Wednesday, January 25, 2017

“On Not Burying Joseph” - January 1, 2017

Text: Matthew 1:18-25

Many years ago - in fact, it was back in the last millennium – I served as a Campus Minister at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington.  I worked with a very interesting and diverse student group there.  One of the students was named Beth.  She was Roman Catholic, and she lived near Peoria.  Her dad had accepted a new job in a different part of the state, and she was telling me about moving.  She said that they were trying to sell the house, so they had buried Joseph in the back yard.

I wasn’t quite sure what she was talking about.  Beth told me that the tradition was that if you bury a statue of Joseph upside-down in your yard, facing the house, the house will sell.  And then when you move, you give Joseph a place of prominence in the new house.  She added that she didn’t think anybody believed that this actually makes the house sell, but it couldn’t hurt.

As it turns out, there are statues made just for such a purpose.  You don’t bury a nice ceramic statue of Joseph; you go to your local Catholic supply house and get a plastic statue of Joseph to use.  The reason that you bury Joseph upside-down is that he will then work harder to get out of the ground - and thus harder to sell your house.  You can also order a kit off the internet that includes a plastic statue and an appropriate prayer to use when you bury Joseph.  They are available from DiscountCatholicProducts.com for $4.99 plus shipping.  This is for real.

Beth’s family sold their home without too much difficulty, if I remember correctly, though it would be hard to say whether Joseph was responsible or not.

I have never tried this myself, but if a person were having trouble selling their home this would be worth a shot.  But it occurs to me that while we may not actually put statues of Joseph in the ground, there is a sense in which Joseph does get buried.  When it comes to the Christmas season, Joseph can get buried in the story.  And so I’d like for us to think a bit about Joseph this morning.

Think about the carols we sing – we sing about angels and shepherds and prophets and stars and wise men and Bethlehem and bells.  And we sing about Mary – ”What child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping”…  “Round yon virgin mother and child”… “the child, the son of Mary”…  “to show God’s love aright, she bore to men a savior”…

While many of our carols include Mary quite prominently, you can look in our blue hymnal and there is exactly one mention of Joseph.  It comes in the fourth verse of “Angels We Have Heard on High”: “Mary, Joseph lend your aid, with us sing the savior’s birth.”  If all we knew about Christmas came from our hymnal, Joseph would simply be some guy who along with Mary helps us sing Christmas carols.

This morning, we have turned to a lesser known carol that appears in our black hymnal, “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine,” just so we could sing something about Joseph.  But even there, the carol is sung from the viewpoint of Mary, who actually has a more prominent role in the carol.

Poor Joseph.  He gets shorter shrift than the oxen and donkeys, and far less attention than the shepherds or angels or wise men.  From our music, even Good King Wenceslas seems to be as big a player in the Christmas story as Joseph.

But while our carols seem to be largely unaware of his existence, the Bible does not entirely forget Joseph.  Our scripture today includes the story of Jesus’ birth as told by Matthew, who reports on Jesus’ birth from the perspective of Joseph.

While Joseph was engaged to Mary, she becomes pregnant.  It is a crisis for Joseph.  What should he do?  Customs were such that at this point, the marriage could only be called off through a divorce.  A public divorce would have been humiliating for Mary, but it would clear Joseph’s name.  The other option was a quiet, private divorce that might spare Mary the pain and humiliation.

Joseph is described as a righteous man, and his story really gives a new definition of what it is to be righteous.  Does righteousness mean following the law blamelessly, to a T?  Observing the proper regulations, participating in the right rituals in the right way?  Or does it mean something more than that?  Does righteousness involve mercy and compassion and grace?

The word “righteous” can have a negative connotation, and that may be because we all know examples of folks who are self-righteous - those who observe the proper religious mores and want everyone to know about it.  Jesus reserved his harshest criticism for the Pharisees and Saducees, for religious folks who were smug and self-congratulatory about it.  We have lots of examples of self-righteousness.  We have fewer examples of actual righteousness, because true righteousness, if this description of Joseph is to be believed, involves humility.  A truly righteous person doesn’t blow their own horn or seek after attention and adulation. 

Joseph was caught between loving the law and loving Mary.  Being a righteous man, he chose to divorce her quietly.  But after much agonizing, finally God intervenes.  In a dream, God tells Joseph that he is to take Mary as his wife, that the child is from the Spirit, and that he should name the child Jesus, because he would save the people from their sins.

This is not the sort of dream a person has just every day.  Joseph wakes up in a cold sweat.  Believing what God had told him in a dream was not easy.  Doing what God asked was definitely not easy.

This would not seem to be the best way to begin a marriage.  But Joseph believes, and he acts.  Not only this once, but again and again.  Joseph followed God even when it was difficult.  He believes the word given him in a dream and takes Mary as his wife.  People stared.  People talked.  Social invitations dried up.  It was very awkward, and how could they explain to anybody else that this was God’s child? 

And then, after his son was born, Joseph is told in a dream to flee to Egypt so that the child would not be killed.  Can you imagine what this was like?  The baby Jesus is a refugee, fleeing violence.  We live in a time of terror, a time of fear, but we might all do well to remember that the baby Jesus was a refugee who with his family fled his own country to escape violence.

Joseph again does as God instructs and takes his family to Egypt.  After a time, he again is told in a dream to return from Egypt but to settle in Nazareth instead of Bethlehem.  And he does.  Joseph is faithful and Joseph trusts God, again and again.

