Sermon for Advent 1A

Note: This year, for Advent, we are focusing on four women who are named in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Today’s sermon is on Tamar, and her story can be found in Genesis 38.

Genesis 38 & Matthew 1:1-3a

So, you may have noticed that we’re doing something a little bit different for Advent this year. I bet some of you are looking around at each other and wondering how, if this story is in the Bible, you have never heard it before. It’s not the kind of story that’s easily told in mixed company. Those of us who went to seminary are fascinated by the story and why it ended up in the Bible, and we talk about why the storyteller may have put it there, and we have all kinds of theories as to what it means, but we still shy away from preaching it. As we anticipate celebrating the birth of Jesus in a few weeks, and even more importantly, as we anticipate his second coming, it’s helpful to examine the family tree that Matthew provides for Jesus in the first chapter. And the fascinating thing about this genealogy is that, unlike all other genealogies of Jewish families in this time, Matthew includes four women. And these are not just any women: these are the ones with stories that are difficult to tell, that cause us to stop and scratch our heads in puzzlement, and that make us want to ask Matthew why he mentioned them at all. These women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, are some of the skeletons in Jesus’ closet: you know, those people in our family that we talk about in hushed tones, or that we mention with some embarrassment and shaking of our heads. And there are several theories out there about why these women are included in an otherwise royal pedigree, but here are two that I would like us to think about during this sermon series. First, these women and their stories can tell us something about who Jesus is. Second, it shows that Jesus became fully human for our sake, and being fully human means coming into our messy lives and having messy family stories.

So, let’s take a look at Tamar. The story starts out simply enough: Judah, one of Jacob’s twelve sons, moves away from the family and takes a wife. He and his wife have three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. The sons grow up, and Judah finds a wife for the firstborn son, Er, by the name of Tamar. This is where things get complicated: Er dies. We don’t know why other than that “he was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death.” That’s it; that’s all the explanation we get. We don’t know how long Tamar and Er were married before he died, but what is clear is that, however long it was, they had no children. Now here’s where things get even more complicated: there was a law that said that if a man died and had no children, it was up to the man’s brother to sleep with his brother’s wife so that she could have children. In our modern society, we don’t understand the reason for this law, and we probably think it’s kind of creepy, and we’d be right. But in ancient Israelite society, this made sense. It was important for a man’s line to be carried on to the next generation, and it was important for a woman without children to be protected. The son that would be born to the woman and her brother-in-law would be counted as the dead man’s heir, would inherit the property due to the dead man, and would give his mother standing within the clan, as well as the protection of the clan. But, in this story, the dead man’s brother, Onan, refuses to give Tamar the son that she needs, thinking to claim Er’s inheritance as his own. And so for this refusal to do what is right, Onan dies as well.

So now Judah is worried. He only has one son left, and he now thinks Tamar is one of those suspicious women, maybe a witch of some kind, who kills her husbands. Notice he never thinks to ask Tamar for her side of the story. And so he gives Tamar an excuse: Well, my last son isn’t old enough yet, so go back to your father’s house and live as a widow. I’ll send for you when he’s ready to do his duty. So Tamar is in a limbo status here: even though dressed as a widow, she’s not really a widow, because she’s not free to marry again. Her father has another mouth to feed, even though she’s not a “productive” member of his clan. And so she waits for Judah to summon her when his last son is grown.

But of course, Judah never does, and Tamar notices one day that Shelah is grown up and Judah has not sent for her. So, she does something that we in modern society would think is even creepier than having to sleep with your brother-in-law: she disguises herself as a prostitute and sets out to seduce her father-in-law. The law said, after all, that if there were no brothers available to do their duty by the one who had died, then the closest male relative could do the job. Tamar knew that Judah wasn’t going to bring her together with his son, Shelah, and she boldly set out to see that justice would be done: she was going to get the son that was due to her from this family that she had married into, so that she could have the status in the clan that was her right and the protection that a son would give her. She was not going to live in limbo anymore. And in the end, when Judah recognizes that he is the father of Tamar’s children—for God blessed her with not one, but two sons—he proclaims that Tamar is more righteous than he. What Tamar did was not done as any kind of deliberate immorality, but was instead done as a desperate measure to claim what was rightfully hers.

