Forsaking a Cautious Faith

December 22, 2013

Clay Nelson

Advent 4     Matthew 1:18-25

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Lynette and I discovered early on that we couldn’t travel around Europe without seeing a lot of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Frescoes, paintings, and statues of her image were everywhere, except on billboards. Then there were countless cathedrals, churches and chapels named in her honour. But poor Joseph was rarely to be found. Of course, this is true in the Christmas story as well. He barely gets mentioned in Luke and Matthew, and then only in a small supporting role. He is just talked about. Just as a billboard a few years ago noted, for him, God is a hard act to follow. Today’s reading makes clear just how hard.


In our story today he is betrothed, which at the time had all the responsibilities of marriage, without the fun of intimacy. Behind the scenes of our story I imagine Mary and Joseph are at the stage of picking out china patterns. Mary wants to know if he will wear a tie and cumber bun that matches the bridesmaid’s dress at the wedding. Like grooms everywhere he has figured out that his role is mostly to nod in agreement. The Rabbi and the organist are lined up. The bachelor party is surreptitiously being planned. Everything is going according to the wedding consultant’s checklist, when Mary, green with morning sickness, shares the unthinkable. His life crumbles: his trust betrayed, his future undone; his gut in knots. He isn’t responsible for Mary’s unplanned, unforgivable, indefensible, inexcusable condition. His dreams for the future have been destroyed. He wants to ask, “How did this happen?” But he doesn’t really want to know. Knowing won’t keep his work mates from laughing and saying, “Joseph, you sly dog.” He decides there is only one thing to do. Break off the betrothal quietly. The only other option is publicly stating the child is not his, but that would condemn her to death under the law. It would protect his reputation as a righteous man, but at too high a price. 


When people ask, he will just tell them, “The marriage just wasn’t going to work out.” He’ll try to put all this behind him quickly, get on with his life and let Mary get on with hers. He will find a safer, more manageable, predictable wife, for Joseph is a cautious man as well as righteous. He is well suited to his trade. Carpenters aren’t exactly thrill seekers. “Measure twice; cut once” is the rule. All the excitement he needs is making a table or a chair patiently and meticulously according to plan.


But then there was that dream. Best to let it fade back into the unconsciousness or wherever it came from and forget it. Put it in the “Too hard” basket. Never mind that the messenger was an angel, the message itself is a flight of fancy. God and nature don’t work that way. The Holy Spirit is responsible. Yeah, right! And even if that is the way it happened, how likely is it that a baby born to an unwed teenage peasant living in a backwater village is Isaiah’s Immanuel, the new David who will rescue Israel from her powerful oppressors? If the dream is true, God is clearly rewriting the rules and God doesn’t work that way. God’s rules are written in stone. Not following them is not an option, just ask the priests. Marrying her based on the whispers of an angel and enduring the mocking by those who count the number of months between the wedding and the child’s birth is clearly outside the rules. What is God doing?


Having rules and following them are clearly important to us as social beings. They give us at least the illusion of a firm foundation upon which to tread in a world that is often as unpredictable as walking through a swamp. Plato described our species as a “featherless biped.” Another definition could be “habitual rule makers.” 


I got a reminder of how true this is at the recent Living Wage workshop I attended. Participants were give an account of negotiations between representatives of the ancient Athenian empire and the city-state of Melos, which was the only island not affiliated with the empire. Athens sent a mighty show of force against the island but then tried to convince the Melians to see reason and submit to Athens so as to save their city and people from destruction. History tells us it didn’t go well. Having rejected Athens olive branch Melos was later destroyed and her people exiled into slavery.


Based on this account the participants were selected to be either Athenians or Melians and put into small negotiating teams. The facilitator told us there was only one rule: “There are no rules.”


Half way through the negotiations the facilitator told us to change sides. We did. During one negotiation she told a participant to leave the group. He did. We did and he did in spite of the “there are no rules” rule. We didn’t have to but true to our rule making and following nature we imposed on ourselves the rule of doing what the authority in the room told us.


Even worse, in retrospect, we imposed our personal rules of honour, scepticism, and high principles on the negotiations. There were three different sets of negotiations tried with three different teams of participants. All three failed to prevent the historic tragedy.


Rules may have their uses, but clearly they can also be the seeds of our destruction and even worse they are often a straightjacket for our imagination.


The night before I began writing this sermon I received a gift of synchronicity that made clear how true this is. No, it wasn’t a dream, but a passage in my bedtime reading. It is a book, entitled ironically enough, An Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It is the second of a trilogy that takes place in Barcelona at the beginning of the 20th century. Each is about a writer trying to practice his art. In each, fiction and life become indistinguishable from the other, shaping and leading the other to an unexpected conclusion. In the second book the protagonist is commissioned by an angelic or perhaps demonic figure to write a narrative on which to create a religion, for the angel/demon explains that all beliefs begin as story. At the point where I was ready to put the book down and turn out the light, the writer, a nonbeliever in anything, is ploughing through theological treatises in a seminary library trying to get to the root of all religions.


He has a conversation about what he has learned with the librarian.


He tells her “that, generally speaking, beliefs arise from an event or character that may or may not be authentic and rapidly evolve into social movements that are conditioned and shaped by the political, economic and societal circumstances of the group that accepts them. Are you still awake?” (he asked.)


The librarian nodded.


He goes on to say that the story that began the religion gets taken over by those who become its interpreters and who then make it a doctrine around which liturgy, taboos and rules are generated in the name of the common good. “To this end,” he concludes, “they establish a powerful and potentially repressive organization… This transforms the doctrine into a means of achieving control and political power. Divisions, wars, and breakups become inevitable. Sooner or later, the word becomes flesh, and the flesh bleeds.” (pp. 221-222)


At this point, I turned out the light, afraid to read more, hoping for a dreamless sleep.


I awoke to feeling haunted by my own role in an institution that imposes rules that often maintain the status quo through a self-serving interpretation of our faith story. I woke up thinking it is time for metanoia. It is a Greek word that we often translate as repentance or “to turn around.” But that is the church’s interpretation. If we look at a literal translation it means something more radical. “Meta” means “beyond” or “outside.” The second part of the word, “noia” come from the Greek word for mind. So the Greeks understood metanoia as thinking outside the box. In Joseph’s case, a box made of rules.


We are inclined to read Matthew’s story of Joseph’s dream as support for the church’s doctrine of the Virgin Birth. In another age we might not have had a problem with it, but now we know too much about biology, so we reject the story with the doctrine. When we do, we lose the truth in Matthew’s story. Matthew didn’t know the Virgin Birth from the Immaculate Conception. He was trying through Joseph’s own transformation from rule-keeper to rule-breaker to say even God breaks the rules for a higher purpose. 


Our sentence of the day from Buckminster Fuller captures what the story is really about, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change things build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." That was what Matthew thought God was doing in the birth of Jesus. Joseph loves Mary more than the rules, more than his own reputation, more than his own righteousness. Love is not the servant of the Law. The story pre-shadows the purpose of Jesus’ ministry to offer a new model of being. One that breaks the rules of the established order. May it give us the faith to question, challenge and reject, if necessary, rules that support a worldview where power and control; wealth and status are more important than love. Nothing will change until we do. May the Spirit conceive in us this Advent the ability to bear love into the world, no matter how scandalous. May each of us give caution to the wind. In nine months may we find our selves knee deep breaking rules for peace or protecting the environment or clamouring for justice for the marginalised or implementing a living wage or protecting the vulnerable from violence or seeking prison reform or however that love can be best expressed through you. It is time to stop measuring and start cutting.

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