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December 19, 2004

Dancing at the World's End - December 19, 2004

Dancing at the World’s End
Sarah Dylan Breuer, Director of Christian Formation
St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Episcopal Church, Severna Park, Maryland
Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year A; December 19, 2004
Romans 1:1-7; Psalm 24:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Rules are rules.

We need it to be that way. Rules make life predictable, and to make meaning, we need things to be at least somewhat predictable. Rules are how we know what's what -- something we need especially with respect to something that's really important. In some ways, you can tell what's really important in our culture by where we tend most to stick to rules -- things you do because that's how it's done.

Rules help us make sense of the senseless. When I was growing up in the 70's and 80's, there was a rule that had become law, and we called it "Mutually Assured Destruction." There were two superpowers: the Soviet Union and the United States. We each had nuclear weapons. We each were held back from launching them by the certain knowledge that the other superpower would launch theirs ... but we knew that couldn't last forever. We talked as children about how close we were to what would be a primary target; everyone hoped to be near one of the initial blasts, so we wouldn’t live to see the aftermath. When I was in high school, there was a television miniseries called The Day After that gave voice to what most people my age believed would happen before we had the chance to see old age: by mistake or intention, someone launches theirs, and we launch ours, and the world ends -- fire, followed by ice, with famine and unspeakable global destruction. Mutually Assured Destruction -- the rule that accounted for how we didn't kill each other, and told us how we would eventually kill each other.

Another rule that’s prominent in many of the world’s cultures – cultures of the kind that anthropologists call “honor-shame cultures,” – has been making headlines lately because of how often it’s applied in Kurdistan, in the north of Iraq, now that local authorities are freer to enforce laws as they see fit. It’s a rule about what men are to do when a woman in their family is perceived to have been sexually violated or defiled in some way, whether voluntarily or by force. It’s called an “honor killing”; such a woman is murdered, usually by her own brother or father.

Cultures around the Mediterranean Sea in the ancient world were honor-shame cultures. They practiced honor killings too. Such a killing may be described in the book of Judges, chapter 19, in which a Levite’s concubine is raped, and the Levite responds by chopping her into twelve pieces. But a case like Mary’s, in which a betrothed woman was found to be pregnant and the man to whom she was betrothed knew the child wasn’t his, had a specific penalty commanded by scripture: both the woman and, if his identity was known, the man who had gotten her pregnant were to be stoned to death.

It's serious stuff, but rules are rules. That's what justice is, isn't it?

That's what Jesus upsets from the beginning -- even before he's born.

In this morning’s gospel, Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant, and he knows he’s not the father. He also knows the rules. As a man who is described in the text as “righteous,” you would expect Joseph to play by the rules and turn Mary over to the village authorities to receive the penalty that scripture assigned. That’s why I’d say that verse 19 is best translated as “Joseph, being a righteous man BUT unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Even before the angel intervenes, righteous Joseph resolves to break the rules, divorcing Mary, as would be necessary to dissolve a betrothal, but doing it quietly, hoping that Mary’s kin won’t seek her death to preserve the family honor. Fortunately, Mary’s family breaks the rule of “honor killings” as well.

And then an angel appears to Joseph to tell him that God is breaking the rules too, right down to the biological law that a woman can only conceive a child with a father.

Apparently even God-given laws in scripture and nature were made to be broken.

It’s significant that these are the circumstances in which Jesus was conceived and born. Ancient biographies, unlike modern ones, weren't interested in stages of development, and they certainly weren't interested in surprises. Subjects of ancient biographies were shown as being the same to their dying day as they were the day they were born -- the same the stars proclaimed they'd be at their birth. Jesus was no exception, in Matthew's biography.

Matthew's Jesus is "King of the Judeans," but the first people to recognize his coming, other than Joseph and Mary, are not Jews, but are astrologers, or magi, from eastern kingdoms. Jesus is the person who showed us what true honor is by acting shamelessly, befriending tax collectors and sinners and dying a death on a Roman cross that would -- by the rules, anyway -- be called shameful. Jesus, who has no human father and had no children of his own, incarnates for us the one who is Father to the fatherless.

In other words, Jesus' whole life -- and his being raised to life by the God of Israel after his death -- is, like his conception and birth, a paradox, a justly broken rule.

