Monday, December 23, 2013

WWJD? What Would Joseph Do?

Matthew 1
Advent 4, 2013
Rev. Debra Jene Collum
Chatfield United Methodist Church

How many of you have tried to read through the bible from Genesis 1 to the end. If you approach this with a legalistic method, each verse read completely with some hope of inspiration you probably got to the genealogies in Numbers and gave up.
It is understandable, the names are foreign and the genealogy is meaningless for the most part.

But to someone at one time, these lists of names meant quite a lot.
The birth story in Matthew is an example of just this thing.

The nativity story in Matthew is written to tell the story of the coming of the Son of God, the descendent of David, the King of the Jews. Not a baby born in a manger. In Matthew there is no manger at all.

The birth of Jesus, the actual birth, is not recorded. What is recorded is the lineage from which this birth came.
We didn’t read that part because the names are difficult to pronounce and mean very little to us. But to the readers of Matthew in the 1st century these names meant everything.

Here at the church we have been having a great time putting up the confirmation pictures from all the various classes. We just found a treasure, a confirmation picture from 1954! We don’t have it up, yet but we will soon add it to our collection.
(If you have confirmation pictures that are not on the wall, get them to me.)
When a new picture comes out of the archives people gather around it. And begin to name the confirmation students. And not only by name, but by family. I showed the 1954 photo to Joyce Irish’s mom and began to hear stories of the children and grandchildren of the 15-16 year olds in that photo. Had we time I would have heard amazing stories of family history: who married whom, who is still alive, who lives is whose home…For those of us who are not native to Chatfield it can be a little strange and irrelevant, but to those of you who have lived here most of your life, it is your story, your history, your families.

So Matthew begins: The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, the book of the Genesis, is the word in Greek. The beginning. The beginning of Jesus in Matthew is tied to his past, to his ancestors.

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.
I don’t know why but that portion of scripture seems to ground the story of the birth of Jesus for me. from Abraham to Christ: generations. Jesus didn’t just drop out of the sky. The incarnated God was connected to a family, to a race, to a religion. As old as time, itself.
The Son of God, was a human being.
If we want to know what God would do if God were in the world, all we have to do is look at Jesus. This is how a human being acts as God, Emmanuel, God with us.

There is something else about this genealogy I want to point out which is also very grounding and affirming.
There are auspicious names in the list of ancestors of Jesus: Abraham, Jacob, Jesse, David, Solomon, Jehoshaphat. Great men of Israel.  There are also 4 women, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba.
These four women represent the strength in the midst of sin and war and exile. They represent women who are not always in charge of their lives but change their own destiny. Tamar, who was left without husband and child and took matters into her own hands when Judah went back on his word. Rahab, who earned who living as a prostitute and through cunning helped the Israelites capture the city of Jericho. Ruth, the woman who followed her mother-in-law back to Israel and pledged honor to the God of Naomi. And also, Bathsheba, who was taken from her husband because King David desired her. Bathsheba became the mother of Solomon who became one of the wisest men in the bible. These four women also represent links to the Gentile nations, Rahab a Canaanite, Ruth a Moabite, Tamar and Bathsheba of unknown ancestry.
These women, through their faithfulness in the midst of uncertainty and even dishonor, become great grandmothers to the child Jesus.

Unlike pure undefiled family trees, this one represents everyone, all of us, who have black sheep and disconnected sheep and even a few goats among the herd.
Jesus is God with us, God among us, God as us. He descended from a broken, misshaped, grafted family that is nonetheless the family of God’s son.

Now, isn’t that a message of grace and hope as we go to our family gathering this season? Isn’t that a message of salvation?

God is one of us.
In Matthew the focus of the story isn’t on Mary, it is on Joseph. It is Joseph’s genealogy which is featured. It is Joseph’s story that is told.
Joseph is us. If we choose to become a person who believes God, who acts on God’s best interests and thinks first of others before ourselves.

Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.

