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.

 

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God’s Just Because Love.

A sermon for Proper 25: Joel 2:23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18, Luke 18:9-14

Two men walk into the Temple. One stands tall, surveys the people there and prays “God, I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income; I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” The other slips off to the side and with head bowed in humility prays “God, be merciful to me, a sinner! I thank you that I am not like other people, like that Pharisee!”

You are right; this is not how the story goes. However, it is what many of us take away from it. We flip the roles around, thinking we should be humble like the tax collector; and that we should not be like the Pharisee. Only everything the Pharisee says is correct (Hoezee, Luke; Lose, Working Preacher). Scholars believe his prayer is a standard Jewish prayer of thanksgiving at that time. To judge the Pharisee, which is what we do when we flip the roles, is to make the same mistake the Pharisee is making. There is nothing that tells us the Pharisee is a bad person, quite the opposite; he lives as his spiritual guides tell him to live (Epperly). The error he makes is to believe he has done it all by himself (Lose, Working Preacher). He puts all his trust in his ability.

Today we hear similar ideas expressed when people proudly proclaim “Look what I did!” “See what I built.” “See how successful I am.” What is being overlooked is the interconnectedness of all our lives. The Pharisee’s success, all success, is the product of the efforts of many, many people, as well as the efforts of those who claim success (Epperly). For the last several weeks we have been laying a laminate floor upstairs. Success to date is the results of: the manufacturer, the retailer, the power company, a second retailer, who sells toy often called tools, our son in law, Blytheville Public Works, and how can I forget, the makers of Ibuprofen and ice packs. Success is the collaboration of many people. When we ignore the interconnectedness of life, claiming all the success is because of our work, we get infected by a false sense of independence and moral superiority; and this infection blinds us to the presence of God’s grace. We may say “There but for the grace of God go I.” but the implication that the other lacks God’s grace, based on the lack of trappings of what we call success, or that we have God’s grace, by the presence of trappings of what we call success, is an error in judgment made twice. We judge the other negatively “there go I;” and we judge ourselves positively, “except for the grace of God.” And it is all a bit strange because biologists, psychologists, physiologists, neurologist and sociologists say we are hard-wired for relationship. Scripture says we were created in relationship; God created humanity, male and female in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). Theologians teach us that we are created to be in relationship with God, just because God loves us. And we still tend to follow the cultural ideology that we should be self-sufficient and the theological ideology to earn each other’s love and earn God’s love, all the while saying we cannot (Rice).

Two of today’s reading debunk the ideas of rugged individualism and earned love. Joel’s prophecy, which follows some of the most gruesome in the bible, is a democratization of the presence of God. Everyone is to receive God’s spirit, young boys, girls, slaves, all who were previously excluded, will prophecy; (Joel 2:28) everyone is invited to share God’s wisdom with others (Hoezee, Joel; Epperly).

Jesus tells of a Pharisee properly entering the Temple to pray, and offering the correct prayer then contrasts him with a tax collector, who is a traitor to his country by serving the Roman occupiers, and to God by his not following the Law. The story finishes with the least likely person in all Israel, a tax collector, being justified, loved and restored to relationship with God, just because he is. Luke’s Gospel is addressed to Theophilus, which means lover of God. The Tax Collector does go to the Temple exhibiting some love of God; so, Jesus’ reference to “this man” just might extend to everyone who makes any effort to follow God (Ellingsen).

A last bit from scripture about justification. When Jesus dies, the curtain in the Temple, which separates the Holy of Holies, God’s home on earth, from the rest of the world is torn in two. There is no longer anything that divides us from God, and therefore nothing that should divide us from each other (Lose, Working Preacher). There is justification for all.

In the last three weeks, I have spoken about how by our baptism we are consecrated, set aside for God’s service. I have spoken about how we are called to be stewards to the household of God and that we are to cultivate and nurture the relationships between ourselves, our neighbors, strangers, and aliens in the land. I have spoken about how through our prayers and our presence we can help each other expand our limits and deepen our faith.

