Sunday, February 3, 2008
January 20, 2008
For the last couple of years I’ve been part of an informal network of women clergy who mostly know each other through the internet. This group comprises women of all ages and many different denominations and besides the camaraderie and commiseration we offer one another, we also share notes on preaching. This has been a real learning experience for me, particularly hearing how others choose their texts. Suffice it to say that there is great variety in how this happens, but what it has reinforced for me is something I’ve said here before: I’m really glad we have a lectionary. I’m glad because I don’t have to pick, I just preach on whatever is assigned, whether I like it or not.
Lately though, I’ve been intrigued by the choices made by those who constructed the lectionary…why this lesson this week? Why that one now? And so about 10 days ago when I looked up the readings for today I had to ask myself, “Why do we get the Gospel of John when we are just getting settled into year A which focuses on Matthew?”
That question stayed in the back of my mind as I let this week’s gospel settle into my bones. Why John? Why now? It was a little discomfiting to me because lately I’ve been thoroughly immersed in the Gospel according to Matthew, and I’ve asked you to enter that narrative world with me, and now we have to shift gears. But late Friday night as I read over today’s gospel one more time, I had a “eureka” moment—a flash of insight, an epiphany if you will, in this season of Epiphany. One way to look at the lectionary is just as a walk through the gospels, roughly in the order that they’re written. But the lectionary is also shaped to tell a story—THE story, and the season of Epiphany is all about being shown who Jesus is—that’s what the word means, after all, epiphany coming from epipheinen, to show. Read in this light the gospels passages for season of Epiphany might be seen as a series of “epiphanies” On the feast of the Epiphany the Magi show us that Jesus is the chosen one who comes not just to the people of Israel, but to everyone. On the first Sunday after Epiphany Jesus is baptized and hears the voice from heaven declaring him to be God’s beloved son—perhaps confirming for himself who he really is. And today we hear the story from John the Baptist’s perspective; we get another view of who Jesus is and what he’s all about.
Now perhaps I’m preaching the obvious to many of you, but this notion of the whole season of Epiphany being specifically about showing us who Jesus is was so intriguing to me that I skimmed over the lectionary for all three years, and sure enough, it’s there. No matter whether we’re mainly focused on Matthew, Mark, or Luke, the gospels selected are ones that concentrate less on what Jesus did and more on who he was and is. In almost every passage there’s some new clue about what it means for Jesus to be the messiah, the anointed one, about the meaning of his ministry. And each year, the season of Epiphany reaches its culmination with the story of the transfiguration when Jesus is shown, revealed in all his glory to his closest disciples—but I’ll have more to say about that in two weeks!
With that in mind, let’s take a look at what today’s gospel reading from John shows us about Jesus. To do that, I’d like for us to leave behind the narrative world of Matthew where we’ve been for the last few weeks and to enter instead into the world of John, a very different world in some ways. In the Gospel according to John, we get no birth story at all. We know nothing about Jesus’ human origins and early life. What we get in John’s gospel is a beautiful and poetic prologue, which places Jesus as the Word, with God at the very point of creation. In this prologue we also learn that there will be voice crying in the wilderness to prepare for the coming of the anointed one, and we meet John the Baptist who embodies that voice, but it is not until we get to verse 29, where our gospel begins to today, that we actually meet the person Jesus or hear his name. And even then we first meet him through John, who sees him walking by. There is no interaction between John and Jesus—we suppose that John has baptized Jesus, but we do so on the basis of what we know from the other gospels because there is no direct evidence of that happening here. Nonetheless it is clear that John, and perhaps John alone at this point, knows who Jesus is because as Jesus walks by John exclaims,
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” That phrase, familiar as it is to us, is fraught with meaning, and I wonder if John’s disciples standing there with him fully realized the impact of what John said. With this one phrase John has placed Jesus clearly into the scope of Israel’s salvation history. The full impact of this won’t be obvious until the crucifixion, but it is a clear portent of what is to come, and a sign that God has privileged John, allowing him this insight, this epiphany.
