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Sermon Matthew 1:18-25
St. Michael and All Angels
December 19, 2010
There is an old story about a boy who comes home from Sunday School. His Dad asked what he learned that day. He said, “The teacher told us about Israel escaping from Egypt and when they came to the Red Sea they pumped up their inflatable boats so they could get away from Pharoah’s soldiers.” His Dad asks, “Is that the way it really happened?” The boy replies, “Dad, if I told it the way she did, you would never believe it.”
In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass the White Queen advises Alice to practice believing 6 impossible things before breakfast each day.
That’s not a bad spiritual practice…particularly this time of year when we are asked to believe the impossible…God coming as a baby to save the world? The truth is we try believing from a distance, in a break from our parties and decorating and baking and shopping. Somewhere in there we nod in the direction of the pending birth. Our attempts to find ourselves in this story are very different than Mary and Joseph who were told that they would be parents of God incarnate. We are more like observers…careful not to get drawn into this mess, but standing off to the side holding our songbooks and secretly peering over to see what might happen when God is born among us. No matter where we stand in this story, it is one that doesn’t go down easily.
Today we turn our attention to Joseph. He is often dismissed as if he matters little in the drama…just a bit part. But that is simply not true. In this moment in Matthew, the whole story hinges on Joseph and his willingness to become part of an ugly, dangerous mess. He may not understand the full implications yet, but he knows that when the world finds out about Mary, they will be prepared to stone her. He can walk away from it all or somehow say yes to a God who asks him to take his place beside her and see what happens.
Like many remarkable God sightings, this one includes the expected angel and the words, “do not be afraid”. The angel always says that. But we know better. This is a time to be very, very afraid. I’ve always wondered why those are the first words every time an angel makes an appearance. Of course, there is the strangeness of a visitation from God…not an everyday thing. But I also know that just telling someone not to be afraid doesn’t remove the fear. I have always been afraid of snakes. When I was little, I knew that snakes were in my bed. I couldn’t put my feet under the covers because the snakes were there. My mother explained that they weren’t, but I knew better. I am 45. I am still scared of snakes. I don’t want to go in the snake room at the zoo. I know the snakes are behind glass. I know they can’t get me, but I am still scared of snakes. You can explain it all to me, but I am afraid of snakes. Period.
But I know something else about fear. In this case, I am afraid that I cannot protect myself from a snake. Our fear is often about who we are and our awareness of our own limitations. When the angels tell people “do not be afraid”, they are not saying “rely on yourself, really, you can master this situation.” In every case, they are saying, “do not be afraid. God is with you. It is not all up to you. God is asking you to participate, but you don’t have to make it all happen.”
In other words, when the angel steps into the scene, they are asking us to reorient a bit. This is about God, not about us. We are invited in, but we are not being asked to take over at this point. Neither is Joseph. But we are being asked to trust God by leaning all the way in rather than just dipping our toe into the water. That is terrifying! I don’t think the angel really means that we shouldn’t fear, but is telling us that we can trust God.
I know that we want to believe that and we even think we trust God, but we are so used to trusting ourselves. My good friend Scott had viral meningitis this fall. It was horrible and completely knocked him off his feet for a few months. Scott is young and athletic. He is in great shape! Scott is a minister. In his first sermon after two months of this debilitating illness, he preached about what he learned in the darkness. He realized that he talked about trusting God all the time, but what he really trusted in was Scott. He had never come face to face with this until he discovered that he couldn’t save himself. Now he is learning to trust in God every day.
One of my favorite paraphrases of the incarnation is from Eugene Peterson’s The Message …“The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood”. (John 1:14) The impossible and scary thing we are asked to believe in this season is that God comes among us – right where we are – not light years away, but here, now, and invites us in to the story. It is still being written and we are part of it. The Bible is not a closed book about something that happened long ago. It is a living, breathing narrative and it is calling us to participate in the ongoing story of God’s presence in our neighborhood today.
Joseph can teach us a lot about being a courageous part of God’s story today. Laron Hall once described Luke’s birth narrative as an opera where it seems everyone is singing. But Joseph doesn’t have a lovely solo. In fact, in this birth narrative, Joseph doesn’t say a word. We don’t get a long theological treatise about what he believes, but we learn a lot about what he believes by his actions. Oh yes, we know that actions speak louder than words, but we sure spend a lot of energy focusing on words. If we want to know someone, we should listen less to what they say and watch more what they do. Joseph’s actions are profound. He is a man of deep faith…deep enough to allow his understanding of God to change in difficult circumstances. He knew that God wanted him to be righteous and he understood that to mean quietly dismissing Mary, but his faith was big enough to hear a completely different message about God and act on it. He stepped into the great unknown because an angel told him to “take Mary as his wife and name the baby Jesus”. He gave this baby his name. What a courageous act.
