3,2,1

A Sermon for Proper 14; Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28, Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33 

I rarely title a sermon at this point; however, today’s title is 3, 2, 1; 3 news stories, 2 bible stories, and a revelation.

We start with the continuing Bible story of Abraham’s family and the state of the promise. A lot has happened in two weeks. So much so we’ll simply have to leave it at Esau and Jacob reconcile, jointly attend Isaac’s burial, and go their own ways. Jacob’s sons are grown the youngest are in their teens. Joseph, the first son of his favorite wife Rachel, is his favorite son. Jacob shows it, giving him a long-sleeved robe, which is a public sign of favor (Gaventa and Petersen). Joseph doesn’t help by telling the story of two dreams. We do not read those verses this morning, but both dreams indicate that his brothers will serve him and that they and their parents will bow down to him. Once again, the younger is favored over the older. We pick up the story with older brothers out tending sheep. Jacob sends Joseph to check up on them. It seems like a silly idea given the public nature of their strained relationship. And through the help of a stranger, he finds them. They see him coming and plot to kill him. Ruben, the oldest brother intercedes and convinces them to put Joseph in a pit for now; because he plans to rescue him later. However, led by Judah they decide to sell him to a caravan of Ishmaelite and Midian traders. Judah, may have seen a rescue opportunity here, or he may have been motivated by profit, we cannot really tell (Fretheim). In the end, Joseph is sold by his brothers to his cousins (remember Ishmaelites and Midianites are descendants of Abraham) (Fretheim) Joseph is sold to his cousins for 20 pieces of silver. We don’t read it; but, the brothers take Joseph’s special coat, rip it up, drench it goat’s blood and use it to tell Jacob that Joseph is dead. What was a sign of favor has become a sign of death. Yet again egregious, terribly frightful behavior puts God’s promise at risk. For the next 13 chapters, God is silent (Bratt).

We have 1 grim bible story. Now for 3 news stories.

On August 4, Religious News Service published a commentary about how Trump’s evangelical prophets are curiously silent about the RAISE Act, to reform immigration by deemphasizing family relationships. Their silence is curious because in 1980 Jerry Farwell wrote

The family is the fundamental building block and the basic unit of our society, and its continued health is a prerequisite for a strong and prosperous nation. It appears that the President’s house prophets either tell him what he wants to hear or forever hold their peace.

Mark Silk goes on to explore the story of Israel’s King Ahab’s effort to get King Jehoshaphat of Judea to join him in waging war against Ramoth. They consult Ahab’s 400 prophets who say God supports the plan. Jehoshaphat isn’t convinced and asks if there isn’t there another prophet. Well, there is, but Ahab doesn’t like him because he never says anything in his favor. Nonetheless, Micaiah is consulted. He too supports the plan. Strangely enough, Ahab insists that he tells the truth, which he does, painting of a picture of sheep without a shepherd. Stranger yet

19 Micaiah continued,

 “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne with all the multitudes of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left.

20 And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?’ “One suggested this, and another that.

 21 Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord and said, ‘I will entice him.’

 22 “‘By what means?’ the Lord asked.

 “‘I will go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,’ he said.

“‘You will succeed in enticing him,’ said the Lord. ‘Go and do it.’

 23 “So now the Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. The Lord has decreed disaster for you.” (1 Kings)

Ahab doesn’t believe the truth he asked for, imprisons Micaiah, goes off to war and is killed (Silk).

On August 8, the Washington Post prints a story about Robert Jeffress, one of President Trump’s evangelical supporters, releasing a statement saying the president has the moral authority to “take out” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He cited Romans 13 giving the government authority to deal with evil doers. It is a complex rationale. Christians in Germany debated this same passage about supporting the Nazi government in WWII. They split some supporting the government, others forming a resistance (Bailey); including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the author of Cost of Discipleship who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp, two weeks before it was liberated by US soldiers, and a month before the end of the War in Europe (Wikipedia). By the way, Romans 13 can also give Kim Jong Un the authority to govern (Bailey).

