Rev. Heather J. Blais
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On a night long ago, a young teenage mother-to-be, and her betrothed, found themselves in Bethlehem. There were no available beds. Which is why this couple seem to find shelter in a place housing domestic animals. Luke writes, “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger…”( 2:6-7).
Now, women have been giving birth in any variety of places throughout history, so a barnyard birth is not actually that unusual. It even makes sense that the manger, better known to us as a feeding trough, was used for the newborn’s bed. Yet what I find most peculiar, is why these new parents put their child down at all? While the pregnancy was unexpected, we know from the story of the annunciation that Mary is full of joy and wonder, and is ready to serve God in this most unusual way. We know that an angel came to Joseph in a dream, and afterward, he felt called to wed Mary and raise this child together. This child is wanted, and will be loved.
Can you remember a time you held a newborn child? Their frailty and beauty, their small quiet way of slowing us down, warming our hearts, filling us with a tender peace. Their very presence humbles us, and reminds us of who we are and why we matter. They remind us that love “...bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
Which is why when our eldest son was born, it took months for us to set him down. We broke all the rules, and he spent his first few months of life sleeping on our chests. When our youngest was born prematurely, we were not allowed to hold him for the first 24 hours. Even on the second day only one of us could hold him for half an hour, and the next day, the other parent got to hold him for a bit longer, and so it went for the first few weeks of his life. It was agonizing to not have that sweet and beautiful child in our arms.
Which makes me wonder, why is this newborn, who is loved and wanted, not being snuggled in his parents’ arms? Even after the shepherds arrived a while later, Jesus was found resting in the manger--just where the angel told them he would be. It could be that there were medical issues that arose or that they needed to sleep after a long labor. Yet I can’t help but wonder if it is something more.
One very real possibility is the fear all new parents face, not knowing what to do. During those nine months of pregnancy, you can fret about every possible scenario under the sun.
What if I do something wrong?
What if they get hurt?
How will I know what to do?
What if my parenting will cause years of therapy?
Giving birth and raising a child is an exercise in faith. Is it any wonder that this is how our God chose to come and walk amongst us?
We do not get many glimpses of family life for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus--but we know they face the impossible together. They will be refugees in a foreign land. Mary and Joseph will think they’ve lost a teenage Jesus, when really he’s wandered back to the temple to teach. Jesus will abandon a normal life as a carpenter’s son to engage in a public ministry of transformative love and reconciliation. A ministry that will so upset the establishment that it will cause him his life. There was plenty for these young parents to worry about.
Yet they also may have refrained from holding him out of reverence. After all, somehow, this infant is God made flesh. They do not know how, but they know somehow God is really present in this child. Just as we do not know how, but we know that Christ is somehow really present in the bread and wine we consume in the eucharist. God has given us a tangible form of love. Both in this child’s body and in the way Christ’s love is poured out for us into the bread and wine, and into each of us again, and again, and again. Love made manifest.
By putting their newborn child in the manger, Mary and Joseph are signaling to the rest of us that something momentus has begun in this child’s very arrival. They are signaling to the animals resting nearby, to the shepherds who will visit, to the wise men who will journey from afar to see them, to the poor, hungry, homeless, and hurting that Jesus tended to in his ministry, and to all of us here today, that this child is a child for all of creation. This child before all of us is Love in human form. Love made manifest.
We may never know why Mary and Joseph lay their newborn in the trough. Maybe it was the fear of new parents, maybe it was reverence, I think most likely it was both. What do you think was happening at that moment?
This Christmas, I invite you to find a quiet moment and remember that love came down at Christmas in the form of a newborn child. What might it be like to hold such love in your arms? How is the love of God made manifest in your life this day and every day? Amen.
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This morning we hear Joseph’s story.
He appears in the readings of our Sunday lectionary just this one Sunday, every three years, and then if the calendar gives us a Second Sunday after Christmas and we are not celebrating the Epiphany, the other piece of his story is one of three gospel readings we can choose from. We just don’t spend a lot of time with Jospeh.
In much of our remembering of the Christmas story, Joseph is a collateral figure. His ancestry is the reason for the trip to Bethlehem, but otherwise he stands to the side, silent and stalwart. In my own creche scene, I confess that I always have him standing in the back corner as Mary leans prayerfully toward the holy infant in the manger.
In the gospels Joseph then disappears after the Nativity and infancy narratives, apart from the occasional reference to Jesus being “the carpenter’s son”.
What we learn of Joseph this morning is well worth our attention, however, so let’s pause and consider.
Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous man”. As our story opens, he is presented with a pretty devastating dilemma. The young woman to whom he is engaged, Mary, has come up pregnant. Matthew tells us that Joseph and Mary have not yet lived together, so the pregnancy is apparently the result of Mary’s having been with another man.
What a shock. What a hurt. What a humiliation.
In Joseph’s world, betrothal is a legally-binding status that could only end in death or divorce: Joseph and Mary as good as married. Mary, has apparently, in effect, committed adultery.
The Law of Israel is clear: the Torah prescribes in Deuteronomy (Deut 22:23-4) that a betrothed virgin and the man who has lain with her are to be stoned, at the city gates.
By Joseph’s time, however, the rabbis had decreed that the Deuteronomy teaching was not to be followed literally. Appropriate application of the Law, if a betrothal relationship was violated, was to make public the incident with the result that, like poor Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, the betrayers were socially ostracized.
Accepted wisdom, even religious responsibility, let alone a wounded heart and ego dictated that Joseph publicly cast Mary aside.
The moment was, indeed, a test of Joseph’s righteousness.
Many Orthodox Christian icons of the Nativity portray Joseph as standing to the side of a central image of Mary and the infant Jesus, and he is often accompanied by a figure representing Satan. The episode we have heard this morning was, for Joseph, clearly a moment of temptation.
But Joseph, the “righteous man”, opts not to publicize Mary’s apparent betrayal, but instead, plans to divorce her quietly.
Joseph passed the test, and it’s now that the story gets interesting!
An angel appears to Joseph in a dream, offering that frequent and favorite biblical admonition “do not be afraid”. From the angel in the dream Joseph learns that the child conceived is by Holy Spirit, that Mary will bear a son, that Joseph is to name him Jesus, and that child to be born will save his people.
Probably the most extraordinary part of this story, from my perspective, is how seriously Joseph takes the vision in the dream. Joseph, amazingly, accepts the vision from the dream as truth, and proceeds as he has been told.
Joseph is a man facing a challenge - committed to living by the law, faced with disturbing information, trying to find his way through painful situation, moved by compassion of own heart, and then after all of that, he is called to engage with a completely outrageous idea.
Joseph is challenged by MYSTERY, which is so often the way we encounter God: he is called, as is Mary, to partner with God in an unfolding event that he does not understand or control.
He could have said “thanks but no thanks”.
He could have dismissed angelic vision.
Joseph certainly could have taken the safe path, and stayed in his comfort zone.
Joseph didn’t take any of the easy ways. I think I need to move him forward in my creche scene.
It IS most comfortable for us to encounter God in small, manageable doses – we like revelations of God that we can safely and easily integrate with life as we know it.
But it sometimes happens – as it happened to Joseph and to Mary – that God is doing something that requires radical trust and courage.
Let it be our prayer
- to be ready for whatever summons comes our way.
- to have our ears open to whatever whispering voice calls us to an unfamiliar path.
- to be righteous, like Joseph, and to be brave enough to help God be born into a suffering world.
I want to end with some words from a song that I always think of at this time of year as we hear the annunciation stories. They’re from a song written by a seminary classmate of mine who did not pursue the path of ordained ministry, but instead writes and performs music on the folk circuit. If you perchance follow the coffeehouse scene, you may know him – Bob Franke.
The song is titled “Say Yes”.
When the angel arrives there will be terror,
The sound of wings like the breaking of a mirror….
It will arrive when you’re little and you’re scared,
It will lay claim to the things you’ve never shared,
Though your heart and your soul are unprepared, say yes.
It may tear you from home and family,…
It may demand you become a refugee…
And when you’re cold and you’re hungry and you’re poor,
When you’re in pain, in a room without a door,
And when the angel returns and asks for more, say yes.
When the legions of angels call you blessed…
And were you faithful in each and every test…
And when they ask you in story and in song
Were you upheld and protected all along?
And did the power of the Spirit make you strong?
By Rev. Heather J. Blais
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Each year during the season of Advent, we spend time with John the Baptist. John is a well known prophet, who served as a messenger for God. His message was urgent, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. He tried to help people understand that the Kingdom of God would be arriving at any moment.
Now John was an odd sort of fellow. He was the son of a priest, a position of prominence, and yet he was clearly an outsider and nonconformist. He dressed unusually, in clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. His diet was a bit otherworldly. Had John been a guest at your Thanksgiving meal, he would have brought some locusts and wild honey. Yet of all the bizarre things we come to know and appreciate about John the Baptist, what I found most compelling this year, was the location of his ministry setting.
