Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.            

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Dec. 20, 2020

Luke 1: 39-56

Recently a friend, who is non-religious and a social worker, posted something on Facebook which caught my attention. He wrote that it always meant a lot to him when, after he helped out a client, that person said, “God bless you!” But that he felt unappreciated if they said instead, “Thank God!” I’ll help you as best I can either way, he said, but I notice the difference.

I think as much as anything my friend was expressing the frustration and exhaustion of folks on the front line of social and medical services. They were already bending over backwards to help out their clients through the myriads of problems they faced and the labyrinthine maze of bureaucracy that needs to be navigated. Add to that the increased pressure of COVID-19, with its added economic and medical stressors that have brought even more folks to a social worker’s virtual cubicle, and those in helping professions are feeling stretched thin as paper. Everyone and anyone who is in social work or medicine or a first responder deserves our gratitude and probably also needs it, because we all need those occasional expressions of appreciation: they fuel our own optimism and inspire us to keep going even in the face of overwhelming odds. We shouldn’t take these folks for granted.

Nonetheless, I pushed back gently on my friend’s comment. “I’d like to suggest a different way to think of that,” I wrote. “The person who says ‘Thank God’ isn’t unappreciative of you. It’s the opposite. You’ve proved to her that though she was despairing and beginning to think the universe was aligned against her, she has reason to hope. You’ve renewed her faith. You’ve renewed her ability to keep going despite the odds. You’ve become a doorway to God for her. She is grateful to you, but what you’ve done for her transcends you, it transcends even the service you gave her. It gives her faith to keep going. It’s the ultimate appreciation—you’ve given her transcendent hope. Seems like a pretty good achievement in my humble opinion!”

In these recent days, we’ve been hit with binary and opposite types of news. On the one hand, we have just passed 300,000 dead of COVID-19—as several have pointed out, a number larger than all the Americans killed in the Vietnam War. 

On the other hand, the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine has been approved and has just arrived in Texas; and another company’s vaccine is soon on its way. England got to administer the vaccine just before we did. They started with elderly patrons of a nursing home. The second person to receive it was an 89-year-old man named William Shakespeare. I kid you not. Don’t tell me that was an accident. The British tabloids were calling his shot “The Taming of the Flu.”

Though we wish that life was always a wonderful walk through the park, it often seems more like it’s hiding in a ditch during a tornado. The truth is that life normally hands us a bit of both. There’s rarely the clarity that we long for. It is easy to feel so overwhelmed and weighed down by the crises and troubles of life that we can’t see or appreciate the good when it happens; and if we do see it, sometimes it just doesn’t feel like it’s enough. And even if we aren’t particularly troubled or pessimistic, it is just so easy to be distracted by everyday stressors and troubles and pressures that we become irritable, reactive and tense. It’s not that we don’t have hope: it’s just that we can’t see the forest for the trees. Immediate problems distract us from the big picture.

In our Gospel lesson, Mary, pregnant with a child who is Jesus Christ, pays a visit to her Aunt Elizabeth, further along in her own pregnancy with the child who is John the Baptist. If they lived in our day, Mary and Elizabeth are exactly the sort of people who could end up seeing my social worker friend. Mary is of course a teenaged unmarried mother from a poor community with no independent means of support. Elizabeth on the other hand is an older woman well past the age when we think pregnancy is a possibility, and by rights could have many fears like the increased risk of Downs Syndrome or birth defects, the health risks of a difficult pregnancy, the stress of taking care of a child when you yourself and your husband are advanced in age. 

In everything in life, there is the ongoing balancing act of hope and fear, frustration and optimism, the things we think of as “good” and the things we think of as “bad.” Whichever one wins out in the end could be determined by something simple, like a social worker who finds you some unemployment benefits, or the doctor who tells you your treatment is going well, or the teacher who tells you how proud you should be of your kid, or the job interview that goes well, or the relief check that comes in the mail, or a phone call from a friend.

These things remind us of our faith. They remind us of the undercurrent of hope that keeps us going even when we’re down and frustrated and all options seem limited or nonexistent.

Mary’s story is the story of that faith. We read today her famous song, come down to us in tradition as The Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” she says. This song is her affirmation of the hope that we often forget, or get distracted from, but which we share with her:

“God has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant,” she says, and in one sentence reminds us that each of us, each one of us, no matter how low we feel, no matter how low we actually are according to the world’s standards, each of us is loved by God uniquely and individually and fully for who we are.

God’s sympathies and attention are especially on us when we are low and downtrodden, she assures us, when we feel weak and helpless; so even if—in fact, especially if—you are low and weak and overwhelmed and downtrodden, God loves you, God is with you, God is your savior—and God is worthy of your praise.

That hope is the undercurrent of our lives as people who have put their trust in Jesus Christ. It is especially easy to forget it in times of trouble and crisis, but Mary’s point is that especially in those times of trouble and crisis we should remember that hope and praise God for it.

My friend the social worker has an amazing job—he gets to remind people of that hope just when they’ve just about given up on it. We all are tempted to give up on that hope every now and then. Other times we just get distracted and forget that hope. And other times when things are well, we take it for granted.

But it’s that hope that keeps us going when times are bad, and raises us up when we are low, and gives us the spirit never to give up. It’s always there and it sustains us.

But that hope empowers us and drives us and makes us able to do more even than we can ask or imagine if we acknowledge it—if we thank God. If we affirm openly that it is thanks to God that I can keep on keeping on. It is because I trust God that I trust life, too. It is because of my faith in Jesus Christ that I always believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and so I keep moving forward even in the darkest night. It is because I know that God is good and that I am a beloved child of God that I keep pushing the rock up the hill over and over again, even though it rolls back down, because I know that one day the rock will go over the cliff and I will be free.

Thank God that hope is the undercurrent of our lives—but how much more we can do, how much more confident and hopeful we feel, we really acknowledge it and give God the credit. It’s our affirmation that life itself is on our side, that the cosmos is working in our favor, and that the Sovereign of the world loves me, me personally.

There is suffering and loss, there is hardship and travail, but there is also the courage and determination to keep going on, and the ability to discover joy and hope in the midst of hard times. These are a gift of God.

Right now we are saddened and angry and should be by the loss of lives and the rough road still ahead. We are also grateful for good news of vaccines and of a possible Congressional relief package. Take care of those in need and grieving. Thank the doctors and researchers and politicians (yes, even them). Keep taking precautions because we aren’t out of the woods yet.

But do all these things with the conscious affirmation of your very soul that God is your strength, your savior, your rock, your fortress, your healer, your comforter, and your hope. Even in your lowest low, God’s love never lets you go. Let your soul magnify the Lord and your spirit rejoice in God your savior. 

Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to the gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—  to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.  

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