Interpreting Scripture with Love – January 23

A sermon based on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 23, 2022

by Rev. Scott Elliott

Our lectionary reading needs some explanation. It is a post Exilic story. Judeans had been exiled in Babylon until Persia conquered Babylon. Persian then facilitated the exiled Judeans’ return home to Jerusalem, and set about helping them rebuild the city and the culture. Nehemiah was appointed governor to oversee the general rebuilding. Ezra was specifically chosen to lead rebuilding the religion.

Our lesson describes Ezra’s effort to unite the community as one at an all-morning long worship service centering on God through readings and interpretations of Scripture, “the Word.”  While OUR worship services are significantly shorter – especially during the pandemic– like Ezra and the gathered we also center our worship services on God through readings and interpretations of Scripture.  In fact, like the worship service Ezra led we also “read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation.”

We are not alone, of course, many other churches and synagogues do that too. With most sections of the Bible humans need help understanding them. Often the context of the situations described, and our distance from them in time and culture can leave us baffled and even lead us astray. Even the words can be confusing. 1 .

As I mentioned, in our lesson the chief priest, Ezra is leading a worship service.  The service takes place near the Water Gate. The Water Gate was not the famous hotel in Washington DC,  but a gate on the newly rebuilt city wall near a common spring or well where everyone in the city was allowed to gather.  This service is remarkably egalitarian in that regard, there were no restrictions to who could be there. Ezra rolled out a scroll of Torah and then read parts of it aloud to everyone at the service. Notably the words were not just put out there for people to take literally and go on with their day. The words were interpreted for  rich and poor, slave and free, men and women, alien and citizen – for all–  who gathered in that common area by the Water Gate.

The Jewish tradition has a long history of interpreting the words of Scripture. It’s a tradition Jesus and his followers and Paul and the early church followed. It’s a tradition that’s continued in churches, including this church.  Whether we are literalists or not, even if we consider the Bible to have parabolic and metaphoric meanings, we all need help interpreting scripture. My office has walls of books filled with them. Most clergy access similar sources to help explain Bible passages.

While some folks in some churches claim they take the Bible’s words literally, they don’t really.  For starters it’s unlikely anyone today fully understands ancient Hebrew and Greek, and anyone  considering the Bible in English is literally considering words interpreted by translators. There are a hundred or so English translations of the Bible because the interpretations of ancient Hebrew and Greek words vary, evidencing it’s impossible in English to literally understand all the ancient verses as they were written. What we have are translations meant to give us a fair sense of what words were written.

While English translations give us a fair sense of the words, generally we need to also appreciate the context they were written in to understand meanings the words convey. The time and place and author’s intent matter. So too does our own context and our own intent when we come to the text. We can only find meaning if the verses mean something to us.

All of this understanding the Bible stuff has a fancy name, “hermeneutics.” Which basically means interpretation. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s the word we have in the English translation of our ancient text from Nehemiah.  Just like in our lesson we as people of faith also take the Scripture and “read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation.”  The reading with interpretation in Nehemiah was, as the lesson indicates, meant to give “sense so the people understood the reading.”

We don’t know what verses or books from Torah were read and explained. But whatever was read and interpreted caused the gathered to weep. Which in turn caused the clergy to advise them not to mourn but to be good to themselves and to their neighbors. Here’s that part again:

“they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.  Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’”

That summation sure sounds to me like love your neighbor as yourself which anchors our understanding of Jesus’ Way. It also sounds like seek justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God the three requirements Micah instructs God has for humans. It also sounds like go in peace knowing that you are loved and matter much, the words we end each service with. We can take great comfort in knowing that twenty-four-hundred years ago,  after reading and interpreting scripture, clergy were summing up the word and preaching with essentially that advice. That’s not only along the lines of what we try to do in worship but gives us reason to have hope and not be grieved because the Judeo-Christian path points toward love and leads us to love, and also leads to, as the text calls it, “the joy of the Lord” which is our strength.    We need to remember that.

And here’s the thing, part and parcel of that is every single time we consider Scripture we should look at it through an interpretive lens that leads us to that. Even when, as the lesson evidences, the text makes us weep we need to find the sense of love in our interpretation. Love needs to be the lens we examine every single word of the Bible with.  Why? Because love is the anchor of our faith. The Bible tells us God is love.  Jesus instructs that there are no greater commandments than to love God and others, AND that the law and the prophets depend on them. 2  Along those same lines Paul tells us “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 3. And, of course, Micah instructs that God has only three requirements for humankind, they are up on the wall of this church, seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.  Given all of that, we should look at scripture through a lens that focus on love.

