Sunday, December 19, 2010

Advent 4A: "The gift of glorious, impossible, insanity."

Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010 

I’ve got a question for you. Suppose I told you that this week we found out that a splinter group called the Anglican Church in North America was saying that because Christ Church Cathedral had departed from what they view as a correct interpretation of scripture they were suing us for ownership of the Cathedral and demanding that we turn over control of this building to them by January 1, 2011.

What would your response be? Why?

Congregation responses were along the lines of “No way, ” “Fat chance,” and “because it’s ours.” And “because that’s crazy” … one person asked if they’d take the Tuttle building instead.

OK, What if I told you that Chapter met last Thursday night and voted to give not only the Cathedral building but the Tuttle Building and the parking lot to the Anglican Church in North America as of January 1. What would you think of your Cathedral Chapter and their decision?

How many people would agree with that decision? Raise your hands. No hands were raised.

How many people think that the Chapter would have been negligent in their responsibilities to the Cathedral and the Diocese? Raise your hands.

Many hands went up.

Suppose Jim McGregor stood up here and, with you all holding your pitchforks and tomatoes said here’s why we did this:

“In Matthew 5:40, Jesus said, “When someone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your cloak, too.”

How many would think Chapter was even crazier than before? Lots of hands went up.

And you know what, you’d be right. By every standard we are used to measuring things, that decision would be crazy. If this scenario played out, the world would call us crazy. And by every standard but one, we absolutely would be. But that standard is the standard of God in Jesus Christ. The standard of the Gospel. That standard wouldn’t necessarily tell us whether that decision was right or wrong. But it would say that the process we used -- the process of really listening to what Jesus said on the topic, the process of really struggling with not just what was the legal thing to do or the smart thing to do but what would Jesus have us do – that proces was right on the money. And it would say that if people were calling us crazy, that was a good sign that we were on the right track.

Our readings from the Bible each Sunday are selected in a three-year cycle, with a different primary Gospel for each year. Each new year begins in Advent. Last year, we heard from the Gospel according to Luke. This year, we get Matthew. And Matthew’s got a whole lot of crazy in it.

For Matthew, the Gospel is primarily a how-to book. It’s a training manual for disciples of Jesus. Matthew wants to take the law – the way that the people have been told they were supposed to live for hundreds and hundreds of years -- and say all of that has been summed up in one life … the life of Jesus. Matthew has a simple message for us. He tells the story of Jesus and says, “be like this.” And the story of Jesus is pretty unusual.

Take the story of Jesus’ birth. We’re used to the Luke story. The angel Gabriel comes to Mary and her incredible act of courage in saying yes to God. Shepherds and angels. It’s a beautiful story.

Matthew’s story is different.. First of all, in Matthew’s story, Joseph is the main character. Second, Matthew doesn’t spend a lot of time painting a picture.  Instead he tells a simple story with a very clear, three step pattern that runs throughout this whole Gospel. Here’s how it goes:

Step one: God or Jesus makes a statement or gives a direction that sounds absolutely crazy, with the only rationale being “because that’s my dream for the world.”

Step two: If you believe the crazy statement or follow the crazy direction, it means you are a disciple. If you don’t, you’re not.

Step three: Because following directions everyone else says are crazy is really hard, God promises to be with us every step of the way. Throughout the Gospel, God promises that we will never have to do this alone.

You see this pattern in this morning’s Gospel. Let’s walk through it. We start with the crazy statement:

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

OK! Stop right there! Did you get that? We’re being told to believe that Mary became pregnant without the help of another human being?  And not only that, we’re told this in a completely matter-of-fact way, like instead of Matthew saying “she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” he was saying “…and she was found to have a fondness for hummus.” He doesn’t give any explanation of how or even why.  And not only are we, as disciples in training, being told to believe this, Joseph, who by the way is engaged to this woman who has somehow shown up pregnant, is supposed to buy this, too! Pretty crazy.

OK. Step two. Now we get the crazy direction.

“An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Boom! Stop there. Joseph, you’re supposed to marry someone whom everyone will think is an adulterer – a crime potentially punishable by death, by the way. And perhaps end up with everyone thinking you are an adulterer, too.  Without any guarantee that this will all work out OK. Without any explanation why except for God saying, “because I said so.”

