Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 The Inescapable God
O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.
Sometimes, when I read books in the Bible, they remind me of other books I’ve read or stories I’ve heard. As I was thinking about the Psalm, where the person singing the song feels known and loved by God all the time, I remember the children’s book The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. Who here has ever read that book? Do you remember what it’s about? Well, I’m going to read it right now to remind everyone:
Does anyone have any guesses about why I was reminded of this book when I read Psalm 139? Let’s talk about the momma bunny. Do you think she loves her baby bunny? Yes. How do you know? What does she do to show her love? She promises to be with the little bunny in all ways. Why do you think the little bunny wanted to run away? Isn’t nice that his mom said that he would always have a home with her? She would be his tree if he was a bird or the wind that would help him move if he was a sailboat. She would even do scary things with him, learning to walk a tight rope while he swung on the trapeze. I also like that, even though he thought he might need to run away, he realized that his mom loved him a lot and would make sure he was safe and always had a good place to be and that she would help him do hard things, he decided that he could stay. And, then they had a snack. That’s a good story!
Now, let’s remember what God is like in Psalm 139. I think Psalm 139 is like if Little Bunny wrong a song about God. The person in the Psalm says that God has search them and knows them. It’s like the Momma Bunny knows Little Bunny. God in this Psalm definitely knows the speaker well enough to become a fisherman if they’re a fish or a gardener if they’re a plant. God knows the speaker well enough to know where they might hide or be ready to follow them up a mountain. When the speaker gets to the end, God is still there, just like Momma Bunny at the end of the book, ready to give the little bunny a carrot.
There’s even a part of the Psalm that we didn’t read today that sounds a lot like the bunnies. Verses 7-12 say:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
There are a lot of good things in the parts of Psalm 139 that we read today. But, the thing I think is most important today, is to remember that God is always with us, even when we are mad enough to run away or feel like we need to hide. God made us. The scripture says, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” The speaker knows that every part of them is beloved by God and made by God. I hope that if you are feeling worried or scared or lonesome, you remember that part especially. God made you and you are wonderful. So, no need to run off or feel like you have to go away. You can stay with God and God will stay with you, just like Momma Bunny and Little Bunny. And that really is some good news.
Resources consulted while preparing this sermon:
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
The book of Mark doesn’t begin with the story of a birth. Mark begins with a prophet, a messenger crying out and preparing a way in the wilderness. The prophet, John, called the Baptizer, is clearing a path for the Messiah into the world. And, he is doing that by calling people to repent, to turn around and turn away from the path they’ve been on. John also offered the Jewish ritual of baptism for “repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” a ritual to function as a sign that people had confessed and were prepared to live in a different way. John also spoke of one who would come after him. He said “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” John said that the baptism he offered was limited, but the baptism offered by the one who would follow him was more, a baptism of the Holy Spirit. According to the writer of Mark, countless people traveled to the wilderness to be baptized at his hands.
It is no small thing to baptize someone. It is quite the responsibility to be invited to hold another person and submerge them fully into the water and, then, also be trusted to lift them back out, up to their feet and into the breathable air. It is an honor to be entrusted with someone’s child, to guide them safely to the font, to wet their heads and, comfort them if they are frightened by being suddenly wetter and colder than a few moments before. In seminary, my worship professor got a local church to let us practice baptizing people in their baptismal font during class one day. She knew that the act of holding someone safely in the water, helping them mark the powerful change in their lives that comes with baptism, is significant. One should not assume this responsibility without great care and at least a little practice.
It is also no small thing to choose to be baptized or to have your child baptized. Baptism is a significant commitment, both to God and to other people. When you asked to be baptized in our church or make baptismal promises for your kids who are very young, I ask you some intense questions. I ask these of new members, too, when they affirm their baptisms. Here are some of them if you haven’t heard them in a while:
When you are baptized, you are showing something about what you know to be true of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. And, you are saying that you are willing to living differently based on this knowledge, to turn away from how you have been living, towards the path Christ will create. That’s what John the Baptist was talking about when he said repent. Dr. Bonnie Bowman Thurston says in her commentary that repentance, the Greek word metanoia, means “a complete change of mind, a new direction of the will.” And, while we who follow Christ understand repentance a little differently than John, I think it’s safe to assume that the baptism he offered was no less profound. Perhaps that is why Jesus sought him out.
The first place we see Jesus in the book of Mark is in the hands of John, descending into the water. The description of his baptism is strikingly simple. “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” It is interesting that, while all four Gospels indicate Jesus was baptized, only Mark actually says that John did it. All the rest avoid showing Jesus in the vulnerable position of being baptized by John. In Matthew, which was written after Mark, John initially doesn’t want to baptize Jesus. He says, “you should be baptizing me.” Jesus has to insist that he must. And, it still doesn’t say John baptized Jesus. It just says “Jesus had been baptized.” The book of Luke, also written after Mark, just says everybody who was there got baptized and so did Jesus. The Gospel of John leaves out the baptism completely! It just has John describing seeing a dove descending on Jesus. There was no water at all!
A scholar named Richard DeMaris explained why three of the four Gospels might hesitate to say clearly that Jesus was baptized by someone else. Some people read that baptism was intended to symbolize repentance from sins. If Jesus was baptized, that meant that Jesus had sin, an image of Jesus that many would find troubling. Also, to be baptized was to identify oneself as spiritually subordinate to the one doing the baptizing. And, as I have stated already, and some of you may remember feeling this yourselves, being baptized means putting oneself in a very physically vulnerable position, at the mercy of the one officiating the ritual act. Placing anyone, even John, in a more powerful role than Jesus would have simply been unacceptable to some people.
It is interesting that the Gospel of Mark does not seem to share these concerns. DeMaris, also has a theory about why. DeMaris says that it goes back to the power of ritual in community. Much of the time, joining a community involves a ritual of some kind. How someone participates in that ritual shows us how they will later behave in the community. This also shapes how members of the community interact with each other. While some people think that leaders can never show vulnerability, DeMaris argues that Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, is not one of them. He isn’t afraid of vulnerability, so he isn’t afraid to be baptized.
He also asks for his followers to be willing to make themselves vulnerable. In Mark chapter 9, when his disciples begin to argue over who was the greatest, Jesus tells them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In chapter 10, when James and John asked for seats of honor on either side of Jesus, he will say “whomever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whomever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” When his disciples want to know what it means to be a leader, Jesus says that you must be willing to give up a place of privilege, if you have one, in order to feel the presence of God. Jesus first set the example for this kind of servant leadership when he allowed himself to be baptized by John. His submission to John, and to God through John, was the place where Jesus began to show us how he would be the Messiah.
This week, a group which included white supremacists, neo-nazis, and fascists were allowed to overtake the US Capitol. Some carried equipment that made it clear they were planning for both a siege and to take hostages. Bombs were planted, but, thankfully, not triggered. They were incited to violence by politicians spouting disproven conspiracy theories. Someone lifted up a cross outside on the Capitol grounds, not to embarrass the fascists but as a sign to say that God approved of what they did. Someone else built gallows as for a lynching. Five people are dead as a result of the coup attempt. There were fewer arrests than you’d expect during a coup. That was a surprise, too.
