Tuesday, 28 December 2010 16:30

December 24, 2010 Sermon

“Joseph, The Silent Partner”
A reflection by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
Christmas Eve, 2010
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Here we are, white Christmas and all.  
The tree is decorated.  
The candles are lit.  
We are inside.  
We sing our favorite carols.  
We enjoy being around family and friends.  
We remember the family and friends who are not here and we are mystically connected to them in Spirit.  
Children are in costume.  
The presents are wrapped.  
The Swedish meatballs are cooked, the lefse is rolled out, the eggnog is ready, the cookies are baked.  
Everything seems to be right.

And just like every year, we see the manger scene.  We’re transported back to that night when a homeless couple smuggles God into the world.  And for a moment we see with new eyes.

And each year, we remember those who don’t always get a lot of attention.  Shepherds speak to angels instead of sheep.  Farmhands are welcomed to see a royal birth.  And before long the holy family will need to flee for its very life.  What an odd and unsettling story to inspire so much calm and good feelings.

But there is one character that says nothing throughout the story.  Mary gets her Magnificat.  The prophets get to prophesy.  The Magi get to talk with Herod and bring gifts.  The shepherds get to talk to angels and the angels talk to everyone.  Even the animals get to sing a Christmas carol.

But there is a silent partner in all of this.  It’s Joseph.  Joseph Christmas carols are few and far between.  He’s the ultimate silent partner, watching from a distance, a part of the story but without much of a say in the matter.  What must Joseph have been thinking?  He never speaks throughout scripture.  In the few times he is mentioned, Mary is the one who speaks, or Jesus or an angel, but never Joseph.  He’s the silent partner.

Did he simply accept what was going on around him?  Is he the strong silent type?  Most of us know that silent men are not men of no opinion.  Sometimes silence can be like screaming if you are on the receiving end of “the look.”

This was supposed to be a story about Joseph, or at least that’s what we think of when we read the first 17 verses of Matthew’s gospel.  The line of generations and begats  back to Abraham is to be fulfilled in Joseph’s son.  Fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from the first king David to the last King Hezekiah and the exile in Babylon.  And then fourteen generations from the exile until the Messiah.  It was supposed to be Joseph’s son.  He was supposed to be the father of the next in line.  But the pattern is broken.  There are only 13 generations and the child to be born is not Joseph’s.

With all of that weighty lineage behind him and all of the pressure of generations upon him, of course he sought to end the marriage and find a new mother for his child.  It would be the right thing to do.  It would preserve the symmetry of the lineage.  It would make Joseph’s son a pure blood.

We know what happened.  An angel intervened and told Joseph to break with tradition and support Mary.  Break with tradition, or keep it.  The genealogy of Joseph includes not only the men, but four women, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth  and Bathsheba.  We have looked at their stories during Advent.  And each of them point to the fact that we should not be so concerned about biological purity.

Tamar, we remember, went to extraordinary means and risked her life in order to have an offspring.

Rahab consorted with the enemy in order to pave the way for a new people in a new land.

Ruth brought sister Naomi out of her depression by restoring her place amongst the lineage of her people—giving her an adoptive grandson.

Bathsheba advocated for her child who was not the logical choice for the throne, but was the wisest amongst them all.

All of this leads to Mary who was great with child by extraordinary means, had no lineage that we know of and was ready willing and able to set in motion the in-breaking of God once again into a sin-sick world.
Maybe Joseph was to keep this part of the lineage alive, the part that breaks with tradition, the one that calls into question patriarchy, the one that says that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, the one that he embraces by his silence.  In his silence is his lack of objection, his acceptance, his adoption of Jesus and his embrace of Mary.

At Christmas, what we need to focus on is the new thing that God consistently does with ordinary people.  The best thing that Joseph does in this case is to remain the silent partner.  He does not shun Mary and her son.  He adopts both of them as his own and grafts them into that great lineage traced all the way back to Abraham and Sarah.

But silence is not and cannot be the last answer.  Joseph refused to rehearse the old tired accusations of his upbringing.  I imagine that he and Mary imbued Jesus with a suspicion of oppressive structures and an embrace of outcast people.  Joseph and Mary told Jesus that he needed to be God’s Word.

So at the risk of reading way too much into this, I wonder what message Joseph might have given to Jesus.  In the twilight of the manger scene observing a sleeping Mary and Jesus, I imagine him taking out a scroll and writing down a few thoughts.  Many of us dad do that in the aftermath of labor.

Dear Jesus:

I know it will be a long time before you read this or can even understand it.  I know that by the time you read this I may be long gone.  So I just want to tell you a few things.

I look at you now, lying in your bed of straw.  I’m sorry that we couldn’t have given you better, but we were shunned when we got here to Bethlehem.  Even my extended family would have nothing to do with us.  We were looked upon with suspicion.  Rumors flew around about whether you were legitimate or not.  Who’s to say a child is legitimate?  Every child is legitimate.  Every child has worth.  Every child deserves protection from God and from good parents.  I hope we can give you that.  I hope that when you grow up, you’ll be able to give that message to people.

You might be called names.  Your holiness and your worth may be questioned.  This is not a reflection on you.  People who do name-calling do so because they are insecure and want to feel better about themselves.  Remember that they are people who are hurting.  Deal with everyone with compassion, my son.  That is the way of God.

I want you to know something about your mom.  She is the bravest person I know.  No matter how many people talk down to her, no matter how many people shun her, she is focused.  She almost glows at the prospect of your life.  It’s as if she’s possessed by light and infused with power from beyond.  She and I have spoken about you and she’s the first to see the bigger picture about the direction of your life.  She has this magnificent song she sings.  It’s all about setting things right, filling the empty with good things. Listen to her.  She’s wise.

You are being born into a fine family.  Mary and I love you even before we know you.  For we knew you before you were born.  We will do everything we can to protect you.  In fact, before long, we’ll have to flee to another country.  King Herod is out to rid the country of all Hebrew children.  We have to protect you and we will.  That’s my promise.

But I know like all parents that I can’t protect you from everything.  God, I want to.  I want to shelter you from all of the evil in the world.  I want you not to be poisoned by defeatism and pain and suffering.  At some point, Mary and will have to let you go.  It will be hard for us.  Forgive us when we want to hold you too tight, to keep you from spreading your wings.  Gently remind us of our promises to you.  We promise to teach you the ways of God.  God is the liberating presence of hope in the world.  God is the fullness of love.  I hope and pray that you can embody this.  Right now, in your manger bed, you remind us that God is here, God-with-us.  Thank you for that.  I pray that you will be able to spread that message of love as you get older.

You were made for love.  You were made to set the world right.  You were made as a gift.  I thank God for you and I pray that I may continue to be changed and renewed in spirit for you, for your mom, and for the world.
I’m not one prone to long speeches or profound thoughts.  But looking at you makes me want to be a better person.  Better, more faithful, braver.  I hope I can be that for you.  For now, sleep, my son.

Love, your dad, Joseph.

(sung) Sleep in heavenly peace.   Sleep in heavenly peace.