“Joseph_ Husband of Mary”

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					“Joseph, Husband of Mary”
A Homily by Reverend Chris Buice delivered on December 24, 2006 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church

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f you have ever been the director of a Christmas pageant then you will know that one of the hardest roles to cast is Joseph. Finding a young boy who is dying to play Joseph is very hard to do. After all, there are so many other more interesting parts;

shepherds, wise men, angels, barnyard animals. There is many a boy who would rather play the role of a sheep or a goat or cow than play Joseph. This problem crosses denominational lines. This past Saturday, I was at the Fountain City Parade and there was float sponsored by a Baptist church that had a manger scene with its’ usual cast of thousands. When I saw Joseph I had to do a double take. Joseph was a girl! There are some avant-garde theater groups that to gender neutral casting but I am pretty sure that wasn’t the motivation of the Baptist church. More likely is the possibility that no boys could be found who wanted the role. Maybe the girl didn’t want to part either but got stuck with it. Who knows? Either way, I want to take some time to talk about Joseph to see if we can do something to help his image and possibly improve his ratings in the polls. It seems like every year after the Christmas Eve service Becky Till will come up to me and say something like, “I think Joseph gets a raw deal!” And my experience as a Christmas pageant director leads me to believe that Becky’s comment has some merit. Joseph rarely gets any meaningful lines in the yearly pageant. There are not many stories told about him in the Bible. So let’s take a look at what little there is about Joseph in the Bible and see what we can make of the man from this slim material. The first time I made an effort to read the Bible I started with the gospel of Matthew and the famous “begat” sequence (to the children here today I must advise you that this is not the best place to start for the first-time reader). From the Bible I learned that Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It was a rough start because these “begats” go on for some time. Obed begat Jesse and Jesse begat David, the famous king of Israel, and so on. And this long list ends with “Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus.” Now what you may not know is that the whole long sequence of “begats” has a purpose and that is to show that Jesus is a direct

“Joseph, Husband of Mary”
A Homily by Reverend Chris Buice

descendent of King David, and thus from the line from which the Messiah is to come. Jesus’ claim to be part of this lineage comes to us from Joseph’s side of the family. But wait!? You may already be seeing a problem here. According to orthodox theology Jesus was born of the virgin Mary. Joseph made no contribution to the project. Joseph is incidental, peripheral, and unimportant. As in the traditional Christmas pageant Joseph is just window dressing. Of course, if this were true then Jesus would not be a descendent of the house of King David from which the Messiah was supposed to come. Needless to say, this biblical material can create problems for orthodoxy and so it is handled in a time-honored tradition among theologians across the theological spectrum. It is largely ignored. Based on this passage in Matthew, and her own ideas of scientific naturalism, the Unitarian religious educator Sophia Fahs came to the conclusion that Joseph was Jesus’ real father and she wrote a book with the shockingly unorthodox title, Jesus: The Carpenter’s Son. Needless, to say her conclusion has not been unanimously accepted in all theological circles. However, this morning let’s take the biblical story at face value and explore the Joseph that comes to us through that time-honored tradition. If the story of Jesus’ birth were to unfold today in our time, the way tradition says it unfolded so many years ago, it would be the stuff of supermarket tabloids. The headlines at the grocery store check out might read, “Woman Pregnant with God’s Son: Husband Shocked!” or as Ted Jones suggested to me after the 9-o’clock service “God Stole My Girlfriend”. Joseph and Mary would have to don dark glasses and hats and go out at odd hours to avoid the paparazzi. It would be tabloid media feeding frenzy. Of course, back in the old days there were no paparazzi. But there was small town scandal. And that kind of scandal can be devastating to all involved. The gospel of Matthew tells us that Mary and Joseph were planning to get married when she found she was with child through the Holy Spirit. (If the story of the virgin birth is difficult for many people to believe today how much more difficult most it have been for Joseph to believe then.) Because Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace he made plans for the couple to quietly separate. In the story Joseph has

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“Joseph, Husband of Mary”
A Homily by Reverend Chris Buice

scruples. He is not insensitive to Mary’s welfare but, according to the cultural mores of his time, he is placed in a position where there are no easy choices. And then the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and tells him not to be afraid, to marry his bethrothed, for her child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. I think it is significant that the angel appears in a dream for I believe such things happen when we are wrestling with the better angels of our own nature. After the dream Joseph is faced with a choice. If conservative political activists were framing this choice today it might be framed as a choice of whether to “stay the course” or “cut and run.” Needless to say this way of framing problems is itself problematic and can lead to very bad decisions. However, with this caution in mind, we should note that Joseph keeps to his original plan. He does something that gives a much-needed balance to the sentiment expressed in a Tammy Wynette song. Joseph stands by his woman. For this reason, and others, I think Joseph deserves to be considered the patron saint of religious liberals. You will note that the Bible does not ascribe any supernatural powers to Joseph. He never parts the Red Sea. He never walks on water. The qualities that he emulates are human qualities and they are within the reach of all human beings. The philosopher Aldous Huxley once said that at the heart of all the great world religions there is the spiritual need to become less egotistical; the desire to reduce the power of the ego. If this desire is truly at the heart of all the world religions then I can think of no better role model than Joseph, for he sets his ego aside, in order to be in relationship with his betrothed and her soon to be born baby son. Joseph does more than stand by his woman. He stands by her child. Many people think it takes a man to conceive a child but the real test of manhood is raising a child. Joseph gives Jesus his name. Joseph saves his life by taking him out of harms way into exile in Egypt returning only when he is sure his family is safe. He is a protector and a provider. As Jesus grows older Joseph, the carpenter, teaches the young man a craft, a way to make a living in the world. He works side by side with him to create things, to build things together with his child.

