Bishop's Writings Author: Keely Thrall
October 07, 2020
On September 29 and October 1, Bishop Mariann led diocesan clergy through a series of reflections based on Paul's Letter to the Philippians. Watch the recording.
Session One: Hope in the Midst of Trial
When we on your diocsean staff planned this offering, our thought was to provide bishop-sanctioned time and space away from your work for prayer, reflection and to create an opportunity to converse with colleagues beyond your immediate circles of relationship, so that we might strengthen bonds between us. We know that many of our colleagues don’t have the luxury of time away during the day, due to increased family, children and virtual classroom responsibilities during the pandemic. Please take a moment to pray for our colleagues around the diocese and wider church. These are especially challenging times to be in ordained ministry. Our professional learning curve is straight up, we’re carrying a lot of stress and worry. It can be exhilarating at times, but it’s also tiring. There is grief, anger around and within. Learnings, resilience.
I’d like to begin with a simple exercise: For the next three minutes, I invite you to write, without self-editing, everything that comes to mind in response to this question:
What are you holding in your heart today?
Think of Mary, pondering the miracle of Jesus and holding it in her heart.
What are you pondering? What are you holding?
My internal life has been such that if I had done this exercise yesterday or last week, or if I were to do it again later today, my responses would vary dramatically. Under normal circumstances I have a wide range of emotions in my internal life; in the last six months that range has expanded and I’ve been humbled by how my emotions fluctuate. To the degree that’s true for you and/or for others, we are in tender relationship territory. I, for one, find it challenging to know how much to share with other people, especially with those who look to me for leadership or strength in their lives. As a leader, there is always the risk of sharing too much or not enough.
We also know that contextual realities and life experiences vary greatly among us and among those we serve. A common refrain of the last 6 months is that “we’re all in this together.” That may be true, but we’re not all having the same experience. In some instances, the differences are so great, we may as well be on different planets.
I’m reminded of a story that the African American mystic/theologian Howard Thurman tells in his seminal text, Jesus and the Disinherited. As a seminarian in Rochester, NY, in the mid-1920s, he attended a large convention of an international missionary society known as the Student Volunteer Movement. Over 700 students from around the world had gathered, and at one meeting, a young Korean woman was asked to talk to the group about her impression of her education in America.
It was an occasion to be remembered. The Korean student was very personable and somewhat diminutive. She came to the edge of the platform and, with what seemed to be obvious emotional strain she said, ‘You have asked me to talk with you about my impression of American education. But there is only one thing that a Korean has any right to talk about, and that is freedom from Japan. For 20 minutes she made an impassioned plea for her people, ending her speech with this sentence, “If you see a little American boy and you ask him what he wants, he might say, ‘I want a penny to put in my bank or to buy a whistle or a piece of candy.’ But if you see a Korean child and ask him what he wants, he will say ‘I want freedom from Japan.’”1
Thurman used her story to characterize the life and atmosphere of the Jewish community in which Jesus was raised in Palestine--when the burning question was freedom from the oppressive rule of Rome. He felt a similar burning in regard to the lack of freedom for African Americans in the mid 20th-century. Sometimes it seems that there is only one burning question, overriding all others, which makes casual conversation near impossible. When asked the rather straight-forward question, “How are you?” sometimes the most honest answer is “I’m not sure.”
I say all this simply to name and normalize whatever range of emotional response you might be experiencing, and that surely some of those you love and serve are also experiencing.
The Biblical text for our time together is Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. In the Sunday lectionary, we are halfway through reading a passage from each of the four chapters. Some of us have had the opportunity to study the Letter to the Phillipians as we prepare to preach, and most of us have heard it read in worship. Today, I invite you to read and listen to Paul as one spiritual leader writing to other spiritual leaders words of encouragement and exhortation in the midst of challenge.
In the New Testament era Phillipi was a Roman colony in what is now northern Greece, an important stop on a Roman commercial trade route. Somewhere in the early 50s, Paul established there a small Christian community, the first church on European soil. He didn’t have an easy go of it at first, but in time the new Christians in Philippi became Paul’s loyal supporters. They supported him personally, financially and with constant prayer.
Remember that Paul wrote to the Phiillpians while in prison, either in Ephesus somewhere around 54-56 AD, or in Rome near the end of his life around AD 60.
He begins with a warm introduction, and an assurance of his well-being despite his imprisonment. Overall, his tone is friendly and encouraging. with a noticeable change in tone in chapter three. There Paul addresses a central conflict not only in Phillipi but throughout Paul’s Gentile congregations. The conflict was between those influenced by a group within the early Church referred to as “the legalists” because of their insistence that Gentile converts comply with all of Jewish law (most notably, circumcision), and a group among the Gentiles we might affectionately call as “the hedonists,” for their belief that life was a quest to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. The legalists, in Paul’s view, stripped the gospel of its radical grace, and the hedonists gladly embraced the freedom of the gospel rejecting its call for sacrificial love. In chapter three, Paul tries to navigate a middle way between those two groups and speak a word of truth to each.
