Gospel: Matthew 1:18-25
1st Reading: Isaiah 7:10-16
2nd Reading: Romans 1:1-7
The summer of 1995 I visited the seminary campus in Berkeley, California to see if I felt like the school was a good fit. While I was there, I called home on the pay phone, and my parents told me the news that my younger sister was pregnant. I don't know if I have ever cried so hard. She was 16 years old and unmarried. I grieved her childhood, that she wouldn't go to prom, that she wouldn't have opportunities that other people would have, that this would follow her. She wouldn't graduate. She would be stuck. This would keep her from achieving so many of her dreams. I was alone on the campus of Pacific School of Religion where I was taking a one-week class. I remember just walking and walking as I cried. It was raining off and on, and it was dark, and the sidewalks were covered with snails. Every few minutes one would crunch under my feet.
I blamed myself that I hadn't done all I could to make sure she knew about birth control. I think my dad never thought this could happen to them. He always made fun of anyone on our class who got pregnant before they graduated. I guess he thought that would be enough to deter us. My mom wondered what the neighbors would think. And we scarcely acknowledged a pattern in our family--my mom and grandma both married in their teens and had their first child before they turned 20, and one of my earliest memories was riding in the back of a truck with my uncles who were threatening my Aunt's fiance. I didn't know at the time, she was pregnant before she was married. For the longest time, I was confused about why people cried at weddings. I thought it had something to do with those strong emotions I was witnessing from my uncles in the back of that pickup truck. Because of my sister's teen pregnancy, I remember thinking that I was not going to stand by and let this happen in our family again, and before I left to attend seminary, I embarrassed my 15 year old brother by giving him a box of condoms and telling him to practice putting them on. I never saw someone turn so red. He turned out to be a Mormon, an upstanding man and wonderful father of 5 (so far), after getting married.
Joseph, son of Jacob, named for the Joseph of the Old Testament, also son of Jacob, who had the coat of many colors, who dreamed vivid dreams and couldn't keep them to himself. Joseph of the Hebrew Bible was gifted with dreams that made his brothers hate him (remember he dreamed that his brothers bowed to him and had to blab that all to them so that they ended up selling him into slavery to get rid of him.) But eventually his dreams meant that the Pharaoh stored up food in preparation for a seven year famine. Joseph said, what people meant for evil, God meant for good. Many lives were saved, and when Joseph's brothers came to the Pharaoh to ask for food assistance, there was Joseph to receive them and forgive them, and eventually to be gifted with the best land so that the Israelites could grow and prosper.
Joseph in today's Gospel, is a man of dreams, named after that Joseph in the Old Testament and just as dreamy. Who knows what dreams he had in mind when he became engaged to Mary. He perhaps dreamed that his family line would continue, that he would have sons to honor him. So what must he think when Mary tells him she is pregnant? He is thinking that she's untrustworthy. He's thinking this child isn't related to him. He's thinking of what everyone will say. He probably felt angry, betrayed. However, he is a righteous man, so he doesn't want to make her life any harder than it will already be. He has every right to drag her through the mud. But he is righteous. He is not the kind of righteous that is better than other people, or who only follows the rules. The word "righteous" also involves being merciful, treating others as one would want to be treated. So he decides to dismiss her quietly.
However, he has a dream and he believes in dreams. Dreams often have many possible interpretations. I often tell Sterling that his dreams happen when his brain is trying to work something out. Joseph's brain was trying to work something out. He likely was having quite an emotional reaction to his situation. He seems to get a pretty clear directive, a very different approach to the one he had planned to take, yet even more merciful. He likely wondered, is this just me, or was this really an angel? If he married her, he was basically admitting the child was his and that he had done something he shouldn't have. Either that or he was a wimp, letting his wife have relations with someone else and taking on a kid that wasn't his. I'm sure people were talking and I'm sure they were looking to see whether this child looked like him or not. However, he seemed settled—at peace with his decision. He was a dreamer, now locked on to a bigger dream, God's dream. He was charged with protecting God's Son, as he grew up. As we know, that ended up being more complicated than he could have known, as soon the family would be traveling to Egypt, like the first Joseph, fleeing Herod who wanted to destroy any threat to his throne, no matter how young.
What can we learn from Joseph, this man we know so little about? We learn to wake up. Joseph is aware. He has been made aware that Mary is pregnant. But he's also aware of the state of his world, that people are hurting and in need. And he's aware of a promise of a different future, promised by God, in which a Messiah, a Savior, will bring in a new Kingdom of justice and equity.
We, too, can wake up. We can be aware of our situation, our power and our gifts, as well as the choices we have to affect other people. We can wake up to the world around us, to open our eyes to who has power and how they use it and who doesn't have power and is injured, ignored, and discounted because of it.
Next, we can listen to our dreams, like Joseph. We have two kinds of dreams. We have personal hopes and dreams and we also have bigger dreams for the wellbeing of all, for the common good. These second kind of dreams tap into God's dreams and these are the ones to pay attention to.
Like Joseph we can take action. We can lay aside personal comfort and convenience and do something to move toward that dream of God's. We are not here to enforce the rules or judge anyone. Instead we are invited to be merciful and to be as merciful as God is to us, to consider one another's actions in the best possible light, to treat each other with lovingkindness.
In Joseph's case, he takes Mary as his wife and becomes the protector of and provider for Jesus. Joseph didn't need to call attention to himself. He didn't need to be the center of attention. We know so little about Joseph, probably because he simply and humbly walked in God's ways. Maybe that is another part of what it means to be righteous, or maybe that was just Joseph's way. Joseph didn't need anyone to think he was important or to notice him. He was there so that we might all have a savior, who is Christ the Lord. We, too, can get out of the way and point, not to ourselves, but to the one who gives us life.
My nephew was born 3 days before my Birthday. I was there at his birth. If you've ever witnessed a birth, you've been present at the most amazing miracle. Once a week, I spent an evening at my sister's playing with my nephew. He was incredible. I cried almost as hard when I learned my sister and her husband would be divorced after only 2 years, leaving 2 tiny kids in the care of my brother in law. However, both of those kids have turned out to be incredible kids. Both valedictorians of their class. Both studying hard and having their hearts in the right place. God and God's helpers brought those kids so many opportunities so that they can have big dreams that tap into the bigger picture of equity and justice and compassion.
God is here, coming among us to show us mercy and to help us show mercy and compassion to others. We don't have to look through Joseph's eyes to see the Christ child. We don't have put ourselves in the story to know God's presence. Because of the gift of Jesus, we can meet him in the poor and grieving, in the weary, in the injured and starving, the unwanted. That babe is still shivering in the cold today, and we can meet him when we venture out of our comfortable warmth, when we welcome the one we didn't think we wanted. We can begin to participate in God's dream when we cross boundaries and open our eyes to one another's pain. May we dream like Joseph dreams, and believe in the dream God has for us and this world.