Sunday, December 21, 2014

Emmanuel--a sermon for Advent 4

Rev. Teri Peterson
Matthew 1.18-25
21 December 2014, Advent 4, NL1-16

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

On Monday this week, the world watched as a fundamentalist terrorist took people hostage inside a café in Sydney, Australia for a harrowing 16 hours. In the middle of that 16 hours, a woman named Rachel Jacobs used Facebook and Twitter to tell how she saw a Muslim woman on the train remove her headscarf, presumably afraid to be in public as a Muslim woman while a man misusing her religion was all over the news.
From that tweet, a movement was born. The hashtag #Illridewithyou took off, as people used it to offer to accompany Muslims who were afraid that they would be targets because of this one deranged person’s actions. Throughout the week, people sat next to strangers on busses and in taxis, offered rides, and walked to places they did not need to go.

As this all happened, I was reminded of the revolution in Egypt in 2011, and in particular of how when the call to prayer sounded in the streets of Cairo, the crowds of protestors would divide into rows of Muslim men praying, encircled by Christian and non-religious people facing outward, holding hands, protecting them.

And then I thought about the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and the Colombia accompaniment program. You may know that Colombia has been torn apart by war. Fighting between various factions of rebels and government-supported guerilla groups, including kidnappings, murders, and mass displacements of people from their lands has been going on for more than a decade. Ten years ago, the Presbyterian Church in Colombia asked us for help, because people advocating for the displaced people and working for an end to the drug trade that funds the fighting were being targeted. Since 2004, Presbyterians from the US have been spending a month at a time in Colombia, going everywhere with church and community leaders, just being present. It is tangible solidarity, as well as providing a measure of safety. It’s a gift of hope and help in the midst of the hard and grief-filled work.

And I thought of the two pastors serving the church I was attending at the time my mother died. The night I found out, one of them called and spoke to me about her parents for a few minutes. The other showed up in my living room with cookies and tissues, and sat with me in my shock, and then with my housemates as they tried to figure out how to help me.

I only have fond memories of one of those pastors.

To be present is a powerful thing. We often underestimate the importance of just showing up, thinking we have to know the right thing to say. Or thinking we have to know everything that is going on before we can pick up the phone or show up at the door. We forget that presence is a real gift, and we end up keeping it to ourselves instead of sharing.

Meanwhile, today’s scripture reading contains something else we often gloss over or forget. We have been so trained to not notice, that even I didn’t realize just how powerful a statement Matthew was making until someone asked me a question earlier this week.

The angel appears to Joseph and tells him to stick with Mary, even though that is against every possibly cultural rule. Joseph was already being overly nice by not having her stoned in the street, and now he was being asked to make a life with her….to ride with her, to protect her, to accompany her, to show up and be there. In the midst of the instructions, the angel tells Joseph “and you shall name the child Jesus, for he will save his people.” It’s not just their baby to ooh and ah over, to teach to walk and read and laugh and cry, to dress in special holiday outfits and to introduce to the grandparents, but a baby born for a whole people. Already, Joseph and Mary have to share, and the baby isn’t even born yet. And the name Jesus—Yesu—means “God saves.”

Then in the next sentence, Matthew explains why this is important, by quoting the prophet Isaiah regarding a child that shall be born, and he shall be named Emmanuel, which means God is With Us.

The question I was asked this week was: why does the angel say to name him Jesus, but the prophet says his name will be Emmanuel?

We are so used to singing the carols and using a variety of titles for Jesus that most of us don’t even think about this, but for those who haven’t been immersed in the story before, it does seem odd. Two sentences, two names, two reasons, no explanation. Thanks a lot, Matthew.

If we back up to the first half of chapter 1, good old Matt does actually set the scene, but in a way that few of us can pronounce, so again we gloss right over. For 17 verses, Matthew gives a detailed genealogy so full of people that if we were to read it this morning, Kathy would be giving me the side-eye while the rest of you glazed over.

I confess I have always loved the genealogies, though I’m not sure I could put my finger on why. I think it has something to do with being connected to these ancestors in the faith—knowing that I am not the first nor the last to walk this path with God, but rather part of a long line of God’s people. Then I read a story that brought me up short. I hardly ever tell other people’s stories in my sermons, but this one bears telling in its entirety. It is “about a missionary who worked some years ago among a very primitive group of people in Papua New Guinea. The missionary worked as a translator of the Bible. His world and the world of those for whom he translated the scriptures were very different. To help bridge these worlds the missionary translator always worked with a language helper. First the missionary would make his translation. Next he would share his translation with his helper. If the language helper thought the translation was adequate he would in turn read it to his people to get their reactions to the material.

“One day the missionary showed some photographs of places in the Holy Land to the people in order to help them understand. The people were surprised that the events of Jesus' life took place here on earth. They had thought the stories about Jesus were stories about the spirit world. Then an even more astonishing event took place. The missionary was translating one of the four gospels. The genealogy, the long list of Jesus’ family tree, given in the gospel seemed to the
missionary to be quite irrelevant and beside the point. But he translated it any way. Next he read his translation of the genealogy to his language helper expecting him to be bored to death with the long list of the names of Jesus’ ancestors.

