“The Courage of Adoption”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
December 21, 2014
University Baptist Church
I don’t know a lot about adoption. I mean, I know some. Four of my seven cousins on my father’s side are adopted. I have an adopted niece, an adopted nephew, an adopted sister-in-law. I know there are people in this room who are adopted, adopting or have adopted. It’s a lot more common than it would appear on the surface. But I can never know what it is like. That is reserved for those who have the courage to adopt.
There are all kinds of adoption. Each of it has its own blessing and challenges. All of them take courage. There is the adoption that happens when a childless individual or couple adopts a child. Sometimes these children are known to the parents, and sometimes not. I just got a Christmas card from Holiday Shapiro and Robyn Linde. I had the honor of presiding at their wedding on Lake Calhoun many years ago. It shows their two wonderful adopted children, Sophie and Grace. They moved to Massachusetts after they adopted their first child because their family and their adoptions would be recognized by that state. Thank God we have started to catch up in the past few years.
There are the families that have two parents where only one is biologically related to the child. This is the closest that we have to the Biblical story of adoption involving Mary and Joseph and Jesus. More on that in a moment.
Then there are the families where children come from a previous relationship. This is the Brady Bunch model. Step parents who adopt the children of a previous relationship sometimes means severing the ties with the biological parent. So actual, legal adoption seldom happens. The adoptive parent decides morally if not legally to care for the child. If the relationship fizzles, then it just gets complicated, especially for the children.
International adoption has come under a lot of scrutiny in recent years, with accusations of selling children sometimes without the consent of the biological parents. Native American children in this country have been adopted by white families as a way out of poverty, but too often this happens at the expense of the child’s family heritage, especially when there is a tribal connection that ought to be honored.
My brother, a cancer survivor, knew that post chemotherapy conception was at best a long shot. So he and his wife decided to adopt two children. Both are now teenagers and both are thriving. They knew the birth parents of both and have endeavored to keep them in touch with their birth parents.
None of us who do not bear children can know what the intimacy of carrying a child to term can mean. And if that child is given up, it is in the hope that the adoptive parents can give the child a better life than could the biological parents.
It takes great courage to be parents and I think it takes perhaps more courage to be adoptive parents.
So why aren’t there any hymns to the fact that Joseph adopted Jesus? Maybe adopted is too legalistic a term. I mean he did become father to a son that was not biologically his. Joseph had adoption and adaption to deal with.
I think it takes a certain courage to adopt a child. So today, in honor of Joseph, I want to give a homiletic shout-out to adoptive parents.
And let me say that adoptive parents are the real parents. Adoptive fathers, no matter what you call them, if they raise the kids, they are the real fathers. Adoptive mothers are real mothers.
I wonder what Jesus called Joseph? Father, Daddy? My kids call me Dad, Daddy and Boffob (that stands for bald old and fat/fat old and bald). When Becca gets upset with me she calls me “Doug!” I know of other families who use Pop and old man. Two father families have Pop and Dad. Two mother families sometimes use Mommy and Momma.
The Gospel of Mark, the oldest and source for Matthew and Luke, has Jesus mention God as Father just three times. John’s gospel, which mentions Joseph just once, has Jesus call God father 110 times. Since God has no gender, this makes for some awkward theologizing.
But aside from whether Jesus called Joseph Father, or Daddy or old man carrying a big saw, we know that Joseph had to make peace with the circumstances of the conception of his son. He also had to then decide to become Jesus’ earthly father. That’s the hardest part. Joseph and Mary chose to raise him and raise him well. I bet, when Jesus said, Our Father who art in heaven, he didn’t do so without at least a fleeting and perhaps melancholy image of his own father, the one who raised him.
Unlike Mary, Joseph disappears after Jesus’ birth. It’s the last we hear of him. Some have wondered if he were considerably older than Mary and had died long before Jesus began his ministry in his early 30’s.
We have to look at the Apocrypha for mentions of Joseph.
The Gospel of Philip tells us that Joseph was the carpenter who made the cross on which Jesus hung. Can you imagine that horrible task?
