Full of grace and power

A sermon for Christmas 1

Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, John 1:1-18, Psalm 147
and Acts 6 & 7

When it appeared the time between writing a Christmas sermon, and the 1st Sunday after Christmas sermon was rapidly collapsing, I thought I’d just borrow the core from a previous year’s sermon. It turns out I haven’t preached the 1st Sunday after Christmas very much. Most often, I had taken the week after Christmas off, as we visited one family or another. Okay, I’ll borrow the core of a previous St Stephen’s sermon. There was one, and you have heard it. So, here we are.

Once again, after reading, and prayerful cogitation, not to be confused with a nap, the divine muse offered an idea. Acts refers to Stephen as full of grace and power (Acts 6:5). The prologue to John describes a man sent from God, who is not the light but testifies to the light (John 1:6). And to those who receive and believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God (John 1:12). And a bit later:  we have received grace upon grace, … grace and truth (John 1:16, 17). A life, known for an eloquent defense of the Gospel, grace, and power, resonates with John’s description of one who testifies to the light being full of grace and truth. Stephen’s life resonates with John.

You know something of Stephen; at least that his last name “is not Spielberg or King” (Johnson). You know there was a dispute in the early church about the fair distribution of food and that Stephen is among the seven chosen to resolve the problem. You know Stephen is martyred. You may not know why.

In addition to waiting tables, Stephen is a powerful preacher, healer, etc. He gets into a conflict with a Synagogue of Freedmen; Jews who have returned from Roman slavery in the dispersed Jewish community.  They are unable to overcome his teaching and preaching, about how to be faithful toward God (Gavenat and Petersen). They didn’t like it, so they charge him with blasphemy and drag him before the council. Sound familiar?

In defending himself, Stephen recites a salvation history, not unlike what we hear in the Great Easter Vigil (Ryan). He talks about the promise God makes Abraham and the covenant that follows. He covers Joseph’s being sold into slavery in Egypt, and the Jacob’s family moving to Egypt. Then moves on to Moses, and the gift freedom given the Hebrews. And then their rebellion, including the whole golden calf incident; and drawing from Amos, a lesser known offense, of worshiping Moloch and Remphan (Amos 5:25-27) (Copeland Acts 7). He finishes with a history of the Tabernacles, the tent in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem; concluding that God does not dwell in anything made of human hands. And having gone this far in disturbing his accusers, he charges them of behaving like their Jewish forefathers, in resisting the Holy Spirit, and killing prophets. Horrifically enraged, the Freedmen drag Stephen out of the city, and stone him to death. In the process, Stephen sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God, offers his life to Jesus, and asks forgiveness for his persecutors. Sound familiar? By the way, he is loving buried by devout men lamenting his death (Acts 8:2).

There is a strong similarity between Stephen’s life described in Acts, and Jesus’ life described in the Gospels. But what I’m curious about is the similarity with John the Baptist as a witness to the light. Both are exemplary disciples, whose lives we tend to put up on a pedestal, as far beyond what we might accomplish. This line between the extraordinary and ordinary is not helpful; and in truth, it runs against our lives as incarnate people, as baptized people (Johnson). Gavenat and Petersen note we cannot serve the word and not serve at table. The grace that enables Stephen’s eloquence inspires his table service, feeding the widows of his community.

Living a life, that follows Jesus is a generally accepted model, even if often shunned as impossible. And while our lives may not match Jesus’ in the dozen or so points that Stephen’s may, we can, in our own way, be servant leaders, we can, within our own calling, be full of the Sprit, we can, within our own gifts, show signs, and wonders. By the way ‘wonders’ is not about the miraculous, or supernatural, it’s about the depth of care we demonstrate in doing something for another who is in a difficult circumstance. And even if we don’t perceive an ability to do much, we can change our behavior for the better in the parlance of Stephen’s story, we can stop throwing stones. As hard as it is to confess, we throw stones more frequently than we think. More often than not we throw stones that are words of hate, words of disapproval, or words of judgment (Ryan).

In these remaining ten days of Christmas, I pray we take the time to prayerfully discern:  how we are incarnate, how we live in the Divine Light, how we receive grace and truth, and how we share them in:  healing the broken hearted, binding wounds, lifting the lowly, providing refuge, or serving at the table of the other. May the incarnate light shine through our lives, on the lives of family, friends ~ and Freedmen.

 


 

References

Copeland, Mark. Bible Study Guides. n.d. <http://executableoutlines&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Johnson, Edwin. “Confusing The Sacred & The Profane, Christmas 1(C) – 2015.” 27 12 2015. Sermons that Work.

