Grinchy Joseph, a Christmas Eve sermon

Almost all who(m) we know like Christmas a lot.
But Joseph, who lived just north of Jerusalem, did not.
The guy wasn’t sold on this whole Christmas season,
and I’d say he had some pretty good reasons.
It could be, perhaps, his taxes would jump.
It could be forced travel to Bethlehem, the old dump.
But I think the most likely reason, no maybes,
was his fiancée was soon expecting a baby,
which came with the added perplexitive bother
that a messenger said he wasn’t really the father.
So, whatever the reason, the trip or the tot,
helpless old Joseph knew he disliked it a lot.
He growled to himself, carpenter fingers drumming,
wishing he could stop all that bad news from coming.
“Life is pretty hopeless,” he snarled with a sneer.
“There’s not much I could do, it’s quite crystal clear.”
The dread fate grew closer, hour by hour,
the pressures of violence, of money, and power.
And the more Joseph thought of the terrible stresses,
life seemed to slip further away from successes.
And the more that he thought, with his furrowed brow,
the more he was distraught at what he put up with now.
But this wasn’t the time for grinchily moping about
since he had strict orders from one with huge clout.
Whether he felt a grump or people-pleaser,
Joseph had been commanded by Augustus Caesar
to make himself known and register with the empire
as demanded by a government filled with old liars.
He had to get his donkey in gear and start the long journey
to go and report to the district attorney.
So he gathered their bags and young rotund Mary
on a ramshackle mule, though still feeling contrary.
Curmudgeonly Joseph started them down
to Bethlehem, his ancestors’ sleepy small town.
When they arrived, it was dark. Quiet snow filled the air.
Behind the warm windows, they felt no one would care.
Then they came to the first little house on the square.
“This is stop number one,” the step-papa said,
as he slunk nervously and began creeping ahead.
With humble politeness, he tapped on the door
but was disheartened when he thought like before
that kindness was rare; no one was a neighbor.
Hard times had stifled most generous behavior,
leaving all feeling they were lost and were least.
Hope was dim on this night not fitting man nor beast.
Yet! the door cracked ajar with a breath of warm air.
Joseph curtseyed and asked, “Please, ma’am, would you dare,
to allow us inside? We just need to sleep.
My pregnant fiancée and I won’t make a peep.
We’ll be unintrusive, as quiet as mouses.”
Her answer was the same as at many more houses,
with refusals, “We can’t. I’m sorry. No room.”
The light disappeared, leaving Joseph in gloom.
Though he kept knocking, persistently begging and bummin’,
nobody could make space to allow them to come in.
Joseph wasn’t surprised. He thought it might be the case
that people were feeling too worn out to embrace
some strangers in need and smelling most unpleasant
when they’d prefer to feast and open their presents.
Some doors wouldn’t open, because folks were busy,
on errands and tasks and worked into a tizzy
as they pursued the happy seasonal distractions,
with shopping and parties, cookies and snacks, ‘n
others felt stuck in distress, and so hunkered down
to guard their own interests in their own small town.
“Life isn’t easy,” Joseph muttered in his beard,
“when there’s so much uncertain, so much to be feared.”
So they knocked and they knocked and they knocked!
Knocked! Knocked! Knocked!
But every door that they came to was shut up and locked.
As he was scheming if by creeping very nimbly
he could sneak them down in through a chimney,
well, that’s when young Mary got a sensation, an awful sensation.
She got a wonderful, awful sensation.
With no thought left for tough problems of society
Joseph knew it was urgent to find someplace quiet, he
guided his fiancée and dearly he held her
and gave up on knocking and searching for shelter
gave up on the houses and all of the people,
gave up on the holy folks under the steeple,
gave up on kindness and sympathy from strangers,
gave up on police to protect them from danger,
gave up on the inns, hostels, and hospitals,
gave on the beds and simply forgot it all.
He rushed them in to the back of a barn.
She labored until a small baby was born.
(Don’t like the barn/born rhyme from this alleged St. Nick?
Then write your own, if you’re so smart and so slick.)
They swaddled the baby to lay in the hay
trying to keep the cold and livestock far enough away.
Though tiny Jesus was poor, so greatly deprived,
still it was a relief that he was safe and alive.
But before Joseph breathed that sigh of relief,
again he was overcome in his disbelief,
at the struggles of life and feeling depressed,
at how all of existence was such a sad mess,
and he was stuck with the lingering frustration
at bringing new life into that disgusted nation
where any hint of improvement seemed awfully bleak
in the grind to make it through, week after week.
Yes, for poor Joseph, hope seemed far distant
as Mary cradled and nursed her newlyborn infant.
But then he heard a sound, coming over the snow.
It started out low, then it started to grow.
And Joseph cupped a rough hand to his ear,
and strained: what was that sound he could hear?
To guess, it sounded like an angels’ tune
coming drifting in from under the moon.
Joseph’s spirit lifted and so did his eyes
at this song, a delightful and shocking surprise.
This didn’t sound sad. It sounded merry.
It couldn’t be so! But it did sound merry. Very!
Yet while this sound sounded glad,
it was not quite angelic—a little more bad.
And then his wondering eyes saw the sight
of some figures drifting in through the night.
The not-heavenly earthy chorus Jo-seph’ heard
came from a band of dirty, vulgar shepherds.
They stumbled right into the maternity barn,
giving the mother some fright and alarm.
As she pondered what the strange sight meant
they shouted out in great excitement,
“We bring tidings from God of great joy
at the arrival of this here little boy!”
They hollered and cheered disrupting his snooze
while passing around a flask of celebrative booze.
Then, gone in a flash, and just as crazy,
they went into town, singing and praising.
As they left, Joseph had a big beaming smile
beaming-er than any in quite a while!
He puzzled and puzzed ‘til his puzzler was sore,
and Joseph thought of something he hadn’t before.
Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store—
maybe the answer, perhaps, means…not more
but Less!
The spirit, the season, life isn’t assessed like usual success.
The good news came without ribbons. It came without tags.
It came without packages, boxes or bags—
Well, that much you probably already knew.
But Joseph realized something simpler was true:
the start of changes, the hope of all earth
arrived in a lonely barn through this lowly birth.
The heart of God’s blessing, packaged in Jesus
who comes to love and save and free us.
So it’s not in how you ensure your security.
It’s sure not in chasing holy-seeming purity.
Neither is it in tallying what you’ve done
or in how you find diversions for fun.
It’s not in how well you extend season’s greetings,
how well you sing, or the people you’re meeting.
It’s not in the hunt to keep yourself happy
or what you put inside of bright wrapping.
It’s not measured by all that you’ve gotten,
but is just because life gets downtrodden.
The truth is, it’s nothing more th’n
that God’s favor comes to you as he’s born.
You are always in his grasp, and his aid’ll
hold you closely, just as he was cradled.
That’s no quick fix or instant solution,
it’s not that saying BooHoo’s done.
So Joseph began to trust, with no maybes,
that goodness was born to share with this baby.
As Mary’s heart grew, we, too, can treasure and nurse
the hope that saves us from whatever curse.
Like inbound outcast shepherds we can be shout-y
with rejoicing that even gets a little rowdy.
On Christmas, we can really celebrate.
With that, I’ll stop, since it’s getting late.

