Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Christmas Story: A Sermon for Christmas Eve

 Scripture can be found here.....

A few years ago, a woman was standing in the check-out line at the grocery store a few days before Christmas. She overheard the following conversation, between the customer in front of her and the checkout clerk:

Customer: “Do you have Christmas stamps?”

Clerk: “No. We just have Liberty Bell and some lady holding a baby.”

Customer: “Can I see them? That’s Mary holding Jesus. I’ll take those.”

Clerk: “How did they get a picture of them?”

At this point, the customer looked back at the woman who was listening, to hide her laughter, so the woman chimed in, “I bet it’s someone’s interpretation of what they may have looked like.”

Clerk: “Maybe. ‘Cause I don’t think anyone took pictures back then.”

The woman who overheard all this was a pastor. And she wrote about it on her blog. And, I’m happy to say, she didn’t clutch her pearls in anguish at the clerk’s not knowing who that lady and her baby were. Rather, she delighted in it. She wrote,

For too often, as Christians on this side of the story, we forget how ordinary the whole stable scene was. Mary and Joseph were teenagers. In a barn. To all who journeyed to Bethlehem to pay taxes, they were another young couple…[i]

I would add this: I think maybe we Christians haven’t been entirely successful at sharing the story.

Oh, we’ve done a great job at sharing what you might call “Corporate Christmas,” a.k.a., December’s Mandatory National Holiday. Judging by what’s out there online, and in the media, and in the stores, it’s pretty clear that Christmas is understood as a time for spending lots of money in order to buy presents, and decorate, and entertain, and look our best (and most efficient and successful and in control!). Like it or not, that is the predominant idea as to what Christmas is all about. And you know what? I’m going to go out on a limb and say, that’s not Good News. If Christmas is about is acquisition and achievement, that’s Very Bad News. That bad messaging entirely misses the mark, in terms of what is incredibly and beautifully ordinary in the story of Christmas, and what is earth-shatteringly extraordinary. As a colleague said, the story is real, radical, and raw.[ii]

They were teenagers. And, it’s good for us to remember, they were teenagers from the part of the world known today as the Middle East, so they reflected that ethnicity. They had dark skin, and darker eyes. They weren’t on the road because they wanted to be. They were on the road because they had no choice—they were compelled to travel for the census, the long arm of the Roman Empire exerting its power.

Into this little, wayfaring family comes a child. Born far away from home. Lodged with the animals. An inauspicious beginning, it has to be admitted. A birth that speaks of poverty, and humility, and discomfort. How do we square it, then, with the angelic announcement that seems to be taking place more or less simultaneously, somewhere out in a field?  The announcement of a Savior, a Messiah, the Lord? How can these two disparate pieces possibly fit together?

Smarter folks than I have pointed out that the story of Jesus’ birth is the whole gospel in miniature. All the big themes. All the important ideas. Everything, in fact, we need to know about Jesus—almost—is contained in the beautiful ordinary story of this birth. Here is what it tells us.

~ Jesus comes into a world in which ordinary people are at the mercy of powers far greater than themselves.

~ Jesus comes to remind us that all of us are connected—the small-town craftsman Joseph is connected to the most famous and beloved king in all of scripture. All of us are connected.

~ Jesus makes his way into situations where people are vulnerable, and maybe a little (or a lot) afraid, and not-quite welcome.

~ Jesus’ birth is not announced to the emperor or the king or the mayor or the priests or the merchants, or anyone with any significant amount of power whatsoever. The announcement goes to the utterly powerless—the little people. Shepherds. And that’s not because the power people don’t need a savior—everybody needs a savior—it’s because the power people are often not aware that they need a savior, or if they are aware, they’re pretty sure they can figure out how to save themselves. The announcement goes to the people who really get it: this is Good News.

~ The angel calls Jesus “Messiah.” That’s a Hebrew word, which means the same as “Christ,” the Greek word. They both mean “anointed.” To be anointed is to be set apart for a particular task.

