Step-Fathering God

Most of my life, I think I’ve been a Mary.  I’m a creator.  A dreamer.  A Spirit-filled woman bearing new life into the world.  I haven’t spent much time thinking about or contemplating Joseph.  Growing up, our church’s Christmas pageant focused more on  Luke’s version of Jesus’ birth.  Gabriel approached Mary.  Mary sang.  The focus of the drama was mostly Mary.  Joseph always seemed along for the ride.  

This Advent I find myself sitting with Joseph.  Joseph, the man barely mentioned in the New Testament.  Joseph the steady and faithful follower of Torah and God.  Joseph, the step-father of God.  Can you imagine being the stepfather of God?  Goodness knows, being a step-parent is hard enough.  I can only imagine the fear and trepidation of learning your call is to parent the child of the Holy Spirit.   It takes the ubiquitous step-child’s slam–“You’re not my real father/mother”–to a whole new level.

Perhaps that’s why so little is written about him.  So little folklore told; so few carols sung.  Step-parenting doesn’t tend to inspire sugar plums, silver bells, or sleigh ride melodies.  Joseph, like most step-parents, doesn’t play the sensational or show-stopping role.  He’s not the character most authors focus on.  And step-family stories are not usually the ones we like to tell at Christmas.  But this Advent, Joseph’s is the focus of the lectionary, and in reality, each year we tell the story of a step-family.  I can’t help but wonder what that would mean to blended families if we talked about this story in that way.  

 

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Advent Longing

Entering Advent in the wilderness feels right in a way I can’t quite capture or describe with words.   It is like the perfect blend of butter, onion, celery, and sage in stuffing—full of comfort and longing all in one bite.  I imagine the Israelites hearing Isaiah preach of God’s promise to call them to the mountain-top.  A time to look down on the beauty of creation, to beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.  A time where the wilderness will no longer be wild but can be cultivated by weapons resurrected as tools.  This vision is the longing of Advent.

A longing that looks back at yesterday to honor what was and looks forward to what could be.

This palpable, palatable longing first visited me Thanksgiving evening.  Shortly after arriving at my sister’s, she asked if I would make the gravy.  Gravy has been a nemesis at our Thanksgivings the last five or so years.  The challenge of timing and texture were mastered by my Grandmother.  Like most family recipes, when she passed, so did her mastery.  I remember watching her mix the turkey drippings and flour in the bottom of the roasting pan.  Her pointer-finger, the measure stick and sample spoon, would evaluate when it was just right.

So when my sister turned to me and asked if I would make the gravy, since according to her, the gravy I made three years ago was good, I accepted.  I used a pot rather than the roasting pan and ended up supplementing with a jar of gravy.  (How else could one ever make enough gravy for 25 people?)  But somehow it came together.  As I quickly whisked the flour and the drippings, I knew I had found the mountain-top for a moment in the wilderness.  Now my index-finger would be both measuring stick and sample spoon.  Now I, too, could flavor a meal with comfort and longing.

Counting or Comparing?

(A sermon–or a sermon draft–of a sermon preached at Brownbacks UCC–a supply preaching gig)

Two men walk into a temple…

Someone not familiar with Jesus’ teachings

And biblical readings

May think today’s parable is the beginning of a joke.

Two men walk into a temple.

But those of us who have sat through several Sundays

Or spent time with Scripture know:

Put on your hats and buckle your seatbelts;

It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Most likely Jesus is about to tell us something that is hard to hear

Made even less clear by the parable packaging

This message is wrapped in.

If we’re open to it, this message surely says something to keep us thinking and talking

Talking and thinking.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason I need to begin with a confession.

When I was in seminary with your pastor,

We, and several other students, were very good friends.

Such good friends that we had nicknames for one another.

Because that’s what you do when you’re really good friends, right?

You make up names for one another.

And

Here’s where the confession part comes in…

My nickname was

Self-Righteous.

That’s right–

There was holier-than-thou,

Judgmental, etc..

And I was Self-Righteous.

These are the kinds of irreverent things

We folks studying to become Reverends do.

So, that was my nickname.

Self-Righteous.