From Joseph we receive a different message about the meaning of Christmas. Christmas isn’t about what we believe; it certainly isn’t about what we say. It’s about what we do.
I’ve been talking a lot with twelve year old Max about God. Max is a thinker. He listens and wrestles with things and I’m learning a lot from him. I asked him what he thought about Christmas. He said he isn’t convinced about the baby in the manger and the star overhead. Then he said, “It just doesn’t make sense. If that story is true why do we give each other presents? If it were true, we would all be out saving the babies who are born in warehouses from dying. Their mothers don’t have enough milk to feed them. If we believed this story, we would be saving all the babies in the world.”
Ouch. He’s right. We can talk all day about what we think about God, but the expansiveness of our faith is found in our actions. God comes alive when we act – when our lives reflect the God who has “moved into the neighborhood” – our neighborhood.
Joseph is pretty amazing. He’s not some quiet wallflower who is insignificant in the incarnation. Joseph is the one around whom the whole story pivots. Somehow he stands in the midst of a mess he had nothing to do with and is willing to take some preposterous actions that will result in the salvation of the world. In this season as we prepare for the miraculous birth in our midst, what are we being called to do? What does God moving into the neighborhood mean for us in 2010?
Joseph had a clear plan of action when his world was suddenly turned upside down with the news that Mary was pregnant. So he came up with a new plan of action and then he was able to let that plan go when an angel gave him a crazy new plan. Many of us make plans only to discover that they have been turned upside down too. In the confusion and chaos of our lives, Joseph steps in and teaches us to pay attention to our dreams, to listen to the wisdom of our hearts and minds. Our plans may make sense, but there are times that God calls us beyond our best-laid plans. Morton Kelsey said, “Sometimes our religious experience needs to displace our conventional human wisdom. Saints are those who follow their deepest inner promptings, even when they make no worldly sense.”
Joseph didn’t find God in his own brilliant plan. He discovered God over and over as he stepped out into the great unknown with only the promise of an angel “Do not be afraid. God is with you.” Over and over in the bible and for us today as well, the message is this: “Do not be afraid. Do the impossible. God is with you.” And it is enough.
Since the angel Gabriel spoke: Mary blessed are you: we have debated “why?” She is the subject of theology, the object of devotion even the recipient of scorn. She is embraced and cast aside. Different cultures create Mary in their own image. She is Indian, Polish, French and African. White, black, brown, red and yellow. She is Mary is of Galilee, called the Mother of God, a spiritual woman, she is Guadalupe.
Why is she special? Many sermons will speak of her faithfulness; despite the unknown journey God has placed before her, she says yes. Theologians will point to her humility and devotion. Never at the adulation of great miracles, only at the first, Cana, yet she stands with her son at the foot of the cross. Mary gave Christ his humanity and his human features. He may have had the same color eyes, the texture of hair; maybe their laughs sounded the same.
Women speak of her liberating qualities. I am startled by her determination. In a time, where women were treated with no respect and little regard, and in many places not much has changed, she stands as a symbol of change and courage. God first had to liberate Mary, before Christ could liberate us.
I find it interesting that the countries that tend to have a strong machoistic culture, Mexico, Latin America, Italy, have strong reverence for Mary; maybe a way to reconcile the feminine with the divine. Think of her strength. Other than Christ, she was the world’s greatest prophet. She delivered the voice that continues to transform the world. Her heart is for the oppressed, the Magnificat sounds eerily similar to the Beatitudes.
Mary for those who are pushed aside, the oppressed worker, those discriminated against, those who society rejects or forgets, embrace Mary’s strength. Thousands of protest marches always seem to have a picture of Mary leading their steps.
In this sanctuary, we have beautiful representations and my favorite is probably the least accepted. In the 1800’s Dante Rossetti painted today’s Gospel, and it seems to answer that question as to why Mary is truly special. Mary is not a grown woman, strong, resplendent in beautiful robes passively gazing upon the divine. She is not smiling, humbly accepting or sitting in prayerful repose. Mary is young, and is recoiling as if disturbed from sleep. She is dressed in a simple gown, and her hair is rumpled.
As Gabriel is handing her a white lily and with the Holy Spirit is in the background waiting to enter Mary, she has this look, that I can only describe as….sheer terror. What makes Mary special is not solely her love of Christ, her faithfulness or strength. Mary is special because despite all the obstacles and overwhelming odds against her; she understood that God was working in her life. Mary… was able to see the beginning of miracle.
