December 22, 2019

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Matthew 2:18-25

I don’t think I was the child my father expected.  He grew up in Indiana where basketball reigns supreme.  He loved the game.  He even put up a hoop in our yard, probably looking forward to games of horse with his eldest.

About the same time, I chose to play the violin in fourth grade.

He was an accountant.  He worked with numbers, had an office on the 43rd floor of the Carew Tower in downtown Cincinnati, worked 9-5 hours, wore a suit and tie every day, with a picture of his traditional-looking family on his desk.

I ended up with a different family picture, and I was a church weirdo.  I loved acolyting.

It’s probably true that no child turns out to be exactly what a parent expected.

None of it was likely what Joseph expected. Matthew tells us a little about him.  He was righteous, the kind of person that did the right thing.  He knew, when he found out that the child wasn’t his, that the contract was broken.  Yet, at the same time, he was good enough to handle it in a way that lessened the shame on Mary.

The marriage had probably been arranged, anyway.  People didn’t marry for love in the first century world. They likely hardly knew one another.  While everyone knew it was possible that love could grow between husband and wife over time, in that deeply patriarchal culture it wasn’t the nature of things to imagine being the father of another’s child, a child that wasn’t yours, a child that didn’t carry your image.

Yet, like the Joseph long before him, he was a dreamer.  He trusted some instinct deep within to trust this strange angelic voice that said this child was from the Holy Spirit.

In the 2012 book “Far From the Tree,”[1] Andrew Solomon recounts his loving parents’ struggle to understand his own difference. He interviews other parents from families with children who are deaf, schizophrenic, prodigies; who were conceived in rape; who commit crimes; who have Downs Syndrome or dwarfism or autism; who are transgender. His work is no sugarcoated fantasy. Some families are broken by the experience. But others adapt to their children’s needs, as Solomon writes, “grateful for experiences they would have done anything to avoid.”

Lutheran Pastor Katie Hines-Shaw says, “It would help these parents–all of us, really–to have an angel’s explanation at the start. To reassure us that though a child might not be like us, or what we expected, they are from God. Every child is from God, but only Joseph receives this explicit divine promise, along with the angel’s other guarantee: that the child will save us. This surely helps Joseph accept Mary’s child into his life. But maybe that reassurance is not the point of the story.”[2]

Because the angel doesn’t tell Joseph everything.  That this child will grow up to reject the traditional ways families are constructed, telling people that those “who follow the ways of God” are my family, my mother, and my siblings.  Joseph and Mary don’t know that the most powerful will set out to silence him, to trivialize and mock what he says about God’s mercy and justice.  And, of course, they will torture and execute him for challenging the ways that wealth and power, even religious privilege, are reserved for only a few.

They don’t know what this child from God will grow into.  Which, of course, none of us do when we’re called to love a child, or a spouse, or a friend, or even an enemy.  We don’t know ahead of time what will be asked of us, or how they will change, or what they will become, or even what we will become.  We’re simply asked to trust that this cast of characters, with which we live, are from God.  And we’re called again and again to adapt to new and changing situations.

It makes me laugh that Jesus, at least according to the Luke story that we read on Tuesday, was born in a stable.  Because stability is never a promise that the gospel provides.  The angel doesn’t even really say, “Everything is going to be okay.”  They just say, “Don’t be afraid.  This child will save you from all the mistakes along the way.”

That angel still speaks in our dreams, or, at least, from the pages of ancient gospel story.  “This child–insert name of anyone in your life, or at your office or your school or across the world or on the other side of some crucial divide–is from God.  As you go, don’t be afraid.  These unpredictable relationships that you have bear potential to make you whole.

How can we not be afraid, especially given what we know about human nature AND what’s going on the world?

Because God is doing the same thing that we are. Adapting and changing to meet the moment, holding it all in mercy and grace.  This is the gospel of the incarnation, God becoming flesh, the infinite divine energy of the universe taking shape in a person.  God meets us exactly where we are.  God bends to be present with us, in the real suffering we face every day, in the very deep political crises that looms on the horizon, in the slow death of the planet, in the aches and pains of aging bodies, in the crises of unwed teenagers.

In baptism, we welcome each child, and we proclaim God’s saving love through the name of Jesus with absolutely no idea what they will do, or become, or say, or choose to do with their lives, or even what awful mistakes they will make.  And we announce that nothing can separate this beloved one from God’s love.

Nothing.

Later in life, my dad said, “I didn’t always know what to say to you.  You were always interested in things that I didn’t know about.  But I hope I was there for you.”

Turns out that all of us are the children of Joseph, children of God, even if we didn’t have a father like Joseph.  Without exception we turn out to be the Christ child, bearing in our bodies the light that can heal the world.

Emmanuel.  God is with us.

[1] Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree:  Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, Scribner; Reprint edition (October 1, 2013).

[2] Much of my thinking in this sermon can be traced to this wonderful article: “Good People and New Names” (Matthew 1:18–25) Every child is from God. Joseph gets an explicit divine promise by Katie Hines-Shah, December 16, 2016 https://preview.tinyurl.com/vgouye2.