Without dispute, however, the most famous and oft-quoted passages from Philippians articulate an early Christian understanding of what would eventually become the Doctrine of the Incarnation--the great Christ Hymn of Philippians 2--and the words emanating from the enduring gift of Christian joy that can come to us in any and all circumstances.
Let’s turn now to Philippians 1, which I will read in its entirety. Feel free to follow along in your Bible or listen as Paul’s first intended audience would have listened as one in the community read his words:
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.
Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defence of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will result in my deliverance. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
In break out groups, you will have an opportunity to reflect on any part of the text that speaks to you.
I’d like to highlight Paul’s capacity to articulate a hopeful vision in the midst of disappointment, an assurance of God’s Providence in a time of dashed hopes, a conviction that, as the patriarch Joseph said when he forgave the brothers who left him for dead, “what was intended for evil, God has used for good.”
I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
This is a statement of audacious hope, mixed with both humility and surrender to the will of God. The hope is that what God begins, God will complete. Yet we don’t fully understand God’s ways or God’s will, because we are not God. Nor do we know when or how the promised completion or fulfillment will come.
Paul gives several examples of grace working through adversity. Then concludes this part of the letter with an exhortation:
Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.
Going back to the journaling question about what we hold in our hearts, I need to acknowledge that I receive these words of hope and spiritual groundedness, through the filter of my emotional state and experiences. Sometimes I can take them in; other times I can't. But no matter. The wisest of spiritual guides assure us that we can bring to God all that we feel, all that we fear, all that causes us to worry. God knows our feelings. Some of our feelings necessarily lead to action. Others simply need to be held, regulated internally and not acted on, which is one of the most difficult challenges of leadership.
The point here is that no matter our emotional or intellectual reactions to this or any other word of Scripture or event in life, we are safe with God. In prayer we don’t need to will ourselves to be someone we’re not. We needn’t pretend that we aren’t heartbroken when we are--or tired, or discouraged, or uncertain. God invites us to lay our whole selves alongside the promise of the gospel so that we can draw upon Christ’s strength to carry on.
A bit further in his letter, Paul assures the Phillipians, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” This is a mantra of faith and trust. I’ve been saying it a lot these days.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
I can fail through Him who strengthens me and learns from my failures.
I can rest through him who strengthens me.
I can forgive through Him who strengthens me.
Keep in mind that a life worthy of the gospel is not a perfect life. It's not a superhero life. A life worthy of the gospel is one of brokenness and imperfection redeemed by grace. It is a life of sin made whole through forgiveness. We are clay jars, Paul reminds us in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power comes from God and does not belong to us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)
I end this reflection by reminding us all of the process of transformation that can only occur when we come up against the limits of our capacities and strengths, when we’ve done all we can and it’s not enough, and so must rely upon a different energy and grace to grow larger inside and be changed into the person we are not yet but are called to become.
In secular leadership circles this process is sometimes called “adaptive work” or “adaptive leadership,” when we must lead, in the words of Susan Beaumont, “when we don’t know where we’re going.”2 This is when we must set our sights toward a future that we cannot see, and draw upon gifts that we do not, as yet, have. This is what St. Paul describes in another letter as “Walking by faith and not by sight.” It is the spiritual process of sanctification, becoming more holy, and more our true selves over time by the grace of God.
A few of us heard the author and Harvard professor Ron Heiftz speak of this adaptive challenge last week at the Leadership Institute of Church of the Resurrection. Heifetz, a devout Jew, spoke to us in the midst of the High Holy days of Judaism, and all of the examples to make his points from that seminal period of Judaism and Christianity after Jesus’ resurrection and the Roman response to the Jewish uprising in Palestine.
He said that whenever we find ourselves at that adaptive edge, either personally or as a people, we do well to ask ourselves three questions:
What is essential to us, that we must preserve no matter the cost?
What do we need to surrender or let go?
To meet new realities, what innovations and new behavior are needed now?
For today, set aside your answers on these questions for others, or the church, and answer them for yourself.
Thank you for listening. You will soon receive an invitation to join a breakout session. These are self-facilitating groups. Take a moment to introduce yourselves and read through the questions. Agree upon the time each person will have to speak, and keep time. There will be a break after the small group for lunch and we’ll reconvene at 1:15 for the second session:
Here are suggested questions for the first breakout session. Feel free to pick among them or choose another.
What good work begun in you has been interrupted or changed in the last 6 months? How does Paul’s promise of God’s completion rest on your heart?
What comes to mind in response to Paul’s exhortation: “Live your life in a manner of the gospel of Christ?”
