Sunday, January 8, 2023

From Generation to Generation: We Keep Seeking

Today, we formally move into the Gospel of Matthew, where we will spend the remainder of the spring. Matthew is one of three synoptic gospels. (Know what the other two are?) The word synoptic comes from the Greek, which means “to see together.” The three synoptic Gospels do seem to tell the story of Jesus from the same basic perspective, especially when we compare them to John’s Gospel. In the Synoptics, Jesus tells parables. In John, he does not. In the Synoptics, the cleansing of the temple happens near the end of Jesus’ story and precipitates Jesus’ arrest. In John, this story is near the beginning of his ministry. The list of contrasts could continue, but the point is that the synoptics share common language and stories and their placement across large stretches of text. 

Nevertheless, there are differences between the synoptic Gospels. Each of them presents different and distinct pictures of Jesus to different and distinct audiences. It is important for us to understand each of these gospels on their own unique terms. Because, when we do, they present a richer and much more complex picture of God coming to us in Jesus.

The Gospel of Matthew revolves around the five major speeches of Jesus. It reveals the character of Jesus by what he says. In this gospel, written to a Jewish audience, Jesus is depicted as the new Moses who has come, not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. The structure of Matthew is intended to reflect the books of Moses. The five major discourses of Jesus correspond to the five books of Moses. Through them, Jesus is depicted as the new Moses who has come to complete Israel’s story of redemption. Through many quotes from the Hebrew scriptures - the Old Testament - the writer of this gospel seeks to tie Jesus’ story to Israel’s story. 

We should not think of Matthew as only a “Jewish Gospel.” In today's story, the place of non-Jews in the  history of salvation is present from the beginning of the gospel to the very end.

But, enough theology! Our Gospel reading today is from the second chapter of Matthew and includes a portion that we often choose not to read for reasons that will become evident. 

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
        by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
            because from you will come one who governs,
            who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt.

When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. This fulfilled the word spoken through Jeremiah the prophet:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
    weeping and much grieving.
        Rachel weeping for her children,
            and she did not want to be comforted,
                because they were no more.

After King Herod died, an angel from the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. “Get up,” the angel said, “and take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel. Those who were trying to kill the child are dead.” Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus ruled over Judea in place of his father Herod, Joseph was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he went to the area of Galilee. He settled in a city called Nazareth so that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled: He will be called a Nazarene. --Matthew 2:1-23 (CEB)

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Creator and from our Lord and Savior, God-with-us, Jesus Christ. Amen.

As we begin this new year, I’m curious. Did you make New Year’s resolutions? Or, alternatively, intentions for the new year - which is the current trend - to move away from goal-setting to identifying intentions for how we want to be or to feel or to live in the new year? Did you? (I’ll admit that I have set several intentions for this year.)

Another question? In setting resolutions or intentions, did you consult your astrological forecast for the year? How do your planets align? Did you know that Mercury is currently in retrograde? For those of you who are not up on your astrology, Mercury is the planet that rules communication in all forms--listening, writing, reading and so on--as well as activities related to communication, like negotiations and contracts. A few times a year, the planet Mercury appears to reverse direction - to go retrograde. And although this is an illusion caused by the position of Earth in relation to Mercury - it only looks like the planet is moving backward - that when it “reverses” course, astrologers tell us that this time that Mercury is retrograde is often a time associated with confusion, with delay, and with frustration. Mercury has been in retrograde since December 28th and will continue to be in “reverse” motion through January 18th.

Hmmm. It makes one wonder if this - and other astrological signs and wonders - are true. In our world of science and rational thought, there are many reasons to dismiss this practice. Justifiably so. But, for the magi in today’s story, Gentile astrologers from Persia or Babylon, following the planets and using the stars for guidance like sailors of old was not unusual. In fact, the stars, and one star in particular, were symbols of direction and knowledge for the magi - a manifestation of God’s guidance, providing light for the way. A sign of hope and vision for humanity. Leading them to the small village of Bethlehem of Judea, which becomes for them the center of human aspirations and dreams. 

We have added so much to this story over the generations. Giving the magi names: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar. Spiritualizing the gifts they brought - gold, a symbol of royalty; frankincense, a symbol of the divine; and myrrh, an ointment used to embalm, a symbol of death. 

