Archive | December 2016

Joseph – the Reluctant Stepfather

Listen to Joseph’s side of the nativity story:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:18-21)

Here we are, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas Eve is just two days away and we are all waiting for the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child.

But waiting for what?

Some are waiting for travel and returning to families, for parties and merrymaking;

  • children wait wide-eyed for Santa and gifts,
  • while others delight in special music, plays and art displays.
  • Some are waiting for meals to be cooked and eaten, houses in disarray to be made right, order to return after chaos, and to be able to stop pretending all is perfect when it almost never is.

The most common answer to what we are waiting for is the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ Child, who we believe came as a prophet, teacher, example and God Incarnate – to show the world a better way to live.

But . . . what does that mean – for us today. . . in this complex world of 2016?

Today’s scriptures tell the Nativity story from another point of view: from the standpoint of Joseph, the father. We all remember the story of the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary and telling her she would bear the Son of God. Today’s scriptures however, points us to an aspect of our beloved Christmas story often glossed over – the fact that Joseph was NOT the father of Jesus.

He is described as a ‘righteous man’, a member of the synagogue and follower of Jewish law. But he went against all Jewish religious and cultural laws to stay with his young betrothed, to shield her from certain infamy and dishonor, as well as himself. To be, in fact, the stepfather of Jesus – – all of this because God spoke to him in a dream!

How many of you are stepfathers?

Imagine yourself in Joseph’s place; here he is betrothed to a lovely young maiden, probably making him the envy of Nazareth. And, all of a sudden, she is pregnant! Now, he knows he is NOT the father. In those times, when a couple was betrothed, the girl moved into the house of her espoused to learn from her future mother-in-law, making this situation even more disturbing.

So, it wasn’t as if she was living somewhere else and could have been carrying on with someone behind his back. Joseph intended to quietly dissolve the arrangement and send Mary back to her home.

Jewish law said that a man and woman were not supposed to have intimate relations until they were married. A righteous man like Joseph, would have honored that law. But he suddenly learns that his fiancé is ”with child” – and he doesn’t know it has come through the Holy Spirit. All he knows is that he has a horrible dilemma. If he marries Mary, others would assume that he disobeyed the Jewish laws.

It’s difficult for us to imagine the depth of Joseph’s shame at this point. In his culture, a fiancée’s unfaithfulness would imply Joseph’s inadequacy, bringing dishonor on him and his entire family. In fact, Jewish, Greek, and Roman law all demanded that a man divorce his wife or break off the engagement if she was unfaithful. Friends and relatives of Joseph would surely have mocked him and treated him with contempt.

According to Jewish Law, he would have been expected to publicly divorce Mary. He could have impounded her dowry—the total assets she brought into the marriage But Scripture tells us Joseph was a good man—a righteous man. He chose a more compassionate path:

Matthew 1:19 says that he

planned to dismiss her quietly

In other words, in front of two or three witnesses, he would quietly give her a certificate of divorce and minimize her public dishonor. Joseph could have chosen the righteous path, a path that would have allowed him to maintain his honor without humiliating Mary.

But God had other plans for him. He may not have been the biological father, but he was being charged with bringing up the Son of God. No pressure there!!!!

It is incredulous to us today! This ‘righteous man’ Joseph, however, risked all to do what he felt led to do – regardless of the consequences. And the result, we believe, is that Jesus of Nazareth grew up nurtured in a family, with brothers and sisters, in the synagogue, protected and loved by an adoring mother and stepfather – to fulfill his destiny on earth: to be in the truest sense the Son of God and the Perfect Man.

The Bible generally does not give us a very good picture of fathers. Look at Herod, who slaughtered all the newborn male children out of fear; or Herod Antipas, who promised his daughter Salome anything, including the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.

Joseph could have become one of those fathers. He had every right to be upset, after all, Mary was carrying another man’s child. But he didn’t; even though Joseph was a ‘righteous man’, he chose another path.

He ignored Jewish religious and cultural rules to do what was right, no matter what the consequences. He maintained his integrity under what could have been severe public ridicule. He became a model to young Jesus, of a living, protective father and was the best stepfather he could be, showing unconditional, patient love.

Joseph helped raise Jesus to fulfill his destiny on earth. He showed him the kind of love that Jesus and God show us. He risked common opinion to do what was right, no matter what the consequences. And he had NO idea of what was going to happen to his little boy. He was the best stepfather he could be. I have a friend who married late in life and had three stepchildren. He swears to this day that Joseph is the patron saint of all stepfathers.

