Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Church in Corthin, Part Two

Epiphany 3A.  26 January 2014.

The Very Revd Alexander D. MacPhail


1 Corinthians 1.10-18


            Last Sunday I spoke in some detail about the background of the letter of Paul to the Corinthians.   Today I want to extend some of that, and speak to today’s lesson. 


            Last Sunday I gave a little geography—the city of Corinth is on an isthmus between the Peloponnesus and mainland Greece.  It was what we might call a “boom town” because so many goods and people moved through Corinth on their way between the ports of Lachaion and Cenchreae.  Corinth was very active in trade, and famous for prostitution, and sports. 


            Paul likely found a small Jewish community there after his missionary ventures in Philippi and Thessalonica, and stayed at the house of Aquila and Priscilla, who were early Christian converts and also tentmakers, just like Paul.  Tent making would have been a fairly well paying and honest labor.  These are the days before hotels.  If people travelled they may need a tent, and during the Isthmian Games, which were a lesser version of the Olympics, tents would be needed for athletes and visitors alike.


            The Church at Corinth was not very big, but it was very cosmopolitan—these are urban people, accustomed to seeing many people from many backgrounds, and observing many beliefs. 

            Corinth is not in the Holy Land.  It’s in Greece, so since the Jewish culture is not a dominant force, there is great freedom for Paul to preach without fear of religious rejection from some established leaders.


            When you and I read these letters now, we read them through our own lens, but there are aspects of culture that might help us read Paul.[*]  Paul writes with a very deep sense of connection to the Corinthian Church and very much as a father to a child.  It may seem condescending, paternalistic and even arrogant to us now, but Paul’s role is that of a pater familias.  Paul is the head of this household, and culturally it is understood that he can speak with authority.  As their founding pastor, he has the understood right to suggest that they emulate him, just as a child might emulate a parent.


            Also in the air is the value of honor and the fear of shame.  I won’t say that this is completely foreign to our culture now, however we live in a much more socially flexible culture.  For instance, for those of you who did not grow up in the Shenandoah Valley, you know that you could move here and start fresh.  I remember a few years ago a parishioner said to me, “Join and church and join and gym, you’ll have friends in a couple weeks no matter where you go.” But in Paul’s time, your family name was respected or not.  You might be able to move slightly up, but never to the top.  And you could certainly always slide down. 




            I think we see this happen today most dramatically in political and popular celebrity, but it’s different.  A person can emerge from obscurity to become a powerful political or popular celebrity, but they can fall very, very quickly.  Depending on the circumstances, a person may come back with time, depending on the severity of the crime or indiscretion.


            But society was even more vertical and much less flexible.  Everything was concerned with gaining honor and avoiding shame.  Those who were considered lower were expected to show honor to those who were considered higher.  Places of honor were important.  Who gets to speak, and when, was important.  And there was dishonor in anyone breaching the unwritten rules.  Think Downton Abbey.


            In America, it’s very different.  I won’t say that we don’t have our classes and unwritten rules, because we do, and they are constantly being negotiated, but we are far less concerned about those things now.  And ironically, it seems shameful to notice the differences, or to speak about them.  If you were watching Downton Abbey, someone asks—I don’t remember the exact wording—“What should I say to her?” –indicating someone not considered part of their social class.  And the answer came back, “Anything one human being might say to another human being.”  To which was said, “But none of those are appropriate subjects for conversation.”  Well, there you have the first century.


            Along with that, everyone had a lord.  Everyone had someone who was over them, who might be able to say that they were owned by them.  Not just slaves, although this was most obviously true of slaves; but everyone had someone to whom they were indebted, and wanted to please.  When Jesus said, “No one can serve two lords,” he is speaking very subversively.  One wanted as many patrons, or lords, as possible, because that meant security.  Someone needs or wants me.


            So a client did his best to cultivate his relationship to the patron, and the patron took pains to insure that the proper honor was given to them.  It seems so shallow now, but…  Well…  I don’t know about you, but when I go to a restaurant or a store, I expect to be called “sir.”  And if someone is too casual with me in that situation, I may silently take offense.  I would certainly never say anything about it, but…do you know what I’m saying here?  Several months ago, I purchased something and the cashier said, “Good evening, honey.”  And despite the casualness of those words, her tone was that of respect, and I was oddly charmed by it. 