I don’t remember my baptism. I was a baby. But, I do remember becoming a member of this church and I know that the promises that I made when I did so run counter to the violence incited and enacted on Wednesday. I saw no servants among those who rifled through desks and chanted for the execution of politicians with whom they disagreed. The question I have been asking myself this week is how I might respond out of the foundational promises I made in affirming my baptism. What does it mean, right now, to renounce the powers of evil, especially those on display in white supremacy and anti-Semitism? What does it mean, right now, to fight oppression when fascists area already using force against those who oppose them?
I think the first step is to say, very clearly, that the Kindom of God is not like fascists carrying a Confederate flag through the halls of the US Capitol. I am still working on the rest. I bet you are, too. I'm glad I don’t have to figure this out myself. We have God and each other and our neighbors of good faith. If you want to talk some more about how we respond to this moment, let’s stick around after church on zoom for bit to make some plans. Some will say that the most vital questions of baptisms are whether you got dunked in the water or sprinkled on your head. I think, in fact, the question is, how do we become servants more like Christ was? And, that’s a question best answered together.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
There is a lot of information going around about the failed coup attempted on January 6th. Here’s a helpful description of the events: https://www.npr.org/2021/01/06/954159148/pro-trump-extremists-storm-us-capitol-delay-election-certification
Here’s is the prayer vigil organized by the UCC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxmSPkuWu9o
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002)
The Pulpit Fiction Podcast: https://www.pulpitfiction.com/archive/2017/02/24/97-baptism-of-jesus-after-epiphany-1b
In reviewing my notes on this text, I found some great information from the scholar Richard DeMaris. Unfortunately, I didn’t write down where I found them and haven’t been able to figure it out easily by the time I preach on Sunday. It may be from the article “Possession, good and bad - ritual, effects and side-effects: the baptism of Jesus and Mark 1.9-11 from a cross-cultural perspective,” found in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Year: 2000, Volume: 23, Issue: 80, Pages: 3-30.
Jesus Is Presented in the Temple
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
The Return to Nazareth
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.
I can never remember all the gifts in the song about the 12 days of Christmas. You know the one. On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree. I can get to day 5 (five golden rings) and after that, I always lose track. I know there are geese a-laying and ladies dancing somewhere but, on any given day, I could not begin to tell you how many of them there are. Tasha might know them all now... she always studied up on Christmas song lyrics so she can win trivia games... but the lyrics to this song, with all the strange gifts, just don’t stick in my brain.
One of the gifts I always remember is the gift of the second day, the two turtle doves. Wasn’t it interesting to hear this gift come up in our scripture for the day. A professor named Shively Smith, in her commentary on this text, thinks that these turtle doves tell us a couple important things about Jesus’ family. One, the presence of the birds affirm that Jesus’ parents are devout Jewish people. And, two, the turtle doves show us that his parents were pretty poor. Dr. Smith explains it this way.
If we’ve been paying attention in Luke, it shouldn’t surprise us to see that Mary is devout. From the moment we meet her, Mary is responsive to the movement of God in her life. When angels show up, she understands that it is a gift from God. When she sings her own song praising God who lifts up the lowly, she places herself solidly within Jewish tradition, repeating themes of mercy and justice found in Hannah’s song, and Miriam’s song, and the Psalms. And, while she might have been surprised that she and her family would be called up to do something holy and redemptive with God, she knew that such actions were even possible because she knew the traditions of her people. She knew of Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham. She knew of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. She knew of Bathsheba and David. God could work through a family and God was now working through hers. She knows that God stands with the lowly, because she has heard the prophecies of Isaiah. Mary knew she could do this incredible thing because she knew her people’s stories.
But, all that happened before the baby's birth. After Jesus is born, we see the next step that his family will take to demonstrate their faith in God. As a symbol of their commitment to God, Mary and Joseph fulfill the ritual obligations of their people. They have their son circumcised and named according to what God said to name him. That happens just before today’s reading. Then, in today’s reading, they present him at the temple and offered a sacrifice in thanksgiving to God. According to Dr. Smith, the author of Luke is telling all of us this so that we can remember that Jesus is deeply situated in his religious tradition. All of Mary’s piety wasn’t just the excitement surround her pregnancy that would be forgotten once all of the hard work of raising a baby in the midst of a cruel empire began. Her faith, and Joseph’s faith, would shape all they do, including how they would introduce their baby to the world. The author of this Gospel wants us to know that Jesus was a child of devout parents who will grow into a devout man. This is foreshadowing. Their faith traditions would shape Jesus’ childhood and provide the contours of his adult ministry. He is a part of his community, not outside of it. His life has been crafted so as to point him towards God.
So, that is what the turtle doves show us about what Mary and Joseph believe. In accordance with the practices of their faith, when a first son is born, you go to the temple, present the child, and make a sacrifice in Thanksgiving. And, they are thankful for this child. The turtle doves also show us something about what Mary and Joseph have: which is not a lot of money. If you remember from other readings, people often brought animals for sacrifice at the temple. While every single person is expected to make a sacrifice, Jesus' people believed that God understood that not all people have the same resources. Because God is merciful, God would never ask someone who was very poor to give the same thing as God would expect a rich person to give.
Rituals were developed in a way to make them accessible to people to people with different levels of wealth. You wouldn’t be left out of the practices of your people because you couldn’t afford to participate. If you’re interested, you can find lists of sacrifices that were affordable for poorer people in chapter 5, 12, and 14 of the book of Leviticus. On these lists, you will find Mary and Joseph's offering, two turtle doves. They were devout. They would buy the most expensive sacrifice they could afford, which, as it turns out, was two birds set aside for those with the lowest income. How wonderful it was that they wouldn’t be excluded from the temple because they couldn’t afford the most expensive sacrifice. How wonderful it was that their tradition made space for the generosity and gratitude of even those who did not have much to share. I am so grateful for this example that reminds us that anyone can be generous, even if their gift is simple.
Why would it be so important to emphasize to the reader that Jesus was both rooted in his religious faith and also from simple means? Why even notice those two little birds? For Smith, this small detail helps us put something very important in perspective. In the book of Luke, Jesus will spend much of his time advocating for the poor. In a couple chapters, when he spells out his own mission statement, he will read out the words of the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor." A couple chapters later, in the sermon on the plain, he will assert, like his own mother once did, that God takes special note of, and care for, the hungry, the poor and the excluded. He will go on to assert that a vital part of serving God is tending to the poor and that God's kindom will welcome most quickly those who need the most help.
Smith argues that Jesus speaks so passionately about serving the poor not because he is a powerful person helping people less powerful than himself. To quote Dr. Smith, "When Jesus is talking about the poor, he is talking about himself." We would do well, then, to remember that when God chose to raise up a savior, God did so from among the ranks of the impoverished. When God became incarnate, walking around in the flesh and the blood of humanity, it was in the flesh and blood of the poor. Dr. Smith argues that Jesus' own experience on the economic margins of his community gave him a helpful perspective on the work of building a kindom of love and justice with God. This reality completely upended what many people expected from the Messiah.
