Sermon on Genesis 3:1-14 and Matthew 1:1-7; 18-25 for Father’s Day (Pentecost +2), June 18, 2017
Matthew 1:1-7; 18-25
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph,
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
I am one of the blessed ones. Father’s Day is a happy day for me. I have a wonderful father who raised us well, and I am blessed to be a father of two of the best boys in the world – now men. But I know it is not like that for everyone.
Everything that should be a source of great joy, it seems, can also be a source of great sorrow. Your wedding day, your birthday, Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, all “should be” great days of celebration. But lots of things can go wrong. Even under good circumstances, these days often fail to live up to our expectations. We anticipate them; we imagine the details. But they are filled with humans being human. Words get said, people fail to do the right thing, it rains, there are a host of things that can go wrong.
And that is under the best of circumstances. But often these days come around under heavy dark clouds for us. Families, especially, are complicated, so these special days can be complicated. The greeting card makers only imagine intact families where death, or abuse or abandonment, depression and addiction never show up. But they do show up in real life.
But today is Father’s day, and so, in spite of the complications this day may bring, I would like us to think about fatherhood. I want to reflect with you on Jesus’ father, Joseph.
The Joseph Issues
There are mysteries we will never solve about Joseph. He only shows up in Matthew and Luke’s stories of Jesus birth, then he disappears. What happened to him? We will never know. Perhaps he died. Oddly, people call Jesus “Mary’s son” (Mark 6:3) – in a surprising departure of the custom which identified a man as the son of his father, not his mother. Why would they do that? Why not call him Joseph’s son – unless perhaps they believed that he was not?
When you think about it, who was it that had a vision of an angel explaining Mary’s unexpected pregnancy? In the story, the angel came only to Joseph. So no one else in town has any reason to believe Mary’s pregnancy was special. She looked to them like a girl who had been promiscuous. Her child, then, was illegitimate.
In a tiny town the size of Nazareth, with probably only a couple of hundred people, (according to scholars like Crossan), Mary would not have been thought too highly of, to put it mildly.
People raised in Jewish culture, in ways similar to other ancient cultures, were intolerant of children conceived outside of wedlock. Listen to what the Law of Moses says:
“Those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” (Deut. 23:2)
So, before he gets that angelic vision, it is not at all surprising that Joseph, who knows he is not the father, has decided he has to break it off with Mary. He does not want her to suffer, but he cannot imagine life with her and her illegitimate child.
We know from ancient sources that there was a rumor that Mary had been with a Roman soldier. People talk. Rumors fly.
Could it be the reason that Matthew has four women appear in his genealogy of Jesus is to prepare us to accept an “irregular” set of circumstances? Mary takes her place, in that genealogy, along with “Tamar, whose children were born of incest, Rahab, the madam of a brothel, Ruth, a non-Israelite who got her second husband by solicitation… and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, whose relations with David began in adultery” (as Stephen Mitchell has pointed out in The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 22-23).
Joseph was in a terrible position. Think of how he must have felt, as a real man, upon learning that is fiancé was pregnant: hurt, betrayed, resentful, distrust, maybe even rage, certainly, as a man, humiliation. Does all that emotion instantly go away because of an angelic vision? Remember, he still has to get up and go to work every day in world in which he is probably the only man who believes his angel story.
Joseph and Forgiveness
But something changed, for Joseph. I love the way Stephen Mitchell reflects on this situation:
“When finally he is able, after great agony and surrender, to forgive her with all his heart, he becomes the… perfect embodiment of the gospel according to Jesus….” p. 96
This great act of forgiveness, as Mitchell says, “constitutes and undoing, a redoing, a regeneration the male myth of Adam and Eve.” In the original myth, the husband blames the wife – though in the story we read that all the while Eve was being tempted Adam was “with her” standing idly by, an all-too-willing accomplice. Nevertheless, the man puts the blame on the woman.
Joseph does the opposite. Whether Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit or another man, from Joseph’s perspective she has been, like Eve, seduced. So, his first reaction was to pull back and protect his ego. But when he finally let go and forgive her, he was able to see, in this tragedy, a miracle. He forgave her.
