Righteousness Redefined

Righteousness, properly defined by Thayer, is about adherence to the rules of God as well as rules of human origin.  The concept of “powers ordained by God” has deep roots, well beyond even Judeo-Christian history.  Within our own Scriptural narrative, we have evidence of all kinds of leaders who were believed to be “ordained by God.”  Chief Priests, Judges, Kings, throughout history, those who believe in God have trusted the Spirit to put leaders in charge who would seek the will of God and what is best for the people.  (I’ll let the reader decide if we still believe this.) The result of such belief is this understanding that the laws made by human beings should be followed because they are inherently just.  Martin Luther King, Jr., among many others, have taught us that this isn’t always the case.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we get a very early example of one who can be considered righteous even though they do not fully adhere to the laws of the land.  Joseph, having heard that Mary was pregnant even though they had not yet known each other, is described by Matthew as “righteous,” but this title brings with it goods in conflict.  As a righteous man, Joseph was well within his rights to divorce her very publicly, ruining her life and the life of her child for ever.  He could even have her executed for bringing such disgrace upon him and his family.  Either of these options would have been considered righteous, yet, for Joseph, they weren’t right.  Rather, he planned to release her from her betrothal quietly.  She’d still be considered damaged goods and would likely never find a husband to take care of her and her child, but at least, maybe, she could return to her own family.

Joseph the righteous one, who was willing to choose what he thought was the best possible outcome for Mary, was in tune, it would seem, with the will of God.  The dream that he has invites him to ignore the laws of the land and to risk everything to take Mary as his wife.  His righteousness wasn’t defined by dual allegiance to the laws of God and the laws of humans, but solely on the will of God.  His calling was higher than the expectations of human government.  His was to welcome the reign of God on earth.  As such, Joseph redefines righteousness.  While we might not have to make the same exact decision Joseph did, our calling is also to welcome the kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.  This means, sometimes, maybe even most times, we are called to seek the will of God – to love our neighbors, care for the poor, feed the hungry, and proclaim release to the captives – over the expectations of social convention or even the law of the land might have us do.

How the story gets told

Ten years ago last April, I was in the labor and delivery room with my wife as she gave birth to our firstborn.  I was watching the monitor that recorded the contractions as they came and went.  I cut the umbilical cord.  I was generally supportive.  But in the way the story should be told about that day, I am little more than a bit player.  As the due date came near, I remember some of the older men in my congregation talking about their memories of their own children being born.  Fifty years earlier, it wasn’t just that men weren’t expected to be in the delivery room; they flat out weren’t allowed there.  One guy told me about the golf game he played while his first son was born.

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I find it interesting then, that when Matthew begins a story with “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way,” the bulk of the story is focused on Joseph, the guy who had “had no marital relations” with Mary, whose family lineage required the very inconvenient journey to Bethlehem in the first place, and who almost certainly passed the birthing duties on to a midwife.  Matthew is keen in making sure that his readers know how Jesus fulfills all kinds of prophecies about the Messiah, but the one he selects from Isaiah 7 about a virgin who will bear a son seems to be much better handled in Luke’s account of the Nativity of our Lord.  This is especially interesting given that it is Matthew who includes the names of four female ancestors of Jesus in his genealogy, and Luke names none.

How stories get told is maybe more important than the story itself.  The gist of the narrative may not change – a Messiah is born under questionable circumstances – but the details matter.  Sure, it is helpful to understand the cultural pressures under which Mary and Joseph lived, but why only tell that part of the story and relegate the birth narrative, much expanded by Luke, who likely shared a common source, to a passing thought in a sentence more focused on whether or not Mary and Jospeh had sex while she was pregnant?  Matthew clearly has a design in mind as he three times highlights dreams that Joseph has as well as the vision of the Wise Men.  God’s hand is at work in the story, be it in fulfilling prophecy or orchestrated the movement of the key players, but still I wonder, what about Mary?

I don’t have any answers for you today, dear reader, just things to ponder as you approach some very familiar stories told in very intentional ways.  How will you tell the Good News of the Messiah’s birth?  Will it be in the lofty language of John?  Will it include the powerful image of Linus dropping his blanket when Luke’s angels say “be not afraid”?  Will it feature Joseph’s dreams and God’s handiwork?  Will all three make an appearance?  How the story gets told is important.  So, pay attention to the details.

Named as saints – a sermon

My final sermon at Saint Paul’s is available on the website, or you can read it here.


