Joe’s Side of the Story 12-18-16

Our traditions make out Mary and often Joseph too to be especially righteous and blessed people. I want to suggest today that they were ordinary folk – extraordinarily blessed and ordinary Joes – like you and me. I’ll bet that’s what Joe would say anyway. See what you think as we listen for the word of God today.

 Matthew 1:18-25 This is how the birth of Jesus came about. When Jesus’ mother, Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her husband, an upright person unwilling to disgrace her, decided to divorce her quietly. This was Joseph’s intention when suddenly the angel of God appeared in a dream and said, “Joseph, heir to the House of David, don’t be afraid to wed Mary;  it is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived this child. She is to have a son, and you are to name him Jesus—‘Salvation’—because he will save the people from their sins.” All this happened to fulfill what God has said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and give birth And the child will be named Immanuel” –a name that means “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of God had directed, and they went ahead with the marriage. He did not have intercourse with her until she had given birth; she had a son, and they named him Jesus.

December 18, 2016

Joe’s Side of the Story

You see, by Matthew’s telling, Joseph’s role becomes central.   Momentarily, the whole miracle of Christmas rests on his shoulders.  He must decide if the drama of history will go forward.  Just as a Joseph in the first book of the Hebrew scriptures interprets dreams, so this Joseph in the first sentences of the Christian Testament, has to decide either to accept or reject the word of the angel in a dream.  He has to decide either to accept or reject the guidance of his heart.  He has to go the way of obvious reality or he has to believe the unbelievable, to live out the story of the ages, to accept that he is part of the drama of a key turning point in the history of the world.

Joseph was tempted, in his righteousness, in the purity of his religious conviction, to make a decision which would have been correct and ‘right,’ tempted to make a decision understood and supported by his peers and by the temple, tempted to divorce his betrothed quietly and let her and her child find their own way, tempted to make a decision that would have been absolutely wrong.  A decision to leave Mary to her own devices would have led to dead-end fights and impossible-to-heal hurt, but worst of all to the denial of unimaginable possibility.


Joe’s side of the story is the story of a guy trying to do the right thing when that right thing might make people laugh at him – “You listen to your dreams? What kind of man are you?” or worse, make people think he’s a little bit nuts – marrying someone who had betrayed him, doing something wrong in people’s eyes when people thought he was a pretty upstanding guy.

Of course we look back on him and think he was doing it all right – but at the time it was not so clear. I would like to tell you about another person today who is making some hard decisions, trying to do what’s right in some difficult circumstances. A friend of mine posted a note from him on Facebook this week. His name is Tobin Miller Shearer. He’s  friend of friends of mine. I read a book of his years ago, admiring his strong anti-racist work in our region. Tobin is now a professor in the Black History Department at the University of Montana of all places – a white guy in a very white state, teaching Black studies.

Recently he found out that he has been put on a “professor watchlist” by a white supremacist group supported by Two hundred professors are on the list – a quarter of them people of color and/or professors of Black studies. The promulgators of the list say it’s just a list to help students know what courses to take or not to take, but others fear the list is a precursor to a new kind of McCarthyism.

Tobin had a choice to try to keep this news quiet or to challenge it directly and try to discredit the people putting out the list. Like Joseph he took a third option. He put out this note on Facebook telling his story and inviting any of the people putting out the watch list to join him for a drink – on him. He let them know he wants to listen not convert them. He doesn’t think he’ll change his opinion either, and he certainly doesn’t want to be a martyr, but he has the integrity to want to talk directly with these people giving him grief.

Professor Shearer says his model for this action is a pastor from Mississippi by the name of Will Campbell. Rev. Campbell was also known for his civil rights activism who also used to drink whiskey with KKK leaders and listen to their stories. His commitment was clear, but his personal theology was – and excuse my language here, but this is the way he put it, “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyhow.” He tried to love the KKK bastards without ever forgetting that he was a bastard as well.

At the end of his life Rev. Campbell lived in the mountains of Tennessee where an ice storm socked in his neighborhood, a really bad storm. Few could get out to buy supplies. Campbell said, “My white, liberal neighbors who never use the n-word stayed at home and did nothing to help their black neighbors, but my white, conservative neighbors who sometimes use the n-word – they were the ones out delivering coal and milk to their black neighbors.” He added, “who, really, was more offensive.” Campbell’s path of integrity took him into the darkest woods of racism. He chose to travel there with a fifth of whiskey in his hand. The whiskey was for sharing. As a white liberal who sometimes stays in the house, Campbell’s assessment had a ring of truth to them for me.

The gospel of Matthew portrays Joseph as a righteous man, a person of integrity who may have had a sense of the complicated nature of humanness. His son Jesus, had a target on his back; he was on the watchlist before he was born. Joseph knew it from his dream and dreamed that Jesus would actually succeed in saving, in liberating his people.

The hit men, wise guys, who came looking for him decided not to betray him after they met Joseph and Mary and saw the child. They, along with the angel started to see bigger possibilities -the possibility of a world made whole, of God’s love reaching all people. They decided they wanted to be on his side.

At some time, at many times, the miracle of Christmas rests on our shoulders just as it did on Joseph’s.  Each one of us has a decision to make – a decision about how to live our lives with integrity and grit — We can decide to live within the confines of obvious reality, according to what is ‘righteous’ and ‘pure.’ Or we can live by the guidance of angels toward a new world and the creation of possibilities, trusting our gut.  The gift and the miracle of Christmas is that we too are offered that kind of choice – a choice to live in uncommon joy in touch with the Living God.  It’s not a simple decision.  It’s a heroic one that I know people here make day after day.

We have to be deeply grateful that God loves all of us imperfect bastards enough that we all may be visited by that better angel of our nature when we most need the help. This is God’s good news.

Responsive Hymn: 2099  Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine