Lessons from Joseph
Who has shaped your faith?
That is a question not just for us but for Joseph.
Who shaped Joseph’s faith? The Gospel of Matthew answers this question by spending the first seventeen verses of the book telling us that so-and-so begot so-and-so who begot so-and-so, covering twenty-eight generations all the way back to Abraham and Sarah. This genealogy lesson reminds us that Joseph did not grow up in a vacuum, but rather descended from a long life of people who wrestled with faith and experienced God’s love. Mary and Joseph in turn taught these values to Jesus. Jesus did not just show up and happen to be a loving justice-oriented person rather Jesus learned these values from those who had gone before him.
We pass on our faith from generation to generation.
Who has shaped your faith? Who has brought you to this moment in your spiritual journey, to this church, to this denomination, to this faith?
Perhaps it was a stranger who helped you, a Sunday School teacher who taught you, a feisty member of the community who care when nobody else did.
Who has shaped your faith?
I have been thinking about that question this week. I am Baptist because my great-grandmother raised my grandfather as a Baptist and when he moved with my grandmother to Washington DC, they joined Calvary Baptist church, a church on the edge of China town, where they raised my mother and her siblings. My mother recalls hearing the story growing up of the day when a Supreme Court justice joined the church on the same day as a Chinese laundry man and the pastor reminded the congregation: all are equal at the foot of the cross.
All are equal at the foot of the cross: a lesson passed down from one generation to another.
Who has shaped your faith?
I am Baptist because my mother moved to Rochester in her twenties, a city that is a bastion of Baptists. In the 1800s, Rochester Baptist & preacher Walter Rauschenbusch launched the Social Gospel movement which not only celebrate God’s love but sought to embody it concretely
here on earth, particularly in places of economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, racial tensions, slums and poor schools. Rauschenbusch believed faith and action went hand in hand. Rauschenbusch’s words inspired Baptist Martin Luther King Jr. who in turn preached about a dream that God put on his heart, a dream about God’s justice and God’s liberty, a dream that in turn has inspired each of us.
This is our genealogy or family history as Baptists. These are some of the people who have brought us to this spiritual moment at the First Baptist Church in Essex.
In Rochester, my mother began attending Lake Avenue Baptist Church, a church in the inner city, bringing along my father and us kids. At Lake Avenue, I learned about the Baptist heritage, which includes people like Helen Barrett Montgomery.
Do you know about Helen Barrett Montgomery?
Barrett Montgomery is our collective Baptist foremother. Lake Avenue licensed her to preach in 1891. She was the first woman to translate the Bible into Greek. She taught a Bible study at the church for 44 years and was on the local Board of Education before women could vote. She was the national president of the Baptist Women’s Foreign Mission Society and in 1921 she was elected the first women president of the American Baptist Churches USA. Not only was she the first women president of the Baptists, she was the first female president of any religious denomination in the United States.
Helen Barrett Montgomery has shaped our faith. If there was a Baptist list of our forebearers she would be in included, along with Roger Williams, Martin Luther King Jr. and Helen Henry[i].
In order to find out way through the Advent wilderness, we must first know where we come from, for we are part of a great pilgrimage of faith that has been going on for generations. Our inheritance comes in the form of stories and prophets, strangers and angels, Sunday school teachers and activists. My friends, who would you speak about if you were to tell a story about the cloud of witnesses that swirls around you?
Perhaps if Joseph was here, he would tell us the stories he heard growing, like the story about that shepherd boy, who was a shepherd when shepherds were despised. After all, shepherds did not rest on the Sabbath because their sheep required around the clock care and, after a certain amount of time away from society, they looked grungy and had a particular smell …
One day, God calls the prophet Samuel to visit this young shepherd’s family. God tells Samuel that God has picked out a king for the people of Israel and that Samuel will find this king at the young shepherd’s house. Samuel arrives and meets the shepherd’s siblings, all big, strong and beautiful. Surely, Samuel thinks, one of these striking men is king, but God says, now, I do not make judgments on outward appearances but rather on the heart. Is there anyone else? Samuel asks. Only our baby brother, a shepherd, the siblings reply. Bring him forth, Samuel says. The brothers go and fetch the shepherd, named David, who has a ruddy face and bright eyes.