Some of you may not know this about me, while some of you have experienced it firsthand.  I am terrible with names.  So bad, in fact, that there is a voice inside my head that actively encourages me to steer clear of them whenever possible.  As I’m shaking your hand, giving a hug, or just making eye contact, I can hear it start.  “You think her name is Sue, but you aren’t sure.  You should know her name, but you’ll mess it up and hurt her feelings.  Just don’t do it; just say, ‘Hello dear,’ or something equally pathetically innocuous.”  Being bad at names is really a poor quality in a priest.  Names are powerful.  We feel known when someone calls us by name.  We feel equally unknown when we are called “buddy,” “darling,” or “dude.”  More than that, our names carry meaning in them.  Some carry generations of family history.  For example, after my grandmother died, we found in her genealogy records that my dad, John Pankey, carries the same Americanized name that our ancestor Jean Pantier took when he emigrated from France in the early 18th century.  How cool is that!?!  Other names carry the weight of even more history, names that are imbued with meaning from deep in the past.

In fact, names have carried meaning for thousands of years.  The Old Testament is rife with names with deep meaning.  Even in the very beginning, we get the name Adam for the first man from the Hebrew word which means both “man” and the “dust” from which humankind was created.  His wife, Eve, is named the Hebrew word for “life” because she is the mother of all humanity.  Place names were important as well.  After wrestling all night with God near the Jabbok, which means “emptying,” Jacob (trickster) gets a new name, Israel (God prevails) and he named the place Peniel, which means “the face of God.”  All throughout the Old Testament names do more than simply name people and places, but they fill them with meaning.  Nowhere is this more true than in our lesson from Isaiah this morning.  Here we find ourselves in the middle of the story of King Ahaz who is fearful as he is about to come under attack from the Assyrians.  Isaiah, God’s prophet and mouthpiece, promises that if Ahaz remains faithful to God, he will prevail.  The sign of the promise will be the birth of a baby to a young woman who will be called Immanuel, or God with us.  Ahaz is ultimately unsuccessful; he just can’t keep the faith, and the promised birth of Emmanuel doesn’t happen.

More than seven hundred years later, Matthew interprets the circumstances of the birth of Jesus to his young mother, a virgin named Mary, as the fulfillment of that ancient promise.  The child’s given name is Jesus, which means “God saves;” a name given to both of his parents by an angel of the Lord, but there is no doubt in Matthew’s mind that Jesus is the child promised to Ahaz as the assurance of the final victory of Israel, when God moved into the neighborhood for good.  Emmanuel, God with us, was born to Mary, whose name means both “bitter” and “beloved;” she will experience both in her life, and her betrothed Joseph, whose name means “may God increase.”  What is amazing about this story, seven hundred years after it was supposed to take place, is that once Emmanuel came to be God with us, God never left.  God was with us, God is with us, and God will forever be with us, thanks to the life-giving sacrifice of sending God’s only Son to be born of a virgin and to live and die as one of us.

For roughly two thousand years now, Jesus hasn’t been on earth, and yet, God continues to be with us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit keeps Emmanuel in the present, always here to show us the way to the Father, the how-tos of the Kingdom of God.  The Spirit, a lifetime of God with us, is a gift given to every one of us in our baptism.  With deference to the power of names in the Old Testament, the Church has long tied baptism and the gift of Emmanuel with naming.  For hundreds of years, a child was formally named at their baptismal ceremony.  Those who were baptized later in life often changed their name at baptism, giving up the pagan names of their youth for Christian names of discipleship.  Some of you may have a second middle name from a long ago Roman Catholic baptism for the very same reason.  This morning [at 10 o’clock], we welcome Hadley Caroline Wing into the Body of Christ.  I’ve not had a chance to talk with her parents as to why they chose Hadley Caroline, but even if they just thought it was pretty, it still comes with great meaning.  Hadley is an Old English word for a field covered in heather, a gorgeous purple flower.  Caroline is a feminine form of the name Charles which means strong.  May she be a perfect balance of splendor and strength.  She is born to her parents Andrew and Kacey.  Andrew means manly and Kacey is the Gaelic word for watchful or vigilant.  Hadley Caroline, under the care of strong and careful parents, today receives a new name, one that all of us who are baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ share: saint.

Though names are also important in the New Testament, what with Simon (listener) becoming Peter (rock) and Saul (inquired of God) becomes Paul (humble), what seems to be even more important is our common relationship in Jesus Christ.  Throughout the New Testament, all the disciples of Jesus are referred to again and again as saints.  In Greek, saint is hagios which means “set apart by God, holy one, or consecrated.”  To be saints, then, is first and foremost to acknowledge our total dependence upon God.  Every good work, every possession, even our very breath comes from God.  We are invited into sainthood, it is not earned.  The very act of becoming a saint is the grace-filled gift of God, which is why in the Episcopal Church we baptize infants.  This is the sign for us that none of us are able to work our way into God’s love, but rather it is the gift of a God whose very nature is love and relationship.

