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The Feast of St. Joseph

Today in our service, we are gathered to honor St. Joseph, the earthly father of our Lord, about whom we know so very little.

Joseph has always gotten something of a short shrift in the Gospels. He’s not mentioned often – 18 times total, more than half indirectly; he never gets to speak … and then he disappears.

But there are some things we do know about him:

•We know he was of the right lineage – Luke says he was of the House of David and a son of Heli, Matthew places him squarely in the lineage from Abraham to David to Jesus.

•We know he built things, that he was a carpenter – Matthew and Mark tell us that, at times obliquely.

•We know he lived in Nazareth – Matthew and Luke say he raised Jesus there, John says he came from there, a reference apparently made so that the disciple Nathaniel can disparage that mountaintop village.

•We know Joseph was a righteous man – Matthew’s Gospel stresses that, both directly: Joseph was a “righteous man,” and indirectly, through the stories Matthew tells us.

•And we know that when God spoke to him through God’s angel, Joseph was obedient. Three times, the angel delivered God’s instructions: Once when Joseph learned that Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant, and not by him; once when the angel told him to flee to Egypt, because Herod was on a murderous bend; and finally when the angel told Joseph it was safe to return to his homeland, that Herod was dead and the child entrusted to Joseph was safe. Three times, Joseph listened. Three times, Joseph obeyed.

So although we might not know much of Joseph, and although we never get to hear Joseph’s story (although the legends about him are legion – really, you could spend hours on the Internet reading things about Joseph, all of which are speculation), there are many similarities in our lives to his:

•Like Joseph, we, too, are of the right lineage, because we have been baptized into the Body of Christ, and thus are heirs of Christ’s eternal kingdom.

•Like Joseph, we, too, are called to build — to build up the Kingdom of God in God’s very good creation.

•Like Joseph, we, too, are called to be righteous people, to live in right relationship with God, to delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways, not for our own glory, but for the glory of God who loved us into being.

•And like Joseph, we, too, hear God speaking to us, giving us specific instructions that God asks us to obey.

(Now, about that Nazareth piece? Not so much in the way of similarities … not unless you are from one of the many places in the world called Nazareth, which not many of us are, I suspect …)

But setting that minor detail aside, what we end up honor and indeed celebrating this day is this:

God has chosen usGod … has chosen … us … to carry out God’s dreams and God’s desires in God’s very good creation.

God is speaking to us … through all of God’s various messengers … and asking us to listen.

God is entrusting to us, God’s beloved children, the love and care of all of God’s beloved children, our brothers and sisters in Christ, who are related to us not by the blood of their birth but by the waters of their baptism.

Take note, please, that the requests that God made of Joseph?

The request to keep Mary, even though she was pregnant and not by him?

The request to protect the newborn child, by fleeing to Egypt?

The request to return to the land of Israel, so that the Scriptures could be fulfilled?

All of these requests were hard ones. They were difficult.

But they were not impossible.

Refusing to set aside Mary even though the Law-with-a-capital-L said he should do so, to save his honor and punish her for her iniquity … that was difficult. If Joseph knew she was pregnant, you can be sure that others knew as well. His honor was on the line. The Law-with-a-capital-L was at stake.

But Joseph listened to God, not to man, and did the right, the honorable, the loving thing.

Hard, but not impossible.

We are called to do the same: to do the right, the honorable, the loving thing.

Fleeing to Egypt to avoid Herod’s troops? Who wants to leave your homeland, to be a stranger in a strange land, where you know you will be despised and treated poorly?

But Joseph went anyway, in order to protect his wife and the child entrusted to him.

Hard, but not impossible.

We are called to do as Joseph did: To go to the place that God will show us and stay there as long as God needs us there.

Returning home so that the Scriptures could be fulfilled?

I suspect this one was not as hard, that after two years in a strange land, Joseph was more than ready to go home, so this one was probably not as hard, probably did not seem as impossible.

