Sunday, December 18, 2011

Joseph Finch

Matthew 1: 18-25

You know, he didn’t have to.

From everything we have in the Bible, and little enough it is, Joseph didn’t have to stick around. Until he was visited by the angel, Joseph was going to do what any man of that time would do, when presented with the fact that the woman he was engaged to be married to, a marriage that was probably arranged, or at least strongly approved of my both families, was pregnant. He was even expecting to do it in a very tasteful way, not by dragging her into the square and condemning her publicly. He was just going to quietly “dismiss” her.

Then an angel shows up. Well, not in the way that an angel shows up for Mary, but for Joseph, the angel shows up in a dream. “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, the angel says, because she’s been given this special job, the baby is no ordinary baby, but she’s going to need support.

Remember, we talk about how Mary was a teenager.

In those days, life was different; people grew up faster, and lived a lot shorter than we do now. Teenager in the sense we understand it now was a lot different than then. When you turned twelve or thirteen back then, you weren’t just considered an adult as a rite of passage, you really were an adult. You’d only live till your forties or fifties anyway. But thirteen is still thirteen, whether society understands adolescence ending at thirteen, or whether it ends at thirty, which it seems to do these days.

When you combine that with the much reduced role women had in society compared with our day, the reality of that, then as now, is that Mary was going to need help, protection, care, and everything else as a new mother. I am not sure where we get the idea the Joseph was significantly older than she was, and frankly, I don’t think it matters. Mary was about to have a baby before she was married. To do it as a single mom would have been impossible in that society,

Plus there’s the thing that is needed, so much so that both Luke and Matthew make it a priority to name-the baby, the son of God, God with us, has to come out of the line of David. Matthew spends almost all of chapter 1 covering the genealogy of Joseph, and Luke makes sure we know that Joseph’s proper census place isn’t Nazareth, where he lives, but Bethlehem, which is the ancient seat of his family, the family of David.

Joseph accepts the angel’s authority, and does not dismiss Mary, but stays with her to give the baby safety, support, and most importantly for the gospel writers, his name.

When we think about manhood these days, there are a lot of images that pull at us. There’s the old John Wayne image, where the man acts on behalf of a code, and moves about untethered by attachments to community, romance or duty. He has his own code, and his sense of right and wrong are often simple and starkly defined.

We have about us as well the image of a man as the supreme shark, and the mark of a man’s virility is how much money he can make or how successful he is on a field, pitch, court or course, how ruthless he can be in pursuit of his goals, and his leadership is the kind of leadership that keeps score. When he wins, you lose, and that’s the way it is supposed to be.

Joseph, holds up for us another style of manhood, one that we don’t see often, but in comparison I often compare to the character of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Here is a man who is a leader in the community, and is known for his wisdom and his gentleness, his attention to duty and his competency, as well as his ability to stand for what is right and wrong.

We don’t know about Joseph other than these two short passages in the beginning of only two gospels. There is no birth story in John, or in Mark. Joseph doesn’t appear again after Jesus going missing when he’s twelve, the story of them finding him listening and talking in temple. Joseph is not present at the crucifixion, as Mary is. It seems Joseph’s importance was primarily to be Jesus’ protector, which includes taking him to Egypt when Herod commands that all boy babies in Galilee under the age of two be killed.

That and to make sure that Jesus is adopted into the line of David.

Here’s to all the men who do the right thing, like Joseph. Who listen to the angels and to God, and sometimes do what isn’t expected, but act in the name of love and devotion. Who, in an age where God is foreign to so many, recognize that the approval of society is sometimes not the best way to go, especially when God calls on you to do something else.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pink Candle

Luke 1: 47-55

Some advent candle sets are just four purple candles. Some, in an effort to separate Advent from its sister season, Lent, have changed to blue candles and paraments. But most traditional Advent wreaths have three purple candles, and one pink one. The pink one is lit on the Third Sunday, and it is there so that, in the rush to get to Christmas, we stop even for a minute and remember the one who gave birth to Jesus.