So, why on earth would Matthew include this woman in Jesus’ genealogy? What does Tamar tell us about who Jesus is? In his commentary on the genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew, scholar Richard Swanson speaks of Tamar as having “no-face.” When Tamar was wife to his son Er, and when she was with the clan when Onan was supposed to have been “doing his duty” and giving Tamar a son, Judah did not seem to notice who she was or anything about her. After all, when he saw her on the road in disguise, he did not recognize her, even though one would think that a veil is a pretty flimsy disguise and that Judah should at least have recognized Tamar’s voice. To him, she is simply someone he can use to fulfill his needs. Later, then, when his daughter-in-law who is supposed to have been living as a chaste widow turns up pregnant, Judah now has a reason to say, “See how wicked she is! I knew she killed my two older boys and I was right not to give her to my third son.” Only when Tamar presents proof that Judah is the father does he recognize her and realize she was in the right and he was in the wrong.

Jesus, who probably heard this story of this woman in his earthly family tree, would have heard the injustice of the situation and would have realized that every person that God has created has worth. No one should be treated as someone who has “no face”; whether that person is Jewish or Gentile, man or woman, black or white, or whatever other category we might think to put on a human being. Matthew records Jesus teaching, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (5:12). And in the Gospel of Matthew, while we see Jesus tightening up a lot of laws, he also speaks of God’s desire for mercy: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (9:13). And in one of his blistering criticisms of the Pharisees, Jesus accuses them of following the smallest details of the law but neglecting “the weightier matters . . . justice and mercy and faith” (23:23). For while Tamar may have made some questionable ethical decisions in her story, in the end she was commended by the one who had wronged her for being more just than he was.

In the past, the season of Advent was a season of fasting and repentance, just as Lent still is today, and this is why churches were decorated in purple during Advent just as in Lent. As we reflect on Tamar’s story, this is a good time for us to examine ourselves and ask questions: Do we truly do unto others as we would have them do unto us? Do we look upon others with mercy, or do we jump to conclusions as Judah did and condemn others for violating the law, without first asking why they did it or looking at how we may have violated the law ourselves? And is our desire for God’s justice only for ourselves, or do we desire that others may know God’s justice as well? And do we even understand that God’s idea of justice may be very different from our own?

The color of blue came into use for Advent as the church decided that it wanted to emphasize the idea of hope during the liturgical year as well. During Advent, we also hope: of course we are anticipating celebrating Jesus’ birth on Christmas, but we also hope for Jesus’ return to set all things right. And we see hope in the story of Tamar and Judah as well: when Tamar sends Judah proof that he is the father of her children, he does not deny what he has done. He admits his deed, confesses that Tamar acted more righteously than he did, and spares her from death. And that is the hope that we hold out as well: that when our deeds are shown to us, God will give us the ability to acknowledge them and confess where we have done wrong, and work to make amends and to bring God’s mercy and justice to others.

Tamar was zealous in going after the justice that had been denied to her. Jesus, too, was zealous in his ministry as he spoke for those who had been denied justice and even more so for those who had been denied mercy. Are we, his followers, as zealous in seeking out justice and mercy that have been denied to those around us? Or are we only zealous for ourselves? Part of our preparation in Advent for Jesus’ return should be to examine ourselves and ask God to show us where we can do better. May God show us those places; may we be humble enough to recognize them; and may we be brave enough and determined enough to go where God leads us. Amen.

Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Luke 23:33-43

Coincidentally this week, or maybe not so coincidentally, the confirmation class studied the second article of the Apostles’ Creed, which starts out, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,” and goes on to say that Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate”. The textbook asked us to read today’s Gospel passage and then reflect on this question: “If this passage were the only thing that we knew about Jesus, what would we know about him?” It’s an interesting question to consider. The first thing, I think, that is worth noting is that Rome considered Jesus enough of a threat and a wrongdoer to crucify him. The Roman Empire did not just crucify people because they felt like it, or because they didn’t have anything better to do that day. Crucifixion was a brutal form of state-sponsored execution and was reserved for those people who rebelled against Rome, so that Rome could maintain control by showing everyone else what would happen to them if they did the same thing. We also note that Jesus was not the only one crucified there that day, which shows that Rome did not consider Jesus’ case anything special or world-changing. This was just another execution of someone who thought he could overturn the Empire. But then, in the next line, we hear Jesus asking for God to forgive those who were killing him. Again, if we knew nothing else about Jesus other than this short passage, this would be our first alert that this crucifixion, contrary to what Rome thought, was not ordinary. In the next lines of the story, we hear the leaders and the soldiers mocking him; making fun of his claim that he is the Messiah, God’s chosen one. We also note that there is a sign saying that Jesus is the king of the Jews, so at some point, we know that people heard Jesus claiming to be a king. So, with this conflicting information that Luke gives us, who then is this Jesus, whom we celebrate today as both Messiah and King?

