The king said to Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!’

Monday, January 6, 2014

A Sermon on Broken Families and Posing for Christmas Cards

The audio version can be found here

Grace and Peace to You!

As a Dad, I find myself expecting more and more of my boys as they grow older and more capable. I expect them to be in their best behavior when company is over, I expect them to always tell the truth, to clean their room, and treat each other with respect.
I have high expectations of my children, they’re Pastor’s Kids, after all. And I get from them my share of eye-rolls and tantrums. My expectations sometimes go unmet.
And I’m often amazed when I pick my kids up from school or a baby sitter when they tell me how well behaved my children were in their care. My children? I ask.
When my expectations aren’t met, I don’t recoil or recalculate. I don’t lower my bar. I sit them down and ask this question, “What’s your plan?” How do you expect to get the results you want from the behavior you are exhibiting?
I find something they want and I ask them to work for it.
I know they have high expectations of me as your father to not yell at traffic or football games. I am a pastor, after all.
Two weeks ago, while posing for our Christmas photo, I was fussing at the boys to behave, focus, and look happy between clicks of the camera.
My son said to me, though grinned teeth, “What’s your plan, Dad?”  
I laughed, shocked. And then I smiled and we got the photo we wanted. I love that my kids push me to be a better father and human being. I love that they don’t lower their bar for me either. They’re tough but fair.
Matthew doesn’t paint a warm picture, but tells the story of the baby by way of the man who raised him, Joseph. The gospel starts with a lineage as long as a whole page with two columns. The names of famous people are peppered in for flavor-
Kings and adulterers, women famous for a certain reason, and their children. As a whole this litany of 28 generations looks impressive and regal. But under the microscope we see a family full of dysfunction. Joseph is declared the son of David. But David’s wife isn’t named only as “the wife of Uriah” meaning that the family tree and it’s most famous ancestor wasn’t without his skeletons.  
Ultimately this is just another dysfunctional family portrait. No amount of golden-flecked pages are going to hide that. And to make matters worse, the centuries of royalty and nobility come to a screeching halt because of the main character of Matthew’s first chapter: Joseph, son of Jacob, descendant of David and Abraham.
See, Joseph isn’t exactly sure how his fiancée got pregnant, but he knows for sure he didn’t do it. Standing on the shoulders of his “righteous” ancestors, he has no choice but to save his name for another who is more worthy. Mary was a poor girl anyway, he shouldn’t have to lower his standards for her. He decides to take the high road, to dismiss her in secret so that she will forgo trial and probable stoning. The Jewish courthouse should have a sign that says, “Innocent until proven pregnant.” She’s definitely pregnant. Joseph is embarrassed. The family has fallen on hard times. Given his status, he should have his pick of eligible teenagers, but he is no noble, just a carpenter. A handy man. A laborer.
Joseph has made up him mind, not like he had a choice. If his grandparents only knew the shame he felt they’d rise from their graves like Ezekiel prophesied. Them bones them bones them dry bones…
Isaiah had a prophesy too. A messiah would come. From his lineage. Not from a peasant girl with a wandering eye.
Ancients didn’t know what we do about fertility. They believed that father supplied all ingredients for a child and that women merely carried it. This means the child wasn’t half Mary’s, it 100% belonged to someone else.
Joseph made up his mind. He knew his plan. He’d cut bait and try again with someone more deserving. Tough but fair.
Then an angel visited Joseph in a dream. He was, after all, named after his great-great grand uncle Joseph the great dreamer. But enough name-dropping. An angel came to visit him. Probably Gabriel given his lineage. Only the best for the best.
The angel told Joseph that his fiancée was telling the truth and that the baby was made by the holy spirit and was the messiah.
Joseph awoke, probably with a million questions- like the ones we ask today. Wait, if he’s the messiah, then why did the prophet say that it would come from my lineage, if I’m not the father. Don’t you know that the books will tell my family history and leave the reader guessing why after 4 times the perfect number 7 of generations the story ends with me only to start seconds later without me? Joseph must feel like the extension cord that comes up two inches short of the Christmas lights on my mailbox: He’s going to have to find another power source.
Then he probably contemplated how-exactly God plans to grow a child in a human womb that is not of a human father. Only once, the first man was made by God without a mother. Is this supposed to be the New Adam? Is the lineage supposed to end with me? Is this some sort of fresh start?
The angel told me to name his Jesus, well, in Hebrew Yeshua, which means God saves.
Two problems here for Joseph- the prophesy said “you shall call him Emmanuel” but the angel says, “they shall call him Emmanuel which means, ‘God with us’”
Joseph knows what the name means. He knows the prophesy, so why name him something else?