This morning I hope we can begin to see that our living into our baptism, as consecrated stewards in God’s household is the fruits of justification, God’s just because love for us. The more we recognize that God’s loves us and those other people, the more we are able to live into our baptism, as consecrated stewards in God’s household. It is my prayer that by passing the peace and sharing Eucharist we grow in seeing God’s love in every relationship. It is my prayer that by sharing of God’s abundance in our care for each other and our neighbors, and by going forth in the power of the Spirit, we grow in sharing God’s love in every relationship we have (Rice). It is my prayer that as we walk through life we pray “Thank you God for loving me, just like you love all these other people.”


References

Bouzard, Walter C. Commentary on Joel 2:23-32. 23 10 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scriture Notes. 23 10 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 23 10 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Frederick, John. Commentary on 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18. 23 10 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

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 25 C Luke 18:9-14. 23 10 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

—. Proper 25 C 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 . 23 10 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-18c/>.

—. Proper 25 C Joel 2:23-32. 23 10 2016.

Lewis, Karoline. Dear Working Preacher Thank God for the Other. 23 10 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4706 1/3>.

Lose, David. Commentary on Luke 18:9-14. 23 10 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

—. Pentecost 25 B: Pretenders to the Throne. 23 10 2016.

Rice, Whitney. “Will We Accept God’s Love? Proper 25.” 23 10 2016. Sermons that Work.

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

 

Proverbial wisdom – Choosing God’s unexpected disruptive path.

A sermon for Proper 18; Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 Psalm 125 James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17 Mark 7:24-37

Do you have a favorite pithy saying from your childhood? I don’t know ~ something like The early bird catches the worm? Please share it with us. A stitch in time saves nine. Early to bed early to rise makes one healthy wealthy and wise.

All of these are something like modern proverbs; they are sayings that teach something about life. As a rule they are descriptive they describe what works and what doesn’t; they tend not to give advice.

The Book of Proverbs is attributed to Solomon. It’s not likely he wrote all of them. Perhaps he collected the wisdom of the ages. It’s thought King Hezekiah collected some and attributed them to Solomon. Scholars know they date from the 10th century to the 6th to the 4th-century BCE. Some are borrowed from the surrounding cultures. The section today’s couplets come from a section that is similar to Egyptian teachings rewritten in Hebrew setting. As a rule Proverbs present wisdom: as from God, mediated by people or institutions, that we have the capacity for justice and wisdom, that respect for God is the beginning of wisdom, that we have the freedom and responsibility to choose the path of righteousness or the path of the wicked, and no the devil did not make you do it (Sakenfeld).

Today’s teachings focus on justice and status. In short everyone is created by God, and our wealth and status are a blessing, like Abraham’s blessing, they are given to us, to be blessing to the world (Bouzard). A classmate of mine wrote that today’s verses should make us think about: how we live in the world and relate to each other, how we understand justice and poverty, how we explore if we trust God to love all of us, good bad or indifferent, and that God’s love is enough (Metz).

Perhaps an example of choosing the path of justice and righteous will help us understand how Proverbs might guide us.

We heard two stories from Mark this morning. Let’s look at the second one first. It takes place in Decapolis, a gentile area. Some friends of a deaf mute bring him to Jesus and implore him to lay hands on their friend. In private Jesus sticks his finger in his ears and after spitting, touching his tongue, and saying “Be opened.” the man is healed. Jesus goes back into public with him and tells them to be quiet. They aren’t. Have you ever noticed how every time Jesus tells people not to talk about his works, all they can talk about ~ is his works. With the story of Jesus restoring a Gentile’s hearing and speaking as a background let’s take a look at Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman.

Jesus is in Tyre, another Gentile region, to get away. It is not going to happen. A woman hears about him. She speaks to him about healing her daughter.

A couple of things about Jesus’ reply. ‘Children’ is a reference to Israel. Some commentators expound on how Jesus could have understood his ministry to be to Israel first. Nonetheless, his reply to the woman is bluntly demeaning; no way around it, he was rude. The woman speaks to him again, noting how even dogs get the crumbs from the children’s table. Jesus heals her daughter, right then, right there.

In the second story, Jesus restores a man’s ability to hear and speak. In the first story, a woman hears about Jesus and speaks. In both stories, God’s breaking into the world cannot be suppressed. Jesus does not want to heal the girl, yet he is compelled to, God breaks in. Jesus wants the deaf mutes healing to stay private, it spread like wildfire, God breaks in (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). God has always and continues to break into the world. What gets to us is that God does so in ways that conflict with our values and desires be they economic, political, social or religious (Kiel).

