back to Aaron via her husband. Aaron helped Moses do his job as liberator. Inarticulate, Moses complained to God that he was the wrong person for the job. Miffed, God sent Aaron to help his brother. Eloquent in speech, Aaron formulated messages to Pharaoh concerning let my people go. And the rest is history.
In the Magnificat, or the Song of Mary, it is pointed out that Mary publicly noted her change of fortune. She had gone from an unknown woman of low estate to “the most fortunate woman on earth.” Till the end of time, Mary would be recognized as the mother of Jesus. That’s what Elizabeth meant by the acknowledgement “you’re blessed.”
Africa University is blessed too. In 1988, a General Conference meeting in St. Louis, Missouri called for the building of a University in Africa. Now, a dream fulfilled. Dr. James Salley, associate vice-chancellor for the Institutional Advancement at Africa University shared these figures June 13, 2014 at the Florida Annual Conference. “Seven full time faculty and five part time employees welcomed 40 students from 6 African countries in 1992. Today, twenty-eight African countries on the continent of Africa have students attending. Today, over 40 debt free buildings have been constructed to service about 1700 students full time plus an equal number part time. Today, AU celebrates the growth of its endowment fund from $300,000 to $65 million in 20 plus years. But it is painfully aware that it has not kept pace with the emerging needs of a vibrant and growing international university. Nevertheless, Zimbabwe’s darkest economic hour never resulted in an employee missing a paycheck or students going hungry.” According to Jim Salley, “AU has a balanced budget, a clean audit and is debt free, today.” The UMC is blessed with AU; in Old Mutare, Zimbabwe is blessed.
New Horizon, you’re blessed. Several weeks ago, the French government shut down three mosques in Paris fearing each had demonstrated “an alleged pattern of radicalization.” Three congregations have no place to gather for worship, prayer singing; no place for religious instruction; no place for food, fun and fellowship. They have become like the Hebrews in Psalm 137 who sat down by the rivers in Babylon and wept when they remembered Zion. Nobody knows when those congregations will be allowed to worship in their mosques again. Nobody has closed your doors.
You’re blessed to have come a long way from your start 20 years ago. Other churches have started and closed with disappointment, anger, and pain like the home going of a loved one. Why have you made it? Is someone looking out for you? You’re still alive inside the church, outside in the community and across the world. You’re blessed to have planted a sister church now standing on its own two feet, Quest by name. You’re really blessed to have problems that can’t be solved without God’s help, so that New Horizon would never forget who brought you this far. Wanting to become a regional church with 5000 people attending multiple worship services, attending to diverse needs resident in any body of Christ takes the help of God, a God enabling folk to “do far more than they can ask or imagine.”
Since Africa University opened its doors in 1992, United Methodists in the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference have considered ourselves blessed. We produced a native son who excelled in the classroom and in ministry to all God’s people in Pekin, in New Orleans as a pastor and District Superintendent and in Africa as a Bishop where he served twenty years beginning in 1896. Then, it happened. Writing in his diary upon climbing Mt. Cherimba and overlooking the valley where the mission station and a school were located, Bishop Hartzell said ostensibly, “I have a dream.” “I have a dream that one day children from all over Africa will come to Old Mutare for education and training to lead Africa.” Bishop Hartzell died in 1929. And so did his dream. So, we thought. Seventy years later African Bishops Arthur F. Kulah and Emilio de Carvalho brought new life to this dream in 1988. They challenged the General Board of Higher Education with a critique. The UMC had never built an institution of Higher Learning in Africa. Their critique reawakened memory of the dream shared by Bishop Hartzell and AU was born. “Blessed are they who believed in Bishops Kulah and de Carvalho and Hartzell.”
Like Elizabeth said of her young relative, Mary came to believe that God could make anything happen. How? It took three giant steps. First of all, the Virgin Mary was engaged to Joseph from the house of David. Weddings plans were being made. Mary was happy. Then, angel Gabriel informed this young woman that she had won God’s favor. Mary was confused. As she could remember, Mary hadn’t prayed or asked God for anything earthshaking. What prayer was being answered? Second, urging Mary not to be afraid, Gabriel told Mary some heart stopping news. She would conceive a son and had to name him Jesus. He’d be great and his kingdom would have no end. Her face said, “Gabriel, you’ve got to be kidding.” How is this going to happen? I have not been with any man. Third, Gabriel answered, you’re going to conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit. Eugene Peterson’s version of Gabriel’s response said it all. “And did you know that your cousin Elizabeth conceived a son, old as she is. Everyone called her barren, and here she is six months pregnant.” Gabriel clinched his divine announcement with those fateful words spoken by many of us on critical occasions, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” With all these balls up in the air, few answers and no time to process these impending changes in her life, Mary said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Moments like this shaped Elizabeth’s high view of Mary found in Luke 1:45, “Blessed is she who believed what God said.”