Ryan, Linda. Speaking to the Soul: Why Wenceslaus went out that day…. 27 12 2015. <http://www.episcopalcafe.com&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

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A sermon for Christmas 2 & Epiphany

Jeremiah 31:7-14, Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a, Matthew 2:1-15,19-23, Psalm 84 or 84:1-8

 

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again. 

I expect you know that nursery rhyme. I cannot remember not knowing it. It first appeared in the mid 1800’s, makes an appearance in Through the Looking-Glass, and though often presented as an egg, egg is never mentioned. As interesting, as all this is, is the rhyme’s political history. For ears I have known, though I can’t cite the source,it is a critique of the King’s army and Calvary in a day when such critique could cost you your head. It may originally refer to Richard II or English Civil War. [i] In the interest of full disclosure, both those predate the earliest printed version, so who knows. Those connections bring up the reality that in literature there is often meaning behind what we read, especially when it’s an old text, whose cultural assumptions are lost to the ravages of time. This is often the case in scripture, and is certainly true in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel story.

 You know the story of the wise men, who: follow a star to Jerusalem, ask Herod Where is the new born King of the Jews? follow the advice  of Herod’s advisors, and continue to  Bethlehem where they offer baby Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Then rather than returning to Herod, as agreed, they follow advice,  that comes in a dream, and head home by another way. The same dream giver warns Joseph, who gathers up Mary, baby Jesus and flees to Egypt. Denied his opportunity to kill off the rival claimant to the throne, Herod kills all the boys in Bethlehem Jesus’ age. After Herod dies, Joseph, in another dream is told to return home. He does, until he learns that Herod’s son Archelaus is King, and he settles in Nazareth.

 I am sure you heard the cited references to scripture:

           from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd  my people Israel.

          ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’ 

          A voice was heard in Ramah,
             wailing and loud lamentation,
          Rachel weeping for her children;

          He will be called a Nazorean.

The first is from Micah, anticipates God’s reign, which will end imperial ambitions [ii] and that gets any King’s attention. It also emphasizes Jesus’ connection to David, Israel’s iconic King [iii] strike two. The appearance of foreign dignitaries bringing treasures to Israel’s King fits Isaiah’s prophecy and references in Numbers, and the Psalms. [iv] Moreover to pay homage, also means worship, and implies submission to a political power. Strike three, four and … on the imperial attention scale. [v]

The out of Egypt bit evokes all sorts of historical imagery. From Genesis, the story of Joseph and the Hebrews going to Egypt to escape death from famine [vi] comes to mind. This connects Jesus to the last of Israel’s three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Joseph, who are at the heart of Israel’s relationship to God.

The third scripture citing, is associated with the murder of lots of innocent children. It quotes Jeremiah expressing lament for the tragedies of defeat by Assyria, and exile in Babylon; both defining events in Israel’s history. The lament also evokes the memory of slavery in Egypt, which includes Pharaoh’s effort to subdue the Hebrews by ordering the mid wives to allow all the Hebrew all boys to die at birth. The mid wives defer to their awe of God. The murder and attempted murder of the innocent, whoever they may be, is a common response of powerful elite who feel threatened. It is not God’s will for the innocent to die, or to be oppressed or dispossessed; unfortunately it has been and will be a reality until the Kingdom fully arrives. But we should note, neither murderous efforts of Pharaoh or Herod displace God’s purposes. In lament, there is hope. [vii]

The final bit of scripture He will be called a Nazorean. Jesus living in Nazareth, is a pun with Nazirite; one who vows to be set aside for God,under terms established in Numbers. The vow can be temporary, or lifelong. We are familiar with Sampson; others who took lifelong vows are Samuel, John the Baptist, and, while in  in Corinth, Paul. [viii] The critical ideal is absolute dedication to serving God.

 When we re read Matthew’s story of the wise men, from a Humpty Dumpty perspective there are a couple of gleanings. From the beginning the coming of Christ encounters hostility; [ix] empire, in whatever form, and modern empire looks very different than ancient empire, strikes back; and the insignificant people welcome God’s initiative. [x] Secondly, from the outset, Matthew wants readers to see Israel’s story in Jesus’ story. [xi] For us, Matthew wants us to see our story in Jesus’ story.

We are at the very end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, when we, by celebrating Jesus’ birth, remind ourselves, that the incarnation touches every corner of creation, touches you ,touches your neighbor, the environment, the very stars, so far – far away. That means everything is of God, is literally touched by God, and that defines our relationship with: the stars, our environment, our neighbors, and ourselves.