The woman is passionate about her daughter. But what disrupts Jesus’ understanding of his ministry is that she tells an uncomfortable truth: the presence of God is available to the least of God’s people. It took courage even to approach Jesus. It took courage to speak the truth. And in speaking the truth the woman changes the direction of Jesus’ ministry; his next stop is way out of the way Gentile territory (Lewis).

The encounter with the Syrophoenician woman shows Jesus walking wisdom’s path as he chooses the way of righteousness, which is always to be open and responsive to the disruptive presence of God. In this encounter, Jesus extends the good news of God’s presence, to those Jewish teaching would exclude, through healing (Hoezee, Mark). So yes, these are healing stories; they are also stories of making the choice to follow wisdom’s way in choosing righteousness. And by the way, righteousness is not making a moral decision, it is making the decision to follow God. The difference is morality is defined by human institutions, remember last week’s traditions and rules; choosing to follow God often means going against traditions and rules (Hoezee).

There are some recent news items where Jesus’ choosing to follow Proverbs’ teaching illuminate the events. Kim Davis is choosing to follow her religious tradition and not issue marriage licenses that offend her religious rules. Her oath of office states:

I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth …. (The Associated Press)

While I think her religious stance is biblically incorrect, I admire her taking that stance in her tradition and rules. She clearly has a conflict between her Oath of Office, which end “so help me God.” and her religious tradition and rules. Proverbs’ path of wisdom calls us to be open to God’s disruptive breaking in. I see this as Mrs. Davis’ more difficult struggle.

The news and social media has been full of the photograph of the 3 year old drowned on the beach after the boat he was in capsized. It has captured our hearts. It is generating pressure on governments to do something to care for the influx of refugees. The traditional response is to decide who will take how many refugees and how to pay for their transition into society. Proverbs’ path of wisdom would lead us to take the very risky action necessary to stop the wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Libya, etc. God’s breaking into these disasters is not necessarily upping the military commitment though I fear that may be a necessity. However, the righteous decision does call on all parties involved to stop following the decades-long tradition that has created the current conundrum.

Closer to home. Mississippi County and Blytheville are enmeshed in vast disruptions to local tradition and rules, especially the soft ones, those categorized as “the way we’ve always done it” and those known, but never spoken. There are emerging opportunities to respond righteously to these challenges. All of them mean changing the ways we go about our communal business and the way we relate to each other. To be successful, we need to be attentive to God’s breaking in as Jesus is, and he is already breaking traditions and rules.

Even closer. We need to make some decisions about St. Stephen’s future. I’ve asked before: “How are we going to proclaim the presence of God right here, right now?” What I know is the current tradition and rules, the soft ones, are not getting the job done. I have not encountered a Syrophoenician challenging our fundamental ways; nonetheless, I know God is whispering in our ears. God is breaking in. Our challenge is to be like Jesus: to be open to the Spirit, to be willing to change everything, to trust in God with all our hearts, because we trust that God’s alone is enough  (Hoezee, Mark; Metz).


References

Adam, A. K. M. Commentary on James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17. 6 9 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

Bouzard, Walter. Commentary on Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23. 6 9 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 6 9 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

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

Hoezee, Scott. “Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23.” 6 9 2015. Working Preacher.

—. The Lectionary Gospel Mark 7:24-37. 6 9 2015.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 6 9 2015.

Kiel, Micah. Commentary on Mark 7:24-37. 6 9 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. God Said Yes to Me. 6 9 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

Mast, Stan. Lectionary Epistle. 6 9 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Metz, Susanna. “Learning from Proverbs – Proper 18(B).” 6 9 2015. Sermons that Work.

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

The Associated Press. “Here is the oath of office taken by county clerks in Kentucky.” 3 9 2015. abc news.go.com. web. 6 9 2015. <http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/oath-court-clerk-now-jailed-gay-marriage-33516278&gt;.

A sermon on the Feast of the Presentation

 Malachi 3:1-4, Hebrews 2:14-18, Luke 2:22-40, Psalm 84

Focus: Life with God in the ordinary

 This morning is as new for me as it is for you. The feast of the Presentation is always February 2nd. The last time that was on a Sunday was … well I couldn’t find it; however, in a conversation Wednesday I was told the next time it occurs is 2025. That’s a long way of saying I’ve never preached this Gospel story before. We are all in for an adventure.