But regardless of the difficulty, Joseph obeyed. He took his family to Nazareth, which decades later would be derided by the disciple Nathaniel, apparently because it wasn’t such a great place to live after all, and certainly never had been mentioned as blessed or as the place from which the Messiah would come.

And in this case, we, too, are called to emulate Joseph, to once again pick up our lives and go again to the place that God sends us, not necessarily to Nazareth but certainly to the place God needs us to be so that the Scriptures can be fulfilled.

In honoring Joseph this day, my friends, we are making a commitment – a commitment to live lives of obedience and righteousness, a commitment to listen to God.

Because God is speaking to us. God is telling us what to do: to live lives of wild, radical, inexplicable, inexhaustible love.

We can debate how to do this until the cows come home, go out and come home again, but in the end, that’s what it all boils down to: Loving.

Our call this day is to be more like Joseph, who heard and obeyed and worried not about how famous he would be, about what he might get in return for his faithfulness, and less like those who argue, who debate, who endlessly question what to do and why and how.

I know Joseph gets short shrift in the Scriptures. He doesn’t get to say anything. He only is asked to listen, and then to act.

But his actions speak louder than his words.

My prayer for all of us this day is that we will become more and more like Joseph, that we will listen more and speak less, and then act upon the instructions God has given us, trusting that God indeed knows what God is doing.

Amen.

A sermon preached at the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia MDG Day 2011, 19 March 2011, on the Feast of St. Joseph, at St. John’s, Waynesboro, Va.

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God is depending on us

Luke 18:1-8

There are times when our Lord Jesus Christ is trying to teach us something and to do so, he tells us a parable – and then he pretty much leaves us to figure out what the parable means in all its aspects, and we often end up … confused.

This morning is one of those times.

The parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge is one most of us have heard before. Jesus tells his disciples to pray always

The Widow and the Unjust Judge

and not to lose heart, and then illustrates that command with a parable that at first blush seems to back up his instructions.

But then we take a deeper look at it, and we think, “Wait a minute.”

Are we being told that God doesn’t answer our prayers unless we storm the gates of heaven, that God pays no attention to the first time, the second time, the third, the fourth, the fifth time we pray?

Are we being told that God is like this unjust judge, who only gave in to the widow because he didn’t want a black eye (that’s the literal translation from the Greek of “wear me out”)? That God only answers our prayers in order to avoid being publicly embarrassed (as if that were even possible)?

At first blush, those do seem to be the points of the parable.

Thankfully, the parable is about neither of those points.

We do not need to storm the gates of heaven repeatedly, hoping that eventually, God will pay attention. (God hears us the first time we pray.) And we do not need to worry about whether God is just or unjust. (We know God is just, because if God were not just, God would not be God.)

This parable, my friends, is about the kingdom of God on earth. It is about God’s will being done. It is about God’s justice reigning in this world.

Only by turning this parable over and focusing on the widow and what she does in the face of great injustice do we figure that out.

You see, in the days when our Lord Jesus Christ walked the earth, widows had nothing. They had no rights – no right to speak in public, no right to property, no right to testify in a court of law. Everything their husbands owned went to the husbands’ male relatives. If those relatives didn’t like the widow, or were greedy and wanted everything for themselves, they could throw the widow out on the street, and there was little the widow could do about it. Because widows had no rights. They had no one to speak for them. No one to stand up for them. No social safety net. No women’s center. No pro bono lawyers – no one.

The widow in this story? It’s obvious that she was all alone. There was no one was standing up for her. She wasn’t getting any justice from her husband’s family … that’s why she was going to the judge repeatedly. No one was taking her side – that’s why she argued before the judge alone. But even when that fool of a judge – and he was a fool, because he wasn’t even smart enough to fear God and he had no respect for anyone in the community – even when he refused repeatedly to hear her case and give her the justice that God demands, the widow refused to quit.