On Friday David Brooks, a New York Times columnist whom I greatly admire wrote a column arguing Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, should resign over the firing of James Damore, the author of the controversial memo about women and technology. His reason is not that he supports the memo, the reason is Pichai failed to stand up to the mob. It turns out Damore cited multiple credible scientific sources about the difference between men and women and how our brains are formed; the measurable differences in how men are interested in things, and women are interested in people. It involves the continuing conflict between the debate over environment and genes in shaping human behavior, which it is turning out to be far more complex and far more interrelated than first anybody ever thought. Multiple credible scientist backup Damore’s summary of the research.

Moreover, Damore makes sure to write that the research applies only to populations not to individuals. Brooks goes on to note that we live our lives as individuals, and it is true women in the tech world face a difficult challenge. He continues, there is real tension here between the competing truths of population science versus gender equality. Brooks acknowledges that the media did a terrible job of covering the complexity of the story and its competing truths. He states that Damore was hounded just as mobs on college campuses have been hounding speakers whose positions they disagree with. It doesn’t help that Google’s diversity officer also ignored the scientific subtlety of the memo and declared it to advance incorrect assumptions about gender.

For Brooks, Pichai fails when he chooses not to wrestle with the tension between population research and individual experience. Instead, he followed the mob writing

To suggest a group of our colleagues, have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not O.K.

which Brooks writes is “a blatantly dishonest characterization of the memo.”

The risk Brooks sees is that

We are at a moment when mobs on the left and on the right ignore evidence and destroy scapegoats (Brooks).

Brooks is right. It is as Matt Skinner wrote

We’re talking a lot right now about preaching in a culture of fear stoked by media, political polarization, and cultural panic (Skinner).

Now to connect the five dots. The story of Joseph, the whole story of Abraham’s family, raises the difficult question of how God works in the world (Fretheim). Is God the single cause of every action? Or is everything random? Or does God just make do, with halfhearted, risk free action or with the evil intentions of the likes of Joseph’s brothers, or the selfish intentions of Joseph, or the biased actions of Jacob, or the failed efforts of Ruben, or the profit driven efforts of Judah to avert death and gain wealth (Epperly) (Fretheim)? In part, we learn that evil and or sinful behavior can disturb God’s plans, but they cannot stop them (Fretheim). But, that does not mean we can ignore the abusive, oppressive, self-absorbed, greedy evil, sinful actions we see.

We also see in this story that if everyone one is guilty we ignore the role of family and community (Fretheim). There is such a thing as social / community guilt. If we turn God into an all controlling deity we negate our responsibility and encourage passivity in the face of evil (Fretheim). Neither Godly determinism nor Godly noninterference, or interaction grasps the truth. The truth is in the fifth dot; the boat.

Jesus has sent the disciples across the sea. After his prayer time, he sets out walking across the sea to catch up with them. They see him and are terrified he is a ghost. Jesus tells them “I am, ~ take heart, ~ do not be afraid.” They recognize him; well maybe. Peter asks, “If it is you” which is so close to what Satan says in the wilderness temptations. Jesus says “come” and Peter steps out of the boat and starts walking to Jesus, until he sees the wind, his heart is transformed, and he panics and cries out for help. Jesus reaches out for him and gets both to safety.

Once they are in the boat Jesus asks, “Why did you doubt?” We always presume Jesus is talking about Peter’s misadventure on the water. However, living with an artist, who favors icons full of images that suggest the true story, I was caught by the realization that the boat is an ancient symbol ~ of the church (Hoezee). It is plausible Jesus is asking Peter, Why, did you step away from your faith community? Why did you step away from the church (Richter)?

We can glean that when we face the winds of a tempestuous world, and as we have explored, they are wildly stormy at the moment, the place from which we should operate is from the God/Jesus/Spirit’s spigot of the strength the church. A further gleaning is that Jesus did not hesitate, immediately he reached out. In this, we learn that Jesus will never let you go. God has not, is not, and will never give up on you, will never give up on his church (Epperly).

