Sunday, December 19, 2010

Advent 4A: Listening as an act of love

Lectionary: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

About four years ago a non-profit group called StoryCorps set out to gather and record the stories of regular people whose lives and experiences are representative of our collective American narrative. The purpose of the book was to hear from the un-famous who are otherwise invisible to the celebrity-hungry news media.

While a few of the stories in this book are about people who have done extraordinary things, most of the stories are about ordinary people doing ordinary things: a grandmother telling her grandchildren about falling in love with their grandfather; one friend telling another what their friendship means to them. The book is entitled Listening is an Act of Love, and, as they say on their website: “Everybody’s story matters. Every life counts.”

We’ve been talking a lot about the importance of listening since I arrived here at Redeemer, but especially during this season of Advent. For believers, listening truly is an act of love. Listening demonstrates a love of God, our Holy Parent, who desires to speak a new thing in us, recreating us according to a plan of perfect love; it demonstrates a love of neighbor who need to know they aren’t invisible and that they matter; and it demonstrates a love of self, because we are nourished by the experiences of our neighbors and the relationship with God that listening affords us.

But listening isn’t enough by itself. When listening is an act of love, it always has a response.

In the Gospel of Matthew an angel of God spoke to Joseph in a dream saying, ‘don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife… she has not been unfaithful to you. ‘God is acting in this moment. The son she bears is from the Holy Spirit. When he is born, you must name him Jesus (which means ‘God saves’) for he will save his people from their sins.’

The angel was asking Joseph to receive into his home and his care one whom society insists “good people” should reject. If Joseph had wanted to, he could have had Mary stoned to death for being adulterous. But being a righteous man, he was willing to just dismiss her quietly, to dissolve their marriage contract. That would have spared her life, but it also would have destined her to a lifetime of ostracism. She might have ended up a homeless beggar.

In order to take this young, unmarried woman (which is what ‘virgin’ means), who is pregnant into his care, Joseph would have to put his own reputation aside because in that society, a man with an unfaithful wife would have been scorned by the “good people” of the village. We know, however, from his response, that Joseph’s prayerful listening was an act of love, because when he awoke from his slumber, he did as the angel of God [had] commanded him. He walked forward in faith, letting go his own plan for the future, his reputation, and committing to quietly endure whatever judgments were made against him by his own community.

Joseph could have said to himself, ‘God doesn’t speak to someone like me.’ Or he could have reasoned that God wouldn’t ask us to violate the rules God gave us to govern our behavior. Or he could have written off the whole thing as nothing more than a wishful solution to an embarrassing problem. But he doesn’t.

When he awakens, Joseph does as he was commanded to do – as strange and uncomfortable as that was. Joseph continued living quietly as he had done before, a righteous man, right in his relationships with God, with his neighbors, and within himself. He maintained his obedience to the law (the Torah) while at the same time honoring his promise to take Mary and the baby he named Jesus into his care and protection.

Joseph didn’t know how God would redeem this situation for him, he simply trusted that God would. Joseph’s response to God’s call to him allowed God to become known in the world in a way that had never happened before. His ‘yes’ to God was just as important in bearing the light of Christ to the world as Mary’s ‘yes’ to God was.

Joseph’s willingness to listen and respond to God’s call to him stands in contrast to Ahaz in the story from Isaiah. Ahaz clings so tightly to the law he knows in Deuteronomy (the one that says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” 6:6) that he can’t release his grip on what he thinks and believes and typically does even when God asks it of him. God is ready to act. God is asking Ahaz to open a way for God to be made known in a new way, but Ahaz just can’t do it.

We’re not so different from Ahaz sometimes. We often cling to what we feel comfortable believing and doing.

Yet, God continues to act in ways that call us out of our sense of comfort, beyond our notions of right belief and right action, and into new ways of living in holiness and righteousness. God continues to ask us to walk forward in faith, letting go our plans for the future, letting go our reputations, and committing ourselves to endure even the judgments of our own community, while God acts through us to redeem in ways we never could have imagined.

During Advent, we have been listening. But as we’ve said, when listening is an act of love, there is always a response. As the season of Advent draws to a close, we are called to awaken from our collective slumber and DO as we have been commanded. And this is what we have been commanded: to bring the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ to all nations and peoples, so that everyone we meet has the opportunity to hear the Good News, see the living God in us, and come to believe.

St. Paul tells us that we have been prepared to do this, having received grace and apostleship (an apostle being one who is sent – sent on a mission). The Episcopal Church is, according to our official name, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. We are by definition a gathering (an ecclesia) of apostles – a people who are sent on a mission.

And our mission (should we decide to accept it) is to use everything we’ve been given and risk everything we have, so that God’s love can be made manifest through us in new and unprecedented ways.

As we practice our last week of Advent together, I pray that we will let our listening be an act of love for God, our neighbor and ourselves; that we will listen faithfully and fearlessly and hear the real and actual ways God is calling us, the people of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, Shelby, to act.

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