Word of the Week

1Matthew 1:18-25

How many of you have been to a living nativity sometime this year? Or even ever? They’re one of my favorite things do visit this time of the year. For someone like me who has heard the Christmas story over and over again, it’s always a cool way to see the Christmas story with fresh eyes.

Recently, a dear friend of mine with a newborn was asked by a local congregation in her hometown to be a part of the drive-thru living nativity.

With her daughter less than 2 months old, and the church without enough newborns on its membership roles to cover the multi-evening event, the baby girl was desperately needed to staff an important role: Baby Jesus. Who cared that she was a girl . . . no one would know the difference anyway the production team said.

I asked my friend what would she be up to during the event. Would she watch nearby? Of course, she said, she would not leave her baby alone on the hay so the director made arrangement for her to be staffed as Mary. She would be on sight in case baby girl (aka Jesus) cried and needed to be nursed or needed a diaper changed. Mary and baby's relationship was crucial to the show going on. But what about her husband? "What was he going to be doing during the afternoon?" I asked. My friend's husband was told he could tag along in costume as well, playing Joseph, but only if he really wanted. If not, other fill-ins would be easy to find for the part.

I don't think dear ole Dad was feeling the love, being told he had a part that was so replaceable.

And it is true: of all characters to be left out if one had to go in our Christmas plays and pageants, Joseph, I guess is the one we could most easily do without.

In Luke's account of the naivety that we all almost know by heart, Joseph doesn't have any lines. If Joseph was looking for a script from the Biblical text, he'd have trouble knowing what to say or do. For all we know is that he is called to census in his hometown of Bethlehem which is how Mary ended up giving birth to Jesus in this small town. Different from other characters, he's not wrapping the baby up in those nonexistent clothes. He's not coming to worship or bringing gifts. He's not treasuring all of these things in his heart. He makes no grand gestures or tries to upstage anyone. He's just simply there. This is all.

However, if we read the less popular, but still important version of the birth story from Matthew's gospel, we find just the opposite, Joseph playing a leading role: crucial to the operation Son of God comes to earth mission going on without a glitch. Though not given a huge speaking part, Joseph teaches us what it means to wait— even when the details are murky and the way ahead is unclear.

Can you imagine what the conversation between Mary and Joseph was like that day when she had to let him in on the secret that she had hidden away in her heart? Different from any first time fathers hearing the news that their wife is expecting a baby—this was full of so much greater emotion.

“Hey, Joseph.”

“What Mary?”

“Well, I’m going to have a baby.”


“Yes, I’m going to have baby.”

“How can that be? We, we, haven’t been together?”

“Well, the angel of the Lord told me that the Holy Spirit came upon me. And I would have the baby that would save our people from their sins.”

“What???” (exit Joseph stage left)

For none of this really made a lick of sense . . . If Joseph was going to have his first born son then it needed to be his child, not someone elses.

Joseph knew this baby to be in Mary's womb was not his. He knew he hadn’t shared a bed with Mary quite yet. Of the Holy Spirit? That just sounded like a really good made up excuse for a one night stand.

So, Joseph needed to call things quits. And the law of the land was on his side.

Sure, he could have scoffed off the Jewish law if he wanted and pretended without cause, but the Matthew writer who is always concerned with the Jewish point of view, tells us that Joseph was not your high holidays kind of Jew, he was a righteous man. He wanted to do the RIGHT thing.

And being a righteous man, a man who didn't want to bring this young girl and her family any more hardship than she would already experience with a divorce to their name, he came up with the plan to divorce her without any bells and whistles. And to ensure that Mary and her unborn child were not killed out of it-- as the law says that stoning her was an option.

And in his "seeking to the right thing" ways of life this "quiet divorce" plan seemed like a good plan. It was his lovingly way of both following what he thought God wanted (the law) and what was in the best interest of Mary (the law). For at the time, God and the law were one in the same.

But, then everything changed one night when he went to sleep. As Joseph waited—as Joseph wasn’t sure what was next—you know two really not so good choices—the holy came.

