Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
This morning’s sermon title, “Courage, dear heart,” is a quote from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of the books in the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. It’s the story of a grand and sometimes frightening quest, with a girl named Lucy as one of the main characters. Aslan, a great lion, is a Christ figure, as he is in all of the Narnia stories. And the context of the quote is this: Lucy and the others are on a ship heading into dark, unknown waters. Everyone is scared, and they’re getting worried that Aslan has led them in the wrong direction. At one point in the midst of some turmoil, Lucy whispers, “Aslan… if ever you loved us, send help now.” After she whispers this, Lewis writes: “The darkness did not grow any less, but she began to feel a little … better.” Then Lucy hears a gentle whisper in reply: “Courage, dear heart.” And even though she cannot see him in that moment, she knows in her heart that Aslan is near.
There’s no question life can feel dark and scary at times. We may wonder where God is, as our nation, our world, is battered by one storm after another – for there have been plenty of storms this year, of both the physical and metaphorical variety. But God is “very near to the broken-hearted. He is [but] a breath, [a whisper] away, and he has not abandoned us.” Even in times of darkness and confusion, even when the storms of life cause us fear or pain, we can be sure there’s a gentle whisper from Aslan, from Christ, somewhere in the background. “Courage, dear heart.”
Those same words of comfort would fit nicely into this morning’s text from the gospel of Luke, wouldn’t they? As the angel Gabriel addresses young Mary with the preposterous and probably terrifying news that she is going to give birth to God’s own Son. The eternal Savior of the world in the form of a human baby?! “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” and “nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:30, 37) In other words, “Courage, dear heart.”
It may interest you to know I thought a great deal about what most needed to be said from this pulpit, this fall in particular. About how to speak to a congregation full of hearts that are being routinely bludgeoned by one bad news story after another. About how to address a church family full of individuals already facing difficult personal challenges, who are also trying to keep their heads, and keep their faith, in a frighteningly surreal time, both nationally and internationally.
I kept coming back to this theme of courage.
I’m not sure why God gives us quite so many opportunities to flex our courage muscles. But friends, there’s no question courage is called for in times like these.
So we began back in October by talking about courage in the form of showing love and kindness to strangers, to those who “come from away.” Not letting differences tear us apart, but instead extending our hands across cultural, religious, and language barriers to welcome the stranger into our midst.
We then talked about the courage it takes not to be dragged under by the enormity of the world’s problems, but instead to notice around us “plenty of work for love to do,” and then to roll up our sleeves and get to work doing it.
We also talked about the importance of allowing ourselves opportunities to rest in God’s presence, and to receive blessings from God in worship, and how that can restore our souls and enable us in turn to bless those around us. In a culture that almost worships busy-ness itself as a god, it can be a brave act to set aside time for worship, for rest, to allow ourselves time simply to receive God’s peace for a minute, instead of always rushing around, and making, and doing.
On Reformation Sunday, we talked about the courage of 16th century Reformers, in protesting the injustices of their day, and challenged each other to carry on their legacy of protest in our own time. We talked that week about looking to the past for inspiration, but also remembering the importance of stepping up as leaders in our own generation, and for the sake of those coming after us. It can take some courage to remember the future in this way, and not to limit our vision to things happening right now.
On Pledge Dedication Sunday, we were challenged to rethink how much we have, comparing ourselves to those who have far less than we do, rather than those who have more, and noting the helpfulness of the question, “compared to what?” It takes guts to fly in the face of cultural expectations like this, too. It takes courage to live generously – especially in times of uncertainty, when it might be tempting to simply clench our fists around anything we can, and hold on for dear life.
It also requires courage to wake up each morning and enter each day looking for things to be grateful for. We heard brave words from Philippians a few weeks ago, written by the apostle Paul while he was in prison, actually: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) Any given day’s news headlines will tell you that’s going to take some effort, and some nerve.
In fact, every sermon theme over the last few months has been related to this idea of staying focused on Christ’s light in the midst of the darkness. Of standing up and making our lives count. Of hanging in and holding on, in spite of it all. Because - “courage, dear heart” - it can be done.
Admittedly it requires a strong backbone. We may need to adjust our posture a bit, to stand up a bit taller, to brace ourselves for a fight. We’re not going to be able, in days like these, to coast along comfortably as if it’s an easy thing to believe in God and live as God’s people. It’s not.
But we’re also not in it alone.
As the psalmist reminds us, “the Lord is [our] light and [our] salvation…Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27: 1, 14) In other words, “courage, dear heart.”
And again, “Courage, dear heart,” the angel Gabriel says to Mary. “Fear not.” By the way, you heard her reply too, right? Mary essentially says, “Bring it!” The biblical form of “bring it!” anyway – “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” In other words, “I’m in, God. Let’s do this.”