A few chapters from now, Jesus will tell us, using the words of Isaiah, exactly what he has been anointed for:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” ~Luke 4:18-19

And it’s all there in the story of his birth. Jesus is anointed to bring Good News to the poor, the powerless, the hurting and the haunted. And the Good News is so simple, and yet so radical and raw: God is here. Right here. As close at hand as someone you might see in line at the grocery store, some lady holding a baby. Or some dark-skinned teenage boy, grabbing a soda. Or some tired cop, picking up dinner as he heads home from his beat. Or some panicked-looking woman who doesn’t quite know how to ask for the help she needs in English. God is here. Right here. Close at hand. This is the sum and substance of the Christmas Story. God does not push over the first domino and then leave us on our own. In the ultimate act of love and solidarity, God chooses to throw in his lot with us—God is with us in all of it.  All of the messiness of human existence. All of the pain. All of the joy.  Every ordinary and extraordinary minute of it.

This is my Christmas prayer for all of us: That we might, for even one second, look around us, maybe in line at the grocery store, and see, and understand: God is here. Right here. God is with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Masters, Ashley-Anne. Some Lady Holding a Baby. Retrieved December 22, 2014, from
[ii] Jason Chestnut, Mission Developer, Delaware-Maryland Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Captured on Facebook, 12-24-2014.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Righteous Man: A Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25

Scripture can be found here...

So many of us experience the season leading up to Christmas through music, and I am no exception to that. Last night Joan and I indulged in our long-standing tradition of enjoying  the Burns Sisters’ holiday music by attending their concert at the Endicott Performing Arts Center. That music means Christmas to us. We are steeped in memories of Christmases past with a soundtrack of those songs that we love, baking, or wrapping presents, or unwrapping them. I’ve been posting music online each day in Advent… Advent music, Christmas music, carols, hymns, ancient, contemporary, all kinds of things that seem to speak and sing to the season. And lately—probably because I knew I’d be preaching on this very passage, this very morning—I’ve been paying special attention to songs about Joseph. Joseph doesn’t get as many songs as Mary or Jesus do. But they do exist. And today there are three particular songs about Joseph that are swirling around in my head.

You have the lyrics to “The Cherry Tree Carol” in your bulletin. This is a late medieval song, based on an early medieval text, the gospel of pseudo-Matthew. Music and memory are so intertwined; I have a vivid memory where I was when I first heard this song. It was 1982, and I was in a car on a snowy road in New Hampshire, listening to a newly acquired cassette tape by a band called “Nowell Sing We Clear.” This was, for me, one of those songs that stops you in your tracks. Prior to hearing this song, I thought I knew all there was to know about Jesus’ earthly father. But the Cherry Tree Carol persuaded me otherwise. It introduced the thought that my ideas about Joseph had been pretty one-dimensional, and that he was entirely capable of a greater range of motivations and emotions than I’d given him credit for.

In the carol, Mary and Joseph come upon a cherry orchard, and she asks him to gather some cherries for her to eat. Joseph snarls, “Let the father of thy baby gather cherries for thee.” That was the line that exploded my earlier notions about Joseph, that introduced the idea that, maybe he was just a little angry at the situation he found himself in. He was engaged to a young woman. She was pregnant. He was not the father. Why had I never imagined this possibility before? I am guessing that most of us probably have at least a little sympathy for Joseph the man, the shadowy figure behind the gospel story. Who was he? How did he cope? How did it all turn out?

As to who Joseph was, the first seventeen verses of the real gospel of Matthew provide us with “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah,” which also happens to be a genealogy of Joseph. Given the story we are reading today, that is both interesting and confusing. Is Joseph Jesus’ father or not? Genealogies in scripture are very careful recitations of pretty much everything you need to know about the person at the end of the line. The story of the family tells the story of the man. So, this story includes many of the giants of scripture: The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Kings David and Solomon and Josiah. But this genealogy is fascinating, and unique, because it also includes four women. And each of these women is very, very interesting. Not one of them is a Jew. And every one of them has endured life circumstances that would have been described as anything from tragic to scandalous. We have giants of the faith and we have characters that raised eyebrows. The story of the family tells the story of the men, Joseph and Jesus.

The other thing we think we know about Joseph is that he was a carpenter, and he may have been. But the Greek word we find in the gospel, tektonos, means artisan or builder. In recent years scholars have suggested that Joseph was a stonemason. Nazareth is in a part of Palestine that has few trees and little wood, but it is surrounded by an abundance of stone and rock. 

