Sermon: Sunday, December 18, 2016: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Texts: Isaiah 7:10-16  +  Psalm 80:1-7,17-19  +  Romans 1:1-7  +  Matthew 1:18-25

I’m trying to imagine what Mary might have felt, her fate in Joseph’s hands, as he discovered that she was with child — though not by him. To hear the story that the gospel of Matthew is telling I have to forget what I know of Mary from the gospel of Luke. There is no annunciation, no brave response, no conversation between the mothers of Jesus and John. Instead, Matthew’s tale focuses on Joseph’s role in saving the life of Mary, which saves the life of Jesus, which saves the life of the world.

Mary was trapped. By law, she could be tried publicly and executed by stoning for becoming pregnant while engaged to another man (Deut. 22:23-27). Matthew doesn’t narrate the process by which her pregnancy becomes known to Joseph. It says, “she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” (Mt. 1:18c) How was she found this way? Did she share this secret news with Joseph himself? Or with her mother? Was there a quiet conference, at which Mary’s father pleaded with Joseph to spare her life? Did she have siblings? Were there younger sisters eavesdropping on panicky whispered conversations, absorbing the reality of this moment, learning that their bodies were not their own?

I don’t know if it’s an apt analogy or not. Maybe it’s just that the horror of Aleppo demands to be named, but when I try to imagine what Mary might have been thinking or feeling as she waited to discover how Joseph would respond to news of her pregnancy, as she envisioned her neighbors gathering at the town gate to hurl stones at her until she fell dead, my mind keeps going to the videos being posted by citizens of Aleppo, hiding in place, waiting for government forces to find them and kill them. Lina Shamy looks to be no more than 16 as she records herself saying, “this may be my last video.” Fatemah tweets, “Final message — people are dying since last night. I am very surprised I am tweeting right now & still alive.” Monther Etaky’s eyes droop and his voice flattens into a monotone as he reports that “there’s a lot of families, women and children living here, afraid about what will be if all the city captured.” A man identified only by his Twitter handle (Mr_Alhamdo) posts video that sounds like the obituary for a movement: “Exactly yesterday there were many celebrations on the other part of Aleppo. They were celebrating on our bodies. It’s ok, this is life. At least we know that — we were a free people. We wanted freedom. We didn’t want anything else but freedom. You know, this world doesn’t like freedom.”

If the Mary whose voice I learned from the gospel of Luke could be heard today, I imagine she would sound like that. Like the voices of young women and men, heartbroken by state-sanctioned violence, crying out for freedom. If I could speak to them right now, if I could send a messenger from the LORD, I would want them to hear what angels said to Mary and Joseph, “be not afraid!” But how can we command courage in the moment of annihilation?

Instead, in Matthew, we get the story of Joseph. In this telling the angel speaks to Joseph, calling him by name, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid…” (Mt. 1:20)

“Son of David” is not a common title, it’s not a fancy synonym for “Israelite.” The angel is reminding Joseph of his lineage, a lineage that has just been recounted as the opening to Matthew’s gospel which begins, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (1:1) The word we translate as “genealogy” in Greek is “genesis,” it means “the birth,” “the nativity,” “the origin.” Of course, we hear the word “genesis” and we think of the first book of the Bible, the story of creation, how something came to be where before there was nothing.

Matthew’s genealogy offers us a hint at how this happens, how something comes into existence where nothing had previously been. First he calls Jesus “son of David, son of Abraham.” Then he calls Joseph, “son of David” — but only after making it clear to us, the readers, that Jesus is not Joseph’s son. Which makes the entire genealogy suspect. Who else may have cheated their way into David’s royal lineage?

If we read closely, we begin to notice that far from being an argument for patriarchy, Matthew’s genealogy is unveiling the interruptions in power that led to Jesus’s birth. First there was Tamar, the mother of Perez and Zerah, by Judah. Tamar’s life was also nearly ended by a pregnancy outside of marriage, but by her own tenacious wit she secured a place for herself in the house of Judah.

Then there was Rahab, a Caananite prostitute who makes her way into the lineage by showing faith in the God of Israel and helping deliver the city of Jericho into Joshua’s hands. Her story is seen as a rationalization for how the law of Moses (the same law that condemned Mary to death) could be bent, since Deuteronomic law forbids intermarriage between Israelites and Canaanites, but there it is: intermarriage in the lineage that led to David, and then to Jesus.

Rahab’s own son, Boaz, fathered Obed by Ruth — yet another outsider, a Moabite. You may remember her story: faithful to her mother-in-law, Naomi, Ruth follows her back to her homeland after the death of their husbands, endures poverty, and ultimately secures for them all a future by marrying Boaz. Their grandson is Jesse, the father of King David.

David has many wives, but it is through his union with Bathsheba, whom he took from Uriah the Hittite, that Solomon is born. From there Matthew reports, “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.” (Mt. 1:17)

Therefore, when the angel greets Joseph, “son of David” — it is as if God’s messenger is reminding him, “You, who hold the life of this woman in your hands; you are descended from not only from kings and rulers of men, but from women and survivors of oppression. Your foremothers resisted the stories told about them and found ways to survive in the face of neglect, exploitation, poverty, and lust. Now you, Joseph, now you hold the fate of this woman in your hands and the life of her unborn child.”

I’ll admit that part of the reason I love Luke’s gospel is because in the song of Mary we hear the song of the oppressed crying out for freedom, like the voices of the Syrian rebels crying “freedom” as death marches ever closer. I like to hear my song in her Magnificat, my liberation in her rallying cry.