             But really the patron/client relationship was just as nuanced as social position, so there aren’t many modern day similarities that really get at it, yet it was a very important part of the lesson we read today.  Last week, we read Paul’s effusive introduction, and today he tackles their divisions head on.


I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?


In a society where the patron/client relationship and social position was so important, it mattered who one belonged to in the faith.  Chloe and her friends are concerned that the more egalitarian nature of the Christian faith is being lost to the secular system.  And Paul says this is about Jesus.  It’s not about me, or Apollos, or Cephas.  We don’t own you; Christ owns you. 


            You may recall in our liturgy of the Holy Baptism, immediately after the Opening Acclamation, the priest or bishop has this exchange with the People,


            There is one Body, and one Spirit. 

            One hope in God’s call to us. 

            One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism. 

            One God and Father of All.


This is how our liturgy affirms that no matter who is officiating the baptism, everyone’s baptism is the same and equal, just as there is one God.


            Then Paul writes some words that seem like he’s just thinking out loud.  I don’t know about you, but whenever I read over them I smile a bit.  He writes:


I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)


            You see?!  It’s like, “Yeah, I baptized Crispus and Gaius, but most of you were…well, and then there’s the household of Stephanas…but then, who knows…but that’s not the point…!”


            He doesn’t want to minimize the importance of baptism, or his own role as their spiritual father, but he wants them back on the important stuff, and that’s the cross of Christ.  He writes:


For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 


            This is how Paul begins to try to draw them together from their divisions, by pulling them back to the narrative that brought them to Christianity to begin with.  It isn’t just a brilliant tactic, it is the only tactic—because you and I know that what brings us together is what keeps us together.  And I don’t say that to underestimate the powerful relationships we develop, but they can only go but so far in the church. 


            One of the great sadnesses I occasionally still feel is that all the newcomers at my last church left when I left.  Thankfully, they didn’t leave the Faith of Christ, but they did leave that particular parish.  In the Church it has to be more than just friendship. 


            I heard a priest friend of mine say that he felt like his was “a congregation of broken toys.”  Those where his words.  He said, “I’m one of them myself.  We’re all nice people and everything.  We just don’t happen to fit in with anyone else, so this is our church.”


            Can I just take a moment to say that I rather like that.  They’re a small church, and ironically, they’re in a big city!  Rather like the Corinthians.  But unlike the Corinthian Christians, they’re not fighting about who baptized them.  I have heard that they have their little ups and downs like any church, but that sense of shared vulnerability—I think that’s a beautiful thing.


            I’m not saying that a church should become a club, but maybe we’re on to something when we construe the church as a people with shared vulnerability.  After all, that really is the story of the Cross.  Jesus who was invulnerable, “for us, and for our salvation,” became vulnerable and died.  Paul writes, “Foolishness to [some], but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”








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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

[*] The New Interpreter’s Bible, p.782ff.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Church in Corinth

Epiphany 2A.  19 January 2014.


1 Corinthians 1.1-9


            If you have been listening or reading my sermons lately, you will have noticed that I have been preaching mostly from the Old Testament, mostly from Isaiah.  Even last Sunday, when the lectionary and the liturgical calendar strongly suggested I speak on the Baptism of the Lord, I stayed back in Isaiah. 


            I am very grateful that the lectionary gives—depending on how you look at it—three or four readings to choose from.  Typically the Psalm is not preached upon; although there are millions of sermons that have been preached from them, and from time to time, they catch my eye, too.


            As I look at the lectionary texts, there is always a time of discernment over which one I choose.  Lately I've been a little perturbed by the repetition in the lectionary.  For instance, next Sunday we'll have Isaiah 9 again, and we just had Isaiah 9 on Christmas Day—and I preached on it. 


            So, I looked over at the New Testament, and noticed that we were beginning Paul's letter to the Corinthians, and we'll be reading from it for most of Epiphany, so I thought it might be interesting to talk a bit about the Church in Corinth and Paul's correspondence with them.


            Paul wrote more to Corinth than anywhere else.  The two letters we have indicate more were written.  What we call First Corinthians is actually, likely, the second letter to them.  He wrote to them more because it was a church with a lot of problems.  So it's kind of interesting, I think, that we read as holy writ letters that were intended to solve problems within a little church in an ancient Roman city.


