Monday, November 28, 2011

A Family History: A Year D Sermon for Advent 1

So.... have any of you heard of the Year D project? It's an initiative of Timothy Slemmons, a Presbyterian minister and assistant professor of homiletics and worship at Dubuque Seminary. His point, to be brief, is that the Revised Common Lectionary leaves out a lot of stuff, and many passages of scripture urge us to read it in its entirety. He offers Year D as a corrective. His blog is here. He includes, not only four lections for each Sunday in the proposed Year D, but also worship helps.

I find Year B, the year of Mark, the toughest Advent year for preaching. And yet-- full disclosure-- I have yet to grapple with all the gospel lections offered by the RCL.

At any rate, the prospect of delving into the character of Elizabeth and her story, and how it might speak to the Advent project, was just too tempting. So I did it.


What can we say about Elizabeth?

We can say that she was a woman with a pedigree, a member of a particular kind of religious aristocracy—a descendant of Aaron, the very first of all the priests of Israel. And the priests were those who were literally closest to God—they served in the Temple, for ancient Jews, God’s home on earth. Priests were the only ones who could venture into that holiest of holy places. Of course, only men could be priests. And so Elizabeth was not only descended from priests; she was also married to one, Zechariah. Elizabeth was a priestly woman.

We can also say that both Elizabeth and her husband lived up to the expectations of that pedigree. Luke says, “Both of them were righteous before God…,” blameless. Elizabeth was a righteous woman.

And we can say that Elizabeth was “middle-aged”—at least, that’s how we would describe her today. In her day, an era when life expectancy at birth was not even thirty years, she was probably close to fifty. In her day, Elizabeth was an old woman.

And we can say this: Elizabeth did not expect to have a child. Luke calls her “barren,” a dreadful word conjuring up desert wastelands which was applied to women who had failed to fulfill what was, in that era, considered a woman’s primary duty: to have a child. Specifically, to have a male child, so that her husband’s lineage might continue. Of course, the word betrays an understanding of reproduction that is intent on placing blame, always on the woman. Something so problematic it would take ten sermons to begin to unpack. For now, we will just have to say, Elizabeth was a “barren” woman. We will use quotation marks to stand in for all we cannot say about this label in this sermon.

A priestly woman, but an old woman. A righteous woman, but a barren woman. These are the things Luke tells us about Elizabeth. He would have weighed these attributes, finding in them counterbalances to one another, in an effort to answer the questions: Should we care about Elizabeth? Is she worth our notice? And, in particular, why read her story on this first Sunday in Advent?

My answers to these questions are: Yes, we should care about this woman who teeters in the balance of these weighty adjectives. Yes, she is a woman who is worth our notice. And we read about her because she is a part of an important family history, the history of Jesus of Nazareth. As we prepare this Advent to celebrate his birth and to anticipate his return, I think it’s a worthwhile project to acquaint ourselves with this particular one of his forbears. Just as my family history doesn’t begin with me, and your family history doesn’t begin with you, Jesus’ family history begins long before his birth, or even his conception. In truth, it begins long before this priestly/ old/ righteous/ barren woman comes along. But since the gospel begins with her, we’ll start there.

We no sooner meet Elizabeth, and receive Luke’s fourfold assessment of her, than everything in her world is turned upside down by the announcement of an angel. Gabriel appears, not to Elizabeth, but to her husband, while he is at work, no less. Gabriel, an archangel whose name means “God is my strength,” appears in the sacred writings of Christians, and Jews, and Muslims. We Christians know him as the great announcer—he appears, in Luke’s gospel, first to Zechariah, and then to Mary, in both cases forecasting very unexpected arrivals.

Gabriel tells Zechariah that his wife—his priestly and old and righteous and barren wife—will have a child, a son, and he goes on to describe that son’s remarkable life at some length. The son, whose name will be John, will be great in the eyes of God, and a very particular vessel for the work of the Holy Spirit. Our Monday 5 PM Bible Study has just finished reading Luke’s other book, the Acts of the Apostles, and everyone in that group can tell you this: the Holy Spirit is arguably the main character in Luke’s writing. Everything important that happens does so by the power and activity of the Spirit. To say that John will be such a vessel is an amazing statement, one that ought to give Zechariah pause, make him fall to his undoubtedly arthritic knees in gratitude and humility and awe and joy.

