St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church

Vancouver, B.C.

Phone: 604-877-1789

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The Anglican Parish of St. Mary Magdalene

2950 Laurel Street at West 14th Avenue

Vancouver, BC, V5Z  3T3

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Diocese of New Westminster Anglican Church of Canada

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Sermon

December 22nd Advent 7, 2019     John Marsh


Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25


A tale of two bumper stickers:


"Jesus is Coming. Look Busy!"


"God is coming …and she's pissed!"

~

Occasionally while reading, preparing for homiletic forays into what I hope is faithful madness, I get stuck on a turn of phrase, unable to move beyond…


This week is one such week as I was unable to move beyond Matthew 1:23b echoing Isaiah 7:13…


…they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."


God is with us… (?)


This caused me to wonder, is this a promise or a threat?


Do we hear this as good news or, as news perhaps rightly causing concern?


Perhaps much depends on your understanding of god, of whatever is astir within the name of god¹…


Do we understand god astir within many prophetic voices announcing the coming of ‘the day of the lord’, who proclaimed divine judgements on political, economic and religious practices, questioning the behaviours of the elites, political, religious or otherwise, who condemned practices of apostasy, false pieties, moral turpitudes, and unjust behaviours, threatening personal and national disasters; that such a god is with us is not necessarily good news.


That such a god of judgement and exacting demands is with us, calling us to account, lies behind many an anxiety attack, much cloaking and dissembling, most of our attempts at rationalizations, justifications and perhaps, so I hope and pray, the birthing of honest awareness leading to heartfelt confessions and earnest efforts at reconciliation…


And yet, the arrival of a judging, righteous god is not all that threatens…


That such a god is, in this world, so easily coopted by powers and principalities, used to buttress, defend and extend the powers of vested interests, whomever they may be, is reason why those harmed, burdened by the weight of personal, social, political, economic and religious inequities, have at times, as a matter of survival, dare I say life, left god behind, risking life without god, risking life free and clear of traditional societal expectations…


‘god is with us’ is, or may be, calling us to account or, may stir expressions of our wanting to call god and god’s minions to account…


And yet, the matter is not yet settled…


What are we to make of divine words of hope, holy words calling for structural redress, new beginnings, inviting new hearts, new minds, promising restoration and renewal, words of intimacy, hope, and connections, sacred words speaking of divine suffering, of god identifying with those poor, widowed, orphaned, those left on the dung heap of history, those forgotten in the back lanes of civilization…


What are we to make of a god of weakness who identifies with those weak, those nothings and nobodies of the world not simply as an act of solidarity but as an expression of identity²…


What are we to make of a god of reversals in which the last are first, those least among us are blessed, the hungry are fed, in which the nobody’s, the nothings and those of no account are heard, valued, a god calling for a reign of just compassion, what are we to make of such a god, one named Immanuel, god with us?³


Is not such a god balm to our soul?


Is not such a god love luring us?


Is not such god compassion calling us?


Is not such a god a god whose reign haunts us, perhaps luring us and others, challenging people and structures to risk change, to risk the work?


Truth to tell, perhaps yes, perhaps not…


Continuing, ‘God is with us’ and perhaps we will respond to the work, the work of bringing into existence God’s insistence …


‘God is with us’ and perhaps this is both good news and troublesome…


The question I’m left with is…


What is troublesome and what is good news?


In the end, I return to the gospel story:


"Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.      


And yet, is not this Jesus one of some difficulty, Yeshua bar Joseph, one said to be of god yet one demanding we follow to the end, the bitter end, one of vulnerability, one crucified, one exposed to death, one dying, one of whom the best we may say is his victory is embedded in defeat?⁴


A postscript:


A word after the text, a comment on what perhaps may follow thereafter in the form of a story…


Late that evening a group of unknown disciples packed their few belongings and left for a distant shore, for they could not bear to stay another moment in the place where Jesus had just been crucified.


Weighed down with sorrow, they left that place, never to return. Instead they travelled a great distance in search of a land that they could call home. After months of travel, they happened upon an area ideal for setting up their community. Here they found fertile ground, clean water, and a nearby forest from which to harvest material needed to build shelter. So, they settled there, founding a community far from Jerusalem, a community where they vowed to keep the memory of Jesus alive and live in simplicity, love, and forgiveness, just as he had taught them.