At the temple, Mary and Joseph encounter a prophet named Simeon. Now, many people assumed the Messiah would be a king or a military leader. Jesus was neither of those things, especially at this point in his life. He wasn’t even 10 days old. He was a baby from a very poor family. But, like the shepherds before him, Simeon sees greatness in this child. Simeon sees God in this child. He is so inspired that he sings about it. I don’t know the tune he sang, but the book of Luke shows us the words: “God, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory your people Israel.” This child is not a king or a military leader, but, Simeon sees salvation in him. Simeon can already tell that this child, rooted in his faith but also at the economic margins of his own community, will be able to draw people in towards God. This will be good news not just for their people, but for the whole world.
Simeon goes on to offer this family a blessing, but also a warning. Jesus will be opposed. As Dr. Karoline Lewis puts it, “The center never tolerates the truth from the de-centered. The privileged do whatever is necessary to silence anyone who might threaten their power.” Jesus, this child from the margins, will definitely threaten the powerful. But, God will still be with, and in, him. Just because he will be opposed does not mean that God will abandon him or his ministry.
A second prophet, Anna, also approaches this small family in today’s reading. She, too, will praise God for this child. What’s more, Scripture tells us that she will tell others the truth of what she saw in him. Long before there are disciples... before Jesus preaches a word... even before John the Baptist spells out the hypocrisy of the powerful down by the riverside... Anna preaches in the temple, telling her people about the baby and the redemption of Jerusalem. Surely this was a gift better than 5 golden rings or 4 calling birds or three French hens. To the world, from the margins, a gift from God through this child. That is a song worth remembering.
Resources consulted to write this sermon:
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Be Not Afraid: Part 3- Luke 2:8-20
I have to be honest... we’re skipping ahead a bit here. There’s already a baby, but you know the baby was going to be here soon anyway. I figure a little attention on the shepherds was warranted. Next week, after the baby comes and in the weeks that follow, weeks filled with Matthew’s stories of the magi and the family’s refugee flight to Egypt and Luke’s stories of the prophets who sing their joy at the birth of the Savior, the shepherds can get lost. It seems worth our time to consider the shepherds... the first people outside of the family to learn that there is something special in this child who has been born. They will end up not only hearing divine confirmation of gift of his birth but also become a source of holy affirmation for Mary and Joseph.
Unlike the early part of Matthew, that contrasts God’s Reign from the King’s Reign by showing us a king who is frightened enough by a baby that he will try to harm the baby, Luke shows us that God’s Reign is different than Caesar’s Reign but showing us how very different Jesus’ birth and life are from the lives of the powerful in the era. Jesus’ very pregnant mom has to travel to a whole other town when she is almost ready to give birth, not because she wants to but because the Emperor has the power to force regular people to do things when he wants it done, not when is convenient for them. He wanted them to go to Bethlehem to be counted. So they had to go. Dr. Melinda Quivik reminds us that royal Roman leaders had everything they needed. This child wasn’t even born in his own home and he slept in an animal trough. He could not be more different from Caesar. Thank God for that.
And, his life and the way he wields power will be different, we can see, by who is entrusted to celebrate his birth. First, Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, is entrusted with the good news of the pregnancy. She has been similarly blessed with an unlikely pregnancy and Mary knew she could relate to this level of Divine Intervention. Then, after the birth, the shepherds are brought into the story. There are few people farther from Caesar than the shepherds in the fields.
According to Dr. Fred Craddock, Roman poets and well-known speakers were known to create works in celebration of a child who was to become emperor. In this story, it is it is the heavens that sing forth in celebration and their audience is not their wealthy patrons, as would have been true of the artists, but the very common, very ordinary shepherds in the fields. Dr. Wesley Allen reminds us in his commentary on the text that these shepherds are likely not the people who own the sheep or own any of the land. They are either slaves or employees are working the night shift. That’s why the author pointed out that they lived in the fields. They stay with the sheep, guarding them, either because they were ordered to by the people who owned them or because they were paid to do so. They are regular people with a demanding job that required a fair amount of skill to keep animals alive. It was a job that was utterly necessary as sheep provided food and clothing material. It was also a job that wasn’t necessarily well-paid or well-respected. Shepherds don’t usually get to hear the good news first, but they do in this story. They don’t usually hang out with the powerful. But, they will, in this story. And, the power will look different. We heard the first inklings of that in Mary’s song, with the lowly lifted and the powerful sent away. In the invitation of the shepherds to the manger, we are seeing the lifting of the lowly happening yet again.
I wonder what the angels looked like for them to have to tell the shepherds that they didn’t have to be afraid. Were they bright enough and loud enough to scare the sheep? Would anyone, human or angelic, have surprised these working men on third shift? Was this just a gentle way of preparing them for the incredible next words? “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” What a message to tell these hard-working, poor men! And, how wonderful that these men believed and traveled to find the child.
In my research this week, several scholars noted that while Caesar wasn’t anywhere near shepherds, Jewish leaders had once been, notably King David. Luke tells us that Jesus was part of the line of David through his stepfather Joseph. He was born in the city of David. And, now, men who shared David’s earliest work would come to celebrate him and confirm, for his mother, that her own angelic visions were true. The shepherds told Mary and Joseph what they had heard from the angels about who this simple child in a food trough would be. Everyone who heard the testimony of the shepherds was amazed. But, in particularly, treasured all their words and pondered them in her heart. That means she thought about them, a lot. She considered the words the angels said to her, to her cousin, and now the shepherd, and what it means for her family, and the world’s, future.
Dr. Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero noted that, in leaving their sheep, the shepherds, too, are transformed, becoming God’s messengers alongside the angels. And, of course, poor, common people would do the work of God. In a couple chapters, when Jesus, as an adult, tells us about his mission with his own words, he will say that the poor will be of special concern for God and for him. Jesus himself comes from a poor family, despite having a royal lineage. God comes into the World through the margins of society, the over-full barns and the darkened fields full of smelly sheep. What message about Jesus are you hearing while you work? And, where are you willing to go to because of it?
Resources consulted to write this sermon:
Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christmas-day-nativity-of-our-lord-ii/commentary-on-luke-21-7-8-20-9
Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990)
Melinda Quivik: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christmas-eve-nativity-of-our-lord/commentary-on-luke-21-14-15-20-18
O. Wesley Allen Jr. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/shepherds-visit-2/commentary-on-luke-28-20
Luke 1:46-56 Mary’s Song of Praise
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.
The church will come to call her Theotokos, the bearer of God . . . the one who ushered the Incarnation into the world. We first encounter her as Mary, engaged to Joseph, cousin of Elizabeth, Galilean teenager. We will learn that she is brave and faithful, that she trusts God, and knows her scripture, that she is willing to risk the judgement of her community if it means she can do what God asks of her. Mary was in a position of great risk, both the risk inherent in pregnancy and also the risk of being unmarried and pregnant in her community. But she remembered the stories of what God had done for her people. So, when the angel told her God’s plan, Mary was confident that good could come from it. Our scripture today is Mary’s statement of faith . . . a kind of prophecy of the world to come through the life that was growing inside of her. And, it shows us something about the reign that God is inviting us into.
Mary sings this song while staying with her cousin Elizabeth, one who has recently had her own miraculous and unexpected birth. Perhaps she sings in Elizabeth’s home, because, like Dr. Wil Gafney says, teenagers often find a certain freedom talking about surprising relationships and unexpected pregnancies with elder women relatives. It is in Elizabeth’s home that Mary can finally articulate how this scandalous and strange pregnancy brings her hope. Dr. Monica Coleman, in her commentary on this passage, reminds us that sometimes in the Bible, when people need to celebrate what God has done for them and with them, they sing. Mary, the learned and brave teenager, takes up this tradition with gusto. She sings out what it means to her to be chosen to do something very difficult by God.
