The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Sermon Title: “An Awkward Feeling”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 1: 18-25
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.
Brian Blount was a New Testament professor at the seminary when I attended. He was asked to give the baccalaureate address to my graduating class. I had never heard Dr. Blount preach but he got my attention.
He started his sermon with a childhood memory. A young boy, six or seven, woken by the need to pee. He walked down the hall and was on his way back to bed when he noticed his parent’s door was ajar. There was a soft light outlining the frame. He could hear voices, quiet voices. Curious he walked past his room and peeked into theirs.
He was really shocked by what he saw. He had never seen his parents like this. They were kneeling on the ground beside the bed; they were praying together. Dr. Blount let the last sentence drag a bit to build the tension. Following the words “praying together” there was an audible groan from the congregation. “Get you minds out of the gutter,” he chastised. A large laugh went up. Everyone, everyone was paying attention now.
We were expecting sex; maybe you were too. We were expecting salacious details, an awkward description, the panic that comes from conversations that arise in places they should not.
When I read our passage today, I thought of Dr. Blount and his less than salacious story. His childhood memory is about intimacy and expectation. The intimacy is what our expectation was. If you were like me, you were following the young boy down the hall, you could feel the tension, the curiosity. Prayer was not what you expected.
In our reading today, the story of the angel’s visit to Joseph, we have a story about intimacy and expectation. Mary was not the girl Joseph expected. Joseph was betrothed to a young girl who, according to legend, was a very chaste temple virgin. This was his expectation. He was not expecting a young girl who was pregnant, a matter of intimacy.
And if that was not enough our reading says Joseph had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son. Marital relations: let’s call that intimacy.
A couple of things before we proceed. This passage is not in the revised common lectionary. So, unless you have read the gospel of Matthew on your own, you might not have read or heard this story before. You know the Lukan story of Mary and the angel, but you might know Joseph’s story.
And there are some good reasons for this. If a pastor was bold enough to read this story on Christmas Eve or Advent, the chances are slim he or she would preach about intimacy. Imagine the trouble I would get in having this as the sermon text for the 11:00 candlelight service on Christmas Eve. Well, it would certainly have a connection to expectations, not meeting them that is.
One more thing, although this is one of two passages that describe the “virgin birth,” I am not going to explore the doctrine. In Advent, I will teach a class on these passages and we can explore it there. Unfortunately, this doctrine has been used and abused for centuries as a litmus test of faith and the bible and miracles. Lots of ink, lots of handwringing: not a lot of connection to Matthew and why he would begin his gospel with a story about intimacy and expectation.
That is the hurdle, the challenge, of Joseph’s story. Why begin his entire gospel with such an awkward and private moment? John begins Gospel with a lovely poem. Luke tells the story of the birth of John the Baptist, his parents being the symbolic resurrection of Abraham and Sara. Mark jumps right into the baptism of Jesus out in the wilds of Judean desert. Matthew starts with an awkward moment of delayed intimacy and the deep pain of a young couple struggling with expectations about each other.
If we are going to hear the truth of this lesson, we need to enter the discomfort of discussing matters of intimacy. And, even more importantly, we need to feel his disappointment, his shock: this is not what he expected. And, mostly, we need to ask, why start your gospel, your account of Jesus, this way?
Let’s start with the easier one, expectations.
I have been here a year now. The chances are good I am not quite what you expected. There is always the hope with a new person that he or she would be perfect, the friend, the preacher, the pastor you always hoped for.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an essay about this. He said, there is nothing better than the new friend. In the initial moments he or she is perfect, he wrote. This is a kind of delight as no expectations have been dashed. But this never lasts. Soon you see the clay feet, the foibles, the flaws. And, if you are lucky, the perfect new friend becomes a true friend even though far from perfect.
Expectation, according to behavioral psychologists, expectation is one of the three primary triggers of anger, and all that comes with it. The three primary triggers of anger are: threat, shock, and disappointment or failed expectations. I say this because when you are in the realm of the primary source of anger, you are at the core of life. Think basic impulse.
And we are in a similar place with intimacy. Not only is sex an obvious requirement for life to continue, the larger experience of intimacy is necessary for life to exist at all.
There is a legendary experiment in the middle ages. A German king wanted to discover what language a child would speak if not spoken to. So, he gave strict orders about children to be kept in silence and not to be touched. The legend goes that the infants didn’t live long enough to acquire or exhibit speech. They died of a lack of touch or intimacy.
Although not a scientific experiment, I saw this truth in a Mexican orphanage. This was in 1995. I was in the town of Juarez on a short-term mission. A pastor’s wife took us to a large building that was bursting with children. A lot of orphans. When we reached the infants, she picked up a little one and handed her to me.