John is not the only one who has an epiphany though. The next day John is again standing with two of his disciples when Jesus walks by. John once more exclaims, “Here is the Lamb of God,” and this time his two disciples, struck by what he has said, or compelled by the magnetism of Jesus, or both, begin to follow him. And one of them, Andrew, not only follows but also goes to fetch his brother Simon, telling him that they have found the messiah.
It seems remarkable to me that at this point Jesus hasn’t said or done anything that would signify his status. Rather John and his disciples have been shown who Jesus is through revelation—God’s voice and John’s, proclaiming that Jesus is the one. Like the Magi who followed the star to find the babe, John and his disciples are pointing to Jesus, revealing his identity, showing him to others.
And that brings us back to where we started. If this season of Epiphany is about being shown who and what Jesus is, what then does this gospel from John show us? And what are we to do about it? During Epiphany we move between the two great feasts of the Church Year—Christmas—the birth of the child—and the Triduum—the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Liturgically, theologically, we spend this time trying to grasp—yet again—who this Jesus is and what he means for our lives. In naming Jesus the Lamb of God, John seems to grasp the full import of Jesus’ life and ministry, and John’s voice, crying in the wilderness is clear and strong: Jesus is the one for whom the people of Israel have been waiting. John points the way so that others might follow, and we are among those others. Like the crowds who followed Jesus, we are sometimes slow to get it, but get it we must, otherwise Easter is meaningless.
But it doesn’t stop there. I don’t want anyone to leave here today thinking that this is all esoteric, abstract theology, something that we have to think about only during church. In fact, I think today’s gospel and all of the gospels of Epiphany raise a very real and pragmatic question for us. How do we recognize Jesus in the here and now? Where do we find our epiphanies? Is it in the words of the evangelists? Is it in the Eucharist? Is it in the faces of our guests at the days and nights of hospitality? Is it in a word of condolence, a hug we receive from others, a light moment shared with a friend? Is it in a walk in the garden or on the beach?
Because, friends, the good news is that Jesus is here with us, and Jesus calls us to follow, just as he called his first disciples. Every day. All the time, whether we’re aware of it or not. Like the disciples we are free to hear and respond or to ignore him. But if we do respond, like the disciples, if we do respond our lives will be changed in ways that we may not be able to imagine.
And so, I have a challenge for you, for all of us as we move through the last two weeks of this season. Look for Jesus. Watch for epiphanies. Be ready to respond when Jesus says, “Come and see.” And see where that leads us.
Monday, January 28, 2008
~I've also wondered about the ethics of tax cuts in era in which government deficits are at an all time high and social programs are slashed on a regular basis.
~And what about tax rebates to stimulate the economy? On the one hand Americans are consistently told that they don't save enough while on the other hand we're told we need to keep spending.
~So it was heartening to find this great article at the Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation website. Read it. And take it to heart.
January 6, 2008
It is still Christmas, you know. Even though our celebrations may be fading into memory, and our decorations are being packed away, and despite the Valentine displays popping up in all in the stores, it’s still Christmas. Today marks the 12th day of Christmas, and it is also the day we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany is a day that goes largely unnoticed by the secular world—you won’t find Epiphany cards at the Hallmark store, or Epiphany sales in the mall, you won’t hear Epiphany hymns on the radio or see Epiphany specials on TV. In one way, that’s a relief—there’s still a part of Christmas that hasn’t been secularized, but in another way, it’s too bad. It’s too bad because the Feast of the Epiphany gives us once last chance to celebrate the real meaning of Christmas. The word epiphany comes from the Greek epipheinen which means to show, to make manifest—and what is Christmas about if it is not about declaring, showing to the world WHO this child is whose humble birth we commemorate? On Epiphany we declare this again aswe mark the coming of the magi, the wise guys from the east, who led by a star come to pay homage to this child, and whose coming helps reveal to all the world the unique status of the babe born in Bethlehem.
