Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sermon for December 22, 2013: A Blue Collar Kind of Guy (Matthew 1:18-25)

Scripture:  Matthew 1:18-25

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place:  His mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they were married and living together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Joseph was righteous, and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, so he planned to break the engagement quietly.

But as soon as he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “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 give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus, which means 'God saves'; for he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet Isaiah: "See, the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” (which means “God is with us”).

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and took Mary as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son; and he named him Jesus.



Advent is the blue season.  It wasn’t always; when I was growing up, and probably for those of you who grew up Lutheran or Catholic, it was purple.  It was meant to be a time like Lent -- a time of fasting and preparation, of self-examination before the coming of Christ.  Then we shifted, as we do with traditions when they need new life:  Advent became blue, for royalty, for anticipation, for moonlight on snow, for the color of Mary’s robe.

Mary gets top billing during Advent, because she gets the best role in the pageant:  she gets to say Yes to the miracle, Yes to Gabriel, Yes to God.  She gets to sing:  “My soul proclaims your greatness, O God.”  The Magnificat.  And for centuries we prayed “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

Mary gets top billing, and Advent is blue for her robe.  But I think Advent could just as well be blue for Joseph.  We dress him in browns, in most nativity scenes, but he’s a blue collar kind of guy, really.

He was a carpenter, we think, or maybe a stoneworker.  The word is tricky to translate but we know he worked with his hands.  Hard, backbreaking work, pounding out a living in the desert of Galilee, finding his way in the hot sun and the hard granite and the skinny trees.  Mending fishermen’s boats.  Fixing doors.  We could think of him in beat up work boots, with a hammer in the sling of his jeans.

He worked with his hands.  A hard life.  A life where righteousness is shown not in words but in actions.  A man of strength and purpose.  Trustworthy.  The kind of guy who could fix things.  The kind of guy who snowblows his own driveway and then takes care of the next door neighbors’, too.

He paid his taxes, demanded from him by the Roman empire.  He turned his face away when he passed crosses on the side of Roman roads, the punishment for insurrection against the empire.  With his neighbors he quietly mourned the oppression of Israel, the four hundred year silence of the prophets, the empty throne of David.  It seemed, at least, that God’s Old Testament promises of a land and a people of Israel, a free people, a light to the nations -- that those promises had all gone dark.  The Jewish people were freed from Egypt, they returned from Babylon, but still they are not free.

Joseph couldn’t read.  He couldn’t write.  He didn’t know what the Torah, the Law of Moses, looked like -- wouldn’t have known it from chicken scratch.  A peasant worker in a poor town called Nazareth, he couldn’t afford a lot of the sacrifices and offerings prescribed by his religion.  But he went to the local synagogue on Saturday, and he journeyed to the Temple each year for Passover, and he did the best he could to be a righteous man -- a follower of the Law.  A trustworthy man, who trusted God.  

A simple and hard and humble life.  A blue collar life.

And into this simple life has been given joy, in Joseph’s engagement to Mary, a peasant girl of Nazareth.  She would have been, perhaps, thirteen or fourteen years old.  Joseph is often depicted as older, but he could have been as young as eighteen.

Marriage was the central social contract of Jewish life.  It bound two families together.  Before an engagement was entered into, the families would break bread together, making sure they were compatible, honorable, worthy of trust.  After the engagement, the man received a dowry from the young woman’s family, usually including a piece of land so he could build a house and start a small farm.  It was a familial affair, this marriage business, and it was the backbone of society.

Joseph has been building this house, tilling the land, shaking hands with new neighbors.  Working twice as hard in the hot sun, staying up late and rising early.  He dreams of the wedding, of the day he will bring Mary home, of how their children to come someday will fill the house with shouts of laughter.

And into that dream comes a gut-wrenching truth:  Mary is pregnant.

