An Ordinary Extraordinary Joe
A sermon based on Matthew 1:18-25
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 7, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Before I applied to seminary I did not give Joseph Jesus’ dad too much thought. I’d see him in Nativity scenes or re-enactments. I knew he was Jesus’ dad and Mary’s husband and that he spoke to an angel. After I got into seminary my view of Joseph changed before I even arrived on campus.
Part of me hesitates to tell the story because I am such an intellectual giant in the world of theology I am afraid it will soil my reputation as such. See, we were having trouble selling our house in Oregon which needed to happen so we could move to Eden Seminary in St Louis. Well . . . somewhere along the line I heard the Catholic folklore that St Joseph could help sell your house. Joseph is the patron saint of home and family and tradition has it he can help you sell your home if you bury a little statue of him upside down in your front yard. There are different ideas about where in the yard and which way Joseph’s eyes need to face, but one thing is for sure he must be placed head down. I think the theory is that when he is upside down he works extra hard to get out with a sale instead of having to tunnel through the earth’s core to China. 1
You can actually buy little plastic St. Joseph statues with help-sell-your- house instructions at Catholic bookstores and even on line.
And here’s the hesitate-to-tell-you part, we went and bought such a little statue and had fun as a family burying him upside down in the front yard.
But that is not the funniest part. A day or so after he was buried some of us in the family went to peek at the little plastic bearded man with the robe in the ground and . . . he was gone! To our amazement we discovered St Joseph wasn’t where we buried him. So we dug around and eventually found him still underground a foot or so from where he’d been buried. Our St. Joseph had moved. That discovery felt a little weird. I mean how could a plastic statue navigate below ground?
It’d be fun to tell you it mystically moved as a part of Joe trying to dig to China, but I think the real story is almost as fun. I traced a little animal tunnel to the spot, some little critter digging its way through the earth helped ol’ Joe reposition himself. Creation moved Joe. And it must have worked because the house sold – and Holy MOLEly who would have thought that it’d GOPHER the asking price? But it did.
Over the centuries a lot of traditions have grown up around the Holy Family, including Joseph, like the house selling tradition. There are lots of legends and stories, but really we do not know have a lot of real hard fact kinda information about Jesus’ family especially his dad Joseph. He is mentioned in Matthew and Luke as a part of Jesus’ childhood and then we do not hear about him again.
And even from the Gospel accounts we can only say for sure a few snippets of facts. His name: Joseph. His town: Nazareth. His trade: a carpenter. His religious and ethnic upbringing: Jewish. His wife: Mary. His son: Jesus. We also know he was born in the last century of the B.C. era –and that he was man.
The Gospel accounts also relay stories that Joseph was related to King David and was from Bethlehem. And that Joseph was a righteous man who did not wish to follow religious mandates to punish Mary for being pregnant out of wedlock by someone other than him–her betrothed.
We also heard today the report of his mystical experience with an angel and his compliance with what he understood to be Divine commands to marry Mary and name and raise Jesus. Later Matthew tells us of another mystical dream where God directs Joseph to defy Herod to save Jesus’ life and escape with his family to Egypt until they could safely return to Nazareth– which Matthew reports they did.
Chronologically the last story we hear about Joseph is in Luke and it is about the family trip to Jerusalem where twelve-year old Jesus worries his parents by staying behind in the temple.
I’ve pretty much just summed up the facts and the gospel stories about Joseph.
What I especially like about today’s story from Matthew is that before Jesus is born an ordinary man –Joseph, Jesus’ earthly dad– behaves extraordinary in relation to the patriarchy and culture.
The first story in Matthew is about THIS role model dad, THIS ordinary Joe who gets the Matthew story going by following God’s call to be a loving good guy. Even before the angel shows up Joseph does this in what might seem an unlikely way. Joseph refuses to follow or impose the ugly oppressive scripture law against women. According to the Bible women pregnant by someone other than their betrothed are criminals who can be forced to have an abortion and/or punished with execution. 2
Thankfully Joseph is not a literalist, he just wants to let Mary go quietly. And God not only backs Joseph’s non-literalism, but once Joseph decides to not follow the oppressive scriptural mandates God THEN asks him to go a step further and love Mary and her child. Patriarchal rules be damned, Joseph does just that.