The second problem Joseph would have is that the name Yeshua is not in his family tree, it’s a common name, like John or Bob. It’s a local’s name, a poor person of Nazareth. Why not David or Abraham or Jacob? This naming of someone else’s child a name that belongs to lesser beings is another slap in the face. Joseph must have fought the urge to run from this tornado of disaster. But Gabriel is a family friend. The decision doesn’t add up, but despite his better judgment Joseph follows the voices in his head, the visions in his dream. He weds the woman and settles in for another 28 generations of regret and waiting.
The question that remains unanswered in my mind, is what level of choice Joseph thought he had. Did he have any agency in this? Imagine, just for a second, if Joseph followed the law and turned Mary in. The saint and the Christ child would never have been, and all of Israel would have to have waited who knows how many more generations before God would try again.
He almost said no. He almost turned down the savior of the world in order to save his family’s good name. But I wonder if Matthew didn’t post the lineage of screwballs and harlots on the first page of his gospel to give Joseph some hope. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, The wife of Uriah, are all wildcards. Each known for using what God gave them, all gentiles and not Jews, all outspoken and kind of awesome. Matthew could have left them out, substituting instead Rachel, Sarah, and Rebecca.
But this is a family of heroes not do-gooders, and well behaved women rarely make history.
Matthew leads us to assume that Joseph decided to father the child BECAUSE of his crazy family.
God works in mysterious ways.        
Yes, Joseph had a choice. We know that because God always gives us a choice. God is powerful and can be wrathful. God would have good reason to wipe out humanity and start over for the 3rd time, with no one left on earth to remember the promise of the rainbow to Noah.
But God doesn’t come to us this time in the name of wrath, but in the name of love. The one that is to be called “God saves” doesn’t arrive with a wand and a book on sorcery, but is born like a human being is born- tiny and helpless. He comes to us as vulnerable as a newborn baby so that we may learn to care and love God as He cares and loves us. If he had come with a sword he would have been met with shields of hatred. But he comes in the innocence of a helpless, lovable creature that makes grown men let down their guards.
I imagine my boys saying, “God, what’s your plan?” How do you expect to get the results you want from the behavior you are exhibiting? God’s plan seems far-fetched and ill-fated.
 But it works on the hard-heartedness of Joseph. In times where paternity of a child is in question, whoever names the child is legally the father. By naming the child, Joseph acknowledges Jesus as his own.
And Joseph lives into God’s plan, not by naming his son from the heroes of the past, but names him for the hero of the future. “Jesus” which means “God saves.” And a nuclear family is joined together Mary, Joseph, and the Savior of humanity. I imagine receiving their Christmas card in my mailbox, they’re all smiles for the camera. Fortunately the smell of the stable doesn’t translate to the photo. There is no question that the first Christmas literally stunk. But we don’t usually focus on that.
I’m glad today that we have Matthew’s Gospel. It isn’t the pretty version- no- we save Luke’s version for Christmas Eve. But Matthew’s version wonderfully real. It’s not a posed portrait, it’s a snapshot of real life.
Two years ago we posed for our Christmas Card photo on the park that overlooks the golden gate bridge. It took too long to get the kids ready, so by the time we got there the sun had moved to directly behind us, making a shot of the bridge behind us impossible. So we turned around and with the Berkeley hills behind us, we shot 200 or so images to find one that was passible. We had to adjust because Jacob had a broken arm, so we put that hand behind us. We couldn’t get Thomas to smile, he had a cold, and two days later would be taken to the ER for an asthma attack on Ashley’s Birthday. And he’d go back the night after that. 4 trips to the ER in 30 days. But darn it, we were going to get our Christmas card. 

We worked hard for that picture, the stress of life hidden behind our eyes and lying though our exposed teeth. A year ago we blew that picture up and placed it over our fireplace, to remind us of the beauty of our family in good and bad times. People come over and they comment on the beautiful picture, but I can’t look at it without seeing the broken arm, the nights spent screaming in pain, the birthday Ashley spent in the ER. It wasn’t until about a month ago that Ashley told me she spotted, in the upper right hand corner of the picture the blue port-a-potty. We went for a posed portrait and left with a snapshot of real life.
This Christmas, that photo hangs proudly above the mantle that holds the manger scene and Christmas stockings, including the stocking for our baby girl who knows nothing yet of this world. 
The Church, along with her parents, will help her grow, asking her “What’s your plan”, and holding her to high standards out of love. She, in turn, will hold us to high standards, out of the same love. However you picture it, it will be full of love.  
Sometimes the truth even more beautiful than the story.   

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