Advent IV, Year A, 2016

In the Gospel of Luke we get the annunciation from Mary’s point of view. We get the Angel Gabriel and Cousin Elizabeth and the Magnificat. We tell Luke’s version of the story every year in our pageant. Luke’s version appears in Christmas cards and children’s books. But Luke’s is only one version of our Christmas story.

The Gospel of Matthew has a different story to tell.

“Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary’s annunciation happens off stage. Mary initially is a problem to be solved, not the heroine of the story.

In one of the first scenes in the Sound of Music, the nuns are gathering to express their concerns about their flighty postulant. Maria has been off spinning in circles on top of mountains again and they are tired of her shenanigans. The nuns sing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”

I imagine Joseph singing the same tune about Mary! How is he, a faithful Jew, going to go forward now that he has found out that his fiancée is pregnant? He knows that, according to the law, he has the right to dissolve the marriage. In fact, the correct legal thing to do would be to have a public tribunal, where Mary would be be shamed publically. She has been unfaithful, clearly—despite all this crazy talk about the Holy Spirit—but he doesn’t want to shame her, so he plans on dismissing her quietly.

But God has different plans for Joseph. God understands that Mary’s situation is a huge gift, not a problem, and that Mary is going to need Joseph to fully live out her call to be Jesus’ mother. While God has given Joseph the law as a tool, he is calling Joseph beyond the law to love and risk.

So, in the Gospel of Matthew an angel appears to Joseph, not to Mary. Just like his namesake, Joseph has an incredible dream given to him by God. And in the dream an angel appears before him and reassures him that Mary’s story is true, that this baby is of God and will save humanity. The angel tells him to marry Mary—and so Mary is able to fulfill her call.

Joseph is a vital part of Mary’s story. Joseph gives Mary the legitimacy she needs to raise Jesus. Joseph gives Mary and Jesus protection. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph also gives Jesus lineage. The savior must come from the line of King David, and Joseph does. So Joseph, though not his genetic father, becomes Jesus’ legal father and bestows the line of David upon Jesus.

Joseph is the often-unheralded backdrop of Jesus’ ministry. We don’t hear much about Joseph later. This is his one really heroic act as far as we know, but in cooperating with God he allowed so much goodness to come into the world.

Joseph’s movement beyond the letter of the law to an act of great love and trust also gives us a preview of how Jesus is going to live in the world. Over and over again, Jesus shows that God gave us the law as a tool to love each other and love God better. Joseph’s story begins to give us a glimpse of who our savior is going to be.

We each have a call from God—to serve him in some particular way. And each of us needs the cooperation of our family and communities to make that call happen. I think back to Maria from the Sound of Music. She thinks her call is to be a nun, because she loves God so much. But it takes her cloistered community and a family of children to help her live out her true calling–to be a loving mother who helps a family to heal through music and has the courage they need in a time of danger.

Joseph gives us a model of how to respond when God is calling someone we love to something we don’t understand. We can get ideas about who the people we love are and what is best for them. We want to keep them safe and close to us. But sometimes God calls people to risk—to love people we wouldn’t choose, to move to parts of the world far from us, to make less money so they can serve the world. It can be tempting to want to corral and give advice and keep our people safe. But Joseph shows us a different way forward.

Joseph was willing to believe God was doing something miraculous through and with Mary. Joseph was willing to take the risk of public shame and humiliation by marrying someone who carried someone else’s child. Joseph was willing to trust that God was calling him beyond the letter of the law to an act of love and faithfulness. Joseph was willing to be Mary’s partner on a terrifying and exciting adventure, to give up his own ideas of what his future might hold so that he could serve God.

And this risk was its own end. When you list biblical heroes, Joseph isn’t at the top of the list. He never slayed a giant or led people out of Egypt. He probably died before Jesus’ public ministry, which is why we know so little about him. But he had the privilege of living with the Son of God, and watching him grow up—an experience that must have been incredibly moving. The part of Jesus’ life that Joseph affected is hidden from us, is something he and Mary kept in their hearts. And perhaps that intimacy with our Lord was enough of a reward for Joseph. As Christians, we talk about having Jesus in our hearts, but how Joseph and Mary must roll their eyes at us, for they know Jesus in a way no one else ever will, in all of his vulnerability and humanity. They taught him how to toilet and brought him to Temple for the very first time. They told him his first stories, and fed him his first loaf of bread. They taught him to love his neighbor, and gave him space to pray to his Father. They literally made a home for the living God in their hearts and in their house.

