Monday, December 20, 2010

Sermon: Joseph Has a Problem

Sermon on the Gospel for Advent 4, Year A delivered at Grace Church December 19, 2010 by Ken Lyon.

Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

"Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.


It’s the last Sunday of Advent. The Advent season of preparation for Christ’s arrival ends this Friday. Friday, Christmas Eve, we’ll begin to celebrate Christmas.

At our house this week, we’ll go shopping for a tree and we’ll start putting up Christmas decorations. Among the things we’ll be putting out is our crèche.

In our crèche, as in most other crèches, Mary and the baby Jesus are front & center and Joseph is in the background, almost hidden amongst the wise men & shepherds, the sheep & the cows.

But that’s not how Matthew tells it! Matthew’s birth account, which we read today, brings Joseph to the front of the stage. In today’s Gospel, Joseph is the hero. And what Joseph does provides us with an example well worth emulating in our own day. Let’s review:


Joseph has a problem. The woman he’s engaged to has turned up pregnant--and it’s not his! This is a big enough problem today, but in Joseph’s time and place, this is a really big problem.

In those times, being engaged was the legal equivalent of being married in every way except that the couple wasn’t living together. Joseph’s family and Mary’s family would have contracted for the marriage of their children. A public announcement would have been made and a big party held for everyone in the community. At some point in the future, Joseph and Mary would begin living together.

But now, before they began to live together, Mary is found to be pregnant by someone other than Joseph. She’s obviously guilty of adultery and-- if she lives to bear the child--it will be a bastard.

In that society, as in some societies today, being found an adulterer brings shame on all the families involved. In that society, as in some today, an accepted way to remove that shame from the families was to put the guilty parties to death by stoning them. That’s what Joseph’s scriptures call for. An adulterer is to be stoned. And we know, from the Gospel story of the woman caught in adultery, stoning was a real possibility in Joseph’s time.

But in those times, the commonly accepted practice was to find a way to get around the letter of the law--to dismiss the guilty party quietly instead of stoning them. That would save Joseph and the families further shame. Maybe Joseph discussed what to do with his parents and his friends, or maybe he already knew what was called for. In any case, Joseph, being a righteous man, decided to divorce Mary quietly, rather than having her stoned. That was the right thing to do.

So Joseph goes to bed satisfied that he’s doing the right thing.

But Joseph didn’t sleep very well. Matthew gives us some hints about what was going through Joseph’s mind during those long, half-awake, half-asleep hours in the dark.

A messenger of God appears to him in his dreams and gives him God’s perspective on his situation.

Joseph knew his genealogy well, all the way back to Abraham. Matthew has already recounted Joseph’s genealogy—42 generations of fathers from Abraham through King David and then on down to Joseph. But among them, Joseph recalls, are four women, and they are all scandalous mothers.

· There’s Tamar. She disguises herself as a prostitute in order to get pregnant by Judah. Perez, one of King David’s and Joseph’s ancestors, is their child.

· There’s Rahab, mother of Boaz, a prostitute living in Jericho who hid Israelite spies.

· There’s Ruth, a Moabite woman (Moabite women were known to be especially promiscuous) who seduced Boaz by coming into his bed and lying at his feet.

· And finally, there’s Bathsheba, King David’s wife and the mother of King Solomon. She was sunbathing on her roof where King David saw her. David had her husband killed so he could have her.

Interesting, thinks Joseph. Apparently, these women’s scandalous behavior didn’t matter as much to God as it did to people. They played essential roles in God’s plan for his nation’s history.

To Joseph, that perspective shed a different light on his fiancé and her coming child.

Names came to him for this child-to-be; names indicative of the role he was to play: One name was Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us.” Another name was Jesus, meaning “Savior.”

In those dark hours between sleeping and waking, Joseph got the message: this child-to-be was God’s work.

So Joseph, who went to bed satisfied, woke up a radical. He shocked everyone by taking Mary into his home to be his wife! And when the child was born, Joseph adopted him and named him Jesus--Savior!

Joseph looked at things through God’s eyes, ignoring the common wisdom in favor of God’s wisdom--and the rest is history.

So did Joseph now live happily ever after? Probably not. I’m sure their families and friends and neighbors were shamed and shocked at Joseph’s violation of law and custom. I can imagine that Mary and Joseph and Jesus were the subjects of gossip for years to come.

