Telling It Like It Is

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | December 18, 2022

Matthew 1:18-25

When I was in seminary, there were churches in the area that would call the school looking for someone to lead worship and preach, often at the last minute. My name was on the list. I was invited to lead worship on short notice, so on a Tuesday, I began preparing a sermon for the following Sunday, which was Father’s Day. Being a student at the time, my “sermon barrel” was empty; I couldn’t even scrape the bottom. Not that it would have made any difference.

On the day, I was up in front of a good-sized congregation, fumbling around as best I could. The people in the worship were not helping. They seemed remote and distracted. No one laughed at my feeble attempts at humor. There was no joy. Could I be boring them? I finished my little message about fatherhood and brought the service to a merciful end.

After the service, one couple seemed to take pity on me by inviting me out to lunch. A silver lining to a cloudy experience. Over lunch, I asked them what they thought of the worship service. They said that in their opinion, it went just fine. I told them that it seemed to me that the people were just not into it. They said that they probably had other things on their minds, such as the fact that the pastor had been fired on Monday. He had been caught making sexual advances to girls in the high school youth group.

Well, that would explain that. One would think that following such an event, a worship service reflecting upon people’s feelings would have been appropriate; something to chart a course toward healing. Not some random seminary student up there yapping on about fatherhood. But it was worth it; a free lunch, a modest fee and I could go back to my friends at school with a good story that I can still tell more than forty years later.

There’s really nothing like a good scandal. When somebody does something wrong, especially if the wrongdoer is a religious figure, it allows the rest of us to feel just a notch above on the righteousness scale. We can say with all mock sincerity, “You’ll never guess what I just heard.”

A good religious scandal allows us to play the game of reveling in the hypocrite’s unmasking. We can chime in, “I always knew there was something not right about that situation. But you know what they say, ‘where there’s smoke.’” Tut, tut and tsk, tsk.

Though in recent times there has been a shift in our thinking about scandal. Behavior that was once seen as “boys will be boys,” is now viewed as crime. People go to jail. People pay for their crimes. Insurance companies fork over millions of dollars. Churches go bankrupt.

In some cultures, around our world, the ancient rules still apply. Women bear the brunt of tribal sensibilities. A woman arrested for not properly wearing her hijab dies in police custody. Scandal is a matter of life and death. Tribal culture has always been tough on women. When I say, “tribal,” I’m talking about both actual social systems and a mindset. A way of thinking that is very much a “blame the victim” world view.

Jesus was born into a tribal culture. Old Testament norms about crime and punishment were very much in place when in those days. There was no New Testament. No Beatitudes, no Lord’s Prayer, no God is Love. Not yet. He had to grow up and bring all that to bear. But first, he had to be born.

Joseph discovered that the woman to whom he was engaged was pregnant. That did not bode well for Mary. He decided to do the kind thing and dismiss her quietly. She would live out her life in quiet humiliation. Somewhere out of sight, gone and forgotten.

She would not bear the public disgrace of a trial. She would not have to name names. She would not have stand before an angry crowd and suffer under a hail of righteously thrown stones. The matter would be handled discreetly. No more would be said of it. That was what he resolved to do, for he was a man of resolve. End of story.

Not a lot is known about Joseph. He was a carpenter. He would have been practical, a measure twice, cut once sort of guy. But then an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to go ahead with the wedding.  Not the end of the story, but a new beginning. Sometimes the angel appears in the dream because our waking senses will not permit us to hear the truth of the matter.

If you dream about an angel, how do you know if it’s a real angel or a just one those dreams that seems very real? Maybe it depends on whether or not you go to sleep at night wondering what you ought to do; wondering if what you are about to do is the right course of action. 

What dreams could convince Joseph to change his mind about Mary? There are many dream stories in the Bible. Some of them were fantastic and some of them were mundane. Ezekiel dreamed vivid dreams about a valley of bones all coming together into skeletons and then bodies. Jacob dreamed about a ladder.

Maybe Joseph’s dream was fit for a carpenter. A dream about family genealogy; as if putting the pieces together. A list. That can interesting. We can imagine about his dream. Imagine that the angel came to Joseph and said, “It’s scandalous alright, no doubt about it. You are within your rights Joseph. But before you quietly dismiss her, as you say, let’s take a look at your family history.”

The angel took Joseph back through the generations of his family tree. But there was a twist in this dream. Most genealogies followed the trail from son to father and father to son. But every so often in Joseph’s family line there were women listed. And not just any women, but women around whom scandals had been formed.

And Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar. Only at the time of the fathering, Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah. He thought he was engaging the services of a prostitute.

And Salmon was the father of Boaz by Rahab. Rahab ran a brothel in the town of Jericho. She saved her life by turning against her own people and spying for the Hebrews and when they ransacked the city, she was on their side. And Boaz was the father of Obed by Ruth. Ruth was another foreigner, a pagan in fact who seduced Boaz after he had too much to drink.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah. David who used his position of power to have sex with Bathsheba and when she got pregnant, he had her husband murdered.

“You see Joseph, you are engaged to Mary. She’s another woman who is involved in scandal. But here’s what you’re going to do. First off, you need to get off your high horse and put your self-righteousness to rest. There’s nothing in your family tree that puts you above anyone else. Secondly, you’re going to go ahead with the marriage. The child she is carrying is from God. When he’s born, name him Jesus. He will save his people from their sins.”

There were the stories told about Jesus. The kind of stories that people whispered behind his back and tsk-tsked about. One time some fairly self-righteous sorts said to him, “At least we know who our father is.” He scandalized people with his teachings and by hanging out with the wrong sort of folk. He welcomed people in who weren’t supposed to be on the inside. He died like a common criminal in a row of crosses between two thieves.

The people who recorded the story for future generations didn’t think to sanitize the story for public consumption. They told it like it is. That’s because it was always God’s story to tell. God chose all along not to hand down salvation from some righteous high horse. God brought salvation up from the common ground where most people live actually live their lives. ‘God with us’ doesn’t come from somewhere on high. ‘God with us’ comes through a feeding trough for animals after traveling down the branches of a fairly shady family tree. Amen.

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