God with Us
by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“While this was the intention of Joseph, and he had resolved to do this, at that point an angel of God appeared in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David— do not be afraid to wed Mary; it is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived this child.’” — Matthew 1:20.
At the beginning of our shared time today you heard me briefly address the “Christmas Fund.” As I said, this money helps pastors who often retire at a relatively low fixed income.  For a bit, I’d like to look at the other end of that spectrum: from where do pastors come? Where does a call to ministry start? (Slight pause.)
The short answer is: a call to ministry starts in the pews. It starts with you. After all, we do make the claim that I am a “Pastor and Teacher” but you are the ministers.  Above and beyond that, the United Church of Christ is known to be a bottom/up, grass roots organization. Nothing illustrates that more clearly than the ordination process.
Generally, there are three participants when we ordain an individual to authorized ministry. The first is the local church— you. It is the duty of the local church, your duty, to identify those in your midst who have the gifts necessary for ministry.
When one such soul is identified, that local church needs to work with that individual and to then recommend that individual to the local Association as a candidate for ministry. This process is known as assisting a person in discernment— person in discernment— PID. In short, you act as mentors in this process.
That individual, raised up as a candidate for ministry, is assisted by the local church and by the local Association as training is pursued. In one sense, this is a time of test, trial and discernment which explores and questions whether or not a person does have gifts for ministry and where they might be used. But the process is also collegial, as the local church, the Association and the individual work together.
The third participant involved in ordination is the “calling body.” A calling body is a church, an institution or a ministry where the gifts and talents of the perspective ordinand will be initially used. Once a call is tendered by that church, institution or ministry, the local church who has supported the ordinand in conjunction with the local Association ordains the candidate. And that candidate is ordained for the whole church but ordained on the local level— bottom/up, not top/down. (Slight pause.)
Those of you who were here last week heard me say I was headed to Preble for an ordination last Sunday afternoon. We— the United Church of Christ in Preble cooperating with the Susquehanna Association the Association that this church is part of, we ordained the Reverend Ms. Brenda McCutcheon of the Preble Church.
Brenda is the Director of Elder Life and Spirituality at the Loretto Skilled Nursing Care facility. At one point, when an elder had passed away at Loretto, a funeral director would quietly take the deceased out a back door of the facility. This left other residents and staff with a longing to mourn, to remember, to appreciate and to celebrate a life well lived.
Brenda changed that. Now with Loretto’s End of Life program, which she established, calling hours are held in the chapel at the facility. Someone who has died is given a dignified departure out the front door. All who wish have an opportunity to pay respects, offer words of gratitude, to say good-bye. 
And so, the calling body this time, at this ordination— that necessary third piece on a path to ordination in the United Church of Christ— was Loretto Skilled Nursing Facility. (Slight pause.) Oh… by the way… did I mention that Loretto is a skilled nursing facility operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse? They were the calling body for a pastor with United Church of Christ. (Slight pause.)
And, by the way, did I mention a Roman Catholic priest led the Call to Worship at the service of ordination? (Slight pause.) And, by the way, did I mention a Roman Catholic nun held the cup at communion? (Pause.)
We find these words in the Gospel we have come to know as Matthew. “While this was the intention of Joseph, and he had resolved to do this, at that point an angel of God appeared in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David— do not be afraid to wed Mary; it is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived this child.’” (Slight pause.)
You have heard me say this before: there are two things the Bible is not about. First, the Bible is not a rule book. Second, the Bible is not a history book— a repository of facts.
Equally, there are two things the Bible is about. First, the Bible is about the relationship of God with humanity. Second, the Bible is about the loving relationships God calls people to maintain with one another.
Within this passage we find exactly that idea. The Bible is about the relationship of God with humanity. And the Bible is about the loving relationships God calls people to maintain with one another. And most of the time we do not pay any attention to that important message contained in these words.
To what do we pay attention in this passage? We pay attention to this (quote): “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by God through the prophet: “The virgin shall be with child, shall give birth,…”
We pay attention to the virgin birth. Hello! This is nearly meaningless— a historical oddity in the context of that era which gets included in part because Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were also said to be born of a virgin.  If it was not included Jesus, in terms of the writings of that era, would have been seen as abnormal.
So, what is important here? The very next words (quote): “…‘the child shall be named Emmanuel’— a name that means, ‘God is with us.’”
There is something else important in the passage we tend to miss. It’s the fact that Jesus is actually given two names and a title. (Quote:) “…this is how the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, came about.”
The name with which we tend to be familiar— Jesus— this gets complex, so follow me now— the name with which we tend to be familiar— Jesus— is the English transliteration of the Latin version of the Hebrew name Yoshuah. The anglicized version of that Hebrew name is Joshua.
But, once you go back to the original Hebrew, the name is Yoshuah. And what does Yoshuah mean? Yoshuah means God is our salvation or God saves.
And, needless to say, this passage also states Jesus is the Messiah. Messiah means an anointed one of God.
All of which clearly insists this passage is not about virgin birth. It is about Jesus, the anointed one of God who is here to offer salvation. It is about Jesus who is with us now— Emmanuel.
That God is with us, present to us, now— illuminates a basic understanding of Christianity. God wants to be in relationship with humanity and God calls us to be in loving relationship with others. (Slight pause.)
That brings me back to the ordination— an ordination where brothers and sisters in Christ gathered to recognize that nothing separates us from the love of God in Christ, Jesus. It was an ordination where brothers and sisters in Christ gathered to recognize that one to one, person to person— the work of pastoral ministry, the personal work of pastoral ministry— is what we are called to do.
And where does that work of one to one pastoral ministry start? It starts in the pews. It starts with you and with you and with you and with you and with you, etc. (Slight pause.)
There is a fallacy which goes around. It says personal, pastoral, one to one ministry is easy for some— extraverts perhaps. That is not true. Personal, pastoral, one to one ministry is not easy for anyone. It is hard.
But the truth is personal, pastoral, one to one ministry is our calling. And this personal, pastoral, one to one ministry starts with you.
Why? God saves. God is with us. God is present to us. God is present to you and you and you and you, etc. And that, the fact that God is present my friends, does not just empower ministry. That is the real the message of Christmas: God is with us. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “This is also something you’ve heard me say. In fact, I said it last week: Biblical prophecy is not about predicting the future. Biblical prophecy is about speaking the truth of the word of God. So here, once again, is a piece of Biblical prophecy: God calls us— each of us— to personal, pastoral ministry.”
BENEDICTION: Let us be present to one another as we go from this place. Let us share our gifts, our hopes, our memories, our pain and our joy. Go in peace for God is with us. Go in joy for God knows every fiber of our being. Go in hope for God reveals to us, daily, that we are a part of God’s new creation. Go in love, for we rest assured, by Christ, Jesus, that God is steadfast. Amen.
 The pastor addressed “The Christmas Fund” an all church offering for retirees at a time for mission.
 This is noted in the bulletin each week.
 The illustrates one of the dangers of public speaking: the pastor meant to say Caesar Augustus and it came out as Julius Caesar.