            The city of Corinth is found—still to this day—on an isthmus: a narrow piece of land between two seas that connects two larger pieces of land.  The larger piece of land to the north was mainland Greece, and then the Peloponnesus to the south.  To their north and east is the Aegean Sea, accessible from the port of Lachaion.  To their west is the Adriatic Sea accessible from the port of Cenchreae.  Corinth is the hub through which travelers, sailors, and goods passed.   


            It was dangerous to sail around the Peloponnesus to the south, so the Romans built a road over which goods could travel, and even small ships could be carted over land.  Since the isthmus is only about seven miles wide, there had been talk of digging a canal.  Both Julius Caesar and Gaius Caligula—when they reigned as Emperor—proposed it, but I'm sure it was cost prohibitive. 


            Because so many people and goods moved in and out, Corinth was a boom town.  Especially since there were so many sailors, Corinth became known for prostitution.  And since there was a good deal of money in the area, the price was high, and the women were very beautiful.  In Dio Chrysostom's Discourses, he mentions the saying, "Not every man can afford the trip to Corinth."  Depending on whose history you read, Corinth was either one of the worst areas for sexual depravity, or their reputation is exaggerated. 


            Sports were also big.  Corinth hosted the "Isthmian Games," every other year in the Spring.  They were consider second only in importance to the Olympic Games. 


            There were people of every religion in Corinth, including a small Jewish colony—likely dating from the Diaspora—and those who were the first Christians were likely part of that small group. 


            So when we talk about a Church in Corinth, you can understand that it's rather like saying the Church in New York City, or Washington, or Los Angeles.  The environment would have been very cosmopolitan, very secular, and very Roman. The church was not very big.  It's a small church, and Christianity is a obviously a new form of religion that has a lot to do with the fulfillment of Jewish tradition and history.


            Unlike Washington or New York, Corinth did not have an establishment culture with aristocratic families with servants.  I'm sure there was a measure of people from those backgrounds, but it was mostly nouveau riche—people who had made a lot of money. 


            Paul had encountered rejection and anger from Philippi and Thessalonica, so he was a little worried about how he would be received when he came to Corinth.  He stayed for a year and a half.  He met Aquila and Priscilla from the local Jewish colony, and stayed with them.  Paul was a tentmaker by trade, and so were they.  Tent making would have been profitable work in Corinth, because there were no hotels.  People would need temporary lodging while making their way through, or if they were staying for the Isthmian Games, or visiting a shrine to a Roman god. 


            Paul was welcomed into Aquila and Priscilla's home.  They worked together—likely—with tent making—and Paul taught in the synagogue, gently inviting them to consider that Jesus is the Messiah for which they had been waiting.  A different kind of messiah.  Not a military ruler, but a cosmic Savior, who is preparing a place for us now, and will come again to take us home.  In short, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which we still believe to this day.


            The first Christians in Corinth were from lower to middle class backgrounds—some Jewish, many not.  Paul didn't have to worry about his reputation as a former persecutor, or as a Pharisee.  No one cared about that.  Paul was free to speak about Jesus with many people who were either Corinthian, or simply passing through. 


            Corinth provided such freedom.  Lots of people, little to no traditions to hinder the flowering of a new one.  


            I ask you to consider the likelihood that Paul might spend a day with someone talking about Jesus and how he was starting a community of believers, and that that person might have nodded their head, and gone on with their travels.  And when they found themselves home in Thessalonica or Rome, they might have tried to find the people there who also talked about Jesus.  I can see them going to that community and saying, "Hey, I found out about this from some guy in Corinth who makes tents."  And I can imagine the community saying, "That was Paul!  You met Paul of Tarsus!  Did he baptize you?"


            There were likely hundreds of people Paul met and evangelized who were just passing through.  And yet all we have that really records Paul's time there are the letters he wrote after he left that little ragtag band of disciples with their many disagreements and divisions.  He opens what is really his second letter—but we call his first—with tenderness,


Grace to you, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son…


Did you notice any themes in what I just read?  If you have a pencil or pen take it out and underline these words: "has been given,"  "you have been enriched," "has been strengthened,"  "you are not lacking,"  "he will also strengthen you," "so that you may be blameless,"  "by him you were called."


