Benediction Online

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Living a Significant Life

Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph tends to disappear into the background of the Christmas story. We hear a lot about Mary, but little about the man who accepted Jesus as his son and brought him up. It must have been a very unpleasant shock to learn that Mary was pregnant. It’s not easy today to discover that your fiancé is carrying someone else’s child. Back then it would have been even harder. You simply did not marry a woman who was not a virgin.

Joseph was a good Jewish man. It was not simply a matter of personal scruples but of the law. Under the law, women found to have engaged in premarital intercourse could be executed. For him to expose Mary would have been to disgrace her to the point where she could have lost her life, but to allow it to seem that the child was his was to expose both of them to disgrace. He wanted to do the right thing by her and so Joseph decided to break off the engagement quietly.

But then he had the dream.

The dream that change the course of his life forever. An angel told him not to be afraid because the child was the Holy Spirit’s. And Joseph believed it. That took some faith.

Believing it in the dream took faith, but to wake up and to act on it took even greater faith. He exposed himself to ridicule and to a loss of face which was as devastating in that culture as bankruptcy can be in this. All because God spoke to him through a dream.

How does God speak to you? Does she come to you through your dreams? Or do you hear his quiet promptings in times of meditation or prayer? Or do God’s insights come to you through reading or through other people? Or are you aware of the presence of Spirit as we gather together in worship at the Eucharist?

The United Church of Christ recently had a publicity campaign with the slogan, “God is Still Speaking”. God is still speaking. And God wants to be speaking to you. But she is always courteous and does not push her way in where she’s not wanted. Do you want to hear God’s voice?

I wonder what would have happened if Joseph had woken up and decided that that was just a dream and that he had better get up and see to quietly breaking off his betrothal with Mary. I wonder if God would have sent him an angel in broad daylight or whether God would have stepped quietly back to allow Joseph to do what he wanted. Freewill is an amazing privilege – God never forces us to do anything. If Joseph had refused to marry Mary we would have a very different Christmas story, but the Messiah would still have been born, God would still have incarnated. Our God can always bring resurrection but when we get on board with God’s Plan A things generally work out better for everyone concerned.

There is a basic tension between what our little ego selves want to do and what the Spirit of God wants us to do. The little ego imagines what’s good for number one and it imagines that there isn’t enough to go round. So it’s always trying to prove how important we are. I imagine that Joseph’s little ego wanted to tell Mary what he thought of her for getting herself into this situation and bringing dishonor on the family. I imagine that he wanted to put as much distance between himself and this situation as possible and tell all his friends that she had deceived him. I imagine that his little ego was looking for all the ways he could blame this situation on someone else – Mary , God, the angel, the Romans, anyone.

As it was, Joseph was a man of faith who was willing to be obedient to the call of Spirit. Instead of listening to the panicking, angry voice of his little ego, he listened to Spirit. According to Matthew’s story, Joseph protected the child from Herod and found them all a home in Nazareth but we hear nothing else about him. Later in Chapter 13 we hear Jesus described as a carpenter or the son of a carpenter, depending on the translation so we can assume that that was Joseph’s trade. But there’s nothing else.

Nothing except that he had the faith to follow the Spirit and accept Mary as his wife, even when his little ego was screaming don’t have anything to do with her. Nothing except that he protected the child Jesus so that he could grow into the God-man whose ministry was vital for the unfolding of Gods plan.

I often talk to people who are disappointed with their lives. One of the exciting things about living in this country at this time is that we have so many opportunities. People aspire to great things. And so, at the end of their lives, many people are disappointed that they did not complete everything they wished. They may have a raised a happy family but they can’t see that because they didn’t get a college degree. They may have surmounted enormous difficulties to become a healthy, happy person but they look back and remember that they didn’t get a job in the State Department. Like George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life they feel insignificant, as though their lives have meant nothing.

Joseph seems insignificant, but how might our Christmas story be different if he had made different choices.