That’s not really how this scene unfolds, though. Evidently this announcement is so dubious that the priest, rather than being overwhelmed by the way in which God is smiling on his family, says the equivalent of “No way.” Or, perhaps, “Prove it.” Everything except, “Yeah, and I have a bridge in Berea I want to sell you.”

Gabriel is not amused, and rather than put up with such a disbelieving retort, he tells Zechariah he can just stay in his room and think about what he’s said, and no dinner for him tonight. Or, rather, the biblical version of this: no talking for you, Zechariah, until that baby is born. Which is no sooner than nine months from now. The words out of your mouth doubted the Holy Spirit. Fine. Therefore, your voice is silenced. For now.

After those days, Luke tells us, Elizabeth did in fact conceive—Elizabeth, whose name in Hebrew is Elisheva, which means “My God has sworn.” Indeed. Elizabeth’s God, the God, evidently, of the priestly and the old and the righteous and the barren, has sworn. And so it comes to pass. By which I mean, God does it. God makes it happen. And then, as soon as we have met Elizabeth, she disappears from the narrative for a time—there is another announcement, and another pregnancy for Gabriel and the Holy Spirit to orchestrate. It’s time for Elizabeth to be alone for a while.

I’m interested in sharing Elizabeth’s story with you for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s a story the lectionary doesn’t really give us a chance to experience and enjoy. For another, it ties in with one of the great overarching themes of Advent, the theme of hope.

We are given only the tiniest window into Elizabeth’s heart, and her few words speak volumes. At the end of our passage, five months pregnant, she says, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Disgrace is a powerful word, and a word that seems to signal an absence of all hope. To be a disgrace is to be in a state opposite to a state of grace, that free and unlimited gift of love. For Elizabeth, at the beginning of her story here, there is no free gift of love. But at the end of the story, she can say that God has taken away that disgrace, and, instead, looked upon her with favor. The road from disgrace to favor is a road whose traveler knows intimately what it is like to be without hope, and to then have that hope restored.

The loss of hope can creep up on us, silent as a little cat, so stealthy we do not even know it has curled up under our feet. We simply awaken one day and realize that we no longer look at life as having possibility, the promise of joy. The absence of hope leaves room only for despair. If hope is the “thing with feathers,” despair is the sure and certain knowledge that we are grounded, and will never rise again. Despair is the understanding that there is no grace for us, not now, and not ever. Despair is what Elizabeth experienced prior to the events of this story.

When we leave her, Elizabeth is five months pregnant, secluded, and, for those of us looking for the hope to be found in Advent, she is a model we might consider. In order to be open to the real experience of hope, we have to remember what it is to have none. When have you found that little cat that is despair curled up in your heart? Maybe, like Elizabeth, it had to do with the expectations you couldn’t quite fulfill, whether they were your own, or your family’s, or society’s. Maybe your experience of losing hope had to do with what felt like an unending and terrifying job search, or perhaps having a job you dreaded day after day, when walking into your workplace felt like sinking in quicksand. Maybe your experience of losing hope has to do, not with your personal situation, but with something you see around you… the interminable and hateful deadlock we witness day by day in our government, the way people on both sides of any given debate shout past one another, never really hearing one another. Elizabeth is a model to consider because she has truly lived in the pain of her despair, and now she is living in the pregnant expectation of hope’s restoration.

In Advent we are asked to become willing to gestate hope in ourselves. One writer says,

In Advent we are a people, pregnant. Pregnant and waiting. We long for the God/Man to be born, and waiting is hard… [But] waiting, because it will always be with us, can be made a work of art, and the season of Advent invites us to underscore and understand that… state of being, waiting. Our… world wants to blast away waiting from our lives. Instant gratification has become our constitutional right, and delay an aberration. We equate waiting with wasting… waiting is unpractical time, good for nothing, but mysteriously necessary to all that is becoming. As in a pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation. Not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not a reconciliation, a new understanding, a work of art, never a transformation… Waiting could use a new look. The discipline of delayed gratification—not celebrating Christmas until the twenty-fourth of December—and the hope-filled rituals of our Advent preparations will give value to the waiting periods in our lives.[i]

We find Elizabeth a disgrace, as she describes herself. And we leave her filled with grace, and hope, and waiting for what God will unfold next in her life, and her house is very, very quiet.