            The Corinthian church was a troubled church.  In the very next verse of this chapter Paul will begin to address their divisions and squabbles.  He will address everything from sexual morality to who baptized whom to marriage and divorce.  But as he begins, he reminds them that they are enriched, strengthened, given, not lacking, and called by God. 


            And that is a message that every church and every Christian needs to hear from time to time.  Depending on your own levels of cynicism, that may sound like a hollow message.  One of my favorite preachers once said, "This letter probably sat on Paul's desk for a day or two before he sent it."  Paul knew that when the church received it, they may not like what he had to say.  So you can think that Paul was just buttering up the congregation before laying down the law. 


            But if you close your ears and your mind around Paul's letter, or really any part of the Bible, then the Holy Spirit can't really speak to through it.  That may be one of the reasons why people don't like hearing about the original context—for them, it may seem to rob the text of its power.  But I don't see it that way.


            I think Paul was very genuine in his theology that God has enriched them, strengthened them, and is calling them—and that that is the river of hope that flows deeper than any disagreements.   


            God has called you, enriched you, strengthened you, given you.  You are not lacking, really.  If you can disengage your heart from your troubles and disagreements, and re-engage them with God, you may discover what the Church at Corinth discovered—that God was with them, and that they were going to be okay.





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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel




Monday, January 13, 2014

Rekindle the awareness that God is with you

Epiphany 1A.  12 January 2014.


Isaiah 42.1-9


            There are many reasons we speak of Scripture as being inspired by the Holy Spirit.  In the Episcopal Church we do not speak of the Bible as infallible, but our reverence for the truths it contains is genuine.  Holy Scripture echoes—or reverberates—from its original context into our lives with uncanny accuracy.  You can know little or much about the original context and still glean meaning; and even if you simply read the words—like running your hand over waves of grain—they can change you. 


            At one time I heard that the rabbis speak of a practice of "torah for the sake of torah."  That is, simply studying it because it's scripture. 


            I sort of go back and forth with that.  At times, I become absorbed in study—getting down to the original Greek or Hebrew, getting lost in footnotes and endnotes.  One feels like such a scholar in doing so. 


            My father, a few Christmases ago, gave me the compact version of the Oxford English Dictionary, which comes with its own magnifying glass because the print is so small.  Let me tell you.  If you really want to feel like a bookworm, reading through a magnifying glass will do it.


            But then there are times when intense study of the Bible becomes too ponderous, and I revert back to practice I started when I was a teenager of picking up the Bible at a day's end and just flipping around and letting my favorite parts wash out the places in my soul that had become soiled by sin or inattention.  


            And I commend that practice to you, because it works so well.  Seriously.  If you have been coming to church, I promise it won't seem a strange as you may think.  Psalm 23, 1 Corinthians 13, Psalm 91, 103, 150, Luke 1,2, John…well…all of John.  For that matter, any and all of the Gospels. 


            Even the Revelation—the very last book.  Were you to simply let it wash over you—without trying to imagine everything or figure anything out—it will weave its tangled web of images, and like listening to a symphony or looking at a piece of art, you will discover that it can move you emotionally in ways you cannot imagine. 


            Isaiah is like that for me, as well.  All three of Isaiah's books.  We don't list them separately in the Bible, but scholars have long observed it as three books written at different times, likely by different authors.  First or Proto-Isaiah is chapters 1 through 39.  It was likely written by Isaiah son of Amoz.  Second, or Deutero-Isaiah, is chapters 40-55, written by an anonymous 6th century writer, likely during the Babylonian exile .  Third or Trito-Isaiah is 56 to the end, chapter 66, written after the exile was over.


            For all of Advent we were reading Proto-Isaiah .  Today, we're in Second Isaiah, chapter 42.  And here we read one of what are called Servant Songs, written about an unnamed servant of God and of the people. 


            Christians have always read Jesus back into this text.  It's a very devout way of thinking to say that the author was writing about Jesus—he simply didn't know he was writing about Jesus!  But if you adopt a more critical, literary approach, you might agree with scholars that the unnamed servant is not one single person, but rather a poetical device used to speak of the people of Israel as a whole.  That it's not a king or a prophet, but the whole of God's people who together constitute a suffering servant.


