Monday, December 23, 2013

A Righteous Man

Yesterday, as the fourth candle of Advent was lit, I had a Sunday off and the opportunity to worship with my family at The Society of St. John the Evangelist, where I am a member of the Fellowship of St. John. Brother David Vryof preached an excellent sermon on the gospel for the day, Matthew 1:18-25.  The lectionary is organized on a three-year cycle to rotate the readings we hear over the course of 156 weeks. In Year A, the year we are in, the focus is on Matthew's Gospel and Matthew's Gospel tells the story of Jesus' birth from the father's perspective. And so we get a chance to reflect on Joseph, who as Brother David put it yesterday, is the guy who in most of our pageants has no lines and stands off to the side.

As a parish priest I tended to give away the fourth Sunday of Advent to my Associate Rectors as I prepared my Christmas Eve sermon. But I had a vague recollection of preaching once upon a time on Joseph and sure enough, back in 2004, I did. Below is an unedited version of that sermon, preached at St. Francis Church in Holden, which I think echoes some of what I heard preached yesterday at the monastery. 

Let Us Pray:
                        O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and
                        light rises up in the darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all
                        our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would
                        have us to do, that the Spirit of Wisdom may save us from all
                        false choices, and that in your light we may see light, and in
                        your straight path may not stumble, through Jesus Christ our
                        Lord. Amen.   (The Book of Common Prayer, pg. 832)

Spike Lee made a film a number of years ago called “Do the Right Thing.” But how do we know what is the right thing to do? Sometimes the ethical challenge we face is clear and what we therefore need is courage to act. But sometimes the way is not immediately clear to us. In those cases what we need is wisdom, and the gift of discernment. We need help figuring out, with God’s help, what is the right thing to do.

Joseph, we are told in today’s gospel reading, was, “was a righteous man.” In Greek the word is dikaios. It’s as often translated into English as “just” or as “justified” as it is “righteous”—and it is an extremely common word in the New Testament.  Here is a man who—facing a monumental and life-changing decision, “did the right thing.” And so this gospel text provides for us, perhaps, a kind of “case study.” To pay attention to how Joseph goes about figuring out what to do is, perhaps, to learn how we might become more “righteous” people in our own time.

What exactly does it mean to be a “just” or “righteous” person? Most people of faith would probably agree that it means doing our best to follow God’s commandments as they are revealed in the Scriptures.

But in the case of Joseph, there is a text in the Torah that is quite explicit. Mary and Joseph were engaged—although something gets lost in translation here, because in first-century Palestine to be “betrothed” was a legally binding arrangement that could only be dissolved by death or divorce. In other words, they are as good as married! And the sin of adultery, the Bible says, is punishable by death.  
If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones… (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)
Now we must be clear: in the time of Jesus people were not stoning adulterers. The rabbis had interpreted the text as belonging to another time. While adultery was still considered a serious sin, those who committed it were publicly humiliated and shamed rather than stoned. The practice, in other words, was to make public what had happened in private—so that in small towns from Jewish Palestine to Puritan New England a Scarlet Letter ‘A’ worked as well as stoning to ostracize the person from “polite” society and make them as good as dead.

Joseph still believes at this point in the story that he has been wrongfully betrayed by his fiance—that his trust has been violated. He must feel incredibly hurt, humiliated, and angry. One could certainly understand a desire for vengeance on his part but beyond that he can, as a religious man, even justify his desire to retaliate by quoting the Bible. One might argue that he not only has every “right” to expose Mary to public humiliation but that it’s his duty—that it’s a form of “tough love” if you will because wrong must always be named and punished.

But of course that isn’t what he decides to do…even before the dream. He discerns a higher calling than following the letter of the law—even a law mitigated by the rabbis. He is “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace” we are told. Instead, he is going to “dismiss her quietly.” And yet Matthew still declares him to be a “righteous” man—a “just” man.  

Is it possible to make a decision that is counter to the Law, and still be considered to be a just or righteous person? Matthew seems to be suggesting that it is. That doesn’t mean he dismisses the Law entirely. In fact—we must be clear here—more than any other of the four gospel writers Matthew writes as Jew, to Jews, with the utmost respect for the Torah. For Matthew, Jesus comes not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. But the Law points us toward God—and sometimes God’s ways are a mystery, and sometimes God’s ways call for the Law to be tempered with mercy if there is to be true justice. If we want to “do the right thing” we can’t just pick a text: we have to engage in prayer, and discernment, with a living, holy, loving God. We trust the Holy Spirit to be with us through that process and to guide us into all truth.