What if we were to expect God to break into our lives over these next four weeks just as radically as God broke into Elizabeth’s life? For most of us, the next four weeks will be busy. They will be filled with preparations for the celebrations of Christmas at home and school and work and church. But for every one of us, these weeks are an opportunity we are offered each year, an opportunity to find a tiny oasis of quiet even in the midst of the busyness, to lean into our own experience of hopelessness and listen for that tiny thing with feathers. We are all Elizabeth; our God has sworn that we will not be left in our despair. We are all Elizabeth; still waiting, but knowing that we can cling to God’s promise even as the days grow darker. We are all Elizabeth; capable of gestating a hope that God will make it happen, in ways we can’t even yet imagine. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Gertrud Mueller Nelson, To Dance With God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration (New York/ Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1986), 61-62.

The Christ We Know: A Sermon for Reign of Christ

It’s not unusual, historically speaking, for the church to be at odds with the surrounding culture. Today is a perfect example. Ask most people the significance of today, Sunday November 20, and you will most likely get an abundance of answers. For those of us in the United States, it is the Sunday before Thanksgiving. And that also means, just a few more days to shop and prepare for the Thanksgiving dinners many of us will share with our loved ones. And for those whose families are far-flung, for whatever reason, it might mean that there are just a few more days until we see those loved ones, in the flesh.

But I would also have to say: just five days from now the Christmas shopping season goes into high gear with “Black Friday,” a day my mother was convinced was named because in her South Philadelphia neighborhood, the nuns would emerge to shop in little clusters of black habits. (I was an adult before I learned that most people believe it’s the start of the season that will help businesses to end the year “in the black,” as opposed to “in the red.”)

Here’s something you may not know: Last night there was a candlelight vigil outside the Unitarian Church in Our Town, because today is the 13th Annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day to remember those who have been killed because of their gender expression.

Here’s something else you may not know: on this day in 1877, the great inventor Thomas Edison constructed the first working phonograph in his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey. The first record ever made was the sound of Edison shouting, “Mary had a little lamb.” In this week in which it was announced that the major label record companies will stop manufacturing compact discs in 2012, it’s good to take a moment to nod in appreciation to the grandmother of these items which will soon become extinct. It’s good to remember.

It’s good to remember, and it’s notable that Edison’s phonograph was the inauguration of technology that has made it less necessary for us to remember, to develop our memories. Memory is strengthened by repetition, and by association, and it is the sad truth that, as technology has blossomed, our memories have suffered, because we have not needed them so much. Most people’s memories, in 2011, are far inferior to the memories of the people who lived thousands of years ago, when knowledge was retained through the power of our brains.[i]

Which brings me back to my original point: the church is often at odds with culture. For the church, today is the Sunday on which we honor Christ as King, and ponder the Reign of Christ. Today also marks the end of the church year, which begins again next Sunday with Advent. To help us to mark the Reign of Christ, and to remember what that might mean, I think it might be good for us to look back over this past year, by which I mean the particular way in which Jesus Christ was revealed to us in the gospel of Matthew, our main gospel text these last twelve months.[ii] Who is this Jesus Christ, whose reign we proclaim today? How do we know him? What does the gospel of Matthew, in particular, reveal to us about him?

First, Jesus was born. Remember that? And immediately we were confronted with Matthew’s reminding us of “the dark side of Christmas.” Remember that terrible story, the story of Herod being tipped off by the Magi that a royal baby had been born? Remember what he did? He sent out armies to find and kill that baby. Their instructions were to kill all the children under the age of 2 in and around Bethlehem. The coming of Jesus, which we celebrate with all joy and fanfare, was greeted as a threat by those in power, those whom today we might call “the 1 %.”

Fast–forward thirty years—the lectionary always does this, because the gospels do this—and Jesus is being baptized by John in the Jordan River, an event marked by both the reluctance of the Baptist and the opening of the heavens, the dove, the sign of God’s Spirit descending, and the voice of God speaking out: “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Next thing we know, John has been arrested, and Jesus is on the move, preaching, teaching, healing, and proclaiming the gospel. This dangerous baby has grown into a man who is ready to do God’s work, whatever the risks.

And then, just in case we haven’t caught the associations already—a baby threatened by a ruler at birth, who grows up in a dangerous environment where his people are being oppressed—Matthew further makes his case for Jesus as a new Moses by having him climb a mountain—just like Moses—to deliver to the people a new understanding of God’s law. Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with the beatitudes, as startling a reversal of conventional wisdom as has ever been set forth. The poor? They are the ones who are blessed by God. Those who are mourning? God will comfort them. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? They will be filled. And on and on—Jesus naming those who are the most oppressed, the most aggrieved, the most set-upon, and saying: look for God here, in these lives. You want to know what and who God is concerned about? Look no further.

