Imperfect Catalysts for Betterment

A sermon based on Matthew 1:18-25
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 6, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

After we were married Nancy and my first Christmas together was up in Oregon far from our families in California. We were both in college and as poor as church mice. We had resigned to the fact that we could not afford a Christmas tree and would have to make due by looking at festive decorations others had.

That Christmas Eve I happened to walk by a Christmas tree lot as it was closing and the owner asked if I wanted the last tree for $3. I smiled and dug around and pieced together the money and I happily carried the tree several blocks home.

We put on a station with Christmas music and tied twine to curtain rods to hold the tree up. We did not have any traditional decorations so we took nic-nacs and sea shells and small stuffed animals and placed them and popcorn strings in the branches. Then we “Ooo-ed” and “Aww-ed” and sat back and enjoyed the tree.

That is the one Christmas tree I have never forgotten, the $3 tree we almost didn’t have, tied to the wall and adorned with the ordinary. It was a beautiful beginning to our first Christmas in the midst of our being poor and away from home.

Today’s reading focuses on the circumstances leading up to Joseph and, of course, by extension Mary’s, first Christmas. In an ordinary sense their situation was certainly much less desirable than Nancy’s and mine, we were just poor and homesick. But Joseph had learned that Mary was with child and it’s not his and so he’s about to break up with his betrothed. This is not usually what we’d think of a good prelude to Christmas. But, see, the truth is the leading-up-to-Christmas-stories-in-the-Bible are not tidy and picture perfect.

Yet somewhere along the line our culture has glommed on to the notion that we must strive for Christmases all tidy and perfect. We want everything to be just so. But those expectations are not possible to meet. People are flawed and foibled and it’s fiction to fancy fairyland perfect holiday festivities with family or friends. Family, friends, and . . . well . . . life are just not tidy and picture perfect. We may wish them to be, and imagine them to be, and think others have such holidays and lives, but, it is not true. Life is difficult and untidy and full of imperfections.

And the Christmas story in the Bible (as opposed to the cultural one in our heads) offers hope precisely because the ordinary with all its untidiness and imperfections can lead to the extraordinary. If we think about it, that is the thrust of the Nativity stories. As I said, we heard in just the little bit from the start of Matthew, Joseph’s betrothed is pregnant and not by him. He is on the verge of breaking up with her, with Mary. He plans to do so in a kind and peaceful manner, but it is still a break up – never an easy thing. These difficulties lead Joseph to a prayerful conversation with God. As a consequence Joseph is motivated to do something extraordinary, to provide radical love and faith and hang in there. And he does.

Yet even as he does, all that love and faith could not magically create a perfect situation. The couple marries, yet we are told they are not intimate for a number of months; and since Jesus is an out of wedlock child he’s quite a lowly being to the culture, just as Mary in the culture would have been considered a lowly adulteress and Joseph a cuckolded partner. If not “mad” for believing in a virgin conception.

We tend to forget that the first Christmas, the one we celebrate did not have a perfect storybook start by any means. The love and miracles and the presence of God did not make it all tidy and pristine. It’s gritty and real just like our lives– all of our lives.

And actually after Jesus arrives things stay gritty and “scary real”– even worse things unfold in the Book of Matthew. After the verses in our lesson Joseph learns that Herod wants to kill the infant Jesus so the Holy family sneaks off and runs away to a foreign land until it is safe for them to return. The first Christmas is a very rough one in Matthew, hardly a Disney fairy tale.

In the Book of Luke the Holy family does not fare better. The Gospel of Luke tells us Mary and Joseph travel far to Bethlehem, and even with Mary nine months pregnant they cannot find a room and so finding themselves homeless refugees they are forced by inhospitable circumstances to camp out in a stable. As a consequence Jesus –God incarnate– is born amongst muck and animals – in, of all places, a livestock feeding trough. There is not even a picture perfect beginning for God on earth.

If you think about it, the arc of the two Nativity stories I’ve described from the Bible make Nance and my first humble Christmas actually seem pretty darn near perfect, right? But here’s the thing, the Bible Nativity stories turn out to be perfect. How can that be?

What could be fairly heard as the bluest of blue Christmas beginnings with awful stuff going on doesn’t snuff out goodness or the perfection that is God. The Light of Christ shines gloriously bright in that bluest of blueness. That’s the undeniable Christmas miracle, Jesus comes out of the darknesses of the world to be the Light of the world. The negative happenings and thoughtless and even evil actions of people and the culture neither inhibit the conception of Christ, nor the birth of Christ, nor the unfolding of the entire Christ event. Even the oppression and horrid execution thirty-three years later of the man of peace (that baby Jesus becomes) cannot shut his Godliness down.

Neither oppressive power or evil acts or poverty or the mistakes of humans or natural negative events in life can stop the good; they cannot hold back God working in loving people. The ordinary – even ordinary negative events– do not squelch good from coming out of it. The ordinary (of any kind) can with God (love) lead to the extraordinary. That’s a fundamental premise of the Christmas and Easter and in between and before stories. There is so much hope in Bible narratives! From a stable floor Jesus rises to be the very person we want to be, and shows us the way we want to follow. So out of the muck of life WE can go.