I don’t know if Matthew got tired of hearing all the great stuff about Mary or if he just wanted to remind us that we aren’t the holy mother of God. We aren’t the bearer of the Good News, we are the ones like Joseph who hear the message: God is with us, God is among us and have to decide if this has any relevance to us.
We will be the ones who have to decide how we will respond to the message and if we will accept the invitation to become a member of the family of God.

Will we put Jesus away quietly? Or will we embrace all the chaos and unconventional ways of being Jesus will bring to our lives?
Will we stand up to convention and accept a relationship with someone who might bring shame on our family name? Or will we only hang out with the ‘in’ crowd and those who make us feel comfortable.
Will we be willing to make our way to Egypt, back into the land of the captivity of our ancestors, if that is what we have to do to keep the message of Jesus alive? Or will we stay in our comfort zones, not caring about who gets hurt or the others who might be in trouble?
Will we put aside our own needs and desires in order to bring honor to the family of the Christ child? Joseph had no sexual relations with Mary. That is no small thing. That’s why it is in the bible. Are we willing to put aside what we think we deserve or need in our discipleship with Jesus?

Will we live in such a way that the Christ can be born among us? Will we accept the invitation to be part of the family of God?
Will we be like Joseph, someone who, against all wisdom and convention, says “Yes” to God?

Will our names be in the genealogy of the family of God?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

And in the Cosmos, All is Well

Revelation 12, Advent 3
Chatfield United Methodist Church
December 15, 2013
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

Today we look together at the nativity story that you probably have never heard of. It is a little hard to depict this particular story on a Christmas card because instead of stables and lambs there are snakes and dragons. Wars in heaven and earth. Yet, even though it is not often told, It is, IMHO the story that makes the other stories make sense. It is the story that makes the other stories powerful. It is the story that should be told because it is the story we most often need.

When we bury a woman too young. When we hear the evening news and see people destroying other people. When we open our newspapers and see evil triumphant. Shepherds, sheep, wise men and angels are great. But what we really need is the nativity story in the book of Revelation.

Before I read this nativity story I need you to be on the same page with me about how to read the book of Revelation.

The book of Revelation needs to be read as one would read a great myth, like the Iliad or the Odyssey. The book of Revelation needs to be read as one would read the stories of giants and the gods of ancient Rome, of Jupiter and Pluto, Minerva and Neptune, of dragons and sea monsters. Of the great battles of good against evil. the kind that make you sit on the edge of your seat wondering if this will be the time when evil finally wins and all that we know, all that is good is destroyed.

So as you listen to this nativity story, listen as if you are hearing a great story of the battle of good and evil, a great story, a powerful mythology.

Revelation 12
A great Sign appeared in Heaven: a Woman dressed all in sunlight, standing on the moon, and crowned with Twelve Stars. She was giving birth to a Child and cried out in the pain of childbirth.
And then another Sign alongside the first: a huge and fiery Dragon! It had seven heads and ten horns, a crown on each of the seven heads. With one flick of its tail it knocked a third of the Stars from the sky and dumped them on earth. The Dragon crouched before the Woman in childbirth, poised to eat up the Child when it came.

In the ancient world, the heavens were just beyond the stars. For them, the gods were warring and advocating and holding council just beyond reach.
Here, the drama of salvation was taking place just beyond the stars. A woman was giving birth and it was upsetting the balance of power in the universe.
The evil one was not pleased. And was poised to overtake the good, the pure goodness of God’s son that was to be born from this woman.

You see how powerful this nativity, THE nativity story, whether Luke tells it or Matthew or John in the book of Revelation, it is powerful. The very foundations of good and evil, heaven and hell are being tested and tried.
Who will win, will the dragon eat the child? Will the child survive? Will the mother survive?