Monday is Epiphany, when we celebrate those infamous wise men, who traveled two years to pay homage, to worship Jesus, the light of the world. They tell us Jesus is sovereign over all, including governments, even elected governments. That does not mean we throw out our Constitution, and its provision that prohibits the state from establishing a religion. It does mean we should expect our elected leaders to begin every deliberation, to make every decision from the moral foundation of the incarnation.

It also means that we, as a church community as individuals begin every effort from that same moral foundation. The wise men’s story also tells us honoring God, serving God takes time; sometimes it takes years just to get to the place to begin.  

As we a new year; as we begin inviting people     to join us at our new worship time, as we begin – inviting our neighbors to Friday Families; as we begin to discern, plan and launch: Brewing Faith, and Stephen’s house we do so from the perspective of everyone’s incarnate being; knowing it will take us time just to get started; knowing that there will be push back, from the beginning from those who perceive it all as threat; knowing that amidst murderous intent there is divine hope; knowing that Jesus is in our story, that Jesus is our story, and that enlightens our lives even to far-end of the stars.

  


[ii] New Interpreters’ Study Bible, Matthew 2:1

[iii] ibid

[iv] New Interpreters’ One Volume Commentary, Matthew 3;

                Isaiah 60:1-7; Numbers 24:17, Psalm 72:10-11,15

[v] NISB, NI1VOL 

[vi] ibid

[vii] ibid

[viii] Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton; Holman Bible Dictionary General Editor, Trent C. Butler, Ph.D; The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia., James Orr, M.A., D.D., General Editor

[ix] NI1VOL

[x] NISB

[xi] NI1VOL

A sermon for Christmas 1

Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7, John 1:1-18, Psalm 147 or 147:13-21

Shiloh is where Joshua and the Hebrews setup camp after entering the Promised Land. It was the home of the Tent of Meeting, where the Ark was kept throughout Joshua’s reign, and through the Judges, until they lost the Ark in an effort to use it as a weapon. Shiloh was a seat of governance; a place of meetings for the Tribes; and Eli’s and later Samuel’s home. There is some indication a structure was built to replace the Tent. Shiloh was likely destroyed by the Philistines; archaeological evidence point to something like 1050 BCE. It’s destruction made a lasting impression in the peoples’ minds; so much so that it was used a reference by the Psalmist, Jeremiah, and an occasional prophet. It is clear that Shiloh was once the seat of Israel’s power and their connection to God. It was completely destroyed. [i] Nonetheless, God continued to be present to Israel, and the ministry of faithful prophets, priests and Kings continued after Shiloh’s destruction.

Thursday I blogged about Jehoikim’s court’s response to Jeremiah’s prophecy that God will make his house like Shiloh; suffice it to say they were not happy. My point was that Jeremiah does not back down, doesn’t seek safety, doesn’t try and negotiate his way out. Jeremiah trusts in God. I believe that Jeremiah drew inspiration for his strength from Proverbs (8:22 ff) (appointed for Friday’s Daily Office) which speaks to Wisdom’s part in creation; her delight in humanity; how those who listen to her find life and divine favor, and those who don’t find injury and death. Thursday was Stephen’s day, when we, if it weren’t the day after Christmas, observe his faithfulness, and his martyrdom. I believe he drew strength from Jeremiah’s example, from Wisdom, and from likely conversation with John, who wrote the Gospel whose prologue we heard this morning. John is among the disciples whom anointed Stephen.

The language of John’s prologue is similar to Proverbs 8:22, in its reference to creation, and relationship to God. We all know ‘The Word’ in John comes to be the incarnate Jesus. I believe Wisdom is an older story of the same divine manifestation, in other words Wisdom comes to be the incarnate Jesus. I also believe that the Church is the continuing incarnation of Wisdom and The Word. So while both speak to a particular fully human manifestation in Jesus of Nazareth, they equally refer to his continuing ministry of which we as Church are stewards. Both Jeremiah and Stephen, are exemplars of our calling to be stewards of The Ministry: Wisdom’s The Word’s and Jesus’.

Wisdom and the Bible also referred to as the word, as literary works tell the story of God’s active presence in the midst of creation in the middle of people’s lives. Wisdom and The Word as a manifestation of God are God’s active presence in the midst of creation in the middle of people’s lives. Ministry is the trick of using one to draw people to the other. Ministry is using Wisdom and John, or what-ever applicable part of scripture, to draw people to the presence of  God/Jesus/Holy Spirit. That’s the work Jeremiah and Stephen did so well, not necessarily by the results: Jehoikim’s house is destroyed, and Stephen dies, but how they did their work, in unabated faith and trust, in a promise they could not see but nonetheless believed. That is the road ahead in 2014 and beyond.

