Plymouth Congregational UCC
Advent 4: Luke and Matthew.
Mary and Joseph’s story
Today’s Christmas story is a LOVE STORY. The Gospel of Luke tells the Christmas story and the birth of Jesus from Mary’s perspective. The Gospel of Matthew tells the Christmas story tells it from Joseph’s perspective. We are going to approach both today.
These stories are so familiar to us.
Mary was a young woman who in 1st century had no power. Not just because she is young, 12-14, not just because she is pregnant and without a husband, she didn’t have voice or consent over her body during these ancient times – others made those decisions for them.
But this story, gives a young woman choice VOICE to her situation.
We see evidence of this in our scripture today. The Angel of Gabriel tells Mary she will bear a son. Mary says how can this be? I am a virgin. Gabriel reassures her that this is from the Holy Spirit and Mary moves from being powerless to powerful by saying: verse 38 – “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary accepted the love of God at that moment.
Joseph’s version of the birth story is covered in Matthew and it goes like this.
Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married. Joseph’s plan, when he found out Mary was with child, was to quietly divorce her because he was a righteous or just man. Joseph was also heard the voice of an angel who said: ‘take Mary as your wife, what is conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus.”
As a just man he learned to follow the LAW in the Torah but he is torn by the message from the angel. Joseph’s quandary or his choice is this – follow the Torah (the Law) or follow God.
HE was definitely in a much better situation than Mary – simply because of his gender and his family genealogy. But he still had to make a choice because his status was a stake.
Joseph accepted the Love of God – accepted God’s message.
So….Don’t you want to know more? Don’t you want to know more about Mary and who she was and what her relationship with Joseph was like – where did they meet, were they junior high sweethearts or was it an arranged marriage? Don’t you want to reach out and have a conversation with her and find out how she survived these ancient times?
The hopeless romantic in me wanted this sermon to be a love story about Mary and Joseph – and their relationship and their unborn SON.
A romantic tale at Christmas time.
The reality is that this likely would have been scandalous situation! Yet, it is a love story. A love story with God and about God. Mary and Joseph each had their quandary. But as they journeyed to the first Christmas they walked into the unknown – relying on their own love story with God.
The good news is that it’s not just a story of 1st century it’s a story relevant to today. It’s our story.
The birth story or as Luke calls it “Mary’s story” empowers a nation to be pregnant with possibility. To birth hope, peace, joy, and love. It has the power to inspire us to rise above and be our best selves. This story affirms that God is born, conceived, birthed in all kinds of families, all kinds of situations. We don’t have to have status or power or money – we can live in the suburbs, cities, rural towns, single, married, divorced, young, old, doubtful, faithful, questioning, gay, lesbian, bi, trans – hurt, sad, - God meets you where you are.
This story affirms that God comes to all of us. All of us are created by God. To say that this child is from the Holy Spirit is to say that this is a radically new beginning and that it’s God’s doing. This is a love story.
This story says that God favors Mary. A poor, young Jewish girl – this was not typical in a world when this situation could have been very dehumanizing in a time when the rich and powerful were thought to be favored – and most always men.
In this story, Mary was chosen instead of stoned to death and told to not be afraid. And Mary says; let it be with me according to your word. She had a SAY. It favors the unfavored.
It encourages us not to be afraid in the face of a violent and frightening world because God lives in all of us. Not just in Jesus but also the likes of Mary and Joseph. She carried God within her. She birthed God. This is a radical love story. This story disrupts our thinking and asks us to open our hearts to difference, to different people and different situations.
Because God is love and this is a love story. Mary was chosen because she was different. There is no one standard of people or situation that God favors. God favors ALL of us.
We are invited to learn from this story. To invite the love of God into our lives – no matter whom we are or what we experience – whether we feel isolated or broken, joyous or exuberant.
We learn to accept those who might be shamed or ostracized. Those who may be facing a quandary – Law or God. God wants to birth something new in us – hope, peace, joy, and love – in you and me. No matter whom we are! All of us.
How will we respond to this story? How will we respond to the Holy Spirit who dwells not just in Mary and Joseph but in us within us? How will we deal with the impossible? When society says one thing and God says another? Let us look around our world. Where is the possibility?