 I didn’t get six words into it before I was off into Bible dictionaries and Strong’s Concordance (which tells you what the Hebrew and Greek words are). I am aware of purification rituals, even that after childbirth women were ceremonially unclean, for thirty some odd days, and after that they underwent a purification ritual that allowed them to go fully back into society, allowed them to go in to the Temple. I was curious why it is ‘their’ purification, not ‘her’ purification.  It surprised me to learned the Greek participle αὐτός (autos) [i] is his, hers and theirs. In any case, Joseph and Mary follow the Law, as given by Moses and recorded in Leviticus; [ii] the gleaning is that they are righteous; they live in sound relationship with God.

 Their sacrifice of two pigeons caught my attention, and sure enough the prescribed sacrifice is a lamb and a dove; unless the couple cannot afford it then two pigeons are offered.  [iii] So we know that Jesus’ parents are of very modest means.

 We all know Jesus is the first born male. We might even connect that to that night in Egypt when all the first born males in the land die; except in houses with blood on the door post. As a reminder of their rescue, the Hebrews are required to dedicate every first born male to God; from cattle, flocks, herds to children. They can be redeemed for 5 shekels or about $15.23; [iv] however, there is no mention of Mary and Joseph redeeming Jesus. That may be because Luke didn’t know about it, his education is Greek, or it might remind us of Samuel whose parents, Hannah and Elkanah, in thanksgiving for having a son, dedicate their only son to God, and leave him with Eli at Shiloh, to serve God. As you know, Samuel grows to be a dynamic divine actor in Israel becoming a Kingdom, from nomadic people. Again this presents Mary and Joseph as being righteous, for by not redeeming Jesus for themselves means he is dedicated to God all his life, which is implicit in Gabriel’s telling Mary about Jesus barely a chapter, and maybe a year ago.

 Did you ever think so much could be woven into a single sentence? But it is all here: Mary’s and Joseph’s righteousness, revealed in the ritual of purification, their modest means, revealed in the sacrifice of pigeons,  and Jesus’ dedication to God, revealed in their not redeeming their first born son.

 Simeon and Anna are parallel characters. Both are very old, Simeon old enough to be near death, Anna is either 84, very old for the day, or has been a widow for 84 years, making her ancient even in this day and time. Both are righteous and devout, both spend all their time in the Temple, looking for praying for the consolation of Israel the redemption of Jerusalem. Both recognize Jesus as the long awaited Messiah. Simeon praises God, for he has seen salvation, the light for all people, the glory for Israel. Anna praises God, and starts telling everyone who is looking for the redeemer about Jesus.

Fred Craddock writes:

… both are miniatures of Israel … at [her] best: devout, obedient, constant in prayer, led by the Holy Spirit, at home in the temple, longing and hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promises.

They help us to recognize

that while God is doing a new thing, it really isn’t [new] … [because] hope is always joined to memory, and the new is God’s keeping an old promise. [v]

It is that new juxtaposed against the old, even the ancient, it’s Mary, Joseph and Jesus juxtaposed against the old Simeon and Anna, juxtaposed against the ancient Hannah, Elkanah and Samuel, juxtaposed against the more ancient deliverance in Egypt that reveals a trans-formative value of ritual observances, which are all but gone today. [vi] And just as purity rituals are not about minutia of action and words, but rather are demonstrative of a life given over to living all aspects life from relationship with God, and is inclusive of self, family, community, Gentile nations, flocks and herds, the environment, indeed all creation; ritual observances are all about grounding the new of our life in the beyond ancient hope of God’s redeeming promise. We will never know how Mary and Joseph’s righteous life affected Jesus. We do know, Jesus was himself righteous, and knowledgeable of life lived as a dedication to God.

When we limit God’s/Jesus’ presence to specific walls at specific times, everything else is diminished. The Psalmist sings:

How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts!  
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD ….

But that dwelling place is not the Temple; the Temple did not even exist if David wrote this psalm. The courts of the Lord are, as our Lord’s Prayer teaches us, on earth. I don’t think the story of The Presentation teaches us much about Jesus. I think it shows us what comes of living life in sound relationship with God, of living a modest life, of dedicating what we hold most precious of our belongings of our family, to God’s service, maybe in a specified calling but mostly in the ordinary routine of day to day life.