This is difficult for me, and I assume many of you. We try to get at miracles from the wrong end. We want the results and not the process. The conversion instead of the pain. We want the butterfly instead of the cocoon. The light without fumbling through the darkness. A new life, instead of grasping the miracles in our own lives.
It is much easier to immediately attribute the events in our lives to the results of something: our intelligence, our actions, bad decisions, even fortune. Yet, we may fail to realize that something deeper in working in our lives, God. We fail to see the beginning of miracles. The start of a new life that none of us had planned.
Mary had no way of knowing, yet she felt the possibility of a miracle. If we lose our job, that relationship ends, or a diagnosis is received, do we see the end or the beginning? Like Mary, can we find the miracle occurring within?
I was once told that Mary had it easy because she was chosen by God. Really? The Gospels point to a life that probably mirrors ours. Gabriel’s message could have been taken as tragic.
A poor, unwed, pregnant teen in 1st century Galilee – it was a death sentence. An angel told her she would bear the Son of God and then he was born in a barn surrounded by animals? Do you think she questioned her judgment or whether the angel was telling the truth? Her entire life was filled with pain, obstacles and challenges. She and Joseph were homeless immigrants running from the authorities, sneaking into foreign land with a small child.
Joseph dies and she is left widowed, penniless and on her own. Her own family believes that Jesus is out of his mind and shuns him, yet she believed in him. Mary witnessed her son’s murder, yet she does not hate, or condemn. Mary has every reason not to believe in miracles, yet for some reason she knew that that cross was the beginning of another miracle.
Where did this come from? Gabriel says two things that become foundational in Mary’s belief of the miraculous in her. Mary asks “how can this be?” Gabriel responds “God is with you and nothing is impossible with God.” She did not know what tomorrow would bring so decided to live for today. Despite the ups and downs, the tears and the laughter; she knew that God was with her. And more than that, she knows that nothing, nothing compares to the greatness of knowing God.
Maybe that is why so many different cultures and colors have made her their own. Everyday Mary, a person no different from each one of us was chosen by God to bring the Good News, to bring Christ into the world. And the beauty of God is that God chooses each one of us to bring Christ into the world.
Since we truly do not know what tomorrow will bring, we must look for the miraculous all around us, like Mary believe in the possibility that we are chosen to bring Christ into the world. When we make that choice, we see God in the everyday.
I imagine that God was present in thousands of burning bushes in the desert and thousands passed by that burning bush blind to the miracle, yet only Moses stopped and said, “here I am Lord.” On that barren mountain in Mexico City, how many did not notice roses in the depths of winter. Far too consumed with the barrenness of their hearts to notice life blooming around them. That cold night in Bethlehem where the voices of billions of Angels bursting through time yet many choose to sleep, while simple shepherds looked up, listened to heavenly song that a Savior is born. Maybe they understood the beginning of the miracle, that angels could sing to sheep and Messiahs could be found wrapped in rags and sleeping in a feed trough.
Large events or small events are the beginning of transformation, at times the smaller the better, constantly occurring around us. Often I find myself complaining about the winds in fall, yet I sit in fascination at the flowers in the spring. Forgetting, that the wind picks up a seed, drops it into a place of new life. Little miracles occurring all around my life.
A diagnosis of an illness the loss of a job, refocusing our attention on what truly matters in life.
The death of my father, truly painful in that December over 30 years ago, a beautiful reminder that his seed of goodness bloomed in me the miracle of true love for my own wife and son. Little miracles occurring all around me.
I doubt that young terrified Mary truly knew her response would lead to a beautiful man’s life, that would lead to a cross that would lead to everlasting life for each one of us. Or the same yes, would bring each of us from different journeys, different faces, different places, to the miraculous celebration of the Eucharist in a small church in the North Valley of Albuquerque. The beginning of all these little miracles.
My favorite poet, Mary Oliver wrote this poem that speaks to the beginning of a miracle.
How does the seed-grain feel when it is just beginning to be wheat? How does the catbird feel when the blue eggs break and become little catbirds, maybe on midsummer night’s eve, and without fanfare.
And how does the turtle feel as she covers her eggs with the sweep of her feet and leave them for the world to take care of? Does she know her accomplishment? And when the blue heron, beaking his long breast feathers, sees one feather fall, does he know I will find it? Will he see me holding it in my hand as he opens his wings softly and without a sound as he rises and floats over the water?