In response to the gift of God’s love, and with the help of the Holy Spirit who is always with us, we engage in the work of holiness, which is summed up in the Baptismal Covenant that we will all reaffirm in just a few minutes.  By the power of the Spirit, God with us at work in our lives calls us to live lives worthy of the Gospel; lives of faithful service to God and to each other; lives committed to the restoration of right relationship with God, with one another, and with all of Creation.  Today, on a day that the Scripture lessons are all about names, we welcome Hadley Caroline into the family of saints, and make our vow to labor alongside her in building up the Kingdom of God.

I would be remiss to not mention that today also happens to be my last sermon here at Saint Paul’s.  On a day that is also about sainthood, I give thanks for the saints of this congregation.  You have loved me and allowed me to love you in return.  You have raised me from a baby priest.  You have cared for my family, loved on my children, and supported us in good times and in bad.  I will be forever grateful for our time together as we have sought to learn what it means to be disciples of Jesus and saints of God.  May God bless Hadley Caroline.  May God bless her family.  And may God bless the Saint Paul’s family as you continue working with the Spirit to discern the power of Emmanuel, God in your midst, from this day forth and forever more.  Amen.

Our Title

There is a theme developing this week.  After three days of focusing on the names and titles that Jesus carries in Matthew’s account of his birth, today, I want to turn our attention to the most important preaching question: so what?  All this etymology of names doesn’t really amount to a hill of beans if it doesn’t have an impact on our lives.  Today, then, my focus turns to the title we carry as believers in Jesus, the Messiah, who is God with us.

It seems clear that the makers of the RCL would have the preacher see how Paul’s opening words to the Church in Rome tie everything together in a nice little bow.  The Prophet Isaiah promised the coming of the Son, born of Mary, who came to save the world.  That’s a nice tidy package, but the power really comes in what might be considered a throw away line, Paul’s salutation.

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“To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints”

Those who follow Jesus as the Christ and Emmanuel carry the title of saints.  In Greek, saint is hagios which means “set apart by God, holy one, consecrated.”  To be saints, then, is first and foremost to acknowledge our total dependence upon God.  Every good work, every possession, even our very breath comes from God.  We are invited into sainthood, it is not earned.  The very act of becoming a saint is the grace-filled gift of God.  Secondarily to that is the work of holiness.  By the power of the Spirit at work in our lives, we are called to live lives worthy of the Gospel; lives of faithful service to God and to each other; lives committed to the restoration of right relationship.

What is key in all of this, for me, is the realization that every disciple of Jesus is a saint.  There might be those who are called to a deeper devotion, to a fuller sacrifice, or to a particularly powerful ministry.  These we might call Saints with a capital S, much like Jesus is the capital letters Anointed One, but every follower of Jesus has a call to holiness, to sacrificial love, and to a ministry in and for the world in thanksgiving for the saving love of God in Jesus the Christ.  What is your calling?  How are you living out your sainthood?

Title vs. Name

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For two days now, this blog has paid particular attention to the power of name.  This is very much in keeping with the Biblical tradition that treats naming with great seriousness.  In the Old Testament stories, especially, we are often given the specific meaning of the name of a person or place in order to make it very clear that names mean something.  From Adam (Heb. for Man) and Eve (Heb. for Life) to Israel (Heb. for God prevails) at Peniel (Heb. for Facing God) the Scriptures are rich with names and their meaning.  The Christian tradition has followed suit in this.  In Baptism, the neophyte is named.  Ordination was traditionally an opportunity for a name change.  Even to this day, Bishops are allowed to carry the name of the See City as their last name, should they choose (I’m looking at you Justin Cantuar).

While names are of significant importance, so are titles.  Whether one is called king or prophet makes a whole lot of difference.  Paul relied heavily on his title as Apostle, even if he felt he had to justify it with regularity.  In modern times, there is the ongoing debate between the various titles that clergy can carry: Father/Mother, Sister/Brother, Pastor, Preacher, Doctor, etc; although we should all agree that Reverend is grammatically incorrect and should never be used (The Reverend being appropriate only as written honorific), but I digress.

