Sunday, December 18, 2022

Phil Kniss: An untidy genesis

LOVE: Waiting for love to be born
Genesis 1:1-2; Psalm 23:1-6; Matthew 1:18-25

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file [click here]

...or read it online here:

Christmas, I’ve decided, can be a fairly untidy season.
    Those of us drawn toward things that are orderly,
        can find it a bit stressful.
        Light strings get tangled.
        Traffic gets jammed.
        Calendars get full.
    At our house, there are containers stacked in odd corners.
    Cookie tins and chocolate boxes are strewn around the kitchen.
    And . . . as charming as Christmas trees can be,
        adding one to our small 1920s-style living room,
        always crowds the other furniture,
            and our cozy room loses its feng shui.

And in many households,
    other kinds of messiness comes to the surface.
    Relationships are under greater stress.
    Family reunions can be dicey.
    Loss and grief stare us in the face.

But why shouldn’t it be this way? Why shouldn’t it be?
    What gives us the idea that Christmas should be perfect?
        Shall we blame Currier and Ives picture-perfect scenes
            that have dominated Christmas cards for the last 120 years?
        Shall we blame the relentlessly cheerful and well-dressed
            entertainers singing carols on TV?

We should all be thankful for the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth.
    They bring us back to earth real quick,
        if we actually read them, and think about what we’re reading.
    Jesus had an extremely untidy genesis.

Now, “an untidy genesis” might seem like a strange turn of the phrase.
    But I was struck, in today’s Gospel,
        that the writer of Matthew chose that very word, “Genesis,”
        to talk about Jesus emerging on the scene.

It’s a Greek word.
    Our Bible begins with the Book of Genesis, as you know.
    That title comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible,
        “Genesis” meaning,
            coming into being, emergence, the birth of something new.
        That’s the word when God says “let there be . . .”
            light, land and sea, animals, etc.
            Literally, “Let them have genesis.”

The word Genesis is not used very often in the New Testament.
    There’s a more precise word for the birth of a baby.
    But Matthew chose to use “genesis” when he wrote v. 18,
        “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”
    I think he chose to say the “genesis of Jesus” deliberately,
        because he was talking about much more
        than certain events that happened in a stable in Bethlehem.

In fact, unlike Luke, where we get all the Christmas-y details—
        Bethlehem, stable, shepherds, angels—
    Matthew barely mentions the actual birth,
        only that it happened; in about six words, no details.

But what Matthew is very interested in telling us,
    is about the kind of world that Jesus emerged into.
He wants us to know what was going on in the life
    of the human family Jesus entered,
    what the larger social and political context was.
        And about that, we learn a lot in the Gospel of Matthew.

In two weeks, we launch into several months in this Gospel,
    starting with the most fascinating, and untidy,
        genealogy you’ve ever read.
    That’s the other place in Matthew that the word “Genesis”
        is used—at the beginning of his family tree.
    To introduce his genealogy,
        Matthew 1:1 says, translated literally,
            the book of the genesis of Jesus.
        You’ll get all the details of that in 2 weeks.

So immediately after listing the 42 messy generations between
    Abraham and Jesus,
    Matthew launches into the story of the social context
        Jesus was born into.
        And it’s untidy . . . to put it mildly.

He starts the story with Joseph, interestingly.
    Matthew is the only one who gives us a portrait of Joseph.

From what we know of marriage customs,
    and from details in the text,
    the best assumption here
        is that Joseph and Mary were legally married,
        but were not yet united as a couple.
    The legal arrangement between the families had been made,
        the papers signed,
        but they were holding off starting their own household.
            They both were still with their parents.
        Maybe Joseph had to finish building the house
            they would live in.
        Maybe he still owed Mary’s parents some money or property.
        They were not together as a couple,
            but they were legally bound.
            Only a divorce could change that.

    Mary’s pregnancy at this stage,
        created huge problems for both Joseph and Mary.
        Mary was at risk of losing all her financial security,
            and becoming unmarriageable.
        Joseph was at risk of losing his honor, and that of his family.

    But after a visit by an angel, Joseph took on the risk,
        and decided to protect Mary,
        and follow through with the marriage.

    That in itself is enough of a mess,
        for us to call this an untidy genesis.
    But that story is just a microcosm of the mess
        the whole world was in,
        and just how fraught and fragile was the human community,
            the Jewish community,
            where Jesus emerged, had his genesis.

Jesus was born into a hostile and dangerous world,
    ruled by a brutal and deranged and insecure king Herod.
    Herod ruled with an iron fist.
    There were numerous attempts to overthrow him,
        some by his own family.
    He didn’t hesitate killing anyone who seemed to be a threat.
    He had three of his own sons executed,
        and one of his wives.
    He was so insecure—and so deranged—that on his death bed,
        he apparently ordered that a large group of prominent citizens
            be brought to his palace,
            and executed when he died,
            to make sure there would be national mourning,
                instead of celebration, when he died.
        His family did not carry out that plan, however.