A Thief’s Lessons

(sermon for 1st Sunday of Advent — Isaiah2:1-5; Matthew24:36-44; Psalm122)


It’s a pretty common sense that we come here to learn something.

Partly that’s since we spend lots of our lives in school, learning about various subjects and learning how to do things. So in thinking about the value of church, we may picture it as what knowledge it can impart, of what we learn while we’re at church. Two common answers are to learn about God and to learn our values.

That’s a tough measure for church, though. For starters, how can we learn about God? God doesn’t fit the usual patterns of how we learn. God doesn’t submit to cause and effect testing or show up under a microscope. Our best source for learning about God is the Bible, which often is perceived as ancient history or old stories with inconsistencies and inaccuracies. None of that seems to point to much clarity for learning about God.

See, normally we think that truth can be proven once and for all, but the whole category of faith remains unseen and that God must always be mystery. I heard Bishop Mary say the other day that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt; it’s certainty. That’s a helpful lesson, even if doesn’t directly teach us about God. In the end, we can never prove anything about God, but can only trust. Maybe in church we are hoping to learn how to be faithful, by practicing our trust. That’s still pretty indistinct and open-ended, though. We’d like more resolution.

So maybe we turn to the values we hope to impart, of church teaching how we ought to live, for learning “life lessons.” These are rampant in our worship services: we practice extending peace. We are continually nurtured to be reconciling. I’ve mentioned recently praying forgiveness and stretching our gratitude. This is a place to learn joy—since that doesn’t just happen to us circumstantially. We learn sharing, not simply in a preschool siblings way, but the grown-up version as we gather around communal tables and as we bring what we have to offer, in monetary donations or in skills. That ordinary sharing is extraordinarily essential to our life here. And it expands with compassion, that we learn to support each other in times of need and also how to reach out to others, in this city and around the world.