Dishonor.  Betrayal.  Shame.  Mary has broken the marriage contract.  It is awful to imagine the pain that Joseph felt in that moment when he saw his dreams die.  For he is a righteous man, and the Torah was clear:  a woman who was not a virgin was not fit to be married.  The law even permitted her execution by stoning.  But Joseph is a righteous man, who knows the meaning of mercy, and so he plans to end the engagement quietly.  He will not expose Mary to public disgrace and humiliation.  Only her family will know.  She can escape to another town, maybe to her cousin Elizabeth’s house, and have her baby in secret there.

Joseph is a man of strength and purpose.  A trustworthy man, who trusts God.  He is committed to the religion of his ancestors and faithful to its traditions.  He makes a decision, commits to a course of action; he is resolved.

And into that strength breaks the word of God.  Into that resolution and righteousness, and into the fear and pain of a broken engagement, comes the divine promise:  “Do not be afraid.”

So Joseph must wake and ask himself:  What now?  Do I follow the law, and end the engagement?  Do I disobey tradition?  Do I forget my religion?  Do I dare question the practices of my elders, passed down over thousands of years?  

Do I risk shame and scandal, taking an uncertain path, becoming an outcast, accepting the rejection of my family and the laughter of my friends, putting myself even farther to the fringes of society, because I think that what just happened was more than just a dream?

What does it mean to be righteous?  What do you do when the truth runs counter to your whole life?  

What do we do?

What do we do when we come to the edge of everything we know and finally have to say:
“I love you.” “I can’t live like this.”
“I’m changing jobs.” “Mom, Dad, I’m gay.”
“I’m going back to school.” “I don’t know what I’m doing, and I need help.”
“You have hurt me too much, and you can’t be in my life anymore.” “It’s over.”

How do we speak the truth, in that moment, when it seems like the whole world speaks against it -- when we know it will turn our lives upside down?

Something in us, somewhere, has this strange and unexplainable sense that the truth is bigger than our fear.  Something in us is plucked, like a string on a violin, when the angel says “Do not be afraid.”  Because Joseph knew, right in the center of his chest, just above his heart, that what he’d seen in his dream was more than a dream.  That -- that is trust.  Even when the truth seems unbelievable.  Especially when the truth is impossible, and yet we know it to be true.

The miracle of the Christmas story is that God came to earth, but there are a hundred small ones, tucked into the story like straw in a manger, and here is this one:  that Joseph says yes.

He says nothing to the angel, but he takes Mary as his wife.  And in that, Joseph says Yes.  Yes to being the stepfather to God.  Yes to the whispers and judgment.  Yes to having a son who will always be more than a carpenter.  Yes to the son whose ministry he will not live to see.  Yes to the messiness of God.  Yes to his life turned upside down.

And sometimes we get to stand there too.  Sometimes, truth breaks into our lives, and we have the opportunity to say Yes.  In that moment, at the edge of everything we know, we fall into the truth, because it is bigger than us.  Because what that truth has the power to do is to break through our fear and our pain and drop us into this deep cradle of love and mercy.

Falling into truth, speaking it and believing it when the world seems against it, is a radical confession of faith.  A terrifying kind of obedience to the new and beautiful movement of God.  After the longest night of the year, there’s a new dawn, and the days start to lengthen.  And we’re reminded that just when life turns upside down, God shows up, sometimes in the smallest of ways -- a flicker of light -- a hope in the darkness -- a tiny baby born into the life of an unwed mother and a blue-collar kind of guy.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sermon for December 1, 2013 (1st Sunday of Advent): Be strong. Take courage.

