Written for Third Presbyterian Church on May 8, 2022 Mother’s Day
I want to thank the Office of Gender and Racial Justice of the PC(USA), Unbound, and all of the people who made the sources from PC(USA) easy to access. I also want to thank all of the amazing women who planned, organized, and showed up at these peaceful demonstrations to offer information, support, and hope.
Matthew 1:18-25 Common English Bible
Birth of Jesus
18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly.20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel.[a]
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.
I don’t particularly like to preach on Mother’s Day. It’s a complicated holiday. But if you are having a joyous Mother’s Day, I will celebrate with you and if you are having a miserable Mother’s Day, I’m here for that too. Life is certainly complicated. But God can handle all those complicated feelings and prayers so you can share them with God. And this church is full of people who understand that this day is complicated too. Our sanctuary is a safe and holy place, especially today, and I’m glad you have decided to be here.
The only nice thing about preaching on Mother’s Day is that I can usually pick a text that center’s women or a feminine image of God and I’ve done enough Mother’s Day sermons here for all of you to know that by now. When we were looking at the scripture plan for the year, I remember thinking, this is perfect, the birth of Jesus is filled with the stories of women. But I was forgetting that it’s Luke’s birth story that I love so much and not Matthew’s version. When it came time to sit down and write this sermon, I remember thinking this is not the sermon I was expecting to write. But God is part of this process from choosing text, to my sermon prep, to the actual delivery, so I believe that somehow God will give us the sermon we needed anyway.
The thing that bothers me about Matthew’s gospel is that the writer quotes scripture but doesn’t always site his sources and when he does, it’s sometimes not quite right. In this passage he mentions the prophets, which scholars have decided is Isaiah 7:14. Lots of commentators write pages about what is happening here. Basically, it comes down to the original Hebrew text that Isaiah was written in, uses a word that means young woman, but when that was translated into Greek, the Greek word indicates virgin. So obviously, this is part of the virgin birth debate. Also, Matthew might be trying to indicate that Jesus has fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy, or he may simply be putting Jesus in the same tradition as other founders of the faith who also had unusual or miraculous births, including Isaac, Moses, and Samson. Matthew makes great efforts throughout the gospel to remind us that Jesus is part of this larger tradition of faithful people, like the genealogy we read last week. Matthew also tries to show how Jesus is like Moses, which we might talk about with the escape to Egypt in the next chapter later. (Women in the Bible by James Clark-Soles p. 167). So, what are we supposed to do with all that information? That’s up to you. People of faith have interpreted that information differently.
But if you were looking for your pastor to give you something more conclusive, here is where I am on this topic. Matthew’s gospel makes connections between his scriptures and the story of Jesus to give this new sect or new religion some legitimacy from the connection with a longer tradition. The Christian tradition is tied to the Jewish scriptures we call the Old Testament. For me, that means that people can use the same texts and see different perspectives and that’s ok. The Old Testament is valuable with or without it directly pointing to Jesus. And that is why I keep an open mind when working in multi faith settings. I think most of us are together on that perspective, especially since we have been using some of Amy Jill-Levine’s work in recent years. For those of you that don’t remember she is a Jewish woman who teaches New Testament at Vanderbilt University. A good portion of her work involves explaining to Christians how to not be antisemitic when we interpret scripture. It is good and holy work.
As for what I think about virgin birth, this is a little more complicated for me. I am a person who likes facts and supports the teaching of medically accurate reproductive health. My work with Days for Girls has solidified that. I am also a person who takes very seriously supporting women and believing what they say about their bodies and their sex lives. And I’m a person who believes people when they say they have had a mystical experience with the divine. So, when Mary says to the angel that she doesn’t understand how she can be pregnant because she is a virgin (or in the Greek, does not know a man), I believe her.
