Sunday, December 31, 2017

12-31-17 Sermon - “On Years Ending & Beginning”

   Christmas is a season filled with tradition. 
Whether it’s where we go at Christmas, what we eat, when we eat, who we’re with, who opens the first gift, the order in which we open gifts, Christmas is largely tied to tradition at many levels.
   But when we say “tradition,” just what exactly do we mean? Merriam-Webster defines tradition first as, “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom.)” And when we think about it that way, it makes sense. The church is full of tradition, the liturgical calendar that guides us through the church year, unlike the solar calendar we use on a day-to-day basis, is one largely built on tradition as opposed to the movement or timing of celestial bodies or events. For example, Christmas is always December 25th, Epiphany is always January 6th, but Lent and Easter move from year to year. Some major liturgical dates or events are date specific while others fall in relationship to something else. And over the centuries, we in the church at least, have grown accustomed to what appears to others as a random ordering or dating of events.
   A second meaning that Merriam-Webster ascribes to “tradition” is “a belief or story or a body of beliefs or stories relating to the past that are commonly accepted as historical though not verifiable.” From American history we might think of the oft-referenced story of the boy George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and then when asked about it tells his father, “I cannot tell a lie, I chopped down the cherry tree.” It’s a great story that supports the legend and image of George Washington as a person of honesty and integrity, but there is no historical verification that this event actually too place. It’s tradition. 
   Our story today of the visit of the magi is one that is also bathed in tradition. The writer of Matthew - another bit of tradition, since we really don’t know who wrote each of the gospel accounts - is the only one of the four gospels to include this story. And while the gospel refers to them, in most all translations as magi or wisemen, understood to be astrologers or something similar, the King James Version refers to them as kings, based on one of the Psalms that says “all the kings of the world will bow down to the messiah.” So when we sing, we sing “We three kings,” even though the scripture never says how many magi there were, only that there three gifts. Some eastern Christian tradition holds that there were up to twelve magi present. 
   But tradition doesn’t stop there - Western Christian tradition even supplies names for these three travelers: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. In contrast, many Syrian Christians name the magi Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. In the tradition of Ethiopian Christianity, the names are Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater, while Armenian Catholic tradition names them Kagpha, Badadakharida, and Badadilma. And so it is that we come to understand that tradition is also contextual, and that even people who share a faith tradition, have traditions within that tradition that are, well, non-traditional compared to others of that same faith.
   Many of us, as part of our Christmas tradition, place a nativity scene in our home depicting the birth of Jesus and all of those whom scripture describes as being present. So we have Jesus and Mary and Joseph at the center, and then there are Luke’s shepherds with some animals, and Matthew’s wise men with some camels, even though no passage of scripture includes all of them together, right? In fact, some believe that the magi didn’t appear on the scene for up to two year after the birth of Jesus for two reasons: one, the scripture says the magi entered “the house” to see Jesus, not a stable or anything like it, and two, because Herod, in order to try to kill Jesus, ordered all the young boys up to the age of two to be slaughtered. Still, it is our tradition to put the shepherds and magi side by side in the nativity.
   And that’s okay, because tradition is not intended to be a history lesson, tradition is a way of remembering what’s important about a time, or a place, or an event. Tradition reminds us of who we are, and how we are, and sometimes even why we are what we are. And there are at least two particular aspects of this story and the tradition that has developed around it that are of importance to us today. First, tradition tied to this passage suggests that the three magi were from Arabia, India, and Persia - what would literally have been the ends of the earth to a middle-eastern people of that time. That suggests to us that these sojourners from the east recognized, even from the vantage point of their own religious traditions, that God was doing something special in this child, and they wanted to honor that. 
Nowhere does it say that they changed religions or denounced their traditions, it says they came to honor this child, this king.

   And the second aspect that we would be good to understand is in how the passage concludes, saying that having been warned in a dream about Herod, the magi returned to their country by another route. They went home another way. That is, they changed things up. They took the road less traveled, we might say. We might also understand it to mean that, having experienced this God-Christ event, THEY were changed. Other translations say they went home another way, not by another route. Maybe the writer of Matthew is saying that this experience changed them, transformed or enlightened them in some way. Maybe this journey somehow gave them permission to do things differently, to try something new, to look at the world in a different way than “the way they’ve always done it.”

   The calendar gives us permission to start over each year, to do things differently. We might formalize those desires in resolutions but we don’t have to do that. Just turning the calendar from December to January, from 2017 to 2018, is permission-giving enough to say, I’m going to be different this year, I’m going to do something different this year, I’m going to try a new way of being, of acting, of whatever. I’m going to open myself up to new things, create new traditions even within my old traditions. This tradition-filled season of the year, where within one single week we celebrate the birth of the Savior who changed the world and then seven days later - God’s perfect number representing wholeness and completeness - seven days later we celebrate a new beginning in a new year where we can turn away from whatever we need to leave behind from the old year and do something new in a new year. It’s an annual repentance - a turning away from our old way of being and embracing a new way of being. 