“The helper, however, was not bored at all. Instead, he promptly announced to the missionary that a very important meeting should be held that night so that the missionary might read today's translation to as many people as possible. When evening came the house was full. The missionary had never seen so many people attend a Bible reading before. The language helper asked the missionary to read his translation for the day. The missionary began to read name after name after name. "Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar..."

“As he read he realized that something strange was happening. The crowd was crisply attentive. They closed in upon him as he read. He was actually afraid they might crush him. He was afraid that what he was reading must have offended some ritual taboo about which he knew nothing. Perhaps they were angry with him. And he had no way to escape. He forced himself to keep on reading the names.

“When he had finished reading one of the men said to him: "Why didn't you tell us all this before? No one bothers to write down the ancestors of spirit beings. It is only real people who keep track of their genealogy." "Jesus must be a real person!" another voice cried in astonishment. "His genealogy is longer than ours!", cried out another. Still another said, "Jesus must have been a real man on this earth. He's not just white man's magic!" “ [1]

Jesus Emmanuel—God saves, by being with us. God entered the human story, has a genealogy, sits beside us on the bus,. Not just another story, not just in some heaven light years away, but here, in this place, now, in this life, with this body, in the flesh: we are saved by presence. This is not two different names Matthew gives us, nor even a name and a title—it is a description of exactly the kind of gift God gives: the gift of presence, and presence saves.

And we are made in the image of God, called to become more Christ-like…what if we too gave the gift of presence? What if we embodied God-With-Us, allowing the Spirit to use our bodies to be good news for those who are lonely, those who are afraid, those who are sick, those who are grieving, those who are imprisoned, those who are oppressed?

Yesu Emmanuel—God saves, by being with us. May we, like Joseph and Mary, participate in God’s work. Amen.

[1] Tales for the Pulpit, C, Richard Jensen

Monday, December 08, 2014

subversive joy--a reflection for December 14 (Advent 3)

(published in the Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2014)

Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11, Luke 1.47-55

I wonder how much Christmas Cheer Mary and Joseph had that first Advent. Mary, an unmarried teenager suddenly pregnant; Joseph a man who’ll be supporting a family before he even pays for a wedding, both of them in a small village where everyone will know their scandal before lunch, in a culture where Mary’s choice to say “Yes” to God could easily have gotten her killed. Yet in the midst of that, she sings! “My spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has done great things for me. He has fed the hungry and lifted up the lowly, and holy is his name.”

Or the prophet Isaiah, looking around at the ruined city his people were hoping to rebuild, trying to preach to people of fair-weather-faith, proclaiming that God has promised to plant them in fertile ground so they can grow into oaks of righteousness that glorify the Lord, offering a vision of justice and joy.

If anyone had reason to mask their fear with cheerfulness, it was these three, yet they sing joyfully instead! As Dr. Margaret Aymer, Old Testament Professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center, said, “Joy is an act of faithful subversion in a world that tells you to be scared and sad” (twitter conversation 12/10/11). I would add that it’s an act of faithful subversion in a world that tells us to hide our true selves behind the shallow sad-mad-glad. Joy is well beyond anything our culture, our possessions, our country, our media, or even our relationships can give us. Joy comes from one place: seeking God. And, in Isaiah it seems that God has even shown us the way to joy: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the broken hearted, to release the captives…to comfort the mourning…to rebuild, restore, renew…I the Lord love justice…”

Could it be that the way to know the joyful fruit of the Spirit is to practice? Not to gaze heavenward, anticipating something better; not to turn away from suffering because it’s depressing and ugly; but instead to get more grounded, reach to our roots, push down into the earth and let God grow in us like a seed…to live fully into our calling as anointed ones, the body of Christ, made to bring grace to a world in need, to shine light into a world of darkness.

Is it possible that the way to joy—to real Christmas Spirit—is through being more fully who God has called us to be, in the place God has called us? Is it possible that Christmas Joy comes from being the site of God’s incarnation? Maybe when we bear Christ into the world, the way Mary bore Christ in her body, when we don’t just speak good news but ARE good news, when we are creators of justice, then we will also find joy—joy beyond mere cheer, joy that is grounded and growing, joy that is subversive and holy.

Monday, December 01, 2014

the best laid plans...

...sometimes have to be sacrificed for sleep.

I had a super profound blog post for today, I swear. But it will have to wait, because I've been fighting to stay awake for an hour already, so I'm about to take my super lame old-lady self to bed before 9...and before I fall asleep on the couch and wake up with a stiff neck and all the lights still on.

If I manage to keep blogging into December, then you can look for the post I think was going to be so profound. I'll mix it in with some kitty news and food pictures, so you can find it easily. ha.

happy last day of we slide headlong into winter, may your holiday season (whichever holiday you may celebrate) be bright. Especially since it's so dark outside.