 I had completed my writing Friday evening. Saturday morning as the news from Charlottesville broke, I knew I should add a post script. So, this is my post script, albeit, not following the previous end. However, before Charlottesville, a story from Princeton Theological Seminary.

Earlier this year a protest arose over the Seminary’s decision to award Rev. Tim Keller the Kuyper Prize,

because the Presbyterian Church in America does not ordain women or LGBTQ+ individuals.

After multiple phone calls including protesters and Rev Keller, Dr. Craig Barnes, president of the seminary, decided it was more important to hear Rev. Keeler speak than to award a prize, so the awarding the prize was set aside. Additionally, a preaching event featuring female and LBGTQ+ voices was organized. People were invited to attend both events. There were no disruptive protest on the days of the event.

Dr. Barnes notes that people who disagreed spoke to each other were a significant factor. He also believes that Princeton is a Christ Centered community, that we all belong to Christ, and as long as we are clear about that there can be disagreements, but everybody still belongs (Barnes).

Now to Charlottesville. If you do not know, White Nationalists organized a protest over removing a statue of Gen. Lee from a city park formerly named for him, now known as emancipation park. There was a large counter protest. For unknown reasons, the barriers separating the groups began to come down, the police retreated and the two sides engaged in a fight, in which people were injured, including a police officer. Later a car drove into a group of counter protesters. Everybody condemned the violence. Jeff Sessions, Melina Trump, Gov. McAuliffe, his Republican election opponent Ed Gillespie Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan, and President Donald Trump condemned the actions. But, no one is acknowledging how their previous language and behaviors contributed to the problem. It does. The white nationalist protesters chanted Nazi-era slogans and phrases like

 “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.”

Former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke said

We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” to “take our country back (Tiefenthaler).

How we act in response to events or words that offend us ~ matters. What we say in the face of what we oppose matters. Our actions that denigrate, exclude, or harm others is never helpful.

Charlottesville is not a single one-off incident. It is not the sole responsibility of the alt right or the left or whatever position we see the other as. Charlottesville is only the latest example of the breakdown in civil discourse lead by our National legislators who will not even speak to each other. It is the result of decades of increasing separation of people with opposing views. It is the result of the failure of the Church to take a stand in the public square, putting our theological differences aside, and proclaiming that everyone belongs to God in Christ. The result is we are losing the ability to talk to each other. And if we cannot do that; how can we negotiate our differences; if we cannot talk to each other how can we work for the common good of all God’s people?

So yes, we live in stormy times. And yes, we are called to be prophets, and speak the radical truth in the face arrogance, discrimination, oppression, and especially mob “they versus us” think. For there is no they, everyone is made in the image of God. And yes, we are called to courageously mediate the tension between complex conflicting truths of divergent views of the world. This means we are also called to listen respectfully and deeply to what “they” have to say and to be open to be changed. For there is no absolute truth, other than God’s love for all creation. And yes, we are to stand between any mob, to the left or to the right and their intended scape goat, bringing them, by our hand, into the safety of our boat, into the safety of the church. For there is no moment when God/Jesus/ Spirit is not by our side, is not by their side.

Finally, our 1 revelation. In our opening collect we ask for the wisdom and strength to think and do what is right. And we can always make the effort so long as we Search for the Lord and his strength; continually seek his face (Ps 105:4) for his strength faileth never and his face is always shining upon you.

References

Bailey, Sarah Pulliam. ‘God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un,’ evangelical adviser says. 13 8 2018. <washingtonpost.com /news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/08/08/god-has-given-trump-authority-to-take-out-kim-jong-unevangelical-adviser -says>.

Barnes, Craig. What I learned from our seminary’s conflict about hosting. 16 8 2017. <christiancentury.org /article/what-i-learned-our-seminary-conflict-about-hosting-tim-keller>.