This final week of Advent, we are invited to make a home in our heart, too. We may not be called to rock the infant God to sleep, but God does choose to be born in us. God chooses to dwell in us and transform us. God chooses us. May we follow Joseph and say yes to God’s call.



Proper 15, Year A, 2008

Here we are.  We have arrived at the end of Genesis.  Well, not the real end of Genesis, but we have gone as far as the lectionary is going to take us. I encourage you to go back and re-read Genesis in its entirety.  The lectionary does not cover every story and has a particular habit of editing out sexy stories.  The stories that are not covered by the lectionary are the juiciest, most interesting stories in the book!

And of course, a lot happens in Joseph’s life between last week’s reading-when he is thrown into a ditch-and this week’s reading.

When we last encountered Joseph, he was a victim of terrible violence by his brothers.  We might come to today’s text expecting him to still be in that victim role, but instead he is an incredibly powerful figure, the right hand man of the Pharaoh.  How did he get here?

Joseph’s story takes up several chapters in Genesis, but the nutshell is this:  Joseph gets sold to a man named Potiphar in Egypt, earns his respect and ends up running his household.  Potiphar’s wife keeps coming on to Joseph, which completely flusters him.  Eventually she gets so frustrated that she accuses Joseph of rape even though he has always refused her advances and he is thrown into jail.  However, his integrity is so strong that the warden of the jail ends up using Joseph to manage the prison.  Two members of the Pharaoh’s court are thrown into jail and Joseph befriends them.  They each have weird dreams, which Joseph interprets correctly.  One of them gets killed, the other goes back to work for the Pharaoh.  The Pharaoh has a weird dream.  The former prisoner recommends Joseph and so Joseph is invited to meet with Pharaoh. 

When Joseph and the Pharaoh meet, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream to mean that Egypt will experience seven years of plenty and seven years of famine.  He recommends to Pharaoh that a person be appointed to start saving food during the time of excess so it could be used during the famine.   Pharaoh appoints Joseph to be that manager.

Joseph, a foreigner, who was thrown into a pit, has ascended to the highest levels of the Egyptian government.  Time and time again, he has shown wisdom, integrity and competence so profound that no matter his position in life, those in power around him rely on his solid advice and management.  Joseph, who could easily live his life with a victim’s mentality, instead makes the best of every situation he is given and is rewarded at every turn.

Now, Joseph is no saint.  When his brothers come from Canaan hoping to buy food from the Egyptians, he does not reveal his identity right away.  In fact, he sends them all the way back to Canaan to pick up Benjamin, his full-brother.  He continues to toy with them for a while, even hiding a silver goblet in their bags and accusing them of stealing it, but eventually he reveals his identity and forgives his brothers.

Joseph is able to transcend a self-identity of victimhood because he sees God’s hand at work in the circumstances of his life.  In our passage today, Joseph tells his brothers,

I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.

Joseph is able to move past what his brothers have done to him because he has seen God’s work in his life.

And where Joseph is a victim from Canaan who trusts implicitly in God, in our Gospel reading today we have a victim from Canaan who teaches God something new!

The Canaanite woman in Matthew’s gospel is an outsider, just like Joseph was an outsider.  She has three strikes against her:  she is poor, she is not Jewish, and she is a woman.  But her outsider status is not going to stop her. The Canaanite woman has a daughter tormented by a demon.  While at first, the Canaanite woman adopts the posture of a victim-she pleads and begs and asks for mercy when Jesus dismisses her because she is not Jewish– she rises to the occasion in a spectacular way.  Joseph transcended his victimhood by his great integrity.  The Canaanite woman transcends her victimhood by standing up to Jesus and expanding his vision. 

Up until this point, Jesus thinks he is being sent to the people with whom God has already made a covenant-the Hebrew or Jewish people.  But then he encounters this woman who won’t take no for an answer. 

This woman’s love for her child, and complete belief in Jesus’ ability to help her, helps Jesus understand that his mission on this earth was not just to reach out to the community with whom God had already covenanted, but also reach out to all people.

When Joseph and the Canaanite woman were able to look beyond their own hurt and face their circumstances with honesty and courage, they ended up not only helping themselves, but helping entire nations of people!  While circumstances in their lives would have easily allowed them to define themselves as victims-they instead choose to turn the tables and use their circumstances for good.

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of participating in the building of Region XV’s Habitat for Humanity house.  Habitat creates a partnership between their staff, volunteers, and future owners of their homes to build affordable homes for people with low incomes.  The person who is going to live in the home does 200 hours of physical labor on the home, as well as paying a down payment and affordable mortgage payments.

