Our Sister Phoebe, a Deacon

Theological musings inspired by the Spirit and totally Ellen…

Archive for the month “December, 2007”

>Father Figure

>On the last Sunday of Advent, December 23rd, the Gospel told the story of Joseph, Mary’s husband and Jesus’ father.

Joseph is one of those shadowy persons in the New Testament, like Phoebe, our sister the deacon – real, but not much else is known about them. Joseph was descended from King David and traditionally is known as a tradesman, a carpenter, from Nazareth. We know he marries Mary, the daughter of Joachim and Anna, and is the human father of their first son, Jesus.

Paintings of the Holy Family have tended to show Joseph as a circumspect, elder man, balding and gray, looking a bit bewildered. Wouldn’t you have the look of a deer in the head beams if you found out your fiancee was with child by the Holy Spirit? If the son you were going to raise was the savior of humanity?

I am not a proponent of the Virgin Birth theology — it’s my opinion that the first child born to every woman is a virgin birth — but I do believe in the power of the Holy Spirit and God’s plan for us. Mary of Nazareth must have been a pretty amazing young woman to have been singled out by God. I heard a joke in a Rowan Atkinson film, “Keeping Mum” that goes something like God fell in love with a young Jewish girl two thousand years ago and everyone is still talking about it. Well, Atkinson’s character says, it’s something worth talking about. And so it is.

What about Joseph? How special is this guy???? Being a parent is daunting, but consider what Joseph the carpenter had to contend with. He had to decide whether or not to break off his engagement to Mary and was ready to quietly put an end to their relationship when the Holy Spirit intervenes and tells him it’s going to be okay, to take Mary to wife and raise the child, name him Jesus. He is also warned about King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and escapes with Mary and the baby into Egypt. The family returns to Galilee after Herod’s death and settles down, perhaps as a normal family. Matthew 12:46-47 mentions that Jesus’ mother and brothers wait while he is teaching a crowd of his followers, and perhaps stands in the back wanting to speak with him, so it is not impossible to believe that Mary and Joseph had other children – indeed, one of the brothers, James, was the leader of the church in Jerusalem after Jesus’ execution and resurrection.

It’s not hard for me to personally believe a young and virile husband like Joseph, rather than the elderly sage leaning on his staff watching his wife and infant son from a safe distance; it’s easier to understand and believe that the man was like almost all fathers and husbands — caring for his wife and children, teaching his sons and perhaps daughters, or watching with patience and fear as all parents do, when the children grow up and move on to make their ways in the world, or watching a sleeping child and wondering what the baby will look like in twenty years, what the baby will become.

Just as Mary was singled out among all women to bear a son and raise him up to lose him to the world and ultimately a criminal’s shameful death, so too was Joseph chosen among all men to be the role model of father and teacher, gentle lover, the provider and protector; I wonder if Joseph had premonitions of his eldest son’s future and if he fretted over what would happen to Jesus. If he was a father, I would say yes, and yes again to that question.

Mary accepted the role delegated to her by God, and so did Joseph. Mary has been revered over the ages, made an equal to her son by some. Joseph of Nazareth deserves the same love and reverence.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord!



>Are You the One?