            And remember the people for whom this is written are in exile.  The purpose of writer—the prophet writing this poetry—is to remind the people of the Faith and Covenants that God had given them.  He's trying to rekindle, resurrect, the hope of their relationship with YHWH. 


            Before I go directly to the text, let me stop for a moment to discuss the challenges of doing this.  Before the Exile the Hebrew people had strayed away from the worship and Torah of God.  Fertility cults, worship of Baal, primitive religions, you name it.  It was a time of apostasy—at least, that's how we understand it from the Bible.  The punishment was that God did not protect them from the power struggles of Egypt, Syria, and Persia, and when King Nebuchadnezzar seized control, he exiled most of the learned men and their wives.  He didn't exile everyone.  He rounded up only those who were thought capable of inspiring rebellion.


            Well, think about it.  Let's say you are Nebuchadnezzar.  You want the land, and you don't want people who can challenge you intellectually or militarily, so you imprison or exile them.  The writer of Second Isaiah is writing to those people—trying to get them back to the worship of YHWH, so that God's favor will return, and they can come home and rebuild.


            Now, the writer obviously sees this a hard job, and it is, because what he is saying isn't new or exciting.  People are always more inspired by a new flashy way of thinking or behaving.  The writer is essentially inviting them back to church!  Come back!  The problem is that you have strayed away from the God who loves you!

"I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness." 

Look at four actions the writer has listed for what God has done!  "I have called you…  I have taken you.  [I have] kept you.  [And]  I have given you."  The structure of that repetition drives home the message with a nod to their ancestors in the Exodus.

            "I am the Lord."  "I am who I am" is the name God gives when Moses asked who he is.  I have called you [spiritually called you as a spiritual people] and taken you [out of Egypt], I have kept you [through the journey to the promised land], and lastly, I have given you as a covenant to the people. 

            Let me paraphrase, the writer is saying, in part, "Look.  You are the covenant.  Don't give this up!  Don't just turn to the next flashy thing, or get absorbed into the people and culture of Babylon.  Remember the God who called you, took you, kept you, and gave you.  You are the hope.  Don't give this up!" 

            He continues:

"I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them."

            I'll paraphrase: God says, "I am the same Lord who called you to begin with, and who still loves you.  I haven't given my glory to any other people.  What's done is done.  You wandered away, and that's a shame.  I have more prepared for you, but you're going to have to take heart.  Return to me, and let's get after it!"

            Do you read it that way?  That's how I read it.  The writer is trying to bring them back, so that he can push them forward.  Some wandering away is understandable.  We've all done that. You can't live your life without some distraction. 

            But what wanders?  Your attention?  So what?  Your attention can wander with the breeze.  It's your heart that matters.  For the Hebrew people, what began as a flirtation with other faiths ended in their downfall as a nation—at least, that's how we understand it.  The writer of Second Isaiah is concerned with bring back their hearts to the God who loves them. 

            Where is your heart?  Only you know the answer to that question, and only you can decide how closely your heart will draw to the God who loves you.  My experience has been, very much like the Hebrew people's—that whenever my heart seems to drift away, life does not go very well.


            One of you at coffee hour recently said to me, "I have noticed that the weeks I come to church go better for me than the weeks I stay home."  For me, and likely for you, too, it's even more essential than that.  If I don't take time to pray, daily, life does not go very well. 


            But it's not even really about the prayers.  It's about trying to develop a constant awareness that God is there, and God cares.  I think it might be the greatest blessing you can give to yourself to cultivate that awareness.


            My grandfather and grandmother on my mother's side were very devout.  Their spiritualities were very different.  My grandmother prayed a lot, but she was the person who liked to go and do.  She ran the food pantry in our church.  She used to go down to Staunton to get food from the food bank.  I have memories of watching her section large bricks of butter into family sized portions to give out.

            My grandfather was a contemplative type.  He liked to work in 

his wood shop, making furniture, and fish.  He taught the adult Sunday school for years, until he retired.  I remember asking to talk with him when I was about Maggie's age, and being told, "He can't talk right now, he's preparing his Sunday school lesson."  