Yet, we really know little about the magi. Were there three of them? We don’t know. Were they all men? We don’t know. Were they astrologers? Perhaps, based on how the word magi is used in other parts of scripture and in other texts from this time. What we do know about them is that they were seekers. Ones coming from a far away land, Gentiles. Moving beyond reason to intuition. Beyond science to faith. Trusting the journey even though they did not know where they were going. Trusting a wisdom beyond their own to take them where they needed to go. Yet, their wisdom was a wondering, wandering kind of wisdom that would bring them to a place of awe and wonder and worship. Offering homage to the wider and more wonderful Wisdom of God. 

But this traditional story that is so lovely and wondrous - told from generation to generation on this Epiphany Sunday - is only part of the story. The full story is so much more complex - as complex as the symbolic aspects we give to the three gifts of the magi, including that of myrrh, which, again, symbolizes death.

Because shortly after the magi leave to return to their distant land, death prevails. The empires of this world - reflected in Herod, himself titled “king of the Jews” - will not give up power or their way of being so easily. Scripture tells us that both Herod and the people of Jerusalem were “troubled.” This is the same word to describe how Mary felt when the Angel Gabriel first appeared to her to tell her of her participation in the divine plan. Consider her response to this news. And then compare it to Herod’s. Threatened by the news of a child born who is the long-awaited and true “king of the Jews,” his response is to order the slaughter of children under the age of 2. Babies. Killed in order to hold onto his power. And that of the empire.

We’ve seen this conflict of dominions before. This fight between good and evil. God and Satan. As readers of Genesis and Exodus, it is impossible for us to dismiss the parallels and the connection to the story of Moses and Israel’s exodus where the dominion of the Pharaoh collides with the dominion of God. That results in costly plagues for Egypt and a dramatic exodus for Israel in a way that shows God’s steadfast love - God’s hesed - for Israel.

Yet, God’s steadfast love, God’s desire and ability to rescue Israel, does not mean God keeps Israel completely out of danger and away from the risk of death. Israel was constantly jeopardized by the destructive and oppressive policies of the Pharaoh. Just as Joseph and Mary and the young Jesus were jeopardized by the destructive actions of Herod. 

And, while we may think things have changed, they have not. In so many ways, our human situation has changed very little from Pharaoh to Herod to us. Matthew’s Gospel calls us to discern God’s will in the midst of currently conflicting powers and dominions. To find our way through. To seek God in the midst of the darkness. To be witness to and people of the light. Whatever the cost. However foreign it may feel. As we, like the gentle and Gentile magi follow a star to Bethlehem to find and worship the true king. Trusting in faith that, even through the times fraught with danger and trouble, God will lead us through.

This is the revelation of scripture. The revelation of God. That God continues to break into our world. To intervene in a way that does not erase the danger, the risks, or the death inherent in life as we know it. But that reveals God’s presence and activity even in the midst of the darkness. God’s dominion will clash with and triumph over Herod’s, whose days will be numbered.

May we continue to seek God even in the midst of our darkest hours. And may we live deeply into our faith, trusting that God will abide with us and lead us, like the magi, to such a place of wonder and awe that our only response will be to fall to our knees. And worship Jesus. King of the Jews. Promised One. God-with-us. Always. Amen.

Preached January 8, 2023, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
Epiphany Sunday
Reading: Matthew 2:1-23

From Generation to Generation: We Tell This Story

Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” --Luke 2:8-14 (CEB)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, our Creator, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

The stories we tell. What are some of the Christmas stories that are told in your family?

In mine, one of those stories goes back to a time when I was seven years old. That year, all my sister and I wanted was an Easy Bake Oven. Remember the Easy Bake Oven? For those of you too young to know, it was this plastic contraption molded to look like an oven. Inside, it had this heat-emitting light bulb that gave off just enough heat so that, using the tiny cake pan and tiny cake mix provided, you could make a cake. It came with 3 or 4 tiny cake mixes. But, you could also by a supplement with another 20 mixes for cakes and brownies. 

That Christmas morning, my sister and brother and I were up early as so many children are - unable to sleep. Anxious to see what Santa had left behind. So, about 4 am, we got up and quietly sneaked to our living room to open our presents left under the tree. Where we found a large box - the Easy Bake Oven! My sister and I were thrilled. The three of us quietly took the oven and all 20 plus mixes downstairs to our basement to try it out. 

Over the next 3 hours, we kept mixing those mixes and pushing the cake pan into and out of the oven. Cake after cake. Brownie after brownie. Feeding my brother who, except for the few my sister and I ate, wolfed down every single one. So that, by the time my parents awoke and came downstairs to find out why it was so quiet, all of the tiny mixes were gone. 