I will never forget what happened next. The child wrapped her arms around my neck with incredible power. She also tried to wrap her legs around me. If I jostled or shifted as I held her, her grip tightened like a vise. At first, I thought something had frightened her. And then, the pastor’s wife came by me and said, “they are only held when they are fed. She will never let go of you.”
Having a newborn at home, I just wept. I could feel this child’s need, desperation; it was fierce and heartbreaking. She needed to be held and held and held. She needed love; she needed the intimacy of being held by someone who loves you. This is a basic need of the soul. I will always be haunted by putting her down.
Matthew begins his gospel in the midst of this need. He begins with an awkward account of intimacy and expectation. It could be that Matthew wants to begin his life of Jesus with an assertion of miracle or perfection or metaphysical claim about the incarnation. That is certainly what tradition has made of this story. I can see this. I can also see the genealogy we read last week.
Last week we read the begets and begottens. Forty-two generations. Often the genealogy is seen as a proof that Jesus came from the line of David, or that he was the offspring of Abraham. It is a kind of messianic credential. I can see this. But such a claim is weak compared to the messiness of the genealogy. Matthew offers scandal and brokenness; he describes the earth in all its muddiness. The genealogy wasn’t so much something to boast; it was a kind of dare. Can you believe in a messiah like this? Jesus is really of the earth. This is not a pageant of perfection. This is real life.
That is what I hear in the story of the angelic vision to Joseph. Certainly, this story has an angel and mention of the Holy Spirit and virginity. No question. But this is the veneer. If we dig down, the account of Joseph is about the heartbreak and the awkwardness and, well, messiness of life. I could be wrong, but I believe what Matthew is telling us, a kind of fair warning, is that this messiah is not what you are expecting; this is about the earth, the life we live here, our most basic needs.
In the last 50 years the Presbyterians make the New York Times now and again. There is no rhyme or reason for the timing, but there is for the topic. We like to argue about sex and sexuality and homosexuality and morality and abortion. When we argue, the New York Times writes a story.
In 1991, we made the Times when we sought to approve a big statement called Keeping Body and Soul Together. Not long after this a scholar from Philadelphia, an art historian and philosopher, wrote our denomination a kind of open letter. It was a request. She said, and I am paraphrasing, You folks talk a lot about sex and sexuality and expressions of love and creation and make theological statements about power and intimacy. And again, I am paraphrasing her, but the essence of what she said was, “please, please stop.”
Camille Paglia is an expert in art, especially as it relates to sexuality. Her groundbreaking work, Sexual Personae, is worth reading many times. She went on in her “letter” to say, and again I am paraphrasing, you all talk and talk and talk, but nothing of what you say is about life and what intimacy means and how we are violent creatures filled with barely controllable emotions and needs. Stop making this a nice image of purity and perfection.
I remember laughing when I read Camille Paglia’s “letter.” It was and is so true. We are an uptight lot, ever struggling with our Puritanical roots. It’s true.
I will never forget the discomfort of having to preach four sermons in a row on sex as I worked through 1 Corinthians. I was preaching the letter through and thus had to preach four sermons about Paul’s strange and stilted advice to the church about sexuality and intimacy. As I started the first of the four, I apologized to the congregation. “This is not my choice,” was my defense. I didn’t want to preach about this, I said. I still don’t want to preach about it. And that is why this passage, the first story Matthew told in his gospel, is so important.
The gospel according to Matthew is announcing: our freedom begins at the very basic parts of life, the depth of our struggle to live free. Jesus will free the people from sin. In order to make this way to freedom, Jesus will go to the heart of us: the need for love and the need to be freed from the tyranny of expectations.
Talking about intimacy is not tawdry. That was the brilliance of Brian Blount’s story. Prayer is an intimate pursuit of love and forgiveness. The baby clinging to me, desperate to be held for as long as possible, that is the need Jesus seeks to satisfy with mercy and grace. In some ways and at sometimes we are all like an orphan clinging to a moment of care.
Yet, what is really powerful and might be missed is that the gospel begins with a moment where anger, bitterness, and betrayal could have prevailed. The birth of Jesus, even the hope of the birth, leads Joseph to put this aside. He could have chosen anger because Mary was not what he expected. Instead he not only choses kindness, he stays. He abided with her.
Today we are like the young boy peeking inside. This story is like a glimpse behind the curtain.
We need to hear this gospel, to receive the good news, and be so freed. We need to get over our awkwardness about intimacy, not in tawdriness, but in humility and honesty about how little control we have of life. And we need to trust the power of the gospel: this is the way we will be freed from the grip of disappointment that lead to anger and bitterness. We need such freedom always. We can find it here in Matthew’s first claim to us. This is good news. Amen.
- Isaiah 7:10 - 17
- Matthew 1:18 - 25