To receive the blessing called Africa University, this denomination had to deal with misgivings or major qualms about the plan to build a university on the Dark Continent. Some people said it couldn’t be done. Too many problems had to be overcome to build a top notch university on African soil. Doubters rightly claimed that wars, rumors of wars, diseases of poverty like malaria and the Ebola virus, climate, substandard wages and living conditions, a failing economy, a dearth of workmen skilled in building construction rendered the dream impossible. Dr. Jim Salley has regaled many audiences over the years about folk casting doubt over the dream to build AU. Some said, “we’d never lay a brick, never build a building, never graduate a student.” A high level United Methodist Church Official said “funding the effort would be like pouring money down a rat hole, never to be seen again.” Believe, was the rejoinder across the church. And up came the University. Nearly 7000 graduates have been sent out across the world. Gabriel’s word was correct, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Is that not why you hear me say, “When we raise a million dollars for the Africa University Endowment Scholarship Campaign, we’ll educate eight students annually till Jesus comes.” Do the best you can to help us. Every time a local church prays a prayer, pays it apportionments, or engages in special ventures like the AU endowment Scholarship Initiative, disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world come to Christ. Every mission effort is a letting go of the notion that we do church just to take care of ourselves. We do mission to love God and neighbor. We do mission to be “signs of God’s presence in the world.” We do mission to replicate Jesus’ educational experience in Luke 2:52 for others. “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.” Elizabeth is right today, “Blessed is anyone who believes in what God said.
Finally, Elizabeth’s spirit filled statement to cousin Mary can be interpreted as compliment, critique and insight. Mary had what Elizabeth lacked, the capacity to believe God - to take God at God’s word - to believe that God would do what God said God would do, by faith. Like Job, Mary needed no proof. Her faith mirrored “Though he slay me yet will I trust him!”
Like doubting Thomas, Elizabeth required more. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” An old woman having a baby was thrown on the trash heap of other broken dreams. Women, as old as Elizabeth, never conceived or gave birth. If I tested that assumption, women would second that assertion by a great majority. However, look what I found on the Internet. A 69 year woman in India gave birth to a girl in 2010. 74 year old Rajo Devi Lohan is raising that daughter, as we speak.
Granted, Elizabeth had no internet to research her situation. But she had access to the Old Testament through her husband, a priest at the temple. Maybe, what Elizabeth said about the Old Testament was what we say about the internet, you can’t believe everything you read in the Bible. Had Elizabeth consulted the Old Testament, she would have discovered three women barren for years who had children. Sarah had Isaac, Genesis 21. Hannah had Samuel, 1 Samuel 1&2. And Manoah’s wife had Samson, Judges 13. Using the biblical record never crossed her mind. Instead, Elizabeth learned from her cousin Mary, the future mother of God, to have a faith that would not shrink in the face of sire odds.
When we put limits on God, we have short changed ourselves, our church, our world and our faith. Elizabeth’s pregnancy made her think in new ways. Not only had God favored Mary, God favored Elizabeth too. “…the Lord…took away the disgrace I have endured among my people,” she said. Why do we keep putting limits on what God can do?
Visionaries for Africa University did just the opposite. During the 20th Anniversary Celebration of Africa University in 2012, I saw numerous residence halls, administration buildings, classrooms galore and new buildings going up. According to Jim Sally, every building standing on the AU campus is the fulfillment of multiple dreams. Africa University has kept its long standing covenant to build only when it has the cash on hand to do so. Elaine Jenkins, Director of Planned Giving, said it best, “In twenty-one short years, United Methodists have built a debt-free, first rate institution at the foot of Mt. Chiremba, the Valley of Hope, at Old Mutare, Zimbabwe.”
Elizabeth learned a lot from her spirit filled response to Mary. She gave birth to John the Baptist. Elizabeth and Zechariah raised their son to prepare the way of the Lord. When John the Baptist began his prophetic preaching, people left city by the hundreds maybe the thousands to hear him. Side by side, rich and poor, women and men, hated Romans and terrorized Jews, priests and prophets heard John implore them to turn away from sin and turn toward God. And they turned
How about that? Elizabeth’s son, a surprise baby, carried out a ministry of repentance and renewal that redounds to this day. Her son’s voice still cries out from the pages of scripture “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Jesus made a timeless comment about his cousin John the Baptist in scripture. “I tell you among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” For Elizabeth’s work, witness and faith struggles to receive this kind of acclamation from Jesus reminded me that there are certain things time cannot wash away among them the spirit filled statement of Elizabeth “Blessed is she who believed in what God said.” Amen.