   A Methodist pastor I know in Denver, Colorado found a new way of following an old Methodist tradition of taking the gospel to the people. Instead of offering new things or programs and expecting people to come to a church building, he took the church out to where they were. He started a worship service in a bar. In several bars, as a matter of fact. After Hours Denver is a worship community that rotates from week to week to different bars in and around Denver where people hear the word, sing together, and drink adult beverages while they worship. Their motto is “Love more, laugh more, judge less.” And while some would respond by poo-pooing that idea as sacrilege, or heresy, or cite the old Methodist attachment to the 19th and early 20th century anti-drinking temperance movement in order to denounce it, they forget, or never knew, that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism often preached in bars and on street corners, and that many of our traditional Methodist hymns were in fact drinking songs before Charles Wesley got his hands on them and put new words to those familiar tunes so that people could remember them. Think: religious words to “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
“A hundred bottles of beer on the wall,
a hundred bottles of beer,
take one down, pass it around,
ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall.”

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost, but now I’m found,
was blind but now I see.”

   After Hours Denver took the Methodist tradition of small groups out into the places where people who weren’t going to connect to a church otherwise were located, and introduced the gospel in a new way, becoming more like a church in how people acted and served. It evolved next into these groups, performing “service” within their worship service, making sack lunches that folks then took out into the city parks to give to the homeless community, along with sharing communion in the park as well. 
   Taking communion and lunches to the park led to providing long underwear and coats for homeless people and others who needed them. All of this grew and evolved, one year at a time, until it got to the point that this year this ministry, begun in a handful of Denver area bars by people who didn’t go to church, at their now annual tradition of Christmas in the Park, distributed over 500 coats, over 700 sleeping bags, cared for the needs of over 700 people, and served over 1200 fresh grilled hamburgers to those who gathered, all this by the over 600 After Hours Servants who gathered to be the hands and feet of Christ in Denver. It may be different, it may not be traditional in the most traditional sense, but that is certainly what it means to be church, and what Jesus said it meant to be his follower and not a Christian in name only.

   Brian McLaren, a writer, theologian, and former pastor that I  know some of you have read, offers this about what he calls the “Great Migration” happening in the church,
   “I’ve come to see that what matters most is not our status but our trajectory, not where we are but where we’re going, not where we stand but where we’re headed. . . . [Religion] is at its best when it leads us forward, when it guides us on our spiritual growth as individuals and in our cultural evolution as a species. 
Unfortunately, religion often becomes more of a cage than a guide, holding us back rather than summoning us onward, a buffer to constructive change rather than a catalyst for it. In times of rapid and ambiguous change, such a regressive turn in religion may be understandable, but it is even more tragic: when a culture needs wise spiritual guidance the most, all it gets from religious leaders is anxious condemnation and critique, along with a big dose of nostalgia for the lost golden age of the good old days.”

   And I would offer that when we think about it in that way, we begin to understand why so many people are moving away from traditional religion entirely, into secularism or into experimental forms of spirituality unattached to traditional religion. 

   And Fr. Richard Rohr says about this movement, 
   “But at this pivotal moment, something else is happening. Within each tradition, unsettling but needed voices are arising—prophetic voices, we might call them, voices of change, hope, imagination, and new beginnings. They say there’s an alternative to static or rigid religion on the one hand and religion-free secularism on the other. They claim that the Spirit is calling us, not to dig in our heels, but rather to pack up our tents and get moving again.”
   In all of the tradition that we embrace in our practice of the Christian faith, we sometimes forget that the one we follow, Jesus the carpenter of Nazareth, was a leader in breaking with tradition when its effect was to separate or exclude people from God’s love and from worship. Jesus surrounded himself with, served, healed, preached to, and loved people who, if they walked in the door of most churches, would never be welcomed and would certainly never be accepted. Jesus broke with tradition in how he taught and people understood his teachings as having authority. Jesus broke the sabbath traditions and the religious authorities cried out “blasphemy” while the homeless, helpless, and hungry cried out “Hosanna!”
   The world needs the church to return to being more like Jesus in how it deals with the issues and the people in the world. The world needs the church to repent of trying to be like General Motors or IBM and to become more like the church described in the Book of Acts. Our scripture today calls us to come see Christ - to meet Christ - to know Christ - to follow Christ - and then to go home a different way, a new way. Jesus Christ calls us, from the manger and the cross, to leave behind the traditions that imprison us to old ways of thinking about and of being the church, that we might embrace the new thing Christ wants to do, needs us to do, in the world today. 

   So in the new year we’ll be trying some new things, doing some new things, starting some new things. And some of them will be easy and others will be harder. And some of them you’ll like and others you might not. Some of them you’ve probably tried before and they didn’t work, but we’ll try them again because the first time just might not have been the right time. Remember, it took Thomas Edison 10,000 tries to get the light bulb right and this could be only our 2nd or 3rd attempt at something. But we’re going to try because that’s what we’re called to do. We grow in our faith by trying new things. All the traditions that we have come to love came about by somebody trying some new thing, by going in a new way. New music has become favorite music over the centuries because somebody tried it the first time - every traditional hymn in our hymnal was new at one time or another, and what will eventually be seen as some of the greatest songs of the Christian faith… haven’t even been written yet. 
   And as we go these new ways, and as we try these news things, reaching out to and welcoming new people in new places, we remember that scripture tells us in Revelation 21, “You, O God, make all things new.” 

