Not Joseph’s Son

The Common Cuckoo is a migratory bird found throughout much of Europe and Asia. It is less known for its appearance than for its call, made famous in songs, carols and countless cuckoo clocks. The cuckoo is famous also for its distinctive reproductive ecology: it is a notorious “brood parasite’ – meaning that it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds.

A female cuckoo watches a nest until its rightful occupants are occupied elsewhere, and then flies down and lays her eggs. Most species of birds are too dim-witted to notice that this new egg is not theirs, and so they incubate the cuckoo’s egg along with their own. But cuckoo eggs are fast incubators; the young cuckoo typically hatches before its foster siblings, and its first action is to push their eggs out of the nest. The unsuspecting foster parents feed and raise the cuckoo’s chick as their own, and the biological parents are spared all that effort.

It is from the habits of the cuckoo that we get the Old English word cuckold, meaning a man whose wife has been unfaithful, and who – perhaps unwittingly – raises another man’s offspring as his own. It was, and is, a pejorative term. It was a favorite insult of Shakespeare’s, appearing in new fewer than fifteen of his plays.

Most of us have probably never hurled this particular insult at anyone, but in the past decade the insult has had a resurgence within the alt-right and white supremacist movements. Their blogs and tweets are full of references to cuckolds — or “cucks,” for short. In alt-right parlance, a “cuck” is any man who apologizes, compromises, hor in any way puts another’s interest ahead of his own. While there are numerous alt-right slurs for women and minorities, the most shameful insult they can hurl at a straight, white male, is to call him a “cuck.”

It is in this context, that I invite you to consider the story of Joseph.

Here we have a young man on the threshold of marriage, to a young woman named Mary. He is filled with expectation for the start of their life together. But before their wedding day, he discovers that Mary is pregnant — and not with his child.

A first-century Jewish betrothal was more binding than a modern-day engagement. A betrothed woman who had sex with another man was guilty of adultery, a crime that brought shame, not only upon her but upon her entire community, and especially upon her husband. According to the Torah, an adulterous woman was to be stoned to death, in order to purge the evil – the shame – from her people.  Joseph would have been within his rights to carry out such an honor killing.

And yet, Joseph pardons Mary. Not only that – he marries her, and raises her firstborn as his own.

So we must ask ourselves:

Is Joseph a saint, or just a cuck?

Matthew tells us that an angel came to Joseph in a dream. Not in a blinding flash of light, as Joseph was walking home from his carpenter’s shop. Not as a loud voice, booming from the clouds. In a dream.  This was an intimate, personal communication, seeping in through Joseph’s unconscious as he lay sleeping. This was his inner angel, the voice of God within. Upon awakening, Joseph still had a choice to make.  Would he believe this dream? Would he follow this angel within?

The angel tells Joseph: Do not be afraid, to take Mary as your wife.

Joseph’s dream affirms for him that his reluctance to put Mary to shame is not a sign of weakness, but of courage. It takes courage, to choose compassion. It takes courage, to risk ridicule and accept insult. It takes courage, to listen to the angel within, when you are the only one to hear it.

Do not be afraid. In a culture that shames forgiveness, tenderness demands fearlessness.

A friend of mine, a devoted father of twins, once wondered aloud to me why it is that there are so few nativity scenes in which Joseph is holding the baby. Joseph is so often depicted standing off to the side, reduced to an ineffectual bystander.

Yet, alone in the stable, far from home, who was there to help with the birth, besides Joseph?  Who was there to hold the baby, while Mary slept? Joseph was Mary’s midwife. The first hands to cradle Jesus, would have been Joseph’s.

And holding this newborn stranger, Joseph knows at last the truth of all that the angel told him: that this child is indeed a blessing, that he himself is blessed to be his parent – not by biology, but by love. And in that moment, Joseph becomes a saint indeed: the patron saint of male tenderness.

He is the patron saint of all men who love and care for children – including children who do not share their DNA. He is the patron saint of all men who understand that their honor depends on their own choices, not their ability to control others.He  is the patron saint of all men who choose forgiveness over vengeance, and second chances over judgment.

