Trusting the Love

Ancient Testimony - Matthew 1:18-25

December 19, 2010

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

A friend, let’s call her Mary, joined us for The Gay Agenda show at Joe’s Pub last Monday night.  After our meal and the show, when it was time to pay, in the hubbub of the Pub, she got out her credit card and Warren got out his credit card and we had one of those intimate nods that says let’s just split the bill.  Warren put down his American Express card and she put down hers—and she left with his, unknowingly, and he left with hers, in a similar ignorance.  A week of much plastic continued, with her spending on his and him spending on hers.  Book stores, boutiques, train tickets, the usual high use in the last week before the holiday gifting orgy.  What is amazing about these switched cards is how often each used the other’s card all week long—and no one noticed.  Clerk after clerk passed them through and by, until Mary called Warren on Thursday and said, Whoops.  They arranged a meeting to exchange cards, returned all the things they had bought on each other’s cards—because they certainly did not want to get the authorities involved—someone paid the other the difference, and that was that.  The authorities missed the big story; the people got it.

Something similar, but in the other direction, happened to Erin Reese when she baked a cake and took it from Manhattan to Jersey on various forms of public conveyance.  It wasn’t the cake that attracted the notice but the cake carrier, today displayed here as a form of warming nostalgia.  The cake carrier is the kind of thing that teaches you to trust the love.  Erin reports that no fewer than a dozen people remarked on the cake carrier as it took subways and buses in her hands.  “My grandmother used to have one just like that.”  “Oh, boy, what you got in there?  Duh!  A cake!  I’ll bet it is a lemon cake like my mother used to make…”  Etc.  Funny what people do notice and what they don’t.

Same thing happened, of course, to Joseph and Mary.  They have been so overdone that it is very hard to notice the story.  Some say they are the most deeply passive people of all time.  They don’t understand what is happening to them so they just pass on through it.  They just put one foot in front of the other, or so the passive theory goes.  Today I want to disagree with the passive or innocent interpretation.  Something much more active—in a passive way—was happening with them, especially Joseph.  This story is something we need to notice.  They were neither over-noticing, as with the cake carrier, nor under-noticing, as with the American Express card.  They were noticing a different authority, which made them look passive but actually activated their and our humanity.

Joseph is in an extraordinary position.  He is not the father of his own son.  It is important that we understand how bad this could be for him.  He had the legal right to sell Mary off into slavery.  Such practice was normal for pregnancies out of wedlock then.  He could have just abandoned her.  Plus, his entire cultural marching orders were to have a son.  How could she be displacing him as the father?  If Joseph has a bastard son, he not only loses his place in his culture as a father but he himself becomes unrighteous and sellable as a slave.  The father not only had a right to deny the mother, he could also deny the child.  It is no accident that the Matthew text starts with a long and nearly absurd genealogy, of which Joseph is meant to be the star.  With the genealogy Matthew is setting us up to see how extraordinary Joseph’s non-denial of Mary and the child actually are.  Instead of abandoning the child, he establishes a relationship and names the child.  He subverts the patriarchal line in the genealogy and adds a bastard to it.

Joseph is a non-father in a line of fathers of their people.  Many feminists are beginning to see Joseph as an actual change of patriarchy and transformation of the male, one who enters into solidarity with a woman and a child.  Joseph, Mary, and Jesus interrupt the entire power mechanism of fatherhood, and also of scapegoating.  Joseph’s motion is to enter into solidarity with the sinner, not to be a righteous father.  He foreshadows Jesus in the community with all the wrong people.  Please, Joseph might have said, don’t ask, don’t tell.  We need, still, a much larger interruption of the scapegoating, such as that against immigrants and their children who are apparently exempt from the American Dream.  We need to stop people who wear turbans from being assaulted on New York City streets.  And we need so much more than “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—we need a great interruption of scapegoating itself.

Joseph’s standing among his own people was given up.  He lost his privileges as a righteous man and became one who was unrighteous and now stood with the unrighteous people, the bastards of the world.  In Joseph’s world, the law defined you.  The law defines us, as well, in debts and credit cards.  What a perfect way to describe a society: Debts and Credits.  Joseph wanted to be a part of this so-called righteousness as much as anyone else.  When shame and blame, credit and debt join violent winning to dominate our lives, we spend our days seeking justification.   We want to be the people of paid up balances.

Jesus comes to change things.  He comes to stop the need for justification in the first place—and to teach us to trust the love that God has, even, and perhaps especially, for bastards.  God comes down and comes to ordinary people and tells them that they have a different kind of parentage.

Most of us live trying to establish and reestablish the righteousness of our group.  This is the fundamental way we stave off a sense of blame and shame, the blame and shame God disappears in Jesus.  We do violence in order to expel evil from our society.  We stone the Marys of the world—and we will stone the Josephs, too, if we have to.  Funny how everybody converts the law into a stone of some kind.  And magnificent how Jesus stopped the stoning of the woman in a story that continues his birth narrative.

Joseph was exiled.  Joseph was not passive with regard to exile.  He embraced it, with the help of an angelic authority.  Mary was not passive with regard to what she was carrying.  She embraced it, the way a cake carrier embraces a cake.  Today would be a good day to notice how much love God has given to the world.  Today would be a good day to trust it. 

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