This story says that nothing is impossible. How will we rewrite our story based on the greatest story ever? If we embody the messages of hope, peace, joy and love – will we accept the challenge of the Holy Spirit?
Will we see the impossible in Mary and Joseph’s situation and make it our story?
Will we extend the meaning of this LOVE STORY in our lives?
I hope so!
Praise be to God! Amen.
Rev. Carla Cain has just begun her ministry at Plymouth as a Designated Term Associate Minister (two years).
Micah 5. 2-4; Isaiah 35.1-10
Zephaniah 3.14-18; Luke 1.26-38 (scroll to bottom for texts)
Advent Service of Lessons and Carols
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
I listened to these ancient texts this week in tandem with hearing the news of the week: the continued debate of impeachment hearings in Congress, the naming of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, climate change activist, as Time magazine’s Person of the Year and the bullying response of the President to that news, the memory of the Sandy Hook school shooting on its 7th anniversary yesterday, December 14th, and the knowledge that families are still separated at our southern border and children are kept in cages. This is heartbreaking, fear-producing stuff.
After the synagogue shooting this past April in Poway, CA, New York Times columnist, David Brooks, titled his column, “An Era Defined by Fear; the emotional tone underneath the political conflicts.” Brooks writes that fear pervades our society. That is really no news to any of us. But he lays it out so succinctly that we recognize it, especially as it is in stark contrast to the celebration of this season. Brooks tells us that politicians use fear to rise to power setting one group or tribe of people against another. Fear comes from our own personal traumas and experiences in childhood and beyond. Fear is exploited by the media to grab headlines. Fear grips our minds, making us numb and unable to hear good news. Fear makes us angry and acting out of anger produces more fear. Fear paralyze sour ability to take practical action, to get stuff done for the good of ourselves, our families, our communities and our world. Fear paralyzes our ability to share abundance, to be generous.
Did you hear the word of God proclaimed by our prophets today, Micah, Isaiah, Zephaniah and the gospel writer, Luke? Each of these powerful writers was addressing a community in their time that was beset by fear. Fear of oppression and persecution, fear of failure, fear of even surviving. We are not the first generation to live in the midst of great fear. Isaiah says to the people through all that revitalizing imagery of the barren wilderness coming alive, “Be strong, do not fear! God will come to save you.” Zephaniah tells the people, “you shall fear disaster no more! Rejoice and exult. Do not fear, do not let your hands grow weak...God is in your midst.” The angel says to Mary, “Do not be afraid for you have found favor with God.” Micah promises One who is coming as a shepherd to lead and protect the people. “They shall live secure; [for] this One is of peace. “
These words are also for us in our era of fear. They are not “pie-in-the-sky by and by” words. They hold Truth that grounds us. Truth we can know through our faith, through trusting in God’s presence even in the midst of extreme adversity when there seems to be no hope on the horizon, through putting our faith into action day after day. At the end of his column, Brooks writes, “Fear comes in the night. But eventually you have to wake up in the morning, get out of bed and get stuff done.”
My friends, for us that “stuff” is reading and remembering the promises of we have heard in our texts today. That “stuff” is praying with these promises in our hearts and minds. That “stuff” is our daily acts of kindness to combat the pervasiveness of fear. That “stuff” is working for justice, caring for our families, coming to worship, celebrating this Advent season of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love that prepares us to receive at Christmas and beyond, to receive again and again and again the Holy One who came to show us how to be human by being God with us.
Does it seem impossible some days to keep on keeping on in the face of the fear and anger in our age? Yes, it does. But remember, the angel says, “With God nothing will be impossible.” And that, my friends, is a promise of pure joy that sustains us through happiness and sadness.
Fear not! God is in the midst of you! God is with us! With God nothing will be impossible....barren wildernesses bloom, miraculous births abound, people are united in love rather than hate. God comes in human form, the baby of a poor, migrant woman grows up to show us all how to live in the transforming ways of God! Be joyful and rejoice! Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2019. All rights reserved.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
Will you join with me in prayer? May the words of my mouth and the meditations and transformations of each of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, O God, our peacemaker and creator. Amen.
