Awaken to Love
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, December 22, 2019, fourth Sunday of Advent, “Awaken!” series.
Text: Matthew 1:18-25
This Advent season, our theme invites us to reflect on our tendency to get distracted by the many things pressing for our attention and to miss the good gifts all around us. No matter how hard we try, this time of year the distractions can become even more intense.
On the first Sunday of Advent, Pastor Will provided a good starting place for our reflections using the example of sleepwalking. He shared how a sleepwalker can move around in the world and engage with others in a way that no one would ever guess they’re asleep. It’s entirely possible to sleepwalk through life, to be present but not really present, to be caught in another reality, a dream-like state, all the while, people and the world around us are right there for our engagement. Advent is our wake up call. It is a time for us to try—even in the midst of all the distractions—to shake ourselves out of slumber and sloth to recognize the good gifts of God that are extended to us. Are we able to perceive the hope that is present in our lives and congregation? Can we manage to not take our relative peace for granted? Will we remember the stories of blurry joy that train us to be ready to receive the surprise of that gift when it appears?
Our story today is the beginning of the Christmas story as told by Matthew. In the story, love is available to Joseph—not just love from Mary, but there is also the unexpected gift of a child to love and be loved by. Initially, we are told, Joseph was willing to walk away, to reject that love because of human-made rules and expectations. The Christmas story as told by Matthew begins with Joseph falling asleep with that plan and waking up to a new one.
Here’s the background: When Joseph learns that Mary’s become pregnant before they lived together, he is caught between the letter of the Law—that requires him to disavow Mary and bring her before the religious courts to be put on trial—and his affection and care for this young woman to whom he is betrothed. Just when Joseph has decided to quietly dismiss Mary—a gentle version of the Law, though still having a devastating effect on Mary and her unborn child—he is visited by a messenger of God through a dream. The message encourages Joseph to let go of his fear and to stay with Mary. Joseph is even given the name of the child that Mary bears—Jesus—which in Hebrew means “one who saves.” So there’s Joseph—with the scriptures and all the human traditions and expectations related to marriage on one hand and a dream-borne revelation from God on the other. Luckily for Joseph, in those days dreams were still reverenced as important venues for receiving messages from God (the Jewish tradition is full of holy revelation in dreams). But Joseph is still in a difficult spot.
There’s a reason Matthew begins his story of Jesus with this story of Joseph being caught between a rock and a hard place. Matthew writes for a church made up primarily of Jewish Christians who had “always reverenced the Law, but who sometimes found themselves torn between strict adherence to the letter of the Torah and the supreme demand of love to which their new faith called them (Mt. 22:39-40). If they neglected the Law, they were accused by others, and perhaps by themselves, of rejecting the Bible and tradition as the ‘unrighteous.’ But Joseph—as described by Matthew—is described as ‘righteous,’ even though he decided to act out of care for another person’s dignity rather than strictly adhere to the law…Matthew wants to instruct his church in being ‘righteous’ (just, committed to justice) in a way that respects both the Law and the Christian orientation to love, even if it seems to violate the Law.”
It strikes me that in this account of Joseph’s quandary, Jesus is already shaking and waking people to stretch their notions of what is “right.” Even in the womb, Jesus begins to reshape what constitutes a “holy family.” By the accounts we have in the Bible, we’ve got an unwed mother who, it’s assumed, has committed adultery; we’ve got an adoptive father—and therefore no male bloodline to continue the family tree; we’ve got a family whose story and whose make-up are firmly outside the bounds of acceptability according to the biblical Law. Even from the womb, Jesus challenges people to expand the boundaries of righteousness according to love, according to mercy, according to the real people and real situations that we encounter in life. As I pondered these things, I thought of all the beautiful configurations of “family” that we experience here and how much would be lost if human-made rules and boundaries of tribe, race, creed, and gender were allowed to reign supreme. I also thought of stories I’ve seen in films and in life where unlikely people get thrown together through circumstance and—sometimes reluctantly—become, for all intents and purposes, family.
I’ve also thought about those stories in which persons get rejected or opportunities to connect get ignored and, in the process, a chance to experience the wonders of God’s love in relationship are lost. I see families hold on to grudges and cut off relationships that once were warm and life-giving. I see parents who damage and sometimes even disown their own children because they are LGBTQ or because of whom they bring home for dinner. Prejudice and bigotry are everywhere, building blinders and walls between people who—if we’d just wake up—would be good friends, sharing much in common. We can allow the distractions in life—many of which might be far from frivolous!—to keep us from spending time with those we love and who love us, often thinking that we will have time later…and then life speeds by and there is no more time. And more subtly, we can get caught up in our own expectations about how our life is supposed to go and miss out on the life that is being given to us. As the saying goes, “Life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans.” Think of how much love we might miss out on if we don’t wake up to what is…
From the moment Jesus began to take shape as a human being, he revealed that for us to fully take the shape of human beings, we need to wake up to a different way of thinking and being that honors the scriptures and the rules and our responsibilities, but always in a way tempered by the law of love.
This never sat well with many of the religious folks of Jesus’ day who couldn’t let go of their interpretation of the letter of the Law and it doesn’t sit well with some today. But like it or not, Jesus created community and modeled inclusive love with the most unlikely characters—his close circle included many women, fishermen, tax collectors, zealots…basically not the usual suspects, not those who would have chosen to be together if it were just up to them, and those whose relationship broke all the rules. The authorities considered Jesus a trouble-maker and law-breaker from the moment he entered public life. But again and again, Jesus insisted that he came not to break or abolish the Law but to fulfill it. And what he taught is that the fulfillment of the Law is LOVE. (Mt 22) Jesus tried to help us understand that we can get overzealous in trying to get things right and end up getting things twisted. Jesus revealed the ways that the scriptures and the Law were used to exclude and harm instead of what they were meant for: building up the community and caring for the vulnerable. Jesus tried to help us see what it looked like to live in the tension between the letter of the Law and the law of love. He that by always being present and awake to the real people and relationships and situations that he encountered. What’s more important?—doing no “work” on the Sabbath or relieving the suffering of one of God’s children? (cf. Lk 13:10-17) What’s more in line with God’s will?—shaming a woman for her lavish gift and emotional display or recognizing and receiving the courageous love being shared in that moment? (cf. Lk 7:36-50) For Jesus, the reality of the people he encountered was always more important than any Law that would prohibit him from fully receiving the precious human being standing in front of him. He never dismissed anyone quietly. He never put anyone away. Think about—just imagine!—what would happen in our lives, in our city, if that were truly the way we all lived…
Joseph was asleep. And while still sleeping, he received a message from God that woke him up to a new possibility, a new direction, to fresh courage, and with a heart ready to love and be loved by Mary and Jesus. Their life was an adventure and surprise from the very beginning. It wasn’t easy, it led to but it was beautiful and holy and it changed everything.
What will it take for you to wake up to the opportunities for giving and receiving love you’ve been missing? What’s getting in the way of allowing a new dream, a new vision, a new way of creating community or relationships from taking hold in your life? Where is life and love being lost while you are busy making other plans? What do you lose if you stay asleep?