And this is just any day at the edge of the pond, a black and leafy pond without a name until I named it. And what else can we do when the mysteries present themselves, but hope to pluck from the basket of brisk words that will applaud them, the heron, the turtle, the catbird, the seed-grain kneeling in the dark earth, its body opening into the golden world. All miracles.
During this most holy season, what made Mary special was that always believed in the possibility of a miracle occurring in her life, she knew that God was always placing her at beginning of the miracle. God was with her and nothing is impossible with God.
We must keep our hearts open to the miracles are occurring in our lives, the beginning of the miracles that will changes our lives. When we open our heart to God’s miracles, maybe, just maybe where we will hear God calling out to us from a burning bush and respond “here I am.”
Maybe just maybe, we will hear angels announcing that a savior is born. We will awaken our hearts to the possibility that roses can bloom on a barren hillside in December.
When we open our heart to the miraculous, when we open it to God, and this brings belief.
And blessed is she or he who believes.
And like Mary, blessed is each one of you.
For unto us, unto you - a child will be born. Amen.
*Many thanks to Margaret Silf whose article inspired me to recognize and speak of little miracles on this Feast of Guadalupe.
St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday December 5, Advent 2
Text: Matthew 3: 1-12 John the Baptist’s
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Theme : Repent with Joy
It is the second Sunday of Advent for those of you keeping track. It means that we are halfway through our Advent journey, halfway done with our waiting for Christmas, for Christ to born in a hovel at Bethlehem, for God to scandalously put on flesh as one of us, to share our life. All around us there is a flurry of activity to get ready for this Holy Day turned holiday and none of us is immune to its seductions. But the truth is that the church with its strange sense of time is in no hurry to get to Christmas. The old ways of Advent intend to teach us that the journey to Nativity is just as important as the infants cry in the manger. What we need is to pay attention, to take stock of our lives. Our Christmas lists are clues to a deeper mystery. Our lists might grow into self-reflection, an unexpected entry in our journals. What do I really need? What do I really want? Is what I need something that can be bought? Can my loved ones, so full of good intentions really meet the need inside of me that cries out for wilderness, for the wildness God, for singleness of heart, for a sense of the kingdom’s nearness?
This is one of my favorite Sunday’s as it is dedicated to the wild-prophet-man, John the Baptist. Johnny B for those of you on more intimate terms, who count him among your odd and devoted friends. I think we ought to call this Sunday wilderness Sunday. In fact, we ought to celebrate it outdoors as close to the Rio Grande River as we dare to get, wading up to our knees in mud, drinking in the Sandias and staring wildly into the eyes of each other searching for hints and clues of where the newness of the kingdom is arriving.
Johnny B is a man of few words. But his message is clear. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew likens him to the prophets of old, in fact he says that he is the one Isaiah spoke of, “The Voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Johnny was an odd looking man dressed in camel’s hair accessorizing with leather, the same get-up that the prophet Elijah had sported just 800 years earlier. Evidently this look never goes out of style. John was un-kept, wild, offensive, blunt, hairy, water-loving, intense, sinewy, fierce, uncouth, and seemed a bit angry really (and anger sometimes makes us uncomfortable). John was a messenger, a prophet, spoken of by the ancients, outfitted like Elijah, and sent by God. And so people came to hear his message, to enter the waters of the Jordan River to be taken under the water by this wild-man whose baptismal liturgy had not been approved by anyone, not the chief priests, not the Pharisees, not the Romans, not even the adult Sunday School committee. No one had given John permission to perform this new ritual cleansing in the running water of the wilderness. And still they came, making their way from the comfortable confines of Jerusalem and the beautiful temple there full of sagacious priests to this out of the way, austere, riverbank in the wilderness presided over by the wild prophet of God.
What made Johnny B. so compelling, that he drew crowds into the wilderness to hear his demanding message? “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” I suspect “repent,” is not a word we are especially comfortable with. We associate the word with doom-saying prophets on street corners wielding large floppy bibles like swords of accusation. Repent is one of those words you feel like someone needs to say with a boney finger pointed right at you.
But I wonder, is John’s message all that scary? Do we really understand the word Repent? Repent simply means to turn around, to go a different direction, to change course. Fredrick Buechner says it beautifully, “To repent is to come to your senses. “It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, “I’m sorry,” than to the future and saying “Wow!”” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking A Theological ABC, Harper & Row, 1973)
John’s message of Repentance was simple but it hit home with a great number of people. And instead of hounding people on the street corners or preaching at them in their Episcopal churches, John took his message to the outback of Judea. For Johnny B. “location, location, location” meant don’t make it easy for them, if it is worth having they will go to the trouble to get there. And people did just that. They packed a lunch, picked up their trekking poles at REI and made the hike out to encounter John’s strange preaching. They fueled up their friends camel, took a few days off work and made their way to hear the madman of God and undergo the odd ritual cleansing that no rabbi had approved.
