Again, so many drafts in the queue, but it seems sermons are the only things to get finished. Here is the sermon I preached on Christmas Eve at Presbury United Methodist Church. The focus is on Matthew as we will be looking at the Gospel of Matthew through the spring. And it is not a part of the story I think about often.
Let us pray:
but that you dream with us again as you did with Joseph. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts bring the Christmas story to life for us, so we might better live your dream this day and always. Amen.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Joseph lately. About how he must have felt heavy as he went to bed that night, not Christmas night, but that night months earlier. His mind must have felt like honey, sticky and slow. And his heart must have gotten harder and harder in his chest. He had to make a decision. He could no longer ignore the talk of the town around him, or ignore Mary’s growing belly. His parents, of whom we know absolutely nothing about, but who we still can imagine were upset. His betrothed, which in his culture meant the same as wife does today even though they were not yet living together, was pregnant. And the baby was not his. He must have felt so alone, cut off from his community, so far from God. This was not the way his life was supposed to turn out. He had a plan. A loose plan, certainly— but still a general idea of what his life was supposed to be like. And a wife pregnant with a baby not his own was nowhere close to the plan he had in mind.
You may have been in a similar situation in your life. Maybe not because of an unplanned pregnancy, but because of similar news that changed everything so completely it could never be undone. Maybe you were on track for a promotion in your dream job, and then the company went under. Maybe you were married for one year or forty years and one day told that it just wasn’t working anymore. Maybe your child’s wide-open future suddenly closed when they got into trouble. Maybe your retirement plans to travel came crashing around you with the cancer diagnosis. You know the sick feeling that comes with complete lack of control; you know those moments, days, years even, of shock that cloud your mind as you try to make sense of how a few moments can change the plan you had for your life. You know how Joseph felt.
Yet when we read this story, we applaud Joseph, pat him on the back for being such a swell guy; though, if we put ourselves in his shoes, we may have found it difficult to practice this compassionate righteousness. We don’t like to think about Joseph feeling betrayed or alone. We don’t like to think he felt the same way we do when we lose control or when our carefully laid plans are completely destroyed. We too often choose to believe that God chose Mary and Joseph because they were perfect, good people. To us, they have these halos around their heads all the time, and they never raise their voices in anger or think mean thoughts. But read the story again. The Gospel of Matthew introduces Joseph’s dream of the angel saying, But just when he had resolved to do this. Resolved. To me that symbolizes agony, difficulty. The description shows me a picture of a young man alone in him homes with that sinking feeling in the pit of him stomach as he tries to figure out what happens next.
Joseph in our story does not have to be a stoic, flat character, obedient to God to the point of having no personality. When we label Joseph in that way, it lets us off the hook. When we deny Joseph or Mary or even baby Jesus emotion, we take ourselves out of the great drama of the people of faith. Like so many of our ancestors in faith, Joseph was broken and hurting when God revealed the good news to him. Joseph was like us when God revealed the good news to him. Don’t you think God can be revealing the good news to us today too?
God spoke to Joseph in a dream. Into that vulnerable space in which coincidentally we have no control, God entered and spoke good news.God is with us, the messenger declared. Even, or maybe especially, when our lives are crumbling around us, God is with us, the messenger insists. Emmanuel. And God will lure the good from the place where we only see ruins. God will save us— that is what the name Jesus means!
God did not chose to put on flesh and dwell among us by way of young people who had their stuff together. God put on flesh and was rocked to sleep by people who were scared, hurting, confused, and so out-of-control. And God is dwelling among those same people— us— today. God is offering those same people— us— salvation in God’s presence.
Of course, I believe this to be true, but I don’t think that Joseph woke up from his dream feeling much better than he did before he fell asleep. I think he was still scared and still feeling a little sick. But, after he dreamed, he was infused with a hope. A hope that his fear was not the last word. A hope that God’s calling on his life was a better dream than Joseph could ever plan for himself. His decision to do as the angel commanded was him reaching not for control but for hope.
Our world is in desperate need of a little hope today. Our drive for power and control has gotten us into a mess not just individually but as a society. We are locked into cycles of retribution and anger. We are trapped by fear and loss. But God has dreamed a different world for us. This Christmas, let us place ourselves in Mary and Joseph’s story, remembering that God came not to the perfect but to the broken. Let us step out of the trap and turn to one another with compassion, trusting that God is in our midst. Let us live as though we really believe God is with us and that God will save and in fact is already saving us.