OK, That’s Step Two. That leaves Step Three. Now, we get the promise:
“All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him, Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”’
You see, God knows this sounds crazy, and that’s why the very name of the child God is asking Joseph to adopt is a promise that God will be with him every step of the way. And, for good measure, God gives Joseph and Mary, the two people who said yes to all this insanity, God gives them to each other in marriage so neither one has to go through this alone.

In Matthew’s how-to Gospel of discipleship, there are three steps we’re supposed to follow. To hear God tell us something crazy. To believe and follow it without expecting or creating a rational explanation. To trust that God is with us and to look for and embrace the partners God gives us in this absolutely crazy life of following Christ.

Now this isn’t some call to biblical literalism or fundamentalism.  One of the reasons I’m an Episcopalian is that we don’t read scripture literally but use tradition and reason to help us interpret it. The problem is how we’ve used that word “reason.” “Reason” is supposed to be the process of us as a community coming together and using our thoughts, prayers and conversation to discover how a Christ who at every turn rejected the wisdom of the world means for us to live here and now.

But instead way too often, we use it as a qualifer for following Jesus. Follow Jesus … when what he’s saying makes sense.  We take the Gospel message and we take what makes sense to the world and we look for where the Venn diagram merges and we call that small section of it discipleship.

The problem is, the God who told Joseph “don’t be afraid to take Mary for your wife”  promises us many things, but making sense isn’t one of them. It’s actually the opposite. This is the same God who sings to Isaiah “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways.”  We follow a Jesus who every time we think like Alice in Wonderland and say “there’s no use trying, one can’t believe impossible things” invites us instead to be like the White Queen believing as many as six impossible things before breakfast! 

Impossible things like:
*Love your neighbor as yourself.
*When someone strikes you on the right cheek turn the other one toward him.
*When someone sues you for your coat, give them your cloak as well.

Impossible things like
*Rejoice when people curse you and criticize you
*Go, sell all that you have, give it to the poor and follow me.

Impossible things like “You are the light of the world.”

Jesus doesn’t let the world define crazy and sane because, frankly, the world doesn’t have that good a track record in the sanity department.

Look around us.

Look around and you’ll see a world where a child dies every three seconds of stupid preventable poverty.

Where we’re told it makes sense to spend billions of dollars on weapons to kill each other but we can’t afford to give millions of people basic medical care.

Where we’re told we should fear someone because of the color of their skin or what they believe.

Where I’m told that two people of the same sex who love each other is a threat to my marriage.

Where we’re told that a great way to celebrate the birth of Christ is to buy people who already have more junk than they know what to do with, more stuff that they don’t need in the first place.

And we’re letting this world tell us that Jesus is crazy?

Madaleine L’Engle calls the birth of Christ “The Glorious Impossible” … and as the body of Christ, that’s what we get to be, too: The Glorious Impossible. We get to hear things that the world says are insane. We get to come together and think and pray and talk, and without fear or rationalization really try to figure out how Jesus means for us to live like that. And then we get to believe impossible things and do impossible things and follow a God who promises never to leave us, and rejoice when people curse us and feel blessed if it makes us poor. 

This week as we prepare for Christmas, I have a challenge for us to walk in Joseph and Mary’s footsteps just a little. As you return from receiving communion you’ll pass by a basket with slips of paper in it. Each slip of paper has a passage from Matthew on it. Something that some people might think is absolutely crazy. I invite you to reach in and take one. Then let the passage rest on your heart this week. Share it with a friend or a family member, remembering that God invites us into the impossible but promises we’ll never go it alone. Ask yourself: “What is Jesus inviting me to believe? To be? To do?”

As we move toward Christmas, let’s spend this week not thinking about what makes sense but about how God is inviting us to believe gloriously impossible things and live in gloriously impossible ways. To celebrate the absolute craziness of a God who wanted to be born as a refugee child in a stable, and who invites us to be that gloriously, impossibly, crazy, too.  AMEN.

1 comment:

  1. Another great one, Mike. I especially like the paragraphs leading up to "And we’re letting this world tell us that Jesus is crazy?" I'm sorry I wasn't there to hear this, but I'm going to take a look at Matthew for a crazy thing to do as Jesus' disciple, and then ponder it, share it, and maybe even do it or believe it.