One final thought I wanted to share this morning - I’m not sure if this will come as a comforting word, but we are not, in fact, living through an age unlike any other, at least in terms of the hateful things people are doing to one another. Sadly, the particulars change, but the game has remained much the same over the centuries and millennia of human existence. Greed. Abuse. Racism. Terrorism. War. Slavery. Deadly weapons. Sexism and sexual harassment. Religions teaching love being perverted into excuses for hatred. Nation fighting against nation. And the wrong people in positions of tremendous power. Again, the particulars change. But all too much remains the same. This means that to live through such an age as a person of faith – this too is nothing new.
I guess it doesn’t surprise me as a pastor to be asked now and then if all of the awfulness out there means we are living in the last days. But tragically enough, we know those same questions have been asked in every age. Because darkness does seem to have the upper hand at times. It requires great courage to believe evil won’t win in the end.
But fear not, people of God, it doesn’t! It won’t! It can’t, actually. Because evil simply isn’t powerful enough to win the ultimate victory.
As Joseph Bayly put it, “don’t forget in the darkness what you learned in the light.” For God’s light continues to shine, even in the deepest darkness our world can dish out. All we’re called to do is to bravely keep on keeping on. To be the people we’ve always been called to be. To be those same people, in spite of it all.
Whether your particular brand of courage inspires you to catalog all you’re grateful for each day, or to dispense every blessing you can. Whether your brave stance has you welcoming strangers with open arms, or being crazy generous with your resources. Whether you take on a great big mission in life, or you simply notice the work there is for love to do right next door. Even taking care of each other here at church – when it might be easier to hunker down by ourselves at home, overwhelmed by the news – this too can be courageous. All of these things can be brave acts of protest against the darkness, strong stands against the evil, violence, and injustice in our world. For we are surely living courageously into God’s promises whenever we do these things.
We are also in excellent company. History may have far too many examples of the human capacity for evil, but it is also full of examples of lovely, wonderful people doing what is just, and kind, and honorable, and pure, and compassionate, and brave, no matter the circumstances. Let’s take our place on that side of history, shall we? Because when we do, we know that whatever the darkness tries to dish out next, we will be hanging on tightly to God’s light.
“Be strong, and let your heart take courage,” says the psalmist.
“Do not be afraid,” says the angel Gabriel, “for nothing is impossible with God.”
“Courage, dear heart,” says Aslan, says Christ.
God’s light will win in the end.
Meanwhile, we continue to pray - God, if ever you loved us, send help now. The darkness may not grow any less, and it may still be hard to see God’s hand at work, but perhaps, like Lucy on the Dawn Treader, we’ll feel a little better, and we’ll hear a gentle whisper in reply.
“Courage, dear hearts. I’m here. I’m with you. Emmanuel has come.”
1 Quote taken from a blog called “Words Are Avenues” by Tasha Brooke Cardwell, entry dated December 21, 2014.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We hear a lot about John the Baptist during Advent. John appears on the scene in Luke’s gospel even before he’s born: leaping in his mother’s womb in joyous anticipation of the birth of Jesus. Here in Matthew’s gospel he isn’t introduced until adulthood, when we find him preaching up a storm out in the wilderness of Judea, calling people to turn their lives around, to get their acts together, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Preaching, witnessing, baptizing, John prepared the way for one who would come after him, Jesus the Christ.
But if John – and a long line of Hebrew prophets before him – prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry and message, there were many others who prepared the way for his birth, simply by being part of his family tree. Both Matthew and Luke include a genealogy of Jesus in the opening chapters of their gospels, presumably to set the stage, to demonstrate how that little child born in a manger in Bethlehem was the crowning moment of a much longer story.
This morning we’ll be reading a paraphrased version of Matthew’s genealogy, (taken from Douglas Adams, The Prostitute in the Family Tree) to give you a sense of the kind of people who were included in the family tree of Jesus, a sort of snapshot of his roots.
In order to do that, I’ll need my assistants to join me here in the front of the sanctuary. We’re going to need your help too. As Don reads through the list of names, our team will be holding up cue cards, and your job will be to follow the directions on the cards.
A reading from the first chapter of the gospel of Matthew:
A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ
(APPLAUSE! + CHEER!)
the son of David (APPLAUSE!),
the son of Abraham (CHEER!).
Abraham was the father of Isaac (APPLAUSE!),
Isaac was the father of Jacob, who stole his brother’s birthright (BOO!)
And Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers,
who sold Joseph into slavery (HISS!).
And Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah (WHO?),
by Tamar, his own daughter-in-law (WHAT?!),
And Perez was the father of Hezron, and Hezron was the father of Ram, and Ram was the father of Amminidab (WHO?),
And Amminidab was the father of Nahshon, the father of Salmon, who was the father of Boaz by Rahab, the prostitute (WHAT?!),
who helped the Israelites enter the promised land (CHEER!),
and Boaz was the father of Obed by Ruth (APPLAUSE!);
and Obed was the father of Jesse, the father of David the King (CHEER!).
and David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, whom he had murdered (HISS!);
and Solomon was the father of Rehoboam, who was a good king, but abandoned God’s way for several years (BOO!),
and Rehoboam was the father of Abijah, who had fourteen wives (WHAT?! BOO!)
and Abijah was the father of Asa, a good king but one who did not walk in the way of the Lord at the end of his life, and so died of gangrene of the feet (MOAN!),
and Asa was the father of Jehosophat who was a fine king ruling wisely most of the time (APPLAUSE),
Jehosophat was the father of Joram who was the father of Uzziah whose pride brought his downfall (BOO!);
But Uzziah was the father of Jotham, a very good king in every way (CHEER!),
who was the father of Ahaz, a very bad king in every way (HISS!),
and Ahaz was the father of Hezekiah who cleansed the temple and the kingdom (CHEER!).
Hezekiah was the father of Manasseh who ruled for fifty-five years (APPLAUSE!),
but who was evil for most of that time (BOO!),
He was the father of Josiah who did right in the eyes of the Lord (CHEER!);
and Josiah was the father of Jeconiah and his brothers (WHO?),
at the time of the deportation to Babylon. After the deportation to Babylon, Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel who was the father of Zerubbabel, a governor of the people and chosen by God (APPLAUSE!),
and Zerubbabel was the father of Abiud (WHO?),
and Abiud was the father of Eliakim (WHO?),
who was the father of Azor (WHO?),
who was the father of Zadok (WHO?),
who was the father of Akim (WHO?),
who was the father of Eliud (WHO?),
the father of Eleazar (WHO?),
the father of Matthan (WHO?),
the father of Jacob (WHO?),
the father of … JOSEPH (APPLAUSE!)
who was the husband of … MARY (CHEER!),
Of whom was born JESUS whom we call CHRIST
I’m sure you noticed any number of things about this important text today, not the least of which was that the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel makes a better story than you’d feared! Allow me to recap a few highlights.
First, the cheers and applause: for the great kings of Israel’s history, the royal background we often talk about this time of year, Jesus being from the line of King David, plus all the other noble, worthy ancestors we probably expected in his family tree.
But if parts of the list sounded like a hall of fame, others were more like a hall of shame. We boo’ed and hissed along the way too – and you may have been surprised to find so many unsavory characters in the mix. It’s fascinating to me that the scoundrels are included here, and I wonder if it’s a nod to the full humanity of Christ. Truly God, yes, but also born into a family with faults and weaknesses, like any other. And somehow these scoundrels, according to Matthew’s gospel, were integral pieces of a larger picture which would ultimately usher Jesus onto the scene. It calls to mind for me a line from the movie “Amadeus.” Solieri, an accomplished musician frustrated by the ease with which the bratty young Mozart creates works of musical genius, remarks on the irony of Mozart’s talent: How strange that the voice of God could be heard through the mouth of an obscene child. And how strange that Matthew would highlight not only the family heroes, but also the family embarrassments, as important elements of a salvation history leading up to the birth of Christ.
Remember, too, that our list included not only the famous and the infamous, but a number of people you may never have heard of. About some of these, we can find a little bit more information in the Old Testament, but many of them are mentioned simply by name there as well. Would that we knew why they were included as part of this incredible divine plan. But remember, God has never been limited to working through the more famous figures in human history.
Finally, think back on the way the genealogy was composed. So and so was the father of so and so, who was the father of so and so… That a woman, a mother, stands silently in the background of each branch along this family tree should be obvious, though it would have been unusual to list women in a genealogy at that time. Yet four women are mentioned by name here along with Mary – and notice which four they are. Not necessarily the better-known characters of the Old Testament like Sarah and Rebecca, who could have made the cut. But Tamar, who deceives her own father in law and gets him to provide her with the son she deserves under Israelite law; Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who helped Israelite spies move safely in and out of her homeland; Ruth, a Moabite widow; and “the wife of Uriah,” better known as Bathsheba, who became King David’s wife only after he arranged to have her husband killed to cover up their adulterous affair. Not one of them has a biography we might expect to find in Jesus’ family tree. But maybe this is exactly why these women are highlighted in the list as forerunners to Mary. Mary, a young unwed mother whose pregnancy alone was scandalous, whose role as the mother of the child of God appeared impossible, whose son’s preaching and ministry would be all about turning expectations on their heads.
Women and men, the famous, the infamous and the virtually unknown. God worked through each of them, not just the “Davids” and “John the Baptists” to prepare the way for the coming of the Christ child. What an amazing statement of our Lord’s humanity, and the real world into which Jesus was born. What a fantastic introduction for the Savior of the world, who would spend his days on earth communing with just these sorts of folk: princes and prostitutes, saints and sinners, heroes and creeps.
Surely if God could use this cast of characters, then God can use any of us to accomplish great things. And so we too are called to prepare the way of the Lord.
Rejoice! Get ready! For Emmanuel shall come… and shall come precisely to people like us. Amen.