Two weeks ago, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, some of you may recall that I asked you to enter with me into the narrative of the evangelist Matthew and to consider the Christmas story just as he tells it. To grasp the full impact of the magi’s visit, I’d like for us to reenter that narrative world. Remember that in Matthew’s telling of the story, we learn of the impending birth from the perspective of Joseph, not Mary. We know that after an angel speaks to Joseph in a dream, telling him that Mary’s child has been conceived by the Holy Spirit, he takes the pregnant Mary as his wife, and in due time a son is born whom he names Jesus. And that’s all we know. There is no stable, no manger, there are no shepherds watching over their flocks and no angelic host—there is nothing to mark this birth as special, as extraordinary when it takes place. Matthew doesn’t even tell us what Mary knows or thinks about this whole event. It is an event that seems to take place without much notice.
But when we rejoin the story today we learn that this birth has not gone unnoticed after all. On the contrary, it has cause quite a stir. Magi—astrologers or wise men—from the east have been reading the skies, and have taken note of an unusual heavenly occurrence—a new star, perhaps a comet, or a particular alignment of heavenly bodies. Whatever it is, the magi read it as a sign, a sign that a new king will be born in Palestine. Deciding that they should pay homage to this king, they embark on a journey to the west, and finally arrive in Bethlehem where they find Mary and the baby at home.
Now remember, we’re hearing this story as Matthew tells it. Mary, as far as we know, hasn’t seen any angels. There haven’t been any special visitors. We might even imagine that if Joseph took her as his wife quietly and unobtrusively to avoid any hint of scandal, this young family might be living somewhat in seclusion. In any event, this birth has not been heralded in any way except for Joseph’s dream.
So imagine what it must have been like when mysterious travelers from the east arrived at the door. Tradition tells us that there were three, but we don’t really know how many magi there were—it could’ve been 2 or it could’ve been a dozen. In any event they arrive at the door, and when they see the baby, they fall prostrate on the floor—a sign of respect due only to royalty. And then they present magnificent gifts—gold, always of great worth, and frankincense and myrrh, oils of such value that they were beyond the reach of ordinary folks like Mary and Joseph. We don’t know what kind of conversations took place, nor do we know how long these wise guys stayed. All we know is that once they had paid homage to the infant Jesus and presented their gifts, they returned to their homes, their work done.
At this point you might be saying, so what? It’s a great story, with lots of dramatic effect, but what is the real meaning of the magi’s visit—what it did it mean for Matthew’s original audience, and what it might mean for us, some 2000 years later. Let’s take a look a that.
In the gospel according to Matthew, the evangelist goes to great lengths to show how both the birth of Jesus, and his later ministry fulfill the ancient prophecies, prophecies that the people of Israel would have been intimately familiar with. In our readings during Advent we, too, heard some of those prophecies. Using them, Matthew builds a strong case to show that this baby, this Jesus, is in fact the king, the messiah, the savior the people of Israel, the Jews, have been waiting for.
But here come these wise guys from the east—they are not part of the house of Israel, they don’t know the scriptures, they aren’t waiting for a messiah. So why are they part of the story? Just for dramatic effect? Just as a plot twist to get Herod involved? I don’t think so. The role of the magi is much more important than that. The magi, the wise guys who were learned in many ways but not likely well versed in Hebrew scriptures were able to read the signs, to recognize the import of this humble birth, precisely because Jesus came for all of creation. Yes, he was the fulfillment of the prophecies, the one the people of Israel longed for, but he was more than that. He was the one who would usher in God’s kingdom welcoming everyone—Jew and Gentile, male and female, young and old, the poor, the outcast, the sinner. No one was out of the reach of this manifestation of God’s love for God’s creation. When the magi prostrate themselves before the baby Jesus they may not understand what his life will be about, but they do understand that his kingdom includes them. And we understand that it includes all of us as well.
