December 10, 2023 Reflection and Worship Link

Angels Among Us Do not be Afraid

“Advent Three: Do not be Afraid”

Scripture Reading: Matthew 1: 18-25

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This week I had occasion to go to the temporary offices of First United Church located on Powell Street near Oppenheimer park. I was grateful to get a parking spot close by and as I made my way to the pay station a construction worker at the end of his shift came up behind me and said “Don’t bother paying parking.  I park here all the time. They never check for payment after 2pm.” “I don’t mind paying” I said “and besides which I’d much rather pay the few dollars it’s going to cost me to park than a potential fine that will cost much more.”  “Suit yourself” the man replied “but I’m telling you, they never check.” I was too embarrassed to tell him I would never not pay for my parking.  I am way too risk averse for that kind of daring living and besides which I like to follow the rules. In addition to always paying for parking, I drive the speed limit that is posted, I abhor making social faux pas and I do my best to live by the golden rule.


I think that is probably why of all the characters in the Christmas story, the one I resonate with the most is Joseph.


Joseph, member of the House of David, was a law abiding citizen.  The scriptures tell us he was a righteous man, keeping the Jewish laws of the Torah handed down from one generation to the next.  When he discovered that the woman he was engaged to was pregnant, he knew that she would most certainly be shunned by the community and possibly even put to death for adultery should this news become known. The commandments were clear about adultery. Joseph knew that according to Jewish law Mary had broken the rules and if he stayed with her he too would become a rule breaker. 


But he was also a compassionate man and for as much as he knew about the letter of the law, he also knew that the spirit of the law was also very important in the Jewish tradition. And clearly, he loved Mary, his betrothed.  The best solution he could come up with for this disastrous situation in which he found himself was to dismiss Mary quietly so they could go their separate ways.  That way his dignity and his family’s honour as members of the House of David would stay intact. He would maintain his reputation as an upstanding citizen and Mary, hopefully, would escape death.


It was a good plan until he was visited by and angel and everything got turned upside down.  This angel of joy heralding nothing less than the salvation of the world must have seemed more like an angel of doom to poor Joseph.  Suddenly, righteous, upstanding citizen of the year Joseph was being told not to be afraid to be a boundary breaking, social convention ignoring man.


Over the last couple weeks, as we in this community of faith have been thinking about the angels of peace and hope among us, I have heard some beautiful stories.  I have heard about grandparents and best friends, church members, neighbours and complete strangers who have encouraged us and taken care of us, been there for us, modelling the kind of compassion and grace we aspire to model in our own lives. I’ve heard about serendipitous encounters, people unexpectedly showing up at just the right moment. I’ve even had one of those angel encounters myself in the last couple weeks.


These stories have been full of the kind of comfort and joy we tend to think of when we imagine who our angels might be or how we might be angels to others.  But not one person has mentioned an angel who came to them in the way the angel came to Joseph that night he had made up his mind to quietly dismiss Mary for the sake of social conventions.  Not one of the angels I have heard you speak of has been a disruptor, a holy agitator, a presence that intervenes in our lives until we wake up, pay attention and change the trajectory of our lives. 


I am assuming that’s because most of us prefer the kind of angels that bring comfort over the ones that bring disruption.  We prefer living inside our rule bound boxes as opposed to stepping outside of what society considers acceptable. I know I do. 


And perhaps that’s because we’ve been living through tumultuous and fear filled times these last several years. Nothing much seems certain anymore.  The last thing we want is to be pushed outside our comfort zones. In fact we’re working pretty hard to get our comfort back after all the discomfort we’ve been experiencing the last few years.  And yet isn’t that exactly where we need to be pushed, beyond the status quo, beyond those places that have become so comfortable in our world, the places that no longer serve us, if in fact they ever did? Instead of getting back to the way things were before don’t we actually need to find a new way forward as uncomfortable as that may be?


If it’s hard for you to think of the angels in your life who have been holy agitators, take a moment to bring to mind the people who have shown you it was time to quit the job that was draining the life out of you, or to take up the work or the hobby or the activity that scared you because you didn’t think you could do it; think of the friend who helped you see it was time to leave a relationship or address an addiction or to just tell the truth about who you are or the circumstances under which you are living. 


