I was shopping for Christmas presents. At my favorite store, Ten Thousand Villages, and really, I was there to buy stuff for other people. I promise. But…I saw this ring, and somehow, it ended up on my finger. And it has stayed there ever since.
However, because I am going to use this ring as a sermon illustration, I think I don’t need to feel too guilty about this particular purchase. Really, it was a gift for all of you, right? So, because it is a gift for you, I am going to tell you the story of this ring.
Cambodia is still littered with landmines, and the people still live with the scars. Unexploded bombs are scattered throughout the rural areas, and a de-mining agency carefully retrieves the dangerous devices. One by one, they are disarmed. One by one, the weapons of death are immobilized.
But it doesn’t stop there. Cambodian artists saw the potential for transformation. They began to collect the casings from the unexploded bombs. With a group of survivors – many maimed by the war, left impoverished, or without family members – the artists transformed the casings into symbols of peace and new life, into jobs for people living in poverty. One man writes, “We work together, side by side, turning bombs into jewelry. After the metal casings are sawed into pieces, a paper pattern is attached. I cut the design with a band saw; others polish, file, and clean it. English and Khmer words for "peace" are stamped on some designs before final attachments are soldered. It takes about an hour to craft one piece of jewelry as it passes between our hands. When we make jewelry like this, then we know our country has peace.” This ring on my finger, that shines in the light, was once part of a bomb in Cambodia. And although I purchased this ring as a Christmas present for someone I dearly love, I realized that I needed one, too. This ring reminds me of something that is deeply and profoundly true. The most ugly things in our world can be transformed by the power of love. God is in the business of turning bombs into beauty.
Over the past few weeks, as I have been wearing this bomb case ring on my finger, I have held it, touched it, twisted it, and felt it over and over again. When despair for the world, for my country, for my children, begins to invade my soul, I touch this ring and I remember. We are not in the business of despair. For we follow a God of transformation, a God who can, and will, bring forth beauty, even from bombs. A God who can, and will, bring forth beauty, even from a dangerous, unplanned, scandalous pregnancy. For that is what we read in our scripture for today.
We need to start with the realization that Mary’s pregnancy could easily result in capitol punishment – in a sentence of death by stoning. This is not just whispered accusations and water cooler gossip. This is life and death. Her pregnancy is terrifying, and Joseph has the power to distance himself. Granted, no matter what, he will be ashamed and mocked. But if he follows the way of righteousness, if he divorces her and turns her over for her deserved punishment, he will get through the scandal. He will survive. But Mary and this unborn child could very well die.
It is a big decision for Joseph, a young man who just wants to do what is right. He just wanted to get married and have a family and follow God and do his job and live a simple life. It wasn’t too much to ask.
But all of a sudden, he is faced with terrifying scandal, a sexually charged situation that leaves him feeling betrayed, while also giving him the power over life and death. What should he choose? What should he do? How did he end up in this situation?
Joseph is not only a righteous man, he is also compassionate, and he does not want Mary to be killed. So, he decides to end their relationship privately, which means that he will not press charges against her. It does not mean that the situation will be kept secret, for in their town, there was no way to hush this kind of scandal. Mary’s situation would be very obvious, but, at least, no charges would be pressed, so while she would face ostracism and terrible poverty, as an unwed mother, she would not be stoned to death. Joseph makes this decision, and finally falls into a fitful sleep. Everything is ruined – his plans for his future, for his family, for his life. His heart is broken. You can imagine him turning and tossing, eyes filled with tears and gut-wrenching agony.
And just as he drifts into unconsciousness, an angel appears. “Do not be afraid!” the angel proclaims, as angels tend to do. “Take Mary as your wife, name the child Jesus, trust that God is with us.” Joseph wakes up, and he chooses to follow. To follow God and to trust. God is with us.
Right before this reading, the gospel of Matthew opens with the genealogy for Jesus. It is a very convoluted one – and it includes a number of women, all of whom were involved in some sort of sexual scandal. And then, in this patriarchal lineage, Jesus is included in the genealogy, by inserting Mary’s name, with the knowledge that Jesus is not, in fact, Joseph’s biological son. So, we get a messed up genealogy, focused primarily on men, that is only possible because of a woman, who is unmarried and pregnant, and it also includes a number of women who were also sexually suspect.
And this is where God chooses to be born. In a sexually suspect way, to people who are young and afraid, in a lineage that is marked by scandal.
God turns things upside down, and turns scandal into salvation. God turns things upside down, and refuses to condemn women who society deems, “sexually suspect.” God turns things upside down, and creates hope and love and joy, where there is oppression, exclusion, and fear. God transforms a terrifying pregnancy, a humiliated fiancé, and a sexually suspect girl into the vehicles for God’s own self to enter the world.
God does it in such a strange way. For the lineage in Matthew is only possible through adoption. When Joseph names the child Jesus, Joseph is acting officially as the child’s father. He adopts Jesus – forming a very non-traditional family. An adoptive father, a scandalized mother, and a child who has come to transform the world.
God transforms this situation of fear and hopelessness into light and love. God transforms Joseph’s fitful sleep into an angel’s visit. God transforms a messed up genealogy into God’s own ancestry. God will bring beauty where there is pain. I don’t believe that God is a fan of bombs. But I do believe that God can transform a bomb into something beautiful. And I don’t believe that God wants us to condemn women because of their sexuality. But I do believe that God can transform scandal into salvation. And I don’t believe that God wants mothers to die young. But I do believe that God can transform loss into new life and new hope. And one of the reasons that I believe that is because of my own son, and the story of his early life.
