This Can't Be Joseph's Son

He isn't really Joseph's son is he? He doesn't sound like a carpenter's or masonry apprentice. He sounds like a Torah-teacher. But who taught him? Who is his Doktorvater, his doctor-father? (That's what we academics call our dissertation advisor. I have a doctor-mother, a Doktormutter.) At what Rabbi's feet did he sit? Who is his rabbinic teacher, master, father? Whose son is he?

It is Epiphany, the season of revelation. The whole of this liturgical season points to the revelation of the Christ-child, boy, and man as the mortal yet immortal Son of Woman and Son of God. The portion of the Lukan gospel designated for today illumines the clouds that threaten to veil the light of Epiphany. The Word became flesh and dwelled among us, in human society. And we humans are a peculiar bunch. That's why God became one of us. It is the very human responses of Jesus' hearers that question and challenge his identity. Who is he, really?

In one sense, Jesus is Isaiah's son. We could say that Jesus, Yeshua in Hebrew, was named after Yeshayahu whom you know as Isaiah. Both of their names point to the salvation of God, using the same Hebrew root. It is certainly one of his favorite scrolls, the most quoted in the gospels, and in the epistles and the most frequent choice for the haftarah, readings from the prophets accompanying readings from the Torah in the ancient Jewish lectionary.

On this day in our lesson, the Torah portion would have most likely been from Deuteronomy 29-30 in part. The haftarah, the prophetic lectionary reading that accompanies Deuteronomy 29-30 and dates from the first century or earlier is Isaiah 61-63. It is with Isaiah that Jesus reintroduces himself to his community in Luke 3 and earlier in chapter 4.

Asa bar mitzvah he would have been called to the Torah and haftarah as the son of Joseph and Mary, Yosef and Miryam in Hebrew. The lay minister of the Torah, the gabbai - with a "g,"not the rabbi with an "r" - would have called Jesus to the bimah or elevated Torah table: v'yamod Yeshuaben Yosef v'Miryam. In the Torah someone might have read:

Deuteronomy 29:10 You stand assembled today, all of you, before the Holy One your God: the leaders of your tribes, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, 11 your children, your women, and the immigrants who are in your camp, both those who cut your wood and those who draw your water. 12 All of you stand assembled to enter into the covenant of the Holy One your God, sworn by an oath, which the Holy Oneyour God is making with you today; 13 in order that God may establish you today as God's people, and that God may be your God, as God promised you and swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. 14 I am making this covenant, sworn by an oath, not only with you who stand here with us today before the Holy One our God, 15 but also with those who are not here with us today.

Then Jesus would have read in the haftarah as preserved in Luke 4:

18 "The Spirit of the Sovereign God is upon me,

because God has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

19 to proclaim the year of the Holy One's favor."

And then he said as recorded in our gospel today: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." And people began to ask, "Who is he really?" "Is it possible that this is Joseph's son?" "We watched him grow up and run errands in the neighborhood." "They didn't send him to study with a master." "Whose apprentice, disciple, son is he, really?" There was no question about his maternity - everyone knew that he was Yeshua ben Miryam, Jesus the son of Mary - but can this be Joseph's son? Really?

Folded into that question was two questions: apprentices and disciples were called the children of their teachers and trainers, so who has been teaching him is one question and, I think the recognition that Jesus has grown into a man who bears no resemblance in appearance, speech, mannerism, education or knowledge to Joseph leads to the question of paternity. In fact this is the last time we hear of Joseph - there are parallel episodes in the other gospels, but in Mark and Matthew Jesus is called the son of Mary, not Joseph. Perhaps this not so innocent question brought up all of the pain of the past - and a magic, miraculous pregnancy is a painful claim - perhaps Joseph could hear no more, or perhaps he just dies soon after.

I'd like to spend some time with Joseph this morning. I think he gets short shrift in our liturgical calendar and perhaps the short end of the stick in the Christmas story.

Every year during Christmas and Advent, I think about St. Joseph. I remember a sermon I heard from his perspective more than a decade ago. The preacher-man was saying how hard it is for men to raise children that are not theirs, particularly when they feel that they have been deceived. It's one thing for a man to marry a widow, divorced mom or single mother, or for a couple to decide to adopt or even use a reproductive technology that involves donor sperm. It isan entirely different matter for a man to stay with a woman who has been impregnated by someone else after they made a commitment to each other. It must have been unimaginable for Yosef, Yusif, José, or Joseph to hear his woman saying that she had never cheated, never been unfaithful and was pregnant and the Holy Spirit - She in the Hebrew in which they  prayed and the Aramaic which they spoke! - was the Father.