Any Biblical words or interpretations that do not focus on love are not centered on the God who is love. Which means some lens than love is being used.  We should not just ignore,  but oppose such  lack love readings. And we can tell if love is at the center if the words and interpretations are about the care and desire for the well-being of others. That’s the basic definition of love in the Bible.  4.  Scripture showing what that kind of love looks like is described in First Corinthians 13, where Paul instructs:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

If anything in the Bible is read or interpreted in a manner that leads us to  not be loving, it is being read wrong or being interpreted wrong. Our task when reading the Bible is to find love and to embody love in our lives, and not just in church,  but out there in the world  everywhere, every day.  Amen.

 

 

ENDNOTES:

  1. Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol 1, page 269
  2. Matt 22:35-44
  3. Galatians 5:14

4 See,  Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (“Love”)

 

COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2022 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

Interpreting Scripture With Love – January 23

The Time Is Ripe to Do Right – January 16

A sermon based on John 2:1-11
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 16, 2022
by Rev. Scott Elliott

For a number of years, we have centered this church’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Sundays on God’s presence in social justice efforts and actors. When I started this sermon just before Christmas I had a hard time imagining how our lesson would fit in. As I was researching, praying and meditating on it on, the carol “Mary Did You Know?” kept coming to mind. That carol asks if Mary knew Jesus would do the things he did.

The lesson answers that question. It evidences Mary knew – and it teaches too that her voice prompted and pushed Jesus to get involved and solve a concern. The concern involved a wedding that was out of wine, which in Mary and Jesus’ day was a much bigger deal than we may realize. Weddings were week-long feasts furnishing guests with enough food and drink. For most people back then having enough to eat and drink was a daily concern, so weddings did more than celebrate marriages, they were an oasis of nourishment for the hungry and thirsty. Moreover, the failure to adequately furnish the basic hospitality of food and drink not only deprived nourishment to those in need, it deprived the host of honor and heaped shame on them. So, running out of wine was big deal. It was literally shame-full and of great concern to hosts and their households.

Customarily it was NOT the duty of guests like Mary and Jesus to make sure the gathered were nourished, nonetheless Mary thought it should be their duty. Strikingly, Jesus did not. It’s striking because Jesus is known to us now as teaching that love –caring for the well-being of others– is the primary duty God calls us toward. But in the Wedding at Cana, it is clearly Mary, not Jesus, who is the first to act as God’s voice as she calls Jesus to help provide what’s needed for the others’ well-being. As we heard, once Jesus got on board his ultimate response was overwhelming. He provided an abundance of the very best wine– 180 gallons about 1,000 bottles of what we might equate today with very expensive champagne! 1

This is one of those Bible stories modern folks can get all tied up arguing about ways to understand it. Some insist it must be read literally and understood as Jesus actually turning water into wine. Others insist it must be read literally and understood as unbelievable since turning water to wine is impossible. There is, of course, a third way to read it, as a story with truths and deeper meanings than whether Jesus could literally turn water into wine. Like many Biblical accounts getting bogged down debating the nature of a reported miracle misses the point. What ought to be our primary concern as Christians is to find how God is still speaking in the story in meaningful ways. That’s the point, that’s the everlasting value of Scripture.

Changing water to expensive wine would be nice to learn to do. But I can say with some certainly that our call as Christians does not include doing that. Nor does it include solely being impressed the story says Jesus did it. So, the story must have other meanings. Sure enough, it’s often understood to be about turning scarcity into abundance, repaying hospitality or providing for the needs of others without fanfare all which Jesus seems to do. 2

Those meanings are fine and good, but they tend to gloss over the first part of the story, that jarring part where Mary has to get the Body of Christ up and running. I want to focus on that part and suggest a way to understand it is to remember there’s a long tradition in our faith of referring to the church as the Body of Christ; and that it is not unprecedented to understand Jesus as sometimes representing the church in Gospel stories. In addition to suggesting that Jesus can be understood as a metaphor for the church in today’s reading, I want to suggest that Mary can also be understood as a metaphor for the voice of God when she calls on Jesus, a surprisingly reluctant Body of Christ, to act. Mary said to Jesus “they have no wine . . .” Jesus initially replied “Woman what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come.” The Body of Christ in the lesson gives two excuses, it’s not their concern and it’s not yet time to act. While it is hard for us to imagine Jesus himself giving such excuses, sadly it is not hard to imagine churches giving them.