We all enjoy warm, beautiful, uplifting family holiday traditions, but that first Christmas was filled with worry and anxiety and hardship.

Eugene Peterson tells of the Christmas when he was 8 years old.  His mother, whom he describes as “an intense woman capable of fierce convictions,” was reading from the prophet Jeremiah when she came upon these words:
Thus says the Lord: Learn not the ways of the nations…for the customs of the people are false.  A tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an ax by the hands of a craftsman.  Men deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.
That’s really in the Bible, Jeremiah 10:2-4.  And there was no doubt to Eugene Peterson’s mother that the prophet Jeremiah was talking about the false practices of American Christmases.

Peterson’s father would get out the ax a couple of weeks before Christmas.  He was a butcher and did not tolerate dull tools.  He sharpened the ax, then the family piled into the Model A pickup.  They drove about ten miles to just the right spot in the Swan Range of the Rocky Mountains.  Eugene got to pick the tree, and then his father swung the ax.  “A tree from the forest is cut down,” said the prophet.

His father would square the base of the trunk so that it would be easy to mount when they got home.  He would work deftly with the ax.  “Worked with an ax by the hands of a craftsman,” the prophet said.

When they got home, his father would take packing boxes from the butcher shop and cut them into 18-inch supports, which he would nail to the tree trunk.  “They fasten it with hammer and nails so it cannot move,” wrote Jeremiah.

Finally, lights and ornaments and tinsel were draped around the tree.  “Men deck it with silver and gold…the customs of the people are false.”

And so, that Christmas when he was 8 years old, there was no Christmas tree.  Eugene Peterson was embarrassed, humiliated in the way only 8-year olds can be humiliated.  His friends always visited each other’s homes to see their Christmas tree and what kind of decorations they had.  That year, he just made excuses about why friends couldn’t come over--his sister had a contagious disease, his mom was really mad and wouldn’t let him have any friends over.  The worst part was the fact that to him, it was so obvious – in the front window, where there always stood a tree, there was nothing.  It was there for anybody to not see, advertised to the whole world that there was something seriously wrong with this family.

On Christmas Day they always had a real Norwegian Christmas.  Lutefisk, lefsa, all the foods from the old country, and lots of talk.  Peterson’s favorite uncle was the biggest talker and the best storyteller.  He posed as an atheist, mostly to bother Peterson’s mother.  He was also the only one ever to use profanity in the house.  That Christmas, he had a field day.  “Evelyn, how the hell are we going to have a Norwegian Christmas without a tree?”  But Eugene’s mother had just the response: “Brother, we are not celebrating a Norwegian Christmas this year; we are celebrating a Christian Christmas.”  Then she got out Jeremiah and read it to him, and he was astonished.  For a little while, he was quiet.

The next year, the family had a Christmas tree again.  No explanation was ever offered.  Looking back on that experience, Peterson wrote:
The feelings I had that Christmas when I was eight years old may have been the most authentically Christmas feelings I have ever had, or will have: the experience of humiliation, of being misunderstood, of being an outsider.  Mary was pregnant out of wedlock.  Joseph was an apparent cuckold.  Jesus was born in poverty… the people in the story were aware, deeply aware, that the event they were living was counter to the culture and issued from the Spirit’s power… 

So, Mother, thank you.  Thank you for providing me with a taste of the humiliation that comes from pursuing a passionate conviction in Christ.  Thank you for introducing into my spirit a seed of discontent with all cultural displays of religion.  Thank you for being relaxed in grace and reckless enough to make a mistake…  Thank you for the courage to give me Jesus without tinsel, embarrassing as it was.

Thank you for taking away the Christmas tree when I was 8 years old.  And thank you for giving it back the next year.  (Stories For The Christian Year, Macmillan, 1992, pp. 9-17)
This is not an encouragement to do away with our Christmas trees, or or seasonal celebrations.  But looking more closely at Joseph helps us see how sparkly and sanitized and smooth and easy Christmas has become.

The scandal of Christmas is the scandal of incarnation – God became human flesh.  And how did this come about?  God came as a baby, born to unwed parents.  This birth was the subject of rumors.  Jesus was born in poverty, in an insignificant little country.  Born in a barn with all the accompanying sights and smells, the only visitors lowly shepherds.  Shortly after he was born, this child became a refugee.

Through it all Joseph was there, strong, quiet, faithful.  Joseph’s legacy is not in what he says.  In the birth stories, we have Mary’s song, but Joseph does not utter a word.  In the whole Bible, Joseph does not speak a single word – and yet he speaks volumes by what he does.

Faithfulness isn’t supposed to be easy.  If it were, it wouldn’t mean anything.  The Incarnation wasn’t easy.  If it were, it wouldn’t mean anything.

It’s not easy to focus on giving in a culture of acquisition.  It’s not easy to celebrate the Prince of Peace in a world of violence.  It’s not easy to hold out for real hope and real joy in a world satisfied with cheap, temporary substitutes.

It’s not easy, but we have examples.  Examples like Joseph.  Strong, faithful, willing to follow God even when it wasn’t easy.  Not glitzy or flashy, content to not be the center of attention, willing to put himself on the line, willing to stand against the powers that surrounded him.  Joseph was a righteous person who showed us that true righteousness is filled with love and mercy and humility and being willing to listen.  True righteousness is seen in the way we value others.

Today is the first day of a New Year.  For a lot of us, this is a time for making resolutions, a time for thinking about how we might want to make changes in the year ahead.  We could do a lot worse than resolving to be more like Joseph.  Amen.

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