Mary begins with, “my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” She is clear: God has seen Mary and known, despite her likely poverty, her young age, and her unmarried status, that she could do something vital for her people. She goes on to situate her story within the long history of God’s actions in the world. When we hear Mary say these words, "God has shown strength with God's arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts," we are hearing echoes of the Exodus and the words of Miriam who sang out with joy and praise when God delivered their people from slavery: "[The Lord] has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode." Mary knew that God was a deliverer. God would deliver her. The child she would deliver would be a force of the Divine in the world, again, working to deliver the people.
When we hear Mary say these words, "God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty," we are also hearing Hannah's words from 1st Samuel 2:1-10, "The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The Lord makes poor and makes rich, he brings low, he also exalts." God is invested in people’s whole lives, not just in their ideas about the Divine. As the Rev. Judith Jones puts it, “Mary sings about the God who saves not just souls, but embodied people.” The God whom Mary has come to know through scripture and her lived experience is one that feeds people and overturns unjust power structures. Rev. Jones asserts that Mary isn’t saying that God will put the currently powerless into unjust power systems. No, God will enact a leveling, where the powerful are emptied of arrogance and learn to love their neighbor. And, the powerless will be lifted up with dignity. Mary’s own uplift is a sign of Divine leveling.
In his commentary on this text, Dr. Rolf Jacobsen noted that the anonymous Psalmist who recorded Psalm 146 once sang: "the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; upholds the orphan and the widow." He argues that this sounds an awful lot like Mary saying, "God has helped God's servant Israel, in remembrance of God's mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham, and to his descendants forever." Mary, a teenager living in poverty in the midst of a cruel Empire, remembered how God had worked in her people's history, and sang out, assured that though her people were not yet free, God had promised her people freedom. She was certain that her story had become part of how God would fulfill this promise, even if her community did not approve or believe her.
Dr. Fred Craddock, in his commentary on this text, notes that Mary sings of God’s movement in the world through actions in the past, in the present moment, and in the promised future. We can miss a little of this when we read it only in English. She sings of her present joy at both the past actions and future promises of God. Dr. Craddock believes that by remembering the histories of her people and singing about them in the same breath as she sings of her present condition, Mary tells us something about what she knows about God. Dr. Craddock says, “[t]o speak of what God has done is to announce what God will do.” Craddock argues that Mary is so certain about what God will do that she sings about it as though it is already done. God has liberated once. God will liberate again. God has taken down tyrants before. God will do it again and is already doing it right now.
I am under no illusion that Mary thought the next stages of her life were going to be easy. She was likely worried if her family would throw her out, if her fiancé would still want to marry her, if her community would shun her. All these on top of the difficulty of just being pregnant. Even today, with modern technology, in our country, being pregnant is dangerous, difficult, and exhausting. All the more so in the era in which Mary lived. And, yet, she could sing of a future where she would be called blessed. Blessed, here, doesn’t mean that she imagines her life would be easy. It meant that she knew her struggle would have meaning within a framework of God working through humanity towards liberation.
Dr. Monica Coleman, in a couple different meditations on Mary’s life and calling, wonders if Mary’s second gift to us, after Jesus, is that her story is a story about God at work in the life of someone who much of the world would have looked down on. Mary, who called herself lowly, was also clear that God could, and would, work through the lowly. God didn’t need her to be rich or to be a queen. God needed her to be faithful. Dr. Coleman says it this way, “[c]ontemporary readers are reminded that when God brings justice to the world, it may come in unexpected ways, through individuals and communities whom most of our society eschews.” If you are tempted to see yourself or someone as too poor or too marginal or too scandalous to reflect something of God in this world, remember Mary. God called and empowered her exactly how she was to do something incredible. God’s probably going to call you to do something, too. We’ve all got a part to play in this journey towards holy liberation.
Dr. Wil Gafney has several sermons about this passage. One of them is called, “Shalom Miriam, Hail Mary.” In it, she talked about the phrase “fear not.” Angels say fear not all the time in the Bible. One said it last week before talking to Joseph. One said it to Mary in the passages just before today’s reading. Dr. Gafney argues say “fear not,” not because there is no reason to be afraid, but as a reminder that the person they are talking to is not alone. The angelic visitors say fear not because God is already with you. In the midst of all that is scary and all that hard and all that is dangerous, God is already here, with you now just as you are. While her child will be known as Emanuel, God with us, Mary needed to know God was already there, at work in her common and extraordinary life, at that moment. The God who was already there would guide her towards the future yet to come. Maybe this was what gave her the confidence to sing. God was already with her. God would be with the world in a new way, through her, very soon. God is with you, too. I pray that you find your song to celebrate that soon.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Monica Coleman, "Third Sunday in Advent," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)
Rolf Jacobsen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-luke-146b-55
Judith Jones: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-146-55
A Definition of Theotokos: https://udayton.edu/imri/mary/t/theotokos-meaning-of.php
Matthew 1:18-25 The Birth of Jesus the Messiah
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 fulfil 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.
Last week, we learned about Jesus’ grandmothers, the ones from whom he inherited keen intelligence, fierce resilience, and probably a love of people who are on the margins of respectable society. Today, we’re going to learn about Jesus’ dad, who is probably the one who taught him something about deep, sacrificial love. The story of Joseph becoming Jesus’ stepfather might be really familiar to you. Or, it might be the first time you’ve heard it. Regardless of whether you’ve heard this story only once or you’ve heard it a hundred times, it’s important to remember that Jesus’ family didn’t have to look like this. Any other man might have made a different choice than Joseph did. To understand Joseph’s choice, it’s important to remember a few things about the time when Joseph and Mary were living.
Where Joseph and Mary grew up, people thought you did things in a certain order. First, you get married. Then, if you want, you have a baby. If you did things out of order, people didn’t like it. Sometimes you could even get in trouble if a lot of people in your community thought you did things in the wrong order. Part of what makes Joseph’s story special is that he knew that while not everyone thought it was ok to make a family in a different way, he would choose to do just that. At first, you’ll remember, he was ready to go along with what everyone else wanted. But, an angel helped him be brave enough to realize that he could still make a family with Mary, even if people got mad. What was most important was the baby would be taken care of and God was confident that Joseph could take care of this baby.
Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man who was engaged to be married to Mary. He did not want to humiliate Mary when she said that she was pregnant and it was not his child. If Joseph had done what most people would have said was the right thing, he would not have married her. The story tells that he had just settled upon a course of action that would afford Mary as much dignity as possible, while also allowing him not to marry her, when suddenly an angel intervenes through his dreams. The angel says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid.” That phrase gets used a lot around Jesus’ birth, both here in Matthew and also in Luke. Angels show up in some very scary times and they tell people not to be afraid. I think Joseph really needed someone to help him not be afraid.