I don't know how many of you have dreams on a regular basis that you remember. While this is something I personally struggle with (actually remembering), I know that for many of you it is a spiritual practice to remember, record and think about the meaning of your dreams. For often truths that are deeper than we are able to consciously understand in the daytime come out in our dreams—and such was true of Joseph.

And this was the word: Joseph was not to be concerned about Mary’s pregnancy, but to believe Mary-- to take to heart the message that had been told to her from the angel Gabriel.

Indeed the child that was growing within her, was not his, but was the Lord's doing. And, because this baby was of the Lord, Joseph needed to embrace the babe as such, welcoming him into his life, into his family, into his history, as Joseph would do with any other child of his that might come in the future.

While amazing, life-change and awe inspiring news this was in a dream, I can only imagine how hard it was for Joseph to accept it.

Most of all Joseph was being asked to wait with a plan that not even he understood much less anyone else. For it wasn't like he had anyone to talk to about such an experience among his hometown friends-- this God and this Emmanuel was too weird for any sort of reasonable explanation. No one had heard this before. .

But, in obedience to the word of the Lord that he knew in his gut that he had heard, he decides to keep Mary as his wife and "adopt" Jesus as his son.

He decides to stick around and see what the Lord had in store.

He stays to be the one Mary needed to lean on as she soon will undergo the pains of childbirth.

He stays to fulfill the prophecy that the Messiah would be coming from his family line.

He stays because he cares for Mary, even if they were having the craziest spiritual experience they'd ever heard of, and with both of them on the same page, the needed to find encouragement from one another to stick with it.

He stays because by his sheer presence-- even if he doesn't say a thing-- he provides the protection Jesus will need to grow up, mature and fulfill the reason his was born in the first place.

As Joseph waited around with active courage, he saw with his very own eyes the fullness of God coming forth.

Though not cast in a traditional role, though not cast in a role he had originally wanted or planned for, the story could not go on without Joseph's realization of God's love shinning upon all of them in the days leading up to the birth of Christ.

For if we are going to follow the example of Joseph this day and make room in this the 4th Sunday of Advent for more of Jesus in our lives, we've got to think more closely about waiting for God even when we don’t understand the details either. And this is what I mean:

Like Joseph, when times get tough, when life gets rocky, our first response needs to be of sharing, clinging, staying put instead of running away.

I’ve heard several of you say in the past couple of weeks as I shared my plans and the fact that my time with you as pastor would come to a close this year—that “I’m not sure I can come to church here anymore. I’m not sure our church has a future. How are we going to make it without you here?”

While I want to thank you for caring about me as you have and I want to acknowledge that it is true: transitions are filled with grief, I don’t think now is time to quit. This church or any church for that matter is not about who sits in their pastoral office. This church is not about its trustees. This church is not even about what affiliations you have with different church groups. It’s about Jesus—it is about waiting together in expectation of what only God can do for us.

I can’t tell you how disappointed I would be in you, beloved children of God after all the good we’ve done together, if you choose to give up now.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a seminary classmate of mine from Duke, writes in his book the Wisdom of Stability, how easy it is in a culture such as our to be lured away by the promise of a better offer. We think things are always better somewhere else, with someones else. Yet, he talks about how what the gospel witness needs more of comes in packages of permanency, unconditional presence and not hitting the road, leaving a church or a community when people get on your nerves (for inevitability they will!).

Not only do we need to stay put no matter who the leader may be, but as we stay put, we need to ground ourselves in community life making giving and receiving here a priority.

I'd be remised if I didn't say to the Christmas only crowd this morning that Washington Plaza would love to receive you in January as much as they loved receiving you today.

I'd also be remised if I didn't say to the regulars around here that as you wait for God, you’ve got to spend more time together. Sure, life is busy. Sure, family and friends outside this place see to take up all your free time. Sure, this town where we live runs like nobody sleeps and thus we often we don't really either.

But if Washington Plaza is going to be a community that makes room for the Christ child, just as Joseph did, investing in one another outside of Sunday mornings is just as important.

For it is in being together, for it is in waiting with God together that the details of “what is next” make just a little more sense each step of the way.

So in the meantime as you wait for more of Christ to come in your midst, I leave you with love. Love is not short tempered. Love does not keep record of wrongs. Love does not leave when feelings are hurt. Love stays. Love protects. Love, God's love, is what is with us as we wait.