This must have been an important message for the early church to hear, a church that was still struggling to grasp what it all meant, a church in Matthew’s world at least, made up primarily of Jews. Yes, this story confirms, yes, Jesus is the one to whom all the prophecies point; yes, he is the one you’ve waited for. But not just you, house of Israel. Jesus is the one for whom all creation has been straining. He is the one who had come to include ALL into God’s kingdom.
That’s a message we can take to heart as well. We hear it differently to be sure in a world in which Christianity has been dominant for centuries. But even in such a world we struggle with matters of inclusion. We try to define who is in and who is out. We set up rules and dogma and doctrine and we become legalistic about using them. The visit of the magi can remind us, just as it reminded Matthew’s original audience, that God’s kingdom is for all of us. It cannot be restricted. It cannot be bound by human terms. It is God’s kingdom. And just as God chose the unlikely vehicle of a child born in humble surroundings to usher in that kingdom, and the unlikely messengers of magi from the east to herald his coming, so too may God come to us, revealed in unexpected way, at unexpected times.
And that is the second lesson of the magi. They knew of Jesus’ birth because they read the signs, they were open to new revelations, to new insights. It’s so easy for us to become fixated, to focus ourselves narrowly on one vision, one goal. However admirable that may be at times, we also run the very real risk of missing wonderful things around us. The magi remind us to be watchful, to be aware, and to be open to new possibilities—possibilities of seeing God in new ways, in unanticipated places, possibilities of experiencing God’s love in our lives anew.
And so on this Feast of the Epiphany, this 12th day of Christmas I hope that we might take the story of the magi to heart. I hope that like the magi we might be watchful for signs of God’s presence and be open to encountering God in new and unexpected ways. And as this Christmas season draws to a close, I hope that we, like the magi, might help make God’s presence and God’s boundless love for all of creation manifest in the world.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent Year A
December 23, 2007
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way…
A couple of months ago, a few of us began meeting on Tuesday mornings to study the gospel according to Matthew. One of the questions I posed to the group as we began was, “What would you know about Jesus if you only had this gospel? No Mark, no Luke, no John, no letters from Paul, no Acts of the Apostles, just this gospel.” Today I want to narrow down that question and ask you, “What would you know about the nativity, the Christmas story, if we only had the gospel according to Matthew?”
Today’s gospel reading, the reading for the fourth Sunday in Advent, is that story, and it’s the only time in the three year lectionary cycle that we get to hear it standing on its own. Our Christmas Pageant Monday evening, like almost all Christmas pageants, will enact the familiar story that is the amalgam drawn from both Matthew and Luke. Later on Christmas Eve we will hear, as we do every year, the story from the gospel according to Luke, and on Christmas Day we hear not a traditional birth story at all, but rather the prologue to the gospel of John. But today we hear Matthew’s version of the nativity, short and simple, and unlike Luke’s account, focusing on Joseph rather than Mary.
Unlike Mary who sometimes shows up during Jesus’ ministry, Joseph is absent from scripture after Jesus’ childhood. Many scholars have speculated that he was older than Mary, and implicitly then that he had died before Jesus’ ministry began. In Matthew’s gospel in particular Jesus goes to great lengths to establish that God is his real father, a father in heaven obviating the need for an earthly father. So it is interesting that it is Matthew who chooses to give not Mary’s story, but Joseph’s.
One of the things we know from both Matthew’s and Luke’s account is that Mary and Joseph were betrothed. We often speak of them as being engaged, but in fact the commitment between them was much different from what we think of when we speak of being engaged. Marriage was a significant event in family life, and marriage arrangements were negotiated not between individuals but between families, Marriage contracts were negotiated with a view towards maintaining family honor as well as economic stability and sometimes political gain. Signing of the contract was witnessed by the entire community, and resulted in a bond that required a divorce to break, but the marriage was not complete until in a separate ceremony the bride was handed over to the husband’s father, often as much as a year later. In both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel, when we first meet Mary and Joseph they have been legally committed to one another with the signing of a marriage contract, but Mary has not yet been given to Joseph and his family. In this interim period, sexual relations are forbidden, and the purity of the bride is maintained. Loss of that purity would bring disgrace not only on her, but more importantly also on her betrothed and his family.
