Joseph’s Christmas

Here is my sermon from the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016. This week, we get to read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Matthew, told entirely from Joseph’s perspective!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

At the first service this morning, we had our annual Sunday School Christmas Pageant. The children shared, through their words and songs, the message of God’s love becoming human in the baby Jesus. I used to love the Christmas pageant growing up, because, there weren’t a ton of kids at my church, and I almost always got to play Mary.

And it was pretty clear to me from a young age that Mary was the star. She tends to be, not just in our Christmas pageants, but in our imaginings of Christmas, too. Joseph comes off as a bit of side note. When setting up my parents’ nativity set, we always have a great debate every year over which figure even is Joseph. He’s so nondescript that he tends to blend in with the shepherds. That’s not a problem we have with Mary.

And yet, this week we read the Christmas story entirely from Joseph’s perspective. It’s a blink or you’ll miss it kind of story: because that was the whole thing, those eight verses that I read. It’s honestly not too terribly interesting—I’m not surprised we focus more on Mary. In Mary’s story in the gospel of Luke, there’s a whole cast full of characters, and drama, and songs.

Matthew has no shepherds, no manger, and just the one angel. On closer inspection, though, it’s anything but drama-less. But what we have instead of the imagined peace and placidity of the children’s pageant, or of our nativity sets, is some serious family problems.

That bland, nondescript, Joseph is anything but—he doesn’t take to kindly to the idea that his fiancé somehow is pregnant without his involvement. The words fiancé and engagement are kind of misleading in this case, since for all intents and purposes, Joseph and Mary and married. They have signed a marriage contract, but aren’t living together yet.

And Joseph finds out that she’s pregnant. Can you imagine the turmoil he must have been going through? Because he is a righteous man, the story says, he plans to dismiss her quietly. Righteous man is code for follower of the religious laws. Well, the religious laws, at best, would condemn Mary and her child to a life of poverty and shame. At worst, being stoned in the center of town. This nice, peaceful story just got a whole lot more interesting.

The conflict is resolved pretty quickly from there, though—the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and explains the situation. Joseph believes and obeys, and, in naming the child himself, essentially adopts Jesus as his son, and brings him into the line of King David.

It’s the conflict that I find interesting, though. Not in a drama-loving way—there are plenty of bad reality TV shows I can get that fix from. But the conflict opens the door, and lets us see this family—this family we so often see only as stained glass, or small carved figures—lets us see them as real, flesh and blood people.

Joseph reacted to this situation much like most of us would—with feelings of betrayal, sadness, distrust. He was hurt, and probably more than a little mad. We don’t hear about Mary’s perspective but she must have been frightened, maybe anxious.

And it’s into this situation—this real, messy, anxious family—that God enters into human history. Although we have literally idolized Mary and Joseph, there were not perfect people. They were real people. People with feelings, and arguments, real-life problems.  And this is where God chooses to set in motion the redemption of the world.

It’s easy to forget that sometimes. It’s easy to romanticize this story, to sanitize this story. But when we do that, we miss out. We miss out on the fact that Mary and Joseph were ordinary people, and God chose them anyway! God doesn’t wait for perfect people—probably because God would be waiting a long time.

When we remember, and when we celebrate, the fact that Mary and Joseph were ordinary people like you and me, it opens the door to the question: how might God be able to work through me? Through my life?

Our messiness—our feelings, our doubts, our fears and hopes and anxieties—none of it is a deterrent to God using us to do important and meaningful things. In our reading from the book of Romans, the first couple of verses of Romans actually, Paul stresses the importance of being called.

He is called, he says, to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Romans, the church he is writing to, are called to be saints, and called to belong to Jesus Christ. It’s a call that we share, with all of them actually. We too, are called to belong to Jesus and to be saints. And we, too, with Paul, are called to share the gospel.

We’re not called the same way as Mary and Joseph (although if an angel appears to you, come talk to me). We’re not called the same way as Paul, or even as the first century Romans were. But God has called us, flawed imperfect people that we might be, to proclaim love and grace in this time and place through our words and actions.