The other part of Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus that bothers me a little is that the baby is to be called Immanuel (God with us) and Jesus (God saves), but most of the New Testament simply refers to him as Jesus. So, I went to Amy-Jill Levine for help with that one, the Jewish Annotated New Testament says this, “Jesus’ mission is to save his people from their sins (9.1-8; 20.28; 26.28). Jews traditionally saw salvation as part of the covenant (Ps 130.8; 2 Chr 7.14; m. Sanh 10.1) and understood continuing divine presence to be part of the ideal future (see e.g., Ezek 48.35).” p. 4. Jesus is the embodiment of the covenant relationship of God being with us for our salvation. (Also see A Women’s lectionary for the whole church, A multi-Gospel single lectionary by Wilda C. Gafney p. 14. I like how she ties in the tradition of Hanna with the annunciation. Jesus is the good news that Hannah and later Mary sing about. But that’s more of a Luke theme).
The last idea I want to talk about in this passage is that although I prefer Luke’s women centered birth story there is something really lovely about centering Joseph and his righteousness. Back in the footnotes of the Jewish Annotated New Testament, we are reminded that “righteousness is a Matthean theme (3.15; 5.6, 10, 20; 6.33; 9.13; 10.41; 21.32; 25.37,45; compare Lk 1.6). Righteousness [is] linked to justice, ethics, and Torah observance (Gen 6.9; Lev 18.5; Deut 6.25; Ps 85.11).” p. 4. Joseph wants to do what is ethical and just regarding Mary and the baby, his family. And it is Joseph’s deep faith that helps him to act righteously.
Third Church, I know that we are and aspire to be righteous people. You can see that in our revitalization and Matthew 25 goals and in the way we critically engage our faith and our world. I know you are all aware of the SCOTUS leaked document about Roe v. Wade. I know that it probably made Mother’s Day and church attendance a little more complicated for you. And you aren’t alone. My Aunt called me yesterday with a few questions. She was at the gym and saw popular evangelical preacher on the TV encouraging mothers to show up to church this week and tell everyone how wonderful motherhood is and he was trying to conscript Mother’s Day church attendance into a political statement and basically telling his television congregation what to believe and do. My Aunt said after that she was nervous about going to church. She loves to go to church on Mother’s Day because her church does nice things that make her feel special. She wanted to go but she was afraid to go after seeing the news. She asked if she would hear a sermon like the one on TV at church because she’s never heard a Presbyterian minister talk about abortion. And she wondered what Presbyterians say about abortion. She talks fast and asks a lot of questions in a row, which I love, because then I can pick and choose how to answer.
The General Assembly of the PCUSA has put out multiple statements about abortion, reproductive rights, and other related issues. Frequently sited are statements from 1970, 1992, 2012, 2018, and 2019. I have these references in my latest blog articles if you want details. Most of the documents contain ideas on how to prevent abortions by providing education and access to reproductive health services, as well as other support for families. And they affirm that the decision should be made by the patient and not be restricted by laws. The Presbyterian document getting the most attention now is the “religious freedom without discrimination” which was approved by the 223rd General Assembly in 2018. Part of the document says “Personally choosing not to have an abortion or use birth control… is a religious freedom. Making that choice for someone else, on the basis of one’s own religious principles is religious oppression.” And then I explained that like many issues, there will be Presbyterians that hold strong beliefs on all sides of the abortion issue. But I thought she was pretty safe going to church and not hearing about it in a sermon like the one she saw on TV. And then she asked if I thought any pastors I knew would be preaching on reproductive justice….
So, I thought I would share with you some of the information I’ve been collecting this week at demonstrations and documents from our denomination. I’m going to rely heavily on an article that the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship shared as part of their information: 7 Things to do to fight for Reproductive Justice. This JustList was created by the Unbound Team in conjunction with the Office of Gender and Racial Justice of the PC(USA).
Again, I can email you any links to the resources I’ve mentioned today.