Let’s look at the first picture of Jesus we get here today: Jesus as a criminal being executed for rebellion against Rome. We Christians, with our two thousand plus years of history, understand and say that Jesus was not really a criminal, that he had done nothing wrong, as one of the real criminals executed with him says. But on that day and in that time, Jesus was regarded by the Romans as a criminal. Sure, the gospels effectively say that Pontius Pilate was bullied into having Jesus crucified. But in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, we lay the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion squarely at Pilate’s feet. The buck stops here, as the saying goes. Is it any wonder, then, that in the years after Jesus’ crucifixion, Romans and other Gentiles were very confused and perplexed by this “crazy” sect that worshiped a man who had been executed by the state? As we think about this picture of Jesus as an executed criminal, it makes more sense that we are called to pray for and to visit those who are in prison, and to support those pastors whose calling is in prison ministry, like our own Rob Nedbalek, who works with prisoners in Deer Lodge, Montana. We never know which of those prisoners might have been wrongly convicted. And even for those who have been rightly convicted, we have a God who offers second chances.

After the picture of Jesus as a criminal executed by the state, we move on to the picture of Jesus asking God the Father to forgive those who were killing him, because they did not know what they were doing. Such a scene is typical of martyr stories: martyrs always have something memorable to say before they die for their cause. As an example: back in the days of the American Revolution, there was a man named Nathan Hale who spied on the British for the American army. He was captured by the British Army, and just before he was executed, Hale was supposed to have said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” That statement has gone down in American legend because it is the statement of one who is willing to give his life for a cause greater than himself. Jesus asking for forgiveness for his enemies is just the kind of thing that a martyr would say: since Jesus taught forgiveness during his ministry, and now he is dying on the cross because of the things he has said and done, he is showing that he is a martyr, or a witness, to that cause of forgiveness. Jesus thus gives witness to how we should follow him: to forgive our enemies, even when they are in the process of killing us.

So far we have Jesus as a criminal and Jesus as a martyr. But what about Jesus as Messiah? The word “Messiah” comes to us from the Hebrew, and it means the same thing as “Christ,” which comes to us from the Greek. Both of these words mean “the anointed one”. There were many men in Jewish history who were called “messiah,” or “anointed one”. But what was this anointed one supposed to do? Traditionally, those who were anointed with oil were those who were set apart to lead, either as king or as a priest. In the picture that Luke gives us today of Jesus being crucified, we see the Jewish leadership mocking Jesus, “He saved others; let him save himself if he the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” Now, again, I’m going to ask that we put aside our Christian conception of what Jesus saving us means; our automatic answer is that Jesus saves us from our sins. But I’m not all that certain that that’s what the people watching Jesus die meant when they used the word “save”. “He saved others.” How? Well, Jesus saved others from dying by healing them from their illnesses and raising them to life when they had already died. He saved others by healing them from demon possession and restoring them to their communities. And perhaps he saved still others from a meaningless life by his teachings.

In Jewish tradition, the world is upside down because people go hungry, and homeless, and because they suffer from injustice. The Messiah, God’s anointed one, is supposed to turn the world right-side up again. From all outward appearances, Jesus dying on the cross has not done that. How does one man dying on a cross in the first century turn the world right side up again? It is perfectly understandable that Jesus would be mocked as he died in excruciating agony. Those who were there that day: Jewish leaders, Roman soldiers, and even his followers who watched from a distance, could not understand what was going on. They did not see a Messiah who would save them by his death. Instead, they mourned the death of their teacher and their Lord.

But this is what Luke is showing us, finally: Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, set apart to be the king. In the height of irony, Luke shows us those who were mocking Jesus giving him his rightful titles of Messiah and King of the Jews, even though they did not know it. And Luke is showing us that Jesus does not rule like human kings do. Human kings, after all, sit on golden thrones and have absolute power. Jesus’s throne is the cross; his crucifixion is his coronation ceremony. Jesus rules in the completely opposite manner from human beings: his power, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, comes from his weakness, from his death on the cross. Jesus rules us by the mystery of his death on the cross. We don’t understand this, and the power of that contradiction is what keeps us coming back to him over and over: this Jesus, who has ruled us for over two thousand years, does so by dying and by asking us to follow him in dying to the world.