Marriage and parenthood can be pretty scary, mostly because people want to do the right thing and not hurt people they care about. Even if you are excited to be married and excited to have a child, you might find yourself afraid. That is true even without the complications that Joseph and Mary have in their relationship. If you think the community might judge you harshly or are worried about whether or not your fiancée is lying to you, you might be even more frightened. Thank goodness the Angel came to help him be brave.
“Do not be afraid.” Fear can often keep us from imagining a life beyond what other people tell us is possible or good. Fear can keep us from trusting people we love, even when they tell us the truth. Fear, and its cousin, Anger can make us break relationships instead of build them. When the angel told Joseph that he didn’t have to be afraid, Joseph heard, maybe for the first time, that he had other options for how he could treat Mary, and, that maybe, they could still be a family.
There is an artist and poet named Jan Richardson who has spoken about what is like for her to fall in love with someone who already had a child. In a reflection on this portion of Matthew, she once wrote, “The man whom I love has a son, and his son whom I love has changed how I read Joseph’s story. I am intrigued by this Joseph who claimed a child who was not his own, this man who drew a circle of family not only around Mary but also around her son, her Word-made-flesh.” Richardson’s stepson, who has a way with words like his father and like poet step-mother, has become beloved to her precisely because she chose to build a family with him and his father. Ten years ago, when she wrote the commentary I read this week, she said, “Ten years since first meeting this man and his child, I still choose this stretching into a vast, unknown terrain that the journey with this father and son calls me to.” I am certain she feels the same way now, 20 years after first choosing to make this family together. A child that is not your child by blood can still be a gift.
The angel tells Joseph to marry his fiancée and that this child, too, is a gift, this one, from God to their whole people. Mary will have a son. The angel tells Joseph give the boy a special name, a name that will tell people something about who the child is. In Greek, that name is Jesus. In Hebrew, it’s Yeshua... Joshua. That name means “The Lord helps.” This child will save his people. But, he will need parents to care for him first. He will need Joseph, who will help him learn to love beyond what most people thing is either possible or appropriate.
Joseph, great-great-great-grandson of Bathsheba, Ruth, Rahab, and Tamar, with the help of an angel, realized that this family was still possible. Looking at Mary and her complex and scandalous story, remembering the scandalous women of his own family, he summons all of his bravery, and he marries her. Together, they create, with the Holy Spirit, a new and extraordinary family. The love that came to life in their son Jesus still lives on in us today.
Carolyn Brown, a religious educator who writes really wonderful Sunday school material for kids, pointed out something very important about this reading. Even with the help of the angels, Joseph and Mary must have trusted each other a lot to make this choice to build a family together, especially under such strange circumstances. How curious they must have been to meet the boy and help him grow into the mission of his adulthood. How much better this world is because they trusted God and each other enough to take this risk together.
Jan Richardson, in honor of her own beloved stepson and the family she and her husband chose to make, wrote this Advent Prayer. I want to share it with you today:
A Prayer for Choosing
What we choose
Who we love
How we create
Where we live
So in all our choosing,
O God, make us wise;
in all our loving,
O Christ, make us bold;
in all our creating,
O Spirit, give us courage;
in all our living
may we become whole.
We have been blessed by Joseph’s courageous love. May we offer the world our own courageous love when we have the opportunity.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
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, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph,
Tasha and I have developed some family Advent and Christmas traditions in the 13 years that we have been together. We collect and display nativity scenes. The one on our altar today was the first one we bought here in Maine. Since I became the pastor of Winthrop Congregational Church UCC, we’ve developed a tradition around when and how we get our Christmas tree. It’s always from the Winthrop Rotary and it’s always after the church Christmas fair on the first Saturday in December. We also buy our Christmas wreath at the fair, handmade by some members from the church. These traditions have been part of every late November/ December for many years now. This year is different though.
For one thing, Tasha started listening to Christmas music in, like, October, because she wanted something a little cheerier in the midst of all the hard news in the world. Also, I noticed, that, independently of each other, both we and our neighbors decided to put Christmas lights up right after Halloween. We usually wait until Thanksgiving. Again, we felt like we need extra cheer this year. While we have all our little manger scenes, we won’t be buying our tree after the Christmas fair, because our church realized that we can’t safely have the fair. We will still buy a tree from the Rotary though. I just don’t know when. And, we did get our wreath from some church folks, though it wasn’t at the fair, but from a Scout fundraiser.
I imagine a lot of us have been reorienting our traditions this year. In this extraordinary year, we all are examining our traditions and discerning what is meaningful and necessary in this time and also what we need to put aside, at least for now. For example, our church, and I’m sure our neighbors at Old South in Hallowell, have been reconfiguring our plans for Advent. Both our churches have been making sure that folks can have Advent wreaths at home, because this feels like a tradition that is portable and necessary in this season. And, I don’t know how Old South is planning to have their Christmas or Christmas Eve service, but our deacons and musicians want us to work hard to sing and play music, even over zoom, because music helps us do both the waiting part of Advent and the celebrating part of Christmas more fully. Music and scripture are traditions that are vital and necessary for us. So, we’re going to figure out how to have them in whatever form we can manage.
There is grief in this planning, to be sure. Advent is meaningful, in part, because of the ways we gather in the same space to help spiritually prepare for the coming of Christ. At our church, over the course of Advent, our sanctuary changes so much. And, while we are praying and working to craft meaningful worship, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and in light of our current needs, a lot of how we are doing Advent this year is not the same.
But, I’ve realized something. I personally don’t need things to be the same. I don’t need things to be the same because the world isn’t the same. What I do need is for the things we do now to be rooted in our values and responsive to the present needs. What this means, I think, is that we need to reclaim our stake in the meaning of Advent as a time of hopeful waiting, expectation, and preparation. The Hope we are looking for is a resilient and active one, invested in the well-being of our neighbors and preparing for new life, even in the midst of death and devastation. And, I think we can find some models of that resilient, active hope in the stories of Jesus’ grandmothers.
I don’t know how often you read the first 17 verses of the first chapter of Matthew. Many folks skip over it to get to the Joseph part in verse 18. I used to, too. I don’t anymore. Because the names are here for a reason. They are telling us something about who Jesus will grow to be. They are telling us about his foundation. In a genealogy that is nearly all men, the inclusion of four women, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, stands out. Why would these women in particular be included when so many other women weren’t? Unfortunately, the author of Matthew doesn’t spell out why exactly they get included. So, we need to work a bit to try to figure it out. That means we have to spend some time with Jesus’ grandmothers to sort out why it is vital that they are included here. As it turns out, all of these women have stories about surviving trauma and making courageous choices in terrible situations.
While there are a couple different Tamars in the Hebrew Bible, the one who is mentioned in this genealogy is Tamar from Genesis 38. Tamar was a widow reliant on her father-in-law Judah for care. As was their custom, when her husband died, she married his brother. She ended up having three husbands die, which is the first tragedy. Judah, upon losing three sons, refuses to allow his fourth son to marry Tamar. This is the second tragedy. Tamar would have been left with no financial or emotional support because Judah refused to live up to his familial responsibilities. Tamar devised a plan to save herself, a scandalous plan which implicated Judah in unrighteous behavior. It was a great risk to her and could have hurt her reputation, but, it worked. She survived and rebuilt her family, ending up in this list as an ancestor to David
The second woman listed is Rahab whose story is in Joshua 2. She ran her own business, in the world’s oldest profession, out of her home that was built along the city wall of Jericho. She hid some of the Hebrew leader Joshua’s soldiers when enemy soldiers came searching for them. She even helped them escape. Her actions helped Joshua to win the battle for the city and saved her own family from being destroyed in that same battle. She would go on to marry Joshua and convert to his faith. She is remembered as one with a deep faith in God and as a righteous hero to her people.