Beginning next week our service schedule changes. We will gather to celebrate Eucharist at 9:00 am, and then share fellowship and engage in faith forming discussion, previously known as adult Sunday School. We will do so on the 1st, 2nd, 4th and occasional 5th Sunday. On the 3rd, St. Stephen’s will offer Morning Prayers. Your vestry has worked hard to work out this new arrangement; it is a bold act. And they will be the first to tell you it’s not about an extra 30 minutes sleep Sunday morning. Not at all. This is an opportunity  to follow our Parton, St. Stephen, and not worry about the lurking fear of Shiloh, but to boldly love and share the Word, or Wisdom, or God, or the Holy Spirit, or Jesus , or however you encounter the Divine presence.

I know folks who should be with us. I suspect you know more than I do. So now you have an opportunity to invite them, to be as persistent as the widow seeking justice and as gentle as Jesus reply Come and see. We also have an opportunity to discern how to increase our inviting families of any configuration to Friday Families.

And as any late night, or early morning commercial, there is more. The first is a vision I’ve named Brewing Faith. The vision is to establish a place where two or three times a week, once in the morning, at mid-day and/or in the evening people will be invited to gather over coffee or tea, or other brew and talk about the light the word and everyday life. Everyone of any faith persuasion, including those who are not quite sure, and those who really don’t buy this stuff, is invited. The setting is intended to invite conversation, to shine the light to share the word of Old Testament Wisdom, and the incarnate Jesus.

The 2nd vision I have to share is a longer term calling, I’ve come to call Stephen’s House. As I have shared with your vestry, it honors our patron saint, it builds on the ancient custom of house church, and the ancient custom of cathedral weekday community space; did you know the naves of Cathedrals were community market places, something akin to farmers’ markets, only with more variety. However, as with every good faithful discernment it begins by us faithfully asking: How is God calling us:  to share the light? to share the Word? And then we ask, Does this facility enable or hinder that ministry?

Yes, it is scary stuff, it pushes the recessed fear of Shiloh almost into the foreground. However, Jeremiah’s threat notwithstanding, there is a light-side to Shiloh’s story. Yes, it is completely destroyed. But the ministry of God is not. The people of Israel, at least some of them, remained faithful to God, continued to believe in the divine promise; they trusted in God. Shiloh is gone, God is not. As it is for many, and perhaps all churches, it’s time to set aside the fear of Shiloh; time to trust in the wisdom of the word to trust in the presence of the Word incarnate such that the light of Christ shines forth in your lives as witness to all around you.

It is going to be a different year, my prayer for us is that we allow it to be full of wisdom of the Word and the light of Christ incarnate. AMEN

 


[i] Quick Verse 10; Easton’s Illustrated Dictionary,  Holman Bible Dictionary, Nave’s Topics, International Bible Dictionary

A sermon for Christmas

Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14(15-20), Psalm 96

  

The people who walked in darkness

       … those who lived in a land of deep darkness … 

It is no ordinary darkness Isaiah speaks of.  Isaiah’s prophecy emerges in the midst of all consuming political oppression. [i] Ahaz, King of Judah, the Southern Kingdom of the Jews, has formed a political alliance with Assyria because he is afraid of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and her allies. It is not a good deal, Judah is a vassal, under constant oppression, and frequent violence, that sets neighbor against neighbor. It is a dark, dark time. 

Judah’s / Israel’s relationship with Rome doesn’t begin with a willing invitation, they were simply conquered, and a Legion was garrisoned there, to keep the peace, ~ for Rome. Israel is again a vassal subject to constant oppression, and frequent violence that sets neighbor against neighbor. Augustus’ decree for a census is for the benefit of the Empire, not Israel, not Jerusalem, not Bethlehem, not Nazareth. Forcing everyone to return to their home town may be oppressive, it is certainly manipulative. It’s a demonstration of raw power; I speak: you and your entire family, town, tribe, are uprooted. Not sure how dark, but times are dark. 

Mary and Joseph get a double dose. They are going to Joseph’s home town, going to family, and in first century Palestine you expect hospitality, hospitality that is required. No Vacancy should never have been a problem. They should have been welcomed by someone, anyone in the extended family. And Mary’s pregnancy would make them, at least her, a priority. Think about your visiting family, uncle Bob might, but your pregnant Aunt would never draw the sleeping bag on the floor. [ii] Oppressed by Rome, rejected by family, Mary and Joseph are living in a deep darkness. 