So, what does it mean to have Jesus as our king? A survey done in 2015 by the Barna Group asked the question, “Which comes first in your life: God, family, or country?” The top response, at 62%, was family first, followed by “being an American,” at 52%, and then religious faith at 38%. And this question was asked of people who said that they are Christian. Now, the percentage of people who said they were practicing Christians and who put their faith first was higher than non-practicing Christians, but these results are still pretty disturbing. I believe that all of us need to reflect on what it truly means, and what it should mean, to us to have Jesus as our Messiah and as our king. If he is truly our king, then perhaps we should be better at following his example and die to ourselves so that we might live for others. The world might be a better place if more of us Christians were better at doing that.

The confirmation textbook also asked the kids, in this week’s lesson, to draw a pie chart of how much of their time is spent with their various activities, and how much time they spend on their spiritual lives: prayer, coming to worship, Bible study, etc. The kids noted that all of those everyday activities that consume their lives: school and extracurricular activities, for example, took up much more time than the time they spent on their spiritual lives. I have a feeling that, if we all did the same kind of pie chart, we would have similar results. Making Jesus king of our lives isn’t just lip service: it’s a full-time occupation. Today is the last Sunday of the church year, and next Sunday marks the beginning of a new one with the first Sunday of Advent. So let’s make a New Year’s resolution: to examine our lives, to ask forgiveness of Jesus for not allowing him to rule in our lives, and to make a concerted effort to live believing that Jesus’ death on the cross does have an effect on how we live our daily lives. Amen.

 

Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday

Luke 6:20-31

Pastor Larry told this story in the first session of his Bible study this fall, and I hope he doesn’t mind that I’m going to start out today’s sermon with that story. There was once a pastor who was talking with one of his parishioners who didn’t like the fact that wine was served at communion instead of grape juice. She went on and on about the evils of alcohol and how it led to people getting drunk and causing all sorts of bad things in society. After she spoke at great length about her feelings about this, the pastor, when he was finally able to get a word in edgewise, said to her, “But Jesus himself drank wine, and he turned water into wine at Cana.” And his parishioner responded with, “Yes, and that’s what I don’t like about Jesus.” If we’re honest with ourselves, as we continue to study Scripture and get to know Jesus better, from all sorts of different perspectives: the writers of the Gospels, the apostle Paul, and others who wrote books of the New Testament—we will each find that there is something that we simply don’t like about Jesus. And for me, today’s text from the Gospel of Luke is one of those things that I don’t like about Jesus. “Blessed are you who are poor.” My natural response is to add on the words, “in spirit,” as Jesus says it in Matthew. Not that I know what the phrase “poor in spirit” means, but somehow it’s easier to deal with than simply being poor. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.” Really, Jesus? How am I supposed to stay in my call here at Hope if people hate me, exclude me, and all the rest? Simply put, these teachings of Jesus that we receive on All Saints’ Sunday are difficult to decipher and difficult to talk about with you, and I don’t like it when I have to wrestle with Jesus to try and get a straight answer out of him. But then I realize that if I’m struggling with this text, likely there are some of you here today who are, too, so perhaps we can wade through this text together and find some sort of meaning to take with us into our everyday lives.

I want to start by backing up a few verses in the Gospel lesson in order to set the scene for Jesus’ pronouncement of these blessings and woes. Jesus has been traveling with his disciples through various towns, teaching in the synagogues and healing those who are ill. He then goes up a mountain to pray, and when he is finished, he calls his disciples to him and names twelve who will be his inner circle, and who will also be called apostles: those who are sent. They all then traipse down the mountain and stand in a level place, where a great multitude of people surround them. Picture a crowd swirling around Jesus and his disciples, many of them anxious to get close to Jesus so they can be healed from their illnesses, while others simply want to be near him to hear what he has to say. And Luke tells us that everyone wanted to touch him, for power was coming out of him to heal everyone. And in the midst of this confusion, Jesus looks to his disciples and the first thing that comes out of his mouth is, “Blessed are you who are poor.”