The sermon is filled with some of the most well-known sayings of Jesus. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” It also contains some which, even if well-known, are not so well-loved, and even less well-observed. “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” And much of what we now know as “The Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus’ prayer, comes to us from the Sermon on the Mount And one of my favorites, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

After he finishes preaching, Jesus continues to draw a community of followers to him, and they hit the road, together and separately. One of the most striking things about Jesus, one of the things I think we in the church still fail to appreciate and emulate, is how very much on the move Jesus was at all times. He did not build a building and go inside and wait for the people to come to him to hear his wisdom. He went out and met the people where they were, listened to them, healed them, and then taught them and preached to them. On this day on which we mark the Reign of Christ, we remember the model Jesus was for us, what he did do and didn’t do.

Of course, Jesus argued. Or rather, Jesus responded to arguments. He never actually picked a fight with anyone, but Matthew certainly shows us a Jesus who, increasingly, is at odds with those in charge, that 1 % if you will, and they come out in full force to challenge him, to try to trip him up, to get him to make a false move that will cause the people to turn their backs on him, give them reason to arrest him.

Now, we come to the last words Jesus spoke publicly. For the last several chapters of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has been in the Temple teaching, and responding to these reproaches and challenges, and talking about a day to come when God’s judgment will be made known to all people. Jesus shares what might be called an apocalyptic vision—a vision of the Son of Man in glory, surrounded by angels, seated on a throne, and proclaiming his words of judgment. Only, it sounds less like a courtroom and more like a homely seminar on animal husbandry. There are sheep, and there are goats, and they are divided, some on the right (which in bible language is always good) and some on the left (which in bible language is always bad—sorry lefties. We don’t believe that any more, of course.) The sheep are separated from the goats and the basis of that separation has nothing to do with who is a Christian and who is not. The sheep are separated from the goats, and it has nothing to do with politics, or anyone’s position on school prayer, or marriage equality, or anything except this: how did they treat one another? Or, more specifically, how did they treat those who were hurting—the most oppressed, the most aggrieved, the most set-upon? The hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick, those in prison? Did they take care of one another? If so—welcome to the sheepfold, come on in. If not—they are goats, and, by all appearances, they are not welcome.

One of the most interesting things about this story has to do with the unknowability of it all. Would it interest you to know that, in ancient Palestine, you really did have to be an expert in animal husbandry to tell sheep from goats? Wild sheep and wild goats looked essentially the same, were not at all easy to tell apart. And that is reflected in the story Jesus tells—for heaven’s sake, even the sheep do not know they are sheep, and the goats do not know they are goats! “When did we do that?” they ask. “Us? We did that?” Or, more sadly, “When did we not do that?”

Uncertainty would appear to be the nature of the reign of Christ, in this respect. It is not easily discernible who is “in” and who is “out.” In fact, the story throws the whole “in” and “out” dichotomy into disarray, by this one simple fact: all the people we are told we should be caring for are the most “out” of all. They are so out they are in. If that makes any sense. This reminds me of a line from a sermon I read years ago, in which the preacher said, “I start to suspect the Good Shepherd and the Good Goatherd are one and the same.” The day anyone asks you the question, “Are you saved?” you have my permission to smile pleasantly and think of this story, in which no one knows the answer to that question. And Jesus word to them is, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Who is this Jesus Christ, whose reign we proclaim today?

The Christ we know is a threat to those in power.

The Christ we know is a new Moses, leading his people out of slavery and into a new life of freedom.

The Christ we know teaches through storytelling, and never stays in one place very long.

The Christ we know upsets conventional wisdom and shows us a way to live that is counterintuitive.

The Christ we know is to be found among the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick, the prisoners—those he calls “the least.” The littlest. The lost.

The Christ we know asks us to show that we follow him, that we have a “personal relationship” with him, not by what we say or what we pray, but by what we do.

This is the Christ we know. This is the Christ whose reign is here and yet not here—who is coming in glory even has he has already come to inhabit our world and our hearts. This is the Christ who invites us to be with those who are hurting and know: we will find him there. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Edward Hays, “Birthday of the Phonograph, 1877,” The Old Hermit’s Almanac: Daily Meditations for the Journey of Life (Leavenworth, KS: Forest of Peace Publishing, 1997), 330.

[ii] Karoline Lewis, Brainwave #205: Lectionary Texts for November 20, 2011, Working Preacher Podcast,