Bratt, Doug. Proper 14 A Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28 . 13 8 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Brooks, David. Sundar Pichai Should Resign as Google’s C.E.O. 11 8 2017. <nytimes.com /2017/08/11/opinion/sundar-pichai-google-memo-diversity.html>.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 13 8 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Fretheim, Terence E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary; The Book of Genesis. Ed. I. Vol. XII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

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

Hoezee, Scott. Proper 14 A Matthew 14: 22-33. 13 8 2017. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Lose, David. Pentecost 10 A: Something More. 13 8 2017.

Richter, Amy. “Our Faith inside the Boat, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost.” 13 8 2017. Sermons that Work.

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

Silk, Mark. Keep up the good work, evangelical prophets! 4 8 2017. <religionnews.com /2017/08/04/keep-up-the-good-work-evangelical-prophets/>.

Skinner, MAtt. That Sinking Feeling. 13 8 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Smith, Mitzi J. Commentary on Matthew 14:22-33. 13 8 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.

Tanner, Beth L. Commentary on Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28. 13 8 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Tiefenthaler, Ainara. Car Hits Crowd After White Nationalist Rally in Charlottesville Ends in Violence. 12 8 2017. <nytimes.com /2017/08/12/us/charlottesville-protest-white-nationalist.html>.

Wikipedia. “wikipedia.org.” n.d. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 13 8 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passover_Seder&gt;.

 

 

As the Lord Commanded Him

A sermon for Advent 4; Isaiah 7:10-16, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25, Psalm 80:17, 16-18

Boyfriend: “What would you say if I asked you to marry me?”
Girlfriend: “I’d say ‘DUCK’!”
Boyfriend: “Duck? Why?!”
Girlfriend: “Because my father will want to shoot you.” (not always romantic.com).

This just goes to show that some things haven’t changed a whole lot in 2,000 years. Mary is engaged to Joseph. That means a lot more than engagements mean today. It is a legal contract with stiff penalties for breaking the engagement. According to Deuteronomy (22:23-27)

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 young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

This morning’s Gospel story opens after Joseph has already decided what to do (Boring). Its opening is full of heartache (Lose). Joseph is a righteous man, which means he keeps the law but it also means he is a just man (Boring). Joseph is engaged to Mary who is unexpectedly pregnant. He decides to keep the law, but by quietly sending her home. In the face of a disgraceful situation, with all its heartbreak, Joseph’s makes a rational, gently ethical decision (Epperly). Though distasteful, his troubles will soon be over. Joseph heads off for a good night sleep.

We are always encouraged to get a good night’s sleep. I expect that was exactly what Joseph was hoping for. Only the dreams that come with a deep sleep can be so disruptive, they can change your world (Epperly). Ask Joseph. He falls asleep, deeply asleep. And then ~ then he dreams.

In his dream, he is spoken to by an angel, a divine messenger from God. The message turns his world over. Joseph is told Mary’s child is of the Spirit. He is not to be afraid He is to go ahead with his marriage to Marry, as socially unconventional and shameful as it is (Harrelson). The child will be named Jesus, and he will save God’s people from their sins. Perhaps Joseph in his dream remembers Isaiah: Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7: 14) Whether it be the angel or the citing from Isaiah there was some credence or importance to the message because Joseph … did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. (Matt 1:24)

It is Joseph’s actions that captured me this morning. He displays the obedience Paul refers to in Romans when he writes as part of being set apart for the Gospel … to bring about obedience of faith (Romans 1:1, 5) (Ellingsen). We already know Joseph is righteous because he follows the law. But, righteousness is more a quality of one’s relationship with God (Pankey). One measure of Joseph’s relationship is that he is also open to the divine mystical, this time a divine message in a dream (Epperly). We learn that he is righteous by his actions, that are counter-intuitive, and difficult; it is a near certainty that some of his neighbors whispered over fence lines. We have to learn from Joseph’s actions because Joseph never speaks; not in this story never ~ in all the Gospels does Joseph say a word (Hoezee).