As you can imagine, I felt more than a little awkward standing on the open second story of a home trying to help frame a wall.  Everyone around me seemed really strong and competent and I felt silly as construction phrases I did not understand flew between the different volunteers.  I noticed one other woman who looked as out of place as I did and began a conversation with her.  She was a very elegant woman in her forties or fifties with short dark hair, a stylish top and a quiet manner.  Through conversation, I learned that she was going to be the owner of one of one of the homes on which we were working.  I asked about her background and she told me calmly that she was a refugee from Afghanistan.  She had been a schoolteacher and her husband had been a banker and when the Taliban took over, her husband, as an agent of the government, was murdered.  She took her three children and fled to Pakistan and then moved to the United States.  Her English is incredibly strong  for someone who has only lived her a few years, but it is not good enough for her to teach, so she is a housekeeper at UVA.

What struck me most was how calmly she recounted her tale.  I have heard more histrionics from fellow seminarians who did not get into a class they had hoped to take.  Heck, I’ve heard more whining from myself when I’ve broken a wine glass!

I haven’t been able to get this woman out of my mind and so, as I was thinking about Joseph and the Canaanite woman, I’ve been thinking about her, as well.

I think, as a culture, we are very, very pampered.  Yes, we still get hurt.  We can experience great tragedy.  We can be victimized.  But, on the whole our lives are so much safer and healthier than anywhere else on the planet.  And yet, we love putting ourselves in the role of victim.  We love blaming a lack of success on a bad boss, or bad parents, or a bad high school experience.  When a politician gets outed for having a scandalous affair, they paint themselves as victims of the press. There are entire morning television shows that are based on people screaming at each other about who has victimized whom the most.

And here we have a man thrown into a pit, a woman begging for her child’s life, and a woman whose life was shattered and they have nary a whine between them. 

What do they know that we don’t?  Maybe what they know is that we are more than what happens to us. We are persons who are made in the image of God and redeemed by the sacrifice of God himself.  We are persons who have enormous power-the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of prayer, the power of community.  That power is not just for our own use, but is to better the world around us-whether saving a community from famine; opening God’s grace to gentiles; or saving our children from a dangerous future.

We’ve seen that power in action as we’ve read about the patriarchs and matriarchs of Genesis and we’ll continue to see that power work as we move to the book of Exodus, which traces what happens to the Jewish people once they settle in Egypt.  

Proper 14, Year A, 2008

As we have been studying the family of Abraham over the last few months, you might have noticed a few patterns emerge.

All three generations of women struggled with barrenness and then were blessed with children.

All three patriarchs go on some kind of journey.

And, as we see in our passage today, every generation had serious problems with sibling rivalry.

Patterns like these are important to notice-both in Abraham’s family and in our own.

There is a movement within family counseling called Family Systems Theory. This theory argues that the behavior of people is just as motivated by their social systems-family, friends, work-as by any psychological problem and that the best way to treat a person’s problem is to examine the system in which they live.  Often a problem that presents itself is actually a symptom of a larger problem in the family system itself.  By examining patterns in your immediate family, and even patterns that presented themselves two, three, four generations back, a person can gain enormous insight into their current behavior and problems.

The identified patient is the person in a family about whom other family members are worried. Say, for example a teenager has become withdrawn and started drinking to excess.  The teenager would be the identified patient.  A family systems therapist would involve the entire family in counseling and it may very well turn out that the problem originates with parents who are fighting a lot and who, themselves, turn to alcohol as a release. Without treating the whole system, the problem would not be solved.  Occasionally, this identified patient can also become the family’s scapegoat.  Rather than seeing a family member’s behavior as a call to examine the system, the family blames the individual for all the family’s problems.

Since we are introduced to three generations of the Abrahamic family, they are a wonderful laboratory for us to explore family systems theory.

In today’s passage Joseph is definitely the scapegoat.

When we meet Joseph in this passage he is seventeen years old.  Remember Joseph is the 11th out of 12 brothers-and the firstborn of Rachel’s two children.  The text reveals that Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son and that his brothers resent this about him.

Our lectionary conveniently leaves out the part of the story where Joseph really gets under his brothers’ skin.  Joseph has a series of two dreams.  Now, according to the text these are not dreams or a vision from God, just dreams.  After the first dream, he rushes out to the field, where his brothers are all working their tails off and says something that sounds roughly like this:

“Hey!  Hey you guys!  Guess what?  Wow, are you guys already up?  Well, I’ve just been sleeping in a little and I had the craziest dream!  I dreamt we were binding sheaves of wheat in the field and then YOUR sheaves of wheat started bending down to MY sheaves of wheat!  Isn’t that funny!”  Our identified patient has a serious case of enormous-ego-itis.

