This was my second sermon at Church of the Pilgrims. How appropriate that systemic injustices have come to the forefront of our national consciousness during Advent, when we wait in the darkness, preparing, working, and hoping for the light to come into the world. The texts for the sermon were Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and Matthew 1:18-25.
The church loves to talk about Mary. I mean, I understand why. She mothered God and that’s obviously no small thing. It just seems like we talk about Mary way more than we talk about Joseph. Why is that? The story we just heard makes Joseph sound like a solid, stand-up guy. So why don’t we talk about him more? Keep that question in mind. We’ll come back to it.
Last week, we heard the story of the angel announcing to Mary that she’s going to give birth to God’s son. Mary exemplifies vulnerability and courage, our first two Advent candles. As a Jewish woman in a Roman-occupied land, she was already in an incredibly vulnerable social category. When she offers herself to God’s will, saying “here I am, I am the Lord’s servant,” she courageously accepts the dual burdens of bearing the divine and bearing additional forms of oppression. Today’s candle, resiliency, represents the struggles both Mary and Joseph endured from that point onward. Resilience is the process of continually overcoming and bouncing back from adverse circumstances. It’s more process than personality trait and is sustained by caring and supportive relationships both within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust and offer encouragement will bolster a person’s capacity for resilience. This means that resiliency is fostered in a loving community.
Mary was pregnant with a child that wasn’t Joseph’s, which left two possible explanations for Mary’s pregnancy; she was either an adulteress or she was raped, possibly by a Roman soldier. Joseph recognized these two possibilities and being a “righteous” man, wanted to make a decision founded in the law. According to the New Testament theologian Jane Schaberg, there were two stages in a legal marriage during this period in Palestine. First came the engagement, which commonly occurred between ages twelve and twelve and a half. During this betrothal, there was a gradual transfer of the girl from her father’s power to her husband, eventually giving the latter full legal rights over her. Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant in between these stages, before they were living together but after Joseph had been given legal rights over Mary. According to the Torah, there were a few options he could’ve considered once he discovered she was pregnant. He could have taken Mary to a hearing with religious officials to determine whether Mary had consensually had sex with someone else or whether she’d been raped. Regardless of the outcome, a hearing would have publicly humiliated both of them, so Joseph ruled that out. He decided to divorce her quietly. This option saved Joseph from humiliation, but would have left the pregnant Mary totally isolated and alone. However, the angel who appeared in the story we heard today urged Joseph to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife. The angel told Joseph what to name the child, which in this society functions as an adoption, granting him full legal paternity over Jesus.
The angel’s message to Joseph was an invitation to step outside of this patriarchal society and align himself with the outcast, which went against Joseph’s initial instinct. He probably wholeheartedly believed that by divorcing Mary, he was doing the right thing. Embracing a God who stands with the marginalized, Joseph experienced a paradigm shift while also subverting the religious paradigm with his decision to take Mary as his wife and adopt the child as his own. This decision likely put him in political tension with the other men and religious leaders in the community, yet he chose to stand in solidarity with a woman who was now considered a pariah. Regardless of how Mary actually became pregnant, the communities’ assumptions about Mary and her potentially illegitimate child put her in physical danger. In fact, theologian Ken Bailey argues that the reason Joseph brings Mary along with him to Bethlehem is because it was too dangerous to leave her at home, where everyone in the community totally despised her.
I imagine resiliency is the process of what happened in between the angel’s appearance to Joseph and Jesus’ birth. As a man in this exceptionally patriarchal society, Joseph contended with what it meant to lay down his privilege in order to stand in solidarity with Mary. Mary on the other hand continued to fight against systems that perpetually oppressed her, both as a Jew in Roman-occupied Palestine and as an illegitimately pregnant woman. Standing together fostered resiliency, though they were contending with radically different challenges.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus quotes the passage from Isaiah we heard this morning, claiming that God sent him “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…to comfort all who mourn.” God stands with the oppressed. Like Joseph, we must align ourselves with those who suffer from oppression so we can participate in God’s restoration of the world. However, also like Joseph, standing with people outside of our social categories may not be our initial instinct. We may have to unlearn some of the lessons of our childhood in order to more faithfully follow God’s call to stand with marginalized groups.
For example, I grew up in the segregated town of Beaufort, South Carolina. I attended a “white flight” school, a private school founded in the 60’s so white parents wouldn’t have to send their children to the newly-integrated public school. I could probably count on one hand the number of people of color I interacted with in my whitewashed childhood. Most of the people I knew weren’t overtly racist, but you aren’t going to care about racism or even think it exists if you don’t actually know any people of color. My framework for understanding the world was through an exceptionally privileged lens. It wasn’t until college, when I somewhat accidentally fell into a sociology major and I began having friends who were people of color that I began to understand how necessary it was for me to reevaluate lessons I’d learned implicitly. My inherited framework for understanding the world wasn’t one that called for me to stand with any marginalized groups. This is what Joseph learned, too. The way he had navigated the world was practically turned upside down. His first instinct to divorce Mary wasn’t a particularly compassionate one. Joseph had to unlearn the lessons of his childhood in order to stand with Mary.
Because Joseph and Mary didn’t belong to the same social group, they were able to support each other in different ways. Similarly, the ongoing demonstrations protesting police brutality have illustrated that white protestors’ support needs to look a little different. I believe that people of all races and ethnicities need to be protesting these events, but it’s vital that my participation in this movement look different from my sisters and brothers of color. I went to my first protest a little over a week ago and as wonderful as it felt to be able to stand in solidarity, I felt a little lost. I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for me to be chanting and doing the same things as everyone else. One open letter (http://bendstowardjustice.tumblr.com/post/104742740875/dear-white-protestors) to white protestors reads:
“If you’re actually here for making Black Lives Matter, put down your ‘I can’t breathe’ signs (because you can, and that’s the point) and pick up one that declares Black Lives Matter (because right now they don’t, and that’s the point). Get off the ground and stand in solidarity as black people ‘die-in’ (because it’s not white bodies lying dead in our nation’s streets, and that’s the point). Hand over the bullhorn to a black person (because your voice doesn’t need a bullhorn to be heard, and that’s the point).”
One news report from the Village Voice (http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2014/12/at_eric_garner_protests_some_whites_behaving_badly.php) notes that white protesters were talking over people of color at meetings and trying to take the megaphones from people of color in demonstrations. Within the movement, white protesters are creating a “racist culture…within the protests themselves.” A group protesting in Toronto had a list of suggestions for white and non-black allies: refraining from taking center stage, refraining from speaking to the media lest your voice overpower a person of color, standing behind black folks or between them and the police, or if you see a cop harassing a black person, come in and engage because they are less likely to arrest you.
Resiliency is a process best facilitated in community, but not necessarily when every facet of that community attempts to fill the same role. Every part of the body serves a different function. White protesters must show their support in a way that doesn’t shout over people of color. Maybe this is why the church focuses on Mary so much more than Joseph during Advent. It’s her voice, her vulnerability, her courage, and her resiliency in the face of oppression so incredible. Joseph’s actions are important, but don’t take center-stage. Telling Mary’s story ensures that the voices of the most vulnerable and the oppressed remain our focus.
Today, we have an opportunity as a congregation to affirm that black lives matter. We’re participating in a nationwide art bomb. Art activists in Ferguson, Miami, Philadelphia, DC and more are creating ornaments this weekend emblazoned with “#blacklivesmatter” and hanging them in public spaces throughout the city. We peacefully stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers of color and affirm that all life is precious to God, though society often implies otherwise. Let’s now hold this time in prayer.
(photo cred: Lauren Dwyer)