1. SPREAD THE FACTS
“Though abortion has been clouded by religious backed pro-life movements and rhetoric, data shows that many mainline and progressive denominations and churches are actually pro-choice. This includes the policies of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Plus, the majority of the American people want to keep Roe v. Wade. There are also medical and psychological facts that are often misconstrued when it comes to reproductive health. Banning abortions will not stop abortions, it will only stop safe abortions. Know the facts and spread the facts.”
I want to be clear that Roe v. Wade has not been overturned and that abortions are still legal. It is still possible to get safe abortions.
2. DONATE TO LOCAL HEALTH CLINICS
“Many reproductive health clinics are supported through donations. Research your local clinics and help them financially. Other social justice organizations such as SisterSong not only promote reproductive justice but also the education and continued work of protecting the civil right of womxn, girls, and femmes of color.”
I attended a few events in the past week and was able to gather some information about resources in Pittsburgh. I’m happy to share those with anyone who wants them. I have posted some of them on my period pastor Facebook page and I plan on getting them on my blog soon too.
“People who need reproductive health care are sometimes alone, scared, and often shamed by family, protestors, and, yes, church members. Volunteer and train to accompany someone as they are making their way to a clinic or join a group that offers this service to people seeking care. Your presence can make all the difference.”
Planned Parenthood of Southwest PA emphasized on Wednesday (May 3rd) that this is a need and there are opportunities to volunteer to accompany people. Tinyurl.com/trac412
4. CHURCHES, SPEAK UP!
“Christianity does not have a monolithic view on reproductive rights. However, the ones that speak out against reproductive health are usually the loudest voices using widespread networks to get out that message. People of faith that advocate for reproductive health and justice need to find ways to magnify their voice and to not be afraid to do so. Sermons, live streams on social media, podcast, and other forms of media can help in advocating for reproductive rights. If you are in need of some assistance in this area the Center for Reproductive Rights is a great place to start.”
Check. Also, SisTers PGH asked those gathered at Freedom Corner yesterday (Saturday May 7) to “tap your neighbor”. It’s a phrase they have borrowed from the Black Church that means to spread vital information. Even if you are not a preacher, you can share information form a faith perspective with your neighbors. And tell them to tap their neighbors too.
And if you’re looking for a group to donate money to, I recommend SisTers Pittsburgh because they are doing the work of centering BIPOC as well as LGBTQ community right here in Pittsburgh.
5. THINK CREATIVELY
“The overturning of Roe v. Wade would also immediately enact trigger laws in states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. These laws would ban abortion in the state upon the overturning of Roe. Many women and people who need reproductive care in those states may need help in transportation, housing, assistance, and other needs as they make their way to get the care they need. How do we help to meet these needs in creative and equitable ways? How can you work collectively with others in your area?”
I hope you will help me think creatively about what we can do.
6. SUPPORT PRO-CHOICE CANDIDATES
“The mid-terms have started and it is important that people of faith are engaged with candidates who support reproductive health. This means local, state, and federal candidates who can make the difference. The more pro-reproductive health candidates, the easier it would be to codify Roe v. Wade. Call your representatives and advocate for the Women’s Health Protections Acts of 2021.”
I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, but I would encourage you to look at the Women’s Health Protection Act and compare it to the Matthew 25 goals and other things we have said we believe as a church. This vote may not feel like it affects you, but it will, and it will certainly affect our neighbors whom we have agreed to love and serve.
7. PRAY IS AN ACTION VERB.
“Never underestimate the power of prayer. As people of faith, we must understand that there is no belief in Jesus that does not contain a component of commitment to justice. We must remember that God cares about these issues and our prayers are important. We pray in our private time with God and we pray in public with our actions towards fairness for all. Both are important and necessary.”
Let us pray
Holy God, you are righteous, and you are with us. Help us to remember we are your people called to value justice, ethics, and observance of your word. Dwell within each of us making us aware of your holy presence in our lives as we go out into our neighborhood to do what you ask of us: to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. Amen.