The Roman emperor crowned Herod with the title “King of the Jews,”
    but the Jews never accepted that, of course.
    Herod was not of David’s line.
    So Herod never knew when the Jews might try to overthrow him.

Given all that, the next couple chapters in Matthew’s story
    are not that surprising,
        concerning Herod’s rage when the three wise men
        didn’t go back and report on the location of the child Jesus,
            the new so-called “King of the Jews.”
    Also not surprising,
        the story about his mass murder of the children,
        to try to make sure Jesus would not grow to adulthood.
    As horrifying and repulsive as that tale is,
        for Herod, it was par for the course.
        It wasn’t his first bloodbath, and it wouldn’t be his last.

This was the world where Jesus had his genesis.
    The one named “Emmanuel,”
        came tiny, helpless, red and wrinkled.
        Completely vulnerable.
        Completely dependent.
        Already with a price on his head.
    Jesus and his family became refugees, fleeing to Egypt.
        Dependent on the goodwill of strangers in a strange land.

Why do we think we deserve a “perfect Christmas?”
    Why should we despair about the sorrows and fears we face
        as Christmas comes ‘round again
        in this messy world we live in.
    Everything about the story of Jesus’ genesis is messy.

    The stigma of Mary and Joseph’s marital situation.
    The oppressive tax and census that Caesar ordered,
        that brought them to Bethlehem to begin with.
    Their poverty relegating them to a barn out back to give birth.
    Their land being occupied by a foreign power.
    Their deranged and violent king.
    Their status as refugees seeking asylum.
    The massacre of the innocents.
    The religious in-fighting between different Jewish parties,
        with radically different visions of the future.

But here’s the thing—
    it is precisely into such a messy world
        that God had a new genesis—
        that God emerged as Emmanuel.

Historically, saying God is with us, is a way of saying,
    “Everything’s going our way!”
When fortune smiles on people, the assumption is “God is with them.”
    Health and good fortune are held up as evidence
        of God’s presence and blessing.

But in Jesus, the opposite is the case.
    God makes a choice to come and be with us
        in the worst of times.
        When all hell seems to be breaking loose,
            there Emmanuel emerges,
            there love is born,
            there is the untidy genesis of Jesus,
                who comes to save, to heal, to redeem.

And to be clear, this isn’t a new strategy for God.
The first verses of the Bible, Genesis 1:1-2, that we heard this morning
    make clear that God’s first move in creation, first move,
        was to enter the chaos and be in the thick of it,
            bringing about the genesis of shalom.
    We also heard the twenty-third Psalm today,
        where God is praised as the one who prepares a table
        in the presence of . . . our enemies.

    So people of faith, do not despair!
    Proclaim hope! Proclaim love! Boldly!

The story of Jesus’ untidy genesis proves one thing—
    that God will stop at nothing to show us love;
    that God yearns to save us from sin and death;
    that God is intent to heal and restore a broken creation,
        to bring about a new creation
        shaped by justice, mercy, and love.

One of my favorite Christmas poems is “Risk of Birth”
    by Madeleine L’Engle.
    It’s a short 12-line poem. You can look it up.
    I took six of the lines, roughly half the poem,
        and rearranged and added to them, for our confession today.
    Please read it along with me, in your bulletin, or on the screen.

one  O God, even in this season of hope,
        we confess our struggle to trust that
        your love is ready to be born in this world.
        With the earth betrayed by war and hate,
        while time runs out and the sun burns late.
all    Give us the courage to wait.
one  While honor and truth are trampled to scorn,
        when is a good time for love to be born?
all    Now is the time.
        Come, Lord Jesus, make this your home again.

one  Though the inn is full on the planet earth,
        And many wonder what life is worth,
        God’s love still takes the risk of birth.

—Phil Kniss, December 18, 2022

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below]

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Paula Stoltzfus: An unlikely candidate

PEACE: Waiting for peace with justice
Esther 4:1-17; Isaiah 11: 1-3a; Luke 1:68-70, 78-79

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file [click here]

...or read it online here:

Esther is another story with nuance and complexity.  Although when is there not a story involving complex relational human beings.

It is alongside Ruth, which we looked at this summer, as being the second book to be named after a woman.  

We could call Esther yet another unlikely candidate to be used by God. She was young, female orphaned and raised by her cousin Mordecai, in a time when her religious community was in exile. It had been long enough for the Jewish community to have assimilated into the communities, intermarrying and working alongside Persian neighbors throughout the empire.

The Persian empire’s King, King Ahasuerus was in search of a new queen. A call went out in the city of Susa for virgin women to be selected to enter the King’s court. Esther was one among others who were chosen.  She was coached by her guardian cousin, Mordecai, to hide her ethnic identity. After over a year following the customs of the King’s court, Esther was chosen as Queen.