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“Joseph, Husband of Mary”
A Homily by Reverend Chris Buice

Many Jewish theologians will tell you that the vast majority of Jesus’ teachings are not new. A huge percentage of his teachings are found within the Jewish tradition all that predate Jesus. So whom do you think taught Jesus his Judaism? In all probability it was Joseph who passed on the tradition to him. It may have been from Joseph’s own mouth that he first heard the commandment, “Love God and your neighbor as yourself.” It may have been Joseph that first read the words of Isaiah to him; words that Jesus would later use to describe his own ministry, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of the sight of the blind and to set the captives free.” I had a friend Sig Pickus, who died recently. He was a member of the Unitarian Universalist church I served in Spartanburg, SC. He was also a member of the local synagogue. He often spoke to community groups about Judaism and he would often begin his talks with the question, “Who is the most famous Jew in all history?” Some members of the audience would say Moses and others Albert Einstein or Anne Frank. Perhaps younger audiences might say Jerry Seinfeld. Sig would often surprise his audience with his own answer. He said, “The most famous Jew in all of history is Jesus.” So Joseph is the father of the most famous Jew in all of history. The odds of Jesus getting to that point without a really good Jewish father are slim. Becky Till is right. Joseph gets a bum rap. This is not to say that Mary did not also play a part. But any director of a Christmas pageant will tell you the role of Mary is not difficult to fill. When there is a casting call for Mary the line is usually a long one. And there are probably ten to fifteen congregations named after Mary for every one named after Joseph. So this morning our focus on Joseph is not meant to dishonor Mary but is an effort to bring some balance to the equation. And thus, perhaps, in the process we will, as a side benefit, make the job of casting all parts to the Christmas play a little easier next year. So Joseph does the work of the father but does not get the credit for being the real father. This must have been an experience full of little slights. In some of the biblical passages others refer to Jesus as Joshua ben Miriam, Jesus son of Mary. In Jewish

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“Joseph, Husband of Mary”
A Homily by Reverend Chris Buice

culture this is an insult to Joseph. It is a title given to an illegitimate child. But the slights are not always intentional or even mean-spirited and they do not always come from outsiders. In the gospel according to Luke there is the story of Joseph and Mary looking throughout Jerusalem for their lost son. The couple searches for three days only to find him in the Temple. Any parent who has ever lost a child knows that the parents had to be worried sick about him. However, once they find him the young Jesus seems unconcerned about their worries and waxes philosophical, “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” Of course, the Father here is God the Father, and the house is the Temple. The story is meant to have a larger spiritual significance for that reason. And yet who can deny that it sends a message that the legitimate concerns of the earthly father are dismissed in the name of a heavenly father who remains unseen. It is a reminder that Joseph must share the stage with another father. He has been cast in a subordinate role in the Christmas pageant and in the whole biblical story. It is no doubt a humbling experience; an experience that requires him to let go of his ego. Any stepparent or foster parent or adoptive parent or non-custodial parent will be familiar with this kind of humility. Of course, if Joseph were a minister’s wife no one would think twice about his predicament. I have a very close friend. She is one of the most creative and interesting Unitarian Universalist ministers I know. One day her husband left her, walked out the door and as he was leaving he said, “I do not want to be a minister’s wife.” The comment is very revealing because it shows how reluctant some men can be to take on roles that are so often assumed by many women; the supportive role; the helper role; the person behind the scenes; the person who is not center stage. Maybe that is why it is easier to get a girl to play Joseph than a guy. For those of us who want to think differently about life and gender issues Joseph can be a good role model. Remembering Joseph can remind us men that there are many ways to be a man. We do not have to have the spotlight. We do not always have to have external validation in order to be secure in our manhood; that one’s sense of security can come from deep within us.

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“Joseph, Husband of Mary”
A Homily by Reverend Chris Buice

Somewhere early in the biblical story Joseph disappears from the narrative completely. Many scholars speculate that Joseph died before Jesus reached adulthood and that explains his absence in the later parts of the story. And this often happens, the father dying before the mother, the husband dying before the wife. Perhaps, he was worn down from a life of hard work. We don’t really know. Joseph’s early death means we do not really know that much about him. Even so, as I said earlier, I believe that Joseph is an excellent candidate for the position of patron saint of religious liberals. He works no miracles. He does not turn water into wine or create loaves and fishes to feed the multitudes, but instead he tends to those things that lead to the transformation of this world in other ways. He was a carpenter who turned wood into furniture in order to feed his family. He was a parent who gave the kind of attention to his children that transforms a child into an adult, a boy into a man, a girl into a woman. He had no supernatural power. His real power is found in the fact that he was a decent human being. So may we all be.

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