I have challenged us to take on the specific tasks of
–         welcoming folks home,
–         inviting family, friends and strangers to Friday Families,
–         reviving our commitment to shut-ins, including regular visits with communion,
–         kick starting Brewing Faith, and
–         discerning a new vision that may be from these walls, and may be from elsewhere.

And while, at least for us, all of it is new stuff, it’s really old; really – really old, its life is revealed in keeping ancient ritual disciplines, of prayer, study and service, its hope is grounded in God’s keeping an old promise; which we know is breaking through for: with our own eyes we’ve seen … salvation; it’s in the open for everyone to see: a God-revealing light to those who don’t yet see, and glory for your righteous people. [vii] When our work is done, may those who walked amongst us continue to grow and become strong, be filled with wisdom; and may the favor of God be upon them and us.

 


[i] Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary.

[ii] Leviticus 12

[iii] Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING, James Luther Mays, Editor,  Patrick D. Miller, Jr., Old Testament Editor,  Paul J. Achtemeier, New Testament Editor,

[iv] The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, http://www.dollartimes.com/calculators/inflation.htm

[v] Craddock,

[vi] R. ALAN CULPEPPER New Interpreters’ Bible, THE GOSPEL OF LUKE INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS

[vii] modified from The Message, Luke 22:30

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

 

Sunday’s sermon experience

You are welcome to listen to Sunday’s sermon:
                    http://www.saintstephensblytheville.org/sermons-2013.php,
it is generally posted Monday, or read below.

Note: after the service continued a youngster (2 or 3) can be head saying “It’s mine, it’s mine” and a little later “I don’t want to.” Perfect behavioral metaphors. I wonder who heard?

Proper 10

Amos 7:7-17
Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Focus: The plumb, the sword and the neighbor.
Function: reaching justice by re-visioning our place in God’s Kingdom

*****

Amos is a herdsman. And when he is not herding flocks, he is dressing, or trimming orchards, specifically Sycamore trees. Nonetheless God calls him to leave his home land of Judah (the southern half of the now divided Kingdom) and go to Israel (the northern half) and point out the injustices and the coming consequences. It is all unusual, and totally unexpected. Both Jeroboam, King of Israel and Uzziah king of Judah have been on their respective thrones for decades. That would indicate a time of stability, and prosperity. [i] Maybe so.  The problem is, the stability and prosperity are coming in part from abuse of the poor, from social and economic injustice. Judgment is at hand, Amos says so, and the imagery involved, the plumb line and sword, are symbols of justice and judgment. Like “Lady Justice” with her scales of justice, and her sword of judgment. It’s a paring in tension, seen in many cultures, spanning millennia. Here   is the plumb line, by which justice is measured, and the sword, the instrument of judgment, both are prominent in God’s instructions to Amos.

Following the images of justice and judgment, in dynamic tension, we hear from Paul’s letter to the Colossians.  If he wrote it, academics are split and timing is difficult it seems to have been written after Paul’s martyrdom. There is even question if was actually to the church in Colossae, because the city was destroyed by an earthquake and never rebuilt. [ii] No matter these details, the author is skilled and does point to issues similar to those on Galatia. New Christians, are being told there is secrete knowledge, gnosis, necessary for salvation, and they must follow a strict Torah piety. Paul, or pseudo Paul, says nope, righteousness and salvation etc. all come from Christ, and everyone who believes in his death and resurrection, thereby have righteousness. There is an argument about behavior, Paul is saying the knowledge of, belief in God in Jesus the Christ involves God pleasing, fruit bearing activity; but not work to earn God’s pleasure, rather we are able to act righteously because we are enabled by, empowered by reflecting on God’s presence, God’s action, in our lives. Moreover, opposed to gnostic, or secrete knowledge, that is given to only a few, the Good News of the Gospel  is universal, given to any and every one.