Ruth was a Moabite married to an Israelite man at a point when Israelite men weren’t supposed to be married to Moabites. Upon the deaths of her husband, father-in-law, and brother-in-law, rather than return to her father’s home, Ruth creates a new family with her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi and Naomi’s distant relative Boaz. Their atypical family helps the women survive in an era where widows had few social safety nets. Ruth, who once said that Naomi’s God had become her God, who risked traveling to a foreign city where the men weren’t even supposed to marry her, would eventually bear her little family a son, Obed. In this act of trust and faith, in building new relationships and bearing new life, she becomes known a renewer of her family’s hope.
And, Bathsheba? It is not clear when we first meet her in 2nd Samuel if she hoped to become the wife of King David. Kings were pretty free to do what they wanted with women in their vicinity, so her intent may not have mattered to him at all. David sent her husband away and took Bathsheba for his own wife. While it isn’t clear if she wanted to be in the relationship where she was, but, once she was there, she would take great care of her son, Solomon. In a story that is longer than I have time to tell today, Solomon would become king, one of the most famous and wise kings of his people, as a direct result of the intervention of his mother. Her strategic forethought, especially in the face of the nearly unchecked power of King David, would change her people’s history and the future of her own family.
Four names: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Four complex and scandalous stories. Four women who became heroes of their faith, who survived dire and often unjust circumstances with keen intellect and astute strategy, thereby preserving and creating the very family which would birth the Messiah. It is fitting that we begin the book of Matthew by be reminded that it is possible to survive terrible things, but often that survival requires us to veer away from accepted tradition for our own safety and the survival of our people.
It is fitting, on the first Sunday of Advent, when we ask for God to show us hope, Scripture shows us these stories of resilience and creativity in the midst of grave danger. If we want to know how we might make it through the coming weeks, we can look to these grandmothers, as Jesus himself might have done, and remember that we can build the relationships that will save us; that we can protect those who are in danger, no matter what kind of work we do; that we have to hold the powerful accountable when they do wrong; and that the choices we make won’t just affect our families, but also our country, and, frankly, our world. The tradition that will be most important for us right now is their fierce and tenacious Hope. I pray that in the coming weeks, this hope will be born in all of us, once again.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Sermon Note: This sermon was delivered in a joint zoom worship service with Rangeley Congregational Church by Pastoral Intern Becky Walker.
In Matthew Chapter 25 there were three parables that preceded the one read this morning: The Talents, Bridesmaids, and the Unfaithful and Faithful Slaves. These all stress waiting for and preparing (or not) for the return of Christ. Jesus tells his disciples these parables so they will learn from these lessons: from the foolish bridesmaids to be wise, be watchful, be ready. And during that "meantime," don't just sit around waiting: use the gifts God has given you, like bold and enterprising stewards, so that they multiply for the sake of the reign of God. Don't just sit on what God has given you.
This gospel shares the perspective of Jesus, to embrace his vision, to see the world through the eyes of his love. This week’s parable poses the question: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” God’s conclusion and our instructions are contained in the answer: ‘Truly I tell you just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members in my family, you did it to me.’
Jesus is giving his disciples some farewell instructions in the last days of his life before giving himself up to the cross. He has been telling them to be prepared for his return, something they never will know when to expect. It is the climax of the ecclesiastical year. Jesus’ message is straightforward. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Welcome the stranger. Nurse the sick. Visit the imprisoned. See Christ and love him in those in need. These are our marching orders in good times and bad.
I interpret this gospel reading as a reminder that all of God’s children are deserving of our kindness and generosity. This loving kindness is the kind that we extend to our family and friends, but also calls us to the more difficult concept and practice of extending hospitality - even to strangers. Hospitality, which was so important in Jesus’ time and culture, is still at the heart of how we practice our faith as Christians. As difficult as it can be, Jesus calls us to welcome and care for all – because no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey Christ welcomes you. And we are called to that same practice of extravagant hospitality. Think about that as I tell you this story:
As the worshipers arrived on a late November morning at the Lutheran Church in White Lake, North Dakota, they were met by a rather disturbing sight. An apparently homeless beggar sat on the front steps of the church, wearing tattered clothing, a wool cap pulled down over his eyes, and clutching a bottle in fingerless gloves. They had never seen anything quite like this in White Lake North Dakota.
Most worshipers simply walked around the man, or stepped over him, as he sat there. Some muttered words of disapproval, and others suggested that the man move to another doorway before the Sunday School children arrived. One member told the man, in no uncertain terms, that the Salvation Army in Minot was a more appropriate place to sleep it off. At one point, a kind woman brought the man a Styrofoam cup of hot coffee, but not one person asked the man to come in out of the cold, and certainly nobody invited him in to join them in worship.
Imagine, then, the people’s surprise during the entrance hymn, when their homeless friend made his way into the pulpit, took off his cap, and the people recognized that it was their pastor! The pastor began his remarks that morning in this way: “I didn’t do this to embarrass you or to poke you in the eye. I did it to remind us that this is a person that Jesus loves, and he has called us to love him, too.” And the King answered “When you failed to help the least of people, you failed to help me.”
This teaching of Jesus is so very different from all his other teaching in the Gospel of Matthew. For in the previous chapters, Jesus is telling parables. But in this text, Jesus is looking into the future, explaining in graphic detail, what sort of judgment day awaits every one of us. It’s not a parable. It’s not a fairy tale. It is truth, coming right out of the mouth of Jesus. Some people are troubled with this story about sheep and goats because I am sure most of you thought you were a sheep. But what if you are a goat?
God does watch the way we live our lives, and the way we live matters. And Jesus plainly says that one day, each of us will stand in line as the King points the way to eternity. Some will be directed to the right, and they will spend forever in the Kingdom of God. But others will be directed to the left, and eternity, for them, will be spent in hell.
God has expectations on how we live our lives. The expectation is not to be perfect, but to be generous, kind and compassionate, and to love our fellow man. We will recognize the sheep and the goats by the way they live their lives. Sheep graciously share what they have to those in need. Goats want to keep all that they have to themselves. Sheep see others in distress and they are compassionate. Goats see others in distress and they tend to ignore them. When goats see an apparently homeless man, sitting on the steps of a church, they see a homeless man. When sheep see an apparently homeless man, sitting on the steps of a church, they see Jesus. What do you see??
I bet each of us can remember where and when we have been on the receiving end of kindness. Maybe somebody changed our flat tire, or fixed our computer problem, or made a meal when we were sick. These can be acts of the mercy that Jesus will honor on the last day, and for which we can be grateful for right now. Stay humble and grateful for the mercy shown to us, so we can extend mercy to others. Jesus thought this was important enough to talk about as his final week of life drew to a close. Because Jesus is living on the streets. Jesus is in soup kitchen lines. Jesus is waiting at the Salvation Army to get a coat. Jesus is in the hospital, or more likely, suffering and sitting, because He cannot afford to go to the hospital. Jesus is in prison. He wants us out there in the world looking to find him in the heartache and pain that surrounds us.