Three stories over the last few weeks have sharpened, re-imaged, my tired view of Luke’s narrative. The first is a decades old memory. One cold winter night, as the last freight train of the night rolls out of town a hobo stays behind. The police soon pick him up. The hospital determines he is not sick enough to stay there. The local homeless shelter determines he is too sick to stay there. Everyone one else was, well you what it’s like this time of year. In any case, as an old gospel hymn says  “We Didn’t Know Who You Was;” 

                             … as you did to the least of these …

So, with no other place to go, the police took him to jail. And sometime night, when all who had responsibility dimmed the lights, alone, and in the deep darkness  he died. [iii] 

Elena Dorfman recently finished a stint for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to photograph refugees from the Syrian Civil War. Her task: to put a human face on unfathomable statistics; some two million refugees, of which seven to eight hundred thousand are in Lebanon. The photograph that grabbed my attention, is a discarded freight box, perhaps 3 feet high, and some 3 to 4 feet on each side. It is full of, who knows what; covered with worn, though clean quilt, and an infant boy with a sharp Mohawk hair cut plays inside. 

 

Image

 

Photo by: Elena Dorfman

It’s almost a quaint image, until you notice the bare concrete wall behind the box, and the dirt floor, with scattered pieces of broken rock. What you don’t see: is the working slaughter house, on the other side of the wall; what you don’t see is the pile of drying pelts, just around the corner. Though it is a bright photograph with vivid reds, and brilliant blues scattered throughout, it’s a scene of deep darkness. It’s of people displaced by local violence and oppression,  and foreign collaborators. There are no organized refugee efforts in Lebanon. Perhaps officials are counting on family, and tribal relationships to get the job done. [iv] For some it helps, nonetheless a baby plays in an abandoned crate, as deep darkness enshrouds the land. 

The Cones are Eastern Orthodox Christians, fostering a 5 and a 10 year old, who are brothers. They are gradually introducing them into their Advent and Christmas traditions for which the brothers have no context. Each night they share a couple of scripture verses, and a bit of candy. The night comes when the verses told of no room in the Inn, and baby Jesus’ birth in a barn with a manger for a bed. The 10 year old’s head bows, his face is drawn and serious. Ms. Cone asks what he thinks Mary and Joseph feel. Remembering the cold night on the streets, and sheltering in someone else’s car, as safe haven, ‘casue there was nowhere else to go; remembering his mother, ~~ abandoning them, he answers “Sad. Cold.” and quietly tears flow as the deep darkness is remembered. 

And then there are the answers to a continuous flow of questions: 

Is  the baby in the manger is the same Jesus they heard about at church. 

Yes.

Do Christians really believe that the Son of God was born in a manger, without a home to call his own. 

Yes. 

Did shepherds in that part of the world really sleep out in the cold while protecting their sheep from, among other threats, lions.

Yes. 

Did coming face to face with an army of angels freaked the shepherds out.

Yes.  [v]

Light begins to dawn, darkness begins to fade away as the glory, the presence of the Lord is revealed. 

For century upon century we have sanitized the Gospels’ birth narratives. Look at nativity scenes. All the characters are pristine and clean; but: 

  • Mary and Joseph have been on the road all day, there is no bath, 
  • the cave or barn is full of animals, ~ and animal stuff, 
  • the shepherds, are night shift shepherds, the bottom of the worthless working folk;
    and they’ve been working since when? and walking for who knows how long?
  • what about the angels? they left the shepherds in the field! there aren’t any at the barn! 

The birth scene writ large is the dominated by Assyrian and Roman oppression. Writ specific it’s context is familial rejection it’s setting is degrading, dirty and smelly. But, it is here where light of the world is born, not because of any human action, the powers of the day are as oppressive as ever, and family and friends are as capricious as ever, light is born into the world by the grace of God a gift of God to those who live in deep darkness. 

In ’67 we don’t know what powers pushed a man on to the lonely rails, we don’t know what standards were not met, nonetheless a lonely man who walked in the dark, dies, alone, in the dark. Today we know the powers at play in Syria. A baby refugee playing in an abandoned box is perhaps sign of parental ingenuity; certainly it’s a sign that we do not yet see the incarnate presence in front of us. Yes, Jesus is the incarnate presence of God. But incarnation touches every corner of the universe; it infuses every person with the presence of God, thus every person, every child is heir to the incarnation. In sharing Christmas with two foster sons the Cones are sharing light that can transform a young man’s dark experiences. But he too shares a deep truth that can transform us. Christ Jesus is born into darkness: the darkness of  the world the state, our community, our homes, and our selves. With the courage of a ten year old, when we face our darkness we will find:

a light shining brightly in our presence,

lives being transformed,

yokes being broken,

burdens being lifted;

we will find

peace, righteousness and justice;

we will hear,

no ~ we will sing ~ a new song:

Glory to God in the highest,and peace on earth,goodwill toward men!