Happy New Year, Happy New You! Amen.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

12-24-17 “I Believe, Even When”

12-24-17 “I Believe, Even When”

   John 1 isn’t the passage we expect to hear at Christmas. We’re accustomed to stories of proclamations to shepherds in their fields. We’ve heard of angelic visitations to Zechariah, and Mary, and Joseph, so now we’re ready for something concrete, we want a baby - give us the baby! And our reading from Luke obliges - we have a baby, born in a manger  - and the crafters of our Christmas Carols are given a marvelous story about which to wax poetic.
   But there’s still John. Like Mark before him, John doesn’t bother himself with including a birth story, heralding angels, or watching shepherds. Nor is there a genealogy with all of those begats and strange-sounding names. There’s no tale of a star or wise men; not even a drummer boy to play rum-pa-pa-pum. 
   No, John begins in his gospel “in the beginning.” Literally. Not concerned with the details of how this earthly birth came about, John is enamored with    looking at the bigger picture of what it all means. That’s how John is - less concerned with how things happened and more concerned with their meaning, with what Jesus means. We can learn from John in that regard.

   The opening verses of John’s gospel remind us that God refashions chaos into order. The word translated from the Greek as “the Word” in John’s gospel is “Logos.” And it has a much deeper, much broader meaning than what we think of when hear it spoken as “the Word.” When we hear the Word, with a capital “w,” our minds interpret that as “word,” lower case “w” which is what we think of as printed on the page, which leads us to thinking of the Bible as God’s word and in doing that we completely misunderstand what it is John is trying to tell us. The Logos, in the Greek philosophy that John pulls from here has a deep resonance, representing the principle or power that is the glue of the universe. The Logos of God, the Word of God is not to be understood as ink printed on the page, it is that force which holds all things in the universe together. The Logos is not a book and it is not a being, but it is being itself. Logos is the wisdom, the power, the love of God that creates all things and is in all things, and in which all things are in God! How do we even begin to wrap our heads around this existential idea with which John begins his gospel? 

   John does it by framing this unimaginable meaning within the story of Creation. “In the beginning…” - those words echoing the opening words of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, the first words of Holy Scripture. 
“In the beginning was the Word,” the Logos, the power, the will, the love, the being, the intent, the plan, the glue, the force, the love of God. Before the Big Bang of God’s first revelation, before the first iota of star dust or dark matter or anything else material, there was the Logos…in the beginning.
   John reminds us that, as in the beginning God brought order out of chaos, in the person who was coming, the Son, the Logos of God in flesh, Jesus would bring God’s logos to earth, would again bring order to the chaos that Creation had become. And not a minute too soon, we might add.

   Because things are chaotic out there right now, aren’t they? Things are chaotic on many levels. There’s chaos on a global scale, there’s disorder on a national scale, there’s disarray on a local scale. The Advent and Christmas seasons - marked by the prophetic words Hope, Joy, Love, and Peace - are mired in confusion and chaos as the pagan gods of consumerism, commercialism, and materialism seek to replace those prophetic words with their own pathetic mantras - SALE, SPECIAL, BUY, and SAVE! 
   And amidst all of that, having traveled that unholy gauntlet for these past weeks and months we come to this passage today in a culture that theologian Cornelius Platinga describes as having a “deep societal suspicion that life is ultimately no more than what we make it…that in the prevailing wind of human self-achievement, God is not the source of new beginnings or new life, we are.”

   If that is true - if we are the source of new beginnings and new life, then it is no wonder there is so much disorder, disarray, and chaos in the world. John, however, would differ with that understanding, and offers us a different story, a life-giving story, a story that has the power to transform into new life not only that which is at best, chaotic within and around us, but also that which is dead within and around us. 

   Our series for Advent explored the larger Christmas story through the lens of “I Believe, Even When…” suggesting that God calls us to trust and to faith, 
even when all around us seems mired in messiness, drowned in depression, or lost in loneliness. We explored the traditional stories of Mary’s willingness to let it be with her as God said as well as with Joseph’s change of heart when the will of God was made known to him by an angel. Last week we explored Mark’s gospel, which as we said, like John’s gospel includes no birth story, but about which we suggested that the incarnation, God made flesh in Jesus Christ, could be likened to an invasion of God into the world. John, though, goes back - way back, back before the birth, back before the prophets, back before the Creation - to the beginning, the very beginning, to let us know that even then, when nothing else was, God was. 
Long before Mary was even a gleam in her mother’s eye, eons before Bethlehem was even a speck on a map, back to when there was nothing but chaos - as the world appears to many of us now - John tells the story of order (Logos) emerging out of chaos and darkness. There is no more important Christmas story that we can tell than the one John offers in these verses: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (v. 9)

   Christmas in our society is often associated with “belief,” in particular with belief in Santa Claus. Regardless of whether, or how, that belief carries on for you in later years, John invites us to reclaim Christmas as a season of belief for people of all ages. Not belief in a jolly old elf who sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake, who knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake - although that is, unfortunately, how many people have come to think of God. And not belief as we often think of it as being simply agreeing with an idea about someone or something - like whether you believe in ghosts, or UFOs -  but belief as trust in someone or something. To trust in someone or something is a much bigger commitment than belief as mere agreement with an idea. John, in his gospel, would have us believe or trust in the “Logos” of God who is made flesh, incarnated, in Jesus the Christ, who will speak and water will become wine to remind us that we have our life in his life; who will speak in a man disabled for nearly four decades and who will stand up on his own, reminding us that God will overcome whatever holds us down if we will but trust; who will speak to the hungry and those who have nothing to eat will be filled, with more of God’s abundance left over. 