Julia Carney wrote these words in the mid-19th Century. They still ring true today:
“Little drops of water, little grains of sand,
make the mighty ocean and the beauteous land.
And the little moments, humble though they may be,
make the mighty ages of eternity.
Little deeds of kindness, little words of love,
make our earth an Eden, like the heaven above.”
I like to think it’s the little acts of kindness that often go unnoticed that have the best chance of transforming the world around us into the kingdom of God.
Preaching in front of the congregation he loved so much at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. told his congregation--just two months before his untimely funeral--how he would like to be remembered, and in doing so, he zeroed in on that ultimate question: If Christ is King, what does that mean? If Christ is ruler over our lives, Dr. King told them, then my Nobel Peace Prize is less important than my trying to feed the hungry. If Christ is King, then my invitations to the White House are less important than that I visited those in prison. If Christ is Lord, then my being TIME magazine's "Man of the Year" Is less important than that I tried to love extravagantly, dangerously, with all my being. (I Have a Dream, 191)
What better time to put this lesson to work? From Thanksgiving to Christmas is the traditional season of giving. Our love and little acts of kindness are needed now more than ever from within the church (even by Zoom), our communities, and our country. We all need to see Jesus in the world and respond to the needs of Jesus in the world. Remember to give all that you have, in every way you can, every day, so that Jesus’ work can be done by the church as well as by her members.
Jesus has told us where to look for him and how to find him. Let’s not keep him waiting. AMEN.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
To Whom Much is Given: Matthew 25:14-30
A couple weeks ago, a post by the musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson began making the rounds on social media. You may be acquainted with his work from his band The Roots or from the Jimmy Fallon show, where The Roots are the house band. The story he shared was accompanied by a paper napkin with the name of some bands scribbled on it and the words “Portland, Maine.” He wrote in his post, “The start of my record collection starts with this note.” The note, in blue ink that fades in some places, as pens will do with writing on fragile paper, says “Ahmir likes Jackson 5 and Neil Sadacka records.” It also says “Jackie, I am picking up a gift for Ahmir- ok.- Ellie.” Ellie wasn’t a close friend of Questlove’s family. She was simply a stranger who want to do something kind for a little boy.
Questlove’s parents were working musicians. For his family, this meant that he was often at their shows while they worked. One night, in 1976, when he was five years old, he ended up in a nightclub in Portland, Maine, with the stern instruction: “Ahmir Do NOT talk to strangers when we are onstage!!!” It turns out, though, that some kids are just extroverts and want to talk to the people around them. Quest started talking to a woman named Ellie. He doesn’t explain how they got to talking about turntables and records, but, some how they did. He said that somehow, plucky kid that he was, talked her into buying him some music! He said that he didn’t expect her to follow through at all. But, she asked him what music he liked and he gave her some examples: the Jackson 5 (because who didn’t like the Jackson 5 in 1976), a Neil Sadaka song (mostly because the logo on the record looked neat when it spun on the player), and “Dance with Me” by Rufus. She wrote everything down on the paper that was closest at hand... a bar napkin.
His parents’ gig went through the next night. So, the next night, he was there while they worked. And, the next night, Ellie showed up with a small record player and three records. Initially, his parents were so mad. You probably would be to if you told your kid not to talk to strangers and in walks a lady you don’t know carrying gifts for the kid who wasn’t even supposed to be talking to her. But, Ellie was very kind and was very much on his side. Quest said she said “please don’t have him get in trouble on my behalf!! He’s so cute, of course I wanted to start his record collection!!!” His parents relented and allowed him to keep the gifts, starting what would be the collection that has been the soundtrack and foundation to his very successful career in music. He finished his post with these words: “But on the off chance someone in Portland, Maine knows of a kind woman who, in 1976 randomly purchased a turntable & 3 records for this lil’ black kid with an afro the size of Texas, named Ellie.... I’d like to know.”
Matthew 25:14-30 is not always an easy text to interpret and it is certainly not as light-hearted as the story I just told. In fact, very little of this part of Matthew is light-hearted. This set of parables is from near the very end of Jesus’ life. It appears that he realizes that the consequence of his righteous teaching will likely be death at the hands of Rome and he is trying to prepare them for life without him. His first bit of advice in this chapter is to stay awake so you do not miss the opportunity to do what you are called to in this world. That is what we talked about last week. This week, Jesus has a lesson about what to do with the gifts you’ve been given. He’s telling his followers not to waste them.
A barrier I have to this story is that it posits that the Master, a person who owns other humans and is thought to be, at least by one of them, a harsh man, is somehow the figure that we are to identify with Jesus. Owning other people is a sin. I wish this story said that clearly. How much of human history would be more just if those words were clear in passages like this one? And, yet, despite my discomfort with this kind of relationship, it was a relationship that people in his community would have understood. When crafting parables, Jesus used imagery the people would understand. They knew the power imbalance inherent in the relationship between the slaver and the enslaved. So, he chose to use that familiarity as a tool in this story.
Jesus knew that slavers weren’t often kind or generous to the people they enslaved. So, it would have been a shock to the people to hear that this slaver entrusted his treasures to the people he kept captive. He was going somewhere and gave them no time frame in which to expect his return. He just gave them a lot of money. And, according to the scholar Susan Bond, the Greek words used here for “giving over possessions” to the enslaved isn’t just about handing things to people. It is bigger than simply possessions. It is language that can mean handing over one’s very substance and life. I mean, some of this language is used to describe how Jesus would be handed over to the authorities of the state who would eventually crucify him. We who are reading this story now should pay attention to this enormity of this gift the way the first people to hear this story would have. This is a big thing that the enslaver has done. And, he just goes away, leaving the enslaved people to do something with what he has given him.
The two to whom he was most generous make good use of their windfall, earning his praise and greater responsibility when he finally, surprisingly, returns. The message here is clear. If you have a gift and use it wisely, you will be welcomed in joy and live in abundance. But, there was one enslaved person who was afraid and hid his gift away, afraid to risk angering the enslaver if he did something wrong with. He returned to the gift, in full, to the enslaver, hoping his tactic of hiding away the money, hoarding it in fear, would keep him in the harsh man’s good graces. You probably heard from our reader that it did not. In fact, the enslaver’s response was mostly rage.
When reading this section of the parable, the scholar David Schnasa Jacobsen in his commentary on this passage, reminds us that of all the Gospels, Matthew is one that most clearly believes that there are consequences to disregarding God’s commands. Matthew believes that the threat of the consequences are a powerful force for getting people to do what they are supposed to do. The author of Matthew probably would have agreed with Questlove’s parents had they not let him keep his gifts because he disobeyed them. According to Jacobsen, Matthew wants the potential consequences in the future, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, to guide people’s actions in the present. If, because of fear, you waste the gift given to you, you will miss out on the joy that lies in the future return of the gift-giver.