Joseph is the patron saint of Gentle Men, everywhere.

God rest you merry, gentle men. Let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas day – into the hands of his father, Joseph, who had the courage to listen to a dream, and love shamelessly.

(sermon by Liza B. Knapp for Belchertown United Church of Christ, December 18, 2016)

(photo: Joseph holding Jesus, from a Georgia church. CNS photo / Michael Alexander)

Prayer for the Unready

We have waited long,
and yet we are not ready.
For who can prepare for your coming?

Our houses untidy,
our promises unkept,
our potential unmet,
we are not ready
to meet our Maker.

Yet you, Jesus,
like any other baby,
will be neither hurried nor slowed,
but will be birthed
in the fullness of time.

Give us holy patience, God,
that we might be wholly ready
whenever our labor
begins.

 

Pathways of Peace

…to guide our feet in the pathways of peace. — Luke 1:68-79

I don’t know about you, but I am having trouble feeling peaceful this Advent.

Maybe some of you are having the same difficulty.

It isn’t just about the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations; I haven’t done much of that yet. It isn’t about the commercialism of the season; I can avoid most of that, if I steer clear of malls and stick to Netflix instead of television. I’m not even talking about the pervasive day-to-day stress of life in the hectic post-modern world. I can’t really escape that, but I’m pretty much used to that.

I am having trouble feeling peaceful this Advent because it seems like every few days the peace is shattered by some cry of violence and hatred. Over the past months those shouts have become more and more frequent until they have built to a steady roar that I can’t manage to ignore or dismiss. Each week, the litany of prayers gets longer: Paris, France… Beirut, Lebanon… Nola, Nigeria… Colorado Springs, Colorado… San Bernadino, California.

It’s getting to the point where I wonder, should I continue to post these events on our Facebook page and ask for prayer? Or are we getting as weary of prayer as we are of violence?

Welcome to Advent: the season when the world waits — hopefully, eagerly, and sometimes desperately — for the arrival of the Prince of Peace.

There is a paradox in our celebration of Advent, a sort of folding back of time, as we wait for Christ’s arrival – an event that happened almost two thousand years ago. How is it that we are still waiting? If the Prince of Peace came in Jesus – why is there so little peace in our world?

On the other hand, if we are still waiting, if Christ is coming still, then there is still hope. Hope that the miracle of Bethlehem may yet come to us as well, “to guide our feet in the pathways of peace.”

In my younger years I remember spending some time at a camp where the lawns had been freshly re-turfed, and it was drilled into our young heads that we could play on them or sit on them, but, we were told, “whatever you do, don’t make a path.” You see, if enough of us took the same route across the lawn from the dorm to the dining hall, eventually the grass would wear away, and a path would appear. So we instead had fun running across the lawn in crazy zig-zagging paths, shouting to one another “Don’t make a path! Don’t make a path!”

Here is my point: You make a path by walking it.

Jesus is called the Prince of Peace because he walked the pathway of peace – not a peaceful path, but a peaceable one. Jesus made the path, by walking it. And the more of us walk it with him, the broader it will be.

Welcome to Advent, the season of peace.

 

(excerpted from a sermon preached at Belchertown United Church of Christ on December 6, 2015)

(photo: stepping stones on the pathway to peace, created by members of Belchertown United Church of Christ.)

What child is this?

An Advent Reflection on Isaiah 11: 1-10

What do we dare hope for? It’s an interesting expression, isn’t it?  Daring to hope. But how else to describe this vision, of a peace beyond our wildest imagination?

We don’t know exactly when these verses were written; the book of Isaiah contains material that ranges over a century or so of ancient Jewish history. Possibly this passage comes from sometime in the eight century BC, when the neighboring kingdom of Assyria laid siege to Jerusalem. Possibly it comes from sometime in the seventh century BC, when the neighboring kingdom of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem. Isaiah’s people were not accustomed to justice, or peace. Yet in these verses, the prophet offers them a bold vision of hope, based in his faith that God was not finished yet.