Actually there is an apocryphal account of Jesus’ youth and Joseph plays a major role. The infancy Gospel of Thomas, written in about 150 CE tells of Jesus as a miracle worker, but also a bit of an adolescent rabble rouser. He gets angry and kills people, but he also raises them from the dead. What a guy. He insults and embarrasses teachers. He’s like an untrained wizard. He even calls his adoptive dad Joseph “stupid”. This version did not make it into scripture, but somehow seems familiar to those of us who have had even the best of children. It’s a parent’s role to take the slings and arrows of our children’s youth and channel it into a better and more whole future.
I know at Christmas time, like all important holidays, it’s a time to take stock of families and their relationships with us. Some of us are downright melancholy when we think of those who have raised us, who look at us now beyond the veil. In this season where family relationships are put under a magnifying glass, it can be uncomfortable, especially when those relationships are strained.
Joseph entered this relationship with Jesus while he and the whole family were being rejected by his own family. Jesus was born in Bethlehem after the emperor made everyone travel to their ancestral home for a census. And as everyone knows who has ever watched a Christmas pageant, Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room for them in the Inn. Imagine, there was no room for a pregnant woman in the hometown of her betrothed husband’s family. There are no visits from Joseph’s family even though there is a long tradition and a genealogy that opens both Matthew and Luke’s Gospel. The only gifts he gets are from foreigners and they are incredibly impractical. A diaper service might have been more helpful. Maybe a little tunic.
Something from Joseph’s family. Nothing. Nada. Zip. We hear of Mary’s family, Elizabeth and Zechariah giving support and at least spiritual aid. But Joseph’s family gave them nothing but a name and a reputation.
Joseph could have turned tail and run. But he was drawn to this woman, and her child. She was drawn to the story, however preposterous. He was drawn to the way that he might pass on what he could to Jesus.
I said there are no hymns to Joseph as an adoptive father, but hear these words penned by hymnologist Tom Troeger:
The hands that first held Mary's child
Were hard from working wood,
From boards they sawed and planed and filed,
And splinters they withstood.
This day they gripped no tool of steel,
They drove no iron nail,
But cradled from the head to heel
Our Lord, newborn and frail.
When Joseph marveled at the size
Of that small breathing frame,
And gazed upon those bright new eyes
And spoke the infant's name,
The angel's voice he once had dreamed
Poured out from heaven's height
And like the host of starts that gleamed
Blessed earth with welcome light.
'This Child shall be Emmanuel,
not God upon the throne
but God with us, Emmanuel,
as close as blood and bone.’
The tiny form in Joseph's palms
confirmed what he had heard,
and from his heart rose hymns and psalms
for heaven's human word.
The tools which Joseph laid aside
a mob would later lift
and use with anger, fear and pride
to crucify God's gift.
Let us, O Lord, not only hold
the Child who's born today,
but, charged with faith, may we be bold
to follow in his way.
(to the tune of Resignation by William Walker, or Kingsfold)
Joseph had great courage in adopting Jesus. He had great courage sticking with Mary and his new family.
We know that we have the families that bore us, families that raised us and our families of choice who continue to nurture us. Sometimes those are all the same families. Sometimes they are different. But when we take on the courage to adopt a child, we take on great responsibility and we give them acceptance and commitment to stick with it no matter what the consequences. It’s a choice that you need to keep on making.
So to all those who have adopted or will adopt, kudos to you.
You give the next generation a gift.
You give them your wisdom, your courage, your grace, your patience.
You also give them the gift of belonging.
You give them a real heritage that is more important than a blood line.
Maybe that is what Matthew and Luke were getting at when they added the long genealogy of Joseph.
Maybe this was their way of saying, Jesus you follow in this long history.
And it is your real history.
Not because of your bloodline.
But because of the love line that nurtures and protects and raises you.
At Christmas, as we gather around the trees and see the crèche scenes, may we remember the silent partner, the adoptive parent. Joseph. Who had the courage to adopt the savior of the world.