Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Father's Letter: Trust the Dream

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 18, 2016

Year A: The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

A Father’s Letter: Trust the Dream
            This past week I finally had the chance to read a book that got quite a bit of attention when it came out last year.
            It’s called Between the World and Me and it’s written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African-American journalist who writes for The Atlantic magazine.
            The short book is actually a long public letter written by Coates to his teenage son. And in this letter, Coates tells his son about his experience growing up black in Baltimore and then attending Howard University and finally becoming a father and a journalist.
            Throughout the book, Coates writes vividly and painfully about the vulnerability of black bodies: the historic vulnerability of black bodies when Europeans and Americans enslaved and tortured and attempted to dehumanize them, and the present-day vulnerability of black bodies as, over and over, politicians and the police and the courts make it quite clear that black lives really don’t matter as much as other lives, the vulnerability that I’m sure so many of you, so many of our parishioners, feel every day, as you walk or drive around, as you shop, as you apply for work and try to hold on to jobs, as you worry sick about children and grandchildren.
            Coates fears for his son’s safety in our gun-crazed and still quite racist country, fears that his son will join the tragically long list of black people, especially black men, killed in senseless violence on the street or killed when a seemingly routine traffic stop goes horribly wrong.
            So, it’s a painful book to read but it’s also moving and inspiring, because Coates obviously loves his son so much and wants him, despite the obvious vulnerability, to live a rich life filled with love and art and meaning and hope.
            Well, today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the final Advent Sunday of waiting and watching and preparation, the Sunday when we turn our attention from John the Baptist to those other main Advent characters, Mary and Joseph.
            Today we heard Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. Matthew is the evangelist who tells us the most about Joseph, although never once in this Gospel or in the others does Joseph say even a single word.
            Joseph is the silent man of Advent, the silent man of the Gospel.
            So, reading a book written by a father to his son got me wondering and imagining what silent Joseph would say to the teenage Jesus about his birth and the meaning of his life.
            What would the almost certainly illiterate Joseph write if he could to Jesus, this young man who, like every other Jew living under Roman occupation in the first century, was at least as vulnerable as a black person in twenty-first century America.
            What fears and hopes did Joseph have for this Jesus who he had raised as his own son, probably at no small cost to himself?
            And, what I imagined is that Joseph would tell Jesus to do what Joseph had done all those years ago.
            I imagined that Joseph would tell Jesus to trust God’s dream.
            Trust the dream.
            “My son,
            There was a time when I wondered if I could ever, would ever, accept you as my son. Even today, as we work side by side, it still sometimes saddens me when I look at you and see nothing of my family in your face.
            And yet, I do see myself in you. I see myself in the way you walk, the way you carry yourself, the care you take with our work, your desire for every chair and table we make to be absolutely perfect.
            I see myself in you the way you strive to treat everyone fairly. I see myself in you the way you feel sad and want to help all the blind beggars by the side of the road, and all the lepers on the outskirts of town.
             I see myself in you as you keep God’s Law and aim for righteousness.
            Your mother, who has long pondered in her heart all the amazing and mysterious events around your birth, has shared some of our story, your story, with you, but, not being much of a talker, I haven’t, at least not yet.
            But now, I am old and may not have much time to tell you our story.
            Our story began with your mother telling me the most unexpected and very hard to believe news: my young Mary was with child, a gift not from me, but, she said, a gift from God.
            I was angry. I was hurt. I was confused. I wanted to believe her but could not.
            Despite all of this, I surprised myself by still loving your mother. I did not want to disgrace her.
            My plan was to quietly end our betrothal, as quietly and privately as we can do anything in our small town where, as you know, there are few secrets.
            But then in a dream an angel appeared to me, telling me to not be afraid and to take Mary as my wife. The angel told me that you would play a most special role in history.
            So, my son, I faced a choice, the choice of my life.
            Do I trust the dream?
            Well, you know the choice I made.
            It was not an easy choice, as I think you also know.
            In our small town, the busybodies gossiped about the timing of your birth, mocking us, and, yes, I’ll admit, wounding my pride as you grew up and your face bore no likeness to mine.
            It was not an easy choice, but trusting God’s dream has made all the difference for me, for you, and, I believe, so many others.
            What I have learned is, trusting God’s dream makes it real.
            And now I look at you in the shop, so familiar and yet somehow always mysterious, and I know that the angel’s promise is about to be fulfilled.
            I see you gazing off into the distance, looking up to the sky. I see you praying so intensely and listening so carefully in the synagogue to the story of God and our people, and I know our small town Nazareth will not be able to hold you.
            I see you angered by the injustices all around us and I wonder what will happen when you begin to speak out, when you point your life to God whose kingdom is the exact opposite of the kingdom built by the Romans and Herod in their gilded palaces. God’s kingdom is the exact opposite of this earthly kingdom built on the backs of poor people like us, this brutal earthly kingdom soaked with our blood.
            I see you fired up with love for the poor and the abused, and I wonder what will happen when you face opposition from the rich and powerful. They hunted you even as an infant.
            What will happen when the people you thought were your friends get frightened and fail you, or even betray you? What will happen when it feels like even God has abandoned you?
            I will not live to see all of this, to see how you make your way, how you live out your destiny, in our dangerous and broken world.
            And, since you were a little boy you have often not taken my advice. I am at peace with this.
            But, the one thing I want you to remember, the great lesson of my life is: trust the dream.
            Trust God’s dream. Trust the dream.
            With love, from your father.”
            Now for us it’s the Fourth Sunday of Advent.
            Out in the world, in the malls and along the avenues, it’s been Christmas for a really long time, and even here in church today’s gospel lesson is the Christmas story and after the 10:00 service we’ll be greening the church and then we’re off and running.
            It will be wonderful and it will be magical and I hope you’re here for all of it.
            But, behind all the beautiful decorations and gorgeous music, is the story of poor people living in an occupied land ruled by brutal tyrants.
            It’s the story of seemingly simple and ordinary people who, despite their very real fears and vulnerabilities, made the faithful choice to trust God’s dream of a kingdom of love.
            And, look what happened.
            By trusting God’s dream, Mary, Joseph, and most especially Jesus, they made God’s dream real.
            May we also trust the dream.