It was one of the best sermons I ever sat through—and counting myself as a ‘regular church-goer’, I’ve sat through a lot, most not memorable.
Looking out at the blowy snow on Sunday morning, I was tempted to just skip the service. But then I reminded myself that it was the fourth Sunday in Advent, and Advent is my favorite liturgical season. For me it’s all about Mary, maternity, and waiting.
The gospel reading was Matthew’s account of Joseph’s predicament—what to do about his betrothed’s pregnancy? His choices were to bring her before the law, which could mean death, or to quietly divorce her, as betrothal was considered akin to marriage and infidelity was thus adultery. He was leaning toward divorce when he had the dream. In it an angel told him not to worry; appearances were deceiving. He was to relax and trust in the work of the spirit.
Now there are plenty of ways one could go with a homily: legal “justice” vs. compassion, patriarchy, dream-truth. Some riffs could even land one in hot water—such as Joseph Campbell’s assertion that ‘virgin birth’ accounts are associated with mythical figures to show them unlike the rest of us, or the Jesus of Montreal version, wherein Jesus’s paternity is attributed to a Roman soldier.
This homilist asked what the narrative could say to us today, since most of us aren’t visited by angels. (Actually, once a woman with some kind of special gift did get a peek at mine and reported she was very agitated—I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to. At the time, the angelic message was entirely believable. Since then, I hope I’ve cleaned up my act.)
In searching for an answer to his question, the homilist browsed in Matthew, and was struck by the opening verses. You know, the part we always skip over: so and so became the father of so and so. Well, no more skipping over, for surprisingly, there are four women on the list: Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary—outsiders all. Tamar posed as a prostitute to secure what was due her. The widow Ruth became the stranger when she faithfully accompanied her mother-in-law from Moab to Judah. Pregnant by King David, Bathsheba lost her husband when the king connived to have him killed to cover up the deed. And then there was the teen, Mary, mysteriously pregnant and vulnerable to community outrage.
So who today are the outsiders to whom we are invited to extend our compassion and hospitality? Perhaps the 106 homeless who lost their lives in Minnesota during the last year. Perhaps the special needs Iraqi boys left to starve in orphanages shown recently on WCCO. Perhaps immigrants, documented or otherwise. And sometimes, the outsider is us.
Yes, I thought, how many times have I felt on the outside—outside of parental love, outside of an in-clique, outside societal norms, called ‘black sheep’? It’s a hard place to be. But maybe we all need to experience being the stranger. Hopefully, it will teach us empathy, rather than a gritty determination to never be outside again– to fit in, or get in, no matter what the cost. In fact, sometimes the outside is exactly the right place to be. For often, in the discomfort and anguish of the outside, we can grow larger in spirit.
As we look inward at year’s end and forward to the new year, there may be angels in our lives who, like Joseph’s visitor, invite us in a new direction, suggested the homilist. Those angels might be speaking through a neighbor, a news piece, a book, or even a dream. Like Joseph, can we trust enough to let go of preconceived notions of what’s to come next?
For me, what the gospel and homily offered was a reminder to offer support not only to traditional outsiders, but also to friends and family as they face a new thing, maybe even something that will place them on the outside. I need to say more often, “I trust the spirit working in you”– especially to myself.