Joseph has grasped that while “love of God and love of neighbor” doesn’t negate  Deuteronomy 22, it does take precedence over it. We might even say that Joseph seems to point us toward the Baptismal Covenant, as he models “respect for the dignity of every human being” including even the woman he feels has betrayed him. His “righteousness” is tied to preserving her dignity.

Now ironically—and this is the great thing about this narrative—just as the whole thing seems “settled’ and the “decision” has been made (in verse nineteen), the whole story shifts in a dramatic fashion because an angel appears to Joseph in a dream. What he learns from the angel is huge: he has it all wrong. The angel tells him that this pregnancy is the work of the Holy Spirit and not of an adulterous affair. Mary has in fact not betrayed him at all. But this, too, is a part of life: we make ethical choices not as people who are omniscient, but as people who come to decisions based on the information we have, information we see at best through a glass darkly. Sometimes we are just plain wrong. The learning as I see it, though, is not whether we can somehow become “all knowing” as humans; we cannot…but can we admit to being wrong and move in a new direction when there is good reason to do so?

So I think Joseph is very much a man worthy of our attention in Advent and beyond. His “change of plans” is based on a dream! Again, he had choices. After waking up, Joseph might easily have told himself: “it was just a dream…and what a bizarre one at that. I can’t wait to see my therapist!” 

But that isn’t what he does. Joseph acts based on what his dream has revealed to him. He does the two things the angel tells him to do: he takes Mary as his wife, and he names the child Jesus. In so doing Joseph is claiming him as his own beloved child.

Sometimes people have a hard time connecting to the people of the Bible. Last weekend we considered Elizabeth and Zechariah and Mary—all of whom have direct encounters with the angel Gabriel. In a few days we’ll hear about those shepherds who hear a whole choir of angels and archangels singing. Even George Bailey gets Clarence! Now I know people who do have those kinds of experiences, and I suspect that some of us have entertained angels unaware. But most of us don’t have this kind of direct mystical experience with angels who appear to tell us exactly what to do. And so very often as people are trying to grow in our faith, or trying to discern what to do in a certain situation—we may not find people like Mary and Elizabeth and Zechariah as helpful because we don’t seem to share the insights they gained by their clear, mystical visions.

There may be more to say about that another time—another sermon for another time. But today, for this sermon, what I want to say is that Joseph is different. Joseph is in many ways a man of our own time. Joseph’s angelic encounter is only a dream. He doesn’t even get a real angel…only a dream of one. How lame is that?

How do we know when to trust our dreams and act on them? How do we discern what is a message from God, via the angels and what is really a temptation from the Evil One? I don’t have any easy answers for you on that. All I can tell you is that Joseph trusted his dream as more real than what his brain told him and more real than what the gossiping neighbors were saying and even as more real that what the rabbis taught that the Bible said. Maybe the dream confirmed what his heart was telling him and he wanted to live into that reality. We cannot know for sure, but what we do know is that he acted on faith— and that he was judged by Matthew to be a “righteous” man.

Joseph had options as he faced a life-changing decision—and it is important for us to remember that, for we, too, are free to make choices and decisions that either further God’s kingdom, or do not.
  • Joseph could have been a Biblical literalist. In spite of how the rabbis were interpreting Deuteronomy 22, he could have pushed for a “return to that old time religion.” He could have put a bumper sticker on his car that said: “Bring back stoning—God said, I believe it, that settles it;”
  • He could have listened to the conventional interpretations given by the rabbis of his day and exposed Mary to public disgrace. This decision had the advantage of being “in the mainstream”—the “conventional wisdom” of the day—even if it wasn’t the right thing to do;
  • He could have followed his own heart, and put her away quietly—without any fuss—which is what he had in fact decided to do before that dream. Such a decision could certainly be justified even in his own conscience;
  • Or—with nothing more than a dream to go on—Joseph can take Mary as his lawfully wedded wife, and he adopt her son and raise the child as his own. Adoptive parents know well the dangers and challenges (as well as the potential joys) of such a decision but we should be clear it goes against the grain, and comes with no small measure of risk to Joseph’s reputation and standing in the community. It is also a decision from which there will be no turning back.   

We all know what Joseph decided to do. And in hindsight we all can see why that choice was, of course, the right one. But what amazes me—what truly amazes me—is that Joseph was able to get it right the first time, without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight—and even before he ever held that babe wrapped in swaddling cloths in his arms.

No comments:

Post a Comment