"She Who Dared to Believe" by Kyndall Rae Rothaus
This is a sermon about believing, and so, naturally, I’d like to begin the facts. So much about life and faith is fuzzy and hard to comprehend, so let’s begin with what’s clear. Number One: God needed a woman to make the Gospel happen. Despite centuries of men claiming women cannot preach the Gospel, the Gospel required a woman to be born through, a woman as a vessel for the Word. Number Two: Women are the first to tell of Christ’s conception. They are also the first to tell of his resurrection. As soon as Elizabeth sees Mary—Mary who has yet to form a baby bump—Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, knows. And she says what she knows with a loud voice. As soon as she is done speaking, Mary breaks forth in prophecy. And in Luke chapter two, it is Anna, the prophet who is the first person in the Gospel of Luke to begin spreading the news of the Christ child to others. The original pulpit belonged to a woman, and her name was Mary, her name was Elizabeth, her name was Anna. It was Zechariah, after all, and not a woman, whom the Good Lord struck mute. Women are necessary to the Gospel—that’s the clear part of this story.
So now that we’ve got the facts straight, let’s talk about the whole bizarre business of believing. Because in my circles I find that we’re not all that keen on talking about believing anymore. Doubt? Sure. That makes sense. Everyone doubts. There is plenty of room for doubting. Skepticism? Not a problem. Cynicism? Mmmmm. We savor it like its dessert. Asking questions. Poking holes. In my circles, we’re experts at the intellectualizing of faith. But don’t ask me to believe stuff. I’m too enlightened for that hocus pocus.
I’m being a little facetious here but the point is, once you’re a grown-up, believing is hard. Right now I have two three-year-olds at home and I haven’t said anything to them about Santa Claus, but they already believe in him. I didn’t do anything to foster that—they just picked it up from the atmosphere, and let me tell you: they are believers. They don’t have to try. They just believe. Easy peasy. But once you’re a grown-up, believing isn’t so easy anymore. Because there has been an Xbox 360 or Red Ryder bike or a pony you asked for with all your heart and never got. Not to mention: you’ve prayed prayers that never got answered, you’ve seen people suffer who didn’t deserve it all, and you’ve buried people you loved. Life hasn’t been all that fair, and for a lot of us, the magic of the universe kinda dries up somewhere along the way. And believing—well, that feels like a luxury of the naïve and unscarred.
When Elizabeth greets her cousin, Mary, she says, “Blessed are you who believed,” and I am so curious about that. What does it mean that Mary believed?
Because as I recall it, the angel comes to Mary and tells her she will carry God’s son, and she responds, “Howwwwwww?” She immediately spots a flaw in God’s plan, namely her virginity, which feels like a relatively big obstacle to, you know, pregnancy. And she voices this. Out loud.
Similarly when the angel visits Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, to tell him about their baby, he is also skeptical. “Ummmmm, angel man we’re old. Like, real old.” And the angel responds to Zechariah’s “Howwwww?” by taking away his voice.
Side note: this is a power I feel super jealous of a toddler mom, to just be able to respond to argument by imposing perfect silence that cannot be interrupted. But even if I am somewhat envious, it still feels a bit extreme, yeah? Zechariah raises one little logical objection and he loses his voice for the next nine months?
But it feels even more extreme when juxtaposed with Mary’s initial response, which also seems to be one of incredulous disbelief. She not only keeps her voice, she’s deemed the blessed one who believed. I know I was joking earlier about Zechariah being struck mute, but it actually doesn’t seem all that fair to me. Zechariah is punished and Mary is favored for two fairly parallel responses, and I want to know why. Why was Mary allowed to ask questions, but Zechariah wasn’t?
Since we are reading their stories as dry words on a page hundreds of years later, there’s a lot we’re missing. We’re missing the tone of their voices when they asked their respective, “How can this happen?” questions. We’re missing body language, we’re missing intention. We’re missing what was happening inside their hearts.
And so I wonder—wonder means I moving from what is clear to what is speculative—I wonder if there was something dramatically different in the way Zechariah responded to the messenger versus the way Mary responded, but the differences aren’t easy to pick up when you’re just reading a really old piece of text.
Maybe Zechariah’s response carried resistance in it. Maybe his words were laced with no’s while Mary’s questions were dripping with prevenient yeses. But even then, I like to think God respects our agency—that Zechariah would have been allowed to say no, if he wanted to, and so would Mary.
Here’s how I’ve started to think about this:
In my family, believing wasn’t a verb. We had beliefs, as in concrete statements and creeds. Belief was a possession you clung to, an object you grasped, a territory you guarded, with your life if necessary. Belief was like property and you were sworn to uphold and defend it from all attack.