Today is the Academy Awards, or the “Oscars” as we also know them. Gerhard, my husband, and I love the Academy Awards! We love watching the interviews on the red carpet, the live music, sometimes the jokes (that varies a lot depending on the host), and we love rooting for our favorite films. As a minister, though, it makes me reflect deeply on the power these movies and particular genres of film have over us and our ethics and national values.
Movies can be a force for good and social change, but often over time, through repetition of themes and motifs, they have formed some of our worst collective ways of dealing with love, with conflict, and how to “deal with” and “take care of” a perceived enemy. Thanks to Westerns, in particular, our collective American Conflict Resolution looks more like the John Wayne film True Grit than it does the ways of Jesus. True Grit and the ways of US Marshall Rooster Cogburn hold more weight than the ways of Jesus of Nazareth in our culture. Movies and television often drive values or ethics more than meditation, places of worship, friendships, or Spiritual teachings like today’s absolutely fabulous Scripture from the Gospel of Luke.
When we think about what forms our idea of an enemy, we think of the movies and classic American Westerns above all where there are clear lines between the good and the bad. These formulaic, overly simplistic films that Hollywood is still producing have generated a popular way of thinking about enemies and how to deal with them. Violence and division seem to be the resolution in most cases. Regardless of if you have ever even watched a Western, they are enculturated into our mores and values.
Love him or hate him, disregarding his politics, still one of the top ten most popular movie stars of all time, according to a recent poll, is still John Wayne and his Westerns. Huffington Post movie critic and film expert John Farr tried to get to the bottom of the question: “Why [does] John Wayne still rank among today’s most popular stars?”
Farr writes, “What accounts for this actor’s uncanny endurance? Other better actors played cowboys, like Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart. Other bigger stars like Clark Gable and Gregory Peck played soldiers. But around the world, whenever John Wayne played a cowboy or a soldier, he was America. Wayne’s persona—its bigness, roughness…literally came to define our heritage. And to a surprising degree, it still does.” This cultural identity power is still with us and our politics. We all are trying to live like John Wayne in a Western in how we respond to perceived enemies—as both progressives and conservatives.
Think about it: How does Conflict Resolution usually work in a Western? Does it end in transformation and wisdom seeking understanding? Is the community better off or transformed because of discourse and problem-solving out there on the range? Are different sides seeking common ground or shared space? Can one town tolerate two authorities? No, none of that mushy, highfalutin European stuff! Is there resolution? Is there resolution to the dispute? Yes! Always! There is always resolution—usually with a rifle, a duel, or a high plains shootout. My thesis this morning: American Conflict Resolution is not the same as the Conflict Transformation of Jesus.
Where does our Scripture today fit within this overwhelming cultural narrative of power to oppose enemies rather than transform community?
Today, in Luke Chapter Six, we find ourselves in the Wild West of the Ancient World, and we are on the side of the outlaw. We are with a wanted outlaw named Jesus or “Jesus the Kid” as he was probably referred to by local authorities. Chapter Six of The Gospel According to Luke is a somewhat lawless, Wild West chapter of the Bible for the Jesus of Nazareth story. In most of this chapter, the writer of Luke lets us know that Jesus and his small band of disciples were popularly viewed as the outlaws, the problem, and the enemy. Yes, what is often missed about Jesus’ discourse on “Love Your Enemies” is that it appears in the middle of a chapter where he and his band are the Wild West Outlaws.
In the first verse of this chapter, Jesus and his disciples take some grain from a field and work it and eat it on their way. The Pharisee Sheriff stops him, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath around these parts?” Jesus replies, “The son of man is lord of the Sabbath.” There is a new sheriff in town!
A couple of verses later, in verses 6-11, we read that Jesus got in a fight with the local authorities in another small town while healing a man’s hand on the sabbath. He says to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save a life or destroy it?” Jesus is a theological and legal outlaw on the high plains of Ancient Israel. Truly, I tell you this is Wild West sort of material, and with Jesus there is a new Sheriff in town.