Which leads me to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who famously called out churches for giving such excuses in anti-racism struggles. In 1963 liberal clergy in Alabama had publicly asserted that local civil rights protests over segregation were unwise and untimely. Incarcerated at the time for being in the protests Rev. King responded with a “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” In that letter he can be heard, like Mary in the wedding at Cana, prodding the Body of Christ to act.

See, like Mary, Rev. King knew that when the Body of Christ goes into action miracles can happen. Specifically, he knew and hoped and prayed that the Body of Christ would do the work needed to help end the awful unjust lawful segregation that existed in America. So, Rev. King prodded the ministers and their churches– the Body of Christ– to act. He and other civil rights activists were in Alabama opposing its “segregation ordinances,” laws on the books that kept Black Americans separated from rights that were provided to White Americans in everyday life. The rights at issue included equal access to, among other things, voting, justice, housing, jobs, schools, entertainment, hotels, parks, relationships, restaurants, restrooms, and (believe it or not) drinking fountains.

White clergymen who had those rights did not think that the hour had come for the Body of Christ to work to change the laws for those without such rights. White clergymen who had those rights did not think it was the Body of Christ’s business to help make the change from watery rights for Black Americans to the full-bodied “champagne” of rights White Americans held. Their general approach seemed to be just wait, give it time racism will cure itself. In his letter from jail Rev. King responded by first noting that “time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.” Then he added these words through which we can hear the voice of God still speaking:

“More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” 3.

After those words were published and Dr King and others continued to protest more and more churches started responding! The Body of Christ got animated and got involved – and so did other faith communities and entities and people. The result was that eventually a miracle happened, segregation ordinances were outlawed. But –sadly– the injustices of racism did not end. And Martin Luther King fought those and other injustices until the day he died.

While Dr. King helped awaken churches and the country to end lawful Jim Crow laws, racism has not ended. There’s a lot of backlash and bristling when that fact is brought up these days. I have even heard arguments that local churches should not be involved in opposing racism. I’ve heard racism in not our concern in places like this where the population is 95% white. I’ve heard it’s not our time to act. I’ve heard there is no racism going on that’s our concern. Those sound a lot like the excuses the Body of Christ initially gave at Cana.

Thankfully this church as a whole has not bought into the excuses. In most of my time here I have observed the Body of Christ, represented by this church, involved in overcoming racism, working hard with other faith communities and entities. And miracles have happened. Well attended, discussions and panels on overcoming racism have taken place annually in Knox County for six years; a Knox Alliance for Racial Equality was formed; a historical marker went up honoring Dr. Elamae Simmons, a Black daughter of this city who faced and overcame racism here and elsewhere; a public outdoor honoring of the underground railroad and anti-slavery efforts in this town now exists on that wonderful bench outside the church; Dan Emmet, the primary founder of black face minstrel shows is no longer honored with a festival or on “welcome to our town” signs; a year ago the City of Mount Vernon produced its first ever webinar on racism; and just a few months ago a band that honored the confederacy was challenged by a network of anti-racist citizens and the band’s appearance was cancelled. Around the same time the first ever Mount Vernon civil rights walking tour took place starting at the bench I mentioned and ending up here at our beautiful stained-glass windows portraying Biblical heroes as Black men. This church and others worked to make all that happen. The Body of Christ animated and in action was a part of all those wonderful local miracles.

Mary and Martin Luther King were right to push the Body of Christ in to action to address pressing concerns. Racism remains a pressing concern. May we continue to act as the Body of Christ to overcome it without excuse, by actively seeking justice and loving kindness as our God requires, and we are called toward. AMEN

ENDNOTES:
1. Lewis, Karoline, John p. 38-39.
2. See e.g., Newsom, Carol, and Ringe, Sharon, editors, Women’s Bible Commentary, p 383.
3., King, Martin Luther, Jr, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Setting out “The Letter from a Birmingham City Jail”) p. 296.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2022 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The Time Is Ripe to Do Right – January 16

The Time Is Ripe to Do Right – January 16

Way Leads to Way – January 9

A sermon based on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 9, 2022

by Rev. Scott Elliott

Baptism of Christ Sunday rolls around on the church calendar the first Sunday after Epiphany and it kicks off both the New Year and the Epiphany Season.  Our lesson is one of the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism which started his ministry. We consider it now as we start our new year and segue into the Epiphany season, both are times of transition for us, just as Jesus’ Baptism was a time of transition for him.

