Emulating Joseph

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.


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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Listen! Listen! Listen!

Matthew 17:1-9

Icon of the Transfiguration by Andrei Rublev (1405), now located in the Moscow Annunciation Cathedral

When Peter and James and John went up the mountain with Jesus that long-ago-but-memorable day, they literally had no idea what was about to happen.


They thought they were going to pray. After all, that’s what Jesus regularly did, and so for them, this was just another day following their teacher and Lord.

But, really: They had no idea what was in store.

Up they go, and boom! Jesus is transfigured right in front of them! His face shines like the sun, his clothes are dazzling white, and right there stand Moses and Elijah, chatting with Jesus!

You know that was a surprise. You know this was not on their agenda for the day. (Take a walk with Jesus? Check. Climb the mountain? Check. See Jesus transfigured? Huh?)

But the surprises didn’t stop there.

Because just as Peter in his great excitement was babbling away – “Lord, this is great! Let me make three little houses for you …” (perhaps to fix Jesus, Moses and Elijah in that moment?), just as he was reacting as only Peter could react, God spoke.

Now remember:

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God speaks to people all the time.

But in the New Testament, in the Gospels, God only speaks a few times (one of them being up on that mountain, when God interrupts Peter to proclaim Jesus as God’s son, the beloved, with whom God is most pleased).

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God commands all the time (often on a mountain – remember Moses and the 10 Commandments?)

But in the New Testament, God only commands once.[1]

Only one time – right here, right on the mountaintop – does God issue a commandment:

Akouete![2] Listen to him!

Like the commandments of old, this is not a suggestion. This is not God saying, “Hey, you know, when you’ve got a moment, I’d really like it if you’d pay attention … but only if you want to.”

This is not God throwing a hissy fit like a little kid who’s trying to win an argument on the playground and whining: Listen to me!

This is God in all of God’s glory – remember Jesus’ shining face and dazzling clothes? Remember Moses? Remember Elijah? This is God on high booming out (because you know God wasn’t namby-pamby here):

Akouete! Listen to him!

Not “Listen to me,” but “Listen to him.

If ever you have wondered whether Jesus was the real thing … if ever you wondered – and many have – whether perhaps we got it all wrong, that perhaps Jesus is more of a prophet and less the Son of God … now’s the time to pay attention.

Because right now, in this moment, on this mountaintop, God is making it crystal clear:

This is my son.

He is my beloved.

And you had better for darned tootin’ listen to him!

• • •

For the last eight years, the non-profit organization StoryCorps has been collecting the stories of Americans “of all backgrounds and beliefs.”[3] The stories are great; I listen to them on NPR’s Morning Edition every Friday. But to me, what’s more important than the stories themselves is the idea behind StoryCorps:

Listening, StoryCorps proclaims, is an act of love.

Listening … is … an act … of love.

That’s important for us to remember, because, you see, we are created in love. Remember, we are not necessary to God. God is necessary to us, but we are not necessary to God, because God was before we were, and God will be after we are, so we cannot possibly be necessary to God. So God must have wanted us. God must have desired us into being. God must have loved us into being. So we were created in love.

And this command, Akouete? Listen to him?

This command is our blueprint for how we are to live in the image of God in which we are created. It is our blueprint for how we are to love.

I have something to tell you ... will you listen?

If we want to be faithful servants of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, if we really want to live our lives as God would have us live them, we … need … to … listen … to … Jesus.

Listening is how we love.

When we listen, we are loving God.

When we listen, we are loving our neighbors as ourselves.

When we listen, we are loving our neighbors as Jesus loves us.

The great 20th-century theologian Paul Tillich once proclaimed that “The first duty of love is to listen.”[4] That duty comes from God’s direct command, not through prophets and apostles, but from God on high to the actual witnesses – Peter and James and John, who heard God speak to them, who heard God say to them, Akouete!

And now, today, on this last Sunday of Epiphany, with Lent beginning in just three days, God is speaking to us.

