Quiet Mercy



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Matthew 1:18-25

18Now 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.19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.20But 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.21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.


Happy Father’s Day, to whom it may concern. I’m generally not in the habit of choosing the Hallmark calendar over the liturgical calendar. But for a variety of reasons, this year seems to be the exception. All week long, I’ve been mulling over the biblical figure of Joseph, and wondering about his role as father in the formation of the Jesus whom we love and follow.

I’m well aware of the dangers inherent in preaching about the role of fathers. There is a large spectrum of experience of fathers, and all of us fall somewhere along the spectrum. Each of you will hear my musings about fathering through the filter of your own experience of your father. At one end, there are those of you who were fortunate enough to have a positive experience of a loving father. You may still enjoy that relationship or you may feel a pang of grief that your father is no longer alive. Either way, you count yourself fortunate to have a father who cared for your wellbeing and contributed to your growth and development.

At the other end of the spectrum are the fathers who one does not feel grateful for: fathers who were absent or abandoning or worse, abusive in ways that have caused great damage that still causes you pain. If this applies to you, I acknowledge the difficulty you may have at even thinking about the possibility of positive fathering. And there are those who didn’t grow up with a father for a variety of reasons, and you may have a neutral experience of the notion of father.

Not to mention those who are somewhere in the middle on the Experience of Father scale. Maybe your father was a good-enough father, or maybe he was inconsistent: sometimes there for you and sometimes not. Or maybe you don’t have any strong complaints about your father but when you find yourself standing in front of the rack of Hallmark cards you pass over one card after another, because the warm and gushy sentiments just don’t match up with your experience and leave you feeling sad, disappointed, or empty about the whole thing.

Or perhaps when you think of Father you think of Patriarchy and the way the male dominated society has crippled both men and women in their efforts to become whole, loving people.

So, having named many of the potential complexities and land mines, perhaps I should just hang it up and preach on something else. But I can’t stop thinking of the image of Jesus as a little boy, eagerly following Joseph around the carpenter shop, learning how to smooth the wood or make something with his hands. I think of how Joseph may have looked at his son and feel a pang of horror at the thought of how things might have been if he had not married Mary. This image just brings me up short and tugs at my heart enough to make me want to give fathers, mixed bag that they are, a chance to teach me something about God.

Scripture doesn’t say very much about Joseph, except that he seemed to dream a lot and to take his dreams seriously. In this passage, Joseph learns that Mary, to whom he is engaged, a legal contract, is pregnant. Evidently Joseph is not the father, which, in a story full of good news, is not good news to him. Now, the law is clear on what should happen to Mary for getting pregnant by someone other than the man to whom she was engaged: she should be stoned to death. Joseph, for reasons we can only guess at, decides not to take this route, but instead opts to end their engagement contract quietly, letting her go unpunished for this major social and religious faux pas. Already, we have a hint that Joseph is capable of quiet mercy. But in spite of that, he is still allowing his hurt feelings to make the decision, I mean, who in their right mind would still marry her when she cheated on him, right? Things aren’t always what they seem.

But then Joseph has this dream, where an angel tells him that the baby is “spirit-conceived” and he should marry her anyway. And so he does. His dreams continue to guide him as he takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt to protect them from the raging, murderous Herod, and as he is told to bring them back home. The only other time Joseph is mentioned is that tense moment when Jesus disappears on the family trip to Jerusalem when Jesus is 12 and Joseph and Mary find their precocious son behind in the temple hobnobbing with the wise rabbis. We have to make some educated guesses about the impact of Joseph’s character on Jesus’ spiritual development.

Now, if you look at Christian tradition, you will note that Joseph has quite the impressive CV as a saint. His “patronage profile” is extensive. He is considered the patron saint of whole countries, Canada, China, Mexico, Peru, and Viet Nam among them. He is the saint to cabinetmakers, engineers, carpenters, craftsmen, and confectioners, of all things. (Joseph the candy maker? Who knew? A side bar: when I asked my daughter, who gave me permission to share this, what makes a “good daddy” she replied: ”Candy.” Candy? “Yes, when daddy has Jordan Almonds that makes him happy and he’s a good dad.” Little did Keziah know she was standing in the tradition of Joseph, patron saint of confectioners.) Joseph is the saint to people in doubt, prisoners, and for social justice. Realtors will even tell people who are trying to sell their house to bury a statue of Saint Joseph in their yard, because he is the patron saint of house hunters.

But out of all the virtues that are attributed to Saint Joseph, I think it is his willingness to be flexible, his openness to having a change of heart, that is the key to why he is a good father to Jesus. He has clear views about the way things should be, but when the rubber hits the road, Joseph discovers that love is a higher law than what his society or his religion tells him is the final word. Maybe this is where Jesus first learned that love is the greater value over the law or societal opinions. Joseph also exhibits the mature capacity to let go of his control over where he thinks things should go and how things should play out. I think the capacity to let go of our attachment to outcomes is what makes the difference between a so-so parent and a really good parent. When parents become mired in their willfulness, trying to will their children to be the way they want them to be, rather than supporting the child to become who they really are- this is where parenting veers off into alienation or even abuse. Joseph had practice early on in being a father who could let go of trying to make things go the way he wanted them to go. But above everything we may speculate about Joseph, it is the openness to quiet mercy, his openness to his own growth, that makes him a good parent to Jesus, and teaches us something about how God parents us.

In terms of the Experience of Father spectrum, I’m one of those people in the middle. I loved my dad, valued his sense of humor and the way he believed that my sister and I could do anything. But there were things about him that I found hard to take. My dad was painfully, distressingly, embarrassingly prejudiced. I cringe inside when I think of it. He and I would have Epic Fights over the dinner table. The things he would say about politics, gays, Jews, and African-Americans would just send me around the bend. We managed to have a good-enough relationship, but I was ashamed of his views on matters of social justice.

But strangely enough, my father also taught me something about quiet mercy, though it took me a long time to really understand that.

My dad was a jeweler. He and his father ran a well-respected business in downtown Danville, Virginia. Dad and Pop, my grandfather, employed a watchmaker whose name was Edwin. I think he worked for my dad and his father for forty years. Edwin was as bald as a cue ball, so of course everyone called him “Curly.” Now, Curly was gay. Everyone in town knew he was gay, but it being polite Southern society no one really spoke of it directly. Instead, they would refer to it in “Southern code,” saying things about Curly like “well, his house is full of antiques, you know,” with that raised eyebrow. Edwin retired when he turned 65 and two weeks later, he had a serious stroke that left him completely paralyzed on one side for the rest of his life. He didn’t have any family to speak of, and he was abandoned by most of what was in Southern Code "his friends" when he became incapacitated. He really had no one. So my father took over dealing with the nursing home where Edwin would spend the rest of his life and took care of selling his house and his antiques to help pay for his care. For the nine years from Edwin’s stroke until he died, my father would go see him in the nursing home every Sunday. Dad would go to Sunday school, but then would skip church to go make sure Curly was being taken care of properly and to let him know that he hadn’t been completely abandoned by everyone. My dad wasn’t a perfect father, but he taught me something about quiet mercy, which means he taught me something about God. It’s taken me a long time to see that.

Whatever your relationship with your earthly father, I pray that God’s healing presence is at work in that connection. I also pray that Joseph’s capacity to be open to a different ending than he imagined, his capacity for quiet mercy will remind you of how God loves you, of how God watches over us all with a heart that is willing to make space for us in kindness and in mercy. AMEN.