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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Unexpected and Mysterious Ways of God - 12/18/2016

I'd like to tell you a story tonight that some of you may have heard before, because it's part of my call story. But I think it will help me talk about one of the ways the gospel writer explains God's love for us in the story of our beloved Savior … so I think it bears repeating.

As I think many of you probably already know, I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition and when I was a little girl and first started thinking about what I wanted to do when I was grown, I had decided I wanted to be a nun.

I was quite serious about it. I would try to be in a church as often as possible – in those days the churches were unlocked much of the time. When we visited my Grandpa Gonyea's grave in Johnsburg, IL, I used to quietly slip off to a little grotto by a pond where you could pray and light candles for a penny. It was a cozy little stone building and I would pretend I was already a nun and that was where I lived … all by myself, surrounded only by things that seemed holy to me, including the pond and the tadpoles swimming around in it.

When I went down for my Aunt Marilyn's funeral last spring, we buried her at that cemetery, next to my grandparents. It wasn't too long after the graveside service was over that I was retracing my little girl steps back to that grotto. It's a lot smaller than I remembered and not quite so mysterious to me now. The images of Jesus, Mary and other saints that made it feel so holy are still there, but they're covered with Plexiglas that has been scratched and weathered over the years. Despite all that, it's still a special place.

Anyway, my seriousness about this idea that I would be a nun, and these things I was doing to try to prepare myself for that way of life must have been obvious to others too, because when I was about 12-years-old a dear friend of mine asked me to take a walk with her. My friend's name is Ethel. She's still alive and in Chicago. This past spring she celebrated her 99th birthday. Outside of my family, she has known me longer than anyone else on this planet. So we took a walk that day. It was warm out and we walked down the beach just outside of the lakeshore condo where my dad lived in Chicago.

Ethel was the first person who really asked me questions about why I wanted to be a nun and in the course of that walk I determined this was not really what I wanted to do. It seemed like a good idea when I was a 5- or 6-year-old girl and it was definitely encouraged in my Irish Catholic family, even if indirectly. I remember very distinctly that my Grandma thought she had failed somehow because none of her children were priests or nuns.

But I think I realized in that walk with Ethel, that my 12-year-old self was already starting to imagine what it would be like to be married and have children some day and I didn't want to give that up. So, I decided I was not going to be a nun after all.

And I am so thankful for that because … well, I'm pretty sure this pastor gig fits me much better than the convent would have ... but more so, I'm thankful for all the holy places I now find myself in and I am amazed regularly at how God has grown them in unexpected ways.

The pond has become Lake Superior. The cozy grotto has grown into  places of worship like this where I am truly surrounded by evidence of God's holiness where ever I look – no scratched Plexiglas here – I can see all of you saints quite well.

But since that day when I was walking down that beach with Ethel, I have remained rather awed that God worked this call I have felt to some kind of clergy life through such unexpected people, like Ethel … a Jewish woman from New York who would still argue with me today over whether God even exists.

That tendency of God to work through the truly unexpected in order to bring about God's will in this world is the element of Matthew that I really want to hold up today because it makes one think of how God is breaking into our lives in unexpected ways, through unexpected people … or how God is using us to do that in the lives of others.

To see how the Gospel writer really shows God to us in this way, we have to back up to the part of the first chapter of Matthew that is left out from our Gospel reading today. It is a genealogy … a list of names that trace the generations over time. Genealogies aren't always the most exciting things to read … they are very repetitive and often contain names that our tongues aren't used to pronouncing … like Salathiel (Sa-la-thee-el) and Zerubbabel (Jeru-bay-bul).

But these lists of names and who beget who are done intentionally. In the case of Matthew, he uses it to get to this statement, for instance: “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.” (1:17) The gospel writer shows the pattern of time that takes place from Abraham to Jesus and he connects Jesus directly to prophecy and the House of David.

But there's another surprise in this genealogy – something else rather unexpected.

The list starts off with some pretty big names … Abraham, Issac, Jacob and Judah. These are larger-than-life names that help make up the strong foundation of what grew to become Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

But then, we read names like Tamar, Rahab, Ruth … names of people one might not expect to see in the royal lineage of the Redeemer of the World. But here they are and their mentions inspire us – I hope – to take a look at these unexpected women in Jesus' lineage.

Tamar was a beautiful woman who was made an object of lust because of her beauty. She was raped and then left ruined, untouchable and powerless to change any of it. She might bring to mind people we've known who have fallen into ruin and have to figure out how to move forward in a world that always seems to try and push them back down.

Rahab is a woman who helped out the spies of Joshua. She hid them and helped them escape from her own people. Her actions were critical to Joshua's take over of Jericho – something God had commanded he do. But even more unexpectedly, this woman, who was not an Israelite and worshiped her own gods, bolstered the faith of Joshua's people in the way she spoke of the God of Israel.

 “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt ...  As soon as we heard it, our hearts failed, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.” (Joshua 2:8-11)

Ruth is another outsider from the despised Moabites who helps a community learn to love strangers and ultimately gives birth to a child named Obed, the grandfather of King David. She may remind us to watch for the places we need to expand our ideas of what it means to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger.

The gospel writer uses these unexpected people and circumstances to lead us like a bright star directly to the unexpected event at the center of this season of Advent – at the center of our waiting and anticipation these winter days …

… in a small cave in the side of a hill in Bethlehem – a place where you would only expect to find animals are tied up to eat and rest for the night – a family of no notoriety, of no property or wealth, a family forced from their home – brought the Son of God into this world for us.  Unexpected.

From that place grew a whole new level of God's unexpected work in this world – like the unexpected simplicity of a meal of bread and wine that tastes every time like forgiveness and life in the Kingdom of Heaven. And like the unexpected ways God has and continues to work through each of us and show God's unexpected love poured out for all creation. Amen.


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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