That’s the practical side. Less tangibly is the value learned in a really diverse set of relationships. We’ve been talking about that more with the new shape of youth ministry. It used to be that church served as a place of fun or a social outlet for youth, but now lives are so filled with those kinds of opportunity that we don’t look to church for the dances some of you remember or the pizza parties I knew. Instead, though, that makes us better able to notice the boundary-crossing relationships that youth—with all of us—develop and share here. This is no enclave of homogeneity, no social club, no narrow version of peers who are just like you. Your presence here for each other is remarkable in that you relate equally to each other, not marked by class or income, not in a standard hierarchy as teacher and student, not where age is presumed to be indicative of wisdom. You don’t look alike. You don’t like the same things. You don’t necessarily vote the same way. You don’t even believe the same things about God. You have lots of differences. Yet across all bounds you embrace understanding the fullness of each other’s experience. This community is amazingly unique in that.

We might summarize this by saying what we learn at church is a new worldview, reorienting us and contrasting with so much of how we’ve been socialized. Notice how often we’re ranked and divided into winners and losers and the ways you’re told you don’t measure up and aren’t good enough or pretty enough or strong enough or young enough or healthy enough. When you’re so bombarded by that marketing—including for Christmas presents that allege to be the perfect gifts you or your loved ones want or “need”—it is hard to unlearn that bad news of society’s message. According to some, we spend 35 hours per week watching TV and 11 hours a day paying attention to our electronic gizmos and average less than two hours per week outside. A pretty standard number is that you are the target of 3000 advertisements each day!

That’s enormous and scary, but that’s still only part of it. It’s not just to extract money from your pocket but a cultural message to put fear in your heart. The news constantly is trying to make you feel afraid, appealing to your reptilian brain and your tribal instincts. It’s a message that everyone not like you is bad or dangerous. Besides the news’ attack, it’s also structured into the core functioning of our government, no matter who’s in Washington D.C. as, for example, 44% of our federal budget—nearly 50¢ of every tax dollar—goes to prepare for war and fund violence and militarism.

Contrast all of that with the amazing prophetic word from Isaiah, that we will no longer learn war. Or, as phrased by the old spiritual, “Gonna lay down my sword and shield. I ain’t gonna study war no more!” Beating swords into plowshares for us means our dollars would go to feeding the hungry, to supporting society, into valuing life instead of trying to destroy it. That is what God is trying to teach us, Isaiah says, to stop learning war, to learn peace. God’s grand vision is of all tribes and all nations coming together, nothing less than teaching all humanity and all creation, united for peace and streaming to celebrate together. Those who would claim religion is bad would have to overlook this faithful sense of supporting the needy and welcoming the outcast and moderating the mighty (or, in Mary’s words, casting them down from their thrones). In this way, our world needs religion now maybe more than ever.

It’s a great vision. But we have to ask: how do you unlearn the corrupting consumerist culture and menacing militant message? Notice how little time we spend trying to learn to be nice to each other, to learn the lesson that you are okay, you are loved, you are cherished just as you are. If you need church to re-socialize you for this, it might seem like an uphill struggle when there’s only one hour per week when you’re getting one message and just from my one mouth.

But if we’re worried, we need to expand our expectations. Returning to some of the mystery of God and faith, we stick to the confession that the Holy Spirit works through common means. To say it another way, God is sneaky. God’s messaging is coming to you even with my words, and with your words to each other, and in song, and amid a splash of water, and in bread and wine.

Again, to rephrase this: church isn’t just about learning another set of rules and requirements, not just in studying a better way of living. Sometimes people refer to our Bible readings on Sunday mornings as “lessons” or even call the Bible their instruction manual. I don’t. We aren’t just listening for lessons on how to live. Even less are we hearing ancient history. We listen for a present and active reality breaking in among us.

We’re listening because that sneaky God, that stealthy Spirit, that thieving Jesus is using these words to take over your life, to claim your heart, to renovate your mind, to recreate your very existence in the blink of an eye. Maybe even more remarkable than Isaiah’s amazing vision of peace is the word from Jesus today: He’s coming like a thief in the night. He’s coming to what you own, or what owns you, and taking it, taking over your possessions and passions. He’s taking away your faulty worldview and taking your sins. He’s absconding with your presumptuous pride or your sense of inadequacy, either way leaving you as you should rightly be, with nothing but the image of God. He’s robbing you of your selfishness and pulling the rug out from under your fearful isolations. He’s taking your abilities and quite literally taking your gifts.

So if you think Advent is just a countdown getting you ready for Christmas and the cute little story of a baby Jesus and no crying he makes, well, this thief Jesus is coming more like the Grinch who stole Christmas, taking your gifts, taking away the glitz and schmaltz and crap, coming to rob you away from a culture that too often has you trapped and bound. He takes your false fears and stifled self-image that you may celebrate rightly and fully. You better watch out, ‘cuz Jesus is coming. And that’s good news.