Through twists and turns of power, King Ahasuerus made Haman his right hand man.  With it came enough power that the King commanded people to bow in respect to Haman. Mordecai, who was a faithful presence at the King’s gate, keeping an eye, as much as possible, on Esther, refused to bow in respect. Out of anger, Haman’s conniving got the king’s support to create an edict that all the Jews in the Persian empire were to be killed. The edict’s date was set by rolling some dice which ended up being close to a year away.

Now this edict wasn’t an operation that was to be carried out by the military, but rather neighbors turning on neighbors. As the Jewish people were scattered, the edict was to give Persians the authority to kill their Jewish neighbors on the day.  It was a systematic dehumanizing of a people group.

Not unlike what has gone on in our history in dehumanizing people groups of color. Or what happened in the Hollocaust, tribal groups, or pitting one ethnic group against another in the name of superiority.

We aren’t told what other Jewish people did in the empire.  I’m sure there was anxiety beginning to boil in their pockets. Our passage opens with Mordecai choosing to make a public statement by ripping his clothes and putting on sackcloth and ashes in the middle of the city. He drew attention to himself.  

Esther, seemingly unaware of the edict, hears about the spectacle Mordecai is making and sends him clothes to try to quiet him down.  Or perhaps to be able to open the possibility of him to enter the King’s court to talk to her.  Whatever the case, Mordecai fills Esther in on the gravity of the situation.

Perhaps, “for such a time as this,” he says, you, Esther, in the King’s court, can do something about this incoming calamity. Esther clearly faced challenges growing up as a female, exiled, and orphaned. It was a matter of her survival to navigate the nuances of her status. Therefore she was all too familiar with a lack of power. Once Mordecai shook the scales from Esther’s eyes, she was able to think creatively about where her power did lay. She used all that she learned in surviving as a child through the eyes of observation to her advantage. So, When Mordecai put her life on the line, she was emboldened and empowered to see the agency and power she did have to act.

In her wisdom, she calls upon her people to join her in a communal fast. She may have been the lone Jew within the King’s court, but there was something about doing it with her people, scattered as they were. There was power in community.

Esther proceeded to act in ways that were creative and demonstrated her ability to master the  relationships and system around her. She was able to speak the language that caught the King’s attention, which was beauty and honor.  She dressed up as a queen and threw him not one but two banquets, along with his side-kick Haman. As a result, she was able to gain his trust and unveiled the scheme of Haman, leading to his demise. She and Mordecai end up being honored and given Haman’s house in return.

This is a story where all was not right with the world.  Power was corrupt.  The people of God were scattered. And yet, in the midst, the lowly were given power and the powerful were brought down.  

Sound familiar?

How many times have we heard of stories of God’s kingdom where those who don’t have power are lifted up and those in power are brought down?

The image in Isaiah of a branch out of the stump of Jesse offers both a humble and promising image.  A tree that held strength but no longer stands, still has life that will generate new growth.

Our Luke passage is Zachariah’s first words after John the Baptist was born, praising God for the redemption that was coming to pass. A savior was to come.

Esther may be a non-traditional advent story on peace Sunday. But that seems to be the way that God works throughout salvation history.  God works at redeeming the brokenness in our world and in our lives.  Esther may not have felt like she had much of anything to offer. Oh, but how her early years prepared her for what she orchestrated in this story, a redemption of the people she held dear.

We each hold a story within us.  One in which our childhoods shape our pains and our gifts.  One in which shapes the embedded narrative we tell ourselves of how good or not good enough we are, which instructs us in how much power or not we have.

Advent is a time of waiting and recognizing that all is not right with the world. However, waiting can be a way of exercising privilege if it is passive. It can be a bubble of comfort. Waiting for someone else to take action.

The invitation of Advent is a call for “all hands on deck.” It isn’t enough to wait for the help to come from “above.” or another corner of the church, town, or world.. Advent is a time of active waiting trying to figure out how we can be a part of bringing about God’s upending peace. What does it take to tap into our creativity, lean into our relationships, and exercise our imaginations of how the Divine seeds of peace can be planted and nurtured.

Our fates are tied together.

Esther exercised much wisdom. She saw the power of community.  We are not creatures to endure life alone.

She also was a master of the people and system of power around her.  She knew how to speak the language of ego and culture. That mixed with God’s insinuated presence in this story, brought about redemption.

We often couch our inaction in the words of insecurity or humility. The fact is that we all have gifts that stem from our life experiences.

What has life prepared you to be and do for just this time? How can we be present enough with God, ourselves, and our community to create seedbeds of peace?

The communion table is a place where all of who we are, mind, body and spirit meet. It is a tangible symbol of God’s desire to be in relationship with us, Christ’s love which surpasses death itself, and the Spirit’s flow of energy which goes beyond our human understanding.

It is a place where we surrender to our own will in order to be fed. As we are fed we are able to be open to ourselves and one another.  In the openness, we are more fully able to walk into the awareness of the fullness of “such a time as this.”

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below]