In my reading of Chapter Six, by the time we get to the Enemies Discourse from today’s lectionary, Jesus is breaking down and going on a verbal rampage. He is tired of being called an enemy everywhere he goes. I view this as a sort of exasperated Jesus who is tired of being chased down, on the run, and accused of breaking the law and being the enemy all the time. He is ready to set the record straight.
Jesus responds to his reputation as an outlaw of the powers that be by proving it to be true. In a world or tribalism, divisions, and enemies at every turn, Jesus announces that there is a new sheriff in town with a new set of rules. Jesus posts these new rules on the swinging door of the saloon:
“But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.[a] Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
There are at least three overlooked points about this passage that will help us better understand it and how to live under by the rules of Sheriff Jesus rather than Sheriff John Wayne.
First, as I have already alluded to, if read correctly within the context of Luke, Chapter 6, Jesus is the one who is constantly being accused of being the enemy. They were the outlaws of the Empire, the sheriff, and the religious powers of the time. Love your enemies, friends, is about how we hope people might even treat us. It is a reversal of perspective.
Here is the resulting, useful spiritual practice for the Progressive Church in the time of divisive politics: In moments of local, personal, or national disagreement give yourself the label of enemy. We love to be the Wild West heroes. We love the be the saviors of the town on the side of the good, but it is powerful to try to see how we are challenging for others or even threatening.
This doesn’t mean that we as progressives give up or weaken in our resolve, especially in the face of so much injustice, but it does mean that we find the humanity, the love, the need for our enemies again. We need to disengage from the script of a Wild West Western we are all living through politically. It is an enculturated script we all follow. For every enemy you make, you make of yourself an enemy.
This does not mean that we are wrong or let go of our work and justice advocacy, but it is a practice of self-evaluation and self-awareness that opens conversation.
In Western movies, good guys vs. bad guys is always dualistic. We must reject these dualistic world views—even the one we so often live into by calling ourselves “Progressive Christian” rather than just “Christian.” We pick the camp of politics rather than a camp of Christ.
The word enemy used in this passage comes from a Greek word meaning either someone who is actively hostile or passively odious. All of us are enemies of someone either actively or unconscious passively.
An example in my work: I know that when I go into a room where I am meeting with Evangelical or Fundamentalist Christians for Habitat for other reasons (there are a lot of these opportunities in affordable housing), they know that I am a gay minister. Therefore, in some way, I know that I am perceived as enemy even if we have common cause in other areas.
The only way I am able to speak with them and show compassion is to remember how challenging I am to their world view, their systems, their entire theological framework. I own who I am in the space, and I find compassion for the anxiety or change I must represent. All of us understand what fear of change or anxiety can feel like and can find compassion for that human quality rather than the cause itself.
If, for an instant, I look for how I might be seen as the enemy, it can change how I enter the room or engage conflict. I know that I represent pain, change, and fear of the unknown as the world and culture changes. That must be hard. While I will never agree with them or change who I am, I can find compassion for their experience. Rather than blaming them for their theology and context and cutting them off and refusing community or connection, isn’t it more powerful to come in with compassion for their fear while also owning who I am? Who knows where those relationships might lead?
In American Conflict Resolution, we always view ourselves as the hero cowboy or cowgirl on a high horse with a penultimate right to win and to resolve that conflict once and for all for the benefit of our understanding of good.
Where in your life do you know you are perceived as the enemy? Can you take the time to think of how you or what you represent might make that other person feel—even if you totally know that it is ridiculous or unfounded? Can you for even a second imagine their vantage point? Remembering always that Jesus was the perceived enemy rather than hero.
Now you are doing transformative work!
Secondly, we see Jesus in verses 32-35 making sure that the enemy is humanized. It is like a mirror. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.” Jesus is calling their and our bluff. He is really asking: Are you sure you are always the hero of this story? He points out that love for primary community and for family is a common value we all can relate to—so what makes a true hero?
Thirdly, and I love this, notice in this passage God hath not promise a life without enemies. A world without those who disagree with us is not promised. We like to pray for peace on earth, but it would appear God does not see uniformity of perspective or a lack of enemies as the way to achieve peace. “If only everyone saw the world exactly the way we see it here at Plymouth, then the Realm of God would be realized” … is theological fallacy. In fact, it appears that God’s will might be a world where we have to find compromise—maybe that is where the Sacred is found. The Peace of Christ lies in learning somewhere in living well with difference.
