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?
The Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
We’re in a season when we can literally see God’s abundance. The gardens are still madly casing forth tomatoes and squash, but the leaves are turning to bright red and gold. It’s also a season when, in church, we turn out attention to reflecting on stewardship, as you can see from the piece at the beginning of your bulletin this morning, what it means for us to be the stewards of God’s abundant blessings, and to reflect on the ways in which we choose to share our resources.
So how timely it is that our lectionary directs our attention to Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Poor Lazarus.
It’s a fantastical story – much more a fantasy that most of Jesus’ other parables. It challenges us to think about the perils of wealth.
The story concerns a rich man – who , in the parable, has no name – and a poor man who loiters at his gate, Lazarus.
We’re supposed to notice - contrast in their life circumstances:
Eventually, as is the case for all of us when our time comes - both die.
He looks for solace, requesting drop of water, but is informed by Abraham that it is too late – he had his chance - “a chasm has been fixed” that prevents deliverance from his torment.
The story ends on pessimistic note. Even rich man’s hope that his family can learn from his fate will do no good: “if they did not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced” by a messenger from the afterlife.
Jesus’ parable not a cautionary tale about what we need to do to qualify for entrance to heaven – we can put that one aside.
The parable is about our relationships here and now.
Two weeks ago we heard pair of parables of “the lost” whom G wants to restore to relationship – the lost sheep, the lost coin.
The rich man doesn’t know it, but he is lost.
He’s lost not because he is rich, not even primarily because he shows no compassion for Lazarus, suffering at his gate, (though both are true).
The rich man is lost because his wealth prevents him from even seeing Lazarus as a person worthy of his concern, as another child of God. Even from Hades, he sees Lazarus as a servant to attend to his needs.
The “fixed chasm” that separates rich man and Lazarus after death is a chasm that was established in life. Maybe the rich man’s eternal torment is his isolation, his inability to see, to feel for, to respond to the Lazarus’ needs with compassion, because he has been insulated by his wealth.
Wealth and the privilege it provides DO serve to protect us from encounter with the suffering of others;
Likewise, and maybe more importantly, material and social privilege prevent us from knowing our need of God, prevent us from recognizing our need to trust in G, because they provide the illusion that we are in control, and that because of our wealth and our privilege, we are entitled to have things the way we want them.
Conversely, our own pain is often what brings us to know our need for God, and becomes a doorway to learning to truly trust in God’s presence and care. Exposure to others’ suffering, when we can allow ourselves to really encounter it, is so often what transforms us, what shapes in us a response of care and compassion. If we are fortunate, transformation in our consciousness leads to transformation in our behavior.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus bears a striking resemblance to a story from one of the other great faith traditions of the world. The foundational story from the tradition of Buddhism goes this way:
Siddhartha Gautama, the “enlightened one” was born a prince of high caste in Hindu family and sheltered from seeing sufferings of the world. One day drove out from palace to meet his subjects. Saw an old man, a diseased man, a decaying corpse. Questioned his driver, who explained the inevitability of aging, disease, & death.
Despite having been offered throne of the kingdom, Siddhartha set out on life of asceticism – self-denial - in search of truth.
Buddhist tradition teaches – and I am inclined to believe it, and not see it as incompatible with my Xn faith – that Siddhartha found enlightenment, found true peace. I think it is not an accident that his journey began with recognition of the suffering of others.
Like the rich man of our parable, he was sheltered from the sufferings of others. Unlike the rich man, he allowed is eyes to be opened to see them. He was lost, but found himself, found the true path, through compassion borne in awareness of the suffering of others.
Another connection that comes to my mind as I continue to process the anti-racism workshop I took part in a week ago, as to do with white privilege.
Our whiteness – for those of us who are white – is the equivalent of the rich man’s wealth. Our racial identity enables us to live without thinking about racial injustice – other than when we choose to do so, just as the rich man’s wealth enabled him to live without worrying about Lazarus, lying hungry and thirsty at his gate. Racial privilege allows us to live without worrying about our sons and husbands and brothers being shot by the police. Like the rich man, we can tell ourselves –“Not my problem”, and when we do, we, too, are lost.
Jesus' parable is not a mandate to sell all that we own, but rather, an invitation to open ourselves to the needs of those at our gates, whether in Franklin County or in our nation or across the world. The scriptures call us to be affected by those in need – to experience the discomfort of considering others’ difficult lives – and to share out of our resources in response.
As Paul instructs Timothy in this morning’s epistle:
As for those who in the present age are rich
(and let’s not kid ourselves: in contrast to so many in the world who are starving, who do not have clean water or basic healthcare, or just treatment in the judicial system, we are rich)
As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This part of the lectionary cycle is probably my favorite, as we hear and reflect on Jesus' parables.Indulge me in reviewing what we know about parables as a teaching method:
The story is actually pretty simple: The Steward – a business manager - accused of mismanaging or squandering his master’s property. He is given notice and asked to provide a final accounting for the master before his responsibilities are terminated. Worried about future unemployment, he devises a strategy: He forgives part of each debtor’s debt. When his action becomes known, he is commended by master and keeps his job.