Joshua 1:1-9

After the death of Moses the servant of God, God spoke to Joshua, Moses’ assistant:
“Moses my servant is dead. Get going. Cross this Jordan River, you and all the people. Cross to the country I’m giving to the People of Israel. I’m giving you every square inch of the land you set your foot on—just as I promised Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon east to the Great River, the Euphrates River—all the Hittite country—and then west to the Great Sea. It’s all yours. All your life, no one will be able to hold out against you. In the same way I was with Moses, I’ll be with you. I won’t give up on you; I won’t leave you. Be strong! Take courage! You are going to lead this people to inherit the land that I promised to give their ancestors. Give it everything you have, heart and soul. Make sure you carry out The Revelation that Moses commanded you, the rules and laws for how to live in community and compassion -- every bit of it. Don’t get off track, either left or right, so as to make sure you get to where you’re going. And don’t for a minute let this Book of The Revelation be out of mind. Ponder and meditate on it day and night, making sure you practice everything written in it. Then you’ll get where you’re going; then you’ll succeed. Haven’t I commanded you? Be strong! Take courage! Don’t be timid; don’t get discouraged. God, your God, is with you every step you take.”
This is the Word of the Lord.
All:  Thanks be to God!

Message  (which I delivered sitting down.  We were in the round today, and everyone was sitting close at tables, and it felt weird to stand, so I sat on a table and preached.)

Let me tell you a story.

A long time ago there was a tribe of people, called Israel.  The Israelites had no land to call their own, no home country.  They lived in Egypt, and they were slaves to the Pharaoh, forced to make bricks for great buildings and to work themselves to exhaustion in the fields.

But the Israelites were descendants of Abraham, and they told stories -- stories of a God who had created the world, who had promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation.  Stories of a God who had saved Joseph, despised by his brothers, thrown into a pit and left to die, sold into slavery, wrongfully imprisoned, but eventually freed and set in charge over all of Egypt, as Pharaoh's right-hand man.

Now these were old stories, whispered around campfires late at night, when their feet and hands felt they might break from the hard work.  But still they whispered of a God who loved them, of a God who could fight for the oppressed and free people from their bondage.

And in those whispers they prayed to that same God:  See us.  Help us.  Save us.

And then one day a man named Moses walked by a bush that burst into flame.

From the burning bush came the voice of God:  I have heard my people.  I know how they suffer.  I have come to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them into their own land, their own home, a place where they will be safe, a place where they can worship me without fear.  

And so God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, sending down ten different plagues of frogs and locusts and water turned to blood and boils on the skin, telling Pharaoh in no uncertain terms:  Let my people go.  And they went.  They crossed the Red Sea on dry land, and they were free.

But freedom wasn’t easy.  The Israelite people wandered in the desert for forty years.  They were still a people without land.  It was a wilderness time -- a hot time, a low-on-food time, a grumbling time.  They said, “It would have been better if we’d stayed slaves in Egypt.”

But God had a plan.  While the Israelites wandered, and camped, and grumbled, God spoke.  The wilderness became a place where they learned who God had called them to be.  The rules they learned came to be known as the Law, the Revelation to Moses:  this is how the people of God will live.

In the wilderness, God gave them manna, bread from heaven, to teach them to trust.
In the wilderness, God gave them the commandments, to teach them how to live in community:  not to fight and steal and kill and struggle for power, but to respect each other, to live in love.
In the wilderness, God gave them the Sabbath day, to rest, to stop the constant stream of work, to worship and to be at peace.

In the wilderness, God said, “You have lived in slavery, in fear, in the shadow of oppression, in the constant need for work, in a hunger for more wealth and power.  That was Egypt.  This is now.  Now you will live as my people.  Now you will come into the land I have promised you.  You will be kind to the strangers among you.  You will live not in competition but in community.  You will be my people, and I will be your God.”

They learn these lessons for forty years.  Many of them, including Moses, do not live long enough to see the land God has promised them.  So today they stand on the edge of the Jordan River, looking into their future.

The Promised Land is not going to be easy, either.  There will be battles, and struggles, and hurts.  They will forget the way that God spoke to them, the laws and rules that Moses taught.  It will not be easy.

So as their toes start to sink into the sand, and their palms start to sweat, and they feel the fear rising up in their hearts, God speaks again.