John the Baptist began his ministry in a strange place--in the wilderness of Judea. One scholar describes this wilderness as “...the barren eastern slopes of the Judean mountains that face the Dead Sea and lower Jordan valley” (Coogan 1750). John chose to begin planting seeds of hope in a place that, for all intents and purposes, refused to grow anything at all. What does it mean to start a movement in a place that seems so physically hopeless? It might have made more sense for John to gather in some local watering hole or in a room near the temple. Instead, he began his work in a land that was barren.
This region was not unlike the granite fields in downeast Maine or the rolling limestone hills of the Burren in Ireland. The land was simply too poor to produce much, if any, vegetation. The wilderness of a barren landscape is not a dense forest where one gets turned around on their walk. Rather, the wilderness is the lonesome landscape where Abraham’s rejected son, Ishamel, grew up.The wilderness is where the Israelites faced trial and deprivation for forty years. The wilderness is where Jesus would be tempted before he began his public ministry. In today’s world, where we breed consumerism and fund it with workaholics, three million people each year remove themselves from society so they can walk a portion of the Appalachian Trail.
Whether we take ourselves to a barren wilderness on purpose, or whether we find ourselves there much to our surprise, the wilderness can be a terrifying place. There is so much that is unknown, so much that is beyond our control. Yet the most fear inducing factor of all, is that we do not journey through the wilderness without changing. Any time we are present in the wilderness, we will face transitions and changes, beginnings and endings. We will begin the journey as one version of ourselves and come out another.
In choosing to engage in the wilderness, we are choosing to release the fears we have been clinging. And sometimes, it is in releasing our fear that we find our faith. We find the strength, the will, and the desire to be something more. We find the transformative love and hope that grows in that barren wilderness.
For even in the granite fields of downeast Maine, wild blueberries have found life. Even in the limestone hills of the Burren, twenty-five species of orchids grow. Even in the pain of rejection, Ishmael founded a people that would lead to the birth of a beautiful religion, Islam. Even after years spent wandering, the Israelites finally discovered they really and truly were beloved by God. Having faced temptation in the wilderness, Jesus was able to start his ministry with a clear sense of identity and purpose. And for every person who steps foot on the Appalachian Trail, they leave with a slightly different understanding of who they are and why their life matters. We see it again and again in the stories coming out of the Appalachian Trail ministry, run by another church in our diocese over in Sheffield. People of all ages are taking to the trail so they can get lost in the woods and find themselves.
The reason the location of John the Baptist ministry matters so much, is because it is a reminder that God always begins the work of transformative love and reconciliation on the outside, with those who feel out of place, lost, forgotten, uncertain, and unworthy. Neither John the Baptist or Jesus of Nazareth begin with the people who seem to have their lives together. They begin with the ones who already know they are broken. The ones who are hurting, aching, and ready to engage in the work of a lifetime. To walk in love, and as we make this journey together, to be made whole, not overnight, but rather over the course of our lives by the transformative love and grace of God.
Let’s be honest--we are all a little bit broken. It may not look like it on the outside, but we all have wounded places within the deep well of our souls. And John the Baptist, is standing in the barren landscape of the wilderness of Judea in his clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, inviting us to recognize the ways we are broken, the ways we have missed the mark, and to turn our attention towards the kingdom of God. Where we are all invited to walk in love.
This Advent, where do you feel barren? Where do you feel lost in the wilderness? What will be different about you after this season of transition and change? Amen.
What an interesting Gospel reading for today, the first Sunday in Advent. We’ve roasted our turkeys, we’ve listened to Christmas carols in the stores for a couple of months now, we lit the first of the Advent candles this morning. We just sang about the spirit of the watchers. So now we watch and wait for the birth of Jesus. That’s what Advent is all about. Isn’t it?
Advent is a season of the Church calendar that marks a three- to four-week period before Christmas. It is the beginning of the new year in the Western Church calendar. The word “advent” comes from the Latin word adventus meaning “presence” or “arrival.”
The world has become darker (especially when we moved our clocks back a few weeks ago), and Advent looks toward the coming light. I suspect it’s no accident that we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the “Light of the World,” just after the winter solstice when the light
begins its increase, when (as my dad loved to quote from poetry) each day lingers a little longer the western sun.
Today’s collect begins asking God to “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.” So we await for Christ to come among us.
But if we look to the lectionary for this Sunday or the next two Sundays for any hint of Bethlehem or wise men or miraculous births, we’ll be a bit disappointed. Of course if we look to either the first or last Gospel written, Mark or John, we won’t find any story at all about the birth of Jesus. Those birth stories we have, in Matthew and Luke, were created a couple of decades after Mark’s Gospel came along, and the two offer quite different, if not conflicting, accounts about what might have happened.
