Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Beyond the Pageant: What is the story of Jesus' birth?

The readings for this week.

Click on video to listen to the sermon.

This past week I heard some chatter down in the parish hall and I was being noisy so i made my way down. I happened upon the Preschool’s pageant rehearsal and I saw shepherds and angels and lots of sheep.  and saw that the preschoolers were practicing for their Christmas pageant. I stood there and looked down and there are Joseph and Mary standing there with me in the back of the parish hall, and they are about three feet high. Then Little Mary and Joseph proudly processed in and marched on up to the stage where Mary picked up a baby doll and Joseph knocked on the inn door. Then this adorable 4-year-old innkeeper confidently projected her line; “there is NO room in the Inn!” It is so sweet. And then you hear Mary yell, “Can we stay in your stable?” And the Innkeeper once again projects, “YES, you can!” It was so sincere and adorable as they confidently told the story of Jesus’ birth.

I found myself smiling over the joy and looking at these beautiful children taking their job of telling the story of Jesus so seriously.  

Yet, as I made my way back to my office smiling over the precious scene I had just witnessed, I got to thinking about the real story of Jesus’ birth, and Matthew tells us today that his account of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, is what really took place. And the more I think about Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth announcement, the more that part of the story becomes less precious and cute to downright scary.

Scary? The story of Joseph hearing from an angel in a dream to take Mary as his wife and his compliancy with the command leads them to making the difficult journey to Bethlehem where Jesus is born. We can say that the birth story has a happy ending. Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes, asleep in a manger—healthy and alive during a time where a high mortality rate during childbirth. Joseph’s obedience leads to this positive outcome.

However, a closer look at the historical context of these eight verses we see that this was not a simple story of Joseph saying yes to the angel but a complicated, complex and ultimately dangerous tale of God calling two people to care for the most precious gift to our world, Jesus.

What makes this story complicated and somewhat scary is that in the ancient world a woman pregnant not by her husband would not only be subject to extreme public and religious shaming and alienation but stoned to death.

I use the words scary and terrifying in reference to our gospel today because Mary was living in a world where being an unmarried, pregnant woman was fatal (terrifying). And it’s scary for me to think that a young girl was given such a massive responsibility that carried a great risk for her well-being.

That is why for the longest time, I have struggled with Joseph’s contemplation over how to dismiss Mary, to technically abandon her. He plans to do so privately in order to avoid public disgrace but no matter how private the dismissal, any public knowledge of Mary’s pregnancy would have subjected her to a fatal punishment.

Matthew’s Gospel attempts to make a point that Joseph is a “righteous” man, a good guy who wants to look out for Mary by avoiding publicity over pregnancy. But I also think like any other human being, Joseph probably wanted to avoid public awareness of the pregnancy for himself as well. As Mary’s betrothed he would soon be accountable for her. And it might have made him fearful of what the public would have said about his accountability in the situation—asking how Joseph had some responsibility in all of this.

That is why the angel appears to Joseph and says, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Do not be afraid—there are a lot of things weighing in on that command. 

Do not be afraid, Joseph of what people may say and think about you. Do not be afraid of the financial stress of having a child. Do not be afraid of traveling with a pregnant woman. Do not be afraid to take Mary on as your wife – – to be her husband and companion. Do not be afraid to be a father. Joseph, do not be afraid of the risks that this responsibility will hold for you. Do not be afraid.
Well, this time of year the feelings of fear (being afraid) and anxiety and sadness, they don’t feel like they fit or there is room for them in a season that we celebrate the joy and hope and peace to come on Christmas. 

We are like this birth announcement in the Gospel of Matthew, we may be invested in the season but deep down we may have our fears and anxieties or feelings of loss, that don’t go away just because it’s a season where we may feel like we have to be happy. These feelings actually become more real and vulnerable because there is a stark contrast between them and joy.

That’s why despite wanting to see the birth story as innocently as the preschoolers in the pageant, I find myself this year fortunate to find that the grace of this story for us is that God brought God’s son into a world riddled with it’s own dysfunction and turmoil, and gave him to two parents imperfect, poor and one of which was very afraid. God picked imperfection. God choose someone who did fear and was nervous and not sure. That is so reassuring that God still chooses us and loves us and wants us to be part of God’s will for the world despite the sadness and fear we bring. 

On Friday morning, I was on a flight to Durham, North Carolina because my best friend from seminary was getting ordained to the priesthood. I ended up sitting next to this young guy, who had never met a female priest before so he had a lot of questions. But we were halfway through the flight we had stopped talking and I had put my headphones on and tried to concentrate on my sermon. A little while later, I felt a tap on my shoulder and when he turned to me, I could tell that he was a little teary and said without preface, “Sometimes I just feel like as hard as I try as a Christian to pray and read scripture and go to church, as hard as try to be a good Christian, I’ll just never be good enough. I just don’t think I’ll ever get there.”

I could definitely relate to that—the harder I try sometimes the harder things get. This guy was bringing up a reality that is real for many of us, of feeling inadequate or unsure if we measure up--to our families, jobs, and to God. It can be very exhausting and very real.   
I had to think for a minute but then I told the guy that for me being a good Christian or a Christian, is knowing that I’m loved and because I am loved by a forgiving God, I just keep trying. Trying to be good is yes, praying, reading scripture and going to church, but it is also means an intentional awareness of what means to be patient and kind and loving to those around me but also to myself. Because God’s love overcomes the fears and insecurities we have, because He chooses us despite of them, just like he chose Joseph--to be the human father of a messiah. To risk his reputation as a righteous man to take mary as his wife--to protect her and help her carry out God’s call for them to care for God’s son. 

At the end of our conversation, he had another question for me, “What are your spiritual gifts?” I had to think about that question too. And these were all great questions  he had for me. But I think it is really important as we enter advent and we light each candle each week--hope, peace, joy and now love. What spiritual gifts do we have that will overcome the fear and anxiety of this season and this year?

The story of Jesus birth does may not have begun under the safest or easiest of circumstances for Mary and Joseph. The risks for Mary to be pregnant and unmarried, the risks for Joseph to be associated with her along with his concerns for her well-being—this is a scary and overwhelming situations. A time that would normally be joyful at the expectation of a child, is blurred by fear and uncertainty. And that uncertainty along with all the other factors of this complicated birth announcement in Matthew is what makes this story scary and unnerving until the angel reassure Joseph and us to not be afraid. 

The Regional Canon for the Diocese of North Carolina, The Rev. Dr. Rhonda Lee preached at my friend’s ordination to the priesthood yesterday that for clergy if we never risk controversy, we risk never preaching the gospel. And I think this is true for all of us as Christians.  If we never risk getting passed ourselves (fear/impatience) we risk not experiencing the opportunity to experience God’s love and God’s love through others. 

This week as we gear up for Christmas and our pageant here on Saturday, may we think about the story in a different way. May we think about Mary and Joseph and what they risked for God. And let us think about our spiritual gifts that will help us with our own risks. Amen.

The Rev. Jessica E. Sexton

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