Those who went to hear John were not disappointed. He was wild-eyed and uncivilized. He seemed like a person from another time, speaking a foreign language. But what he preached struck a nerve, he told of one who was coming, one who had incredible power of fire and spirit. John was a bit short on the details. He didn’t tell people that someone’s name. He didn’t know what he would look like. But John was able to communicate something that stirred the hearts of his listeners deeply – the old ways were about to give way to something new, the old world was yielding to a new world. This “One” who was coming God’s chosen one, would initiate this new world, this kingdom of God would somehow come near in this person.
The way John prepared people for this newness, the way he made the paths straight, lifted up the valleys and shaved down the mountains was by inviting people into the waters of the Jordan. He pulled them away from their well-established protections and their familiar routines. People from all walks of life came to listen to John’s message because it was fresh, hope-filled and expectant. But they also came because of what he offered them – an opportunity to make adjustments with God, to come clean, to stop pretending, quit playing games and start over. All of this was symbolized and made real by the baptism that John offered right there in the wilderness in front of God and the curious crowds. John simply invited them into the living waters of the Jordan and washed them off. He didn’t seem to have many rules about how it was to be done or who could come. There was no choir and no fresh towels at the hotel lobby. But people who gave themselves to John’s baptism came away saying things like “I can’t really explain it but I feel alive again, awake for the first time in years.” In fact, John’s baptismal policies were a bit scandalous. John’s baptism was open to anyone: women, outsiders, religious elites, dead-beats, lawyers, housewives, skeptics, the-too-cool-for-religion-types, athletes, mystics and engineers. John’s baptism broke all the religious rules and for that he was both hated and loved, but even the religious of the day could not stay away so compelling was his message. John was hard on the religious types, especially the smug entitled ones who work like hell to convince others of their innate goodness and piety. He called them playful names like “You bunch of snakes” or “ you fruitless trees, I’ve got an ax waiting for you” or “you all are like white washed tombs.”
Yet, John gave all who came a bath of newness, his own custom method for saying wake up, repent, do a 180, step lively so you do not miss the new thing God is doing right now, in front of your very eyes and within your softened hearts.
“The gospel always begins with a messenger, whether it is an angel whispering into Mary’s ear or a parent telling a child a story or a skinny prophet standing knee-deep in a river (Barbara Brown Taylor).” John is a messenger who stirs our hearts by yearning, leaning toward something better that is difficult to put into words. He can only say, the kingdom of God has come near and “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.”
For John wilderness and humility were both important. First you needed to be willing to leave your comfortable life behind and head out into the wilderness to catch a glimpse of this newness so that when it arrived you might recognize it. God is not confined to temples or churches for Johnny B. John’s wilderness adventure was meant to clear the mind, purify the heart and open the nostrils to the scent of the kingdom. So the movement away from the familiar to the unknown, the risk-taking of the spirit is important to John. My guess is that you have a pretty good idea where your personal wilderness is, the place you’d rather avoid, the place of fear and self-doubt you struggle with day in and day out. The story of Johnny B. assures us that it is precisely in that wilderness, our wilderness that discovering the newness of the kingdom awaits.
Second, John was certain that being open to newness was not a posture we easily embrace. People do not seek out newness all that often, in fact we humans are often rather hide-bound and predictable. We don’t know what we like, we like what we know. So John struck the chord of repentance rather forcefully. The wild-man prophet of God invited anyone and everyone to consider repentance as a way of life and to make it real, he offered them the experience of baptism. In this humble act, John the Baptist offered, a new pattern of life, the humble willingness to let go and get into the cleansing river, lowered into the water clinging to the old life, and raised up into a new possibility for the future. It was a nearly perfect act for a new beginning, a hopeful humility that is the posture of everyone who is waiting for something new.
So this day, if you can hear the sounds of one crying out to you from the wilderness, don’t be afraid to make the journey out there. And if it is true that, like those who came to hear John the Baptist preach, you are desiring something better, something more from life than you have, take that as a good sign, as the scent of faith and hope within you. And don’t be afraid, be willing to hold the things of your life, even the good things of life, lightly, so that you can let them go if for a moment they are getting in the way of Christ’s new way for you. Advent is about opening your hands and heart to receive the newness that John sensed coming and that is always coming into the world. For the coming of Christ goes on forever and in our midst there is always an Advent going on (Jean Danielou). So put repentance on your Christmas list. And repent with joy, for the kingdom has come near.