This Sunday is the Sunday of Mary. Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Mary the unwed, minority teenage mother, the one who said yes, knowing what it would do to her standing in the community. In the short term.

Mary didn’t have to do what she did. When Gabriel visits her, he doesn’t say “and now you will be impregnated by God”, and boom, it happened; No. We serve a God who asks first, even though God doesn’t have to. God has the power to do what God wants, and even has the power to make us like it, but that’s not how God works. God asks. God wants us to choose service, not be made into slaves. Adam and Eve were created to be a companion to God, not a toy, and God has been acting as if it will come true ever since. God has faith in us, and in Mary, his faith is justified. She says “Here am I, Lord.”

In the Protestant Bible, there is a gap of about 400 years between the last prophet, Malachi, and the beginning of the Gospel story. Other Bibles are a little different, but not much. I don’t know whether God had gone completely silent (which I doubt), the voices and writings of the prophets of those middle years are lost, or were somehow deemed to be not worthy of being made into scripture.

But something changed. The last voices we hear are of Nehemiah, and all of the prophets, which all seem to have come about roughly the same time, and around the building and completion of the Temple and the city walls of Jerusalem. To the people of God then, perhaps the last act of God was the restoration of the Temple, and the temple cult. Indeed, for any story teller, that would indeed be a great and happy ending to the story.

But human life is not tie-able into neat bows, is it? The end of the story is not the end of human existence. Even in the texts we have, the people are already showing signs of faltering, falling short of the promises they made to Ezra at the rededication of the Temple, the public reading of the Scriptures of God.

As the story ends, Jerusalem is re-inhabited by the people of God, under the care and watchful eye of the Persian Empire.

But yet, 400 years later, when the Gospels open, Jerusalem and the Temple are now subject to the rule of the Roman Empire, not the Persian. Persian officials seeking the re-flowering of the Jewish culture under caring and interested Jews like Ezra and Nehemiah, and called to account by various prophets, are replaced by soldiers and tax collectors. That story of history is far too long to be covered here, but what was once thriving and focused on God is now, 400 years later, silent and occupied (and not in a good way!).

This is the climate that first hears a voice crying in the wilderness, which is as much a spiritual wilderness as it is John living and baptizing out in the boondocks.

When God acts, in God’s time, God does so in God’s own way. God does not act to take his land back from the Romans, land is not God’s concern. God acts to call God’s people back.

And who does God use to begin that calling? A crazy hermit in the desert and an unwed, minority teenage mother. If these two kinds of people were who God used to call us back, I’m afraid of how many of us would fail to hear that call.

Michael Slaughter, who is pastor of a very successful congregation in Ohio, wrote this week that God chose an adolescent girl to give birth to the Message of Love because she had a proactive faith. Mary said yes, when she didn’t have to. I think what he means is that she was open to whatever it was that God would have planned, and to God’s purpose.

I could ask here what you think God’s purpose is for your life, but I think that would be a mistake. We all know God’s purpose for our lives. Whatever our choices, whatever our situations, whatever our responsibilities, it is simply stated, and often over-thought. We lose the forest for the trees. God’s purpose for our lives is to show and teach and live the love of God in the world. To give birth to it every day, in a sense. To say yes to God, to carry the love of God, to give birth to God, to give the love of God to the world.

That is the call on our lives. It’s that simple. To do what Mary did. To say yes to God, and to care for the love of God within us, nurturing it, feeding it, protecting it, until it bursts forth into the world, and it is our responsibility, like a good parent, to let it go freely into the world. And to do it again. And again.

This is why we have a pink candle in our advent wreath. To remind us of the unwed, minority teenage mother who gave birth to the Love of God, and raised that Love to be given freely to the world.