            The only piece of religious decoration in their house was a plaque on the wall.  I must have read it a million times.  Their spiritualities where very different.  They didn't always agree on matters theological or domestic, but it was clear that they believed the words on the plaque.  It read:

Christ is the head of this house,

the unseen guest at every meal,

the silent listener to every conversation.






Inline image 2

Monday, January 6, 2014

Free will or destiny--perhaps a little of both.

To listen, click here. 

Christmas 2A.  5 January 2014.[*]



            There is so much information and symbolism and spirituality to the gospel lesson from Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23.  As I read it, perhaps you were also intrigued.  There is something about St. Joseph and his dreams. 


            You might remember that we talked about Joseph on the fourth Sunday of Advent, when we read the story of the angel informing him that Mary's pregnancy was an act of the Holy Spirit and that he should not be afraid to take her as his wife.  This lesson comes just after the visit of the magi.  Matthew writes that after they had left, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and says, "Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him."  So Joseph obeys the angel. 


            When Herod dies, Matthew writes, that the angel comes to Joseph suddenly, again in a dream, and says, "Get up, take the child and his mother and go home."  When Joseph gets back into the land of Israel, he learns that Archelaus had succeeded Herod.


            Now, let me just pause for a moment to talk about Herod and Archelaus.  Herod was an Edomite, meaning he was of Arab, not Jewish, descent.  And yet, he is responsible for rebuilding the Temple, and rebuilding much of Jerusalem.             He was the client-king for Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor.  It is well known that Herod was crazy.  He killed people for nothing more than suspicion—including members of his own family.


            Herod willed his kingdom to his son Archelaus.  Actually, it had first been willed to his brother Antipas, but Herod changed his mind before he died.  Now, to say that the Roman Empire was tolerant of cruelty is a gross understatement.  Life was very cheaply regarded.  These are the people who thought nothing of the torturous method of execution known as crucifixion.  So, with the understanding that Rome was fine with cruelty, consider this.  Archelaus was a so brutal that he even offended Rome.  There is a story that is told that Archelaus slaughtered 3,000 devout Jews when they removed the symbol of the Roman Eagle from the Temple. 


            The people hated Archelaus.  Somehow the people managed to get Caesar to send him into exile, and when he was gone, Antipas, his brother was installed as the local client-king.  When Jesus appears before Pilate, Pilate will refer him to Antipas—who then returned the matter to Pilate.


            Okay, so, Joseph learns that Archelaus is ruling over Judea.  Judea was where Bethlehem was.  It becomes clear that Bethlehem, Joseph's ancestral city, would not be a safe place to raise the child.  After all, Herod had just killed all the male first born children, and here comes Archelaus who is even more brutal than Herod.  So Joseph is warned in a dream to go north to Galilee, which would have been out of Archelaus's jurisdiction. 


            One wonders how things would have been different if the throne of Herod the Great had gone directly to Antipas.  Jesus might have been raised in Bethlehem, and things might have been different.


            And that's precisely why this text interests me.  You see, we get descriptions of three dreams, but there is one dream here that is not like the others.  In the first two dreams Matthew offers us the words of the angel.  The last dream is different.


            Let me spell this out very clearly.  The first dream comes seemingly out of nowhere.  "Get up take the child and his mother and flea."  The second dream comes suddenly—seemingly out of nowhere—"Get up take the child and his mother and return."  But now look at the third one.


            Matthew writes, "But when [Joseph] heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea…he was afraid to go there."  Now.  The text swiftly moves to the dream that directs Joseph to Galilee, but notice that there is no quotation from the angel, and notice, please, that the presenting issue is Joseph's fear.


            I believe this is significant.  I might be wrong.  But I'm going to tell you why I think it is, and I'll let you decide if I'm crazy, or if I might be on to something here.  (Of course, I could be crazy and also on to something.)


            The way this story is normally preached is that Joseph's dreams are proof-positive that God is in control.  God is guarding the Holy Family, and therefore, the take-away message is that the important aspects of life are mapped out.  Christianity is about embracing—perhaps even mindlessly embracing—the uncertainties of life, believing that our Blessed Lord will steer us straight.


            Well, okay.  Here is where we begin to talk about destiny versus free will.  Are we free to do as we please, or is God firmly in control of all things, including our decisions?  My guess is that that is not something most of us spend much time considering, because it is one of the great mysteries of life, and we cannot ultimately know.  But just because we cannot ultimately know doesn't mean that it's not worth our consideration.  See, if you believe that everything is mapped out—and you follow that line of thinking to its obvious conclusion, it will take away your motivation to make good decisions. 


