Sunday, December 18, 2016
Advent 4 Year A - 8:00am
We hear a lot about Mary this time of year. Her pondering heart. Her willingness to be open to God’s creative imagination. And her incredibly brave resistance to her society’s convention and legalism. But in the Gospel retelling of the story of Jesus’ birth, his father, Joseph, only receives a small, supporting role. He lurks somewhere in the background without fanfare or flashing lights, and in fact, as small as his role is in scripture, we only hear this story from Matthew’s Gospel once every 3 years on the 4th Sunday of Advent. The part of the congregation that worships at 10am never gets to hear about Joseph b/c the 4th Sunday of Advent is traditionally when our children act out the story of Jesus’ birth. But, if they’re paying attention, they do get a sense of Joseph’s background role. He barely gets a nod in the pageant, and doesn’t even get a speaking part. If he’s lucky, the baby who stands in for Jesus will fuss a little bit, and Mary may pass him and his pacifier into Joseph’s arms.
But the Gospel writer, Matthew must have noticed Joseph’s absence in other Gospels of the day, so he gave Joseph some press, above the fold as it were, in his very first chapter. And this was not some passing, obligatory mention, but rather, a spotlight on Joseph’s compassion and righteousness. According to Matthew, Joseph was a trusting and faithful man.
Now as you know, or can imagine, Joseph had some real work to do – some serious internal wrestling – concerning Mary’s pregnancy. This was clearly NOT how things were supposed to go. Sure, they were engaged to be married, but their engagement said nothing about young love or infatuation with each other. It was a serious legal contract between two families, and at that time, the LAW was everything. So when Joseph discovered she was pregnant, he had every right – and for those close to him, it was probably their expectation – to have Mary and the baby she carried stoned to death.
But Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous” man, which meant he was in tune to the workings of God in his life. Day and night, this was so. And one night, in a dream, an astounding dream, the angel announced that God would be born to his wife – Emmanuel, God-with-us. God as a human, born of Mary. It was something totally outrageous and unimaginable. Absolutely incomprehensible! And yet, Joseph trusted, and allowed the unimaginable to happen through him.
Notice, though, that Joseph never speaks in this passage – or in any other passage in scripture. So we never hear Joseph’s voice. Strange, given the patriarchy at the time and throughout scripture. Usually it was the women who were unnamed and silenced. So, perhaps, Joseph’s silence is meant to grab our attention and speak to us. And rather than hearing him through his words, we “hear” him through his actions, through his faith, through his life. Joseph trusted in God, made himself a vessel of God’s imagination, and allowed the salvation of the world to be born through him.
So, none of this was “how it was supposed to be,” except for the fact that God came to us, God-with-us, just as we are. Joseph had no way of knowing what their lives would look like, but he allowed himself to be a vessel for God’s movement in the world.
Which makes me think that, if we are still living out the story of God-with-us, the story of being God’s people – and yes, that’s why we’re here – then it also means that an angel of God can appear to you and me too. God continues to come into this world, into our lives, but the trick is to be able to recognize and name those places where God is moving. Because God is still moving in outrageous, unimaginable, and incomprehensible ways.
Now, I could end this sermon here, and it would be nice enough. A nod to the Gospel truth. But this week, I realized and experienced this truth and received a gift of being able to see God’s movement in my life –and in the life of this parish – through someone, completely unexpected. Perhaps you’ll recall that it was three years ago, this Sunday, that those two temporary wooden ramps outside our building appeared for the very first time. They were built so that we could welcome Brian and his mother, Mary Ann into our Christmas worship. Brian, as many of you know, suffers from brain injury and quadriplegia due to an accident nearly 20 years ago. After his accident, he lived in a group home in Livingston, and his mother, desperate to find some spiritual nourishment for her son, ‘cold-called’ for help within our Episcopal Diocese of Newark . . . and through channels that must have been opened by God, she found me. So Brian and I met as complete strangers and immediately connected, and our visits became a regular part of my weeks. The visits expanded, when gracious parishioners Sarah and Sun began visiting with him weekly as well. And finally, the time came when Brian just wanted to be with us – the congregation of St. Paul’s – because he felt like it was HIS parish, his spiritual home. Made sense except for the fact that we had no way to get him in our building with his very heavy, elaborate wheelchair. That is until Brian Siegel built the ramps. When I told the other Brian that our building was now ready for him to worship with us, he was over the moon. The anticipation built. He found transportation here. Ushers were on standby to help him into the building. Greeters were ready to lovingly welcome Brian and his mom. But 10 o’clock came, we started worship, and there was no Brian. I was disappointed. But then, as the children’s pageant began, and we started to sing Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Brian and his mom arrived and wheeled into the congregation together with our pageant angels. It was an amazing sight and a beautiful moment.
From then on, Brian was the face and the encouragement for us to move forward with making our building accessible. He moved the elevator from being just one more thing on our ‘wish-list’ to being a reality. And even though Brian moved last summer to south jersey, he was never far from my mind as we began construction. Well, last week, I received a call from his mother, saying he was critically ill, and she asked me to come to Camden to see him in the ICU. On the way there, I vowed to share with him how he had changed our congregation, and he had shaped my ministry. I told him about the elevator’s arrival. I told him about our upcoming vacation bible camp for kids on the autism spectrum. I told him that he changed my life.
As I drove home that evening, consumed with sadness, I realized the Brian was the voice of God for me and this congregation. It is a story of God-with-us, Emmanuel, breaking into our lives in a very unexpected way. And thanks be to God, we listened to God’s invitation to do the unimaginable, turning this 1960s inaccessible building into a place that will very soon welcome all people. It’s a story that needs to be told – and told more often than once every 3 years – because God’s salvation is still being brought to our world, and that salvation is being born through us. Amen.