In Matthew Joseph at the behest of God repositions himself away from the hole that patriarchy put him, Mary and Jesus in. God moves Joseph into motion to be a male model of love and goodness. He starts a new patriarchy-less patriarchy (if you will) in the gospel. He begins what Jesus develops in His WAY that eschews the old patriarchal oppression.
And Joseph’s role model is followed by many others including males in the New Testament. Think about it, from John the Baptist to Jesus to the male Disciples to Paul to Phillip there’s a whole bunch of male role models working for justice and against the injustices of the patriarchy.
All year long we have discussed love and peace and justice and God’s calling over and over again to help the oppressed including the poor and sick, people of color, LGBT and women and others the patriarchy has sought to hold down and crush.
Most of us when we hear the word “patriarchy” think of men as oppressors, but throughout history it has mostly been a very exclusive elite set of men who have sought to oppress humans, women especially, but not just women, also non-elite males– which is almost every male who has lived.
Today we lit the Advent Candle representing hope. And the beginning of hope in the story today is represented by Joseph’s role model of rejecting cultural and Biblical oppression and loving the Christ within Mary, both metaphorically and in reality. That hope snowballs in the Gospels stories with heroes following suit and Jesus’ – Joseph’s son – perfecting the model. This is of course a model for both men and women, but it is important to note that in a very real sense both Joseph and Jesus – in a male preferring culture– use their male status to begin the snowball of hope rolling.
Women join the Jesus Movement as equals but it took both men AND women to make that happen. It’s like that with feminism today, the movement to create an equal world requires equal work. Men must reposition themselves and argue and work for equality for all not just for women and not just for men.
If men reject patriarchy’s oppression of women and other gender related inequality, if men, as well as women, teach and show by example how to work to oppose it, then as Paul later put it “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female . . .”
The same basic concept applies to racial injustices as well. Civil rights cannot come about unless both Whites and Blacks work together to oppose racial injustice and insist that Black Lives Matter equally with White lives. All lives matter. We are all made in the image of God.
The first patriarchs of Christianity rejected any sort of hierarchy in the new patriarchy, because as Paul goes on to put it we are all “one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28 NRS). So the new patriarchy is, of course, no patriarchy at all. No one is to be oppressed. All are to be equal. That’s what it means when “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” That’s the WAY God intended and intends us –men AND women, Blacks and Whites– to live and long and strive for.
I encounter critics of God who assert that God does not exist or is somehow bad because there is this mess or that mess in the world not getting fixed and if God intended us to be on the Way of equality why aren’t we? These critics envision God as some sort of super-hero who’s job is to swoop in and magically fix what we humans break or refuse or fail to fix. Since God the super-hero’s not doing this swooping in and fixing, the argument goes God does not exist or is not doing “His” job. But that argument only works if God is sitting in heaven deciding to answer prayers and then choosing to do magic or not back on earth. But the whole Gospel narrative, indeed the arc of all the Bible stories suggest God is incarnate in creation, not up and away, not taking calls and just slipping into creation now and then. The God of Jesus soaks this place from stem to stern.
Christianity is particularly about that incarnation of God being animated in humankind to solve human concerns and human-made messes. The Christmas story is about the awareness of that incarnation in the arrival of Jesus in all of us. In Luke it starts with a woman Mary, Jesus mom and a great female role model. In Matthew, the story starts with a man Joseph, Jesus dad who repositions righteousness from compliance with oppressive scriptural mandates to compliance with God’s call to love. Joseph sets the stage, gets the ball rolling in Matthew. Then his son, Jesus, models perfectly what the incarnation of God looks like in a human being – and he even instructs us how to do it.
God’s not up in the God-cave waiting for the God-phone to ring with our prayers from afar. God’s right here in the YOUs and the MEs getting God-calls all the time and responding to them in the hands and feet and voice of Christ acting in the YOUs and MEs. And if we stop hoping for supernatural instant fixes of the messes of world and blaming God when they don’t happen; if we stand back we can actually see that in very quick geological time –what the rest of creation seems to pace itself by– this incarnation of God thing is working; it is fixing messes and astoundingly quickly when we look at it that way.