   John’s prologue is a perfect, if not predictable, text for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, not because it shares the old, old stories that we long to hear, but because it assures us that we can trust in the One who is the source of our Christmas joy. The only question for us is whether or not we will place our trust in the good news of this life-giving, new-beginning, ever-creating “logos” that is God made flesh in the Christ child, whose birth we celebrate today. 

   So on this remarkable day, may the true light that enlightens everyone, who comes into the world this day, come into you and your life as well, that the light that is the logos of God will dispel the darkness and chaos within and around you, that you might once again share in the Hope, the Joy, the Love, and the Peace that is the Love of God in Jesus Christ for all the world. Amen. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

12-17-17 - “I Believe in God” from the “I Believe, Even When” Series

12-17-17 - “I Believe in God” from the “I Believe, Even When” Series

   For the past two years I’ve been working my way through a massive three volume history of WWII in Africa and Europe. In this collection, called The Liberation Trilogy, author Rick Atkinson uses thousands of sources from all sides of the conflict in order to understand the planning, preparation, power struggles, and perseverance that shaped the battle against fascism and Naziism in the middle of the last century.

   The third and final volume of this epic Pulitzer Prize winning series begins with preparations for D-Day, the largest military invasions every carried out.
And quoting from the book jacket, “D-Day marked the commencement of the European war’s final campaign. The brutal fight in Normandy, the liberation of Paris, the disaster that was MARKET GARDEN, the horrific Battle of the Bulge, and finally the thrust into the heart of the Third Reich…Atkinson tells the tale from the perspective of participants at every level, from presidents and generals to war-weary lieutenants and terrified teenage riflemen. When Germany at last surrenders, we understand anew both the devastating cost of this global conflagration and the enormous effort required to win the Allied victory.”

   The Liberation Trilogy. Three volumes about the liberation of Africa and Europe from the forces of wickedness and evil that was Hitler’s Third Reich. 
Three volumes that detail the overarching presence of leaders called from different places around the world to come together to fight against a common foe, a shared evil. Three volumes that relate the sacrifice of so many millions of Allied soldiers and innocent civilians, some willing and some unwilling but caught up in battles, attacks, counter-attacks, and invasions that were planned by the gods of war who were the political and military leaders of the time. 

   From a theological point of view, Liberation theology looks at the story of God’s liberation of God’s people throughout Scripture in much the same way, albeit apart from the idea of military conquest and massive loss of life for the sake of lines drawn on maps. In fact, theologian Richard Boyce likens Mark’s Gospel to the announcement of an invasion writing,  “Mark is the story of an invasion, an invasion of this world by God and God’s reign. Most human invasions involve some preparation - planning out the route, softening up the resistance, spreading some propaganda regarding the invaders. In some very basic ways, John the Baptist serves this purpose. However, in Mark, even John’s work seems perfunctory, and rushed, and orchestrated somewhere offstage. This is an invasion that is going forward without any invitation. This is an invasion that neither expects nor requires any real receptivity on the part of those for whom the invasion is planned...This is an invasion that only begins in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, because it is an invasion that is still going on.” 

   In fact, this invasion of God into the world, as imagined by Boyce in the Gospel of Mark, is perhaps less like the storming of the beaches at Normandy than it is H.G. Welles’ War of the Worlds, where the alien invaders simply appeared out of nowhere, with no warning, and like nothing that had ever before been seen. Unlike the invasion of June 1944, there was no preemptive artillery barrage to soften up the enemy, there were no propaganda leaflets dropped to encourage the oppressed and terrify the oppressors. None of that happens in this invasion. Oh, there had been prophetic voices that warned of the coming intervention, but nobody listens to prophets until it’s too late. No, there are simply the words with which Mark begins his good news, his gospel: “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

   As Mark Yurs points out, “Mark’s first word, arche’, can mean ‘beginning, source, and/or norm.’ English has no single word with all three connotations; here it has overtones of all three English words. There were many versions of the Christian message in Mark’s day, as in ours. Not all were equally valid…The author of Mark wants to provide direction for how the gospel can be authentically proclaimed. He does this not by stating a creed or a list of principles [or doctrines] to which the Christian message should conform, but by claiming that the narrative to follow is the beginning, the source, and norm for the church’s proclamation of the gospel” - the good news. 