Isaiah begins with an image of new growth from a felled tree, a shoot from the stump of Jesse — Jesse being the father of King David. This new king of Israel will usher in a reign of justice:

With righteousness he will judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.
He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

As if this wasn’t already more than his people would dare to hope, Isaiah’s language then explodes into an even more extravagant vision — a Peaceable Kingdom in which conflict and enmity are ended, even between predator and prey; a world in which children will be free from all peril:

The cow and the bear shall graze,
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

This, Isaiah tells us, is God’s plan for us. Nothing less than this.

Think about this for a moment, and ask yourself, which seems like a more achievable form of security: a world in which the lion shall eat straw like the ox, or a world from which lions have been eradicated?

Before pursuing my call to the ministry, I was an ecology professor, and I can tell you from a purely biological perspective, there’s no way a lion is going to eat straw. It’s not just a matter of instinct; it’s a matter of digestive enzymes and dental structure. It’s just not going to happen. On the other hand, we humans have come pretty close to successfully driving lions to extinction.

The fact is, that we do routinely fantasize about killing off predators in our midst, or at least fencing them out. But do we dare to imagine a world in which foes are not vanquished, but reconciled? Or is such a world as unimaginable to us as a lion eating hay?

Several Christmases ago, a well-meaning relative sent my then two-and-a-half year old daughter Phoebe a picture book as a gift. It was the story of Henny Penny. Now, for those of you who may need your memories refreshed, Henny Penny is the tale of a chicken who, having been struck on the head by an acorn, becomes convinced that the sky is falling. She gathers together her friends – Turkey Lurkey, Loosy Goosey, and the other barnyard fowl – and they all set off to warn the countryside. On the way, they meet Foxy Loxy. The fox tricks the birds into entering his den, whereupon he promptly gobbles them up.

This particular version of the story was accompanied by remarkable illustrations, collages of photographs in which the animals appeared both realistic and full of personality. So when we turned the page, and there was the image of the fox, gleefully devouring Henny Penny’s friends, my daughter burst into tears. Deep, grief-stricken tears.

You see, to Phoebe, it was not the lion eating hay that was unimaginable; it was the fox eating chickens.

As adults, we have become accustomed to the world as it is. We learn to be realistic in our expectations, and so we avoid the cruelty of disappointment, the grief of loss. We don’t get our hopes up. But then we come face to face with a child. And we remember what hope is like. We remember, not how the world is, but how it should be.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

Who is this child? Who is this child, so at home in this unfamiliar, longed-for world?

In some sense, this child is Phoebe — or any other child.  The child that ushers in this peaceable kingdom is every child. Because, when we come face to face with a child, any child, we remember what hope is like, and we remember who hope is for.

But this child also recalls to us one, particular child. From the earliest days of the church, Christians have seen in Isaiah’s prophecies a foreshadowing of the reign of Christ. When we read these scriptures, we see Jesus: not only in the ideal king, who will judge the poor with righteousness and the meek with equity, but also in this little child, leading the calf and the lion home together.

And it strikes me, what an odd thing it is, that we so often picture the founder of our faith as a child. As often as we see Christ on the cross, still we see him as the baby in the manger. It’s a fairly distinctive feature of our faith. How often does one speak of the baby Mohamed, or the Buddha Child? Yet Christ is for us, somehow, always a child.

Now, some might dismiss this as sentimentality, and it is undoubtedly easy to love a baby who hasn’t yet spoken to us of things we would rather not hear. But I think there is also something deeper going on here.

These verses are part of our worship at this time of year, because they capture the spirit of Advent – that time of year when we become children again, and remember what hope is like. For Advent is not just a season of remembrance; it is a season of anticipation. We sometimes tell our children that on Christmas we celebrate the birthday of Jesus, but this isn’t quite right. For it is not Christ’s birthday that we await during Advent. It is Christ’s birth. Christ was not just born in Palestine, two thousand years ago. Christ is about to be born for us, right now, right here. Christ is our hoped-for child, who teaches us to hope again.

God is about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?

A child is coming, to bring us hope.

 

(sermon preached at Belchertown United Church of Christ, 11.29.2015)

(photo: detail of The Peaceable Kingdom, painting by Edward Hicks)