In the next week, as it seems Christmas takes over everything—TV, news, radio—we will be surrounded by the messages of peace and tranquility. Of a sweet, beautiful story. And it is, it is as beautiful story. But if, in the next week, you don’t feel quite peaceful, or if you don’t feel the calm of Mary and the quiet presence of Joseph, remember that God doesn’t just work through peaceful people and things.

God works through messy people, too. And imperfect situations. And it’s often just as beautiful in the end. Amen.

 

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Advent 3 Sermon

Below is my sermon from Sunday December 11, the third Sunday of Advent. It’s based on Matthew 11:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In my first year of seminary, we had to take a class called “thinking about God.” It was basically an overview of theological thought and positions throughout history, meant to be an introduction to more in-depth classes to come.

For the most part, it was a great class. But I’ll always remember one day, when the professor Dr. Rivera was explaining the topic for an upcoming paper, and I had absolutely no clue what the heck was going on. I didn’t know what he wanted from us in the paper, and I was trying to figure out how I was possibly going to fake my way through it. Everybody else was calmly taking notes and seemed not to be having any problems.

That’s until Casey raised her hand. And everyone waited to see what she would say. Casey was a Harvard grad and Rhodes scholar. She’d studied religion at Harvard and philosophy at Cambridge, so needless to say, she often left the rest of us in the dust in this theology course. But it turned out, Casey was just as confused about this paper as I was. As the whole class was, actually. But none of us wanted to say it—for fear of looking stupid.

It was such a relief for all of us that the smartest person in the class was willing to ask the question we were all scared to. So this week, when I read the gospel lesson, my first thought was just, thank God for John the Baptist!

Because isn’t it nice when the smartest kid in the class is willing to ask the question we might be feeling? The question we might be too scared to speak up about? The question that we fear might expose us a fraud or a phony? Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait to for another?

No one can question John the Baptist’s credentials—remember from last week, the fiery prophet in the wilderness, demanding repentance and baptizing huge crowds? Jesus says this week that he is foremost of the prophets—more than a prophet. Well, the smartest prophet in the class seems to be a little unsure of what’s going on.

So what’s changed? Well, for one, John’s not out in the wilderness being listened to by large crowds anymore. He’s been arrested, and is being held in prison by King Herod, for being a threat to political stability. It’s easy to be a prophet when you’re being followed by large crowds, when people are paying attention, and when things are going well. It’s easy to be sure and certain then.

Alone, in the dark of a prison cell, doubts start to come into the equation. When things stop going your way, the questions come, unasked for but there all the same. Was I right? Is this Jesus truly the one? If he is, why am I here in prison, then? He was supposed to change everything, and it seems for me as if nothing is any different.

When everything is sunny, bright, and going well, it’s easy for us to say God is good all the time, and all the time God is good. But when we find ourselves locked in the dark—whatever that dark is–sometimes the cry instead becomes, are you really the one?

When that unexpected, unsought for darkness surrounds us, whether it is a death of a loved one, a scary illness, loss of a job, a rift in the family, when that comes to us, we start to feel like John. Alone, abandoned by the one he gave his faith to.

Doubt is so often presented as a lack of faith. As the opposite of faith. Don’t let anyone tell you that. If anyone tries to say that you just need more faith when you’re in a dark or questioning place—I’ve got one heck of a prophet who says otherwise. Doubting and questioning aren’t the opposite of faith: instead they show a great depth of faith that is desperately trying to make sense of things. Doubt is an expression of faith, not a lack of it.

Although I believe John the Baptist’s question was brought on in part by his dark circumstances, I also think there’s more going on. I think he’s also asking whether or not Jesus is the one because Jesus isn’t quite living up to John’s expectations. It says that John heard about the things that Jesus was doing, and was prompted to ask, are the one that is to come, or are we to wait for another?

Well, just what was Jesus doing? Healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, letting the lame walk, and bringing good news to the poor. What was John looking for? Like a lot of first century Jews, he was looking for the Messiah—a powerful force who would throw off the bonds of Roman imperialism in a show of might and justice.

