The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s004g07 Advent 4 23/12/2007
'Joseph, being a righteous man ..' Matthew 1.19
Right at the beginning of the gospel of Matthew we are confronted with what righteousness means. Matthew, the most legalistic of the gospels, wrestles, right from the outset with this pivotal word.
If one took the law at its word, Joseph, the righteous person, should have taken Mary to the door of her father's house and publicly and ritually have her stoned to death by her fellow citizens and neighbours! This is what the law specified in Deuteronomy 22.20-21 One suspects that this is what some righteous Anglicans would like to do to gay and lesbian persons! But even Joseph, righteous as he is, stops at this. He plans to 'dismiss her quietly' as a good Biblical literalist would accuse a good liberal of wanting to do.
But the angel of the Lord does something quite unexpected. The angel gives a third option. The angel of the Lord asks Joseph to put aside his personal righteousness completely. The angel of the Lord suggests that it doesn't matter how others might judge Joseph. The angel of the Lord invites Joseph to act in a manner completely contrary to what the Bible might dictate, contrary to 'righteousness', and act in a way rather more than simple charity might suggest.
The angel of the Lord invites Joseph to become at one with Mary. He invites her to take her as wife. The Lord invites Joseph to not fear.
Now it is tempting to suggest that this is a special case, Mary being the mother of the Lord and all that. However this is not the first instance of where God commands something similar specifically the prophet Hosea is commanded to marry a prostitute. Again the work of the Lord is not done by Hosea being upright or well connected as far as marriage is concerned, but by his marrying someone who might well be termed by some people as 'unsuitable'.
So when Matthew remembers Jesus saying: 'Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect' (Matthew 5:48) it is quite likely that our perception of perfection is as wrong as what our idea of righteousness is.
Now it is quite clear that we are to imitate the righteousness of God, and we do this not by quoting the Bible at others, we do this not by living upright lives and marrying in our station, we do this not by being charitable towards others as if we are somewhat superior to them, but by becoming at one with others.
The Old Testament lesson reinforces the message that we certainly don't do this by quoting the Bible to the angel of the Lord, as King Ahaz did, even though he quoted it correctly. Don't quote the Bible to avoid God trying to reassure us.
Now I need also to say that we do not become at one with other people by acknowledging that in reality we are all miserable sinners to use that good old Church of England phrase. This is but a smokescreen for a perception of how better and more humble real 'christians' are than others. This is not being at one with others.
God loves us and all people, deserving or not, and hence we are called to love all others, whether we consider them deserving or not, suitable or not. We are called to be at one with others, not to love them as if they (not being 'christians' like us) are deficient in this virtue, nor as an act of charity to someone else in need. We are called, like Joseph was called to become one with Mary, to become one with other people. We are called to be at one with others which is rather more than acting charitably towards others which will indeed make for a more pleasant world in which to live.
When the patriarch Joseph met the brothers who had caused him so much suffering throughout his life he said:' Come closer to me .. I am your brother, Joseph' (Genesis 45.4)
Being at one with all others is a very radical notion and encompasses all people.
So we are called to love others, despite the fact that they might call on God by a different name, we are called to love others even if they believe in the ordination of women or the acceptance of same gender partnerships.
For if we are truly at one with others, then we will not suffer anyone to be marginalized, alienated or exterminated, for it is us who would suffer equally.
And surely this is what the world needs, far more than everyone becoming Anglican like me or us!?!
The world needs a religion that as its central message calls us to respect people of other faiths and lifestyles, and it is my contention that Christianity, as Jesus proclaimed it, does precisely this. Other religions and faiths also proclaim a wideness in God's mercy towards all, just as there are many expressions of 'christianity' that are exclusive and narrow.
Joseph is an example to us. Just as he is bidden to not fear and to take Mary as his wife, so we too are bidden not to fear and to become at one with everyone else, rejoicing in our common humanity, our faith as well as our anxieties.
In every unequal partnership, resentments fester. But in every true partnership, miracles occur, and happiness abounds. May we choose miracles rather than resentments for the whole world!
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