And like all nicknames,

It has more than a modicum of truth:

I am someone who tries to live my faith

I am someone who seeks to speak the truth in love,

Take care of the widow, orphan, and alien,

And in general leave places slightly better than I found them.

I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong or bad about this

In and of themselves, they are good traits.

But here’s the shadow side of these sunny characteristics–

I can think that God operates more like the Girl Scouts

Offering merit badges and honors for those who complete

The best or most number of faithful acts than a grace-giving God who is the source of all blessings.

I might not be looking down at you, but I’m certainly not looking up or out for God.

I can get so caught up in the doing–

I forget that I am a human being

Whose very life and breath come from God.

Suddenly I am worshipping my actions

And not God.

Then I’m a double-winner sinner:

Self-righteous and Idolatrous.

So you see this passage

This parable is speaking to me.

Did you notice how this passage begins?

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt

That’s me.

I’m one of those.

And when I look around at a lot of churches

My guess is I’m not the only ones.

We’re the church, right?

We’re told we’re to be the body of Christ

I’ve even heard some UCC pastor and churches

Talk about being Christ’s hands and feet here

This is not to mention the reality that our world is in.

Debts, division, death–if you read the paper or watch the news it can be

Easy to say, I’m glad I’m not one of those people—isn’t it?

Easy to look at a someone we know

And sigh a deep breath, and pray, thank you God—at least I’m not…

Easy to look inhale deeply our Pennsylvania air

And think–glad we’re not in Nevada

Grateful our young people didn’t take a gun to school

glad I’m not that young person’s parent

Or grandparent

Thank you God that I’m not like…

(secretly hoping no one {including God}

notices in some ways, you just might

relate a little too well to one of these stories.)

I don’t know about any of you, but I can easily believe my justification, my righteousness, come from what I do

And that grace, like Girl Scout Merit Badges, is earned

And my prayer can so easily be about what I’m not rather than who I am

All my doing and justifying trying to prove my Girls Scout Goodness to God

making up for those places where life isn’t how I wish

and I’m not how I wish.

It’s hard to simply look up and

Own up that sometimes my deeds are more about my  ego and less about You

Saying thank you for the blessings that abound

And admitting I need You more than I know

But is it really that simple? (Remember simple and easy are not the same thing! Self-righteousness—easy to ID—harder to change.)

I don’t think so.

Because here’s my other confession.

Most of the time I lean toward self-righteousness—

But there’s this other percentage of the time—

I actually think it is part of my self-righteousness, too

Where I hang my head in shame

Beat my fist on my chest

And believe I am not worthy of love, acceptance, or God’s grace.

In one split-second, I can swing from super-hero

To slime,

Saint

To extreme sinner.

Which leads me to the tax collector

standing far off, would not even look up to heaven,

beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

Brene Brown—popular Oprah guest, TED Talk Presenter, and Shame Expert

Would clearly diagnose this tax collector with shame issues.

I mean look at his body language—

eyes downcast, not even looking up at heaven.

Shoulders slumped,

Head hung,

While he beats his chest.

I wonder if he could even hear God’s assurance of pardon?

This grace is for you.

I give it to you.

You already have all the Girl Scout merit badges you need.

All you need to do is accept them.

I wonder what sins are so grievous

They weigh his heart and mind down?

I don’t think we’re talking about a man who might have felt bad that he worked for the IRS and have a tough session with a US citizen.

Tax collectors in Jesus’ time were contractors

For the Roman Empire.

They had free will and reign to take as much money as they wanted.

Sure they had to t0urn some of it over to the Empire,

But so long as they did, they could pocket plenty for themselves.

They were known for pyramid schemes, backroom deals,

brokering with the rich and robbing the poor.

“Tax collectors are not merely ‘misunderstood’: they are on the wrong side religiously, politically, and economically,”

Jesus’ audience would not have thought this rogue was a diamond in the rough a “publican with a heart of gold” (David Schnasa Jacobsen).

Nope.

He was a sinner.

Just like we all are.

And if he can’t hear

Really hear God’s grace

He’s the flip side of the Pharisee.