What he got was a traveling rabbi, doing relatively small deeds and talking about a different way. Maybe Jesus wasn’t living up to his expectations. I know how he feels, because sometimes Jesus doesn’t meet our expectations, either.

When we’re in those dark places, we expect a fixer. We expect a powerful force to take away whatever the problem is. Jesus doesn’t always meet our expectations—he doesn’t come in power; he doesn’t offer easy fixes.

He doesn’t meet our expectations—but he does exceed them. Because what we get instead of power and easy solutions is God’s own self with us in the midst of our lives. In the midst of the bright sunny places, and in the midst of the difficult times as well. Because instead of an easy fix, God choose a hard fix.

God in Christ becomes for us a companion in the dark places of our lives. Someone who has felt our pain and been through the depths of human despair. It goes against the expectations of a powerful and mighty God. But we get something more than power and might—we get Emmanuel, God with us. God for us. A God who heals the sick, and makes the blind to see, and brings good news to the poor. It might not be what we expect, but it is what we need.

One question remains for me: why do read this story—however illuminating it might be—in Advent? Why do we go from John preparing the way for Christ to waiting for execution in a dark prison cell?

When he was imprisoned by the Nazi’s in World War II, pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes—and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.”

When we are in the dark, when we have questions and doubts, we can’t always open the door to the freedom ourselves. But even when we can’t come out—God always, always, can come in. That is the true promise and hope of Christ in the manger. That God will come, in the most impossible and unlikely places, to join us, to unlock the cell, and open the door. Amen.

God’s Peaceable Kingdom

It’s a double feature this week! Below is the sermon I preached at Zion Baptist Church on Sunday, December 4th. Every year, St. Paul’s and Zion come together during Advent for a joint service, and it is a wonderful time of fellowship and celebration.

This sermon is based on Isaiah 11:1-10, the vision of God’s peaceful kingdom. In it, I reference a series of paintings by Edward Hicks, one of which is shown below.

edward_hicks_-_peaceable_kingdom

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

First, let me say how good it is to be here with you. I truly cherish these times, these services, when we are able to be together, to worship together, as people of Zion and of St. Paul’s.

This night is particularly special to me, because Advent is probably my favorite time of the entire church year. And to get to share in Advent preparations and Advent celebrations with all of you makes it more poignant, and more special.

See, the thing I love about Advent is that it has so much to offer. It’s a time of year when all around us people are getting ready for Christmas, ourselves included, and we get caught up in all of that.

And Advent comes into that picture, and says, all that’s fine—but I’ve got more. Because Christmas is not just about a baby in a manger. It’s not just about a general feeling of goodwill and cheer. Because that baby in the manger has changed the course of history—in ways so complete and so total that we not fully realized it yet.

And that’s why, each of the four Sundays of Advent this year at St. Paul’s and at other Lutheran churches, we have a reading from Isaiah. We read from the prophet, not only the foretelling of the birth of the Messiah, but we read the ways in which the whole world will be changed.

And we are invited by the Spirit to share in that vision, and to join in Isaiah’s imaginings of what God promises for the future. Of what God has in store.

And so I chose to preach this evening on the same reading we had at our morning worship at St. Paul’s: Isaiah’s beautiful vision of the peaceable kingdom, where the wolf lives with the lamb, and the calf and the lion lie down together, the bear eats grass like the cow, and children are able to play with snakes without fear. There is no longer predator and prey, there is no longer strong and weak, there are no longer enemies—but all together.

Whenever I hear this vision of Isaiah’s, what first comes to mind are the series of paintings by Edward Hicks, the Quaker minister. Even if you don’t recognize the name, you’ve probably seen one of these paintings along the way. I say one of, because Hicks painted the same scene over 60 times. He became obsessed with being able to depict visually this Peaceable Kingdom.