You can imagine their reaction. And that is a story for another time. But, this is one of many stories in my family that we tell each year at this time. I’d dare say that all of us have stories like this. Stories that, especially as we remember them, are those fond stories we tell year after year after year.  

It’s like this story. This story we tell every year. A story of a young couple, traveling on a donkey back to their hometown to comply with a royal decree. The young woman in the last stages of her pregnancy who, nonetheless, must obey that empirical directive, along with her partner to whom she is engaged, where, when they reach their destination, she goes into labor and gives birth to a tiny baby. Who will change the world. 

Amidst all the cultural and commercial stuff of this season, we continue to tell this story. What is it that captivates us so about this story? Why has it been preserved throughout the generations and across cultures? Why is the nativity of Christ so important to us? 

It begins, interestingly, according to Walter Brueggemann, with the song of the angels. A song that breaks into our world and completely shatters the decree of the earthly emperor, who seeks to control by means of a census. This song of the angels stands in direct conflict with that census decree. It announces the birth of a new king - one that neither Rome nor Herod can stop - who begins a new history. A new jubilee that frees all humanity from debt, that gives amnesty from old crimes, and a new beginning again, a beginning that has at its core, freedom. 

The angels break into our world and sing this song to the shepherds, who are the outcasts in their world. They sing their song not just to the shepherds, but to a barren old woman; to an innocent, yet believing young woman; to an old man struck dumb; to a lowly carpenter. All of whom in our world and in the world of their time meant nothing. Were of no importance. Who knew the depths of grief, whether through loss, marginalization, lack of money or power - all of those things that those who are edges of our world experience. It is to them to whom the angels break into with song. And they are amazed. 

Isn’t that what this story is really about? Being amazed. Amazed at how, over and over, this baby in his adult ministry will break down the physical, emotional and psychological narratives that divide people - that divide us. Those narratives we are told in our world about who is clean and who is unclean. Jesus breaks in, just as the angels broke in. And we are amazed. And changed. And restored back into community, given life where none seemed possible before. Offered hope rather than despair. And a future quite different than that offered by royal decree. 

This is why we tell this story. Again and again. It’s to remind ourselves of and to fully embody this story - a story of hope, a story of freedom, a story of love, a story of God coming to be with us. A story you and I are called to pass onto future generations, so that they, too, may experience the hope it brings. A hope given to us by God in Jesus - a God who breaks down the walls of our hearts to show us that there is a better way. A new way. A way of amazement and energy rather than grief and despair. 

And it begins with a baby. As helpless as we are. In need of others, as we are. Who cries out, as we do. And holds hands, as we do. Who experiences the pain and joy and complexity of being human, as we do. Who moves into our neighborhood and promises to accompany us in the journey now. And forever.

Glory to God in the highest. And on earth, peace. Good will toward all. May you hold this sacred story close to your heart. May it give you hope. And, like so many generations before us, may you pass it on. God grant it. Amen.

Preached December 24, 2022, online with Grace & Glory, Prospect, and Third, Louisville.
Nativity of Our Lord - Christmas Eve
Readings: Luke 2:1-20, Micah 5:2-5; John 1:1-14

From Generation to Generation: We See God in Each Other

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. --Luke 1:39-45, 56-58 (CEB)

Holy is God’s name, who shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, for those who honor God. Amen.

Last week I mentioned my extended family on my dad’s side, who, when he died, wrapped their arms around my mother and our family - this extended family of mine. Which is huge!

Every three years we have a family reunion. Over time our numbers, big to begin with, have continued to grow. Generation after generation. Now numbering some 7 generations - maybe you have a family like this, too? These generations who come together every three years to celebrate our ancestors, our history, our sense of humor, our physical attribute (which for my family is a pretty extraordinary nose), and all of the things that make us a family. But, more than anything, we come together because we belong together. We are family. We have been through thick and thin together. Through incredibly hard times and incredibly wonderful times together. They are my family. They know me. They know pretty much everything about me. And I know about them, too. If I show up and something is wrong, they know it. Because we belong together.

Mary and Elizabeth are family like this. They’re blood relatives. Cousins. Just like all of my cousins. But, they’re more than that. They are even more connected because both of them are pregnant by the Holy Spirit. And, at the moment they meet, while our text is not clear that Elizabeth knows that Mary is also pregnant, their babies know. The next generation they are carrying knows that they are kin. That they all belong. Together. 