What can be more important than having the faith to follow Spirit and the courage to protect the spiritual life, the Christ life, growing inside us so that it can grow and flourish and become a blessing to the world?

When we, like Joseph, are willing to take the risk to follow the Spirit of God rather than our ego-based desires and demands, our lives are never insignificant. It’s not too late to have a significant life.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Big Picture

Isaiah 35:1-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11
Canticle 15

As most of you know, I don’t get to pick the readings we have each week and neither do any of the other clergy. We have a three year cycle which is set by the church, and which we share with most other mainline protestant churches and to a large extent with the Roman Catholic Church. Which means that all over the world people are hearing the same readings today. It also means that sometimes they aren’t quite what you would expect. Because this year we are hearing from the Gospel of Matthew we don’t have the familiar advent stories. We don’t hear about Zechariah being struck dumb, or the angel Gabriel coming to Mary, or about Mary going to stay with her cousin Elizabeth.

Instead of hearing stories about humans this Advent we hear about what God is doing. Today’s readings have a theme of astonishing hope and joy:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,

and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

then the lame shall leap like a deer,

and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

We hear it first from Isaiah, then it’s picked up in the Magnificat, Mary’s hymn of praise and finally Jesus claims it as his own in the gospel reading.

Our lives are dominated by the activities of humans. We are each part of a web of human relationships of family, church and community. We are also part of a national and international community which is brought to us minute by minute on radio, television and internet. We see the human story all the time. The trick to being people of faith is being able to change the perspective and to see what God is doing.

John the Baptist, imprisoned for criticizing Herod, wanted to know what God was doing. Was Jesus the one he had been prophesying about or not?

Sometimes it’s easy for us to see what God is doing. Sometimes our lives seem to be full of signs of hope and we awake each morning with joy. At other times we are like John stuck in prisons of pain or discomfort, of loneliness and loss. Then it’s more difficult to see God’s hand.

It’s easy to get caught up in the political issues and the economic problems which fill our airwaves. It’s easy to despair about ever getting a job, to fear that social security will go bankrupt, or that the sewer will cost more than we can afford. These are real concerns, just as our own personal issues are real, but they’re only one way of looking at the picture.

As the Body of Christ one of our most important ministries in the world is to hold the other perspective. God is working. God is drawing all beings to God’s self. God’s extravagant and unconditional love is available to all.

Strengthen the weak hands,

and make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

"Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your God.

He will come with vengeance,

with terrible recompense.

He will come and save you."

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,

and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

then the lame shall leap like a deer,

and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

Whatever the situation we can be sure that God is present and that, if invited, God will come in a new way and bring healing and new life.

People create ways of thinking and looking at things which limit our perceptions. We can’t think about things differently because we see them in a particular way. For those on the political left it’s fairly easy to see that tea partiers have a perception which is limited by their framework. It’s perhaps less easy to see that liberals also have perceptions which are limited by their framework.

Advent calls us to look outside the box. Advent calls us to see afresh that God is working in our world, that God is bringing new hope, and to be part of that. Whenever we succumb to seeing the world just as a human drama then we reduce the hope that’s available. Whenever we see not just the drama but God working in and through and beneath and above it, then our bifocal vision helps to bring new hope. By cultivating inner serenity, hope and joy based on our sure knowledge that God is working we can be a force for positive change in our world.

I have pondered all week the image that Donna left us with in her sermon last week. A field of alfalfa stalks burned leaving just black stubble, but in the blackness, shoots of green already visible along the irrigation channels. We are the irrigation channels for our world.

It may seem that our holding a vision of God’s salvation will make no impact on the problems which beset the planet, but we can be a beacon of light shining in the darkness. We can be the stream of living water which brings green even in the blackest of burned fields.

Even when the human drama leads us to despair, God is still working God’s purpose out. Our job is to ask how we can participate in God’s work and to cultivate serene, hopeful and joyful hearts. I’m going to close by asking Tica to sing us the first two verses of Hymn 534 which reminds us that the message of Advent is that God is coming, and God’s work will be done.