Best Supporting Actor – December 18, 2016

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A Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 18, 2016

Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.

It has all the hallmarks of high Biblical drama: the appearance of an angel in a dream, the fulfillment of prophecy, the promise of the Holy Spirit. But viewed through a certain lens, the angel’s visit to Joseph is less a soaring scene in the triumphant history of salvation and more a profound moment of acute masculine disempowerment. Joseph was the descendant of a long line of successful and powerful patriarchs, and his own cultural context was highly patriarchal in nature. Women were hardly powerless, but both Joseph’s religious heritage and his social surroundings would have imprinted within him the idea that as a man he was not only allowed but in fact expected to hold all the authority and, whenever possible, to get his own way.

The angel’s message to Joseph, then, challenges everything that Joseph had been taught and led to believe. By encouraging Joseph to wed Mary rather than dismiss her as he had initially planned, the angel essentially pressures Joseph to surrender his own agency and sense of honor for the purposes of God’s will. Meanwhile, by relegating Joseph to a supporting role in a story in which Mary and Jesus take center stage, the angel threatens the dominant position that Joseph likely had assumed was his.

Joseph’s loss is Mary’s gain, and perhaps a victory for the feminist in all of us. Progress seems to inevitably require that the powerful surrender some of the power to which they desire to cling. Still, I suspect that you can understand, if only a little bit, the disillusionment that Joseph may have felt in the wake of such life-altering circumstances. The foundations of his expectations might have been unjust, but within his context Joseph had every reason to suppose that the way things had always worked would continue for ever—that as a grown, successful, middle-class man, he would be able to rule the roost in his own little corner of the universe as long as he wanted. The angel’s intrusion into his life also serves as an intrusion into his innate ethical and moral sensibilities. Things that were once so definite and sure—his place within society, and the ways in which that society was ordered and functioned—are now suddenly up for grabs.

And is that not what’s happening now, here in our own little corner of the universe? Are we not experiencing our own upheaval of “the way things were”? After all, in the past few decades, men and straight people and white folks have been forced—in the workplace, in politics and in society in general—to cede ground to all sorts of unfamiliar people: women, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBT people, foreigners. As a result, whole segments of the country’s population have found themselves longing for the power they used to own, power they still believe, in many cases, is rightfully theirs. Resentment and strife have arisen in great quantities, and you do not need me to tell you that many of the political challenges we are currently facing stem from this well-documented phenomenon.

The story of Joseph, I think, has much to say to us in the midst of the struggles of this present moment. In providing an example of someone who came to embrace his loss of power and chose to provide support to those who supplanted him, the story of Joseph shows us that there can be value in stepping away from the spotlight and supporting our fellow human beings from the shadows. So many of our problems derive from the stronghold we as human beings seek to impose on whatever power we can grasp and amass. But Joseph found immense promise in a position of relative powerlessness. He may never have achieved the prestige of Mary or the lasting influence of Jesus, but simply by caring for them as a faithful member of their family he played a distinct role in unleashing God’s love to the world and found recognition for himself as a saint. What would it be like for us to turn away from the spotlight and support others from the shadows? How would we care for others and help to unleash God’s love to the world? How could we achieve our sainthood?

The story of Joseph also gifts us with compassion for those who already live life in the shadows, who only ever play supporting roles in others’ stories. In his faithful obedience to the angel’s demands and in his steadfast support for his life partner, Joseph demonstrates the fortitude and virtue that is necessary in order to stay out of the way and let others shine. At the same time, the striking way in which Joseph’s life changes after he receives the angel’s message emphasizes just how different life can be for those who hold less power than others and urges us to treat the powerless with greater empathy and solidarity. Who plays a supporting role in your life and in the lives of those around you and how can you gain a better understanding of the struggles and the strength that they have? How will you then act differently towards them with your newfound respect for the realities of their lives?

Ultimately, though, the story of Joseph reminds us that we are all supporting actors in a much larger drama that is beyond our ability to fully perceive or comprehend. For a while, some of us may appear to hold more power than others, and in our weakness we may try to lord our more prominent positions over those who are kind enough to assist and support us. But such dynamics can shift: eventually those of us who have grown accustomed to power, like Joseph, may find ourselves losing ground and becoming subservient to others; while those of us used to taking a backseat to progress, like Mary, may out of nowhere come to realize that we have suddenly become the star of the show. The only thing we can count on for sure is that in life the only real main character is God, and that, in the end, it is God alone who is at the center of the action, who calls the shots, who steals the show. We, like Joseph and Mary, are God’s helpers, and we can do our share to help accomplish God’s will, but—truth be told—folks like us are a dime a dozen. In time, we, like so many before us, will become tired, cease our efforts and fade away, while God will stay in the scene eternally, forever being revealed, forever being born.

Categories: Sermons