This is the one, God says.
Those who society throws away God chooses for God’s very own.
A lesson passed on from one generation to another. A lesson that reminds Joseph to pay attention to each person because they are valuable.
These lessons, these experiences of God prepare Joseph for his own part of the story, a story that begins with Joseph eager to marry Mary. He is dreaming of their life together … imagining the way that they will be a family … build a life … Joseph admires Mary – She faithfully attends synagogue, is compassionate to the poor even though she herself does not have much to get by and dreams of a better day. Then one day, his fiancée Mary comes to him and says, “Joseph … I need to tell you something … I am pregnant.”[ii]
Joseph is speechless. This is not how he expected his story to go. At best, society would cast Mary out for being pregnant out of wedlock; at worst, cultural rules dictated she could be stoned. Heartbroken and afraid, Joseph wonders, “What will I do? What will happen to Mary?”
Joseph wrestles with what to do. He values Mary’s well-being. Perhaps he could end the relationship quietly? Not sure of the best option, Joseph decides to sleep on it one more night.
In that night, Joseph begins to dream. He dreams an angel appears to him and says:
“Joseph, heir to the House of David.” In other words, Joseph do you remember where you come from? Do you remember that you descend from a line of societal throwaways and prophetic voices that God claimed as God’s very own? Do you remember that you come from a people who spoke truth to power, defied unjust rules and journeyed out from the land of Pharaoh to the land of freedom? Do you remember that you are not alone and that you are part of a cloud of witnesses?
Then the angel says, “Do not be afraid.” Here Joseph is getting a clue that he is not just called to learn the love story of God’s people. He is called to participate in it.
“Do not be afraid.”
The angel tells him to wed Mary, to adopt the baby conceived by the Holy Spirit and to name the baby Salvation or “Jesus”, because Jesus will save people from their sins, their sins of turning their backs on one another.
Joseph weighs the options. If he marries Mary, he will take on the shame of the situation and society would look down on him. Yet, those who society throws away God choses as God’s very own. David taught him that. In the night time air, the vision of the angel turns Joseph into a dreamer whose imagination has been caught by God’s dream of flourishing, delight and well-being for all creation.
And so Joseph says: Yes. Yes, I will marry Mary even if it means giving up my reputation. Yes, I will name the baby Salvation because God’s way of liberation is greater than I can imagine. Yes, I will raise up Jesus because I know that this story is not yet done and that I am part of a great movement that is bring about God’s dream here on earth.
Joseph reminds us that, when the world is ending, God turns our face toward the direction that the light will come, as the world begins again. When the world is ending, God turns our faces toward the stories of our faith, of Joseph and David, Ruth and Helen Henry, Helen Barrett Montgomery and Martin Luther King, Jr. that we might remember that light always comes, no matter how dark the hour. When the world is ending, God turns our face toward the light that comes in the form of Emmanuel, God-with-us, Love made flesh.
God invites us to turn our face.
When we like Joseph find ourselves confined by heartbreak, God invites us to step out into the night air and gaze up at the boundless sky, seeing the infinite possibilities before us. Turn your face, trust your imagination, sleep on it one more night, until you too find yourself day dreaming and night dreaming, caught up by God’s vision of well-being, flourishing and delight.
God’s question comes to us, just like it came to Joseph: Now that you remember the story, will you participate? Will you join this great, beautiful movement that stretches from age to age to bring about God’s dream here on earth?
Will you invite others to turn their faces to the blessed light that comes?
[i] Helen Henry was a beloved member and Sunday School teacher of the First Baptist Church in Essex who has passed away. The First Baptist Church in Essex named their fellowship hall in her honor.
[ii] This paragraph is a loose paraphrase of the Reverend Doctor Rachel McGuire’s retelling of the Scriptural story in her sermon “Present Tense Christmas”, which was preached at Immanuel Baptist Church in Rochester, NY.