Virgen de la Pachamama by
Roberto Mamani, Bolivia
Mary as the mother of God in the book of Revelation is not just a young unwed teenager from a small village, but the mother and protector of all creation, the sun and moons, stars and humanity. This how many cultures portray the mother earth goddess. This is how Romans portrayed their mother earth. A woman who protects the earth and creation. This is the mother of God, the mother of Jesus. And she is in peril. Hence the entire creation is in peril, the entire cosmos.

continuing the story
5-6 The Woman gave birth to a Son who will shepherd all nations with an iron rod. Her Son was seized and placed safely before God on his Throne. The Woman herself escaped to the desert to a place of safety prepared by God, all comforts provided her for 1,260 days.
Whew, right?
But this isn’t a Hallmark season special. Evil is not going to give up that easily:

7-12 War broke out in Heaven. Michael and his Angels fought the Dragon. The Dragon and his Angels fought back, but they were no match for Michael. They were cleared out of Heaven, not a sign of them left. The great Dragon—ancient Serpent, the one called Devil and Satan, the one who led the whole earth astray—thrown out, and all his Angels thrown out with him, thrown down to earth. Then I heard a strong voice out of Heaven saying,
“Now God's salvation has come! Now God has shown his power as King! Now his Messiah has shown his authority! For the one who stood before our God and accused believers day and night has been thrown out of heaven.

Did you hear the echo of Mary’s Song? This birth of a child struck terror into the dragon and his angels. They were losing their control of the universe. The balance of power was tipping in the wrong direction. So, they declared war on the angels of God.
Trying desperately to regain their foothold in the heavenly realms.
But Michael, representing all that is good, prevailed. The Son of God has been born. The one who brings Salvation to the universe lives! There is a new king of the universe.

The Christians living in the first century needed to hear this. Their world was going to hell in a hand basket, literally. Their children were being sold into slavery of the worst kind, their menfolk were being conscripted into service or arrested on trumped up charges of treason if they didn’t vow allegiance to the Emperor. Their loved ones were being thrown to the lions, used in sport. It was as if the world, their world had become the Hunger Games, literally. It felt as if a war between good and evil was waging all around them. It felt as if they were on the losing side.

All the metaphors you could come up with for disastrous living conditions seemed true.
I don’t know if you can remember what you felt like last year, right now. We had heard of Sandy Hook. Those little children and adults gunned down. In a public school. Where children and their adult caregivers should feel safe. Do you remember how cold your heart felt? How much you questioned the goodness of life? How much you wondered? Is evil winning?

The scriptures do not lie to us. Evil does walk upon the face of this earth, seeking whom it may devour. Revelation 12 reveals that the Dragon is roaming the earth, wild and raging with anger. Waging war the people of God.
You aren’t being paranoid if it feels like evil is around us. If it feels sometimes as if evil is winning.

You aren’t paranoid, you are actually wise. Wise to the ways of God and evil. Wise to see that unless we stay on our guard evil can get a small foothold.

But not victory. NOT victory.
That is the message of this nativity story.

In the heavens, in the vast universe, in the cosmos, in the balance of life, all is well. All is well.
When you put your baby Jesus in his manger this season, remember the birth of this child has defeated, thoroughly and for all time, the ultimate power of evil. All is well, above all else, all is well.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Luke: A New Savior in Town

Luke 2:8-20
Advent 1
Chatfield United Methodist Church
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

The musical TV show Glee has popularized a way of singing songs called Mash ups. A mash up is when you take two songs and create a new way of singing them. The writers of Glee define a mash up as when you take two songs and mash them together to make an even richer explosion of musical expression." This way of creating richer explosions of musical expression has also created an amazingly popular musical TV show and raised the bar for high school choirs .

A Mash up is how we usually hear and tell the nativity story. From the annunciation to the visit with Elizabeth to the birth to the shepherds and angels to visit of the wise men, we hear the story as a continuous stream. As if one person wrote the entire story. But this traditional way of hearing the nativity story is really A Mash Up A mash up of two different, entirely different stories.
Like a musical mash up, this mash up does create a rich explosion of creativity. The songs, the readings, the advent traditions, the children’s programs, the Christmas eve liturgies, the nativity scenes with shepherds, wise men, angels all together, what would Advent and Christmas be without them?

 But, while this Mash up adds richly to our Christmas/advent experience, there is something deeply meaningful when each part of the story is told within the purpose of its own unique telling.