I bring up the importance of not only name, but title as well because Matthew seems very intentional to set this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, the very abridged story of Jesus’ birth in the context of name: Jesus and Emmanuel as well as title: Messiah.  In fact, one could argue that the whole of Matthew’s Gospel is wrapped up in the title Messiah.  Verse 1 of chapter 1 says it all, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”  The same happens here at the opening of this passage, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”

Messiah isn’t the word Matthew used.  It is the Hebrew version of the word that Matthew put into Greek as “Christ.”  Either way, the meaning remains the same.  Jesus is the Anointed One, with the capital letters used very intentionally.  Others have carried the title anointed one: kings were anointed with oil as a symbol of God’s blessing upon their reign, but Jesus is the Anointed One, the King of kings, the one, chosen of God, to rule for eternity.  Emmanuel, God with us.  Jesus, God saves.  Messiah/Christ, the Anointed One.  In one brief story that skips the details of the birth narrative that Linus has made so famous, Matthew makes it clear that the infant we are dealing with is God’s Anointed One, and more than that, he is the very God who has come to walk among us in order that we might be saved.

Jesus’ other name

Yesterday, I spent some time pondering the implication of Jesus’ fulfillment of the prophecy to Ahaz, specifically what it meant that Jesus was Immanuel, God with us.  We know, of course, that when push came to shove, and despite Matthew’s attempt to shove a round theological peg into the square hole of reality, Mary and Joseph did not name the child born in Bethlehem “God with us.”  No, they named him the name that was given to Joseph in a dream in this week’s appointed lesson from Matthew’s Gospel, the same name given to Mary by the Angel Gabriel in Luke’s version of the Nativity story.

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“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

The angel that appeared to Joseph in his dream gives us insight into the meaning of Jesus’ given name.  Yeshua, the Hebrew original that gets bastardized into Jesus, means “to save” or “to deliver.”  According to that great theological resource, Wikipedia, it is a late Hebrew rendition of Yehoshua, which carries a stronger tie to God, as in “God saves” or “God delivers,” which is precisely the ministry of Jesus.

The promise of God’s deliverance of his people is not new in the person of Jesus.  By the turn of the Common Era, God had repeatedly stepped into salvation history to save and deliver his people.  From the time of Noah, God shows a track record of being unwilling to let humanity destroy itself in sinfulness and self-gratification.  On the ark, God saved a faithful remnant.  In Abraham, God chose a nation through which he would bring all nations into his saving embrace.  Through Moses, God delivered the Israelites from the bondage that came from Joseph’s brother’s unfair dealings and subsequent self-serving Pharaohs.  The prophets, Isaiah certainly included, again and again called the people of Israel to forsake their sins and be saved.  When it seemed clear that was not going to happen, God promised both punishment and redemption to his people.

There is never a point at which God is willing to give up on his hopes of restoring humanity to right relationship, which brings God ultimately to the person of Jesus, Yeshua, Yehoshua, God saves.

Immanuel – God with Us

Thank God for 1980s Amy Grant.  I can’t read the lessons appointed for Advent 4, Year A without immediately hearing those great synthesize riffs.  See, in Year A, Advent 4 is all about the name of Jesus.  Not Yeshua, as his name would be in Aramaic, but the name promised by the Father through Isaiah as the sign for Ahaz of his impending military success.

Some seven hundred years later, Matthew took this yet unfulfilled prophecy and attached it to the birth of Jesus, which followed the model of the original.  Like the prophecy, which told of a child born to a young woman, almah, likely unmarried but of marriage age, Jesus was born to Mary, a young girl, engaged to Joseph but not yet known by him (Biblical euphemism that means they had not yet engaged in intercourse).  Ahaz had failed to live up to God’s intention for him or his kingdom and was, of course, duly punished.  In the intervening years, there had been no fulfillment of the promise, no child born to an almah who would come close to being Immanuel – God with us.

Until that fateful day when Mary and her betrothed saddled up their donkey to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of a taxation census.  Then, according to Matthew’s interpretation, the promise was finally fulfilled, God was born on earth.  God was here.  Or as Eugene Peterson has famously translated John 1, God moved into the neighborhood.

What is amazing about this story, seven hundred years later than it was intended to take place, is that God never left.  Immanuel, more commonly spelled with an E these days, never again went away.  God was with us, God is with us, and God will forever be with us, thanks to the life giving sacrifice of sending God’s only Son to be born of an almah and to live and die as one of us.  As the days continue to get shorter ahead of the winter solstice, this lesson seems vitally important.  The darkness of the season is often matched by the darkness of our hearts and minds.  Depression is common, suicides increase, disappointment seems to be around every corner.  There is much in this season that can make us wonder if God really is still here, but the promise of Isaiah, reinvigorated by Matthew, assures us that in Jesus, God’s Emmanuel, God is here.