Here's another rule, one that's trustworthy, by sensible reckonings: you reap what you sow.

But consider that the angel's word to Joseph in this Sunday's gospel is true: Jesus came to save to save people from their sins.

Take a moment to think about what sin is and where it leaves the world -- about everything that speaks and enacts brokenness, despair, dehumanizing people made in the image of God, despising God's good gifts. Think about it. Think about the solutions people have proposed for those things -- a war on poverty, a war on terrorism, eugenics as a "final solution" to make sure that humanity's weaknesses become extinct. Those are from the optimists. The pessimists among us say that there is no salvation from our sins: the poor get poorer, the sick stay poor and (no insurance? sorry -- can't help you!) thus get sicker. They say that the only solution to violence is more violence. They say that the best we can do is to try to keep what we’ve got and protect those we love a world that is steadily going to hell, with or without a handbasket. They say there’s only one way out of this world, and that’s death.

But think about it: an angel of the God of the universe told Joseph that the child who was to be born -- the child whose birth we anticipate in this last Sunday of Advent -- will save people from their sins.

We will not reap what we sow, what our parents sowed.

I started out this morning talking a little bit about the world I grew up in, the world of the Cold War and of Mutually Assured Destruction. And I can tell you about the day when I saw that world end. I was in seminary at St. Andrews University in Scotland, and one morning while we were all having coffee in the common room, someone told us that the Berlin Wall was coming down.

That wall was more than a wall -- it was a world. The world of the Cold War was coming down, and people were dancing on it as it was crumbling. Students left St. Andrews in droves and hitchhiked to ports, bought tickets on ferries, did whatever they had to do to get there and dance with the dancers. They brought back chips of the wall, that thing that was built before we were born and told us how we and the world would die.

One of the few regrets I have in my life so far is that I didn't go.

I had things to do -- classes to attend, papers to write. I had a job waiting on tables that I was afraid to lose. I was afraid that the little money I had wouldn't get me to Berlin, or wouldn't get me back. I was so busy with the life I was living in the world that was ending that I didn't read the signs: that world was ending, and I had the chance to dance with those who were welcoming a new world, one that wasn't doomed to end in massive fireballs or nuclear winter.

This is the last Sunday of Advent. We have spent the last few weeks waiting, listening, watching as people in darkness who yearn for some sign of the light. And the Light of the World is on the horizon now: his name is Jesus, for he will save people from their sins.

The whole world of sin is ending. It's ending now. Imagine that! Without armies or weapons, Jesus has defeated every dark force and impulse that would isolate us from one another and from God. It’s a new world! It's bigger than the end of communism. It’s bigger than the end of terrorism. It is the end of ending and the beginning of beginning.  How foolish it was for me to miss the fall of the Berlin Wall because I was afraid of missing a few theology classes! That’s a mistake I don’t intend to make again. So this morning, as I look to Jesus' Advent, to celebrating Jesus' birth in less than a week, I’m going to pay attention to the signs. When I look to Jesus, I see the world of sin falling. When I'm really in touch with that, there's nothing I won’t drop to dance on the ruins as they fall.

I'm serious -- a world-changing event that makes the fall of the Berlin Wall look like trivia is on its way. It's not a pie in the sky; it's a tree growing from an undying root planted when Mary said "here I am" to God's call, and nurtured by Joseph's doing the right thing by refusing to do what the Law required. It's the end of every damn thing that damns us. Who wouldn't skip class, risk hitching a ride, do what it takes to get to where God's people are dancing there?

It's all happening! There are five days of Advent left to watch for it and get there – to figure out what's holding you back from going to where the stars will reveal the Christ, and make a decision to drop it. The time in which rules are rules is over. The only death needed to end a world of sin happened two thousand years ago. You and I really have been freed. Totally. What would you let slide if you knew that a new world was coming in less than a week? What would you do if the ONLY thing to do were to seek God and God's anointed?

We have received grace and apostleship to bring that to the peoples of the world ... starting with us, right here, right now.

Grace to you, and peace, from God our one Father, and from Jesus the Christ, who saves us from sin.

Thanks be to God!

December 19, 2004 in Advent, Matthew | Permalink


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