Both the verses from Amos and the opening verses to the Colossians reveal a context that informs the conversation between the lawyer, and Jesus. The lawyer is not so much to trap Jesus; for undisclosed reasons,  he wants to know how Jesus thinks you inherit eternal life. The term ‘inherit’ is important, because it reveals that the lawyer understands eternal life  on par with other inheritable assets, land, wealth etc. Jesus asks him what he thinks. The lawyer recites the Shema, a classic combination of verses  from Deuteronomy [iii] and Leviticus [iv] which every pious, every good Jews recites twice a day. Jesus says: You got it! You know what to. Get to it! The lawyer asks for further clarification: Who is my neighbor? that’s what lawyers do. Why? perhaps he sees the potential for  an expanded vision  and he is uncomfortable. Perhaps, he just does not want to Get to it. Jesus tells him the story of the good Samaritan, which ends with the question: Who is the man’s neighbor? Unable to say The Samaritan, that’s bordering on an anathema, he answers: The one who showed him mercy. All of us see who the ~ who our neighbor is.

That takes care of the definition of the noun. Underneath all that is the implied definition of the verb neighborly. (Ok ad verb.) And here we run into a double whammy. First of all, we see the unclean, the unacceptable person being neighborly to the clean, to the acceptable. Ouch, its supposed to be other way round. Then, since we are all among the clean, among the acceptable, we realize that we have received ministrations from the unclean, the unacceptable. We haven’t seen it, because we don’t look for it, or worse we expect it.

A simple example. I was with two others on a trip to San Francisco. To get back to our lodgings, we needed to buy a ticket for one stop to the next on the BART. The three of us, two with masters and one with a Doctorate, can’t figure it out. Buy a pass?  yea; buy a round trip ticket? yea; buy a one stop ticket from this stop to the next? nope. Suddenly a bag lady appears in front of us, asks what we need, holds out her hand, we fill it with dollars; her hands fly across the kiosk key board, and wha-la we have three one stop tickets. We thank her, tell her to keep the change, and go one our way. We, the acceptable in this culture, were ministered to, heck, rescued by, an unacceptable.

Mine is a humorous story   of the clean, the acceptable, being ministered to by the unclean, the unacceptable. Far more significant ministry happens every day, and it goes unnoticed, unappreciated, unacknowledged, and worse expected, a service due the worthy. It is a symptom of the injustice Amos is railing about. It reveals a division implicit in Colossians,       those with secrete knowledge and pious behavior, are worthy of such attention. It’s a dangerous place for a society to be. Ask Israel, oh yea, you can’t, they were destroyed.

Does Amos give us cause to reframe, to rethink, to prayerfully discern the multitude of justice debates in our country. You  know, the debates about: immigration, health care, marriage equality, banking regulations, agriculture subsidies, food stamps, access to education, voting rights, and more. You bet ~ they are all exactly that Amos is on about. Same is true for Colossians. All these debates are grounded in a division between the worthy, the 1% and everyone else, the now infamous 47%. But there is no division! ALL worth comes form Christ’s death and resurrection. Are there differences between us? Yes; the bible proclaims equality, not a rubber stamp sameness. In God’s eyes all human worth is derived from Christ’s ministry, and everyone, everyone, is a beneficiary, everyone inherits. That is a rub for the Lawyer. It’s a rub for us, with all our differing sorts, sizes, and sources of divisions. 

So, there is work to be done, so that justice rolls down like water; there are changes to be made so we can see and be emboldened by the love and hope born of divine wisdom, revealed in the most unexpected people. And it is work, we know how to do. It is work we are capable of doing by the enduring power, and by the relentless presence of God’s love.

 


[i] Working Preacher, July 14, Amos,
[ii] Working Preacher, July 14, Colossians
[iii] Deuteronomy 6:5
[iv] Letiticus 19:18

lectionaryscripturenotes.com http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/
              Proper 10 | OT 15 | Pentecost 8, Cycle C 

Sermons that Work
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                8 Pentecost, Proper 10 (C) – 2013, Paying the price of mercy,
                The Rev. Danae Ashley

Center for Excellence in preaching
                Next sunday is July 14, 2013 (Ordinary Time)
                                Luke 10:25-37, Scott Hoezee
                                Amos 7:7-17, Scott Hoezee
                                Colossians 1:1-14, Stan Mast

workingpreacher.org
          http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=2628
                                Who Is My Neighbor? by David Lose
                                Luke 10:25-37 Michael Rogness
                                Amos 7:7-17, Karla Suomala
                                Colossians 1:1-14, Richard Carlson