In his paintings, Edward Hicks tried to capture the true flavor of what Isaiah was describing. He has a lion, a leopard, a tiger, a wolf and a bear, interspersed among a cow, a goat, a sheep and several other small animals. All of the animals are wide-eyed as if in wonder that they’re all together. They are gathered along with three small children, one near school-age, the other two apparently helpless toddlers. They all look happy and contented and the children have at least one hand on hitherto dangerous animals.

In the background of the painting is something of equal weight and importance. Off in the distance, behind the children and animals, you can see a group of Native Americans and several colonial settlers. They represent William Penn, the founder of Quakerism in America, and his group as they negotiated with the Leni-Lenape tribe in the Great Treaty of 1682. All of these people are separated from the children and animals by a wide ravine and there is a forked tree – apparently struck by lightning in the background.

They were separated from God’s peaceful kingdom by an uncrossable chasm. There is a huge chasm or ravine between where we are – where we live – and the “peaceable kingdom,” about which Isaiah speaks. On one side of the chasm are the warring people of the world, who even if they espouse peaceful beliefs, tend to make and break treaties on whims and who typically exhibit tendencies of little or no justice recognition.

That is true of all people – even Hicks’ beloved Quakers. On the other side of the ravine is that place promised to us by God, through Isaiah. In the Kingdom of God, little children are never in any danger. Animals don’t have to fight with each other – or eat each other – in order to survive. Lions and wolves eat hay, just like the cows and sheep. And people are only interested in peace and justice.

You don’t need me to tell you that that chasm still exists—that we are still not living in the peace and security of Isaiah’s vision. We all live it each and every day. Predators still exist, the strong still seek to prey on the weak and vulnerable, and more energy is often given to violence and self-preservation than to justice and peace.

In light of all of it—visions such as Isaiah’s are not easy to trust, or to believe in. Maybe that’s why Edward Hick’s painted it 61 times. Maybe each time it seemed as unbelievable as the first. But Isaiah doesn’t just give us a vision: he tells us who will make it happen.

Out of a stump, out of something that has been dead and is cut off, new life shall spring forth. God will call forth a new beginning out of the house of Jesse, out of the line of King David. And he will usher in a new world order. As great as David was, this one shall be even greater, and he will judge the earth with righteousness and equity.

We know of the one of whom Isaiah speaks—Christ, the Son of God come down from heaven to live among the poor and needy and to show us that God’s promises are not in vain. To show us, that even when that chasm appears far too wide for us—God can cross it. And God does.

The promise of Christmas, and the great hope of Advent, is that God is not done with this world. Christmas was not a once and done event to be remembered fondly this time of year. Christmas is God’s refusal to give up on us, and God’s promise that in the culmination of time, there will not be hurt or destruction on God’s holy mountain, for the earth will be full on the knowledge of the Lord. On that day, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to all the peoples. Our trust and our hope is in the promise of God. Amen.

John the Baptist and Repentance

Here is my sermon from Sunday, December 4th, the Second Sunday of Advent. Traditionally the Sunday in Advent when we read about John the Baptist. The main scripture talked about is Matthew 3:1-12. In this sermon, I focus on the theme of repentance: what does it look like, when do we need it, how does it affect us?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“You brood of vipers!” Aren’t you glad you came to church this morning? John the Baptist isn’t interested in mincing words—and he isn’t interested in making people feel good about themselves. I remembered that this Sunday, the Sunday School would be rehearsing the Christmas pageant, and it occurred to me that I’ve never seen a Christmas pageant that had a role for John the Baptist.

He’s quite the character, no doubt. He’s one of the more colorful characters in the Bible, and it jumps out at you. He’s living in the wilderness, and wearing clothes made of camel’s hair, and eating locusts and honey. He’s a Wildman. We can all imagine John pretty well, I think, because we’ve encountered some Johns in our lives. He’s the wild-eyed preacher on the street corner, proclaiming the end of the world—his hair a mess, his clothes ragged. We don’t like encountering John the Baptist figures; I certainly give them a wide berth.

And he definitely doesn’t get included in the Christmas pageant. The story of Christmas is one of the great comforts of the season. It’s a story about mothers and babies, about angels and miracles, and most of all about God’s undying love for us.