God is commanding us: Akouete! Listen to him!

And if we are wise, if we are caring, if we are faithful, we will listen.

For when we listen and are wise, we can see what is happening around us, and figure out what God wants us to do about it.

When we listen and are caring, we can build the relationships God is calling us to build, with God’s beloved children.

When we listen and are faithful, then … and only then … can we follow in Jesus’ footsteps.

What it all boils down to is this:

Listening is an act of love … so listen up!

We already know what Jesus wants us to do … because he’s already told us. But sometimes, we need to listen again, because sometimes, once is not enough.

So what is it that Jesus wants us to do?

Feed the hungry. Give water to the thirsty. Make the blind see … the deaf hear … the mute speak … the lame leap for joy.

When we listen to Jesus, what do we hear him saying to us?

Live lives of love.

Live lives of wild … radical … inexplicable  … never-ending … love.

This is our mission in life, my friends. This is why God created us: to go into the world and love … just as God loves us … wildly, radically, inexplicably, eternally.

But … we say … but … this is hard! How are we supposed to love like this? We don’t know what to do? (And yes, all of us say this, all the time … because loving like this really is hard and we really do need a set of directions, we really want to see a blueprint before we begin.)

The good news is, God already has told us what to do and how we are to do it. God has already given us the directions and shown us the blueprint.

Step one: We listen.

As a missionary – I served for five years overseas on your behalf (all Appointed Missionaries represent the entire Episcopal Church, not just our own dioceses, which means that I was your missionary) – I can tell you that listening is key to serving.

Listening is how we learn of other's needs, desires, joys and sorrows.

Wherever I have served, particularly as a missionary – in Kenya, Sudan, Haiti, Honduras, Appalachia or Pine Ridge, in homeless shelters and food pantries, with poor, inner city residents and rich suburbanites – I have learned that when I listen to the people of God, I hear the voice of God. I hear Jesus’ commandment to love.

And this call I hear?

It’s not just mine. It’s a call to all of us – because all of us are God’s missionaries in God’s very good creation.

How many of you are Episcopalians? Did you know that the legal name of our Church is the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of The Episcopal Church of the United States of America? That we made that change in 1821? And that we made that change in our name because we determined then that we were going to a Church that went out into the world and preached the Gospel, and if necessary (as St. Francis is reputed to have said) using words? Which means that all of us here are missionaries.

So all of us are sent forth into God’s world, not to speak, not to tell others what to do, not to be so all-fired certain that we are right and everyone else is … well, they’re just delusional!


God tells us: Akouete! Listen to him!

Listen to Jesus as he tells us: Love your enemy. Tend the sick. Visit the prisoners. Bring joy to the sorrowful. Give courage to the fearful.  Feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty and sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf and voice to the mute and dancing to the lame!

Jesus has told us … in no uncertain terms … what he wants us to do. Jesus wants us to love!

And the first act, the first duty of love is to listen.

Not just to the people we love, not just to the people we know. No! We need to listen to each and every one of God’s beloved children, because God doesn’t discriminate. In God’s very good creation, there are no us’s and them’s. In God’s very good creation, no one gets voted off the island!

Only when we take the time to listen to God’s beloved children, only then do we hear their joys and sorrows, their dreams and disappointments, and their hopes and their desperate desire to know that they are loved, that they are the beloved.

Make no mistake, my friends:

God is speaking to us. God is on this mountaintop with us, right here, right now, and God is telling us – in every way possible – that our call is to love.

So listen up!


A sermon preached on the Last Sunday of Epiphany, 6 March 2010, Year A, at St. Stephen’s, New Hartford, NY, and St. John’s, Whitesboro, NY.

[1] Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at Crossmarks Christian Resources, Matthew 17:1-9, Transfiguration of our Lord, Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A,  http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt17x1.htm.

[2] Ibid.

[4] Paul Tillich, German-born American Protestant theologian (1886-1965), in a story about Tillich, as quoted in O Magazine, February 2004.


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