   Mark, the first of the gospels to be written - and I remind you that the word gospel in that time had not taken on the meaning it now has as a book or writing about the life of Jesus; it simply meant good news - begins not with angelic proclamations or genealogies, but with a bold pronouncement: the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. No quiet build up; no ethereal comparisons as in John. Just a bold shot across the bow of any who might doubt. And there is no mistaking who Mark claims Jesus to be.  As Boyce puts it, 
   “This is not a story of a people crying out and God coming down (as in Exodus). This is not a story of God infiltrating the world through the righteousness of Joseph (Matthew) or the obedience of Mary (Luke). 
No, this is the story of a God who will bring [God’s] reign, come hell or high water. Ready or not, here God comes!”

   Then, to further solidify the point he makes,  Mark wraps his proclamation in the words and writings of Israel’s history. It is said that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. There is a concept called the “tyranny of the latest” that suggests that those who don’t study history make the assumption that their situation, their times, are certainly the most difficult ever experienced. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, historian David McCullough, responding to what he saw as a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of that period as the worst in American history, wrote his epic 1776, about the period surrounding the American Revolution, and suggested that, no, in fact that period in time was much more destructive and divisive to our country and the fabric of our national being than were the 2001 attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Other historians have written similarly about the period of the U.S. Civil War, and how that period in our history was so much more traumatic for our collective well-being than any other. The “tyranny of the latest” aside, 
Mark anchors his story in the history found in the scriptures, in Exodus, Malachi and Isaiah, because as Yurs suggests, “stability can come when we see that the faith we profess has seen people through all kinds of circumstances, and there is no reason to believe it will be undone by those we face today.”

   And he says that’s an important lesson for us today because, “Today there is a particular hunger for ‘good news’ from religion. Religion has become associated for so many with bad news, harsh attitudes, and caustic spirits. 
The treatment of women, of children, of [LBGTQ folks,] of people of color [or differing race or nationality,] is something that comes down hard on people. 
The more negatively religion is perceived, the less appealing the life of faith appears.” And it is that very association that Mark seeks to counter.

   Theologian Leah McKell Horton reminds us that, “Mark doesn’t begin his narrative in the ‘churches’ of Jesus’ day or even among the religious people of the time. Instead, it is John, a man living on the fringes of society, far from the halls of power, who first points to God’s coming grace. From the wilderness, he calls out to the people, offering them forgiveness for their sins. They are, says Mark, “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.” That is, John calls to the people on the fringes, the outside, those who really need the good news of a God invasion in their lives, not to those who lay claim to God’s message of “comfort, comfort, my people” while being comfortably housed, clothed, and fed in the worship of materialism, consumerism, and capitalism. God’s good news invasion doesn’t come in an “Onward Christian Soldiers” militaristic way, but arrives first in the guise of a smelly, bug-eating, animal skin-wearing prophet, and then, in the one that prophet points to: Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

   I don’t know about you, but when I think about Mark, I don’t imagine the usual image of a holy man, scribe, or apostle. No, my mind always gravitates toward an image of a first-century version of a 1950s era Beat poet, in a dank underground club with “cool” jazz providing a soundtrack, wearing a black sweater, a black beret, smoke haloing around his head from the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, trying to be confrontational or to set a different tone, create a different vibe with his latest avant-garde creation at a poetry slam. 
   You see, Mark is unconventional. Matthew and Luke, they took what Mark wrote and added to it, cleaned it up, dressed it up, put some lipstick on it, and in effect tried to tame it.  But Mark wasn’t hung up on form and completeness. The urgency of his gospel invades our senses as much as it proclaims God’s presence. Mark, as they say, marched to the beat of a different drummer. 
Much of the time Christians today experience the story of Jesus Christ as ancient history, as something that happened once but ended. Mark’s declaration of Jesus Christ as the invasion of God into the world, though, says “not so fast.” As Horton reminds us,  “Mark does not offer a conventional conclusion to his narrative, where things are wrapped up neatly, as we find in the other Gospels. Instead, his Gospel actually end in 16:8 with an empty tomb.”
“The unfinished nature of his testimony, juxtaposed to this strong, affirmative opening statement, suggests that for Mark, the life, ministry, death, and even the resurrection of Jesus Christ are not the end of the story. They are, instead, the events that set the gospel in motion. The ‘good news’ story of Jesus Christ, Son of God, is an ongoing one, continuing into the story of the church’s birth and expansion, and into the lives of those who meet the living Christ today.”

  So why do we need to hear this message of good news? And why now? Because many who claim to be Christians have fallen away from Christ and his teachings, embracing the world, the power structures, the comfort, and idolatry that Jesus warned us would come between us and God. And often we’re either too blind to see it or too complicit to acknowledge it. We also need the good news of a God invasion because many of us carry guilt with us like the proverbial albatross around our necks or a ball and chain that that keep us locked down and that threatens to hold us on the bottom while the relentless tide of life rises over our heads. What guilt, you ask? Guilt over broken relationships or broken vows. Guilt over not spending enough time with family or too much time at work. Guilt over words left unspoken until it was too late or caustic words spoken in anger that can never be unheard. Guilt over choices made or not made. There is plenty in this life that brings guilt down on our heads, some of it well-deserved and other of it only intended to market some “guilt-free” solution to us. 
   What Marks’ gospel - from beginning to end - challenges us to do is to, like Christ, enter into a “wilderness,” if you will, as the way by which God provides for us to confront our guilt, confess our sins, change our lives, embrace the good news, and then come out the other side as disciples of Jesus Christ.