The parable becomes confusing when we hear Jesus’ commentary after he finishes the parable itself: “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” – Which is sometimes alternately translated as “worldly wealth” – “so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
Jesus affirms the actions of steward and concludes with teaching “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Does Jesus support manipulative business practices?
Why has Luke included this story and what does it teach us?
I have a number of thoughts about this parable, rather than an explanation.
1. I think it is a mistake for us to think we need to understand and make sense out of every word that Jesus is reported to have spoken. We cannot assume this or any other gospel texts to be objectively reliable as verbatim accounts of Jesus’ teachings.
The Gospel of Luke took written form somewhere between 60 and 85 CE, some 30 to 50 years after Jesus’ death. It consists, as do the other gospels, of stories and memories that had been handed down among Jesus’ followers.
Stories are ways to make meaning, and to share meaning: the early church developed and reinforced their faith by organizing and interpreting the received memories of Jesus’ life and teachings. We have faith, in the modern Church, that the Holy Spirit was involved in the process that led to what we receive as the canonical gospels, but Jesus’ teachings have been interpreted nonetheless.
2. We need to ask what the basic concern of the parable is. Is it about wealth and our relationship to money, or is it about forgiveness?
Of course it is about both. Throughout his teachings Jesus takes strong and extreme position about dangers of wealth, but telling this story in context of his growing conflict with other religious leaders, it is equally about forgiveness.
Since more teachings about wealth coming up in the next few weeks, let’s think now about the role of forgiveness in today’s parable.
The parable’s protagonist, the steward or manager draws master’s attention (and approval) by forgiving debts. In forgiving debts, the steward rejects the expectations – even the responsibilities – of accepted & reasonable business practice.
The master, in turn, forgives the steward’s past mismanagement and keeps him on in his position after he learns of the steward’s actions toward his debtors.
1st c. Palestine had notoriously inequitable economic system – wealth was held in the hands of few, and there was no real option for the poor to change their status. The manager in the parable, by forgiving debts, disrupts the system.
We have to ask - When the manager goes back and forgives the debts, is he doing so to benefit himself, or perhaps following his heart in a way he hasn’t previously been able to?
3. It is important not to miss striking parallel between steward and Jesus, which is perhaps why the parable resonated with church. Just as the steward is a rogue, going outside of the boundaries of an accepted economic system,
Jesus is a rogue rabbi, disrupting the accepted system of religious practice.
Religious system relied on ritual sacrifice for divine favor. Jesus, however, came along giving away forgiveness and acceptance without requiring promises or sacrifices, without regard for accepted interpretation of Mosaic Law.
It is this offering of “free grace” that provokes the criticism and opposition of religious authorities.
* * *
This week I had reason to think hard about the limit of forgiveness. I spent Thursday and Friday in Anti-Racism Training provided by National Conference for Community and Justice – organization that supports social justice work through educational and community-building programs.
I have worked at learning about race and racism for decades; even so, I was amazed at the new history I learned in this workshop about the pervasive and deliberate and systemic policies and practices that undergird and perpetuate racial inequality in our nation – not just in the past, and not just in the south.
The hardest part of the workshop, however, was an extended exercise in which white participants spent an hour talking together about the privileges we enjoy and the assumptions we make as white folks, while the POC were in another room talking about their experience as POC. When we returned we did a “fishbowl” exercise in which each group, in turn, sat in an inner circle recapping highlights of what they had discussed while the other group sat in an outer circle listening. When the white folks’ turn came to sit outside the circle and listen, I was in tears at the pain I heard in the stories of my sisters and brothers of color. One young AA woman, in fact, decided that she needed to leave the workshop because she was feeling exhausted and overwhelmed and hopeless, after that exercise, in facing the challenges of living as a black woman in white America.
I share this not only because it is in the forefront of my mind as I continue to process what I learned in the workshop, but because it raises for me the devastating question of how forgiveness can exist when such egregious wrongs have been done and so much hurt inflicted, and how relationships can be built against such a backdrop.
How much are we bound to assumptions and formulas about who “deserves” or “is qualified for” God’s grace? How much do we keep tally sheets about who deserves forgiveness, or who needs to be the one to apologize, or to make things right? Who has proven untrustworthy and needs to be avoided?
How can we leave behind assumptions about who deserves favor and instead, spread God’s grace through our lives?
How can we be instruments of God’s forgiveness and reconciliation in our families, our friendships, our workplaces, our church?
As we go forward into this week,
Let us acknowledge where we have caused harm – both by our actions and by our inaction, and let us admit where we need to make amends.
Let us examine the debts we are carrying on our own relational and emotional account books and figure out what we need to do to forgive them.
Let us look for ways to share the grace God has given us.
In Jesus’ name.
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