And onto this scene comes John, demanding repentance and proclaiming a harsh word of judgment. “You brood of vipers!” He says. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?…Jesus’ winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Judgment and repentance aren’t exactly what we come to church looking for at Christmas time. And yet as un-comforting as John the Baptist is, he speaks a word that we still need to hear. He first preached this word of repentance at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, in order to prepare the people to receive the message that the Son of God would bring.

What better time for us to hear it than at Advent, when it might also prepare us to receive the message of incarnate love at Christmas? At our Wednesday Dinner Church this past week, our topic of conversation was repentance.

It’s a tricky topic, because, while we might acknowledge its importance in the life of faith, we don’t like to talk about it too much. And because we don’t talk about it, there tends to be some confusion about what repentance means.

Is it merely feeling sorry for our mistakes? Is it trying to be a better person? Is repentance something that Christians even need to be worried about after they’re baptized? Depending on what type of churches you’ve experienced in the past, talking about repentance can also dredge up all kinds of feelings of unworthiness and guilt.

But that misses the point of repentance. John the Baptist reminds us that repentance is not about our standards of moral worthiness. If it were, the Pharisees and Sadducees wouldn’t even need to worry about repenting. Instead, repentance is about God’s desire to re-align us to be in accord with Christ.

In the Bible, the idea of repentance is more than just thinking or feeling sorry—it literally means to ‘turn around’ or ‘return.’ To re-orient your life so that it more aligns with God’s purposes. Repentance, in short, is realizing that God is pointing you one way, that you’ve been traveling another way, and changing course. And when we consider repentance that way—we start to see that maybe we could use some of it.

Where can you use repentance in your life? Is there an unhealthy relationship you want to repair or address? Can you imagine using your time differently and toward better ends? Is there some practice or habit you might take up that would produce more abundant life for you or those around you?

The other thing about repentance that we tend to get mixed up is the order of events. God wants repentance for us because of how much God loves us—not in order to love us. God wants our lives to be in order with God’s purposes because God cares so much about us.

There’s a story that preaching professor William Muehl tells that gets to this point: One December afternoon…a group of parents stood in the lobby of a nursery school waiting to claim their children after the last pre-Christmas day of class. As the youngsters ran from their cubbies, each one carried in his or her hands the ‘surprise,’ the brightly wrapped package on which they had been working diligently for weeks.

One small boy, trying to run, put on his coat, and wave to his parents, all at the same time, slipped and fell. The surprise flew from his grasp, landed on the floor, and broke with an obvious ceramic crash.

The child began to cry inconsolably. His father, trying to comfort the boy, patted his head and murmured, that’s alright, it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter at all.

But the child’s mother, a little bit wiser, swept the boy into her arms and said, “Oh, but it does matter. It matters a great deal.” And she wept with her son.

We matter to God. That’s what repentance is about. We matter so much to God that God wants us to have fuller, more abundant, more grace-full lives. And in order for that to happen, sometimes we must be willing to leave behind the things that stand in the way—even when those things are our own ingrained attitudes and ideas.

There’s one other thing about this passage of John the Baptist that’s always bothered me. Maybe it’s not a surprise, but it’s that bit about the wheat being gathered up, and the chaff being burned with unquenchable fire. Yeah, I’ve never been a huge fan of that.

Until I learned that the wheat and the chaff are two parts of one stalk. And I changed my imagining. What if the chaff being burned away is a part of that repentance? What if it is the parts of our lives, the parts of ourselves, that keep us living in darkness and apart from God, and, if we can see past them, we can live more fully in the world that God intends? That’s the part that God will burn away, to leave the fruitful wheat.

Repentance is an act of God. God’s love for us is what shows us the way, and it is God’s love and God’s own life in Christ—Christ in the manger, Christ healing, Christ preaching, Christ dying—that bring us the light and freedom of true repentance.

Maybe John the Baptist has a place in the Christmas pageant after all. When we are able to cease hearing the call to repentance as an order, we can see that Christ in the manger—God’s great love here on earth—is God’s insistent invitation to us all. Amen.