Think of the angel voices within you that have encouraged you to speak out about the person getting harassed on the bus; or the inner voice that disturbs your peace and makes you call into account the guest at your dinner table who just made a racial slur or the voice that simply disturbs your peace and says to you “it’s time for you to do something for the good of yourself and the good of us all.”


If you can’t think of personal angels who fit this description, think of the public ones.  Think of people like Jody Wilson-Raybould the first indigenous woman to be named Attorney General who was expelled from the Liberal caucus for speaking truth to the power of a government that didn’t to change the way they do business. Think of David Suzuki who has given his life to being a social disruptor on behalf of our planetary home and all that live on it. Think of our friend Nabil Abdalarazeq who was tortured and had his life threatened for speaking out about Hamas. Think of Narges Mohammadi who just accepted the Nobel peace prize from her jail cell in Iran for speaking out on behalf of the oppression of women in her country.


These are the rule breakers and law benders, the angels who are holy agitators, who do what they do for the sake of a better future, for peace and goodwill for all people, for the salvation of the world.  Often they do it at great personal cost, risking the hostility of those who do not want to be shifted from their positions of power or change the way things have always been done. It takes courage to be someone who moves outside of what is accepted as the norm for the good of us all.


When an angel appears to Joseph in a dream asking him to be this kind of changemaker, he is afraid.  He’s afraid to be faithful in a way that goes against the social and religious norms of the day.  He’s afraid to threaten conventional power structures.  He’s afraid to be someone other than the person he has always known himself to be.


Fear is an excellent gatekeeper of our comfort zone and the status quo.  But when we live passively in our fear, instead claiming our agency to make a difference, we miss out on the joy that is intended for us and for others.


One of the interesting thing about Joseph is that he never actually says a single word in the scriptures. Instead, he acts, he responds, he believes the unbelievable.  He inspires us to do the same. Our world can be different than it is if only we believe and act on God’s vision for us.


The joy that the angel brings to Joseph, as disturbing and disruptive as it may seem, is no less than the joy of participating in God’s redemptive and healing work in the world.


So the next time someone or something disturbs your peace and gives you a good scare, pay attention.  It might just be an invitation to creating a better world and a greater joy.

A few weeks ago for my vacation Billy and I went to Alert Bay for his family reunion. We were there over a weekend, so I looked into the churches in town to find which one we should go to. We went to the Anglican church – there was no United Church anymore. Actually some of Billy’s family were staying in the old United Church. It had been converted into an Inn. Sunday morning we went down to the Anglican Church, which was on the reserve, and we were almost the first ones there for the service. We arrived while a few people were gathered to go over the hymns before church, which was good because we were able to hear one of the hymns that I didn’t know and hear how the words were pronounced, because the hymn was in Kwakwala, the language spoken by the Namgis people.

The worship service was more similar to a United Church service than an Anglican service – and so it was very familiar. For the Gospel reading, the minister read from the First Nations Version, an Indigenous translation of the New Testament. The reading was of Peter stepping out of the boat onto the water, which was the lectionary reading for the week, and I’m pretty sure was what you heard here on that Sunday as well. I found it really interesting to hear the scripture read from that version – which is fairly new – it was only published two years ago. In the First Nations Version, the stories are told more in an Indigenous style of story telling. The characters in the story are given names that seem to have a little more meaning just as it is in their own traditions – which is actually probably more true to the original as well! In this section – Jesus is referred to as “Creator Sets Free”

I’m going to share with you part of today’s reading from the First Nations Version.

When they came into this place, Creator Sets Free (Jesus) asked the ones who were walking the road with him, “Who do the people think the True Human Being is? What are they saying?”

Some say “Gift of Goodwill (John) who performed the purification ceremony” they answered. “Others say Great Spirit is Creator (Elijah), or even Lifted by Creator (Jeremiah) or one of the other prophets.”

He then lowered his voice and spoke in a more serious tone.

“So tell me,” he asked them. “How do you see me? Who do you say that I am?”

Silent faces stared back at him. They began to look at each other and some looked down to the ground. The moment of truth had come, but no one dared to speak. Then suddenly a voice pierced through the silence.

“You are the chosen one.” One Who Hears – also called Stands on the Rock (Simon/Peter) answered, “The Son of the Living Creator”

Creator Sets Free (Jesus) smiled at him and said “One Who Hears (Simon), Creator’s blessing rests upon you, for flesh and blood did not help you see, but my Father from above opened your eyes. For this reason I have given you the name “Stands on the Rock (Peter)” and upon this great rock I will make my sacred family stand strong.”

