One of the privileges of working for you all is that I get to be the face and voice and eyes and ears of the parish. By that I mean that you all pay me to represent you to those in our community who are seeking God or answers or meaning. It was important this week as we considered the stories of Mary and of Joseph. I say both even though we read only about Joseph this year in the lectionary cycle. The stories of Mary and Joseph, as one of my mentor’s put it some years ago in seminary, are archetypal responses of what God wants from us, His sons and daughters. Archetypal is simply a fancy way of saying example. Both Mary and Joseph exhibit the life of a disciple for all those who come after, including ourselves.
Think for a second of Mary. She is confronted by an angel with a strange greeting. He then tells her that she will conceive of a son by the Spirit of God, in fulfillment of the prophecies. Some of you here have been teenage girls. How would you have responded in her shoes? What are mom and dad going to think? What is my fiancé going to think? Man, the neighbors are going to make fun of me. No one is going to believe me. How many of us laughed this week at the Yahoo headline that 1 in 200 women claim to have been impregnated even though they did not have sex? The health care and reproductive services people in the article sure laughed at the claim. Common sense told her refuse the angel. The world told her that such was not possible. Yet how did she respond? Let it be done to me as He wills. Maddy sings a song every year at this time called the Magnificat, reminding us of Mary’s response.
This year, we get Joseph’s side of the story. Gentlemen, imagine your fiancé comes to you and tells you she’s pregnant with a child of God, even though you have not had sex with her. Would you believe her? Or would you be thinking you were glad you found out she was mental before you married her? Joseph was no different than us. Well, maybe a little. We hear today that he was righteous. He decided to put her away quietly. It was within his rights to shame her and her family for sleeping with someone else and conceiving a child. He could have publicly denounced her, but he chose the gentler route, likely in deference to what he thought was her obvious mental illness. And just when he had decided this, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. How crazy does this sound in your ears? How crazy do you think it sounded in his? Still, the righteous man is persuaded by the angel and agrees to marry the young girl and name the child Jesus.
We have spent the better part of eight months this year looking specifically at discipleship. What are the behaviors of mature Christians? What are the spiritual practices which help us to grow? Mary and Joseph exhibit the two most important characteristics of a Christian. Both are incredibly humble, and both demonstrate incredible faith. Both are simply trying to live their lives as one of God’s faithful people. By all accounts, the two have no expectation of the honor that is about to be bestowed upon them. Neither of them thinks they deserve the honor of becoming the parent of the One who will fulfill all of God’s promises. Mary is a modest, faithful young lady. Joseph is a righteous man. Both consent to God’s request. Notice God does not make them do what He wants. He sends the angel to ask them to consent to His plan. As with all His invitations, He does not force them to acquiesce. Better still, despite the craziness of His plan, both trust that the Lord knows what He is doing. Their faith causes them to believe that God will accomplish all that He purposes, no matter how crazy it sounds in their own ears or ours!
You and I, brothers and sisters, are called to exhibit both humility and faith in our lives. As people living in the shadow of the cross, we understand the vertical axis--our relationship to God and the horizontal axis--our relationship to all others whom we meet. Those two axes sum up the two commands of the torah that we have been reading this Advent. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. That babe in Mary’s belly will one day teach all who will listen that all the torah, God’s instruction, is based on those two axes. We need God to save us, and we are not special or more deserving of His grace when compared to others. That’s why Mary and Joseph serve as exemplars for us. In the face of certain ridicule, in the certain knowledge that people would think them crazy, both agreed to serve His plan as He asked. The exhibited the trust of a child in their Father, just as He calls upon each of us to do.
We live in a world, brothers and sisters, which longs to know that kind of trust, that kind of faith. Certainly, there are those who would take advantage of our faith and of our humility and try to use it for themselves. But much of the world just wants to know they are worthy of love, that they are loved by God, and that He has a plan for them. It is as simple a need as it is profound. And the amazing thing is that, just as God used angels to herald the birth of His Son, He uses redeemed sinners like you and like me to proclaim His saving grace, His unfathomable love, and His power to accomplish all that He purposes. And when we are intentionally living in sincere humility with Him and in faith in Him, joy follows. How do I know?
I started off this sermon with a sincere thank you. I was in the office on Tuesday when “Mike” came in. Mike is one of those individuals whom the storm cloud of life follows. I have known him for about four years. You have helped him for about four years, even though most of you have not met him. In those four years, Mike has been diagnosed with cancer, coded twice that I know of in the hospital, gone back and forth to IA City for chemo and radiation, first reduced in his hours from 40 hours each week to 31 to make him ineligible for company insurance, been fired--it’s hard to work while going through chemo and radiation, lost a girlfriend to drugs and then a pimp, told his mouth could not be fixed until he was deemed cancer free -- they did not want to do the work if he was going to die, and then dealt with those wonderful problems of money--do I buy medicine or food, do I buy gasoline or food, do I pay utilities or buy gasoline to go to treatments. I should mention, Mike has always found a job whenever his treatments allowed. Mike was last in my office about a month ago asking for a gas card. He had passed his two years of cancer free, and the dental college was going to look at his teeth. Only problem was that he could not get there without gasoline. I had, of course, given him a gas card.
