Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Good Man

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 22, 2013

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

A Good Man
            This happens every year, but I can’t believe we’ve already reached the Fourth Sunday of Advent.
            It seems like just the other day I was standing up here talking about our beautiful blue Advent hangings, pointing out the symbolism of the Alpha and the Omega.
            And it seems like just the other day that we started talking about the main characters of Advent: there’s the charismatic and demanding prophet, John the Baptist. And there’s Mary, the young girl, probably just 12 years old, who at great personal risk and sacrifice says, “yes” to God. Mary says “yes” and carries God into the world in the most intimate way imaginable.
            But there is another important Advent character, someone who I recently saw referred to as the “Forgotten Man of Advent.”
            And that forgotten man is Joseph, the character who takes center stage in today’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew.
            The gospel describes Joseph as “a righteous man.”
            And based on Joseph’s actions, it’s clear that Joseph is a good man.
            Thinking about Joseph the good man I was reminded of the title of a short story by the writer Flannery O’Connor:
            “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
            Not to get too down on my gender, but over the years I’ve heard enough women express exactly those sentiments.
            “A good man is hard to find.”
            Recently I was talking to a woman who has several teenage daughters. She was telling me that she didn’t mind so much when teenage boys looked at her daughters with, let’s say, um, interest. But, she said, it drives her absolutely crazy when adult men leer at her girls – something that she said happens all too often.
            “A good man is hard to find.”
            And that recent conversation reminded me of another conversation from a long time ago.
            Back in the early 1990’s I taught in an all-girls Catholic high school in Newark. Looking back on it, many of those girls had a whole lot more wisdom and maturity than I had back in those days.
            One day in class – I have no idea now what exactly we were talking about – one of the girls said to me, “Mr. Murphy, you don’t understand. There aren’t that many good boys for us.”
            That girl seemed so sad and resigned when she said it. And the other girls all nodded in agreement. It’s a little moment that, obviously, that made a big impression on me. I’ve never forgotten it.
            “A good man is hard to find.”
            I suspect that the situation wasn’t so different back in the First Century. Then as now probably a lot of men were not so interested in keeping their commitments. I’m sure that a lot of men were looking for a woman to be a servant and to be a baby-maker. And probably a lot of men didn’t exactly respect and honor, through word and deed, the women to whom they were married.
            But, then as now, there were some good men.
            And, it turns out that, in Joseph, both God and Mary find a good man.
            While Luke tells the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth through the eyes of Mary, Matthew tells this earthshaking story from the point of view of Joseph.
            What do we know about this good man?
            We know that he’s engaged, or betrothed, to Mary.
            Now, yes, today engagements are a big deal – often there’s the ring and the engagement party and the wedding preparations and all the rest. But, although it can be upsetting and disappointing, it’s not very difficult to break an engagement. Happens all the time and life goes on.
            But, in First Century Judaism, if you were engaged, like Joseph and Mary, you were as good as married. The two families would have worked out the match. The engagement could only be broken for a really big reason, like, for example, infidelity.
            According to Deuteronomy, a woman in what appeared to be Mary’s situation, was to be returned to her father’s house and would be stoned to death for the shame she had brought upon her family.
            So, when Mary “is found to be with child,” no one would have blamed Joseph for being furious and feeling humiliated. An ordinary man would have simply obeyed the law and sentenced Mary to a horrific and deadly fate.
            Yet, we’re told, Joseph is a “righteous man.” So, even before his dream Joseph was “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace.” So, Joseph “planned to dismiss her quietly.”
            God and Mary have found a good man.
            But, Joseph is better than good.
            In the Old Testament, God often communicates with people by using messengers – angels – and through dreams. In Joseph’s case, we’re told, God uses both methods of communication. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him the over the top – who’s ever going to believe this? – news about Mary’s child.
            And what does Joseph do?
            Most of us would have shaken off the dream as ridiculous.
            Maybe the most open-minded of us would have taken the angel’s message seriously but it would have been too hard to swallow our pride, too painful to endure the ridicule of neighbors and family, just too challenging to treat this child as our own.
            Yet, we’re told, Joseph did as the angel commanded.
            And when the child is born, it’s Joseph who names him – signifying that he is the legal father.
            And he names him Jesus, which means God saves.
            In Joseph, God and Mary find a good man.
            There is a tradition that Joseph died while Jesus was still relatively young – that Joseph didn’t live long enough to see Jesus take up his ministry and mission – didn’t live long enough to see Jesus rejected and killed – didn’t live long enough to see Jesus rise again.
            But, there’s no doubt that Joseph shaped Jesus the man, whose life is marked by the greatest righteousness and the most extraordinary mercy – mercy even to those who, according to the Law, should have been stoned for their behavior.
            So, what about us? Men, especially, but what about all of us?
            What can we learn from Joseph’s example?
            Well, Joseph teaches us, no matter what, to take our commitments absolutely seriously.
            Joseph teaches us not to judge but to always show mercy.
            Joseph teaches us to be open to God who is speaking to us in all sorts of different ways – certainly through the people in our lives, maybe through our dreams and, who knows, maybe through an angel or two.
            Finally, Joseph teaches us to take risks, to risk something big, for God.           
            In Joseph, God and Mary found a good man.
            But, a good man – a good person - is still hard to find.
            So, how about us?