In Luke’s version of the story we hear of Mary’s wonder and awe when she is visited by the angel who tells her that she will bear a child conceived by the Holy Spirit, but we get no sense of the conflict this pregnancy must have represented for all involved. It’s only when we read Matthew’s gospel that we understand that this pregnancy presented a huge challenge of faith not only for Mary, but also for Joseph—for it was Joseph and his family whose honor would be impugned when Mary turned up pregnant before the final part of the marriage ritual took place.
And so we find Joseph in today’s gospel, having resolved to quietly divorce Mary. This was his right—it was more than his right, it was his duty, according to the law and as a righteous man Joseph would follow the rules. But he must have been a kind man, too, because he resolved not to disgrace Mary publicly as he could have done, but instead to privately end their contract. Before he could do this, however, an angel appeared to him in a dream. “Don’t be afraid,” the angel tells him (isn’t that what angels always say?), “don’t be afraid to welcome Mary into your home, to take her as your wife, because this baby is conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
We have no record of Joseph’s immediate reaction—we have no “song of Joseph,” no prayer to God, no tears, no anger, no reaction at all. All we know is that Joseph did as the angel said; he took Mary as his wife, and he in essence adopted Jesus as his son, thus firmly placing him in the house of David just as the prophets had foretold.
What do we know about the Christmas story when we read just the gospel of Matthew? We don’t know about the angel’s visit to Mary, or about Mary singing praises to God, or traveling with Joseph to Bethlehem. We don’t know about babies in mangers, or shepherds guarding their flocks, or angelic hosts on high. Instead, we come to know of a righteous man, one bound to follow the law and to honor both God and his family, a man who wordlessly accepts this message from God delivered in a dream, who takes the young pregnant Mary as his wife, who acts in great faith to adopt a son who is not fully his own. And as we read on in Matthew’s gospel, we learn of a Joseph who continues to listen to God’s messages, who picks up his young family and spirits them away to avoid the wrath of Herod, and who upon returning from exile, takes up residence in a new village away from his family to ensure the safety of this family—all of this likely at great cost to himself, his livelihood, his honor.
We rightly lift up and glorify Mary, the young woman who joyfully gave herself over to become theotokos, God-bearer, the mother of Jesus. We hold up her willingness to be a vessel, to say yes to God as a model to emulate. But today’s gospel reminds us that there are other models as well. Today’s gospel reminds us of the calm faith and steadfastness of Joseph who stood beside Mary, who protected both Mary and the babe, who subjugated his own well-being to care for his family, who laid aside the law to do what was right, even when that was the harder choice—all because that is what God called him to do. Today’s gospel reminds us that Joseph said yes to God in his own quiet way.
Poet and preacher J. Barrie Shepherd writes:
The hardest task
The most difficult role of all
That of just being there
And Joseph, dearest Joseph, stands for that.
Don’t you see?
It is important,
that he stand there by that manger,
as he does,
In all his silent misery
Of doubt concern and fear.
If Joseph were not there
There might be no place for us,
Let us be there,
Simply be there just as Joseph was,
With nothing we can do now,
Nothing we can bring-
It’s far too late for that-
Nothing even to be said
Except, ‘Behold- be blessed,
Be silent, be at peace.’
The hardest task
The most difficult role of all
That of just being there
And Joseph, dearest Joseph, stands for that.
Don’t you see? (1)
Monday evening we will again be caught up in all the wonder of the Christmas story as Luke recounts it. But on this last Sunday in Advent, let us embrace the story as Matthew tells it, and in doing so, may we remember and hold onto the quiet steadfast faith of Joseph; may we like Joseph have the courage to do the right thing even when it is the harder choice; may we too say yes to God.
(1) Shepherd, J. Barrie. Faces at the Manger. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1992.