I wonder if Yo thought Miryam or Mary or Maria was mentally ill. I'd like to believe that he loved her. That the quiet divorce was to spare her shame, protect her family honor and his, and to save her life. It's also possible that he wanted to annul their betrothal quietly so that he wouldn't lose face. Even if Yo came to believe Miryam's crazy story - and let's not be so sanctified that we think that makes sense - even if he believed her,  his family and his boys wouldn't. They would say that he got punked; that he was a punk; that he was pitiful for staying with agirl that played him so badly, so publicly.

Yo doesn't get a lot of ink in the bible. But what he does get is continual reassurance from God through his dreams, for a while. God appears to him over and over again. And like his eponymous ancestor, he doesn't need anyone to interpret his dreams for him.

To his eternal credit and well-earned sanctification, Yo stays with his woman. But he doesn't touch her, for a while - a long while. I can't believe that he didn't feel bitter, betrayed and trapped at least some of the time. But he stayed.

Yet he is absent from the Epiphany story. He was not there when strange men from the East came bearing an embarrassment of wealth? Why did they do that? What was his woman doing while he was out working to keep a roof over her head and the head of her child? Now the neighbors in this new place were talking, telling the old stories. Were they separated then? If so, they worked through it. And they had a real marriage. The scriptures are clear that they had four sons and an unknown number of daughters. (There are interpretation of the scriptures that deny them their holy, healthy, God-given sexuality, intimate marriage and children. And that is blasphemy.)

But Joseph eventually disappears. He may well have died. But that is not the only possibility. As the strange boy-child became an even stranger man-child it became more and more clear that he was a stranger. And in spite of all of that God-talk the memories of those dreams were faded memories. The boy was trouble, running off, getting lost, causing a scene in the temple before the elders, reminding everyone about the possibility that Yo had been cuckolded. Joseph left.

Miriam was widowed by death, by abandonment or indifference. When she needed him, he wasn't there. When her son - not his - was arrested; Yo wasn't there. When her son - not his - was executed; Joseph wasn't there. When her son - not his - was taken down from his lynching tree; Yusif wasn't there. When her son - not his -was bathed after his death for his burial; Yosef wasn't there.

José didn't come back when people started saying that her son - not his - had risen from the grave. Joseph didn't gather in Jerusalem to see if her son - not his -would really meet his disciples including his mother, sisters and brothers for Shavuoth, Pentecost. Perhaps he was dead. Perhaps he heard all that miraculous, unbelievable resurrection talk and was ashamed of leaving, after all he had heard from God in his dreams.

The silence in the scriptures surrounding Joseph's absence at the end (and new beginning) of Jesus' life is intriguing. If he was dead, why not say so? If he was a great age when he married Miryam and impotent and had children from a previous marriage, why not say so?

Butif he left, left God's son fatherless, how could that be explained? If he lost his faith, how could the rest of us come to believe?

I think he left. I think that the very humanity of Christ made the Incarnation harder and harder for him to believe. And I believe that as a saint who lost his faith, St. Joseph has much to teach us. Our faith is not rational. It is nearly unsustainable in the real world. I wonder if Joseph had other dreams that he disregarded. I wonder if having received his last divine visitation he believed he needed one more, and then another, and another, like an addict. I wonder if he ever really believed. I wonder if his pride got in the way of him asking Jesus the man, "Who are you really? Where did you come from? I need to know."

Perhaps the disappearance of St. Joseph teaches us that we have to invest in our faith on a daily basis, making ourselves vulnerable to ridicule and the scandal of the gospel. I have to believe that when God called Miryam and Yosef into service God knew that they were capable of living into and up to their calling. And, God knew that they were capable of failing.

St. Joseph's disappearance and likely abandonment of his family, God's family, the family that he had promised God he would nurture on God's behalf, also teach us that marriages fail and families rupture even when God is Incarnate in their midst. And, we learn that a single mother can raise a child who will change the world all by herself. And we learn that children from single-parent homes maybe a little odd, lacking in a few social graces, but full repositories of God's gifts and graces.

I wrote this prayer for St. Joseph during Advent. 

St.Joseph, I'm not mad at you. I think I understand as much as I can how hard was your calling. I'm just glad you were able to hang in there as long as you did. You guided them to safety and saved their lives, risking your own. I honor you for that. And I think you can claim some of what he grew into. Your mark is on him and no one can take that away from you.