Joseph’s actions reveal his mysticism. Part of being open to the mystical is to be open to divine power that is at work within us that is able to accomplish more than all we can ask or imagine, (Ephesians 3:20) (Epperly). I doubt that Joseph ever imagined that he would be the pseudo father of God’s son on earth. Being open to the mystical is to accept the unexpected. Jesus himself is unexpected. That God did not choose an accomplished priest, a Pharisee, a Sadducee or an accomplished politician is unexpected. But he chose a rather ordinary man with his own doubts and questions who wanted to do the right thing but needs angelic guidance to accomplish it is all the more startling to us (Lose). Think of how startling it is to Joseph. Joseph’s righteous mysticism allows him to be part of the apocalypse, the revelation of the divine secret for the future of the world known in Jesus’ birth. (Sakenfeld) (Allen).

Joseph’s face to face with the unlikely manifestation of the presence of God in the here and now is a model for all of us who encounter a divine message through an Angle, the Spirit, Jesus or God’s divine self (Allen). His acceptance and actions make him a part of the message that the birth of Jesus signals that the final transformation of humanity and the cosmos is underway and that the community, we, can remain faithful even in the face of conflict and chaos because they can believe that the transformation is already in process (Allen). Joseph’s story reminds us that it can be safer to keep God at a distance; because when we are in God’s presence, someone is going to tell us a truth whether we want to hear it or not. One the other hand it is Advent; and Advent is a time to see divine light, to reorient our lives to that light and to share the light, the light, of the truth of God’s presence (Lewis). This story also reminds us to be wary of those who speak of Christmas, or Jesus’s birth, without trembling at the mere thought of divine incarnation that God would come to us, in human form (Whitley). Mary was troubled. Joseph was troubled. To speak so lightly of Jesus’ birth as to not be troubled may demonstrate a shallowness of soil in which roots, cannot take hold.

Joseph’s story reminds us that God really is with you and there is a messenger with a special message, just for you. What are your dreams? what divine message is there? How is God communicating with you? what is your divine message? what is your calling? In the face of significant disappointment or heartache, how do you respond? With rational – ethical – gentleness; or some other way? Do you remain open to the mystical; open to more than we can ask or imagine? Joseph sets an ethical example for all of us. His behavior reminds us that ethics is acting in ways that follow God’s calling not social customs; even those we have long attributed to God.

Today is the 4th Sunday of Advent. In six short days, we will step into Joseph’s story. It will be our turn to receive and hear an angelic messenger. It will be our choice to fully live into the message, or not. It will be another opportunity to test God, to accept divine restoration, to be set aside for the Gospel, and share our faith in the divine mystery that has and continues to form our lives so that in all we do we bring grace and peace to all from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen


References

Allen, Ron. Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25. 18 12 2016 <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Boring, M. Eugene. The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X!! vols. App Olivetree.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 18 12 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 18 12 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

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

Hoezee, Scott. Advent 4A | Matthew. 18 12 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. The Good News of God With Us. 18 12 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Advent 4 A: God Really With Us. 18 12 2016.

not always romantic.com. shotgun-wedding. n.d. 16 12 2016. <https://notalwaysromantic.com/shotgun-wedding/21546&gt;.

Pankey, Steve. “Jesus’ other name.” 18 12 2016. Draughting Theology.

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

Whitley, Katerina. “God is With Us! Advent 4(A).” 18 12 2016. Sermons that Work.