But to the Syrians, and so many others, we are more like Joseph — living in a moment of a critical decision: will we remember that we, too, are the products of so many forgotten moments of resistance? Will we shed our fear, our xenophobia and our apathy to come to the aid of those sentenced to death? Or will we choose to remember our history as one of national privilege, ethnocentrism, and impermeable borders?

There is a saying in the Talmud, the record of rabbinic ethical reflection on Jewish law, that says, “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

“When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took [Mary] as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus” (Mt. 1:24-25) — which means “God saves.” A choice, to spare and not to condemn, by which we Christians say the whole world was saved, and a new world began. A new family in which power is not allotted on the basis of gender. A new genesis, a new lineage in which race and nation no longer define us.

You know what time it is. Now is the moment to wake from sleep. Tell me, dreamers, who will you claim as members of your family? How will our witness as the body of Christ, the products of a gloriously mixed lineage, interrupt the stories told by those in power? How will we unveil the truth that we all belong to each other? What worlds will be saved by the lives you spare?

Do not be afraid.


Sermon: Sunday, December 21, 2014: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Texts:  2 Samuel 7:1-11,16  +  Luke 1:46b-55  +  Romans 16:25-27  +  Luke 1:26-38

Hostages pressed against a window in Sydney, Australia during a standoff between a gunman and police.

Hostages pressed against a window in Sydney, Australia during a standoff between a gunman and police.

A young adult friend of mine told me that she’s spending the month of January in Sydney, Australia with classmates from her college. Normally this would have been unequivocally exciting news for both of us, but I noticed that my first response wasn’t joy. It was anxiety. In the week since we last gathered here for worship we have seen the faces of everyday people pressed up against the glass of a downtown cafe where they were held hostage by a lone gunman with a long history of violence against both intimate partners and strangers.

At least 141 people, including 132 children, have been killed in an attack by Pakistani Taliban fighters (TTP) on a military-run school in Peshawar in Pakistan's northwest.

At least 141 people, including 132 children, have been killed in an attack by Pakistani Taliban fighters (TTP) on a military-run school in Peshawar in Pakistan’s northwest.

No sooner had that crisis come to a brutal ending, than we learned of an attack on a school full of Pakistani children that left 145 people dead. I remember listening to the news coverage of this event while driving home from work in my car, wondering why anyone would target innocent school children. What political motivation could there possibly be for the wholesale slaughter of unarmed civilians? Then I heard the Taliban’s spokesperson say, “we targeted the school because the Army targets our families. We want them to feel our pain.”

That immediately took me back to the terrorist strikes against the United States on September 11, 2001. Our shock at watching the Twin Towers fall, and with them any sense that we are removed from the politics of our nation. We live in a time when terror rains down from the sky and violence is the preferred solution to conflict. No side can claim the moral high ground when it comes to the taking of innocent lives, whatever those are. The line between innocent and implicated has been blurred past the point of recognition. If the message of those we call terrorists says anything, it seems to say that those who benefit from the arrangement of power and wealth enforced by state-sanctioned violence will not be protected from the wrath of those who are trying to rearrange the balance of power by any means necessary.

It is no easy thing to make sense of Mary’s song in times like these. “[The Mighty One] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” Who is she talking about? Who are the powerful? Where are their thrones?

More importantly, where did Mary find the courage to sing her song? What ever would have led a pregnant, unwed young woman to believe that the life being born in her, a life that would be born into oppression and occupation, could change the balance of power in the world?

IMG_0169Do you know who Mary reminds me of? Can you think of a more inspiring young woman than Malala Yousafzai? She wasn’t even a teenager when she began blogging for the BBC on the plight of girls seeking an education in Pakistan. She was only 15 when she was shot three times, once in the head, for her activism. Yet she remained unbroken. She said, “I don’t want to be remembered as the girl who was shot. I want to be remembered as the girl who stood up” and “the terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.”

Malala didn’t come into the world an activist. She was raised and nurtured in a family of politically engaged people. Her family owns a number of schools and her father has been an educational activist. He remembers that from an early age, Malala stayed up late into the night listening to him talk politics and joining in.

Likewise, Mary draws on centuries of Hebrew prophetic rhetoric. Her song, the Magnificat, which we sing this time of year with great relish is a magnification of the song of Hannah, who dedicated her child Samuel to the Lord with these words,

My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. 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; [God] raises up the poor from the dust; [God] lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes in seats of honor. (1 Sam. 2:1,5,7,8)

These young women are exceptional, but they aren’t unique. They are extraordinary, but they are not inaccessible. They are signs of what happens when we allow the spirit of God to be born in us, when we say “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) Or, in Malala’s words, “Some people only ask others to do something. I believe that, why should I wait for someone else? Why don’t I take a step and move forward?”

One more Malala quote before I lose my voice or get lost in a fit of coughing. She has said, “If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.”

This is the true reversal, the real upheaval. If we allow ourselves to get lost in the question of who is the mighty on their throne, we will stay trapped in justifications for violence. Nations will legitimate their use of drones and terrorists their use of suicide bombers. But, if we focus on unseating violence itself then we are truly getting to the heart of the matter. We stop playing musical chairs, replacing one violent power with another, and we begin building the world from the bottom up, from the vantage point of the lowly, through the eyes of the unarmed Black teenager, the Pakistani school girl, the hungry day laborer. We begin building a world where the good things of God — food, shelter, family, love, education, community, justice and peace — are shared among us all.

Mary and Malala, extraordinary prophets of hope flinging their fragile bodies forward into a world weary of war. Surely they are not alone. Surely God is being born in us as well.