St. Joseph, Patron Saint of Fathers

Patron Saint of Step-Fathers

Patron Saint of Adoptive Fathers

Patron Saint of Dead-Beat Dads

I call your name. I bless your memory. Ashé.

The questions echo through the congregation after the readings from the Law and the Prophets: He isn't really Joseph's son is he? Who is this man? How did he learn to preach like that? And from where did he come? Of course the answer in Luke and for us today is God. God fathered him; God taught him. The answer is also humanity, womanity, the Virgin, the Mother of God. She mothered him and taught him. The combination of divine and human knowledge and nurture extends from Christ to us, through the gospel and through the sacraments, especially the sacraments of the table and the water.

The questions remain for us, all of us who are assembled here today and those who are not yet here: Who are you? Whose children are you? What is your lineage? What are your gifts? What is your vocation? Who are your teachers? What have you learned? The questions of identity and vocation in the gospel focus on home and community.

Jesus is at his boyhood home in Nazareth where Joseph claimed and raised, in the suburb of Sepphoris, one of the great cities of Roman Decapolis. There, people know all about him and his family, including all of the gossip about them, past and present. They know about his activities in his adopted home, Capernaum, Kapher Nachum, the town of Nahum the prophet.

But Jesus knows home isn't always a safe place for prophets. It's as though he's been to one too many holiday dinners with his family, or mine, or yours. He reaches back to the great wonder-working prophets of ancient Israel, Elisha and Elijah, whose mantle he and his cousin John inherited. He uses the ancient stories to teach that home is not a place where the gospel can be walled in and kept from outsiders, kept for ourselves as we keep ourselves from outsiders, strangers, foreigners.

Those two stories preach a radical, fundamental gospel of inclusion and reversal: Philistines receive the blessings of God inplace of and to the exclusion of Israelites, today we would say God is demonstrating a preferential option for the Palestinians in the place of the Israelis in Jesus' sermon. And if that were not enough, in the second example, a Syrian as the object of divine concern in the place of an ancient Israeliteor contemporary Israeli is equally problematic. This is a dangerous gospel; the response is deadly. They will kill Jesus if they can get their hands on him. But they cannot, not yet. They cannot touch him, not yet. But they can plan and scheme and set his death into motion, but not just yet.

Jesus went right back to Capernaum, right back to his second home to continue his holy vocation, in spite of the shadow of death cast over the light of his epiphanous revelation. I asked earlier: Whose child are you? Who has taught you? How have you been living up to and into your vocation? Now I ask, what is it costing you? What are you prepared to pay? And will you continue the work of the gospel under cloudy skies or even the shadow of death?

It is easy for us to say as did Jeremiah, "Send someone else. I'm not important enough. No one will listen to me." God's promise to Jeremiah was not that there would be no clouds, shadows or death threats - he was beaten, imprisoned and forcibly exiled to Egypt where by some accounts he was martyred. God's promise was ithika ani, a synonym for Immanuel, I am with you.

Who are we? Whose children are we? What is our lineage? What are our gifts? What is our vocation? Who are our teachers? What have we learned?

We may say that we are the children of God, that proclamation of the gospel - the gospel of reconciliation, the gospel of inclusion - that is our vocation, that God teaches us and guides us as we walk the path of the Man from Nazareth. But the apostle teaches us that it matters not what we say or do, but that and how we love.

The ultimate lesson of our text is that our God is the God who gathers the outcasts, joins them with the community of insiders and renews the beloved community. The Gatherer of Israel, natural and indigenous and her foreign-born immigrant sojourners, is our God. Our God is the God of Jesus who became an outcast at home and in the congregation of his youth and of the Jesus movement that became outcast from the ancestral traditions of Judaism. Our God is the God who will gather us with those who have already be gathered, just as Jesus said that he had gathered sheep of another fold.

And when God gathers us, there will be a family reunion, the likes of which we have never seen. I believe St. Joseph and the members of the Nazareth congregation will be there. All will be forgiven. All will be restored. All will be healed. But we don't have to wait until that great day. "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

This Gospel is that God's concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from fear and from death itself. Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of Woman and the Son of God, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many.

In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam's womb, walked the way of suffering, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning.

May God the Mother and Father

of Avraham, Yitza'ak and Ya'acov,

Sarah, Hagar, Rivqah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah,

Who took the tangled threads of their lives

And wove a tapestry of Redemption

In the Body and Blood of Miryam l'Natzeret

Continue to weave the strands of your life

In the Divine design. Amen.


31 January 2010

Grace Epiphany Episcopal Church

Philadelphia PA