   Mark’s challenge for us is twofold. First, it challenges us to consider “what could it mean for a congregation, any congregation, THIS congregation, to believe that we are, here today, part of this ongoing story of good news,” as Horton put it,  “this ongoing invasion of God,” as Boyce phrased it, and “that the end of the story has not yet been written?”
   And second, who are the ones on the outside, on the fringes, in the streets and in the shelters, in the hospitals and in the prisons, that God points us to? 
Who are the ones God wants us to share the good news with? Who are the fringe people that God’s invasion is intended to liberate? 
   The good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is not for our private consumption to be kept from those we might consider unworthy. It’s a message burned on the heart of every disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, that we must bear witness to in our lives and with our words, in our living and in our giving. God’s invasion is coming, a liberation trilogy, or trinity, that has already landed on the beaches. 

   I believe in God, even when the world drowns out God’s message of love with the propaganda of hate. 
I believe in God, even when God’s story isn’t neatly packaged with a bow but is left open and unfinished, 
as with Mark. And I believe in God, even when God seems silent, because God’s still small voice is still speaking, in those who resist hate, those who reject war, and those who embrace grace. 

That’s the God Mark boldly and brashly proclaims as good news and that we hear on this third Sunday in Advent. Amen.

Monday, December 11, 2017

12-10-17 “I Believe in Love,” from the "I Believe, Even When..." Series for Advent

   “I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining,” the poet wrote. “And I believe in love, even when there’s no one there.”  We don’t often think about “love” as something we “believe in.” It’s something we experience, it’s something we do, it’s something we feel. But something we believe in?
   You’ve heard me say many times that when we think about “belief” as it pertains to Jesus, we need to think not about giving mental agreement to the idea of Jesus, but rather that we should understand “belief” to mean trust in Jesus. Does the same hold true for “love?”  Should we mentally agree with love, or trust in love?  Or, does the poet suggest something else here? 
Does the phrase, “even when there’s no one there” change what or how we think about love? Does love require an object to love or a subject of our love? Deep questions for a Sunday morning, huh?  And what does any of this have to do with our scripture readings?

   Well, our scripture reading comes in two very distinct packages today - one, the genealogy, and two, the Joseph story. You can be forgiven if, when you read Matthew’s gospel you “slide” over the genealogy; all of those “begats,” as the King James Version puts it, can get pretty boring pretty quickly. But bear with me if we don’t skip over them today. Hidden in these first 17 verses of Matthew are some gems.

   One of the dominant themes in the Bible is this idea of messianic hope - the hope that God would send a messiah to save the people. Based in the promise given to Abraham and passed on through the generations, the hope of a messiah has become palpable by the time of Jesus’ birth. Israel had been held captive in Egypt for hundreds of years before being led out in the Exodus. Later they were conquered by imperial powers, first by the Assyrian Empire, then by the Babylonians, the Persians, and now by the Romans. They’re REALLY hoping for a messiah to come sooner rather than later at this point.

   So in light of that hope, the writer of Matthew makes a big, bold, hairy, audacious theological statement in this gospel - Jesus of Nazareth IS that messiah, the one promised and hoped for throughout Israel’s history. 
Even as most “messiah watchers” were certain that the coming messiah would be a military leader who would raise up an army to overthrow imperial rule, and even despite the fact that this Jesus that Matthew promoted had actually died at the hands of this very same Roman empire, Matthew stands firm. And in support of that declaration, he begins to make his case by providing a genealogy. But more than a mere list, Matthew provides a link to Israel’s history, and God’s promise, by laying the groundwork for how he will continue to tell the Jesus story going forward.

   The first step in this story is simple, as he writes, 
“A record of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.” 
So in the very first sentence Matthew tells us where he’s going with this: Jesus Christ (Christ is the Greek word for Messiah - it’s not Jesus’ last name) son of David (Israel’s greatest King, to whom God promised that his heir would always sit on the throne), son of Abraham (a direct line all the way back to the very beginning of the covenant, the promise God made to Israel.)  So this opening line tells us where Matthew is headed, the next 16 verses shows us how he gets there. So he begins this listing of descendants, starting with Abraham and progressing through the generations. 
   And here’s the first hitch. Matthew is not being totally literal here, he’s being largely symbolic, and a close reading will bear that out. Matthew lays out this genealogy in three groups of fourteen generations, saying that there are fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile, 
and fourteen from the exile to Jesus. And that’s very convenient, but it’s not accurate. In Matthew’s gospel there only thirteen in the last group, not fourteen. So that being the case, let’s consider for a moment the possible symbolism here. Do you remember in the series on Revelation how we talked about the symbolism of numbers and names that were used in that book? Do you remember what I told you was considered the “perfect” number? Seven, right? Because God created everything in seven days, so seven represented wholeness, completeness, perfection. So what is fourteen compared to seven? 
It’s double - twice as good. The number fourteen here is symbolic of double perfection, double sacredness. Matthew is giving us a clue as to how to understand these genealogical lists given in double-sacred-number size. How can we be sure? Well, there’s a couple of ways. One simple way is to count the generations as listed in the passage. The first two have fourteen, but the last one doesn’t. It’s one generation short of a trifecta. So one way is to simply count the generations. The other way of concluding that Matthew is going for symbolism here rather than historical accuracy is by comparing the genealogy here, specifically in verse 8, with the royal genealogy given in 1 Chronicles 3. 
As bible scholar David Jacobsen points out,  “Just when you think that the indispensable chain of male succession is going to guarantee the promised pedigree of Jesus, something interrupts the flow. Sometimes someone other than the firstborn male carries the line forward. Sometimes a known king or three are left out of the succession to ensure numerical symmetry (cf. 1:8 and 1 Chr 3:11-12).”
To be clear, three generations of descendants that are listed in Chronicles, compiled centuries earlier, are left out of Matthew’s genealogy. Matthew is using religious symbolism to show a continuous and sacred line from Jesus to Abraham, in order to further his point that Jesus is the messiah, the promised one. 