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way,” the gospel tells us. Mary and Joseph were engaged, but they were not yet living as husband and wife. The second song I’ve been humming lately is “Christmas Song” by Dave Matthews. Joseph has a brief mention, as Matthews simplifies the story.

She was his girl; he was her boyfriend
She’d be his wife; take him as her husband
A surprise on the way, any day, any day
One healthy little giggling dribbling baby boy…[i]

The likelihood is that Mary was quite young, but Joseph may have been somewhat older. (In case you are wondering, the Cherry Tree Carol’s suggestion that Joseph was an old man is based on a medieval church tradition that Joseph and Mary never lived fully as husband and wife.) During the engagement Mary “was found” to be pregnant. I wonder, how did that happen? Did Mary know and tell him? Did Mary start to show? Was there a baby bump? Did everyone figure it out? This version of the story is different from the one in Luke’s gospel; Matthew doesn’t tell us.

We read that Joseph was “a righteous man.” Joseph’s way of righteousness involves quietly separating from the woman he assumes has betrayed him.

The third song rolling around in my head was written by Brandon Flowers and Elton John. They put it all out there, all the possible roiling emotions.

Is the touchstone forcing you to hide, Joseph?
Are the rumors eating you alive, Joseph?
When the holy night is upon you
Will you do what's right, the position is yours…
Do you see both sides? Do they shove you around?
Better you than me, Joseph
Better than you than me…[ii]

How did he cope? Joseph doesn’t shame Mary, he doesn’t drag her to the town square for what, according to the laws of Leviticus, could have been a death sentence. He quietly ends the engagement. But the songs speak to the gaps in the story. Was he brokenhearted, or did his heart turn to stone or ice? Was he furious? Are the rumors eating you alive? Let the father of thy baby gather cherries for thee. Better you than me, Joseph.

I love the sheer messiness of this story, the story of the birth of the Messiah. Classic Christian theology tells us that Jesus was like us in every way except sin. That, apparently, includes a complicated, slightly scandalous family history, including folks who were

Less than golden hearted
… all soul searchers
Like you and me[iii]

All these songs make specific what is strongly implied in the gospel story: there was a crisis. Rumors were flying around, and an explanation was needed. And, thanks be to God, the righteous man Joseph was a dreamer as well as a doer. He was able to hear the words of the angel whispering in his ear while he slept:

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” ~ Matthew 1:20-21

Do not be afraid. Usually when we hear those words in the mouth of an angel, she is referring to her own terrifying splendor. But here, the angel says, do not be afraid to marry this woman. Do not be afraid to adopt this child, for he is meant to be your very own son.

And this is another emotion that Joseph may have been feeling—and we don’t have to go searching unusual Joseph songs to find it, it’s right here in the gospel story. Fear. Joseph may have been afraid. We take blended families for granted. All of us, it seems, come from them, or are forming them. But in the ancient world, marry a woman who was pregnant with a child not your own was to potentially subject yourself to a lifetime of ridicule or worse. Exclusion. Ostracism. Never again being seen as what you are—a righteous man.

Do not be afraid. Those are God’s words to Joseph, whispered to him in his dream by the angel. The angel tells Joseph something else: to name the child, Jesus. This is the adoption moment, the moment in which Joseph names the child. It is the moment when the community will know:  whatever has happened, he is the true father. And “Jesus” is a name that comes from Greek and Hebrew words meaning “salvation.” Rescue. Joseph, the angel whispers. You might think you are rescuing Mary and the child. And maybe you are. But the deeper truth of it is this: he will rescue you.

How did it all turn out? The three songs end in very different places. “Better you than me,” sing Brandon Flowers and Elton John, over and over again. At the end of the Cherry Tree Carol, Mary is sitting on Joseph’s knee, and Joseph is speaking to the baby in her womb—such a typical, tender thing, something fathers have always done.

Then Joseph took Mary, all on his right knee,
Saying, “Tell me, pretty baby, when your birthday shall be.”

“On the sixth day of January my birthday shall be,
And the stars and the elements shall tremble with glee.”