And to remind us that we can, too.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Lament of the Weary and the Wounded

Mark 1: 1-8

Consider me in the lineage of Ebenezer Scrooge. He is my spiritual brother, my role model, my Polaris. He signifies every thing I feel at the beginning of Advent. Christmas is a season of unmitigated consumerism, egged on by the vast multinational corporations that seem to rule our lives. Even the ones I like, such as Barnes and Noble and Starbucks, have special items and events that they wait for Christmas to release on the public-a full third of the Barnes and Noble store up at the Arana Hub has been given over to games and puzzles, and the Christianity and Spirituality sections have been folded into the self help and “relationships”.

Bah Humbug.

And the church? Humph. Everyone wants to talk about the coming of Christ, and that Advent is the time of waiting and Expectation. Waiting for what? For the son of God, they say. Well, I’m kinda sure that he was born about 2011 years ago. What are we waiting for? It’s a metaphor that just isn’t working for me at all. I’m not waiting. I just don’t have the time to wait. Waiting for something that has already come? Foolishness.

Heaven help me.

Then there are those people who insist of keeping Christ in Christmas. Somehow, the month of December is to be completely reserved for those who claim Christ as their lord and savior, as if the rest of the world has no right to celebrate their own traditions. Or, maybe they can, but just not here in America, thank you very much. In America, no matter what the Constitution says, you really shouldn’t acknowledge that you might not celebrate Christmas, and the neighborly thing to say when you really don’t know someone, Happy Holidays, is somehow offensive to people who seem to be properly insulted by the creeping consumerism we all live with. Right intent, wrong action. Right ammo, wrong deer.

For many of us, this time of year is not a time of gladness, and it is not a time of joyful tidings. It brings up old pains, and fresh wounds, just now beginning to scab over, feel like they get opened afresh, just a little bit. We remember people we love who aren’t with us, for whatever reason; they live too far away from us to see often, and regular contact has fallen off. Some people are separated by some of fight or resentment, and they may live close to each other, but haven’t talked to each other for years. Some miss loved ones who have died, whether it be recently or years ago.

This poem, by Ann Weems, sums it up well:
In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,
there is a deafening alleluia
rising from the souls of those who weep,
and of those who weep with those who weep.
If you watch, you will see
the hand of God
putting the stars back in their skies
one by one
Yesterday’s Pain
Some of us walk in Advent
tethered to our unresolved yesterdays
the pain still stabbing
the hurt still throbbing.
It’s not that we don’t know better;
it’s just that we can’t stand up anymore by ourselves.
On the way of Bethlehem, will you give us a hand?
--Ann Weems

Will you give us a hand? Lord, Who is our creator, will you send your love to us, so that we may feel you with us? Help us to climb out of this mire of rampant consumerism? Of lines at the Walmart that form at 9:00 on Thanksgiving night? Of people pepper spraying others to eliminate them from competition for the perfect toy? Of stores playing Christmas music the day after Halloween?

Will You give us a hand? Lord, who is our sustainer by the Holy Spirit, would you send your love to us, so that we might be able to love our neighbor? That we might find it in our hearts to wish all of those around us well, even those who do not believe as we do? Help us Lord, to be more secure in your love, so that we are not threatened by the beliefs of others, and that we might be people of good will to all, whether they celebrate Hanukah or Ashura?

Will you give us a hand? Lord, who is our redeemer in the person of Jesus Christ, will you send your love to us, so that we might be able to relieve the pain this season gives us? That we might be able to concentrate on the joy that the memories of those we love give us, and not focus so much on the pain of their departure, or separation from us?

Will you give us a hand? Lord, who is our Lord, will you send your love to us?

Will you send your love to us?


You already have. Two Thousand and eleven years ago. And the sending of your love is what we celebrate every year at this time.

God sent us God’s love in Jesus Christ. Through Christ, as an adult, and even in the circumstances of his birth, God showed his love for all people. From every other baby who ever was laid in a stinky, flea ridden, cold manger because their parents couldn’t afford decent lodgings, all the way up to babies with silver spoons.

God loved us so much that god sent his son. God did send a hand.
God did send God’s love.

Lord, help us find it again. Lord, help me find it again.