For he too believes that his worth,

His merit,

directly corresponds to his actions—

Repugnant and repulsive–are his self,

Then why fight it?

Might as well just go for broke and be the villain?

Perhaps part of the complexity of this parable is our God

who accepts this tax collector,

the one who rips off the poor,

just as he is.

God ,who says this man is justified,

Or in other translations

The tax collector is righteous.

More righteous than the Pharisee.

What does God think God is doing?

 

Last week’s parable was of the persistent widow and the unjust judge.

The way the story unfolds

It seems that this widow is so annoying

So overbearing

So irritating

That the unjust judge gives in.

Not because he’s won over,

Not because he suddenly has a heart for justice,

Nope.

He just wanted her to shut up and go away.

This week I read a sermon by Rev. Marci Aauld Glass that suggested the widow is God.

Persistently nagging us to turn toward justice.

I had never heard, read, or thought of that interpretation before.

When I read this story,

Which comes directly after the persistent widow,

I think that reading makes sense.

It’s almost like Jesus is telling those in the Temple:

That it’s ok to be really real with God.

That God knows us

Our outward actions

But also our inside hearts.

God knows our intentions and desires

And our egos.

And God’s mercy is not limited to

Any kind of person.

It is abundant

And it is for all.

It is almost offensive

How freely this persistent widow God

Seeks to grant grace.

It is almost offensive

How the roadblocks to receiving this grace

Don’t seem to come from God

They seem to come from within us, humans.

What if the Pharisee and tax collector are actually flip sides of the same coin?

I think many people have a little bit of each of these characters in them.

The real challenge might be being honest with ourselves and God

For where we are

Taking a moment to look up and ask for mercy

and thank God

for what we are

and the blessings we have.

Imagine a week of counting blessings

Rather than comparing them.

Sunday Prayer

Great Physician,

We read stories of miraculous cures

And ancient healings

By Your hand.

How easy it can be for us to ask

Why them and not us?

How easy it can be to turn to you

On a Sunday morning

With wish list prayers.

Great Physician

Here are our ailments;

Now what medicine do you prescribe?

Perhaps it is we who like to ignore

The prescriptions You suggest.

For what you offer often

Defies our logic

Unsettles our certainty

And is provided as a simple suggestion.

That is how you respond

In suggestions and whispers

Hunches and nudges.

Great Physician

Open our eyes and ears

To notice You around us.

Free us from the confines

of our own hearts and minds.

That we too may be filled with gratitude

And sing Your praise.

A Prayer for the 11th Leper

Holy Physician,

I don’t understand your healing ways.

You encounter 10 lepers.

The sound of Your voice

Moves the molecules of their beings

And mid-walk

They all become

Completely clean.

What about the 11th leper?

And the 12th

And the 13th

And all the other lepers

Not mentioned in this story?

What about the many faithful

Who fall prostrate before You

But whose bodies seem

Immune to Your voice?

Do you stay silent?

Or randomly speak?

This wellness You offer,

This salvation You bestow

Breaks the boundaries

Of medical science, I know.

But some days

And some times

This answer seems like

A politically correct pill

To swallow.

Amen.

Mary

Take her out of the box

and off of the shelf.

Free her from the

cultural prison

we’ve locked her in.

Untie

and unbind

her.

Even those bars

can’t stop her from

singing

loving

longing.

She is Mary

Blessed Mother

She is not for the weak

or faint of heart.

She was the first to welcome You

the only one we see reprimand You

and the one who refused shield her eyes from Your death.

She is made for a week such as this.

A week that calls us to love

and hold

and hug

to watch and to witness

to stand and to sing

like mothers.

Taste of Grace

I break Bread of Life

Offering a small morsel of grace–

To empty hands

Hands calloused

From work and weather,

Hands soft and small

From new life,

Hands firm and fixed,

Hands quivering and quaking.

All of them empty

All of them seeking

Something.

Something beyond.

A bite of blessing

A blessing that doesn’t

Promise freedom from doubt or despair;

Or a platitude of

you’re never given more than you can handle

No.

This small cube

This taste of grace

Whets the appetite

While honoring

The really real

Of today.