Belief, the noun, is what keeps my parents from accepting me as a queer person. Belief is what has divided our family over and over and over again, because we don’t agree about beliefs. Our beliefs are, in fact, diametrically opposed to one another in many cases. Beliefs have become these immovable obstacles that block the way of mystery and connection and authenticity and growth. Maybe you have experienced the kind of religion that is obsessed with belief, the noun.
I know that for me, if beliefs were all there were to faith, I could have given up on God a long, long time ago. I mean, not just given up. Like, run in the opposite direction. Because in my life and in my family in particular beliefs have destroyed us. They’ve made us ugly to each other. I sort of hate them.
But somewhere along the way, I shifted away from beliefs and into this more dynamic, fluid movement that I want to call to believing. It was no longer about doctrine I had to protect or some perspective that I had to defend at all costs. It was more like this mystery or divinity or beauty or love that I encountered. Usually briefly. Fleetingly. Sometimes powerfully but more often subtly. It was an experience, not an object, and to believe just meant that I chose to stay open to having those experiences over and over. To believe meant somewhere deep down I held onto to the hope that Something out there was holding on to me and that despite evidence to the contrary, there was a Great Benevolence at work in the world, co-laboring with me to set things right.
I’ve been coming to think of it this way: Belief, the noun, is something you clutch with tight fists. Believing, the verb, is something you step into with arms wide open.
Or to put it another way: Belief is to believing as fortress is to open field, as armor is to sweatshirt, as guarded is from vulnerable. Belief is as different from believing as rigid is from fluid, as ice is from running river, as shield is from sponge. Belief is as different from believing as death is from living, as treatise is from poem, as lock is from open door, as metal is from flesh.
I think maybe Zechariah was holding on to a belief that his procreation days were over, not just in a physical sense, but in a spiritual sense too. Like he believed he was done, and that God was done with him, which meant he had come to this really static place where God just couldn’t enter in anymore. I mean, God could if God wanted, but Zechariah didn’t think so. Because it had been all these years with nothing generative or exciting happening and therefore that was how it always would be. Belief was in his way. A freaking angel showed up interrupting his path and his thought patterns, and that wasn’t enough to open his mind. He was blocked.
What if Mary, on the other hand, young as she was, didn’t have many settled beliefs yet about who she was or was supposed to be? She wasn’t holding on to any one image of herself so tightly that she couldn’t let it go and allow something new to emerge. Mary was adaptable enough to give herself over to believing, the verb.
And therefore she was deemed worthy by Elizabeth of the title, “She Who Believed.”
I might call her:
She who said yes.
She who dared to think it possible.
She who took risks.
She who trusted the promise.
She who stepped into her destiny.
She who entered the Spirit’s call.
She who embodied hope.
She who carried Love in her own womb.
She who took on God in flesh.
She who welcomed Divinity.
She who made room for Mystery,
even if she had to clear the space herself
among the muck of a meager stable
turned makeshift birthing center.
She who gave birth to God.
She who conceived a miracle.
She who opened her womb.
She who opened her heart.
She who danced with the Holy Spirit.
She who loved a baby.
She who loved God.
She who dared believe.
And you might think to yourself, I could never be Mary. I will never be pregnant with God. But what if you imagined her, not as some unreachable saint, but as an archetype or a metaphor of what is possible, even for you. Maybe there is something stirring in you, asking for your yes. Maybe there is something you could dare to believe. Maybe there is something asking to get itself born in you. Maybe you could make room for Mystery, maybe you could welcome Love. Maybe you could become a channel for Love. Carry Love in your arms, give Love over to its destiny. Maybe you could step into a future with open arms instead of clenched fists.
Maybe believing isn’t for the naïve but for the brave, for the hopeful, for the desperate, for the needy, for the longing. Maybe believing means you are still open to awe. Maybe believing is a verb—not a doctrine you agree with but a perpetual reopening of the heart, a making room for the Holy and the Unexpected, a never-ending expansion of Love.
If I could choose to be a character in this story, I would be the angel whispering to you, “Shhh, Zechariah, quiet your limiting beliefs about how things are and must be. Do not be afraid. Sweet Mary, do not be afraid. God is with you. I invite you to believe, to be open, at least, to believing that you are a chosen vessel for Love. Shhhh, your old beliefs about what can never be are so loud. But I’m here to tell you, it’s okay to loosen your grip and let go. Another world is possible. Another life is possible. It doesn’t have to be how it’s always been. Trust me.”
As I close this sermon, I invite all of you to take a deep breath, feel yourself unclenching, exhaling some of that fear that keeps you guarded, allowing the body to soften, the shoulders to drop, the jaw to open, the heart space to risk exposure. You are making room for love, and this is what it feels like to believe. May you channel your inner Mother Mary, the one who was open to receive, the one who believed that a world transformed by love was possible. Amen.