We may not say it aloud, but most of us pretty much think we personally have lives with muck. We might think others have it easy and better than us, but human life all around pretty much comes with flaws and imperfections. All our lives have negative happenings and NOT because God plans and desires them or punishes with them, but because that is the nature of life. There is death and disease and accidents and meanness and negligence and other bad things that happen.

So the truth is all of us, to one extent or another, do not have tidy or picture perfect lives. ///

There’s a book in the Hebrew Scriptures, about a righteous man who has a lifetime of troubles and sorrows piled on in a very short time. The book and the man are named Job. No matter what trouble or sorrow occurs Job does his best with what he has and remains righteous, and at the end of his trials and tribulations extraordinary things happen. His working as best he can in his very flawed and imperfect times lead to the extraordinary. The main point of the Book of Job is that life is rough and tough and uneasy and difficult and our purpose is to do our best in the moment. And when we do, we are better for it and the world is better for it.

Joseph exemplifies this lesson in the Nativity story we heard today. He does his best as partner, parent, progeny of God and participant in life. He does this by bringing love to bear on all his choices– he listens to God and makes his moves accordingly. It is important to note that Joseph’s loving choices and righteous way of being does result in living life without troubles and flaws, but it makes life as best as it can be – and the result is literally the very care and nurturing of Christ’s presence on earth for him, for his family, for his community and for the world.

With God Joseph’s life is stilled flawed but he has well being and brings well being to others. C.S, Lewis summed up how this works when he wrote “Life with God is not immunity from difficulties, but peace in difficulties.” Joseph’s seemingly modest actions on a cosmic scale, actually make all the difference in the cosmos. He and Mary deliver, protect and raise a healthy Jesus. The ripple of effects of both their parenting matter very, very, much. So much so we are not just talking about them in Advent, but celebrate their actions in story and song and try and emulate them .

The Holy Family– with God’s help– make life’s imperfections as catalysts for events so profound that the world is altered in extraordinary ways–for the better! That’s a Christmas lesson we often gloss over. The lesson that with God we may under any circumstance – no matter how dire– get to a point where we can (if you will) make pearls out of the dirt that enters our lives.

When a speck of dirt gets inside oysters the oysters live with the dirt, the imperfection, by coating it with protective material so it cannot hurt them. They deal with that flaw NOT by pretending it is NOTt there, but over the years working on layers and layers of what is called “mother of pearl.” In due time the layers of “mother of pearl” over the dirt results in rare and beautiful pearls! Oysters do not want the dirt in life, but when it is there, it’s worked it into something of value– making life better.

We can, like Joseph in our story, take life’s dirt and make the best of it, not ignore it or wish it away, but work at it a layer at a time. I know that is often not easy to do, there can be types of dirt in life that are horrid and awful and the work may take years or decades or a lifetime to layer over it, but it can be done with love and faith and perseverance. It. Can. Be. Done!

And we are to try and do that, like Job and Joseph. And we are to especially help each other do it. Mary and Joseph and God work together to get out of the dark and into the light–it is not an easy task. But such work helps humans in dark places. Abuse and abandonment and addiction and loss and bitter fights and acrimony and bullying and violence and just plain mistakes can serve to make us layer on protection for ourselves; or even stop generational cycles of harm; or learn to help others through such experiences; or like Jesus maybe one day even be able to offer those who cause harm, prayer and forgiveness.

I need to say again that God does not plan or throw the dirt in life at us, but God does provide a call and ways to use it as a catalyst for diminishing the harm. We work at it within and with one another and it betters the world and ourselves.

A native American Shaman once told me that typically religion is for those who are afraid of hell; and that spirituality is for those who have been there. Most, if not all of us, have been to hell of some sort. Our reading today has Joseph in such a hellish place and it is no accident that it is right there in that scary place of losing his betrothed that he has a very spiritual moment, a visit from God and he begins to layer a pearl out of that huge bit of dirt. Love envelops him and Mary and Jesus because Joseph (like Mary)does his part to let love envelop the problems they face.

One very important thing the Nativity stories teach, that gets lost in our cultural Christmas ethos of everything being just right, is that God incarnate did not, and does not, only arrive in life by way of flawless and picture perfect ways. In fact the very flaws and imperfections that make up every single human life can lead to enhanced experiences of the presence of God who is incarnate in all of life, but rushes in where troubles mount . . . where sorrows cause weeping and wailing.

Immanuel, “God is with us,” is a huge part of the Christmas story–and it is especially portrayed as true in the awful, hard and difficult things the Holy family faces – and by extension what humanity faces, what each of us face! The flaws that enter the shells of our lives and threaten us have the potential to become pearls down the line. God does not plan or inflict the flaws, but plans around them and calls us to those plans for betterment. Betterment through doing our best in the rough and tough trials and tribulations and helping each other to do it.

Doing our best means acting like Joseph by being loving and responsive to God in all that comes our way whether it is negative or positive. When we do that, love, God, envelopes us and our troubles. And in time with God and hard work make us, each other, and the world better. Out of darkness there can be light. Christmas is about the hope of that truth. AMEN.