Joseph represents the type of father on earth that God is in Heaven. Jesus teaches us that we are to look to God as our father, redefining the laws of the times. Joseph showed Jesus the kind of love that comes from God. He shows us the kind of love God has for all his people, particularly those who are the least. And he risks everything to make sure that his Son is safe. Joseph was not the earthly father of Jesus, but showed to us the sort of love that God wants us all to have for each other.

Do you possess the kind of Christ-like behavior, like Joseph, that allows you

  • “to do the right thing?”
  • to risk personal comfort and even your reputation to deal with a difficult and unacceptable situation?

Ask yourself:

  • When you see or hear about someone who has broken God’s or man’s laws, does your heart fill with compassion and concern or do you simply roll your eyes and gossip?
  • Do you move towards them, or do you move away?
  • Are you willing to risk the shame of personal disgrace because of your contact with this person?
  • Do others know that if they have a problem that goes against the norm of social behavior, that they could come to you and find acceptance and help?

By following God’s command to him in a dream, Joseph had to overcome his natural desire for revenge and judgment. He had to risk his reputation. He had to disregard the local customs and religious laws defining a good Jew, turning his back on his cultural class . . . to follow God’s will.

Yet, it is precisely here that we see the glory and greatness of Joseph. He was willing to trust God amid doubts and unanswered questions. He was willing to follow God’s will for today even though tomorrow was totally unclear. Joseph is, in many ways, the patron saint for all of us who must live by faith in difficult and uncertain times.

Because of Joseph’s example we are challenged and commanded to do the likewise.

In large measure because of the integrity and goodness of Joseph, you and I have a Savior, this child born more than 2000 years ago who led the world to a fuller understanding of what it is to be fully human and the Son of God.

Are we willing to do the same?

May we, like Joseph, risk all to show the love of God to all our fellow men this Christmas and always.

Let us pray:

Father, our hearts are full of the truth that our minds can’t grasp: the virgin Mary carried the Son of God in her womb! Yet the miracle in Mary is a reminder that we have been given new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. All praise to you, O God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I praise you in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Delivered at In The Garden Ministry, Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, Columbus, OH; 18 December 2016

‘Stir It Up’ Sunday

Now when John the Baptist was in prison heard about the activities of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and asked Him, “Are You the Expected One (the Messiah), or should we look for someone else who will be the promised One?” Jesus answered, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive [their] sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed by healing and the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed joyful, favored by God is he who does not take offense at Me accepting Me as the Messiah and trusting confidently in My message of salvation.” (Matthew 11:2-11)

The Season of Advent can be a very confusing time for some people:

  • on one hand, we all wait with wide-eyes for the birth of the Christ child
  • on the other, we are waiting for the second Coming of Jesus at the end of the world.

Indeed, a major part of the Christian faith is the belief that Jesus will return to earth and all believers shall be drawn to him and into eternal life. And in the liturgical year, Christ’s ‘Second Coming’ is celebrated during the Advent Season when we are usually more focused on the birth of Jesus.

Today we enter the third week of Advent – with it the anticipation of the Birth of Christ. In just a little over one week we will be sitting here celebrating Jesus’ birth that nativity story from so long ago. You would expect the readings to center on that blessed event in Bethlehem.

But today’s scripture is not foretelling the birth of Christ.

In today’s scripture, we find John the Baptist languishing away in prison. John was considered a fanatic and zealot in his own time, so, when Herod Antipas married his brother Phillip’s wife after divorcing his own, John had much to say, about it, far and wide. John, of course, would rail against this; it was his life’s business to prophesy and accuse! In an attempt to silence him, Herod had thrown him in prison. He has been there for over a year and must have felt abandoned and out of the mainstream. He heard rumors that the Jesus he had baptized and proclaimed to be the Messiah was traveling the countryside preaching and prophesying. The time of the Messiah must surely have come. His hopes high, John is sure that Jesus will ‘ride up on a white horse’ and rescue him from prison.

But what was actually happening? What do his messengers tell him about Jesus?

He hears that Jesus is busy performing miracles, preaching mercy and compassion and love. This is not what he expected of the Messiah!!!

Jesus was not proclaiming himself the Messiah King,

. . . not bringing about the destruction of Rome

. . . or overthrowing Herod’s rule.

Instead of preaching revolution and smiting evildoers he is proclaiming good news to the poor and destitute, the broken-hearted and downtrodden, the captives and oppressed. He was even saying people who believed in Him would be persecuted!

Even though they were cousins and had known each other since the womb, John was no longer sure that THIS Jesus was the Messiah he had foretold. He was certainly not doing what he expected Him to do.