When Jesus was born humankind was plagued by things the culture took for granted as the way of the world. Since the very first Christmas things have changed drastically. Everyday terrors and oppressions that were once acceptable as a matter of course in cultures have been challenged and diminished to great extent. Things like enslaving others, mass killings of peoples, child labor, poverty, lack of health-care and a whole slew of awful isms, class-ism, sex-ism, race-ism have long been on the decline to the point that their existence is not acceptable by the vast majority of people and are areas that humankind now works to find ways to thwart. This does not mean that any of these atrocities have been extinguished, it means we have come from allowing them as mainstays norms in our cultures, to virtually rejecting them across the board and fighting for their extinction.
I find that remarkable. God incarnate in humankind has tugged and pulled and pushed and shoved us to ask if such conduct is love and to answer that it is not and then to go about doing something about it. We have been repositioned to a remarkably better place than we were 2,000 years ago and that may seem like a long, long time ago to humans who barely live a twentieth of that time, but in the universe’s scheme of things it’s barely a clock tick of time.
There is so much hope in that. Our understanding that God is incarnate in us and others has mattered and matters. It has transformed and is transforming the world. Current events illustrate this. We can look at the events in Ferguson and New York and see this churning change happening. If we look we can see God incarnate in humans in action. The hew and cry that “Black Lives Matter” is a fundamental truth. All lives matter and we have not yet reached the point in this country where we live into that truth. But God incarnate in people is causing a stir, a repositioning, offering the hope of a transformation in our culture so that one day the death of unarmed children and teens and adults will be a thing of the past, where the color of a person’s skin or the location of their home and the lingering effects of the oppressive nature of the past will no longer create real or perceived threats to us whether we are police or citizens or aliens of any gender or color.
The events in Ferguson and New York and here in Ohio where unarmed Blacks have been killed are very, very upsetting. There was a whole lot of loving missing out there on the street when Darren Wilson and Michael Brown met, and no love at all when Eric Garner was killed in New York and when John Crawford was shot dead in a WalMart and when a child, 12 year old Tamir Rice, was killed . . . killed on a playground in Cleveland. Those awful things happened because of the lack of love and justice and the failure to heed the incarnation of God calling us to be Christ’s hands and feet and voice. And yes, the same can be argued of the violent looters and violent protesters too. But it cannot be argued that a good deal of the community and the nation has not heard God’s call and has not been responding with concerns and non-violent efforts including protests and marches to bring about change. The vast majority of Americans do not want racial injustice to happen. Think about how remarkable that is.
Sadly less than a hundred years ago Blacks being killed by police officers would not have raised nationwide debate let alone a movement of people from all walks of life for weeks on end to address injustices to our brothers and sisters and children of color.
At one point the rule of law in Missouri and elsewhere in this nation was that “Black Lives Don’t Matter,” at least not as much as white lives–and make no mistake about it that was not God’s law, but humankind’s law. Now the rule of law is that “Black Lives Do Matter” and it matches God’s law, and the protestors, many of them clergy friends of mine, are holding placards with that law for everyone to see and remember and act into.
Racism and fear and a failure to remedy wrongs that began with slavery hundreds of years ago; continued with Jim Crow and its ongoing vestiges some of which still exist today, must end. History evidences that it will end. There is great hope in that. But we cannot sit back, we must follow Joseph and Jesus’ model keeping the ball of hope rolling.
We must reject cultural oppression, teaching and showing by example that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female . . .” That we are all one. The new patriarchy must be no patriarchy at all. The “new elite” must be that all are elite. No one is to be oppressed. All are to be equal.
That’s the WAY God intended and intends us to live and it IS coming about. The Bible Nativity stories shows what happens when ordinary Joes and Marys of the world oppose oppression. We can see great progress in history, which in our story today began with Jesus’ dad Joseph and continued on in Jesus perfectly and it really does go on and on and on in the hands and feet and voice of Christ in all of us ordinary Joes and Marys.
The unfolding of the affect of the Christmas story in our history should give each and every person in this room, in the world, great hope. One day there will be no more events like those that killed Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford and Tamir Rice if we keep making sure that we listen to and follow God-incarnate by becoming Christ’s hands and feet and voice. When we do that, we help God fulfill the promise first offered in the Christmas stories.
1. Here’s site with more on the tradition: http://saint-josephstatue.com/Where_to_bury_a_St_Joseph_statue.html
2. Numbers 5: 11-31 (gut retching poison causing an abortion is to be given to women suspected of adultery); Deuteronomy 22:20-21 (Non-virgin brides are to be stoned).
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