Right after Joseph’s decision to take in Mary and the baby, they had to flee their home in Bethlehem and go to Egypt to keep their baby safe from King Herod. And when he returned to Israel, he couldn’t go back home to Bethlehem, but instead had to settle his family in a backwater town by the name of Nazareth way up in Galilee.

Joseph almost certainly didn’t live to see his decision vindicated. That doesn’t mean that he died unhappy; as a Jew he knew well the problems that being one of God’s chosen people can bring and he was able to take the longer view.


Matthew’s account of Joseph’s decision to marry Mary and adopt Jesus is just one example of stories that we can read over and over in both Hebrew scripture and Christian testament—stories of how God’s perspective overturns conventional human wisdom in ways that are often shocking.

Jesus shocked people’s sensibilities regularly--so often, in fact, that the keepers of the conventional wisdom finally had him killed. But that didn’t stop God. God continued to inspire people to upset conventional wisdom in favor of God’s wisdom. And he continues to do so today.


So how might we apply today what we learn from Matthew’s story about Joseph?

What comes to mind to me are a few stories of times when I think God’s point of view was taken seriously right here at Grace Church in College Hill, Cincinnati, Ohio.

In the early 1970’s, at one of the first Annual Meetings my wife and I attended, the congregation was inspired to pass a motion that required that half the members elected to Vestry be women and half be men. At the time, that was a rather shocking departure from the conventional wisdom that had men as Wardens and Vestrymen and relegated women to the Episcopal Church Women and the Sunday School. A few years later, the motion was rescinded. It was no longer needed—what had been unconventional wisdom in the early 70’s had become the new conventional wisdom at Grace.

About 20 years ago, while Grace was a mostly white parish, we were inspired to call a black priest. We had expected Fr. Melton to be charismatic, activist and rather, uh, edgy; we later discovered that he was gay as well. Grace Church has never been an almost-white congregation since. Neither is it all Black. Being a congregation of many colors is now the conventional wisdom at Grace.

About ten years ago, Grace was inspired to call an acknowledged gay priest with partner. Fr. Farrell and Dale were forced out by the then bishop, who abruptly changed his mind about wanting him here. But the conventional wisdom at Grace now includes people of all sexual orientations.

A few years ago, Vicar Ernestein came to us: a woman, an African-American, a Liberian immigrant. She introduced healing services with African drumming that drew some kinds of healers that I know had never been welcomed inside a church before. I, for one, found this discomforting at first, but now we’re seeing ways to make healing an integral part of everything we do. We’re learning that healing is not only about in individual’s body and soul; it’s about community—about healing the divisions that separate people.

Most recently, we become a congregation without a resident clergyperson. The idea of being a church and congregation without a clergy person in charge was certainly disconcerting--cause for some sleepless nights. Like Joseph’s problem with his pregnant fiancé, this wasn’t something we asked for or thought we wanted. But, like Joseph, we’re discerning where God’s call to us is in this situation. For one, I do know that the people of this congregation have learned a lot what it takes to be a church. I do think we are on our way to a state of mind where we can have an adult-adult relationship with a resident priest, if and when one is in the cards for us.


So now God’s got us where he wants us. And day by day, we’re expressing more clearly to ourselves and to others where taking God’s perspective seriously has brought us.

We’ve put up flags on the front of our church where everyone coming up the hill into our community can see them. We have a US Flag, a flag of one of the nations represented by our members, an Episcopal Church flag, an African-American Flag and a Rainbow Flag. What had been once our little secret we now proclaim publically.

For another way we express where God has brought us, take a look at the front of this Sunday’s bulletin. There you’ll read:

“A spiritual home where all are welcome; a healing place in a broken world.”

And there you’ll see the goals that we’re working on now to better realize what we believe to be God’s vision for us.

“We are working to:

· Increase participation and inclusion of those seeking God within the ministries of Grace church.

· Develop and practice ways of bringing deeper spirituality and healing into the lives of our parishioners and our neighbors.”

So now that we’ve become who we are and have proclaimed it, will we live happily ever after? Will sweetness and light and a full church and overflowing budget follow? Apparently not! Joseph’s upsetting decisions weren’t immediately vindicated, and neither have Grace’s.

God has led us to a place that is outside many people’s comfort zone. But I do hope to live to see the day when inclusion becomes mainstream, not marginal. I hope to see the day when people will give up segregating themselves. I hope to live to see the end of the name-calling and pigeon-holing that separation can lead to.

In the meantime, we’ll keep on keepin’ on, trying our best to understand and act on God’s point of view—and let the rest be history.

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