One of the things that stood out for me of this translation is at the very beginning when Jesus asked them How do you see me? Who do you say that I am? How do you see me maybe gets at the same question that Jesus is asking, but in a slightly different way. How do you see me, asks the question in a way that I think gets more at the character of Jesus. About what he stands for or what about him is important to them? What is impressive to them about Jesus.

To put this into your own context – Think about a loved one – if they asked you that question – “who do you say that I am? You might answer it in a very concrete way – You might say their name – You’re my mother, my sister, my friend, my cousin. But if they ask the question How do you see me? You might come to a very different answer. I see you as someone who is compassionate, caring, thoughtful, intelligent, wise, funny, selfless, humble. I see you as a good leader, a great parent, an example of kindness.

When I thought about Jesus asking this question – how do you see me, it made me consider how many ways there are of seeing Jesus. If I ask the same question about Jesus – I imagine I would get many different answers just in this room. How do you see Jesus?

Just look at so many different denominations even just in North America. Each one and the individual people within the walls have an image of Jesus that is slightly different. Some focus on Jesus as saviour and Lord, some focus on Jesus as teacher or prophet or healer. We have many different names for Jesus, Saviour, Lord, Prince of Peace, Emmanuel, Son of God, Light of the World, King of Kings, Lamb of God, Redeemer, Messiah. And each one, gives us a glimpse into who Jesus is and how we see Jesus – none can paint the whole picture.

Each of the followers in this story might have a different reason for following Jesus. Some may have witnessed the miraculous works of Jesus, they saw his power, authority over nature and disease and death, and their hearts were stirred to believe. Some may have been drawn to him by his teachings: his parables, and profound wisdom resonated with their hearts and minds, illuminating the path to understanding. Some may have chosen to follow him because of his compassion. They saw how he cared for the marginalized, how he healed the broken hearted and loved the unlovable, and they felt inspired to follow his example. Whatever aspect of Jesus compelled them to follow him, would shape their understanding of how they saw Jesus.

At different times in our life, or even different moments of the week – we might hold tight to a different image of who Jesus is for us – or who we need Jesus to be for us right now – is it a healer, a miracle worker, the bringer of peace in the midst of chaos, a teacher to bring us some wisdom that is needed, a comforter in our grief.

In the First Nations Version of this reading, Peter is referred to as Stands on the Rock. In other versions, Peter is referred to as the Rock – but I thought it intriguing that here – as Simon he was called “One that Hears” and then as Peter he became “Stands on the Rock” So he wasn’t necessarily the Rock – but was Standing on it – was grounded in something larger than him – the Rock that is the foundation of his faith – or maybe God is the rock that Peter stands on. And then it is on that rock that the church is built. Or as this version states: upon this great rock I will make my sacred family stand strong.

I loved this image – the church referred to as “sacred family standing strong.”

So how does this sacred family stand strong and bind things that should be bound and loose things that should be loosed. Where do we see freedom and liberation emerging even in small insignificant ways. With every thoughtful gesture, in every supportive word, in every person we welcome into this space, in every denunciation of injustice, in every meal delivered, in every transaction in the thrift shop, in every latte served in the café and shared with a friend – these are the ways that we become sacred family standing strong, and live out how we see Jesus.

At the end of the reading, Jesus says something a little bit surprising – after he asks them to tell him who he is – he tells them to keep it to themselves. Don’t tell anyone! I have always found this to be a little bit odd – but as I thought about it this week, this coming right after he has told them about how to be the church – the sacred family, it occurred to me that maybe Jesus is just saying don’t talk about me and tell people who I am – show them who I am through your actions.

How do we build a church on the truth of his identity? By being true to ourselves. By living lives reflecting the nature of how we see Jesus. Our lives will speak louder, more truthfully and more effectively than our words. The lives we live, a life of love for God – a life that loves the other as much as ourselves – a life in pursuit of justice and peace.

So it is with church – on this rock, we shall build a sacred family where no one is hungry or homeless, where marginalized and racialized people are not oppressed. Where people feel welcomed and feel like they belong and are seen and valued for who they are. On this rock let us build something that shines with the belief in a living, speaking, creative and incarnating God, a God of freedom and not of oppression, a God of Justice, love and peace.