So, John sent his disciples to speak with Jesus. After all, John had been prophesying that the Messiah would come with fiery judgment, pitchfork and axe in hand. But here was this man, preaching and teaching hope and love and healing, not fomenting revolution.

What was going on here?

Imagine you were John, foretelling the reign of the Messiah, only to find out that He was not the revolutionary you had predicted – or at least not in the sense John expected. Jesus was preaching and healing, not riling up the citizens to revolt. There was no message of revolt in his teachings and stories. He stressed compassion and inclusion of everyone in the Kingdom of God.

The Jews had been waiting a long time for the appearance of the Messiah with the expectation that he would save them from Roman oppression and restore them to their rightful kingdom. This Jesus was certainly not acting like that Messiah! Disappointed, John wanted to know if Jesus was that man . . . or if there was another Messiah coming.

He must have thought:

  • Had he been wrong about Jesus?
  • Was he looking like a fool?

Some folks may have thought so then, but today we know better . . . that even John didn’t fully realize what the Kingdom of God would be, and indeed sometimes, we forget, too.

The scripture goes on to say that Jesus affirmed John and his prophecy. Jesus reminded John that he was ‘the voice crying in the wilderness’, in camel skins, eating locust and honey. He reminded him that his calling was as a preparer – he had called many to the wilderness to be baptized. He was more than a prophet; he was a forerunner, reformer, a preparer of the way.

Those times for which John was baptizing people and foretelling had truly come to pass. Just as Elijah foretold of Jesus’ birth, John was foretelling of Jesus’ life on earth. John’s purpose was to prepare the people for the arrival of Jesus among them.

  • That prophesy was fulfilled in the person of Jesus: a Jesus that was a man of words and compassionate actions, not one of authority and military might.
  • A man of the spirit, not of the sword

Jesus sends the disciples back to John, telling them to tell him what they had seen. Tell him about:

  • Healing the sick
  • Casting out demons
  • Raising the dead
  • Forgiving sins
  • Preaching to the poor.

We can only hope that when the disciples returned and told John what they had seen, he remembered the prophecies of Isaiah that we heard about in your reading today about the marvels that would take place in the desert. And he remembered his faith in that man he baptized so long ago.

But wouldn’t it have been natural for John to have been a little upset that he was sitting in prison suffering for an itinerant preacher who gave mercy to anyone who asked (even Romans) and would lead his followers into a brutal death? Possibly John sent his disciples to Jesus to try and prod him into the action that John had expected from the Messiah.

This Jesus – this Messiah – was not what John the Baptist expected. He was not coming to destroy Rome; they could and did do that without his help. He was here to establish the Kingdom of God.

A Kingdom of God where everyone is welcome, all are loved, and mercy and compassion flow like waters.

This is Rose Sunday, or to the Anglican community ‘Stir It Up’ Sunday. In the Collect, we ask God to ‘stir up his power’ in us. And we got our blood flowing when we sang one of my favorite hymns: Sound the Trumpets!! Spread the Message!!!

We need to be prodded and poked to strive for a sinless life. We need to be pushed forward to who is coming. We need to be reminded in this Advent Season that our King and Savior comes not only as a human child, but promises to return again to triumph over death and make that possible for us also. That our Lord comes twice to bring eternal life and peace and in an everlasting Kingdom.

This Kingdom of God is what we are waiting for as we continue this Advent Season. As we anticipate the birth of that little baby in Bethlehem, let us keep our eyes fixed on the real prize:

The Kingdom of God!!

Delivered at In The Garden Ministry, Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, Columbus, OH; 11 December 2016

Preparing Ourselves for the ‘Way of the Lord’

Matthew 3:1-12

Today we begin the second week of Advent – a time of preparation as we celebrate the birth of Jesus and anticipation of His Second Coming. The message of John the Baptizer, who prepared Judea for the first coming of Jesus, tells us how to prepare for the coming of Jesus in this Holy Season. In the Gospel reading we just heard:

‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” (Matthew 3:3)

We are instructed by the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Malachi, and in all the Gospels to ‘prepare the way of the Lord’.

But, what is ‘the way of the lord’?

And how do we best prepare for Him?

The ‘way of the Lord’ is the way of God, . . . the way of Jesus, the ways and precepts taught us by Jesus in His work And His life. Proverbs 10:29 tell us that ‘the way of the Lord’ is a refuge for those who are following the teachings of Jesus, as well as a place of safety for those are marginalized, rejected by society or lost.