            But now, see, if you think nothing is mapped out and everything is open to your whims and desires…well…there can seem like there's a sort of meaninglessness to life.  God becomes merely the Creator, the watch-maker, the ultimate mechanic of the universe.  God designs the creation and then steps back from it, only intervening when absolutely necessary.  Or if you're totally agnostic, God does not intervene at all. 


            The problem with both extremes is that they dissolve all meaning and value to human decisions.  If there is no destiny—so what?  If there is only destiny—so what? 


            Another problem with believing that we have a totally free will is that it doesn't account for the fact that no one has literally unlimited choices to make.  It might seem like we can choose to do anything, but we can't. 


            We were born to particular parents, raised by them or others who have shaped the way we look at life.  Our social and economic backgrounds, our values, our teachers and mentors, our religion, all of these things have directed us and continue to direct us down certain paths.  To abandon them is literally impossible, because they go together to make up our sense of identity—our sense of who we are.


            But we love, love, love the illusion that we can choose anything.  Let me give an absurd example.  The next time you go to the grocery store, notice that you have a choice between at least two products for almost everything you wish to buy.  Not just name brand versus generic.  Notice the variety.  You have to choose; you want to have to choose. 


            But you did not have a free choice of parents, elementary school.  Your first car was probably not a free choice.  Your teachers, clergy—maybe even some of your first friends weren't really people you picked out to play with.  You got lumped together into classes and baseball line-ups.


            When you begin to look at the options you were given, the illusion of complete freedom begins to dissolve.  And that can be a great comfort, because no one can choose from unlimited options.  It will make you crazy.


            The earnestly devout person however is acutely aware of the many paths one can take, and is always trying to navigate the course that seems most in line with God's will.  But my experience has been that people who try so hard to conform to an impossible standard drive themselves nuts—and in fact, perhaps commit the sin of pride in believing that they can somehow conform to it.


            Life is notorious for throwing curve balls—things that happen that cannot be traced to the malice of others…just, you know…life!  And I have watched many a devout person agonize over their troubles, and will often try to make sense of it by saying that God is testing them, or the devil is at their elbow, and they don't know whether to lash out at evil or just continue to say their prayers. 


            Part of their lamentation is the belief that earnest religious impulses will shield you from bad things happening.  And we come by this belief understandably.  Does not the Lord's Prayer read, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil"?


            But there are many verses one can cling to.  St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (8:27-29)


            So, here's the question, and I'm coming back to Joseph and the Holy Family:  In the first two dreams, God is directing Joseph.  But the third dream comes after Joseph is scared of Archelaus.  I wonder if you could understand from this text that Matthew saw Joseph's movements as both the direction from God and the wisdom of Joseph.  What I'm trying to say is that I wonder if part of this lesson's meaning is that God's direction is not so heavy as to take away Joseph's free will.


            I rather hope so, because I think few of us would feel comfortable with God being too much or too little involved in the living of life.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons Jesus changed the language with which we relate to God.  For the devout Jew, God's name is too holy even to be said out loud, or written down.  But Jesus taught us to pray "Our Father." 


            Parents know that raising children is a process of slowly, carefully relinquishing control—without relinquishing affection.  You go from making all their decisions, to fewer and fewer, until you make none of them. 


            You go from shielding them from as much unpleasantness as possible, to letting them scrape their knees, to letting them get their hearts broken.  The hardest thing is to let go, but it has to be done.  Yet, if children are wise, they will still consult their parents.


            I don't know if God has a "perfect will."  I have heard a lot of devout people agonize over that possibility, and feel as if they will never attain to it.  I don't think God wants us to fret about things on that level.  I think God's mind can encompass far more variables, and still keep things going in the general trajectory he has in mind. 


            I do believe that God is intimately involved in our decision making, but I think it's more of a fatherly involvement: wanting what will make us more whole, what will bring us life and joy and peace, but still letting the decisions be ours.  I think that is part of the mystery of this text.  But I'll practice what I preach, and let you decide!




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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


[*] Adapted from my sermon on 2 January 2011.