We know now too that Jesus’ baptism and ministry led to a cosmic transition – beginning a new Way to salvation from our lesser ways of being.   In the words of one of our Advent and Christmas stories, Jesus’ Way leads to peace on earth good will to all.

Although it was a new way back then, Christians trace it back to the promise God made to Abraham who was on his own way. Genesis 12 (3) indicates that through Abraham God will make a great nation and . .. AND… “all families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Tradition has long held that Jesus’ transition to creating His Way. started through John the Baptist. John’s own way invited people to come out to the wilderness, cross into the Jordan River and be baptized as a means of repenting sins and mediating a connection with the Holy.

Scholars think John’s efforts and way included an element of protest  reenacting Joshua’s crossing the Jordan River to occupy the Promised Land. The protest symbolically took back the Promised Land from the      occupying Roman forces and their crony Temple elite.  In the original Joshua story God parted the river so Joshua – on his own way– could lead God’s people through it.

Our lesson is usually heard as focusing on John, then shifting focus to Jesus.  We tend to think of Jesus in isolation out there in the river with John, but as Luke actually points out, John baptized Jesus with “all the people.”  So, there was a bit of a gathering, not for a new year,  but for new beginnings all the same. The gathered were repenting–turning away– from their old ways and looking hopefully toward a new holy way that John’s baptism offered. This was a gathering of people on broken paths, people wanting to repair the broken-ness. And Jesus was not afraid to join them.

Out there with John at the Jordan it was a time and place of transition for everybody, not just on a cosmic scale with the birth of Jesus’ ministry and Way,  but on each individual’s birth of new ways of being for them.  But, for sure, the collective memory of the early Jesus’ Followers was that Jesus’ ministry started when he was baptized with  a mass of people in various states of disrepair.  We tend to lose sight of the fact that in this story Jesus mingled with all those people, stood in line with them, shared the same water and religious leader and, of course, the same God and Jewish faith.  And like all those others who gathered,  Jesus let the water of the Jordan River wash over him as John parted the river by dipping Jesus below the currents of those Sacred baptism waters. The waters of the very river parted centuries ago by Joshua when the Hebrews crossed into the Promised Land seeking refuge and well-being for their weary nation.

In stark contrast to Joshua’s story, the entire river, of course, doesn’t part in our story today, just a few liters part as bodies are submerged. But something else much bigger does miraculously part, heaven. Heaven. Parts!

We know now that heaven’s parting was a piece of the beginning of Jesus’ Way of refuge and well-being for more than just a weary nation.  Out of the parting of heaven a part of heaven came to earth to fulfill the promise of peace on earth good will to all. That part of heaven is the part of God we call the Holy Spirit. It arrived in the form of a peace dove which has ever since been found with Jesus, – who’s now also known as a part of God.

After the Spirit dove landed on Jesus the Creator’s approving voice peeled forth from heaven blessing Jesus. What happened that day that pleased the Creator.  The way the story is told in Luke Jesus did something different than others being baptized. The others’ response was to wondered if John was the Messiah.  Not Jesus.  His response was to pray. He communicated with God.  Communicating with God is a big deal in Luke and Jesus does it a lot. God’s response to Jesus’ baptism and prayer caused heaven itself to part and send to earth God’s  Spirit in the form of a dove– a universal sign of peace.

A simple message for us all is that baptism and prayer can lead to peace on earth– and the praise of God.  That’s a great and true message! It’s interesting to also juxtapose Luke’s story of Jesus at the Jordan with Joshua’s story at the Jordan.  God helped Joshua show the Hebrews a way to the Promised Land.  Joshua prayerfully learned from God that if Holy men carried the Ark of the Covenant housing the Torah into the Jordan, the river would part– which it did.  The priests got the Ark to the middle and stopped. Then all the people walked on dry land between the parted water to the Promised Land– giving the Hebrew’s much needed refuge.

