Posted below is both my sermon for this morning (which, I must confess, I first preached three years ago in an interim position) and a communion liturgy composed by Little Mary, which was inspired by the sermon, and which, frankly, knocks my socks off. ("Put on your socks, because I'm gonna knock 'em off!") At last count, including me, this sermon is being preached in five churches this morning. I am delighted and somewhat overwhelmed. May God bless this word and make it fruitful in every heart that hears it.
“The Unexpected Path”
December 23, 2007
This is not where I thought I would be. I don’t mean the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem—of course I knew I would be traveling to fulfill the obligations of the census. No, I mean I never dreamed this path I would be traveling… I, Joseph, son of the law, the righteous man, the just man. I never imagined the path I would be on just now with my wife. That I would find myself taking on marriage, a child not my own, a future I can’t even imagine. Mary is resting now. It has been a grueling day of walking and riding, even more so for a woman as advanced in pregnancy as she is. She looks so young while she’s sleeping—just like a child, a young girl not yet married. But she is not a child. In a week, perhaps even less, she will be a mother. And here we are, on this road neither of us ever dreamed we’d travel.
Ours was an arranged marriage, like nearly all of the marriages of people in our small town, Nazareth. I had seen Mary growing up—a nice girl, nothing remarkable, perhaps a bit too pious for my taste. But she was from a good, hardworking family, and she was a girl of spotless reputation. Never was a word spoken about her that either of her parents couldn’t hear. She was quiet, she was a proper daughter of the law, she attended services in the Synagogue. There was nothing wrong with her.
So when our families arranged the match, I was satisfied. She would make a good carpenter’s wife, a conscientious runner of a home. She was pleasing to look at. My friends teased me: “Joseph, you’ve won a prize. Now go increase her value, build her up.” Always there are such jokes about babies, even before the marriage is finalized. So I went to my shop, and took out my tools, and selected wood, and began to saw and shape and plane and sand. I began work on a table for our home.
As the days and weeks went by, our families allowed us to spend more time together. I began to learn that there was a sly sense of humor behind that demure exterior. I was engaged to a woman who could make me laugh! Let the other men pine after dark eyes and little glimpses of curled hair… I realized as the months passed that a real treasure is found in someone you can carry on a conversation with, someone who takes an interest in your work, someone who eases your burden with the right, light words. My heart began to ache in a peculiar way I was unaccustomed to feeling. I began to look for her at the well, at the market, in the synagogue. I began… to long for her.
The day of our marriage approached. I worked feverishly on the table now, adding an ornamental curve here, sanding it even smoother there. I bought expensive oil at the market, raising the eyebrows of the men purchasing their supplies. I began to imagine meals at that table, fragrant bread just out of the oven, dark red wine, sweet dates. And Mary, leaning across the table toward me, with that quizzical look in her eyes. As the day approached my joy increased. I was going to marry this… jewel.
One day, about a week before the wedding, she appeared at the door of my shop. I was rubbing the expensive oil into the tabletop. I looked up to see her, and broke into a grin at the familiar silhouette. “You’ve come to see your wedding present! Here it is!” I stood back, and waved my hand at the table. I know I had sweat dripping down my face. I couldn’t quite see her face; the sunlight from outside poured in behind her.
Mary walked forward and lightly rested both her hands on the table. She stooped over it, inhaling the oil. Then she straightened up and looked at me. For the first time I could see her face clearly. Her eyes were swollen and red, and her mouth was strangely tight. “It’s very nice,” she said. “Can you make a cradle?”
It’s hard for me to remember exactly what was said after that. All I know is that pious, irreproachable Mary, my virgin bride, who had only recently allowed me to carry her water for her from the well, told me that she was carrying a child. I know I felt like I did when my brother Ephraim punched me in the stomach. Only it was much, much worse, because the pain came from within rather than from without. I very quietly asked her who had wronged me—for you understand, of course, that the man would have to be dealt with. He had trespassed on my territory, plowed and planted, so to speak, my field. She said there was no man, told me some nonsense about it being God’s will, God’s plan. I told her to go home, that my father and I would be around to make the arrangements after the work day had ended.
