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The Better Way

3 Advent 2022

11 December 2022

Matthew 1:18-25, Isaiah 35:1-10



The woman you planned to marry is pregnant, nothing new in the course of human history. Joseph knows he is not the father of this child and, while he does not plan to make a big hoopla about it, he doesn’t want damaged goods, for that is what Mary would have been considered. Mary was the property of her father and after marriage that of her husband. Then along comes an angel in a dream and gives him holy marching orders. Yet Joseph still could have acted or chosen differently. Have you ever wondered how the story would have gone if Joseph had said “no” to God? What if he had said that Mary was “damaged goods”, a term never applied to males, and that he was not going to have anything to do with her. He didn’t; he chose the higher road, the better part, and thus became to father of God incarnate. He chose caring and compassion over privilege and power, even if it took divine nudging to get him to that place. But before I get too steamed up about what it took to make Joseph act, I should turn my eyes inward. All of us should. How many times have we needed a hard push to step out of our comfort zone and do what is the compassionate thing, the right thing? How often have we let wrongs happen because we didn’t want to get involved, didn’t want the mess of it all. In his time, and in ours, Joseph would not have been considered wrong if he had decided not to wed Mary. The story would have taken a different direction. God born to an unwed mother not from the lineage of David. It is a remarkable facet of our faith that so much of the story rests on humans responding to the divine invitation. God has, I believe, always left much up to humans, despite our self-centeredness that leads us to eat forbidden fruit or turn our eyes from injustice. We want what we can never really have: to be God. Our story is, then, very much part of decisions we make or those made for us by our ancestors.

Think for a moment about your own story, how choices were made in generations past that led you to be where you are and who you are in the whole sense of yourself. The choices you make will impact those who come after you. The Iroquois had the concept of seven generations being connected and that the effects of one person are the result of decisions made and actions taken three generations before them and that their own decisions and acts will impact three generations after them. It is the sort of thinking that made the Iroquois cautious and careful, yet with a very successful form of governance that influenced the writers of the United States Constitution.

I thought of my own family. Some of my maternal family came from Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Yet others chose to stay there. I met a distant cousin in a small town: Cookeville, Tennessee. I went to the local history museum in search of information about my Copeland and Poston ancestors, who I knew had lived in that area at one time. The man said he was a Poston, and we indeed shared a common known ancestor. But the family that stayed in Tennessee and the family that moved to Missouri and then to Iowa took vastly different cultural paths. On the paternal side of my family, my great grandfather, a soldier in the so-called Indian Wars from 1852-1862, came with his wife and children to Marion Iowa after the American Civil War. A fire destroyed their possessions and they decided to head back out west. For reasons that are not completely clear, they got as far as Calhoun County Iowa and stayed there. Those decisions are the reason I was born where I was and am, in part, who I am. Those decisions made concerning the rights of indigenous Americans and their land, about non-whites and Iowa law, all led me to grow up in a very white world. I think about the kind of world I want for my child and, if it ever comes to pass, grandchildren and the belief that what I do will impact them. My decisions and your decisions matter, whether it be about religion, school, or the environment around us.

I am sure you have your own stories; all of us could have been someone different had our ancestors made other choices. We could be living in a better or perhaps worse world had they made different choices.

What went through the mind, and the heart, of Joseph? Was he thinking of his ancestors in the faith and their own daring decisions to leave safety, to risk everything for God?

We don’t know what he was thinking when he made his decision, but we know he chose love and compassion and put aside his ego. Maybe he was thinking about his own ancestors and their choices: Abram and Sarai deciding not to leave their ancestral home. Jacob the trickster failing to reconcile with his brother. Or Boaz deciding Ruth would not be a good choice for a wife. I think they all chose the better way and so did Joseph. When it is your time to make decisions, consider the generations to come and what God would ask of you. All of you have lived long enough to know what the better way is. In this time we call Advent we dwell in the world as it is while we envision and hope for the world to become as it was when God created it, the world as it should be. We are restless because we know that we are in one place, one time, one space, yet our home is in another. I do not mean to say that we are waiting for death and a passage to heaven, but that creation as God means it to be is coming but not here.

Isaiah speaks of a new creation, where the desert is turned into a lush and verdant plain. And there is a highway there, so Isaiah says. When I read this passage, Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven came into my mind. (Yes, I came of age in the late 1960’s, to my daughter’s eternal envy). There is a stairway or a highway that leads to a verdant place of rest and peace.

Surely we are on that wilderness road, or that stairway to heaven, every time we take the path that leads to justice, mercy, and love.

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