>On the third Sunday of Advent, traditionally called “Rose Sunday”, or “Refreshment Sunday”, “Gaudate Sunday”, the bright spot in a contemplative season, we hear of John the Baptist sending a disciple to ask Jesus, “Are you the one?” While in prison, John wants to know if Jesus is the one coming, or if he should wait for another. Perhaps his uncertainty stems from his own firery words: “. . . he will thoroughly sweep his threshing floor. He will gather his grain into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with inextinguishable fire.”
Once again we have a message quite different than what we expect from a season of joy and love.
And we have Jesus a chapter earlier stating that he did not come to cast peace on Earth but came with a sword. He would divide a family, husband from wife, mother from son. Yet in response to John’s query Jesus lists works of healing and restoration that he has performed. Is it any wonder that John is curious? There’s a bit of inconsistency in his prophecy about Jesus and Jesus’ works.
What about we Christians today?
Since childhood, we have been taught that Jesus is love, and yet, in the Gospels we see a very different messiah than the blue-eyed, serene, Christ of illustrations that hung in some of our houses.
The Jesus that gives John the Baptist pause is a man whose teaching wakes up disciples, yet he shows a very gentle and loving dimension in his works of healing and evangelism.
Was John, in his prison, wondering if he got it right?
He got it right, this extraordinary prophet and kinsman of Jesus of Nazareth. John is the bridge between the old order – the law and the prophets – and the new order – the Kingdom of Heaven where all have a place – that Jesus brings. He is the transitional prophet, as it were; someone whose presence marks the end of exile, separation and alienation, and at the same time bears witness to the blossoming of the long-anticipated, long-awaited fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah and the other prophets. John begins the revolution that is full blown with Jesus.
The season of Advent is like John – it is a time when we straddle the old and the new, we anticipate and wait for the light to come out of the clouds and illuminate our hearts and minds in the guise of Christ the Redeemer and Savior. And don’t we have moments of uncertainty ourselves, when we read these contradictory stories of Jesus – the Jesus bringing a sword and the Jesus offering love?
I like to think, and it is this deacon’s opinion, that the separation and division Jesus speaks of and the violent actions John preaches about will eventually lead to restoration and healing. We are compelled to sit up and listen harder, take a closer look about us. Maybe we have to go through that unquenchable fire in order to see that the blind are given sight and the lame will walk – see that all are welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven, and that is the true joy and good news of the season.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,


>In Your Face Theology

>We’re at the second Sunday of Advent, now and this morning we hear from Matthew about a prophet named John the Baptist.

John the Baptist? The guy who ate locusts and honey and wore animal skins? The guy who yelled at Pharisees and Sadducees and shouted at people to repent, for the Kingdom was drawing near?

Maybe you’re trying to figure out what he has to do with the Christmas story that most of us grew up with. At this time of year, we expect images of the Holy Family: the serene mother Mary, the father Joseph, perhaps a bit perplexed at his situation, and the sweet infant Jesus being adored by his parents, shepherds, farm animals and foreign dignitaries, not a dirty, dissheveled prophet who lived out in the desert and plunged people into the waters of the Jordan to wash them clean of their transgressions and make them new, to bind them to the people of Israel who also came up from the water of the Red Sea transformed, delivered; that’s what ‘baptise’ means in Greek: to plunge. So this week, we await the coming of Christ with the introduction of John – the plunger.

This is the one Isaiah told us about – the one crying out in the wilderness to prepare a straight path to God. Not what we’re used to in this season of joy and giving, of peace on Earth and good will towards all, is it?

The navitity scene makes one pause to take in the beauty and humanity of this, the greatest of stories, doesn’t it? It touches the heart and makes one feel good.

What John gives us is in your face theology – a wake up call.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is near! You don’t know the hour or the day, but you’d better get your lives in order, get your souls in line with God! Someone is coming that is really going to rattle you, make you think and act differently, and you won’t even know it at first! So, are you ready? Are you up for it?”

Imagine some guy standing near the shallow end of a community swimming pool shouting this at people as they take laps; or imagine a guy on a street corner near Union Square during the Christmas season shouting scripture at you. Or, what about the occasional eccentric that wanders into church on Sunday morning, the person who brings you out of your reverie on the sermon, or that list of things you made and forgot to follow through on?

That’s what John the Baptist is doing: taking us out of our selves and our lives such as they are and bringing us to the realization that there is something more, something better.

This morning in his sermon, the homilist mentioned how different it might be, if, rather than have a vested deacon proclaiming the Gospel from the nave, a wild man came up the center aisle screaming this scripture, how might we react? How would it affect us?

I think, and it is this vested deacon’s humble opinion, that it would be a Sunday to remember.

