Nov 27th, There’s Room for Every Story, with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski
A Part of the Series:
Nov 27th: There’s Room for Every Story, with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski.
The gospel of Matthew begins. This is the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah. It begins with Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob. And on it goes for 17 verses until we get to the birth of Jesus, tracing back 42 generations.
Now, the Gospel of Matthew was written written for a Jewish audience. So it was extremely important to highlight Jesus being a descendant of Abraham to prove that he was the Messiah. Now, for a Jewish audience, the genealogy of Jesus would have been essential setting for the story of the birth of Jesus. It’s actually right there in the Christmas story told in the Gospel of Luke, where it says, in those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. Everyone went to his ancestral town to be registered.
Joseph went from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the town of David, because he belonged to the house and the line of David. So to return to your ancestral hometown, you would need to know your genealogy. Have you researched your genealogy? How far back were you able to go? I recently did the ancestry DNA test 23 and me.
Now my father’s parents immigrated from Finland. So I wasn’t at all surprised to find out that I am 49% Finnish and 1% Russian. But I was shocked to discover a large percentage of the other 50% of my DNA is Irish. Now, I’ve never made I’ve never made a big deal out of St. Patrick’s Day.
Look out this year. But researching my ancestry, I actually uncovered some painful family secrets, some actually pretty sordid stories that are part of my family’s history, that are part of my story.
Families like to hide the disgraceful and the scandalous chapters of their story, but every family, every family has them. It’s like the Christmas letters we write or the instagram accounts that highlight the successes and never seem to mention the struggles and the stumbles. You know, we’re happy to show the world our smiles, but we hide our tears. In a preaching class in seminary, one of my classmates was assigned to preach on the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew one. We really felt sorry for her.
And when it came time for her to preach to the class, she actually had four cards, and each of the four cards had four different words. And the words instructing the class, the words were cheer. Boo. Oh, no. Who.
And then she mentioned she went through the genealogy, she mentioned each name in the genealogy of Jesus, and with each name, she held up a card and she asked the class to participate. And some of the names, we cheered when the name was mentioned because they’re the heroes and the heroines of our earth. And some of the names, when she mentioned them, as she held up the card, we booed because of the disgraceful things that’s actually recorded in the Bible that they’ve done in some names. She actually held up both the cheer and the boo because many of the ancestors of our faith, like us, I guess we’re really a mixture of good and not so good in some names. Some names we went, oh, no, to imply shock because their stories were rather scandalous.
But you realize for most of the names, the greater percentage of the names she held up who because we have absolutely no idea who they were. That was their sermon. And at the end, she just said, everyone has a history, a story, a story they’re proud to tell, a story they want to hide. There are successes and there are secrets. There’s triumph and tears.
It all belongs. It’s all part of our story. And in the earth of Jesus, god entered our story to remind us there’s no story that can’t be redeemed. There’s no one beyond the reach of love. There’s no pain that can’t be healed.
There are no sordid stories that can’t be transformed into something beautiful and holy.
You know, the fact I remember that sermon, I remember that sermon 35 years later tells you how powerful it was. I mean, I usually feel pretty good if you remember my sermons by lunch. Today is the first Sunday of the season of Advent as we prepare once again to encounter the story of God breaking into our story in the birth of Jesus. Now, chances are you know the basics of the Christmas story pretty well, right? And what a glorious story it is.
A couple, Mary and Joseph, courageously make their way to Bethlehem, with Mary about to give birth. A radiant star shining brightly in the night, angels filling the sky with psalm, cows and sheep tame by this holy moment, seeming to understand the need for a silent night, holy night, you know, proud parents eagerly showing off their newborn baby to delighted shepherds. Wise men proclaiming the birth of a king. Glorious, glorious, isn’t it? A calm, peaceful, beautiful Christmas card scene, right?
Well, maybe not. There’s the sentimental, romanticized version of the Christmas story. And there’s the real Christmas story, just as there’s the sanitized version of our own story that we present to others. And there’s always the story behind the story.
Now, the Christmas story was anything, anything but perfect and peaceful. If we look closely, it’s a very human story. It was a real mess, full of confusion and fear, uncertainty and the unexpected, full of fragility and vulnerability. Kind of like our stories.
Frederick Buechner said, at the highest point of the liturgy and worship, just as the priest raises the communion cup, the janitor should walk through the sanctuary with a vacuum cleaner. There should always be interruptions in sermons, babies crying, people coughing to remind us that God came in Jesus. Not into our perfect stories, but God came in Jesus to share the nitty gritty realities of our lives.
We missed something very important in the Christmas story when it’s presented as a Hallmark card. And the mess and the pain and the fear are erased.
Could it be that the mess the mess is precisely what makes the story so amazingly hopeful for us? Especially this year with all that is going on in the world and in our lives. For the mess becomes the very place where God shows up and a savior is born. It’s right there, right there in the midst of the mess and the pain and the fear. Right there in the midst of it that God’s love is born.
And we hear the angels say, don’t be afraid. God is with you.
