SERMON 12/18/16 Advent 4 – Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, Valrico
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” God always shows up in circumstances and in ways, which are unexpected, in times that are life-changing, and often in ways that are counter-cultural, discomforting, but always as a part of God’s plan for salvation. The story in today’s gospel is a familiar one right? Joseph and Mary were engaged and awaiting their actual nuptial, but Joseph gets some devastating news; his bride-to-be is pregnant and he knows he is not the father.
In today’s world of reality TV, and out of control social media, could you imagine having discovered this scandalous news on the doorstep of your wedding day? I wonder if today, Joseph would have just thrown up his hands and midnight tweeted, #OMGWHATNOW, but we know that is not what he did. Joseph was a follower of the law, and “decided accordingly, (that he) was going to divorce her “quietly” — not in the sense that no one would know of it, but in the sense that there would be no formal inquiry into Mary’s behavior. (3)
Joseph, despite the incredibly devastating news he received, the news that would change his life forever, he decided to follow as the law dictated and divorce Mary, and rather than subject her to public scandal, trial, and possible death, he decided to follow the protective nature of the law. His decision to treat Mary with compassion says a great deal about Joseph’s character, his resiliency, and his faith in God, all even in extremely troubling times.
Now we all know that divorce was not in God’s plan because we have heard this story many times. God intervened and sent an Angel to Joseph and told him not to divorce her, but to take her as his wife and name the child Jesus. Now here is something we might just roll past if we are not careful. Listen to these words, “and name the child Jesus.” Joseph was commanded to name him Jesus. This is important because, “to establish paternity, it is not sufficient to ask the wife in that culture, in those days … rather the husband should give testimony since most men are reluctant to acknowledge a child unless it is their own.” (3) Joseph was commanded to not only keep Mary as his wife, but to acknowledge publically Jesus as his own. Thus, the lineage of David is preserved as prophecy dictated, through the obedience of Joseph. God’s plan is preserved. “The identity of Jesus as Son of David is in God’s plan, but Joseph must give to that plan, a cooperative obedience that befits a righteous man.” (3)
You see in our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ, God’s plan at times may seem outlandish, scandalous, uncomfortable, grievous and downright irrational, but for that plan to become enacted, God requires cooperative obedience from righteous people, just as God did, when it came to the Incarnation, the plan of how God came into the world in the flesh.
Likewise, I know that this church, Holy Innocents has had a long history of cooperative obedience in her ministry that stretches back nearly 60 years. I know this because, when Terri and I visit one of our 77 churches, I often preview the church’s website to get a better picture of the community. Guess what, I looked over your awesome website and I discovered that you DO have a long history of cooperative obedience to God in good times, difficult times, times of change, and times of celebration.
Just take a look at your history. January 1, 1957, a congregation of 30 people gathered for the first time, calling themselves “Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church” and meeting several blocks from the current location. October 30, 1960, a new church was built on the corner of Front Street and Valrico Road. The congregation quickly outgrows the first building built at the new location. January 5, 1964, services were held for the first time in the new Parish Hall. 1973, the current Sunday school annex was completed. Worship was also held here until the current sanctuary was built. Late 1986, worship happened for the first time in your current sanctuary, and it is consecrated in February 1987. Late 2005, the Rev. Steve Rudacille retired, after having served the parish for 30 years. Late 2007, The Rev. Douglas Scharf is called as the current rector. June 2014, renovations were completed on our newly expanded Parish Hall and newly redesigned Kiser Hall, which houses children & adult Christian education classes, as well as office space for the staff. Late 2016, The Rev Doug Scharf announced that he will be leaving a long, joyful, and fruitful ministry at Holy Innocents Valrico and will accept a call to Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Tequesta, FL. These are significant events in the life of Holy Innocents Episcopal Church.
Author Roy T. Bennett asserts, “You learn something valuable from all of the significant events and people, but you never touch your true potential until you challenge yourself to go beyond imposed limitations.” (4) Throughout those 60 years of life in this community, I imagine each of those benchmark moments have come with some grief, anxiety, uncertainty, fear, joy, and celebration. All of these snapshots in the life of Holy Innocents came with mixed emotional responses to incredible change, but look at who you are today. Holy Innocents rejoices with multiple worship services, fellowship groups, a full calendar with Scouts, AA groups, Daisy troops, Outreach ministries, Bible studies, and so much more. God has been faithful and you all have been faithful.
I imagine there have been times over the past 60 years, when things were not easy, when like Joseph you received some devastating and life-altering news. Despite that truth, this community stands a witness to resurrection, today as a joyful, growing, excited, and incredibly spiritually rich congregation. You have responded to God “bursting in” in new ways, with cooperative obedience, faithfulness, and hope. God has been with Holy Innocents throughout her history, and God will be with her in the years to come.
Like Joseph, cooperative obedience is required of all of us. Four years ago, the Spirit nudged me constantly to leave a parish I loved, a people I cared for, and a church I served to go with boldness into something new. I imagine your loving priest Fr. Doug and his family had that same experience. The Spirit I imagine was calling, nudging, and drawing them into a new plan for their ministry in God’s Kingdom. It would have been easy for Doug and Shannon to dismiss the call to discern something new, and remain in place with this loving family of God, but they are witnesses to us of God’s unending work in the church and in God’s people.
Like Joseph, cooperative obedience has been hallmarks of the Scharf’s ministry here, and we send them on to God’s next vineyard, the next mission field with our love, respect, peace, and best wishes knowing that God’s plan will continue for them. They have a long future serving God’s people that will lead to something new for them every single day. Faithfulness and cooperative obedience have been the hallmarks of your shared ministry here, as the people of God at Holy Innocents, and God’s plan will continue for you. You have a long future serving the community in which, you have been planted, and that ministry will lead to something new for you every single day to come.
Even so, the Scharf’s and the people of Holy Innocents stand on the edge of a transition. Now, I imagine when Joseph received the word from the angel about his transition, he was frightened not knowing what his future would be, but he was faithful and trusted the promises of “Emmanuel: God with us.” My sisters and brothers, transitions can be frightening times for a congregation. Anxiety can be high, responsibilities begin to shift to lay leadership, grief emerges at the loss of a beloved leader, and yes, things with which we have become comfortable will change. We do not like change do we, but change is inevitable.
When anxiety, uncertainty, grief, and fear enter onto the scene, we are called like Joseph, to a deeper faithfulness. We are called to cry out in prayer to God. The Psalmist writes, “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” God’s faithfulness can be found manifested in the history of this community. God’s faithfulness will be with you in the future that God has in store for you.
In today’s Gospel, Joseph learned quickly that despite the change in his plans, that God had a greater plan in place. “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took (Mary) as his wife.” Joseph relied not in himself but in God, and yes his faith prevailed. My sisters and brothers, in this time of change, I encourage you to remain steadfast, prayerful, and expectant of God’s grace. The next few months will come with times of joy, celebration, sadness, and trepidation, all in this time of transition. “Emmanuel: God with us,” is the promise God has in store for the people of God, even in times of change. God is with us. God is with Doug and his family, and God is with the people of Holy Innocents Episcopal Church. You my friends can confidently rely on God’s promise that God is present with you in all times and God is faithful. Amen.
(1) Wright, N T. (Nicholas Thomas) Bp. “God’s Way Of Acting.” The Christian Century 115.35 (1998): 1215-1217. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.
(2) Craddock, Fred B. “The Surprise And Joy Of Advent.” The Living Pulpit 6.4 (1997): 6. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.
(3) Brown, Raymond Edward. “The Annunciation Of Joseph (Matt 1:18-25).” Worship 61.6 (1987): 482-492. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.