In Jesus’ baptism story God helped John prayerfully learn that Jesus was the Messiah. And God sent that Holy man, John, to stand in the middle of the Jordan River, not with Tora, but with Jesus. The whole river did not part and make way for a specific people to gain refuge.  Another miracle happened. Heaven parted to make way for all people to gain refuge, to have peace, heaven on earth.  That way to heaven on earth began through a man upon whom the Holy Spirit could be found, Jesus.

What makes this even more interesting is that although the names Joshua and Jesus appear to be different in our Bibles they are literally translations of the same Hebrew name, Yeshua– and both are progeny of Abraham.  Under Joshua, the first Yeshua, the way God provided was Tora, which at the Jordan, led to a geographic refuge for the well-being of Hebrews on earth.  Under Jesus, the new Yeshua for Christians,  the way God provided is Jesus who leads a heavenly refuge of well-being on earth for everyone.

It is good to find a home, a nation, as a promised land for refuge, protection and peace, what we can call well-being. The Hebrew people needed it in Joshua’s time.  Jesus followers understand Jesus, a Jewish rabbi,  came along to emphasize a way of refuge for all by providing an epiphany to anyone who has ears and will listen. The epiphany is that all people need and deserve well-being all the time, which is, if we think about it, heaven on earth. It is both a Jewish and a Christian goal, summed up in the supreme Old and New Testament command to love others. That command is found in both Tora and in Jesus’ words. Jesus’ Way is a continuation of God’s promise to Abraham that through him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” May we continue to help bring that blessing about.   AMEN

 

COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2022 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Way Leads to Way – January 9

Shine, Jesus, Shine by Rev. Mearle Griffith – January 2

Christmas Eve – December 24

The Oldest Christmas Love Story – December 19

A sermon based on Matthew 1: 18-25
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 19, 2021
by Rev. Scott Elliott

There are only two Christmas Nativity stories in the Bible. We tend to hear them both, or parts of them both, this time of year. So far this Advent we’ve considered parts of Luke’s Nativity story. We heard Mary’s Magnificat – her response to the proclamation that she is blessed with the Holy Child. We also heard Luke’s telling of the angel’s proclamation to the shepherds that Jesus was arriving. Today we are shifting over to Matthew to his story of the proclamation given by an angel to Joseph.

It’s hard to believe we are already at the Fourth Sunday of Advent where the candle and theme are love. If you’ve been here much at all, you know love is pretty much the theme every week all year long. Today though it is a little different. Our lesson is one of the few stories we have that feature Jesus’ dad Joseph, and it may be the only story featuring Joseph most are familiar with. Sadly, it is also the Bible Nativity narrative that may be ridiculed the most with Joseph taking heat one way or another for believing Mary’s pregnant state was just God’s doing. There’s a wink-wink attitude about it that disrespects Joseph, Mary, Jesus and God and the beautiful point of the story which is love. The ridicule exists because if we insist, as some do, that a primary concern is the story must be understood literally, then that concern clashes for many with modern reason.

As modern people most of us weigh stories by the support they get from empirical facts. If a story’s meaning is supposed to be a literal historic accounting we automatically run it through a filter to see if it defies our understandings and experiences in life. Stories purporting to be about human births without human fathers can get stuck in that filter. They are thought by many to defy reason. We are, however, free from that filter if the story is considered metaphor. The filter then shifts to can I find meaning in one of more of its symbolic meanings.

Both the historic and metaphoric lens look for meaning with different filters. Those looking through historic lens at Bible verses tend to get stuck at the filtering. Fundamentalist’s get rid of the filter for themselves by claiming words in the Bible must to be taken literally and understood as inerrant supreme facts, which outweigh science and reason.

Liberal critics of the Bible tend to claim empirical facts reasoned through science and experience outweigh accepting literal meanings of the words in the Bible Nativity narratives. Ironically many unreasonably accept literalism as the only way to view Bible stories and refuse to consider them parabolic. This leads to irrational scoffing at the Nativity stories often resulting in Joseph as the butt of jokes.

That liberal critics mock it is doubly ironic since most seem to love this time of year which is based on holidays anchored in the stories being scoffed at. Even beloved secular Christmas stories, like Santa, rise out of the Christmas holiday love centers and – by the way– those stories defy logic if we take their wording literally.