Johnny’s birth mother was an Ethiopian woman who lived near Diredawa, in the eastern part of the country. When she became pregnant, I wonder if she knew. I wonder if she already knew that she was HIV positive, if she knew the risk her baby would face. When he was born, I wonder if she knew that she would not be able to watch him grow. And during that first year of his life, as she nursed him and held him, as she rocked him to sleep, I wonder how her heart broke, when she realized that her time with him would be so very short.
When he was born, she named him Yohannes, after the emperor of Ethiopia. I wonder if she dreamt of his future, of him becoming a leader. I wonder if she had an uncle by that name, or if she named her darling child after his father.
And when her illness progressed, and she knew that the only hope she had would be to offer her child to another, I wonder how much courage it took for her to leave him in that hospital, to entrust his life to a stranger, just as Moses’s mother placed him in that basket, sending the beloved son onto an unknown river, trusting that God would direct his path.
She loved him. I know that. For Johnny is only the person that he is because of the first year of his life, the year he spent in the arms of his birth mother. And from that brokenness, from that pain and that loss, Yohannes (Johnny) came to be a part of our family. Adoption comes from loss, from pain. Just as Jesus’s adoption came from pain, from fear. But it also carries with it an exquisite beauty – love that is multiplied over and over and over again.
I think of her all the time. When I watch my darling son read scripture from this pulpit, I believe that she is watching him, too. That she is gazing on him from heaven, that she, too, is filled with pride. When I listen to Johnny play the piano, when I watch him gently care for little ones, when I witness the depth of his wisdom and compassion, I envision her, and I believe she knows. I believe she sees. I believe she experiences that beauty, too. I believe this because I believe in God. And I believe that God is in the business of miracles – of taking the horror of disease and loss, and transforming it into the beauty of a child whose light shines even beyond the shadows of death.
In our scripture from Isaiah, we are promised a child. And we know that children always come with pain and challenge, always comes with risk. Especially at that time, without the modern medicine that we know, childbirth in and of itself was terrifying, and infant mortality was incredibly high. But we are promised a child – that God will come and be with us – in the form of an infant. It is a ridiculous promise – that a human child, a vulnerable child – will be transformed into the very presence of God with us.
But it is a promise that I believe, a promise upon which I stake all my hope, all my joy, all my trust. That God is in the business of transforming loss and challenge, vulnerability and risk, pain and fear, into something beautiful. God with us. Bombs into beauty. Scandal into salvation. Loss into new life. This is what God does.
Our times are difficult. We know this to be true. There is real fear. There is real pain. There is real loss. We have encountered painful deaths in this congregation, and terrifying instances of racism and homophobia and hatred in our country.
But we have also encountered love. We have also seen joy. We have also known hope. On the day of Craig Yennie’s funeral, as over 500 people filled this sanctuary, the kitchen of this church was filled with helpers, providing abundant food to the swarms of people who came to honor the life of this beloved man, a 33 year old shining light, whose loss is overwhelming. But we testified to the fact that Craig’s light did not go out – that it continues to shine in all those who knew him, who loved him, who experienced his grace and goodness. And we testified to the fact that love is present and powerful – as the church provided prayers and flowers, food and friendship, cards and hugs and comfort. Love and hope and tables overflowing with food – these things remind us that God’s love is present even when the pain is profoundly deep.
As a country, we have encountered love. In New York, a young Muslim woman, wearing her hijab, experienced verbal and physical threats as she rode the subway to class. This happened for two days in a row, and she felt overwhelmingly unsafe. She mentioned it to Kayla Santosuosso, and asked if there would be anyone willing to help, to escort her on the subway.
Around midnight that day, Kayla created a simple google doc form, asking for volunteers to assist this young woman, and anyone else who felt uncomfortable riding the subway or bus alone. Kayla would work with the Arab Association to match people.
In less than four days, over 6,350 people volunteered for the project, called, “Yes, I’ll accompany my neighbor.” Kayla reported with wonder and awe, “That number goes up every three to five seconds when I refresh the form.”
Over 6,000 strangers proclaimed that they would transform one act of hatred into thousands of acts of love. One act of hatred into thousands of acts of love. God is in the business of doing that – transforming bombs into beauty, scandal into salvation, threats on the subway into an entire network of compassion.
I wish I could give you all one of these rings – but that is just not in my current budget! So, I will tell you this – whether you wear it on your hand, or hold it in your heart – God’s power is real. With every ring that glistens, and every candle that shines in the darkness, with every child whose laughter fills our hearts, with every act of courageous love, with every person making sandwiches in the kitchen, with every hug and smile and phone call and visit, God is bringing forth radiant beauty.
Unexploded bombs become new life, new hope, new ways of sustaining families. An unplanned pregnancy becomes God’s own self. Even disease and loss bring forth new life and new love.
Wherever your pain is right now – in the world or in your life – now is the time to know, now is the time to believe, now is the time to trust. God can turn a bomb into a beautiful ring, and God will turn our pain into something beautiful, too. A child is coming. Love is on the loose. Who knows what will happen next?
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