When I am angry I become quiet. I cannot say the same about my parents. They raged. My mother cried, all her plans for my building up her house with children in ruins. Then she began to quote from the Torah, about the penalty for this crime, which, of course, is stoning. “We’ll call the rabbis in to make their judgment,” she railed. The rabbis don’t usually enforce it any more, but everyone knows: Engaged couples are as good as married, and adultery is a stoning crime. If Mary had been carrying my child there would have been no harm to anyone. A few raised eyebrows and perhaps some grins at the marketplace, nothing more. But Mary had broken the law, the civil law and the religious law, and she carried the evidence of her crime in her womb. After a moment or two I spoke. My voice was, perhaps, a little louder than usual.
“There will be no rabbis, and there will be no stoning.” My parents took this in, a surprised silence falling over the room. “There will be no rabbis, and there will be no stoning,” I said, a little louder. “Mary has a cousin in Jerusalem, Elizabeth, married to a priest serving in the temple. She can go there, tell people she is a young widow.”
My father burst out, “Joseph, do you know what you are saying? This girl has wronged you, and she and the man must pay. What kind of Jew are you, if you don’t even keep the law?”
What kind of Jew am I, who don’t even want to enforce this law? I couldn’t reconcile my own words with what I myself had been feeling not an hour before—my desire to avenge this terrible, terrible betrayal. If I don’t keep the law, am I a Jew? I wonder. And yet… this girl I no longer was sure I knew. I had loved her, even if her news had crushed that love into something else. Hadn’t I loved her? So, which would it be for Joseph the Just: would it be law or love? Which would I cling to? On which side would I take my stand? Is it possible that the law could meet a new situation it wasn’t equipped to deal with? Is it possible that the law, finally, must be changed?
As I opened my mouth to speak words came out almost before I knew what I was saying. “I have not been wronged. She is frightened. She thinks it’s God’s will. No harm will come to her or the child. I don’t care about the man. There will be no rabbis.” I left the house and walked away, towards the town gates. I came to a stop near the well that stands just beyond. It was dusk, and Sabbath was beginning; the streets were deserted. Most families were gathered around their tables, lighting the candles and saying the blessing. “Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha-Olam… Blessed are you, Lord our God, the Ruler of all the Universe….” I wondered what the scene was like at Mary’s house; were her parents railing against her as mine had? I sat on the ground with my back to the well. I thought of her small hands on the table I had made. I thought of her leaning across the table towards me with a smile on her face, shadows from the firelight dancing on the walls. I began to cry. As night fell I fell into a deep sleep. I slept, and I began to dream.
In my dreams I wandered in a strange place, where there were great stone buildings with large, terrifying faces on them, and a sinuous river, dark and frightening. “Joseph, Joseph.” I turned at the sound of a voice, and I was standing before a golden throne, with a man seated on it. I could still see the dark river flowing somehow beneath the throne. He couldn’t have been a Jew, because his face was clean-shaven and his eyes were rimmed with black paint. But when he spoke, he spoke the language of my ancestors. “Joseph,” he said again.
“Here am I,” I said. He smiled. “Joseph, son of David, son of my brother Judah.” He paused while I took this in. It is unusual to hear one’s genealogy in a dream. “Here am I,” I repeated.
“Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Shekinah, the Holy Spirit of God.” In my dream I had a vague recollection of Mary’s words to me, “It is God’s will, it is God’s plan.” And I remembered, in my dream, with sudden, stunning clarity, something else she had said. “He is God’s child.”
I took a step towards the throne, but the foreigner held up a hand to warn me back. “Mary, your bride, will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. As the prophet wrote: Look, the young woman has conceived, and will bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel: God is with us.” At these words the river began to swirl and rise, and to creep upwards around the throne; I felt myself sinking into the water, and flailed out my arms to stay afloat. I started, and I was awake, leaning against the well by the town gates. The sun was creeping upwards, and the sky was taking on a pink and orange glow. My back was aching from my night spent against the hard stone. Young girls, coming to draw water, whispered together at seeing me. I pulled the bucket up by its rope, and drew a ladle of water for myself, to drink, and then to wash my face. Standing, stretching, I walked back to my father’s house. I roused him and my mother, and had them dress in their Sabbath cloaks. We walked together to the house of Mary’s parents, and I called out through the door the words of our ancestor Solomon: “I come to my garden, my sister, my bride. Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is as strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave.” My voice echoed in the house, only for a moment, and then the door opened, and Mary came forth, dressed as a bride.