We know how the gospel story turns out. Joseph doesn’t—not yet. Whatever his internal struggles, whatever his emotions, he was a righteous man. He is a model for us. Here’s what righteousness looks like: He is not vindictive. He is gentle and caring, even in the midst of confusion and hurt. Persuaded by the angel of his dreams, he lets love guide his actions, and not fear. Wherever Jesus came from—and we are told, he is from the Holy Spirit of God—Joseph becomes his true father on this earth. He provides Jesus with a stable, blended family, woven together by love and commitment, not very different from the kind of family we see all around us, every day, not very different from the families we will forge ourselves, or the families we come from.

At the end of “Christmas Song,” Dave Matthews has Jesus singing words that could have been from Joseph:

Father up above, why all this anger …
fill me up with love
Fill me with love love love…

I think that’s a good place to end our exploration of Joseph. A late 20th century prayer in song, suitable for every person, for every situation. A prayer to help us find our own righteousness in the midst of confusion and chaos. A prayer that we will never stop needing. Father up above, fill us with love, love, love. Amen.

[i] Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, “Christmas Song,” Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Live at Luther College, 1999.
[ii] Brandon Flowers, Elton John, and Neil Tennant, “Joseph, Better You Than Me,” The Killers (RED) Christmas EP, 2011.
[iii] Matthews and Reynolds, Op. Cit.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Advent Evening Prayer: Meditation on Luke 1:26-55

Scripture can be found here....

I grew up on the protest songs, the songs of liberation of the 60’s. Well, to tell you the truth, I grew up on “Build Me Up, Buttercup” and anything by the Partridge Family and the Osmonds. But when it was time for me to learn to play the guitar, a sweet and gangly 16-year-old boy name Michael placed in front of 10-year-old me the chords to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and I was introduced simultaneously to Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul and Mary, and the anti-war movement.

How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly before they’re forever banned?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Throughout history, people have lifted their voices in song to raise the social justice issues of their day. Those who wanted an end to the war in Viet Nam sang “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “If I Had a Hammer.” In Selma and Montgomery marchers for Civil Rights sang “We Shall Overcome.”

This is the kind of song Mary is singing in tonight’s reading—the song we all just sang together. Mary is singing a song of liberation. She’s singing a freedom song.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

It’s a curious thing, this freedom song of Mary’s. So far, what we know of her story is that God sent an angel to announce to her that, with her consent, she would give birth to a child. And Mary is young. Younger than you can imagine. Mary and Joseph are engaged, and young girls were engaged at around the age of 12, so this is any time after that. She is young, and she is inexperienced—she has no intimate knowledge of Joseph, or any man for that matter. But the angel tells her, nevertheless, she is the one God has chosen for the mother of this Son of God Most High, who will sit on the throne of her ancestor David. The Holy Spirit will make this happen, because nothing is impossible with God, the angel tells her.

And so Mary says, “Yes. Here I am, God’s servant. Let it be.”

Now, if I were to guess the nature of a song that Mary would sing at this point, the only thing that comes to mind would be some great psalm of supplication. “But you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!” Help. Help me. What am I doing? What is happening to me? Help!

And yet, just a little while later, while visiting her cousin, Mary receives for the first time, confirmation that this is all not simply some fantasy she has cooked up in her adolescent mind. Her cousin Elizabeth, on seeing her, gets what sounds like the first kick from the baby she is carrying, and she blurts out, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

And so Mary hears from another person that this is real. That the angel’s promise is true. And instead of singing a lament of anguish or fear or simple puzzlement, she belts out a true freedom song. Here’s Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, from “The Message.”

I’m bursting with God-news;
    I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
    I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
    the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
    on those who are in awe before him.

Mary is feeling blessed by God—chosen, special, amazing. But listen to what else she is saying:

He bared his arm and showed his strength,
    scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
    pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
    the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
    he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
    beginning with Abraham and right up to now.

In God’s choosing her, a nobody from nowheresville, Mary sees the fulfilment of a promise God made to her people long ago: A promise of a great reversal, a great leveling. The people who have been at the top of the heap and the ones at the bottom will be changing places. The hungry will be filled. The victims will be cared for and tended. God sees us. God has not forgotten.

God sees us.

This is what the coming of God-With-Us is all about. God sees us. God hears us. Our joys and sorrows, our cries of distress, our pains and anguish, our grieving and our dancing. God sees it. God hears it. And God chooses to be in it with us, to be a part of it.

And so Mary sings. She sings her great freedom song. She sings, and invites us to sing it too. Because God is here. God is with us. God is here.

Let us pray.