 


[i] Ingrid Lilly, Working Preacher, Commentary on Isaiah 9:2-7,  Christmas 2013 

[ii] Rev. Cano n Frank S. Logue , episcopaldigitalnetwork.com http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2013/12/09/christmas-eve-abc-2013/, December 24, 2013 

[iii] Paul Greenberg, m.arkansasonline.com http://m.arkansasonline.com/news/2013/dec/21/fo ur-mo re-days-20131221/ Four more days

 [iv] Qainat Khan, NPR hereandnow.wbur.org http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2013/12/03/photographer-syria-portraits  

[v] Terry Mattingly, m.arkansasonline.com http://m.arkansasonline.com/news/2013/dec/21/telling-nativity-story-help-foster-boys-20131221/ Telling Nativity story with help of foster boys Saturday, December 21, 2013

A sermon for Advent 4

Isaiah 7:10-16, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

We all know the Music of Handel’s Messiah, well at least the Alleluia Chorus. I would have said that he was no slouch when it came to lyrics, but then I learned, they were written by his good friend, Charles Jennens, a large land owner, patron of the arts,and devoted Christian scholar with particular interest in primitive Christianity; living as 1st century Christian did, and John Chrysostom, [i] the saint with the unpronounceable last name. So, I would now observe that Jennens, was no slouch when it came to storytelling. The lyrics are entirely from scripture, and he chose well, particularly from the new testament. Luke’s version, with his long journey, a city full of “no vacancy,” a sparse, spare manger, night shift shepherds, and angel choirs, is a really grand story. Jennens masterfully weaves it together, and Handel’s musical genius well its lasted centuries. 

But this is not the only biblical story of Jesus’ birth. Matthew includes a birth narrative in his Gospel account; and it’s quite different; and it’s as dramatic, on its own terms. We heard it this morning. So we know Mary is engaged to Joseph. We know she turns up pregnant. We know Joseph intend to quietly divorce her. Finally we know Joseph: listens to God’s messenger angel, marries Mary, and names the child Jesus. To our ears, Joseph seems rather harsh, a self-centered prig. Until we forget all our social customs, and immerse ourselves in Joseph’s world; for Joseph’s story, challenges how we live today. 

Let’s start with marriage. In the first century, there is no falling in love, asking her father for her hand in marriage. Sons’ fathers made arrangements with daughters’ father. There were contracts. A dowry was paid to ensure the bride’s future, and to compensate her family for the loss of a productive family member. The payment of the dowry made a marriage legal before any feast. [ii] Then there is Deuteronomy 22:23 ff 

 23 If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her,  24 you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death,

 The first thing we hear about Joseph, is that he is a righteous man; and that means he is very intentional about living his life by the law. His decision to divorce Mary is not out of anger or feeling of betrayal, it’s out of his deep religious commitment. Love as we think of it in marriage is simply not part of the equation. It is not Joseph’s choice, it is his obligation. [iii] Yet, even in the first century there were legal interpretations, made by Rabbi’s through the years. And there was mitigation in cases of marriage contract violations, though they were harsh and humiliating. [iv] It reveals much about Joseph and about Matthew’s teaching, that Joseph seeks to follow God’s word, i.e. be righteous, and be merciful, perhaps stretching the boundaries of mercy, as Joseph seems to be more generous to Mary than rabbinic mitigation suggest.

We still have names to ponder. Joseph is common in scripture. The first time we read about a “Joseph” is the one with a coat of many colors. He is the eleventh son of Jacob, the first by Rachel. He starts out as a bit of a brat, gets sold into slavery by his brothers, makes a name for himself in Egypt, ends up running the show for Pharaoh, and when Jacob’s family shows up starving from the famine he generously provides for them, setting up the flowering of the Hebrew people. Joseph is a shepherd to the Hebrews. 

Normally a son would be named after his father. But Joseph is told to name his son Jesus, a common Hebrew name. Jesus is derived from ‘Yeshua’, which is derived from ‘Joshua’, who is Moses successor. By name Jesus is established as Moses’ successor.  [v] The importance of this might be akin to a person believed to be the successor to George Washington. By implication Joseph is the shepherd to Moses’ successor, as the true leader of the Jews.

There is one more element in this ever growing complex weave of literary fabric. Joseph, a righteous, merciful man, has a dream in which God’s angle, God’s messenger, tell him: 

            “… marry Mary, and name the baby ‘Jesus.’”

