“The Mercy of Joseph,” December 22, 2019, the Rev. Louise Kalemkerian

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday of Advent

In the name of our all-loving God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, AMEN.

In a couple of parishes I have served, the fourth Sunday of Advent was reserved for the Children’s Christmas pageant. The custom was in place before I arrived, and I assumed it was because the previous rector or rectors didn’t want to preach on Advent 4.

One Sunday morning on the appointed day a number of years ago, the pageant was underway and all was well—save for a rather detached and wandering Joseph. He had been a bit of a problem in all the rehearsals; but because he had been chosen for this supporting role, no one had the heart to fire him. Firing children generally is frowned upon, and especially at church.

So on the day of the pageant, his behavior, not surprisingly, was theatrical only in its misbehavior. About halfway through, Mary had had enough of his antics. Without a word to signal her intention, with a startlingly loud thud she plopped the baby down—thank God that we had gone with a doll that year—stomped across the chancel, walloped Joseph on the side of the head, pulled him back to his position, and said in a loud stage whisper, “Sit.” And he did reverently for the remainder of the tableau. I have not followed this young man in his life, but my guess is it has involved rather extensive therapy.

Much of what we know as the Christmas story comes from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2. You know, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” and “Glory to God in the highest…” Every third year, our lectionary turns its spotlight away from Mary and gives us the perspective of her would-be husband, a quiet, unassuming descendant of the House of David.

So our entry point into the Nativity story on this fourth Sunday of Advent is not Mary, or Elizabeth, or John the fiery Baptizer, but Joseph, known as a righteous man.  It is Joseph, a quiet carpenter who upends his good life for a dream. This Christmas story is not told about singing angels or adoring shepherds.  Lutheran scholar David Lose points out that this is a story of heartache, not of wonder.

In many ways we have cleaned up and domesticated the Christmas story. We want to believe that the baby Jesus never cried, that Mary was a pretty young bride after having delivered a baby, and Joseph was calm and protective.  I doubt this was so.  Let’s look closer at the story.

For a start, in the world of Joseph and Mary, their relationship is not a romantic declaration of intent.  Marriage was a legal, civil contract.  Betrothal/espousal/engagement had legal consequences and was arranged through elders in their families, and the two parties were in their early teens.[1] Once engaged or betrothed, the couple was considered to be married, without having lived together. When Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant, he can only conclude that she has been unfaithful to him. It is likely that Joseph experienced the pain, anguish and sense of betrayal that any of us would have felt in such a devastating situation. Joseph is called a “righteous man” – a “tsadeek” which could mean he would remain either “buttoned-up” in law-abiding Jewishness and dismiss the young woman Mary, or he would be a gracious instrument and fulfill God’s larger purpose.  He chose the latter.

Debie Thomas writes, “We make a grave mistake, I think, when we sanitize Joseph’s consent.  We distort his humanity when we assume that his acceptance of God’s plan came easily, when we hold ourselves at arm’s length from his humiliation and doubt.  In fact, what Joseph’s pain shows me is that God’s favor is not the shiny, soothing thing I’d like to believe it is. ”[2]

We talk a lot about justice in our society, but this story is an illustration of where being just doesn’t come close to dealing with the real problem. Justice suggests the young girl should be exposed and humiliated, and Joseph be exonerated.  Whatever he believed about Mary his betrothed, Joseph was not willing to shame her, either by putting her on public trial or trashing her reputation to clear his own. So he resolved to divorce her quietly, without casting blame, choosing the most humane of the customary legal options of his day.

Here’s a question for us all:  When we see or know a person facing public disgrace, does our heart jump to justice or to mercy? I’ve been thinking about this a lot these past weeks, and especially this week, now that the president has been impeached. Am I filled with righteous indignation and seek “justice” and/or do I gloat that certain persons got what’s coming to them?  I confess to you that I have been struggling with this, struggling to remember that all persons are created in the image of God. And trying harder to pray for the president, knowing that he needs to know and understand that God loves him, that he is a beloved child of God, no matter what.

I wonder how the church has gotten so carried away with righteousness and justice that we’ve forgotten what Joseph shows us so vividly – that mercy outweighs justice. The truth is that any of us, if everything about our lives was exposed to public scrutiny, would all be up for humiliation and disgrace, and begging for mercy and understanding. If only, like Joseph, mercy was our reflex rather than justice and even vengeance. If only we practiced the mercy we beg for.

As this Gospel demonstrates, God works through real people, ordinary people, facing real challenges.  God strengthened Joseph to face the almost unthinkable with courage, mercy and grace.  And God works through each of us, no matter our concerns or questions or doubts.  God works with us as we are today, not as we should be or promise to be or try to be but as we are in this moment.

I hope seeing the Christmas story from Joseph’s perspective helps us know that even in the worst times of our lives, God is with us.  Which, paradoxically, is the name of the child Mary will bear.  That God is with us in our best of times, and more importantly in our worst of times.  That God never abandons us.  That God loves us unequivocally, totally, each and everyone of us.

And I hope that Joseph’s story increases in all of us mercy toward ourselves and toward others who are struggling, whether they be persons in our own circle, or persons half way around the world, immigrants and refugees seeking asylum, homeless persons, incarcerated persons, and actually everyone we meet.  Joseph’s story urges us to treat the powerless with greater empathy and solidarity. I hope Joseph’s story encourages us to look at difficult situations in our own lives from another perspective, trying to remember that God is always with us.

Today Joseph is held up in the story as the one who is most like us, presented day by day with circumstances beyond our control, with lives we would may never have envisioned for ourselves, tempted to divorce ourselves from it all, when an angel whispers to us: “Do not be afraid, God is here. It may not be what you expected or planned, but God may be born here too, if you will permit it.”

Amidst our less than perfect lives, God is about doing something new and wonderful. And not just in each one of us alone, but in all who will be open to the Good News that God loves the whole world and everyone in it. Today and always.

[1] Daniel Harrington, SJ, Sacra Pagina, pp. 36 ff.

[2] Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, December 15, 2019.

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