   Bible scholar Susan Andrews points out another interesting piece of information that can be found in the opening of Matthew as well. She says that more than a mere genealogy, or listing of descendants, the opening of Matthew provides a genogram. A genogram looks at ancestry more deeply than just lineage, it looks for characteristics and patterns. It examines closeness or distance in relationships. Does your lineage show patterns of illness, of addiction, of abuse or some other characteristic that occurs and reoccurs in multiple generations? Is there a pattern of strained or broken relationships between siblings or between parents and siblings that occurs on one side of your family tree. That’s the type of thing, or kinds of patterns, that a genogram looks at. So Andrews suggests,  
   “The beginning of Matthew is a genogram of Jesus’ life. Tracing forty-two generations all the way back to Abraham, we travel through triumph and tragedy, exaltation and exile, lostness and foundness.”

   And she goes on, after making the point that genealogies in this era, mostly confined to wealthy and powerful families, not the families of carpenters, are exclusively mapped through male descendants, writing,
   “In Joseph’s genealogy, the surprises abound. "Four women make the list - all of them Gentiles, three of them [Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba] defined by sexual sins - and yet all of them play redemptive roles in God’s unfolding drama of salvation.  Are we surprised that God uses what culture abuses to plant life in a broken world? Do we wonder why Jesus is so predisposed to [loving] the [marginalized] and despised among us? Such a surprising compassion is simply part of our Savior’s spiritual DNA.”

   Spiritual DNA. We don’t think about “spiritual DNA” when we think of lineage. I don’t remember ever seeing a single episode of Maury Povich where he proclaimed after a televised paternity test, “You’re the daddy, this kid has your spiritual DNA!” Am I right? But Matthew forces us to think differently about this when, at the end of this long presentation linking Jesus to Abraham, he includes Joseph at the end of the family tree. Joseph, who we are to understand is not the biological father of Jesus. But Andrews invites us to think about it this way:
   “Why is Joseph listed as a progenitor? By confusing us, God surprises us and encourages us to dig deeper in the complexity and contradictions of the faith. 
We are pushed to understand generativity and birth in a spiritual way, not just a physical way.”

   That is, to understand what Matthew is trying to convey, we have to think differently; we have to think outside the box of literalism and get to the symbolism that Matthew employs here. Matthew sees in Jesus the result of all that God has been doing over the generations to fulfill the promise that God made beginning with Abraham. Are there bumps and twists and turns along the way? Absolutely! But does that change the nature of the love that God has for Israel and for all of humanity that Matthew is trying to help us understand? 
Absolutely not! So, when you read this genealogy, or when you, like most people, skim over it, don’t get so caught up in the factuality of it, rather, consider the message Matthew is trying to convey through this symbolic representation.

   Moving, then, to the second part of our passage today, all of this symbolism suddenly becomes very real for us - it takes on flesh and bone. As Andrews put it, “In this text from Matthew we are invited inside the Joseph version of the annunciation story - not a virgin story, but a vision story. We meet Joseph the dreamer - a righteous man who trusts relationships rather than rules - an obedient man who responds to dreams rather than to demands.” 

   Mary’s story, as told in Luke’s gospel that we shared last week, is a very different kind of story than Joseph’s. Let’s get outside of our Christmas pageant thinking around this story in order to understand the dynamics at play here. These are real people with real emotions, not Hallmark card characters playing a role. And they’re engaged. As David Lose clarifies, 
   “In the first century world of Joseph and Mary, this is not a romantic declaration of intent. Rather, it is a legal contract, binding in every respect.
To be engaged – or espoused, betrothed, or pledged (some of the other words used in English translations) – was essentially to be married…without having consummated that marriage or as yet living together. Which means that when Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant, he can only conclude that she has been unfaithful to him and so likely experiences the pain, anguish, and sense of betrayal that any of us would have felt at such a devastating revelation.”