 And Joseph does. There is something in Joseph’s character, that allows him to receive God’s word, even though it beaks strong customs, the naming of first sons, and even breaks God’s law as set forth in Deuteronomy. And even though is sounds like a sound bite from the Reformation, which is a millennium and a half after all this, Joseph’s personal relationship with God is stronger than whatever is handed down to him by tradition or written law. Joseph knows God. And that relationship allows Joseph to be obedient to God, even though obedience makes him appear to be unrighteous, and subjects him to humiliation and ridicule.

What this morning’s Gospel reveals is a righteous merciful man obedient to God to the extent that he violates established norms and law to shepherd God’s anointed successor to Moses.

And oh yea, one more little tid-bit; Joseph, as is Mary, are two bit players, from two bit families from a two bit tribe. In no way, are they the ones anyone, including us, would look to, to bring God’s incarnate presence into the world, into our lives into your lives.[vi] There is no pedigree, there is no education, no training, no experience, no nothing, except: righteousness, mercy and obedience, from Joseph, and acceptance, 

“… let it be with me according to your word.” [vii]

 from Mary.

All of this rather muddles up, our preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. But that is only half of our Advent observation, the other being preparation for the return of the King. So, if one wants to actively prepare, to actively participate in what we pray for, every day, (at least I hope you do)

… thy kingdom come, thy will be done, one earth as it is in heaven.

we have a model to follow in Matthew’s birth narrative. From Joseph: be righteous in flowing the law, God’s as revealed in scripture and interpreted by faith leaders, and secular law, which, at least according to Paul, are also established by God for the benefit of God’s people; be merciful in the application of the law seeking not only your benefits, but just consideration of others, be obedient, be discerningly obedient, and when God calls you to act, against the current interpretation of God’s law, and / or secular law, do so  trusting in God. And finally from Mary, when called to accept the unacceptable, do so trusting in God.

It only took me a thousand or so words to get here but the Incarnation gives us four little words to prepare for the return of the King: righteousness, mercy, obedience, and acceptance. May they be your guiding light: to the truth of incarnation and to presence of our King.

Amen

 

————————————

[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Jennens
[ii] Eaton’s Bible Dictionary
     Holman’s Bible Dictionary
[iii] Douglas R.A. Hare, Interpretation, Matthew
[iv] M. Eugene Boring, New Interpreter’s Bible
[v] ibid
[vi] Lose, Working Preacher, Matthew’s Version of the Incarnation, December 17, 2013
[vii] Luke 1:38

______________________
Arland J. Hultgren, Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25, Working Preacher, 12/22/2013
Scott Hoezee, Matthew 1:18-25, Center for Excellence in Preaching, December 22, 2013

 

What’s going on?

A sermon for Advent 3

Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11, Canticle 15

 

It’s been a week, and we tend to forget readings from previous weeks, especially since we didn’t hear them ‘cause ice caused us to cancel corporate worship. We would have heard Matthew’s account of John down by the river side; he was calling the people of Judah and Jerusalem to repent. Actually he calls for them to prepare the way of the Lord; either way, the people need to change their behavior. We also hear John talks about the ax at the root of the tree, a reference of divine judgment against Israel. He also goes on about the chaff being burned with unquenchable fire, a likely reference to Israel’s corrupt leadership. So we have a pretty good idea of Matthew’s vision of John the Baptist.

Skip forward some time, not sure how much, though it is eight chapters, and this morning we hear John asking Jesus a question, through his disciples, because he is in jail. He wants to know if Jesus is the messiah. It’s a queer question, he did baptize him. However, only Jesus hears God’s voice, so we cannot know for sure that John knows Jesus is God beloved son. In fact we have a previous hint that there are questions; in chapter 11 John’s disciples ask Jesus’ disciples why they (John’s disciples) fast and they (Jesus’ disciples) don’t. There is no way of knowing if John’s disciples ask of their own or if John asks them to, because he is already in jail, having been arrested in chapter 4.

What we have is John down by the river side at his prophetic best; Jesus’ baptism, John’s arrest a question about fasting that may be from John, a question if Jesus is the messiah that is from John. 

John has put everything he has into this prophet thing, and now he is in jail; not what is expected. And to top it all off, Jesus isn’t exactly acting like a messiah, he isn’t wielding the ax, he isn’t burning chaff, and when he confront sinners, he eats with them. This is not what is expected. What is going on?

What is going on? Recently we’ve heard news of: Adam’s brain tumor, Mary Gay’s brother’s death, Bill’s arrest, Sally’s death, Brandon’s ATV accident, Jenny’s health concern’s, Joey’s heath concern’s, Mrs. Gladden’s death, Jerry’s cancer, Laura’s accident, and Gladys’ death. What’s going on? None of this is expected, at least not now!