This is opposite from the way the world thinks, even today. American society thinks that those who are blessed, those to whom congratulations are due, are the ones who have made it in society. When we think about those who are poor, we may realize how many material blessings we have, and grudgingly pull out our checkbooks to give a donation, all the while thinking how we could have used that money ourselves for something that we wanted. Or, we make distinctions between the “deserving poor” and those who are “mooching off of the system”. We wonder how the woman who just used the food pantry because she claimed she didn’t have enough money to buy food for her family can still afford a nice new cell phone, and we judge her for somehow not having her priorities straight. We don’t think that perhaps someone has loaned her the cell phone so that she can have a number where potential employers can call her with a job opening. We judge before finding out all of the details.

The blessings and woes that Jesus pronounces serve as a counter to our judgment. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” And if the blessing of the poor is not enough, Jesus, then you have to emphasize it with woe upon the rich? Now, many of us here would not consider ourselves rich by American standards, and so we think we can weasel our way out of this woe. Surely Jesus isn’t talking about us, we think. But “rich” is a relative term. When we compare ourselves to people in places like Mexico, Central America, or African countries, we are very wealthy indeed. But you know, we don’t even have to go that far afield. If we have a house, no matter how big or how small, we are very rich when we realize that there are many in this area who have no place of their own to lay their heads at night. We can’t weasel out of this one, folks. Jesus is looking straight at us when he says, “Woe to you who are rich.” He is telling us that we have had opportunities to help make the situation better, and while we may have taken some of those opportunities, we have still been judgmental and have refused to see things that need to be seen. For we will notice that Jesus does not say, “Blessed are only the deserving poor, those who are at least attempting to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” No, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” All who are poor. No distinctions. Period.

If this doesn’t make us uncomfortable; if it doesn’t make us squirm in our seats, then we are not hearing it correctly. If Jesus were walking here among us today, in 21st century America, he would say this: “Poor lives matter. Hungry lives matter. Bereaved lives matter.” Now are we squirming? Are we coming back with, “Yes, Jesus, but I thought you said, “All lives matter.”? And Jesus might respond with, “Yes, all lives matter. But right now I want to focus on those who are poor.” For Luke depicts Jesus as including everyone—all people—in the kingdom of God. And that means those who we discount as of no consequence: the poor, the hungry, the lesser educated, the homeless, those whose sexuality is different from the norm, drug addicts, the mentally ill, and so on and so forth. These groups, too, are human beings, and they are our brothers and sisters.

And this is one reason why, I think, we get this reading on All Saints’ Sunday. This day in the church year is meant to remember our loved ones who have gone before us to be part of the church triumphant. One purpose of reading the Beatitudes on this day is to remind us that, at the heavenly banquet in the life to come, we may be surprised by whom we are sitting next to. It is to suggest that those who were misunderstood or shunned by us here on earth may have a more honored place than we will in the resurrection. And even more so, it is to remind us that not one of us has it all together; not one of us has life perfectly down. Each one of us may go back and forth in life from the category of poor to rich, hungry to full, weeping to laughing, being shunned to being included. These teachings of Jesus serve to remind us not to look down on people, because “they” could become “us” at any time.

But there is yet another reason that we get this reading today. In his encyclical, “Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis wrote, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market drops two points?” In God’s economy, poor lives matter, and we who have more material gifts are called upon to use those gifts to help bring glimpses of what the kingdom of God looks like. And I think that’s why today’s reading goes beyond the blessings and woes to the further teaching of Jesus, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” In God’s kingdom, there is no room for hatred, and we are called to not return curses with curses, but with blessings instead. As God’s children, we are called to be a blessing to the world. And that blessing means helping those who society has shunned, and treating each person we meet as a person whom God created, and who is worthy of God’s love.

We are all saints by virtue of our baptism. And yet, here in this life, we live in the now and not yet. So at the same time we are saints, we are also sinners, as Martin Luther taught us. There are going to be times that we fail in our saintly calling. There are going to be times when we can give of our gifts to help others, and we fail. There are going to be times when we judge others and exclude them because of who they are, or at least because of who we perceive them to be. But the wonderful thing about being saints and sinners at the same time is that, through Christ, God forgives us. And through the Holy Spirit, we are urged onward to do better the next time. And through the witness of the saints who have gone before us, we have examples of how to do things, as well as warnings from the parts of their lives that were not so saintly. We are not alone as we go through life. So when the teachings of Jesus make us uncomfortable, when we find there are things that we don’t like about Jesus, we have help around us to keep urging us to wrestle with Jesus and to keep moving onward in life. And that is good news indeed. Amen.