Jesus, Family Issues, and Forgiveness
Forgiveness became a central theme for Jesus.
“Forgive us our debts” he taught us to pray, “as we forgive our debtors.”
How many times must we forgive, Jesus was asked, seven times? No, rather
“seventy times seven.”
“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
How far did this commitment to forgiveness go? We read that from the cross, during his execution, Jesus looked at his enemies and said,
“Father, forgive them.”
Joseph married Marry, and Jesus was born, but then Joseph quickly disappears, and again, the people who know Jesus call him “Mary’s son.” So it appears that Jesus grew up, for the most part, without a father.
At least in the eyes of his community, Jesus would have grown up under the curse of the Law of Moses, forbidden from even entering the temple.
Imagine what that must have meant for Jesus as a child. Parents always tell their children who the bad kids are, whom they should avoid. Other children can be cruel, as they bring, to their interactions with each other, the sentiments they absorb around the dinner table.
Jesus was not in control of any of these conditions, which means he too suffered. Did Jesus have to struggle with resentment? Did he have the human impulses to blame Mary for what was most likely a childhood of being made fun of, being excluded, being called the B-word (mamzer, in Hebrew)?
There are, after all, a number of stories in which there appears to be not a small emotional distance between Jesus and his family, including his mother (e.g. Luke 8:19-21; 11:27-28; 14:26). In one of them, Jesus asks, “who are my mother and my brothers?” – which, if she heard it, had to have hurt Mary. Maybe it was meant to. Hurting people hurt people.
The writer of Hebrews, reflecting on Jesus’ life said that he “learned obedience though what he suffered.” (Heb. 5:8) The halo around the head of the baby Jesus that you see in the paintings was, at least, premature.
Lessons of the “father”
Perhaps Jesus spent time reflecting on his absent “father” Joseph, and mulled over how a righteous man, who had done nothing to deserve his fate, had come to refuse the voice of his own wounded ego. He came to forgive Mary, and accept Jesus as his own son.
Jesus became a contemplative. He spent long hours, even entire nights in prayer, or what we today would call meditation, or centering prayer. This is where the ego is challenged. This is where the small self dies. This is where forgiveness can be born in a wounded heart.
Perhaps it was in learning to forgive Mary, as his father, Joseph, had done, that led him to understand the depth of the power of forgiveness. So when they brought that woman to him, who they said had been caught in adultery, and they told him that the Law of Moses commanded she should be stoned to death, his response was to bend down and write in the dirt. They kept pressing him for an answer, to which he replied,
“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.” (John 8:3-11)
Of course they all left her alone, starting with the elders. Here is how it ended:
“Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
Even though this story’s location in John’s gospel is not original, scholars are agreed that this story goes back to the historical Jesus.
Forgiveness is what Jesus learned from his father’s actions, even as he grew up without his presence. Is it any wonder that Jesus’ favorite way of imagining God was as his Father, his Abba? It was that filial relationship that was in his mind from the cross when he said,
“Father, forgive them; they have no idea what they are doing.”
We are not so naive as to believe that God has gender, so we do not believe that God is a man. But we are human, and so limited. All we can do is to think in analogies and metaphors drawn from our own human experience. So, along with Jesus, we think of God as Abba, Father. We think of God as the perfect father. A father, like Joseph, willing to forgive, only more so. A father who teaches by example, the power of forgiveness to transform suffering into love.
Jesus grew to see God as his forgiving Father, and then spent his short life in ministry, teaching his followers to do the same. There is no one who is free from suffering. Today, we hear the invitation to allow that suffering to be transformed into love; we hear the invitation to embrace forgiveness as a fact about ourselves and as a way of life.
As Richard Rohr says, “suffering that is not transformed, is transmitted.” But suffering can be transformed; the mechanism is forgiveness. The invitation for us is to experience the release, the freedom, the joy that comes as we let go of the past, and live in this present moment, as children of Abba.