The brothers did not care for the image of deference in Joseph’s dream, and so did not appreciate him recounting another dream days later.  This time the conversation went something like this:  “Hey!  Guess what?  I had another crazy dream!  This time the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me?  How about that?”

Oh, Joseph is pushing buttons right and left.  Even his father, Jacob, gets annoyed and rebukes him.

A little while later, Jacob sends Joseph out to the field to check on the brothers who are tending the sheep  (Remember Rachel’s nice sheep?)  Now, the brothers are working hard and dressed appropriately.  Joseph, on the other hand, is dressed to the nines, wearing the ornamented tunic his father has given him.  This tunic is the visual symbol of how much more Jacob values Joseph than the other children.  Imagine if your father gave your sibling a new BMW for college graduation, when you were given a set of suitcases.  Joseph’s cloak makes his brothers feel terrible.   Joseph’s cloak makes his brothers feel angry.  Joseph’s cloak makes his brothers feel murderous.

And so, the brothers decide to rid themselves of this family scapegoat that, they think, has caused so many problems for them.  Reuben, the responsible firstborn, convinces his brothers to throw Joseph, alive, into a pit, rather than killing him.  And then, all of a sudden a group of Ishmaelites arrive and the brothers (or a group of Midianites–the editing is funny here) sell Joseph to them. 

Now, who are the Ishmaelites? 

The Ishmaelites are the descendents of Ishmael, who was exiled with his mother Hagar by Sarah, Joseph’s great-grandmother.  So, Joseph is being exiled and sold to the family that was exiled from Joseph’s family three generations previously.  See what I mean about family patterns being significant?  The connections boggle the mind!

We have found another family pattern-that of exile.  Ishmael and his mother are exiled, Jacob is sort of exiled and now Joseph is exiled. 

This is a family that cannot deal with dissent and conflict in a healthy way. Instead of fighting matters face to face, this is a family that sends away the scapegoat, the “problem”. If Reuben had been even more concerned about what was going on in his family, and if they lived 4000 years later than they did, instead of compromising on selling his brother, he might have invited everyone to sit down with a family systems trained therapist and have the family look together at this pattern of exile.  They might have gone out and interviewed members of  Esau’s family and found out what their experiences of conflict had been like.  They might have asked their dad how it felt to have to run away after stealing Esau’s birthright.  They might have asked the living mothers-Leah and the two maids-what it was like to fight for the attentions of Jacob and ask them why Jacob seemed to favor Rachel so much.

And in the midst of those conversations, they might have come to understand all the factors that shaped their father’s choices and favoritism.  They might have learned how Jacob’s betrayal of his brother haunted him every day until he and Esau reconciled.  They might have realized that their problems were not Joseph’s fault, but a result of a long and complicated family history.  They might have even included Joseph in on the conversation and hoped that the knowledge of his family’s history might humble him a bit.

In our own lives, if we want to understand why we keep dating the same kind of person, or why our parents never seemed to understand us, or why our little brother just can’t hold down a job, doing some investigative work with our family of origin may be extremely helpful.

All that family and emotional work is great for us, but good family connection and understanding just ruins a narrative!  Where would the Sopranos have been if Tony had just sat down with his mother and worked out all their issues?  What fun would Batman be if Bruce Wayne came to peace with his father’s murder?  The television show Brothers and Sisters would not exist if it weren’t for generations of bad behavior and miscommunication!

And, of course, if Joseph had not been exiled, Joseph never would have moved to Egypt and had his great adventure.  And next week we’ll see that even without a single hour of family therapy, Joseph and his brothers still managed to have a spectacular reconciliation.

Christmas Eve, Year B, 2005

And Mary pondered these things in her heart. 

Mary had a lot to ponder that night long ago.  The child that had grown within her so miraculously and then been carried so precariously through the long journey to Bethlehem had finally been born.  Instead of a quiet moment with her new baby in a safe and warm bed, she is surrounded by livestock and strangers. 

The word translated as “pondered” literally means, “thrown together”.  This pondering is not a quiet, meditative one, but a frantic scrambling to understand what is happening, to absorb all the new information and feelings Mary is experiencing. 

Mary experienced affirmation that her baby was from God throughout her pregnancy.  An angel spoke to her and then, thankfully, to her cousins Zechariah and Elizabeth. Her husband Joseph believed her, but the news of this incredible incarnation was still quiet and contained to a few family members.