This brings me back to the problem with the True Grit and the American idea of Conflict Resolution. Resolution implies that there is one right outcome. It implies that conflict can be resolved once and for all. Resolutions result in violence, in arbitrary end, and in pain. At the end of the movie True Grit pretty much everything is resolved, but everyone except Wayne’s character and one other are pretty much dead. Is that really the model we want to follow even as progressives who are sure we are right?
I believe what Jesus is talking today about is akin to Conflict Transformation. One scholar writes, “[Conflict transformation] is something more than conflict management or conflict resolution. The goal of conflict transformation…is not only to end or prevent something bad but also to begin something new and good. Transformation asserts the belief that conflict can be a catalyst for deep-rooted, enduring, positive change in individuals, relationships, and the structure of human community.”
A couple of weeks ago, I received a text that I thought was a joke at first asking me to serve on Governor Polis’ Clergy Council. It is a small group of 11 interfaith clergy from across the state who meet with the governor several times a year to offer support, ideas, and perspective. I spent an hour with the governor and the group last week. During that meeting, a fellow clergyperson from Denver asked, “What can we do most to make a difference for good?” The governor thought for a minute and then asked us to do everything we can to help change this adversarial culture in our society of partisanship, artificial divisions, and the rampant creation of enemies. I agree with the new governor on this and am willing to work for a new civil discourse in our state and country. I see our Scripture today as God and Outlaw Jesus calling us to do better in trying to have compassion for and get to know our enemies in both personal and political settings.
In Colorado, the Wild West history is at our core. This True Grit Conflict Resolution is embedded in the DNA of our state history. It is every rancher for her or himself mentality. In some ways that means we have less open conflict than other states, but we are great good at putting up emotional barriers, riding people off and riding into the sunset. “You stay on your ranch and I’ll stay on mine and we be just fine so long as we don’t speak.”
In reality we need each other, we need transformation that comes from authenticity in conflict, and we need our enemies to start talking to us again more than ever. We can’t just stay on our separate Fox News or MSNBC ranches and stop engaging in real community. We can’t do that and just hope we will wake-up to a different world in the morning.
At the end of the movie True Grit… almost everyone is dead. That is not the outcome of Christ. Conflict Transformation calls us to not resolve things with violence and reinforcing divisions but to engage, forgive, and truly love our enemies. The proliferation of enemies and the “enemyification” of society will only slow down when we are willing to see our own role in being the enemy as Outlaw Jesus is in our story today. For it is only in learning to see ourselves both as hero and outlaw that we truly can come into conversation ready to be transformed.
Happy Trails to you—until we meet again! Amen.
3. Thomas Porter, The Spirit and Art of Conflict Transformation: Creating a Culture of JustPeace (Nashville: Upper Room, 2010), 5.
Related Original Liturgies
* Call to Worship
Leader: But I say to you that listen, love your enemies!
People: Do good to those who hate you.
Leader: Bless those who curse you.
People: Do to others as you would have them do unto you.
Leader: The word of God for the people of God is not always easy to hear. It is often against the grain of our popular culture and learned behavior.
All: May we rediscover the truly counter-cultural meaning of Christian love and learn to find goodness and God even in our worst enemies.
* Unison Prayer
Sometimes, God, we think we are Wild West heroes—take no prisoners, leave no question, lasso ambiguity, get things done, demonstrate true grit. Here on the Ranch of Life we confuse the values in movies for the ethics of Jesus. We know that is not your way. Today, we commit to a new way that seeks reconciliation where there is pain, self-reflection where there is pride, and an end to the building wave of enmity in our time. Amen.
* Unison Prayer of Thanksgiving and Dedication
May this table be a corral of forgiveness, a chuckwagon feast of grace, a pasture of plenty, and a reminder of your presence in and among our lives no matter what trails we may wander or paths we may trace. Help us to give with a sense of common good and remember always that we give not for ourselves but for your realm where enmity is no longer, and where love endures forever. Amen.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
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