When I think about all that we've been preparing for this Advent season, it's love that I know our community need the most to have a bright future for the new year. Didn't the Apostle Paul once say about love, "Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."

Thank goodness then, as we prepare to welcome tomorrow night, Christmas Eve, the babe called Emmanuel, God with us, born for us, we welcome the one who taught what love truly meant for Jesus was love incarnate. And, by following him, we can learn to love one another, even when times are hard or the way is unclear. In following him, we can delight in knowing of our great future. There’s no question about that. Like Joseph waited with acts of obedience, we wait too.


Dear Washington Plaza Church family-

I needed to write you one more letter. I love you. I don't just say that lightly. I really do love you.

It has become abundantly clear to me again this week that goodbyes are always hard. But they're especially hard when you're parting as we are, having loved each other well for several years now. I've believed in you (and still do) from the first moment I met your pastoral search committee in that office in Reston Interfaith. I knew that if the rest of the church was as awesome as the search comittee then we were going to have a lot of fun. And, fun we've had! Over these years, I have always wanted to brag about you to my friends-- telling them that in Washington Plaza I found the church I dreamed to be a part of as pastor in seminary.

I love how you blessed me over four years ago now when you saw a 28 year old female with no solo pastoring experience and called me with an unanimous vote to be your preacher on the plaza. I love that you saw in me what I most felt true about myself-- that I was a pastor and that God had made me for a time to be your pastor. I love how you've followed my lead, taken chances with me to try new things and asked really good questions when we've faced crucial decisions together. I love how you've never told me "no" to my growing passion for writing and ministering to folks outside the church. It is you, dear Washington Plaza, who has given me a chance to hear my own voice clearly-- the voice I believe will be what I need most in the chapter that lies ahead of me. I have you to thank for gracing me with this great gift!

I love how kindly you have welcomed me in your community, just as I was (church baggage and all) and most especially I love how you've welcomed Kevin. It's a hard road being married to a pastor, but just as you help me to grow up over the past several years, you've done the same for Kevin. You've given him opportunities to serve in the kitchen and cook for a crowd (his favorite!). You've ordained him as a deacon-- a milestone in his own journey. You've given him the spiritual community he needed to be at the point in his life to say "Yes!" to God's ministry for him at Feed The Children this year. You've loved him and cheered him on as much as you have me-- and I know you'll continue to do this in all that lies ahead for us.

I love how you welcome those in whom other churches simply would not. You welcome so lovingly folks who may not come to church dressed just so. You welcome folks who call themselves gay and Christian-- who just need to know that God loves them too. You welcome those who have been hurt by the church and just need to have a place to come and take deep breaths for awhile. You welcome those who have deep burdens on their hearts who just need a place in corporate worship to unload them in prayer. You welcome those who aren't sure they believe in Jesus-- but really want to-- and a safe place to ask their questions as they figure it all out. You welcome those who often take more than they give without grumbling or complaining about doing more of your share of the work.

I love how I've seen Jesus in you:

Times when you've showed up with hymnbooks at bedsides singing to those who are dying.

Times when you've gone with me to take communion to shut-ins who could no longer come to church.

Times when you've built community with each other outside of the confines of the building-- over glasses of wine, during breakfast meetings, at walks for the homeless in Reston, or in one another's homes.

Times when you've given your money or time to help the homeless or nearly homeless who show up at our doorsteps and are in need of a meal or a conversation.

Times when you've believed in second chances for those who have hurt you or those who have hurt our church.

Times when you've said to me, "My faith is growing to be more important to me all the time."

Times when you've shown up at a week night Bible study with eagerness to learn and listen to each other.

Times when you never said anything mean about my wet hair on Sunday mornings or continual search for my lost keys around the church or even why there were spelling errors in the bulletin.

I will forever cherish this time in my life as the time when I was YOUR pastor. Know that I'm cheering you on in all that lies ahead and will forever think of you with gratitude for how you've altered the direction of my life and Kevin's life too in so many lovely ways. I know you'll be just as good to the next person who leads you too. And, they'll be a lucky pastor just as I have been for these four years.

I love you!