In the season of Advent, the start of the church year, we reset our clocks to the beginning: the birth of Jesus. We relearn what it is like to be Jews, waiting for the Messiah. We do this together, as a church, because we are not capable of doing it fully or well alone. And we need the body of the church in this journey, to help us realign our thinking and actions to be more Christ-like, if only for the Christmas season. We need to come together so that we help each other remember the birth of the ‘Prince of Peace’ and all that birth means, to help us clearly follow His teaching and to spread then to all the world, especially in this time of uncertainty and discord.

And it has to start with each of us – you cannot change the minds and hearts of others until you change your own mind and heart. As Thomas Merton said in New Seeds of Contemplation:

Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.

“Hate” seems a rather strong word here, unless we apply to ourselves the old chestnut, “Love the sinner. Hate the sin.” That’s never as easy as it sounds. To conform oneself more fully to Christ, there is much to be unlearned, disowned. To approach Isaiah’s vision of a peaceable kingdom, each of us must change.

The coarse and ugly national bickering that is in the news so much today, is causing dissention and alienation; I see and hear it in the faces and voices of those who ask me, as a cleric, what they are to do. I’ve heard many expressions of fear, disillusionment, and anger. Some people fear that the world as they know it is disappearing before their very eyes and they don’t know what to do about it or if America will ever be the country they love and the world admires. They are angry at those they see as the cause; it is reprehensible to have a young woman threatened on a COTA bus because she wore a hijab. It is disheartening when crowds yell to ‘deport them’ to groups of people who they think are taking their jobs – even though they would not do those jobs. And most of us thought we had moved past African Americans being called the “N” word and told to go back to Africa or picking cotton.

We have to admit that that system truly is rigged — both economically and politically. There is great disparity between the majority of the nation and the upper economic levels; more Americans live near or below the poverty line and a strong middle class is disappearing. Parents realize, that for the first time in American history their children may not do better than they did. Everyone is angry! This economic anger has been encouraged to become racial anger, anger at anyone not like one’s self, and is being promoted by some sections of society.

The distrust now between people of color and white people — including Christians of color and white Christians — is greater than it has been since the civil right movement and legislation of the 1960s. A majority of white voters on every level of class, gender, and even religion, have now been given permission to say and do whatever negative or vengeful things they like, having no repercussions.

The dream of America has gone from ‘justice for all’ to admiration for money, sex, and power – which many discontented people are attracted to (after all, who wouldn’t follow a leader promising to make you rich and great). There is overt discrimination against those ‘who are not like us’; talks of registries and deportations make everyone feel uneasy, whether they are a member of the ‘chosen’ group or not. And some rightfully worry that we, as the most powerful nation in the world, are losing our place and showing the rest of the world an ugly side, rather than being a symbol of freedom and democracy. Surely, we see our society beginning to mirror the Roman culture of power, greed and division into which Jesus was born.

What do those of us who claim to follow Christ do in this time and place of radical change and nagging uncertainty? We must remember that Isaiah told us of the coming of one who will deliver true justice and uncommon peace.

So, what can we do to ‘prepare the way of the lord’ right now?

In this environment, how do we begin the process of preparing for the birth of Jesus, heeding the admonition of Matthew 3:3.

Prepare a way for the Holy One. Clear a path of God to come by.

Prepare the way! Let us start with our own hearts and minds. Let us remove the injustices and inequities that block God’s pathway. Lift up those sunk by despair. Find your own prejudice, fears and angers and face up to them. Then act in small, steady ways yourself. Knock down the haughty hills of pride and prejudice. Prepare the way for God, who comes bringing justice and liberation through the Messiah. Above all, give love and forgiveness and joy to all you meet from family to friends to the stranger.

A theologian summed up our preparations in this way:

The prophet cries to prepare a way for the Promised One, and we panic.

We write shopping lists, and head to the store for the treasures we must surely present.

We survey with dread the mess of a heart we must clean up for the holy visitor.

But after all the cleansing the house is still just our little place.

The Gift is not to be found in any market.

We fear our unpreparedness, our failure to adequately repent, still rushing, still dusting this and hiding that.

In the din the Spirit speaks softly; we are not asked to clean the house for the weekend to impress the Unexpected Guest.

We are asked to prepare a room and set a place at the table for the rest of our lives for the Beloved, the child who already dwells within.

That’s the good news: Jesus’ way must come again through you and me. Each day can be a glorious day of Jesus’ coming if we live it in our hearts and lives. Prepare your heart, prepare your world, prepare the way of the Lord.  Prepare, for Jesus is coming.

How will we prepare for the way of the lord? How can we poor faltering mortals prepare the way of the lord? Because the Holy Spirit will help you. You need only ask.

I leave you with these beautiful thoughts from Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude:

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 that 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 that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Go ye, and prepare the way of the Lord.



Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 4 December 2016