Monday, December 25, 2017

CHRISTMAS SERMON: "Joseph's Desire"

A Meditation for Christmas
Sunday, December 24, 2017
Matthew 1:18-25

The story doesn’t say; but I imagine that Joseph cried himself to sleep that night.  That night he found out.  About Mary and her baby.  I imagine that his disappointment was so extreme, that his shame was so shocking, that his future was so broken—that he cried and he cried and he cried himself to sleep. 

Maybe you’ve had a night like that.  Or several.  When every breath aches and God seems a million miles away.  When every choice in front of you hurts somebody.  I imagine it was like that for Joseph.  That night he found out.  Of course, Mary, she’d just taken off.  She’d just grabbed a bag and run for the hills, some kind of road trip (she said) to see a cousin.  But who else could possibly understand?  What Joseph’s going through?  So I imagine he hauled himself into bed that night, and cried himself to sleep.  Bewildered and devastated.  And all alone in his grief.  And his shame.

He decides to break things off, quietly if he can, to extricate himself from Mary and her pregnancy, from the whole sad situation.  After all, that’s what the law says.  That’s what tradition requires.  And Joseph cares about doing things the right way, about keeping with tradition.  A man like Joseph can’t stay with a girl like Mary.  So he falls asleep that way.  Broken and demoralized.  Embarrassed and alone. 

And then.  And then he dreams a dream.  The broken man dreams a dream.


So what does it mean when a man cries himself to sleep and dreams of an angel of God speaking his name?  It’s kind of a revolutionary moment.  Maybe it’s the beginning of a revolutionary moment.  Joseph’s ‘this’ close to playing by the old rules.  Joseph’s ‘this’ close to conforming to conventional wisdom, doing the acceptable thing.  And cutting Mary and the baby out of his life. 

And then he dreams a dream.  Sure, he’s disappointed.  And sure, he’s bewildered and broken.  And sure, he’s cried his heart out, all night long.  But it turns out that there’s more to Joseph, there’s more to his heart, than disappointment.  There’s more to Joseph, there’s more to his heart, than shame.  And that night, he dreams a dream.  An angel comes calling.

And the angel says: “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid.  Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid.”  Something wild and holy is in the air tonight.  Something like grace.  Something like possibility.  And if we’re on it tonight, if you and I are on it tonight, we remember other angels: the angels that promise children to the aged couple, Abraham and Sarah; the angels that appeared to Moses at the burning bush; the angels that led the Hebrew slaves to freedom through the Red Sea.  This angel’s like those others.  This angel, this dream, this moment transfigures Joseph’s disappointment into delight, and his cowardice into courage, and this scandal into sweet salvation. “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”  So there’s more to Joseph, there’s more to his heart, than disappointment and shame.  There’s an open door in his heart.  There’s another way to see Mary and her pregnancy and her life.  And Joseph dreams a dream.


And what is dreaming anyway?  I think dreaming’s something like building a bridge in time, a holy and sacred bridge, between one world and another.  Making it possible to cross from one to the other and back again.  Making it possible to break the old rules and embrace new possibilities.  Making it possible to imagine heaven, here on earth.  Dreaming’s like building a bridge.  Between one world and another.  I mean we all do this.  We all dream.  You’ll do it this very night.  There’s a piece of Joseph inside every one of us.

The world of that night is a world of bitter tears and broken vows, a world of patriarchal laws and rigid expectations.  It’s real, and it’s oppressive, and Joseph’s immersed in it.  There’s no doubt he’s immersed in it.  But just the same, Joseph dreams a dream that spans time and space, and connects that world to another.  To a world where babies of all kinds are loved and cherished by adults of all kinds.  To a world of new arrangements, new families, and new possibilities for raising generous children in generous communities.  See what I mean?  It’s kind of a revolutionary moment.  And it’s a revolutionary dream.  That marvelous angel by his bedside helps Joseph connect his world to another world.  To a world of grace and salvation not just for some, but for all.  To a world free from shame.  To a world of deep and loving partnership, a world where Joseph and Mary raise their little child to show the whole wide world a better way.  Agape.  Ahimsa.  Forgiveness.  Shalom.

Friends, the gospel tonight goes something like this: there is something of Joseph in every one of us.  In the young among us and the old.  In the queer among us, and the straight.  In the Christian and Jew, in the Buddhist and Muslim, in the agnostic and atheist too.  There is something of Joseph in every one of us.  In me and you.  Just like Joseph you are created for courage and designed to dream. Just like Joseph you are perfectly free to imagine a new world.  And then to live into that new world.  That’s the gospel tonight.  No matter how much disappointment you’ve experienced lately.  No matter how much despair you feel for the world of politics and power.  No matter the loneliness and isolation.  There is in you—just as there is in Joseph—a sacred space, a holy altar, a light the world cannot extinguish.  So you too can dream dreams.  So you too can entertain angels.  So you too can build bridges to new worlds.  There is in you a light the world cannot extinguish.

It’s interesting.  The great mystic and monk Thomas Merton used to talk about Mary’s virginity as a metaphor in the Christmas story.  Not a biographical detail.  Not a repressive requirement cooked up by patriarchs.  But a metaphor: and a powerful one.  Merton understood virginity as a metaphor for Mary’s purity of purpose, for Mary’s openness to mystery, for Mary’s daring and undaunted spirit.  That’s what puts Mary at the heart, he said, at the revolutionary center of the Christian story: her singular passion for God’s incarnation in a beautiful, blessed and (let’s face it) broken world.  She trusted God’s partnership in her life.  She believed in the Spirit’s conspiracy in her own flesh and blood.  There is that same capacity for belief, that same capacity for partnership in every one of us.  That same virgin spirit.  That’s what Thomas Merton used to say.

