A Meditation on Joseph and His Courage (Matthew 1:18-24)
This past Wednesday, on our way out of one of those nursing homes, I reached out to take the hand of one of these women. She was old and bent and her face was splotched with dark markings. But she grabbed my hand – almost like I was a long-lost friend – and she just shook it and shook it and shook it. And she was trying to say something; I could see her lips moving and a kind of raspy breath coming out. But no sound, nothing that made sense. She just shook my hand, and shook it and shook it. And mouthed something, something important, something she really felt, over and over again.
How does that old George Herbert poem go? “Teach me, my God and King, / In all things thee to see, / And what I do in any thing, / To do it as for thee.” It struck me again – as she at last released my hand, as I noticed the tiny, silver cross hanging around her neck – it struck me that Christ is born in hearts like hers. Broken hearts. Old hearts. Lonely hearts. What Christmas does is awaken us to these tiny sparks of divinity that have been there all along. What Christmas does – in its deepest, truest sense – is awaken us to the ripening spirit within every one of us. That old woman – frail and fragile and broken in more ways than I could imagine – she was like an angel Wednesday night, a messenger of grace. The way she grabbed my hand. The way her cracked lips wiggled and jiggled up and down. Her face. Her eyes. This was my Christmas! This was all the glory I’ll ever need. There was life inside her heart – life and heart and soul the world will probably never understand. And that life is still growing, evolving, maturing and being born. This Christmas is her Christmas – as much as yours and mine.
Now what I’m describing is not the gospel of American culture in the 21st century. I suspect we all know that. The gospel of American culture is all about the newest gadget, and it’s all about the recent trend, and it’s all about reversing the aging process and resisting the passage of time. At least it seems that way to me. If you don’t have an iPad or an iPod, or if you don’t even know what I’m talking about, odds are you feel a little irrelevant to the flow of history and human progress. When the folks at Macy’s or Costco sit down to strategize for the Christmas Rush, they’re probably not that worried about the six little ladies in wheelchairs down at the nursing home on Capitola Road. In so many ways, the world has passed them by.
But it hit me Wednesday night – watching that one woman shake my hand like a tambourine – that the gospel of American culture gets it all wrong. Christmas flips that tired gospel on its ear. Because here’s the thing: Christmas is the assurance that we are always growing; the spirit of God is always growing, evolving, ripening inside us. In each and every one of us, there’s a spark of divinity waiting to catch fire. There’s a holy seed just now taking root. There’s a child waiting to be born. It’s as true for those women in wheelchairs as it is for you and me. It’s as true for the homeless guy wandering this rainy day in a tattered t-shirt as it is for all those kids waiting for Santa on Christmas morning.
The thing is, God is always coming to life in you. There’s always a new shoot on the living vine. There’s always something being conceived and nurtured, delivered and loved. Whether you’re 9 or 89. Whether your 15 or 55. God is always coming to life in you. Your breath bears the spirit in a way that’s precious and sacred, unique to you.
Whatever else you get out of the story of Joseph in the first chapter of Matthew – you have to appreciate Joseph’s courage and receptivity. Convention tells him to cut Mary out of his life, quietly, quickly. However it is that she’s got herself pregnant, it can’t be good, it can’t bring Joseph and his family any glory. So the dignified thing to do is just move on, send Mary on her way, back to her own people, and just move on.
But Joseph’s kindness, his compassion make possible some other way, some other way of responding to Mary, some other way of responding to God, some other way of living in the present moment. Instead of trying to fix this bad situation, he settles into a deep sleep, allows for the God in his deep heart to speak in a new way. And God invites Joseph to take Mary as his wife, to help her labor and birth a baby, to name him Jesus. If the neighbors gossip, so be it. If the townsfolk can’t handle this unconventional family, tough luck. There’s a larger purpose to Joseph’s life. The universe is reaching out for Joseph’s courage and compassion. It’s time to take a stand.
I want to just pause for a moment here and tell you about an email I received a couple of weeks ago. We’d just posted a large sign out front for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus concert – that was held here last night. Wildly successful, I should add! Well, we’d posted the sign out front. And a day or two later, we received this email. It came from a woman who works somewhere on campus. And she wanted us to know that she’d noticed the sign. “I’m just so grateful,” she wrote, “for all the things you stand for. In a world of so much intolerance, it’s really refreshing to see a church that demonstrates what religion can be.” And then, if you’ll pardon my French, or actually hers, she closed with these four memorable words. “You guys kick ass.” There I said it in church. Her words. “You guys kick ass.” End quote.
Now convention says that churches don’t host concerts like the one we gratefully hosted last night. And convention says that Christians don’t celebrate loving marriages of two women or loving marriages of two men, or anything other than the acceptable norm. That’s convention. But faith – Christmas faith – goes the other way. Christmas faith says Joseph, you’ve got to risk doing the unpopular thing. Christmas faith says Joseph, you’ve got to forget about the opinions of the elders on this one; take Mary as your wife and raise that child with all the love in your heart. Christmas faith says, Christians, it’s time to say out loud and with pride that love is love: and all who love are children of God. They may be gay, they may be straight, they may be bisexual, they may be transgender, they may be 99 and crooked and mute, they may be little bitty babies spitting up all over the place. But love is love: and all who love are children of God.
So Joseph wakes up to a whole new world. A world where fatherhood means loving kids – no matter whose kids they are. A world where marriage means making a generous commitment and trusting God to teach and love and forgive and amaze us into each new season of loving. Joseph wakes up to a whole new world. A world where he – a simple carpenter – is needed to bring about the healing of the planet. Joseph, says the angel, your time is now.
And isn’t this the Christmas gospel for you too. Your time is now. You may have cancer. You may feel crummy and you’re tired of the chemo and you’re anxious for your loved ones. That doesn’t change who God is. God is stirring in your heart, there’s a seed in you that’s growing and ripening and stretching out in some new and unimaginable way. It may be you have some important conversations still ahead. It may be there’s a piece of art you’ve just got to see. It may be you’ve got some poetry to write…But God is stirring in your heart, ripening in your soul, making a way for something beautiful. A child to be born. In you.
Your time is now. You may be facing some kind of divorce, some kind of bad breakup, or you’ve lost a job. And it hurts like holy hell. But that doesn’t change who God is. God is beating in your heart, quickening in your grief, preparing the ground for some new shoot of life and joy and kindness. God is with you. Emmanuel. God has always been with you. And something is happening, something is being conceived, nurtured, kindled in your heart. God is making a way for something bold and beautiful. In you.
Bad things happen. Tough luck demoralizes even the wisest among us. But the Christmas gospel doesn’t let us off the hook.
Don’t be afraid. That’s the gospel. Don’t be afraid. They might say all kinds of crazy things, Joseph. But don’t be afraid. They might toss you out of town, Joseph, and you’ll have to find a new place. But don’t be afraid. You might worry that you don’t have the faith, Joseph, or the courage, or the chutzpah, Joseph. But don’t be afraid. For you’re not alone. You’ll never be alone. And this world in which you wake up today? There’s a lot of love. And this world, the one in which you wake up today, it’s a whole new world. There’s a lot of love – and it’s a whole new world.