This holy secret ends when a flock of shepherds bursts into Mary’s makeshift birthing room, still illuminated from the vision they have seen, talking over each other to tell the story of the angels and how they had visited what felt like every barn in Bethlehem until finally they found this one, with the baby wrapped in strips of cloth.

At this moment, as she holds the baby a little closer to her chest, Mary realizes, this is not “her” baby, not entirely.  In this moment of joy at his birth, there is also a little grief, as Mary realizes her child is a child she will have to share.  Not just with these eager shepherds, but with all people.

Usually in painted icons of Mary and the baby Jesus, Mary holds Jesus on her lap, close to her body.  However, there is one icon in which Mary faces the onlooker and holds Jesus away from her body, towards whoever is looking at the icon. 

This is the Mary who realizes her sacrifice will be to lose her son, not only to death, but also in life.  This baby will grow up to create a new family of misfits and criminals.  This baby will grow up to live a life of a wanderer, traveling from town to town.  He will never settle down or provide her with grandchildren. In this icon, Mary not only accepts this reality, but offers Jesus to us.

This baby who was born, was born of Mary, but was born for the world.  After all, we must remember that this tiny baby contains all of God.  All the powers that created the universe, pushed the stars into their rotations, created green grass and human flesh out of dust. 

One of our acolytes was helping to green the church last Sunday and observed that the baby Jesus in our nativity scene is about half the size of Mary.  He looks at least six years old.  I wonder if that was an intentional decision on the part of the artist.  Perhaps the artist got carried away as she meditated on the huge implications of the incarnation, of God choosing to limit himself in human flesh.  Maybe she thought no small baby could handle the enormity of God, so she made the baby a little bigger, to give God more room to wiggle around.

I wonder what it was like for God to suddenly also be completely human, to have his infiniteness constrained by skin, to suddenly have to turn his head to look behind him, to suffer the indignity of having to learn to walk?  Was there a part of being a baby Jesus really loved?  Did he love his own tiny fingers and toes the way we love the toes of our favorite babies? 

From the very start, just by being born, God began to redeem what it is to be human.  If Jesus can learn to walk, and read, and eat, then walking and reading and eating have the potential to be holy activities, not just human ones. 

If God chooses to be born in a dingy stable in the midst of chaos, then God redeems all those who suffer the indignities of poverty and chaotic lives.  God choose to came, not to a family that had it all together, but to an exhausted traveling couple who were just trying to find a dry place to lay their heads.  Mary and Joseph did not have the time or resources to prepare for a “proper” arrival for their son, so he came in the most awkward and uncomfortable of situations.

Yes, Mary’s sweet baby was no ordinary child. 

God came to earth as the Christ so we could know him in a deeper and more intimate way. He came embodied, in actual human flesh, not some divine ephemeral cloud.  He could taste and touch and feel.  He could get headaches and feel hunger pangs.  He came to face all our temptations and sorrows.  He came to know what it is to love and lose. He came not only to save us from our sins, but to redeem the very lives we live.

Know that whether you sorrow or feel deep joy at this moment, that Christ has compassion for you, knows what those emotions feel like, and loves you.  He offers you hope for redemption and continued joy. . .not just in the next life, but in this life.  There is no experience you can have that is outside the scope of Christ’s forgiveness, nothing you can do that, if repented, will prevent Christ’s embrace.

I’ll close with a poem by Madeleine L’Engle about Christ’ birth from Mary’s perspective.

O ORIENS, by Madeleine L’Engle

O come, O come Emmanuel

Within this fragile vessel here to dwell.
O Child conceived by heaven’s power
Give me thy strength: it is the hour.

O come, thou Wisdom from on high;

Like any babe at life you cry;

For me, like any mother, birth

Was hard, O light of earth.

O come, O come, thou Lord of might,

Whose birth came hastily at night,

Born in a stable, in blood and pain
Is this the king who comes to reign?

O come, thou Rod of Jesse’s stem,

The stars will be thy diadem.
How can the infinite finite be?

Why choose, child, to be born of me?

O come, thou key of David, come,

Open the door to my heart-home.
I cannot love thee as a king-

So fragile and so small a thing.

O come, thou Day-spring from on high:
I saw the signs that marked the sky.
I heard the beat of angels’ wings

I saw the shepherds and the kings.

O come, Desire of nations, be

Simply a human child to me.
Let me not weep that you are born.

The night is gone. Now gleams the morn.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel,

God’s Son, God’s Self, with us to dwell.