She knew her rights, this widow, the rights that came directly from God. She knew that from the beginning and to the end of time, God was on her side. Throughout the Torah, the Law of Moses, God places special emphasis on caring for widows, orphans and strangers.[1] Eleven times in Deuteronomy alone, God commands his people: Take care of the widows, the orphans and the strangers.  So this widow knew: God was on her side. And no foolish judge was going to stop her from getting what God said was hers.

And therein, my friends, lies the real lesson of this parable:

Do not quit.

Even when the odds are against us, this parable teaches us that we are not to stop working for God’s kingdom, for God’s justice, for God’s love, for God’s hope.

Even when the kingdom seems out of reach, when there seems to be no justice in sight, or love to embrace, or hope to cling to, Jesus tells us to keep trying, to keep pushing. Because one day – one day – when enough people focus on God’s kingdom – and not their own; on God’s justice – and not society’s; on God’s inexplicable, eternal, wild, radical love – and not humanity’s limited, short-sighted, mean-spirited imitation of the same; when people embrace God’s incredible hope – and reject humanity’s hopelessness – when all that happens, God’s justice will roll down like waters and righteousness will flow like an ever-flowing stream.

No matter how hard it seems, Jesus is telling us, no matter how hopeless it seems … do not quit.

So why does Jesus tell us this in the context of a command to pray always?

Because in Jesus’ scheme of life, prayer is more than simply asking for something. Prayer is about doing something. It’s about doing those things for which we pray!

The Statue of Reconciliation, by Josefina de Vasconcellos. It sits amid the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed by German air forces during WWII. A replica of this statue was donated by the people of Coventry to the peace garden of Hiroshima.

It is not enough to simply ask God for peace in this world. If we want peace, Jesus says, we’re going to have to work for it. We don’t have peace in this world because there are far too many people who reject it. Those of us who want it, who pray for it, Jesus says, are going to have to work for it.

It is not enough to simply ask to God to watch over those in need this day. If we want people to have enough – not everything, but enough – we are the ones who are going to have to give them enough. This day!

Jesus tells us this parable so that we can understand: We have to actively work for that for which we pray, even when it seems hopeless. Because in God’s scheme of life, there is always hope. There is always justice. There is always love.

I know this. I have witnessed this.

For four years I served as your missionary in Sudan, a war-torn nation where more than 3 million people have died in the last 40-some-odd years of war, and another 5 million people have lost their homes. At one point in Sudan, someone was dying – either in civil war or as a result of civil war – every 6 seconds.

Every day, the people pray for peace. They’ve been praying for peace for decades. But they don’t simply ask God for peace and then sit around passively waiting for it. They work for it! Like the widow in today’s Gospel, they refuse to quit. The odds are against them, the world is pretty much ignoring them, their enemies are salivating over the chance to annihilate them. But they won’t quit working for peace.

Right now – facing yet another civil war that is threatening the lives of nearly 10 million southerners in that divided land – they are working for that peace they so desperately desire. This very day, the Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of Sudan is in this country, seeking the help of the U.S. government and the United Nations, so that they don’t face yet another genocide come January, when South Sudan will vote on whether to become an independent nation. Every day, our brothers and sisters in Christ in Sudan, who are related to us not by the blood of their birth but by the waters of their baptism, not only pray for peace. They work for it.

And this is our mission, too.

This is the mission of the Church:

To actively work for that for which we pray. Even when the world tells us it’s never going to happen. Even when the world conspires to stop us.

Our mission is to never give up.

Whenever we see an injustice, whenever we are encounter hatred, whenever we feel hope slipping away, Jesus says to us: do not quit. Do not give up.

We are supposed to be like the widow in today’s Gospel: Always striving for God’s kingdom, for God’s justice, for God’s love, for God’s hope.

God is depending on us.

Amen.

A sermon preached on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24, Year C, 17 October 2010,  at St. Anne’s Parish, Scottsville, Va.



[1] Exodus 22:22; Deut. 10:18, 14:29, 16:11, 16:14, 24:17, 24:19-21, 26:12-13, 27:19.

 

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