This is not where I thought I would be. But the Holy One does not reveal the secrets of the Divine heart to carpenters. The Lord reveals what is necessary only, to accomplish the divine purpose. I hope I have done the right thing. My parents still shake their heads, but I can see the excitement in their eyes as the time for the baby approaches. No one knows why I took this pious, pregnant girl to be my bride. The question of whose baby it really is still hangs in the air, largely unspoken. But I don’t care. For six months she has leaned across the table towards me, and for the last month, she has practiced rocking the empty cradle with her foot while she spins. I don’t know how to explain it. I am irrationally happy. But I hope into my past. I hope that it was all for the best. I hope I have done the right thing, even though, strictly speaking, I have not followed the letter of the law. I hope in this dream, which God or the angel revealed to me, I hope in its truth. This is not where I thought I’d be. May Adonai bless my unexpected path, and Mary’s, and the child’s. Amen.
Invitation to the Lord’s Table
Joseph no doubt worked his hands
To make a Table for Mary
With visions of family
Fresh bread warm in children’s hands
Simple table wine that brought out the spices
Of the meat.
Jesus and his siblings and neighbors and those
Who weren’t allowed into other people’s homes
Sat around this Table, no doubt
Where Jesus was taught
By his parents who had taken great risks
So that he could take risks himself
Simply by sitting
It was at Table side that our Christ learned
The power of feeding one another.
It was at Table side that our Christ witnessed
The telling of truth.
And so Christ invites us to Table Side.
The Table that has been passed down through the generations
Rubbed with oil
Refinished with care
Grace is made visible.
Prayers of Consecration and Intercession
Life began around the Table.
And life Ends around the Table.
His life was threatened from the beginning
Held onto by a thread
And holding this thread
Between all of us
Connecting us to one another
Connecting us from the Christ child
To the disciples
And the apostles
And the saints
And the children that will be held together
By this same thread
Jesus turned to his disciples
Not too long after his birth
And holding their hands together
He looked them in the eyes and
Gave thanks for them
For the memories and the fights
For the intentions and the mistakes
For the learnings and the laughter
He gave thanks for it all
And he gave them a gift.
His own self for their future.
He broke the bread
Warm on their hands
Steam rising from center
And gave them an image
This is my body broken for you.
Whenever you experience brokenness
You have my body
In that broken place
And then he took the table wine
That in the past encouraged the
Memories and fights
Intentions and mistakes
Learnings and laughter
And he poured it
And he told them that this was
His life blood.
His life blood that will be shed
This is the remembrance of the covenant
Let us pray.
O God, the psalmist cries out: You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. There is much in our broken world to tear up over. And our tears have flown, sometimes we have thought that our very bread was our grief. The loss that we have felt, the expectations smashed, the families held together by a thread. We bring them all to you, O Christ. We give thanks for the risks of Joseph and Mary. We give thanks for the promise that we cannot feel grief without feeling deep joy. We give thanks for the risks Christ took so that we could begin our life around the Table. We give thanks for the life that Christ took on, a life of understanding, from the very beginning of difference, outcast, meeting in the cracks and crevices everyone who doesn’t feel like they fit. We give thanks for the promises that you made to us so long ago and always, always keep, despite our attempts to push you away. God-with-us. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Emmanuel. A gift. We know there is much more to life than bread of tears and we commit ourselves to the creation of that world. Where justice reigns and each and every one us can see the magic and the mystery of your creation. Where jadedness is in the past and hope is on the tips of our tongues. Where the doors of your world are thrown open in wild celebration of our difference, where we are all really and truly known and at peace and in love with possibility.
And so we pray for your dear world now. The world we take for granted far too frequently, the world we ourselves take part in destroying as much as trying to mend. The world we commit towards mending.
You give us yourself in the form of bread and wine. And we give you back our prayers in the form of the prayer that you gave to us saying….Our Father…
Sharing of the Meal
Prayer of Thanksgiving
Holy God, you have graciously accepted us as living members of your sacrifice. May it be strength to us until we meet again, as we work towards the coming of your kingdom, the time when justice will reign and all of your creation will be equally valued. There aren’t really words to thank you enough for this meal, for all of the elements we need to serve you and your world.