For example, the Gospel that we’re reading for these four Advent Sundays, Matthew, begins with a genealogy to show Jesus’ heritage from Abraham to David down to Joseph, the husband of Mary, and then tells of Jesus’ miraculous conception and birth without any reference to a journey to Bethlehem, just that after Jesus was born there, the Magi came to “the house” after their fateful visit to Herod in Jerusalem. Matthew makes no reference to a stable, manger, shepherds or donkeys.
Luke on the other hand provides no genealogy and instead focuses heavily not on Jesus but on John the Baptist as a foil to Jesus. The author goes to considerable length to explain the background and circumstances around John's birth before ever coming to the subject of Jesus. Mary is much more central to the story there than in Matthew with her visit to Elizabeth and her Magnificat. There’s a heavy focus on the naming of John before we’re ever told of Jesus’ birth.
Back in Matthew, I think the emphasis there on Jesus’ ancestry reflects the author’s desire to show Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel's story. He highlights Jesus as the new David with his birthplace in Bethlehem and his links as a direct descendent through Joseph. Joseph hears from angels about Old Testament prophecies that are shown to be fulfilled in Jesus. The whole Matthew account is littered with references to the Old Testament, again highlighting Jesus’ Jewish roots. Finally, the Magi's role shows the importance of Jesus and his prominence as “King of the Jews.”
So why does the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent focus on Christ’s second coming? A second coming that we cannot anticipate the where or when of. As I read the lines about not knowing when Something’s Coming, I couldn’t get Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics out of my head from West Side Story:
There’s something’ due any day;
I will know right away
Soon as it shows
It may come cannonballin’
Down through the sky
Gleam in its eye
Bright as a rose!
So here on first day of the church’s new year, just when it feels there should be a little Good News about the coming of hope and peace and life this Advent, our friend Matthew strongly suggests that we are at risk. He says “…until the day Noah entered the ark, Noah’s neighbors knew nothing… until the flood came and swept them all away. So too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
For a post-9/11 world, his is a difficult passage for 21st century Americans. How can we make sense of it? How can we find good news in the prediction that “one will be taken and one will be left” when the Son of Man comes? How can we, who live in a culture of fear and regularly updated threat levels, hear Jesus’ words except through our fear?
You’ve probably heard of a series of books called Left Behind, where a “rapture” occurs. In this so-called “rapture,” Christians are suddenly taken away from the earth leaving their clothes behind. Both in Chapel Hill on the UNC campus and at Wesleyan down in
Connecticut, I’ve come across stagings of clothing “left behind.” They were probably placed there by some group of students making fun of the whole idea of the “Rapture” and “left behind,” a movement that sprang up in 1833 from an unusual Bible translation by John Nelson Darby. Most Christian churches don’t subscribe to rapture-oriented theological views, of course, but it’s out there.
Matthew does have a rather end-time – or apocalyptic – orientation, dividing history into a present, evil age and a new age (or Realm of Heaven). The older age seems to be all about Satan and demons, about idolatry, sin, injustice, exploitation, violence, and death. The new age will be characterized by the complete rule of God and angels, by authentic worship, forgiveness, mutual support, health, and eternal life.
I think most of us tend to take this apocalyptic language as figurative and as tied to a first-century world view (when most of the population was illiterate) that doesn’t make much sense to us today. Nearly 2,000 years have passed without the Apocalypse, and we don’t anticipate some singular event that will instantly transform the world.
In the season of Advent we anticipate the arrival of the Messiah on two levels. First, we seek to place ourselves in the historical shoes of Israel as they waited for centuries for the arrival of the Messiah. When we sing songs like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with its lyrics about “ransoming captive Israel” who “mourns in lonely exile here” we are remembering our forebears as they awaited the arrival of God’s Anointed.
On the second level, we’re told to anticipate Christ’s Second Coming, what the New Testament writers like Matthew and Paul refer to as His parousia [pa-ra-see-ya or pare-rau-zi-a]; His “arrival.” That word, parousia, is actually the Greek word that gets translated to Adventus in Latin. So it’s the original word for Advent.
A problem with this Gospel lesson is that it calls for readiness without telling us how to get ready. What must we do? In the next chapter of Matthew, Jesus gives two answers. First, the Parable of the Talents tells us to use our God-given resources for God’s benefit. Second, Jesus says that feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner are activities that will be credited to us as if we had done them for Christ.
This two-fold emphasis is consistent with Jesus’ answer to the lawyer who asked Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” You remember Jesus gave a two-fold answer:
He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. A second likewise is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.
So my takeaway from today’s lesson is that we can prepare for Christ’s coming by (first) loving and serving God and (second) by loving and serving our neighbor.
I think the message is that simple and that universal.
So Happy New Year.
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