So here’s my take.  Joseph’s got the same thing going on.  Or, at least, something like it.  As brutal as things have been, as disappointed as he is, Joseph maintains this openness to mystery, this daring spirit, this belief in the Spirit’s conspiracy, even in his grief, even in his dreams, even in his life.  And that’s the gospel tonight, I think: that God conspires in Joseph’s life and in your life and in mine.  God’s building a bridge in your heart tonight, in your dreams tonight, in your life tonight.


I can’t help but think that Joseph’s story is particularly relevant this fall, this winter, this year—as we sort through the devastating stories of harassment and abuse and gender-based violence across the fields of culture, politics and ordinary life.  How will men take responsibility for all this violence and begin the process of healing the wounds in our own hearts?  How will we finally hear and account for these stories and hold one another accountable?  We’ve known these stories for decades, for generations, of course, and their vicious impact in the lives of women and vulnerable souls.  But the #metoo campaign has made it possible for our daughters and sisters, our friends and colleagues to tell some stories for the first time.  One after another, and then another and another.  And then, it’s made it possible for them to insist on being heard.  On being taken seriously at last.   

What Joseph offers us, what Joseph offers men, I think, is an icon of decency and humility and authenticity.  I’m talking to the men among us, obviously, but this is big for all of us.  Joseph is not limited by patriarchal expectations, or by rules of legalism or tradition, or even the dictates of religion.  Joseph dreams a dream.  An angel comes calling.  And Joseph opens the door of his heart to the Spirit of God.  And the humanity of Mary.  The humanity of Mary.

Too many men abuse power and privilege to harass and intimidate too many women, too many girls, too many sisters.  That’s the world we’re living in.  That’s the world where too many of God’s beloved children cry themselves to sleep at night.  That’s the world where too many of us see women as pawns and use women as pawns in a powerful game of influence, greed and selfish satisfaction.  That’s the world we’re living in.

And again, I’m talking to my brothers in the room tonight.  We’ve got work to do.  We’ve got hard, thoughtful, spiritual work to do.  And Joseph can be an ally, I think.  Joseph can show us how.  Joseph can lead us back to Mary.

When he entertains that angel in his dream, Joseph looks to God and God alone for inspiration and encouragement.  God is doing a new thing in his life.  God is healing the world.  God is inviting a different kind of partnership, a new manifestation of family.  So Joseph turns from the patriarchal expectations of his culture.  He resists the sexist preoccupations of powerful and manipulative men.  And he sheds shame once and for all.  Joseph dreams a dream.     

And then he rises the next day, he rises with the sun in the hills, he rises with the birds in the trees; he rises the next day to find Mary again and partner with her in raising a son and living joyously and collaboratively in a new kind of home.  In a new kind of world.  He will not judge Mary.  He will not shame Mary.  He will not use Mary.  He will not objectify Mary.  Joseph will partner with Mary.  Joseph will build a bridge, with Mary, to a new world of justice and joy. 


I want to offer Thomas Merton’s prayer—the prayer printed in your program tonight—to all of you, but particularly to my brothers in the room tonight.  I’ve been using this prayer in my own spiritual practice for many years now.  I find it nuanced and honest and clear in its intention.  I don’t always know where I’m going; let’s face it, I rarely know where I’m going.  But I seek along the way to please the God of Love, the God of Jesus, the God of justice and peace.  That’s the direction I want to go, the path I want to take.  To please the God of Love. 

So I kind of think of Merton’s prayer as Joseph’s prayer, as an expression of Joseph’s desire tonight.  Maybe you’ll want to memorize it, as I’ve done, and call on it in the early hours of each new day.  Maybe you’ll want to cut it out of the program and carry it around with you.  In a tough moment, in a crisis or a dark night of the soul, maybe it’ll come in handy.  Maybe it’ll lead you back to God, to your own virgin spirit.

It reminds me, this prayer; it reminds me, every day, that my soul seeks simply to please God.  That’s my soul’s deepest desire.  Simply to please God.  In the ways I treat other people.  In the ways I relate to my sisters everywhere, to the women in my life at all times.  In the ways I make choices and prioritize my time and honor my own days and energies and spirit.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me,
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
And the fact that I think I am following your will
Does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
Does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing;
I hope I never do anything apart from that desire.”

Brothers, and sisters, but especially my brothers: I suggest to you tonight that this prayer is the beginning of our revolution.  It’s something like Joseph’s prayer.  It’s something like Joseph’s desire tonight.  The prayer the angel sows into Joseph’s open heart.  So let us wake up tomorrow morning—you and I—with this desire in our hearts, only this desire in our hearts, to please God and honor one another.  Let us rise with the sun on Christmas Day to cultivate this desire in all that do, in our work and in our workplaces, in our homes and in our families, in our partnerships and marriages.  Let us trust, fully and faithfully, that it is this desire that pleases God, that truly and wonderfully pleases God.  The God of Life and Love.  The God of women and men.  The God of Jesus our Christ.  Surely then, it will be a Merry and Blessed Christmas.  For all of us.   

Amen and let it be so.