I mean look around town, everything is decorated there are bright lights, brilliant vivid colors, the radio if a constant stream of holiday music. Our mail boxes are collecting more and more cards wishing us Happy Holidays! This is a happy, joyful time of year. We are looking forward to celebrating Jesus birth, we are looking forward to the return of the King, Jesus in full divine regalia! Yesterday the Ignite Christmas Box ministry gave 800 families a box of food, a box of hygiene products, a box of Avon products, a ham and a loaf of bread. That ~ is what is expected this time of year. So, what’s going on?

What’s going on is life. All of life, including those parts that are: grievous, frustrating, frightening, and emotionally and spiritually debilitating. The raw edges of life didn’t stop on the occasion of Jesus birth. We glamorized Luke’s version, but there is nothing glamorous about a day long (or more) donkey ride, to pay taxes to a foreign King. Matthew’s version is far less glamorous; he takes a scant six verses to tell the tale of Jesus birth. That is followed by the terrorizing tale, of Joseph, Mary and Jesus escaping Herod’s rage, and the slaughter of thousands of innocent infant boys.

Life goes on. The dark side of life continues. Whether we expect it or not, whether it is fair or not, whether we are prepared or not, whether it causes us to question Jesus or not, life goes on.

 And now we come to Jesus answer. Well actually he doesn’t answer the question. He tells John’s disciples to tell John what they see. I wonder if he gets a blank stare, you know the kind teachers sometimes get, because then he tells them what they see: the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, the lepers being cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised, the poor having good news brought to them, and anyone who takes no offense at me is being blessed. ..

Each scene, relates to a portion of Isaiah’s messianic prophecy. Each scene, is evidence that the Kingdom of God is already on earth, is already transforming all creation.

The transformation of all creation is a facet of Jesus’ birth I fear we ignore. The incarnation is God’s fully divine presence being birthed in the fully human Jesus. The incarnation is also an infusion of the divine presence in every human, in every micro-corner of creation. That transformation of all creation is a facet of our messiah’s return I fear we tend to miss, ‘cause we get all caught up in judgment etc. Nonetheless our messiah’s return is the end of a transformation already in the making. In short, even as life goes on, God is in our midst. God is present in every corner of our lives, the resplendently bright bits, the surprisingly righteous one, the ones where justice reigns; even the scary, dark and lonely corners. But that presence is not static, far from it.

When we accept it, listen for it, listen to it, respond in faith and trust, God’s presence will enable ~ well some call it miracles, we know it to be the power of God in everyday life.

So, what’s going on? Life in the presence of God is going on, and there is no waiting because it’s right here right now. Amen!

___________________________

David Lose Working Preacher, Craft of Preaching, Disappointed with God at Christmastime, Sunday, December 08, 2013 12:43 PM

Arland J. Hultgren, Working Preacher, Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11, 12/15/2013

Brett Younge, Ministry Matters, KeepHerod in Christmas, November 30th, 2013

Change is coming

It is Advent; we are preparing the greatest change since creation, God becoming incarnate in humanity; we are preparing for the greatest change since Jesus’ ascension, Christ’s return. Change is coming. Isaiah prophesizes about change, John calls the people of Jerusalem and Judah to change, and Paul calls the Gentiles in Rome to change. I believe those who observe Advent, as best we can in a Christmas obsessed land, realize Advent is about change. However, I am concerned we’re focusing on the wrong sorts of change.

For those who are drawn to the feast of the incarnation, I suspect our efforts are to more or less be the misplaced Kings bearing gifts, and through some sort of gift giving, to family and friends, those in need in our community, or perhaps through a charity like Episcopal Relief and Development or Heifer Project, or one of the many good charitable organizations around the world.  For those draw to the return of Christ, it’s a bit more Lent like, and the focus is attaining a status of purity, of which similar generosity would be considered a sign. But it’s a phrase from Paul and a chance story that catches my attention.

Paul writes a prayerful petition to live in harmony with one another. [i] It is Paul’s belief God wants us, indeed empowers us to live in harmony with each other, and gives us the gifts to do so.

Thanksgiving is thought of as a family time; though some families do not gather because they are divided. There is a family that has been divided for some nine or ten years. Members have not even spoken to one another. Facebook cracked the shell of separation. But this thanksgiving, disparate family members, of differing faith traditions, took a common teaching of their faith, God wants to reconcile broken relationships, seriously, and their division was healed. Thanks be to God.

At the heart of the family’s healing is a change of behavior, on everyone’s part. That change is what repentance is all about. The healing such change brings about is what repentance is all about. Healing of broken human relationship is the greatest gift one can offer God. There can be no purity if there are any broken relationships.

 

[i] Romans 15:5