One of the things I love about this time of year is the opportunity to visit with friends in their homes. I’d say that over the past few weeks I’ve attended holiday gatherings in no fewer than half a dozen different homes. And like lots of people, many of these friends like to line up the holiday cards they have received on the shelf above their fireplace. So, when you enter the living room you see not only how many friends they have, you also see all the symbols that they and their friends associate with this special season. Some cards depict nature scenes, some are funny, but many, of course, depict the nativity scene. And one of the interesting things I’ve noticed as I’ve visited these various homes and viewed all these cards, is how few (if any) include an image of Joseph. There were lots of Marys and Jesuses, but rarely did I see Joseph. And even the ones I did see portrayed him as a mere silhouette in the background. That realization made me think about this morning’s Gospel. It made me think of how it isn’t often we have the opportunity to reflect on Joseph’s life. In fact, this passage from Matthew is the only narrative in the Gospels that gives us some idea of what Joseph experienced in the events leading up to Jesus’ birth. It’s the only opportunity we have to examine what role Joseph played. So, this morning I’d like to take a few minutes to examine Joseph and the experiences he had.
When you think about it, Joseph’s experience really is a good example of what this week is about. It’s about something unexpected happening. And that was certainly Joseph’s experience. Being engaged to Mary and then finding out she was already pregnant was unexpected. And if that wasn’t enough, imagine his reaction when an angel appeared to him in a dream and informed him that the baby Mary was carrying had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. That too must certainly have been an unexpected and difficult time for Joseph. Wrestling with, on the one hand, what society said was the appropriate response to Mary’s condition versus what he believed was a message from God calling him to stay with her and raise this child must have been a very trying time indeed for Joseph. Perhaps even a time when his faith was challenged.
But as he wrestled with this dilemma, I also noticed how Joseph moved through stages that I believe led him to a conclusion and an action that mirrors some of our own experience. Stages to which I think we all can relate since they’re familiar to anyone struggling with a lifelong journey to grow closer to God and to understand God’s purpose for us.
I have labeled these stages tradition, trial, and testimony. In our faith journeys, we are often called to questioning tradition, we are called to endure trial, and we are called to testify to our experience.
This passage from Matthew describes Joseph as a “righteous” man. But the Greek word we translate for righteous is dikaios. Dikaios is not a righteousness in the sense of being self-righteous. Rather, the meaning of dikaios is better translated as “just”, or one who conforms to the laws. For the Jewish community in which Joseph lived, that meant God’s law as it was handed down by Moses. And according to God’s law, Joseph had two choices. Either he could take Mary to court and have their engagement annulled, or he could quietly dismiss her. So, when Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy and originally intended to quietly dismiss her, he was responding in a manner that was traditional for his society. We don’t know what Joseph’s personal feelings were, we only know that he planned to respond in a manner in keeping with his tradition.
How often do we find ourselves relying on “traditional” responses to life situations? Things we do because we think it’s what is expected of us. It is what our society says is right. And while I do not think that today we place as heavy a weight on adherence to tradition as Joseph’s society did, we certainly have experiences where we are expected to respond in a traditional manner …especially in the church.
One of the three pillars upon which our church bases its faith is tradition (the other two being scripture and reason). But, in recent years, the Church has faced questions that challenge tradition. A few years ago when the Church of England faced the issue of ordaining women to be bishops, they were faced with a break from tradition. And as we in the Episcopal Church faced a similar quandary over issues of human sexuality, we too were faced with a break from tradition. In those cases, we chose to discard tradition . . . at least those particular teachings of our tradition.
Now do I think that discarding tradition in those cases was a good idea? Yes, I do. But does that mean I think we should always or even easily discard tradition? Most certainly not.
Tradition is a critical element in understanding our past and is, therefore, a critical element in our relationship with God in the present. But when we encounter God in our lives, the answers to our problems are not always what we expect. In fact, it has been my experience that more often than not the real answers are the unexpected ones. And because of that, sometimes the answers that tradition offers are not the best answers. The only difficulty is that these unexpected and untraditional responses often lead us, as they did to Joseph, to a period of trial.
When Joseph made the decision to wed Mary, I’m sure he went through a period of questioning his decision and wondering what other people would think. Wondering what role he would play in the raising of this child. And wondering if he was really making the right decision. Like Joseph, when God calls us to do non-traditional things, we’re bound to go through a period of trial. A trial of faith in which we question which is greater, the weight of tradition or our faith that this untraditional response is God’s will. Obviously, this is a difficult question because by its very nature, a non-traditional response is not what those around us expect of us and therefore we risk losing our community’s support. But it is the dynamic that plays out in this trial that I believe eventually leads us to the truth.
When Christ Church made the decision to call me to be your Rector, for some people that was seen as a non-traditional act. As I mentioned earlier, we in the Episcopal Church have been through our own period of questioning and wrestling with issues of human sexuality. And calling a gay priest to be your rector was, to some extent, a break with tradition. But I believe that for this parish, as for the wider Church, making that call has been an important step in our walk with God as Episcopalians. It was a walk that required us to move through a period of trial when that decision, and others like it, were challenged.
And, as the years go by, however, we wind up feeling about these decisions that we make together, it is important to take the third stage that I see Joseph modeling for us today. We have to testify to the truth that we have come to know from making these decisions—whatever that truth may be.
At the end of this morning’s Gospel, we see that Joseph does find a way to participate in Jesus’ birth. We see that it is Joseph who has the responsibility and the privilege of naming this child. The name that Joseph is told to use is Yeshua, or in Greek, Jesus. The name means literally “he shall save.” In the Hebrew Scriptures, this name refers to God’s deliverance of the people from their enemies and their vindication by the establishment of God’s kingdom. So, in the act of naming Jesus, Joseph is testifying to just who this child is. And it is in his testimony that we find the hope of the future—the hope that Joseph felt for the future of the world with the birth of this child and the hope that we celebrate this week.
Similarly, we must name our truth and testify to the hope that we see in our lives and through our faith experiences. We are called by God as witnesses to the power of the risen Christ in individual lives. We are called to be hopeful in the expectation that when God calls us to new things that this is not just change for change’s sake, but also another opportunity to experience the living God in our lives. A God who lives not only in our traditions, but in us and among us today.
I have a favorite book by Matthew Fox called “Meditations with Meister Ekhart.” Meister Ekhart was a 13th century mystic, theologian, feminist and philosopher. He was also declared a heretic. But I find much of his writing to be intriguing. In this book Matthew Fox includes many interpretations of Meister Ekhart’s writings. I’d like to read one for you.
I once had a dream. I dreamt that I, even though a man, was pregnant… pregnant and full with Nothingness, like a woman who is with child. And that out of this Nothingness, God was born. Now, it is the nature of a word to reveal what is hidden. The Word that is hidden still sparkles in the darkness and whispers in the silence. It entices us to pursue it, to yearn and sigh after it. For it wishes to reveal to me something about God. We are all meant to be mothers of God. Because this Word is a hidden Word, it comes in the darkness of the night. To enter this darkness, put away all voices and sounds. All images and likenesses. In stillness and peace in this unknowing knowledge, God speaks in the soul and becomes fully expressed there. In this birth, you will discover all blessing. But neglect this birth and you neglect all blessing. Tend only to this birth in you and you will find there all goodness and consolation, all delight, all being and all truth. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to her Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten…in us.”
On this last Sunday of Advent and in these last days before the celebration of the coming of our Lord Jesus, may we each find the Son of God begotten in us and testify of his coming to the world by our words and deeds in this blessed season and throughout the year. Amen.