   And we all know what betrayal feels like - maybe not of this variety or scale, but we’ve all surely, at one time or another, felt the sting of betrayal. 
In this time and culture, infidelity, which is what Joseph has to assume is the case, is dealt with in one of two ways usually. Joseph could publicly declare what has happened, in which case Mary could likely have been stoned to death for adultery, or he could divorce her - “– the translation ‘dismiss,’” Lose points out, “softens the reality as “engagement” did earlier – her quietly, and he chooses the latter course.” Why? Because Joseph is, as Andrews described, “a righteous man who trusts relationships rather than rules - an obedient man who responds to dreams rather than to demands.”

   And we can imagine that in the days or weeks, whatever amount of time passed between when Mary told Joseph about this pregnancy and when the angel visits Joseph finally in his dream, that Joseph felt not only betrayal, but loss. Real people with real emotions, his life was no longer a dream, but a nightmare. 
   But it’s in a dream that an angel tells Joseph not to hesitate to make Mary his wife, and points out to him that Mary’s pregnancy is the work of the Holy Spirit. 
And the angels goes on to say that, “She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus,” which means “he will save his people from their sins.” YOU will call him Jesus, the angel says. Not “she will name him,” or “he will be called,” but “You will name him Jesus.” The power of naming in this culture belongs to the father. The angel is telling Joseph that he will be this child’s father, his spiritual DNA will guide this child’s life.
   And then Matthew, again tying the birth of Jesus as the messiah to a passage in Isaiah 7 that points to the coming messiah as part of God’s promise, in an aside to the reader writes,“Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled: 
Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel.
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)”

   So, first of all - and make of this what you will - Matthew misquotes Isaiah here; the Hebrew word Isaiah uses, almeh, doesn’t mean “virgin,” it means “young woman.” Matthew, on the other hand, uses a Greek word, parthenos, that means “virgin.” The two authors use two different words with two different meanings. The reason for that is an entirely separate sermon.
More importantly for us today is that, in quoting Isaiah’s reference to “Emmanuel” Matthew is telling his readers that Jesus, this child born to Mary and Joseph, is “God with us.” Matthew declares what we call the “Incarnation,” God in the flesh. And needless to say, after all of this, Joseph responded positively to the admonition.

 Matthew concludes the chapter, 
“When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.”

   Renowned Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us “that all the dreams in Scripture have something in common. They represent the intrusion of God into a settled world - an unbidden communication in the dark of the night that opens sleepers to a world different from the one they inhabit during the day - an intrusion that generates a restless uneasiness with the way things are until the vision and the dream come to fruition.”

   Joseph is described here by Matthew as being a righteous man. Joseph’s righteousness, however, is based on love, not on law. He loved Mary, he loved God. His righteousness is not a kind of self-righteousness where, feeling he has been wronged, he feels he deserves to be made right. No, it is a righteousness based on being in right relationship both with God and with the dream of God. Remember, Joseph valued relationship over rules. Joseph trusts the message he receives. Where we might write off such a dream as the results of a bad late night snack choice, Joseph embraces it, and in doing so, embraces the heart of God.
   Now, with all of that said, it’s probably a safe assumption that, as David Lose phrased it, “the months leading up to Christ’s birth was not one blissful baby-shower after another but were fraught with anxiety and concern and flights of emotion we have all experienced at various times.”
   “And that, of course, is the point. We have – each of us – experienced similar upheavals. Indeed [this very morning…] who knows how many of [us here or people we know] are struggling to hold it all together. Families who struggle with discord, couples who feel disconnected, kids wondering what future they may have, elders wondering the same [thing] from a different point of view. Some seek jobs, some relationships, some any sense of acceptance or worth.”

   This passage speaks to those concerns though. 
Read alongside our poem, it calls us to believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining, to believe in love even when no one’s there, and to believe in God, even when God seems silent. Why? Because in the incarnation of Christ - God in the flesh - God is with us. God is here. God is in us and we are in God. The apostle Paul said that it is in God that we live and move and have our being. 
This story reminds us that God works through real people - everyday people - like you and like me. God didn’t choose a fairy tale princess to give birth the Savior, but an unwed peasant girl. God didn’t choose a king or successful business man to name and care for Jesus, but a man with his own doubts, his own very real fears and questions, who wanted to do the right thing but needed a little bit of a push to get there. 

And quoting Lose, 
  “All of this helps flesh out the name “Emmanuel” that Matthew draws from Isaiah to apply to Jesus. God with us.” Or, we might want to say, “God REALLY with us.”  
  That is, God coming to be with us as we are. Not as we know we should be, or are trying to be, or have promised to be, or will be some day, but with us as we are now…today…in this moment. Perhaps that’s the promise at the heart of this passage – that as God came before to be with, use, accept, and hallow Joseph and Mary at the birth of Christ, so also God comes to us in Christ to be with us, use us for good, accept us as we are, and hallow us by God’s own presence.”

   Why do all of this we ask? Because God is love. And the God who is love, loves us so much that God came to us, became one of us, became one with us, and is with us, really with us. And regardless of the how, that is WHY the birth of Jesus Christ took place. 
And that is the heart of Matthew’s message for us today. Amen.