If we think about it, most classic Christmas stories are fantastical, because love is fantastic and love is so personally and universally indescribable that it has long been best explained by humans in metaphor and symbols in stories meant to be rich with meaning, not science or history. Their truth lies not in their literal factual historicity or scientific proofs, but in the understandings that the words and story convey. Getting tangled up in questioning the realness of the events depicted misses the realness of the truth they convey. That’s how it is with the Bible’s Christmas Stories. In other words, getting bogged down in arguing or laughing off literal readings of them completely misses the point. The point being truth about love– and by love I mean both God (who is love) and our own desire and care for the well-being of others (another part of the theological dictionary definition of love).

Please do not hear me wrong, it is okay to understand the Bible’s Nativity stories as either historic or metaphoric. But the point of the stories ought not to be how we come at them. Whether we come to today’s lesson believing it literally happened or that it is a parable with metaphors, we should end up asking the same primary question: Where is love in Matthew’s Nativity story? Where is it in the short lesson we heard Mearle read so well today? For Christians it begins with the Divine love-centered provision of God’s very own Son, Jesus, who’s understood by us to be the Christ (the Messiah), God incarnate, love incarnate on earth. Love gives us love in the story!

The first two sentences of our lesson suggest Luke’s story starts off with Divine and earthly Love:
“the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”
While the story goes on to lift up Joseph, it starts off with a reference to his and Mary’s engagement which suggests to us romantics that love is a part of the equation. Then right away there’s a reference to Mary and the Holy Spirit which we can hear as an honoring nod at the start to the female nature and catalysts of the event. Jesus’ mother is clearly a female, but the Spirit of God in the Bible is also a feminine aspect of the Divine. Ruach, the Hebrew word in Genesis for the Spirit of God who births creation is a feminine word, and we can understand the Spirit as a feminine aspect of God throughout the Bible. Mary is blessed with a child from that feminine aspect of God, the Holy Spirit.

The Nativity narrative in Matthew begins filled with love, the love of an earthly mother and heavenly mother. And we can even understand this as a subtle reference to the later re-birth of Jesus in Matthew at the resurrection where two women (both named Mary) are the first to lovingly midwife the information that he came out of the womb of the tomb resurrected to a new way of living as Jesus Christ eternally. We can hear a full circle of love that started with Matthew’s Christmas story. Love and Jesus arrive through loving female images, and Jesus and his love and loving way survives through female images as well.

But unlike Luke who tells us an angel visited Mary with the news of her pregnancy, Matthew has an angel visit Joseph with that news. While a number of modern scholars find that patriarchal and patronizing. We can nonetheless choose to hear it as a liberation lesson. In the telling Joseph rejects the unloving ways the patriarchy commands. Joseph models for men and everyone else how to be on a loving way by rightly and righteously opposing patriarchal rules that oppress women. Those unjust rules in his day called on men to participate in severely punishing a pregnant-by-another-source betrothed woman. Instead, Joseph acts under God’s rules with love toward Mary, accepting the pregnancy and the child as fully his– even while he and we know the son is not of his making.

Even before an angel lets Joseph know Mary did not cheat on him, Joseph was willing to defy the patriarchy. He was flat out “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, [and] planned to dismiss her quietly.” The science of the situation seemed to make it clear Mary had another man. The patriarchal law of the situation made it clear Mary should be severely punished. Despite the science and despite the law, love and justice in the situation made it clear to a righteous man that Mary deserved to be treated kindly. Her well-being needed to matter no matter what! Above science and the law, Joseph desired and cared for Mary’s well-being. That may not be the stuff of Hallmark cards, but it is love through-and-through, and frankly quite a touching love story before the angel even shows up.

When the angel appears and provides the good news of Jesus’ Son-of God origin Joseph pours out even more love. His love and faith in God leads him to desire and care for the well-being of Mary and her child to be. He cares so much he agrees to marry Mary and help tend to her and Jesus’ well-being the rest of his life. He even names and adopts Jesus as his own.

So, whether we think the story actually happened or is parabolic it’s a love story. An unusual one, but a love story all the same–and one of the best in my book, and the oldest Christmas love story on record. In our lesson God shows Divine loves through an angel whose message prompts Joseph to love, and, of course, God so loved the world we were given the Son of God, Jesus. In response Joseph models how to follow the greatest commandment. by loving both God and others. Joseph models that for all of us. AMEN
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COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2021 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The Oldest Christmas Love Story – December 19