Sunday, December 4, 2022

The kind of people who participate

Jean-Marie Pirot (aka Arcabas) The angel of the Lord speaks to Joseph in a Dream

 Matthew 1:18-25

His fiancĂ© is pregnant with someone else’s baby. Joseph’s been made to look a fool. A righteous man, we’re told, with an impressive pedigree, Joseph seems a worthy candidate to parent the Messiah. And let’s be clear. God could’ve easily waited a few months until Mary and Joseph were properly married and saved everyone a lot of trouble.
Instead, God puts Joseph in a moral quandary. Heartbroken and betrayed, good guy Joseph will do the right thing – he’ll dismiss Mary quietly, cause as little embarrassment for her as possible, while preserving his own dignity and honor. 
Have you noticed how none of our ancestors in faith are ideal applicants for the job descriptions they end up filling?  And the ones who start out looking promising, like Joseph, end up losing something, or everything, for their role.
But if our biblical siblings appeared beyond reproach, we might think it was their inherent goodness that qualified them to participate in God’s plans. We might believe God prefers exemplary, upright, heroic types that make God look good.  
And if that were true, then we might presume that humanity is a graded on a scale, and one’s place in God’s good graces can be earned or lost. We might strive instead of rest, compare instead of cooperate, worry more about the virtue of our own souls than the well-being of others, and be tempted to take on God’s role by assuming it’s our job to fix what’s broken in the world. 
So, because the way of God is not about us and what we do but about who God is and what God is up to, the cast of characters that populate our scriptures and the great cloud of witnesses watching over us is necessarily comprised mostly of misfits, screw-ups, and the impossibly unqualified – like overlooked youngest sons and ignored foreign women and those with barren, ancient or virgin wombs, incapacitating stutters and colorful rap sheets, all of whom find in their brokenness a new identity as participants with God in healing and redeeming the world. 
Gone is Joseph the upstanding, competent, ethical exemplar who holds the reins of his life. This little crisis has ended that guy.  His good-person-ness torn away, Joseph will receive instead the grace of God who claims us nevertheless. When he awakens from his dream, he will be Joseph, misunderstood and misjudged, unable to control his own life or narrative, but claimed by grace, guided by love, brave to trust, and faithful—right up against his doubt, close to his fears, ready to accept what God is giving him and follow where God is leading him.  Joseph will agree to appear to be something that he is not – this child’s father, but he will claim him nevertheless, and in so doing, he will become his father after all.  
And so Joseph trades what was for what will be; he will anticipate the future of God by accepting his role in it now.  And Joseph will live a life characterized by grace unearned and forgiveness unmerited, where everybody belongs and nobody is dismissed, quietly or otherwise. 
The savior of the world belongs to us all, and first, Joseph, he will belong to you. The angel whispers in his dream. So do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Love her. Name the child Jesus. Love him.  
And the child Joseph will raise will not become an upstanding, good citizen, respected in society and honored in the community, upholding his father’s good name and bolstering the commendable, but a vagabond and a subversive, who dines with sinners, prostitutes and outcasts, confronts corruption and evil, and refuses to totalize or dismiss anyone.  He will be a Savior who rests, and trusts, and lives fully connected to God and to every other human.  And Jesus will open up to us all a reality of redemption, forgiveness and freedom, everlasting belonging that will set the world free.
Dear little Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church: for 100 years now, people have been gathering on this spot in the name and presence of Christ, to worship God together, to seek the way of Jesus and be guided by the Holy Spirit, to pray and sing, and listen and respond. To grieve and to celebrate. To raise each other’s kids in love, and bury each other’s loved ones with gentleness. To pour love into the community and welcome in the world’s pain and joy. To learn and to change alongside one another, to mess up and practicing forgiving, to reach out and practice receiving, to take the baton from those gone before and pass it on to those who come next. 

And so for 100 years this little congregation has had our own rotating cast of unlikely characters, misfits and oddballs, flawed people living broken, honest and real lives, trusting right up against our doubt, watching for the in-breaking of God around us, sharing the presence of Christ by being with and for others, faithfully accepting what God is giving us and following where God is leading us.  
That is something to celebrate.
Today we lit an Advent Candle for Peace. So this week, we will be watching for, praying for, and living toward peace. The Hebrew word for Peace, Shalom, means “fullness” or “completion.”  So when people greet one another or say goodbye, with Shalom, what they are really saying is, “May you be completed.”  Whenever we join in God’s bringing wholeness and fullness for others, whenever our words or actions say, “May you be completed,” we are making peace. We can literally share in the substance of God’s life, here and now.  We can contribute to others’ fullness, fullness in the world around us, and fullness between us.  
We can trade what is for what will be. 

But only if we have our ideas about what it means to live a good life torn away, and receive instead the grace of God who claims us nevertheless.  

God’s love comes to and through imperfect people in ordinary ways, and we are drawn in by God’s mercy and grace, to receive the love of God without qualifications or preconditions. God plunges into this world in the person of Christ Jesus, and by the Spirit pours grace and love through us that feels like courage to forgive, and willingness to listen, and an inclination toward wonder, joy, gratitude and generosity.

 This savior ruins people for respectable, mind-your-own-business living, and pulls us head over heels into a life of trusting, and resting, and hoping, that practices our unbreakable belonging to God and each other, and join in the healing and shalom that God is always bringing into the world. So, like those gone before us, both our predecessors here, and all the faithful from every place and time, we too anticipate the future of God by accepting our role in it now.  

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