Maybe you don’t even know that there are different nativity stories in the bible. There are three actually, three different ways of telling about the birth of Jesus. Many people don’t. Even people who have grown up in the church.
Maybe you knew that the shepherds were in Luke and the wise men were in Matthew. But did you know that there were two to three years between the visit of the shepherds and the coming of the wise men? Did you know that the wise men didn’t see Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, laying in a manger?
Did you know that there was a nativity story in the Book of Revelation?

Do you know that these stories were written so that the church would be encouraged in its walk with Jesus?
Do you know that these stories were written with details that point to some amazing truths that can encourage us in our own walk with Jesus?

These three different stories proclaim something truly unique and important about how the birth of Jesus changed the world.

Today we look at the story in Luke. And we start at the end: With the shepherds. Who hear an amazing proclamation from the angels: “We bring you good news for all people. Your Savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord.”

Good News, Savior, Christ, Lord. Each one of these words made the church of Jesus Christ in the first century sit up and pay attention.
Savior/Redeeming One, Christ/Messiah, Lord/Son of God. They paid attention because these were also the words used to describe the Roman Emperor. Son of God, the one who will Save us, The one that we have been waiting for to save us, The one the prophecies told us about.

If you have read or have heard of the Percy Jackson young adult book series by Rick Riordan you will understand a little of what was believed of Roman Emperors in the 1st century AD. In the books, the boys and girls who battle monsters and continually save the world from evil are called demi-gods. They each have a human parent and a parent who was a Roman or Greek God, like Athena, or Zeus, or Poseidon.
This sounds very far fetched and magical, until you realize that this is exactly what Roman citizens believed about their emperor. Beginning with Julius Caesar and coming to full identity in Caesar Augustus, it was believed that emperors were men who were born of divine descent. They had a human mother and a Roman God as their father. A human demi-god. A son of god.

Caesar Augustus reigned fairly well until 14 AD. Because he did bring peace to Rome and some prosperity to the empire he might have earned the name Savior. He was called ‘god from god’ by the Egyptians who know at little bit about gods.

However, each Caesar or Emperor after Augustus, no matter how they ruled, was given the same divine attributes. Son of God, Savior, Lord.
Two generations later, during the time when the book of Luke was written, Nero was Emperor and Nero was crazy. He murdered his mother, brother, and anyone else who stood in his way. And he particularly persecuted the early church.
Yet, he was named, Savior, Son of God, Lord. And thought to be of divine birth.
These names were no longer attributes of one who saves but of one who destroys. Divinity was not longer something to be honored but feared.

The message the angels brought to the shepherds was truly Good News to the early church. While Nero fiddles as Rome is burning. While the rest of the world calls Nero   Savior, Lord and Son of, God: and watch as their world crumbles before them. God brings a message: Listen people of God, Look, Do not be afraid: a true Savior has been born.

And common ordinary people like you and me and shepherds and people whose babies are born into poverty are given the message. Not the king on his throne or even his advisors.

Common ordinary people like you and me and shepherds and people whose babies are born into poverty hear the message.

A new way of being savior, son of God, Messiah has been born. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones.

In this child, Jesus, Son of God, Savior, Messiah:
We are saved from the lunacy of the power of the economy that rewards only those who have more and more and more while jeopardizing the safety of those who have little.

We are saved from the immorality of human structures that name some people more important than others. That name some people as more worthy of being saved than others.
We are saved! The powerful are brought down from their thrones.

We are saved from ourselves; from our own sinfulness that wants to make our needs the center of the universe.
We are saved from our own narrow-mindedness that wants only what is best for our people.
We are saved from our own self-doubt which wonders, could God love me?
We are saved. From our sins to become all that God has created us to be.
We are saved. The powerful one who convinces you that you are not a child of God has been brought down from the throne.

As Roman Empires burn and self deluded Emperors fiddle, we are saved. The powerful have been brought down from their thrones.

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to all who hear and bear witness to the Savior born among us who is Christ the Lord.