Sometime we preachers tell one story to help explain another. This morning, I share Ellie’s story about what she did with some of the money and time and energy entrusted to her. She was kind to a little boy. She listened to what he was interested in. She kept a promise to him. She gave him a gift, not exactly a giant gift, but a gift that became the foundation for his life’s work. Now, with musicians for parents, Questlove would likely have ended up with his first records and record player sooner or later. But, isn’t it powerful and surprising to hear this story about a generous stranger who got him some music first? This is a story about someone who got something good and shared it and affected his life, and our lives, through it. She did not waste an opportunity. She did not hoard her gifts away. She shared them and helped bring much beauty into this world.
I hold this story alongside a second. Yesterday, about 11,000 people, a significant portion of whom are avowed white supremacists, marched on Washington, DC. The ones who weren’t openly white supremacists were happy to march alongside the ones who were. Can you think of a greater waste of the gift of protest than to use it to prop up white supremacy? Can you think of an action more rooted in fear and hoarding than standing alongside white supremacists, wasting the opportunity to work with God to bring the reign of love and justice into the world. There was so much weeping and gnashing of teeth yesterday and they don’t even know, or care to know, that there is a different world possible, one of joy and abundance, one that they are missing by squandering their gifts in fear and hate.
Jesus wanted to make sure his followers knew what do to if he wasn’t physically there with them. That’s what this parable his for: to prepare them to make choices, guided by his teaching and by the Spirit that would remain with them. For Jesus, the choice was clear: risky generosity and joyful justice were marks of the Reign of God. Fear and hoarding were the marks of the Reign of Rome. May we, the modern-day followers of Christ, waiting his return, always choose the risk of generosity over the certainty of fear.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
Scripture Reading: Matthew 25:1-13: The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids
‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
I just want to warn you all. Matthew 25 is full of such good stuff that Becky and I are gonna preach on part of it for three weeks in a row. This chapter has everything: lamps, a wedding, coins, a hole in the ground, sheep, goats. Everything. I’m preaching this week and next. Becky is preaching on the 22nd. We are all going to know so much about Matthew 25. It’s going to be great. We’re starting with my favorite of the three stories Jesus tells in this chapter: The story of the Bridesmaids Who Should Have Stayed Awake. You may have heard it called something else. But, this is how I think of it. Because the Bridesmaids problems could have been solved had they stayed awake and talked to each other.
A lot of people don’t love this parable. It certainly has a hard ending, with the bad planners getting locked out of the party when they go get more oil. People feel bad for the women who ran out of oil. Who here has ever run out of something they needed for an important project? A lot of us have. I think it’s easy for us to identify with the ones who mess up in the story because we mess up sometimes. We don’t want to think Jesus might lock us out for a mistake. Most of the time when we thing of Jesus, we remember that he welcomed a lot of people to follow him. That’s why I think people have a hard time with this part of Matthew 25. You can’t follow him if you’re locked out!
I think we make a mistake in reading this by imagining that Jesus is the groom and we are either the bridesmaids who are good at planning or bad at planning. For one thing, this groom is kind of the worst. He is really late to his own wedding. He doesn’t even seem to warn them that he’s going to be late! Who here has ever had to wait on someone for a long time? Who here had to wait on something this week? Was it fun to wait? No. It was really hard. Has anybody ever fallen asleep while you waited?
Also, nobody in this story shares anything. Jesus wanted people to share. I don’t think Jesus wants us to be people who don’t share, even if the other people we are with have messed up. Also, Jesus usually forgives people when they say that they are sorry. He gives them a chance to fix their mistakes. The groom in this story doesn’t. So, that makes me think that we’re not supposed to think that Jesus is the groom or even that Jesus is the bridesmaids who don’t share. Here’s what I think we can learn about Jesus and how to be the church from this story.
Notice that Jesus tells the disciples that the point of this story is "Stay Awake therefore for you know neither the day nor the hour." Notice, too, that everybody in this story fell asleep. All ten of the bridesmaids, the five who are called foolish and the five who are called wise, fall asleep. The five who have too much oil still get into the party even though they fell asleep. If I read this story, minus the Jesus explanation at the end, I would think he was telling people to prepare better... to store up more than you think you would need, and, don't share with the people who don't plan as well as you. That’s what gets you into the party. But, when he explains the story to the disciples, he doesn’t say, “be prepared.” He says, “Keep awake.”
Some might argue that preparedness and wakefulness are usually pretty closely linked. Usually, the people who are most prepared are the ones paying the most attention to what is going ok. In this story, Jesus makes them seem more different. And, he asks everyone to stay awake, not be prepared. Now, both sets of bridesmaids do a terribly poor job at wakefulness. Everybody falls asleep. And, since they fall asleep, they all almost miss what they are supposed to be doing: welcoming the groom with joy and celebration. Only some of them have enough saved that they can still scramble around and do what they are supposed to. But the party isn't as big as it could have been had everybody been able to do their job. I can’t help but wonder how the story would be different if they all would have done what Jesus said and stayed awake.
Had they stayed awake, maybe these two groups of women would have started talking to each other. Someone would brew some tea and offer it to someone else. Maybe one of them would suggest playing a game to pass the time. Maybe someone else would share stories about how they know the bride and groom. I don’t know if you know this but you don’t usually get to be in a wedding if you don’t know at least one of the people getting married. This is wedding between a man and a woman and maybe one of the bridesmaids knows the groom. She’s his cousin or something. She tells the other women that he is late for everything. That's why she brought extra oil. She knew he couldn't be on time. Maybe four other bridesmaids, all family of groom, nod their heads in agreement. They brought extra because they knew he’d be late, too.
If all the women are awake and talking to each other, the five bridesmaids who don’t have extra oil learn that they’ll probably need some, because the groom is late for everything. Now, having learned they’ll need more oil, the five who didn’t know the groom have time to run down to the corner store and get some before he arrives. In this version of the story, because they have stayed awake and helped each other, everyone has enough and they all get to do the thing they have gathered to do, to welcome the groom with joy and celebration. One of the most difficult things about waiting is feeling like you are doing it alone. If we tell a story about them where they do what Jesus asks, stay awake, we can tell a story about people who had the option to make the waiting easier for each other. And, who might be able to help each other actually do what they were called to do: welcome someone in joy.
When I read articles and books about this story in the Bible, several of the writers pointed out that Jesus in this story seems to be telling the people who follow him that there is going to be lots of waiting. I feel like most of what I’ve been doing for the last 8 months and definitely for the last 4 days is waiting. I think some of you feel like that, too. We may dedicate our time to worship, prayer, and service and naps and party games and probably some arguments. But, we have really spent a lot of time waiting. Waiting for a vaccine for a serious illness. Waiting for school to get back to normal. Waiting to see if the Covid numbers go up. Waiting to see if they go down. Waiting to hear how the election will turn out. It turns out that from the time of the first followers of Christ, we have been waiting.
We could spend our time preparing, storing up things to make sure that we get into the party. We could show up with just what we have and hope that we won't be locked out. The thing is, regardless of how prepared we are, we're probably going to be waiting longer than we expected. We don't know how or when the empire of heaven will arise. Even as we work to build it up with God, we do not know when it could be complete. We may grow weary as we wait. We're probably going to fall asleep. But, if we pay attention to the people around us, we may find some partners who can help us to stay awake to new encounters with the Divine. We can find friends who will elbow us if we fall asleep. Maybe today we can make a promise that I help you stay awake if you help me stay awake. Then, none of us will get locked out of the party. Does that sound like a good plan to you?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.