 

Surprised by new hope

A sermon for Christmas Eve

Isaiah 9:27, Titus 2:1114, Luke 2:114(15-20), Psalm 96

I’m tired, are you? I’ve just flat been busy; not bad stuff just lots of stuff. Beginning on Thanksgiving, with helping to pack nearly a 1,000 Thanksgiving Day meals, I have participated in seven board or related meetings; participated in or been to four programs or parties. I’ve helped Angie host our own party, made one out of town trip to visit to grand kids and oh yea, our daughters and their spouses, we had a great, but tiring time. On top of the seasonal stuff I’ve also made regular scheduled stuff like two nights at the Great River Charitable Clinic and three all day trips to Little Rock, Jonesboro and Memphis. And oh, how can I forget I’m trying to get ready for January’s D.Min. session; I ‘m really excited about it, but it’s a lot to add to an already busy schedule. I’m tired. Are you tired?

If the calendar isn’t enough I’m tired of all the junk in the news. I’m tired of the North Korea mess. I’m tired of poorly hired, trained and resourced police getting entangled in tragic events. I’m tired of angry, emotional, disconnected, folks taking advantage of tragedies for personal privilege or gain, whose actions degrade the hard work of faithful courageous folks seeking justice and righteousness. I’m tired of people assassinating police or soldiers. I’m tired of people using guns whenever they get upset about anything, including a messed up McDonald’s order (Meyer)  I’m tired of our own inability, including my mine, to see the harm we do to others who are not like us. I’m tired of ISIS, the Taliban, and others who use gross previsions of Islam to abuse and oppress others; the same goes for abuse of Judaism or Christianity or any other faith’s holy writ. I’m tired of the endless messes in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I’m tired of Ebola, and fear driven reactions, that limit help, far more then they protect. I’m tired of Putin the Thug. I’m tired of our own political thuggery, again including mine. I’m tired of rampant sexual misconduct and poorly thought out responses driven by fear, embarrassment and, let’s be honest misogyny. I’m tired of tired of child abuse, in whatever form. I’m tired of people naming everything that’s uncomfortable and beyond our understanding as mental illness. I’m tired of entrenched endemic ignoring of what can and ought to be done for mentally ill. I’m tired of the news media drowning us in the small percentage of the tragic and the terrible that terrifies us all the while ignoring the enormity of the good that goes on simply because they know fear sells advertising. I’m tired. Are you tired?

Mary and Joseph are tried.  Mary has ridden a donkey and Joseph has walked 70 or 80 miles. Jesus has just been born, Joseph has got to be tired, I was when my girls were born, and I didn’t do anything. The bible doesn’t mention any one being around to help mid wife Mary. Mary is REALLY tired; yes giving birth is extraordinarily joyful but my observation is it’s exhausting. Mary, Joseph, and all Israel are tired.

All Israel is tired of the Roman Empire. Yes they bring the Pax Romana but it’s on their terms, and don’t try to change anything. Their Emperor dares to call himself a god. Everyone is literally tired, everyone had to walk miles to register, to pay poll taxes. Everyone is tired of justice that’s dependent on bribery. Everyone is tired of petty local Kings, backed by Roman Legions, whose job is to control local populations, by any means. All Israel is tired of Herod the brutish tyrant who rules Palestine. He’s not even Jewish! Everyone is tired of taxes they get no benefit from. There are taxes on farm produce, anything bought and sold, on houses and land; there’s even a kind of progressive income tax. To collect them all Rome make use of greedy tax collectors, locals who get rich by over collecting taxes due.

Everyone is tired of the Jewish authorities, who are always maneuvering, scrapping with each other to win favor with Herod and or Rome, imposing dubious religious obligations and/ or restraints for their own benefit; and to collect even more taxes, such as the Temple tax and a second tithe on produce of land. All Israel is tired. Are you tried?

Shepherds are tired. They are not highly regarded. They work from early morning till early morning. Sheep have to be lead to food, so shepherds walk them to pasture. Sheep have to be led to water so shepherds either lead them to a stream or dig a well. The only chance to sleep is when sheep nap after watering. Sheep easily get lost so it takes a constant watch to keep them from wandering away; and since they can’t find their way home, shepherds lead them home. And after a long hard day shepherds protect the sheep at night from wild beast and thieves. Shepherds are tired. Are you tired?

