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Thursday, January 2, 2014

December 21, 2013

Gospel: Matthew 1:18-25
1st Reading: Isaiah 7:10-16
2nd Reading: Romans 1:1-7

Remember when daytime TV was full of the tabloid talk shows of Jerry Springer and Montel Williams and Ricki Lake? Remember those wild audiences, getting into fights, cheering and booing the guests, and the chants of “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” Please don’t tell me this stuff is still on the air. I remember wondering how much of it was real and how much was staged and I remember wondering how long we would have to endure this horrible “entertainment.” I didn’t really watch it, but I was exposed to it through pop culture. I especially remember the episodes in which various deadbeat boyfriends would have a paternity test and the results would be revealed on the air. It always seemed like the ones you hoped were the dad, weren’t, and inevitably the ones you hoped would never procreate, seemed to be the one.

Joseph may not be on daytime television, but everybody in his village would have known his business and everybody would have been talking about it. This is an honor/shame society in which people pressure each other into conforming. That’s how values get enforced and passed down through the generations. Everyone knew Mary and Joseph weren’t living together and had never been alone together. Everyone heard Mary’s unlikely explanation for her pregnancy. Everyone saw the look of pain on Joseph’s face, once he got the news. Everyone expected him to break off the engagement, have her stoned, or banish her and the child.

The people of the village valued the same things the world values: protecting your own genetic line, avoiding looking like a fool, sexual conquest, and revenge. This is the usual way.

But Joseph is unusual. The reading says he is a “righteous man.” I think “righteous dude” was a complement from the 80’s, but we really talk that way or use that word very often. When we hear “righteous,” we think “self-righteous.” We think self-important. Let’s substitute the word, “just.” Joseph was a just man. He was fair. He was level-headed. He put others first. He acted with faith on an ongoing basis. He lived by his just values, very different from the values of the world.

Because Joseph was just and fair, he gave Mary the benefit of the doubt and he found himself the protector of the Son of God. He was willing to stand tall in the face of embarrassment and do the right thing. He put others before himself. Because of all this, he was a key player in Jesus’ birth. He probably also taught Jesus a lot about how to be a just and righteous person—the kind of person who could grow up and put all others before himself.

Joseph is just and righteous, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t afraid. The angel picks up on this fear and tries to reassure him. The angel confirms Mary’s story. Certainly Joseph continued to fear, but he didn’t let that stop him from doing what he knew was right. Because of his faith, we have all gained a Savior.

His whole life, he would have faced the glances, the comments, the whispers. There were probably times he doubted himself, when he looked at Mary and wondered if she had duped him, if he’d been a fool to believe. Nevertheless, he followed through on his commitments.

Joseph is unusual, so we have something to learn from him. We can look to Joseph and learn what it means to act justly and compassionately, even when we’re afraid.

We sometimes feel overwhelmed at the pantry and wonder if we will have the energy and resources to go on. We don’t know what the future will bring, but for now it brings life to our church community and the neighborhood. The need is pressing. It is hard to imagine our church without the pantry and worse to imagine our neighborhood without it. It is difficult, but it is worthwhile.

When we witness someone being bullied, it is so frightening and difficult to decide what to do or say. Will it be worse for the victim if I speak up? Will I place myself in harm’s way? Yet that person needs to know they aren’t alone. The situation isn’t likely to change unless someone intervenes. Who will be the one to stand up for what is right?

In the next few months, I’ll be attending continuing education about the impending ecological crisis. We’ll read scriptures and scientific readings, use rituals and faith practices, and discuss and act to find hope in this struggle and to use that hope to face the challenges before us. I’m scared out of my mind about the changes the planet is facing. But to continue with business as usual and to continue to follow the world’s value system of using and abusing the earth, is absurd. Something has to change. I have to move forward and learn what God’s values are in this situation and how to be compassionate with both myself and this earth. I’ll keep you posted.

Maybe step one, is to follow Joseph, and allow ourselves to dream and listen to our deepest longings and connections. Who cared what the world thought? He knew within himself what was right and he held steady. He did what was right, not just for him, but for the greater good. What would be happen if we paid more attention to our dreams and what God might be saying to us through them? What would happen if we listened to our deepest longings for a better world and looked for ways to fulfill those hopes?

Another step is to look for those human connections. King Ahaz looked to his armies to solve his problems with his enemies. The prophet Isaiah told him to look for a sign in the people around him. God basically said, “Look at a newborn baby and then tell me again that war is the answer.” King Ahaz wanted more lands and more power. God was telling him he was looking in the wrong places for signs of God’s favor. If you want to know that God is present, look to a new family, and you will see it there.

Joseph seemed to understand that this project was bigger than him. He took into account the people that would be affected. He saw Mary as a person to be respected and valued, even if she hadn’t been faithful to him and valued him. He imagined a baby who would grow into someone with something to offer his community. Society would tell him to see only a betrayal and it would have been in his rights to get even, but even before the angel came and explained it all, we know he was a just man because we know he wasn’t going to make a big fuss. He saw Mary’s humanity, the baby’s humanity. And once the angel reassured him, he honored all of humanity by taking Mary to be his wife and protecting her and the child.
Our job, too, then is to see one another’s humanity and honor that. It is easy to see people and make a judgment. It is harder to get to know them and to value them as a human. It is hard to give them the benefit of the doubt. Yet, that’s what God does for us. All sin and fall short of the glory of God, and all are saved through him and given new life. When we recognize and honor one another despite our differences, we will be creating a world in which God’s love is known and shared.

Finally, we all have a calling. We mostly think of pastors being called to God’s service, but God is calling all of us to draw closer, to listen to God’s dream, to play our part in the story of God’s saving work. Joseph was called to be a father to God’s son. Paul was called to be an apostle. Paul reminds us that we are called to be saints. We all have a calling regarding Jesus, and that is to share God’s love. It might seem a little scary. People might be scandalized and offended at who we share God’s love with, who we see as a human being worthy of being loved. But we are called to love, and it is God who loves through us, because God is love and that love can’t be contained.

As awesome as Joseph is, he is only a shadow of who God is for us. God gives us the benefit of the doubt, comes as a human to live our life, faces his fears, and gives his life to make us family. We are God’s children, and God is raising us as God’s own to share God’s love with a fearful world.

The world is pregnant with the loving and saving power of God. It is the power of God with us. God has been with us from the very beginning in everything we experience. God is with us in Jesus, God in human form. God will be with us, whatever may come. And the “us” is expansive, to include unwed mothers, tiny babies, old men, cowardly leaders, duped fathers, guests of Jerry Springer, Jews and Gentiles, Evangelicals and Mormons and Muslims. God’s love knows no bounds, and we get the most amazing privilege to be those saints showing in our actions the limitless bounds of God’s love.

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