O come, O come, Emmanuel

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appears.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

Waiting is really, really difficult.  For example, FBC is now four years old (which is hard for this blogger to believe), and there is no possible way that Christmas can come soon enough.  The Advent calendar has been opened before 7am every day this month.  Every time we see someone for whom a gift sits under our tree, the question gets asked, “can we give them their gift now?”  When a package arrives on our doorstep, it must be opened immediately.  Waiting is really hard when you are four years old.

Waiting is really hard when you are 33 years old, as well.  Today is the Monday of championship weekend in my fantasy football league’s 10th year.  I’m going up against my friend, colleague, and blogging arch-rival, Evan Garner in the championship match-up, and I have to wait all day to officially win.

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I mean, I guess I Gonzo and the SF defense could lose 20 points and Bowman could run two fumbles back for touchdowns, but it is highly unlikely.  Still, I’ll have to wait until Christmas Eve to lord my victory over Evan.  Waiting is really hard.

I think maybe that’s why the Church has taken to singing the O Antiphons in the waning days of Advent.  As the days grow shorter, the nights grow longer, and the coming of the Lord seems like it is never going to happen – we call out in unison for Jesus to come!  As we wait in exile in this world, awaiting our restoration in the Kingdom of God, we cry to the Lord, “How long!?!”

Yet, the refrain reminds us that the promises of God are secure.  We don’t finish our plea to come, with words of sadness, but rather we “Rejoice!” because we know that Emmanuel (God with us) has come and is coming again.  Alleluia!

O come, Desire of nations

O come, Desire of nations,
bind in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

The best laid plans.  The obviously haven’t been any posts on this blog on Friday or Saturday.  Who takes on an extra blogging challenge the week before Christmas?  Maybe I’ll get all the O Antiphons in next year, but I’m at least happy that I have time today to reflect on the O Antiphon that takes us all the way from Advent to the Last Supper.

Here, just three sleeps until the coming of the Messiah, we find ourselves in the upper room with Jesus and his disciples on the night of his betrayal as he utters that painful and powerful high priestly prayer, “That they all may be one.”  As followers of the King of Peace, we have a lot to learn about being “one.”  There’s some truth to the well worn joke:

A man was stranded on a desert island, all by himself for years and years.  When a ship happened upon him, he was eager to show his rescuers how he had survived for so long.  On the island, there were three buildings.  “The first,” he said, “is my home.”  “The second,” he continued, “is my Church.”  “And what about the third?” they asked.  “Oh that,” he replied, “that’s the church I used to go to.”

Following Jesus has, in many ways, become another marketplace for personal preference.  “I like hymns!’  “No, I like praise music.”  “That guy can’t preach well.”  “She really knows how to speak to me.”  “Yay justice!”  “Boo works righteousness.”  What were once issues of theology have, for the most part and for many, become issues of taste, and as Diana Butler Bass tell us, taste makes for a mess in a world with 82,000 possible coffee combinations at Starbucks.  The truth of the matter, and the focus of today’s Antiphon, is that God’s desire is for unity of mind and mission; that we put away the pettiness of taste and instead be about the work of the Kingdom.

Of course, it probably won’t come close to happening until Jesus’ second Advent, but we know that it will come.  Thankfully, Jesus prayed for it.  He prayed for us.

O come, thou Branch of Jesse’s tree…

O come, thou Branch of Jesse’s tree,
free them from Satan’s tyranny
that trust thy mighty power to save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

There is a non-denominational church that sits just outside the entrance to my neighborhood.  As church’s are wont to have, this one has a sign board that is always good for a smug theological chuckle.  One particularly interesting post came a few months back when it read, “Would be willing to merge with a like minded church.  If interested call…”  That raise all sorts of questions about polity and ecclesiology for me, but that’s a digression for another day, perhaps.

Their current sign reads, “Jesus gave his gift on a tree, not under it.”  I always find the co-mingling of the Incarnation and Crucifixion to be interesting.  I’m certain that this particular church does not hold Good Friday services, saving the agony of the cross for Easter so as to fit a very narrow understanding of the salvific work of Jesus, there I go digressing again.  I can’t help but wonder why it is that the cross has to invade the manger?  I mean, one is not complete without the other, I get that.  The cross means nothing if Jesus’ isn’t the Word made flesh who dwelt among us.  The Incarnation is a quaint idea without some sort of soteriological event to back it up.  But do they have to invade each other’s space?  We don’t preach the manger on Good Friday, do we?

I was feeling all high and mighty about our better developed, more nuanced theology when I came to the O Antiphon for December 19th and found, what else, the cosmic battle between good and evil, playing out in one of my favorite Advent/Christmas hymns.  Maybe I should go back and reevaluate just how smart I think I am.