We’ve had moments during our ten o’clock service where one of Berkeley’s many homeless citizens wanders in and joins the congregation, dragging a bag or backpack of all that he or she possesses, settling into a pew and quietly laughing or talking to oneself – or not.

Disruptive as this may seem, look at it this way: what if this is God’s way of getting us to pay attention to something other than the altar linen needing pressing, the deacon’s stole being inside out or falling off her shoulder for the tenth time, or the candles not burning properly, or the sound system squealing and popping, like turning our hearts and minds to humanity and creation, working together to make the Kingdom a place for all, that reaching out to those less fortunate than ourselves is one way of acknowledging our work in the Kingdom? God made the Kingdom and we should think of ourselves as the stewards of that eternal home. I don’t think the Kingdom is a place where we go to have God take care of us; but rather, we go to take care of one another and show God that we get it, that we have the capacity to love and serve as we are called.

Last week, Jesus asked us to pay attention. This week his cousin John demands that not only do we need to pay attention but get our lives and hearts in line with God, and when the one who comes after John appears in our lives, we put down what we’re doing and give him our hearts as well as our ears that listen.

So . . . when you’re out grocery shopping, or Christmas shopping, or shuttling from home to work, treking from the BART station to the office, take a moment to notice that guy on the street corner, the one with the dog wrapped up in a blanket. Is that who we’re waiting for? Find out by saying hello and asking how he’s doing. Sure, that may not be the Messiah, but you’re one step closer to being in the Kingdom.

Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord!



>Watching and Waiting . . .

>I had a dog named Sammy when I was a teenager – he was a mutt, a scraggly mix of Australian shepherd and Samoyed, Huskie and Collie breeds, and the sweetest friend a girl could have. My mother brought him home one night, hidden in the bundle of groceries and files from work. She put him on the kitchen floor and said, “He’s an early birthday present, Ellen. Now, could you clean up the mess he made in the back seat of the car?”

I loved that dog as much as I loved my mother, who died several months after she gave him to me. Sammy loved her too. Every night after Mom’s death, Sammy would stop whatever he was doing (usually scratching) and sit in front of the door leading from the kitchen to the garage. He’d sit and wait, tail scraping the tiled floor, once in a while he’d make a start and yelp, and after a time, he’d start to howl. This continued for a month. Finally, Sammy gave up and went back to his familiar routines.

I thought of Sammy as I read this past Sunday’s Gospel for the first Sunday of Advent, a time of watching and waiting. In the scripture from Matthew 24 at verses 37 through 44, Jesus instructs his disciples on the Mount of Olives about the coming of the Son of Man and how important it is to be vigilant and watch for the signs of His arrival.

No one knows when Christ will return; Paul and his generation thought it was imminent and they looked forward to the end time, preparing for eternal life while toiling in this one.

Isn’t that how it is today?

We don’t know if Jesus will come next Tuesday afternoon at three o’clock, but we musn’t be caught unaware – not like the tee shirt slogan, “Jesus is coming, everybody look busy!” but truly be attentive to our spiritual lives and our working life through the Gospel. Being mindful of what we are called to do, thinking and praying through every step we take on our journeys, prepares us for the moment when he does arrive and asks each of us, “Give me an account of your life; have you listened to my words? Have you talked the talk and walked the walk that I gave you?” and be able to say “Yes!”

So where does Sammy fit in all this?

As I mentioned, Sammy eventually gave up when Mom didn’t come through the garage door with a sack of groceries and a bundle of case files. When Jesus doesn’t show up at our doors at 5:30 p.m., we shouldn’t dispair. Didn’t he say we won’t know the hour or the day? As people of faith, we should live every day as if it is the last, and be as generous with our love and compassion, with the ministries bestowed on us, as if our lives depend on it, because after all, our eternal lives do.

Mom used to light a candle in Advent and put in the window. She said, she was keeping a light on for Jesus.

She didn’t know when He was coming, but she was waiting.

As we all should do.

Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord,


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