We will do that together tonight as we take communion, further living into God’s salvation story and tasting the hope God offers us. Then we will light candles, experiencing God’s presence within each of us, small and flickering all alone, but beautiful and powerful together. Let us experience not just the brokenness Joseph felt but also the hope.
L: When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel commanded. God is waking us up, now, today. How many of us are still asleep, trapped in nightmares that obscure the dream God has for us? Or how many of us are still asleep, too comfortable in our own dreams to pay attention to the life God calls us to? We have forgotten God’s commandments, wrapped up in the sleep. Let us respond as Joseph did, turning our hearts to God:
P: Light of the World, shine into the shadowed places of our souls tonight. Where we are confused or violent, bring us peace. Where we are fearful or worried, grant us strength. Where we are grieving and lost, comfort us. Where we are hateful or apathetic, shake us up. Wake us with your transforming love.
L: Do not be afraid. God came to dwell among us to show us how beloved we are.
P: We are awoken and set free from the bondage of sin and evil by that great love. For nothing is impossible with God!
THE PASSING OF THE PEACE
You are invited to turn to those sitting near you and offer signs of peace.
THE GREAT THANKSGIVING
L: Emmanuel means God-With-Us.
P: God is with us indeed.
L: Open your hearts to this Emmanuel
P: and be not sent away empty, but rather filled with good things.
L: For in the beginning of creation, God shared a dream with us, a dream of goodness and abundance. God breathed into us, inspiring us. But we took God’s dream and turned it into a nightmare in which brother killed brother, kings became tyrants, and violence seemed more natural than breathing.
Yet God adapted the dream, teaching brothers to forgive and women to resist evil, painting rainbows and opening the sea. God crafted laws as a way to bring the dream to life, and sent prophets to point us back toward love and justice. And then God offered us inspiration by taking on flesh and dwelling among us.
P: Glory to our God who is full of grace and truth!
L: Mary believed in the fulfillment of the dream God shared with her, as Joseph did. Mary proclaimed that dream when she spoke of bringing the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. This is what God did in Jesus: he lifted up the sick by healing them, the marginalized by loving them, and dreamed again goodness and abundance for all of creation.
Even when we abandoned this dream too, Emmanuel would not leave us. Before he was taken away by those who create nightmares, he gathered us around a table. He broke bread with us and blessed it, saying:
P: This is my body, given for you. In its brokenness, may you be restored to wholeness.
L: When we had eaten, Jesus took the cup, again gave thanks, and said:
P: This is my lifeblood, poured out to bring healing to our world.
L: When we eat and drink and receive Jesus, we dream with God, proclaiming a mystery together:
P: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
L: Let us pray:
Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Share your dream with us again as we come together on this sacred night. From your fullness may each of us here receive grace upon grace. May we in receiving through bread and cup, wake up and go forth from this place living this dream with our brothers and sisters. May we be light that shines in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome.
BREAKING THE BREAD
The bread of life.
The cup that saves us, and sets us free.
GIVING AND RECEIVING THE BREAD AND THE CUP
The table is set and all are invited. In the United Methodist Church, we practice an open table. This means you don’t have to be a member, you don’t have to be baptized, you don’t have to take classes, you don’t even have to be in a good mood. You are invited to come and know that no matter who you are and where you are on your journey, you are a beloved child of God and God’s grace is sufficient.
We will be taking communion by intinction, meaning I will give you a piece of bread and you can dip it in the cup. There will be a gluten free option available, so let the servers know if you would like that option. Now, let us come to the table to eat and seek that grace upon grace that God offers us.
Let us pray:Light of the World, we give you thanks for this mystery, for how your Word became and becomes flesh to live among us. We give you thanks for the grace upon grace we have received from you. Now we ask that as we light candles and sing, your grace will grow within us, overflowing to touch those around us. For each of us here will hold a flickering candle; seemingly insignificant one by one, yet magnificent when held together. Let your light pour out of this place, that all may know how your light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. Amen.
1Communion Liturgy based on Matthew by Shannon Sullivan, 2014.