The members of this community spent their days reflecting on the life of Jesus and attempting to remain faithful to his ways. And they did all this despite the overwhelming sorrow in their hearts.


Early one morning, after years away from Jerusalem, a small band of missionaries reached the settlement. These missionaries were amazed at the community they found. What was most startling to them was that these people had no knowledge of the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus, for they had left Jerusalem right after the crucifixion. Without hesitation, the missionaries gathered together all the community members and recounted to them what had occurred after the imprisonment and bloody death of Jesus.


That evening there was a great festival as people celebrated the news of the missionaries. Yet, as the night progressed, one of the missionaries noticed that the leader of the community was absent. This bothered the young man, so he set out to look for this respected elder. Eventually he found the community’s leader crouched low in a small hut on the fringe of the village, praying and weeping.


“Why are you in such sorrow?” asked the missionary in amazement. “Today is a time for great celebration.”


“It may indeed be a day for great celebration, but this is also a day of sorrow,” replied the elder, who remained crouched on the floor. “Since the founding of this community we have followed the ways taught to us by Jesus. We pursued his ways faithfully even though it cost us dearly, and we remained resolute despite the belief that death had defeated him and would one day defeat us also.”


The elder got slowly to his feet and looked the missionary compassionately in the eyes.


“Each day we have forsaken our very lives for him because we judged him wholly worthy of the sacrifice, wholly worthy of our lives. But now, following your news, I am concerned that my children and my children’s children may follow him, not because of his radical life and supreme sacrifice, but selfishly, because his sacrifice may ensure personal salvation and eternal life.”


With this the elder turned and left the hut, making his way to the celebrations that could be heard dimly in the distance, leaving the missionary crouched on the floor.


Is it possible - I’m just asking - that incarnating Jesus, Yeshua bar Joseph, in one’s life, in the life and actions of a community, is more of a testimony to his living presence than abstract declarations of belief?


Is it possible that the texture of our lives is an answer to whether or not the statement, ‘god is with us’, is good news or not?


Remember, I’m just asking…



 ¹ Stirring within the name of god is a call, an insistence, a lure, calling for a response in or under the name of god. Is the call authentic? Who knows as the authenticity of the call is beyond our knowing, a secret, perhaps an unknowable secret. Truth to tell, the only thing we can be certain of is the authenticity of the response. As scripture says, ‘By their fruits you shall know them.’ (see Matthew 7:16) The moment we begin to focus on the identity of the caller, the moment we identify the caller of the call, the authenticity of the call begins to be negated, the caller taking center stage more so than what is called for. The NAME of the caller trumps response. To my mind this is quite orthodox as the name of god is a mystery wrapped inside of an enigma, shrouded, elusive (consider Exodus 3:13-15); prophetically speaking, it is the response to call, our response or lack thereof which is the point of the call.

 ² Consider the direction of the line of argument in I Corinthians 1, following its line of thought no matter how disconcerting and disturbing it may be.

 ³ The point I am making here echo’s the point John Caputo makes when, speaking of the hermeneutic alternatives stirring within the kingdom Jesus preaches and the madness of proclaiming ‘Christ crucified’, he says: “This issues in a decentering, de-colonizing, democratizing movement in the ethical, social and political order that weakens the supremacy of men and strengthens the dignity of women; that weakens the privilege of the ‘west’ and builds up the ‘third world’; that worries about ‘human rights when they come at the cost of torturing animals to death for food, amusement, or trinkets; that weakens our domination over and respects the ‘rights’ of the earth, which is something more than material for our domination. It issues in a view of human life that deprivileges ousia, the order of possessions, power, property, and prestige, and instead privileges a simplicity and poverty of life that is at odds with the rule of global capitalism and its politics.”       See John D Caputo, Cross and Cosmos: A Theology of Difficult Glory (Indiana University Press) p. 30.

 ⁴ Ibid, p. 9.

 This is a slightly adapted version of the story, ‘Being the Resurrection’ by Peter Rollins in his book, The Orthodox Heretic and other impossible tales, (Canterbury Press) p.67ff.