So yes, Mary & Joseph are tired, all Israel is tired, and the Shepherds are tired. Life is hard the prospect for improvement is difficult to see. [Pause] Into this cold bleak mid-winter night so long ago Angles appear singing tidings of great joy, to tired poor cold shepherds, who drew the night shift – again; for to them that night, there is good news, there is a new savior, they will find in oh that little town, who will be in bands of cloth – swaddling clothes. It must ring with surprising authenticity because they take the risk and go to see. To their surprise they find the place and just as the angle said they find Jesus in a manger, with lowing cattle all around. They tell Mary and Joseph what the angle said. It matches what Gabriel said, and Mary wholeheartedly ponders the meaning as, the only now mentioned, gathered folks are amazed. Shepherds ~ are surprised by new hope. [i] Mary & Joseph ~ are surprised new hope. All who hear ~ are surprised by a new hope. A new hope Emmanuel is right here God’s presence, in flesh and blood, that you can reach out and touch, is right here. Into this cold bleak mid-winter night there is new hope that darkness will give way to light, that the oppressive tiresome yolk will be shattered, that justice and righteousness will be established. And this new hope is not just present to Mary and Joseph, or to first century Israel, or to shepherds, or to those gathered around. This cold bleak mid-winter night’s new hope is with us, everyone. As they were surprised by new hope: Emmanuel, God’s presence, so should we be.

In the face of the cold bleak mid-winter international turmoil, national mayhem, local confusion, personal chaos, we are not alone ~ Emmanuel is right here, right now, and always will be. Surprised by new hope we need never be tired again, for we never have been, nor ever will be alone, God is with us, right here, right now.


References

Easton, Matthew George. Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary. WORDsearch Corp, 2008. ebook.

“Holman Bible Dictionary.” WORD – QuickVerse , n.d.

Meyer, Holly. “Man pulls gun after wrong McDonald’s order.” Tennessean (2014). <http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2014/12/23/police-man-pulls-gun-wrong-mcdonalds-order/20797161/&gt;.

Orr, Jame, ed. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. WORDsearch, 2004.

Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. 2008.


[i] Inspired by NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope

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

 

Live righteously, do justice, and be obedient.

I got promoted last night. It was  well worth the two hours I spent standing in front of the big box store front doors ringing bells, wishing people “Merry Christmas” and saying “Thanks” when they made a contribution to the Blytheville Union Mission’s ministry to the homeless in Mississippi County and surrounding area. My benefactor was blond, maybe three. We exchanged Merry Christmas as she and her mom went in the store. Her mom contributed to the effort on their way out to a “Merry Christmas and thank you.” That’s when I got promoted, Dad arrived in their car, then as mom put her in her car seat, she said “Bye Santa” What a great ending to a long day.

I suspect it was my 60 year old gray beard and red pointy hat and not the exchange of “Merry Christmas” that lead to my promotion. But the truth is, it happened because I was where I was, doing my part to support the mission. In that respect the experience is a little bit like our relationship with Joseph. Scott Hoezee notes that Joseph never speaks a word in the Bible. (1) We know Joseph through his actions. He is righteous; he lives his life by the law (i.e. he intends to divorce Mary) he exercises justice (i.e. he chose to divorce her quietly, not exposing her to public humiliation and possible death) and he is obedient (he does what the angel of God tells him to do, and completes the marriage contract with Mary). At least according to Matthew, Joseph saves the day for the infant Messiah when, once again, he listens to God’s angel messenger and flees with his family (as unorthodox as it is) to Egypt to escape Herod’s fearful violent effort to keep what he has.

One could easily spend all their time reading the books and articles on how a church can make itself known through Face-book, Twitter, Web sites, Instagram, email news letters, and a bunch I don’t even know about. Jospeh’s story leads us to another conclusion. His model is to live righteously, do justice, and be obedient. I believe such a life will draw more attention than all the social media ever could.

(1) Scott Hoezee, Center for Excellence in Preaching, Matthew 1:18-25,