Be strong.  Take courage.  I’ll be with you.  I won’t give up on you.  I won’t leave you.  God, your God, is with you every step you take.

In times of change, we are called to reach for courage.  In the face of the unknown, God promises hope.  I am with you, always.  

And so it is with us.

We were gathered together under a strong and spirited leader.  We were held together by God.  We were offered freedom from fear about money, freedom from isolation, freedom from perfection.  We were invited into community, into relationships based on love and compassion.

And we have spent some time in the wilderness.  We have been tired.  Maybe we have even grumbled -- “Things were easier the way they used to be.”  But in that wilderness we have come to know who we are and who God is calling us to be.  We have been invited to trust in God, to rest in peace, to live in community.

Now we are at the edge of something very new.  A new leader is coming to us, to lead us into the next part of our life as Light of the World.  It will not be easy.  There will be change, and adjustments, and maybe even a little grumbling.  But into that, God speaks:

Be strong.  Take courage.  I’ll be with you.  I won’t give up on you.  I won’t leave you.  God, your God, is with you every step you take.

In times of change, we reach for courage.  In the face of the unknown, God promises hope.  So it was with Israel.  So it is with us.

And so it can be with each of us.  Even as we journey together as Light of the World, in our wilderness time, many of us have been journeying through our own struggles.

We want to provide for our families and friends -- we want to shop, to bake, to clean, to make the house ready and buy presents to show how much we care.  But some of us look to our bank accounts, and we hurt.  We come home with tired hands and feet, and we sleep too hard and too short.  We look for work, we return to school, we hope for something better for us and for our families.

We carry broken hearts and broken relationships.  Some of us face the holidays with dread, worrying about family conflicts and how to speak of peace in the midst of grumbling.  We may be wondering how we will face Christmas without a beloved friend or a spouse we have lost.  We remember and grieve the family members and loved ones who won’t be with us.

We suffer in body, mind, and spirit.  Some of us struggle with mental illness, with addiction, with the addictions and struggles of loved ones.  We fight shadows of anxiety and shame and fear.  Our bodies give out on us; some of us are sick or weary or recovering from surgery.  Some of us pray and plead and hope for healing for our parents, our grandparents, our siblings, our children, our friends.  

It can feel like a wilderness time.

And into all that mess, God speaks again.

Be strong.  Take courage.  I’ll be with you.  I won’t give up on you.  I won’t leave you.  God, your God, is with you every step you take.

Into everything that seems impossible, God offers strength and courage and hope.  Into everything that seems insurmountable, God whispers:  I am with you, always.  

In a few moments you’ll be invited to find a conversation partner with the same color spot as you.  It can be a friend, a family member, a stranger -- whoever you feel comfortable with.

Sit.  Breathe deep.  Listen for God beside you and around you and in you.  And then speak:  What is the part of your life where you long for strength?  What is the space in your heart that needs a little courage?

Tell your story.  Be strong.  Take courage.  God is with you.  



My conversation partner was Annie, one of our "short people" (elementary school kids).  She read Scripture in church regularly and is just a fantastic kid.  I asked, "What's going on in life, Annie?  Is there anything that's scaring you?"  "Movies and closets," she told me, and after a little prying I figured out:  closets are scary, in the dark, for a kid who's just watched a scary movie.

So I asked if she knew the song "God Is Bigger Than The Boogeyman," from VeggieTales, and because she did not, I sang it for her.

Then I said, "I have a challenge for you.  What could you imagine God to look like, to be bigger than the things that scare you?"

"Like a giant donut!"

"A giant donut?"

"Yeah a giant donut or a cookie.  And he eats up all the bad people, like this:  nom nom nom" [with hand motions].

"Oh, like PacMan."


At the end of church, Annie dropped off this picture for me:

God as a cookie, obviously, picking up and eating scary guys; then Annie up in the top right counting sheep and trying to sleep; and Baby Jesus in the stable, and Mary and Joseph, on the left.

Nom nom nom, indeed.