Where our families are divided, where we are lonely and isolated, where we struggle with anxiety and depression, where hate crimes are on the rise, where innocent people continue to be the victims of our culture of gun violence, where people are hungry and homeless, where we have given up hope, it’s there. It’s there in the mess and the pain and the fear of all of that.
It’s there where we need God to break into our story and for God’s love to be born.
The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew one just kind of matter of factly says Joseph was the husband of Mary and Mary was the mother of Jesus, who is called the Messiah.
Just as I discovered there were very human stories, painful sorted stories behind my genealogy.
I invite us to use our imagination for a moment to wonder about the stories behind the story.
So Joseph and Mary joseph and Mary were forced to travel 75 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem so Joseph could register for the census in his ancestral home with Mary with Mary about to give birth. Now, we’re told there was there was no room for them. I mean, the town would have been filled with people because of the census. Now, it probably took four to five days of walking, riding a donkey to get to Bethlehem. Once they arrive exhausted, they’re told there was no place to stay.
I’ve always wondered I’ve always wondered if family conflict and family dysfunction was part of Joseph’s story. Like so many of our stories. I mean, if he had to travel to his ancestral home, so did his relatives. And yet there was there was no place to stay.
Families are messy. Maybe maybe the family of Jesus was just as messy as our family. There was no room for them.
Now, I imagine Joseph and Mary finding a cave in the hillside with a shelter built in front of it standing in the shadows. A donkey, an oxen. Now picture it with me. The dung is thick on the dirt floor of the cave with steam rising in the cold night air. The manger, which is an animal’s feeding trough gleams with the saliva of the oxen that have just eaten.
There not a likely place for the birth of Christ, the birth of love and hope and healing but perhaps the less likely the better. Then none of us can say that our lives, that our stories, are a less probable place for love to be born.
Mary goes into labor. This exhausted, exhausted, impoverished, frightened teenage girls miles away from home endures the most terrifying, mysterious, painful experience a woman may know.
And into that dark, painful, lonely place the child is born. God’s love breaks into the world and into our story.
Now, we can imagine we can imagine it was dark, it was dirty, it smelled.
And it’s the very indignity of the story that makes it so beautiful and compelling.
Could it mean that our own indignity, our own dark places, our own painful conflicts, our own pain can be transformed transformed into something holy and beautiful?
Now, here’s the picture I imagine. Not the sweet, sentimental Christmas card version, but I imagine Mary picking up this child utterly exhausted and depleted and she starts to cry.
I imagine Joseph awkwardly trying to comfort her.
And Mary tells him she wants her mother. She wants her mother. She wants she wants to go home.
Remember, she was a teenager, perhaps as young as 13.
Then Mary mary, who had so much courage wipes the tears from her eyes and says she’s sorry.
And Joseph says that’s okay, Mary. You are so brave. And he means it. They’re hungry, they’re cold. They’re scared.
They feel all alone. They hold each other. They hold the child and somehow, mysteriously feel as if the child is holding them.
The promise in the story is that right there in the midst of the messiness of our stories god’s love is born. God is with us.
Love is with us.
You know, I have a tradition of telling a story every advant season. That, to me is as important as lighting candles and singing Silent Night, which we do every Christmas Eve. It’s a story of a young father whose wife died, leaving him with a small son to raise on his own back from the cemetery. The father was so wrecked with grief, he told his young son they were going to go to bed early because, honestly, there was nothing else he could bear to do. As he lay there in the darkness, heartbroken griefstricken he was jolted by a question from his young son.
Daddy, when is Mommy coming home?
Her father tried to answer out of his own agony, but the boy was still upset. The father lay in the bed with his back to his son and the son just tossed and turned in the bed beside him, unable to settle, finding, the little boy said, daddy, if your face has turned towards me, I think I can go to sleep.
The father turned his face to his son.
Their foreheads touched. Their breaths slowed and matched each other.
It didn’t take long before the little boy drifted off to sleep.
The father lay there in the darkness and lifted up his own broken heart to God, praying, God, this hurts. This hurts so much.
I can’t see the way ahead.
I don’t know how we’re going to do this, but if your face has turned toward us, I know somehow we will make it friends. That’s it. That’s it. No matter what happens in life, no matter how messy the stories of our lives happen to be, no matter our history or what we’re going through right now, what we celebrate in the birth of Jesus is that God has turned God’s face toward us.
And it is the face of love.
Here’s a spiritual practice for your journey through this Advent season. I invite you, encourage you every morning during this Advent season.
I encourage you to let a candle every morning and imagine God’s face turned towards you. And it’s the face of love.
And whatever you’re facing, whatever you have to face in that day, whatever you’re carrying with you, carry that image with you, the image of God’s face turned toward you.
And remember, God is with you. Love is with you, right there in the midst of your story.
And then remember, every single person you encounter that day, every person has a story, a story they’re happy to tell you, and a story they’re hiding. Every single person you meet is carrying some unspoken grief, nursing some unhealed wounds, living through some conflict, holding at bay anxiety, fear, or depression. Every single person.
So make it your practice to turn your face toward the stories of others.
Be the face of love that they need.
May it be so.