Certainly, Elizabeth must have sensed Mary’s complex emotions - the fear and the joy and who knows whatever else she must have been feeling. Certainly Mary must have sensed Elizabeth’s joy and awe at the fact that, at her age, she was not only carrying a child, but a prophet who would announce the long-awaited Christ. This is what belonging does. It helps us know one another. Deeply. So that in good times and in bad times, we carry one another’s burdens, celebrate one another’s joys, accompany one another along the way.

Mary and Elizabeth do this. My family and I do this. But here? In this place? Do we belong? Are we committed to this community of faith? 

You and I - all of us -belong to one other. We are made to be together in Christian community. It is a privilege to be in this community. The body of Christ is a reality created by God in Christ in which we are privileged to participate. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks to in his essay, Life Together - the privilege that is the fellowship of faith. 

Bonhoeffer is under no illusion about the difficulty and challenge of living with others in the faith. Yet, he writes, that to share the “physical presence of other Christians” is a “gracious anticipation of the last things.” A foretaste of that community to come. Luther wrote that to be in community with other Christians was “grace upon grace” - the “roses and lilies” of the Christian life, so much of which is spent in the midst of a world that seeks to destroy us. 

If we would only recognize this.

You and I have been chosen to be a part of this community. Not by me. Not by any one else in this community. But by God and God alone. Might it be possible that you are here precisely because this is where God wants you to be?

When we choose to be apart from this community, when we go for a time without truly belonging, not being here, we begin to manufacture an identity from that alienation, from being apart. Perhaps we are busy with other priorities. Perhaps, we move away because we are hurt. Or betrayed. Or feel rejected in some way, unable to trust others. Only trusting ourselves. 

But, as theologian Cole Arthur Riley writes, “a life lived with trust only in the self is exhausting. It is not freedom. It is a yoke that falls helplessly and incessantly upon us.” 

We tell ourselves that no one can or will ever understand us or our complexities. We brag about the fact that we’re a “loner” or “independent.” It’s how we numb those wounds we feel. By elevating ourselves above the community, looking down upon it as frivolous. Or needy. Or less enlightened. Or unimportant. When, in truth, we are simply denying our own need - our need to belong.

Life together is messy. That is a fact. And Bonhoeffer cautions how we are respond when this life together gets messy. And difficult. 

It’s easy, when we’re frustrated by one another, to speak about another “covertly,” as he puts it. To scrutinize another, to judge another, to condemn another, to put another in their place, so that one gains a sense of superiority. This, he writes, “does violence to the other.” 

Instead, he says, we should pray for them. Because, no matter how much trouble they may cause, it becomes impossible to condemn or hate another sibling in Christ for whom we pray. 

‘If only,” he continues, “If only one lets go the exasperation that ‘God did not make this person as I would have made them’ and realizes that God gives us people not to dominate and control, but as a way to find divine love” - only if one lets go of this expectation, “can one find the other person an occasion of joy rather than a nuisance and affliction. The difficult part is to accept that God has not created every person in my image,” he writes. But rather, that “every person has been created in God’s image.” 

In this place. In this community we are known. Our names are known. People know us and know the ugly parts of us. And, yet, we are called to stay. Each one of us. To stay. To see God in one another. When we realize this, when we begin to see the divine in others, we are changed. We begin to see our siblings through the lens of the cross. And recognize that it is we who have failed to serve them.

In this place, our way of being together is a way of being with God. Every relationship, every interaction with one another is mediated by Christ. Bonhoeffer writes, “Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ embodies and stamps upon all people.” 

This is how we meet God in community. Through each other.

This was Mary’s experience. As she came to Elizabeth, scared and confused as I’m sure she was. Fearful of what the future might bring, Elizabeth could have rejected her. Could have turned her away. And could have done so legitimately and under the law. 

Instead, Elizabeth saw in her the divine - as did her unborn child - leading her to affirm Mary’s blessedness. Which led to Mary’s song. Our first Advent hymn. The most passionate, the wildest, the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. A song about the revolutionary power of God, to break down the structures that divide us, the barriers that separate us, the walls in our hearts that keep us apart, so that we may belong to God. And to one another. From generation to generation.

May we seek to be like Elizabeth. May we see God in this place. May we see God in each other. Amen.

Preached December 18, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
Advent 4
Reading: Luke 1:39-45; 56-58; Luke 1:46-55