Here we are on Tuesday, the week before Christmas, and Mike is in the office. Father, I’m sorry, but I just can’t stretch the gasoline for work and for Iowa City. I get paid Friday, if you can get me to work the next three days. Brothers and sisters, I had spent nearly every dime in discretionary funds. On top of all that, we’d had the van in the shop. There was no blood in these turnips. it pained me, but I told Mike I had nothing. Then the most remarkable thing happened as I was apologizing: Mike smiled. Mike smiled like I gave him a million dollars. I had given him nothing, and he smiled like a kid at Christmas. I wish you all could have seen the before and after. Vern and Robin have seen him and know his real name. Mike was self conscious about his smile for all the time I had known him. Here he was this past Tuesday, being turned down in a time of need, and he was smiling.
Did you hear me? I said I had nothing? “Father, you guys have given me hope on top of everything else. Every time I came in here and you gave me something I needed, I knew you all were giving out of faith. When I was down and convinced no one, and especially God, did not love me, your church reminded me that He did. I don’t mean to sound racist, but I am not your demographic. I don’t see too many toothless black men coming in these doors. (we laughed at that one-he had 8 or 10 teeth) But you gave me gas cards or food or even medicine once. You had a guy offer to drive me to chemo. You visited me in the hospital. You all reminded me that God really does love me and that He really does care for me. And you, Father, you helped me figure some things out in my life. How many cups of coffee have we had together? Hell, Father, if you guys hadn’t prayed for me or given me that last gas card, I might not have been around to get back my smile. When you say you don’t have it, I know you don’t. You guys do so much with so little. It really is a privilege to have received a blessing from you all. I just wish God would give you guys that $636 million lottery ticket. It would be fun to see what kind of impact you could make for Him if you had those kinds of resources. But maybe you all would lose your faith. Maybe you guys would quit helping people like me if you had that money. Maybe it is good He does not let you win it. But it sure isn’t good for us who need help.”
I have to tell you all, I stood in silence for a few moments. It seemed to me I rattled through all my encounters with Mike. I remembered the hurt when his girlfriend turned to drugs to hide her fear and pain at his looming death. I remembered the dismay on his face and in his voice when he’d learned she had chosen, chosen to go to “work” for a pimp. I remembered the worry he’d had that he was somehow worse than everyone else and ineligible for God’s grace. I remembered the betrayal he’d felt when his employer reduced his hours to disqualify him for care and then let him go because he could not do the work. I remembered the pain from the treatment. I remembered his utter shock and confusion that God had not taken him the first time he died in the ER. Mike had been through tons of life’s garbage. Here he was, facing another pile of it, and he was smiling at me and preaching to me.
What he was most thankful about us was our efforts to help and our trust that God would somehow use our meager offerings to effect powerful change, transformation, in the lives of others. If I added up everything I had given Mike over the last five years, it probably would not be more than $600, and it would be that high because our AFM units were worth more than their $25 - 30 price tag. But Mike recognized our situation. Mike watched the people coming in and going out of here. He was not sure about a couple of our “regulars” for weekday sobriety meeting, and he said so. But he had a chance while drinking coffee, while warming himself in our nave, and while talking with those who were here to get a feel for the people of this parish. He even met a few of us down at the Salvation Army Site as a customer one Wednesday night. He by no means met many of you, but he heard lots of stories about a lot of you. And that witness made an impression on him. Like Mary and Joseph, many of us here responded in humility and faith at his time of need. You may not have known it was him, you may not even have given it a second thought other than to toss your money into the Discretionary Funds and to pray that those monies were used to God’s glory. But to the extent that you gave and you trusted God, you had a big hand in our ministry to Mike. And look at the result. Where there was faith and humility, along came joy! Of all the things that we gave to Mike, he most valued the hope and the reminders that God loved him. Life will, no doubt, still throw all kinds of garbage on him and in his path, but Mike will face all those with a smile on his face, because he knows he is loved by his Father in heaven thanks to you. Every time he looks in the mirror, he will know that he is loved by God.
Brothers and sisters, life is never easy for most of us or for most of those whom we encounter in our daily life and work. Never. Looking around the world this week, it seems as if the words of Isaiah have come true and God ought to be frustrated with us. Politicians pay for pet projects by reducing food assistance for those most in need. Coup-attempts and slayings are bumped from the headlines and the national conscience by the actions and responses of reality “stars.” People have already decided to celebrate the “Season of Christmas” by fighting, elbowing, tasering, and even ignoring the death of fellow shoppers. Mike’s story if far too often repeated. And even in our parish life, we have been forced to deal with the death of another much beloved matriarch. Where do they turn for hope? Where do they turn for joy?
That, brothers and sisters, is our job. Just as our Lord sent angels to proclaim the birth of His Son in a tiny town in Judea many years ago, He has given to us the opportunity to proclaim that baby’s significance, to acknowledge that our sin required His death, but that His power made Resurrection possible, and that all can share in that same eternal inheritance. In short, we are given the opportunity to be heralds of His love and of His redeeming power--we are given the opportunity to be heralds of joy! You and I are given the opportunity to point people to the One to whom they should turn. How do you respond to that invitation? How do you respond to God’s desire to work through you to reach others? Do you think of excuses? Do you remind Him that you are not an eloquent speaker, not educated enough, not rich enough, not powerful enough, not old enough? When faced with those opportunities, brothers and sisters, remember the examples of a likely teenage bride-to-be and her betrothed. Remember their humility and faith and what God accomplished through them. You may not think that you can accomplish anything as significant as Mary and Joseph (and you are right in one sense), but try telling that to men and women like Mike. Try telling them that what you have to offer is anything less than the very thing they most treasure. Maybe you will get a nice sermon in return; maybe you will get to see the joy in their life at having been lost and found!