Grace, mercy, and peace be to you in the name of God, our creator, redeemer, and sustaining spirit. Amen.
For the people of First Parish in Newbury.
Conversations. Let’s have a conversation about conversations.
- Isaiah 7:10-16
- Matthew 1:18-25
When I imagine God’s realm of peace, mercy, and justice, I imagine it’s buzzing with conversations. Maybe it’s like a café full of the sound of voices. It’s that rare café without blaring TV sets and where they don’t play loud music. It’s a café where the listening is sweet, and speaking is comfortable. If you listen carefully in this realm-of-God café, you can hear words like “oh!” and “OK” and “now I understand.” You can hear the sounds of minds changing and hearts opening.
Making room for these conversations is part of the work of the church. It’s why churches like this one offer coffee hours on Sunday morning. It’s why you don’t tell the people at the Friday food pantry, “hurry up, take your food, go, go.” The ministry of hospitality is no self-service gas pump. It is certainly about putting food into hungry bellies, but it’s not just about that. It’s the ministry of making space for conversation. “Tell me about your family?” It’s the kind of conversation where it’s OK, even, good, if somebody replies to “how are you doing” with the truth.
We all have had these kinds of holy conversations. In these next few minutes, I invite you to think about a recent conversation you’ve had. Might it have been one of these God’s-café conversations?
When we hear conversations in our bible readings, we can eavesdrop. Maybe we can even join in. Who knows? Maybe our minds might be changed and our hearts opened.
We heard two conversations in our Bible readings today.
One of them took place between the Lord, the prophet Isaiah, and Ahaz, the feckless king of Jerusalem. By the way, he’s on the list of Jesus’s ancestors in the “begats” on the first page of the New Testament. We know from the bible book of Kings that this Ahaz has made an alliance with Assyria because Jerusalem is threatened by invaders. We know his alliance came with a condition: the king had to tell the chief priest to set up an altar on Mount Zion to Assyria’s deity.
For us that would be like removing this cross, and putting a statue of, let’s say, the Hindu deity Krishna, here in its place. We’d lose respect (to put it mildly) for a leader who agreed to that. It doesn’t matter how much we respect our neighbors who hail from India and south Asia: it’s the cross of Christ that belongs here. I suspect those neighbors from India would lose respect for us if we did that, just as much as we might lose self-respect. Symbols matter.
That’s the situation as our conversation starts. The Lord and the prophet can’t persuade this king to show some backbone. They say Judah can stand on its own and defend itself, without the Assyrians’ help. “You need a sign of my support in this?” the Lord says. “Just ask. I’ll give you anything. Anything in heaven or earth or under the earth, just ask.”
“Nah,” replies Ahaz, “I’m good. I can’t be bothered.” This conversation didn’t result in Ahaz changing his mind. His laziness (or whatever his problem was) left the people of his generation without the Lord’s assurance to stand up for themselves.
But it did result in the Lord, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, making a vast promise to future generations. The Lord’s sign is to be the birth of a new king for the Lord’s people, a king whose inborn justice will shine forth even while he is still a child.
Have you had conversations like this one? (Maybe the stakes weren’t quite as high in your conversation.) Have you had conversations that apparently failed, where you hoped somebody would change their mind, but they didn’t? I wonder, did your conversation sow seeds of promise for the future, even if it seemed to go nowhere in the present?
Non-church people who know I work as a minister sometimes ask me, “hey padre, didya save any souls today?” My honest answer is, “I don’t know. Maybe I was in a conversation that somehow sowed a seed that will grow years later. Usually I don’t ever hear about it. It’s rare, and a huge privilege, to when I do get to hear about something like that.”
Have you had a conversation like that? Were there any signs of hope in it, even amid the frustration? Any signs of opening up the future? I invite you to think about that.
Our second conversation in today’s reading involves the young man called Joseph and the angel. Many of us have been around church, especially at Christmastime, for years. So this conversation is familiar enough to us to that it may have lost some of its power. This young man finds out his fiancée is pregnant. He knows, in the way only a young man engaged to be married knows, that he could not possibly be the father of the child. And his culture is well-known for being merciless to unmarried pregnant women.
So, he wonders, what am I gonna do? I have to live up to the standards of my culture, he says. But he yearns to be kind: “being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, he resolved to divorce her quietly” writes Matthew the evangelist.
Can you imagine the kind of whispering going on in their village? He’s already decided he will be disobedient to his culture so he can be kind to Mary. This can’t have been an easy decision to make for him. We know his work of considering it was keeping him up at night. He’s already shown he’s got more backbone than that Ahaz guy, his ancestor.
And then the angel comes to him in the dream, and says those great New Testament words: “Do not be afraid!” That conversation changes that young man Joseph, from somebody who deeply wants mercy to somebody with a mission: somebody charged with raising that child promised long ago. The conversation changes him from a good man to a GOOD man, a realm-of-God man.
I wonder if angels have to prepare for their conversations? I wonder if they have to run through their lines? We can definitely imagine the angel saying to himself.
“It’s OK, Joe, Mary’s baby is God’s son.” No …
“Don’t you dare divorce her, boyo! The salvation of the world depends on her baby.” No, that’s too harsh.
“Don’t be afraid to marry her. Her child is of the Holy Spirit. You are to adopt him as your own. It’s your fatherly responsibility to give him a name – and his name is to be Jesus – “the Lord Saves.” Yeah. I’ll go with something like that. I need to encourage this young man and build him up, not just overwhelm him.
Maybe angels need to get themselves ready for big conversations, maybe not. It is certain that you and I need to do that sometimes, though.
You and I can follow the example of the angel when we have meaningful conversations about big things. We can run through the words “don’t be afraid” a few times. That’s for our own sake. We need to hear those words ourselves. It’s for the sake of the people we’re in conversation with.
For example, sending a child off to college: Consider the difference between
- “stay away from parties where people get blind drunk” and
- “don’t be afraid to go your own way when somebody invites you to get blind drunk.”
Which one opens the future more effectively. See what I mean?
Now, the conversation involving Ahaz was quite different from the one involving Joseph. But they had something in common: they opened up the future. Ahaz wasn’t cooperative and Joseph was, but they both had their futures opened up.
I know you’ve had some of these conversations here at First Parish: conversations that open up the future. Within this past year you’ve decided to get your food ministry going: that took honest conversation. We’ve all had big conversations in our families and workplaces.
I’d like you to take a few moments now to have conversations. Let’s see if we can get the holy-café conversation buzz going in here. Turn to somebody, in pairs if you can, with somebody other than your spouse if possible, and ask the other person to tell you about a conversation they’ve had. Ask them, how did the conversation change people. How did it open up the future? Ask them, were you afraid? Did somebody say “don’t be afraid?” And, ask them, “did you hear an angel’s voice in the conversation?”
This can be very personal: so if somebody asks you questions you don’t want to answer, please don’t be afraid to just say so. And, as sisters and brothers in the church, let’s keep each others’ confidences. Can we agree that what gets said here stays here?
I’ll give you a couple of minutes each so you can take turns on this. Don’t be afraid to open your heart to your neighbor, just a little bit.
I hope that was meaningful for you. Is it possible you learned something about the person you spoke to? Is it possible you learned something about yourself?
Were your conversations successful in the moment like Joseph’s and the angel’s? Or were you left trusting and hoping in the future?
It’s my prayer that my conversations, and yours, in these days to come, will fill our hearts with that realm-of-God café buzz. I pray they will give us ways to say “do not be afraid” to one another. I pray that the words we speak to each other, and to the world, will open our minds and hearts to a future filled with God’s realm of justice, mercy, and peace. Amen