Do you have a burning question or concern, like the young Korean woman in Howard Thurman’s account, that defines your life now? Do those around you?
Which of Heiftz’s three questions--What must we preserve and carry forward, no matter what? What must we let go of or stop doing? What innovations are needed in light of new realities?--resonates in your life?
Session Two: The Power of Emptiness
Welcome back. I hope that you had a refreshing break.
In this session, we turn to the classic passage of Phillipians 2, often called the “Christ Hymn.” Due to its poetic quality, it’s assumed to be a hymn of praise that Paul quotes in his letter, as we all do when we quote another source, to underscore his message.
Hear the hymn in the context of Paul’s words. Again, read along if you like, or simply sit back and listen, imagining yourself hearing these words for the first time.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labour in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you--and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me. Philippians 2:1-13
The Christ Hymn is an early articulation of what would eventually become the Christian doctrine of Incarnation--the conviction that in Jesus, “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,”(Col. 2:9) that in Jesus, God “has visited us in great humility.” (Book of Common Prayer). Theological understanding of Christ’s incarnation would evolve and deepen over time. It is the central mystery of our faith: God came in Jesus of Nazareth. God comes to us in Christ.
Paul’s purpose in evoking this hymn is clear--to encourage the Philippians to see in Jesus not only their Lord, but, “their life long patten,” to quote the Christmas carol. Humility is the central virtue here: not low self regard, but a willingness to put others first, to love sacrificially. “Even though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself.” Paul suggests that the road to faithfulness is through our own experiences of emptiness--emptying ourselves, and being emptied by the slings and arrows of life.
The first experience of emptiness, that of self-emptying, is the spiritual practice of intentionally setting aside some of who we are to make room for someone else. We set aside some of our thoughts, preoccupations, opinions in order to be fully present to another. We make space in ourselves for another person’s experience.
I’m currently participating in Sacred Ground, the Episcopal Church’s 10-session study of race and faith. As a white person, I feel as if I’m emptying part of who I am to make space to hear, see, and better understand the experiences of others. In the realm of pastoral care, I once took a course in which we learned the practice of “emptying our cup,” before beginning a conversation with another. We were to think of our inner state as a cup of tea full to the brim, with no room for more; then to imagine emptying it, making room for more. Again, we empty something of ourselves to make room for someone else.
We’re asked to empty ourselves for others in every relationship of our lives. It is the way we show our love, by making space, putting their needs first. That’s not to say that we become proverbial doormats for others to walk over; paradoxically, the stronger our internal sense, the greater our capacity for self-emptying can be, if we are practiced in love. In this light, I think of all those who have given and are giving so much now for others’ sake, including all of you.
I’d like to explore with you another experience of emptiness, that of being emptied by the struggles and pain of life and a feeling of emptiness that is part of our human condition. This is an emptiness that Christ took on himself in becoming human and in so doing, honored and blessed.
Years ago, when I was a serious student of family systems theory, I read a series of articles by Dr. Thomas Fogerty, a renowned family therapist. In them, he described the emotional phenomenon of emptiness as made up of many feelings, such as loneliness or sadness; of feeling uncared for or a failure, or that something important in life is missing.
It was Fogarty’s belief that going into a state of emotional emptiness is the price we must pay to grow or change. Often we don’t want to pay that price, and we do all we can to avoid thinking about it.
To some extent, Fogarty wrote, we all avoid emptiness by seeking relief in activities. Our culture teaches us to camouflage emptiness with speed--moving so quickly that we don’t have time to reflect. We can live our entire lives this way, and we often do until something happens--like a pandemic--that stops us in our tracks. While no one wishes for a crisis, it’s not uncommon to hear people eventually express gratitude for whatever it was that brought about an inner transformation.
Sometimes, however, we hear an invitation to lean into emptiness. Think of Jesus emptying himself in this way--entering into the existential emptiness that we all feel.
Fogarty makes an important distinction between the emptiness that can be successfully remedied from that which we must accept as part of life. One example he gives from his work as a family therapist is the emptiness that results when we seek from our relationships what can only be cultivated within ourselves, such as personal responsibility and decision making, self-worth and respect, inner discipline and spiritual practice, the development of core values and goals. But this is an emptiness that we can overcome by redirecting misguided energy to its rightful place. It takes work and a bit of coaching, but it can be done.
There is another experience of emptiness, however, that we can’t work to overcome because it stems from the natural incompleteness of life. “No matter how hard or long we try,” Fogarty writes, “we will never be complete. We cannot be complete as individuals and we cannot be completed by another person, possession, or accomplishment. Consequently everyone feels a little lonely, inadequate or a failure, which is to say, empty inside.”3
It’s important that we realize that imperfection is the natural state of things. For if we don’t, we will forever seek to fill the emptiness that cannot be filled with all manner of things, and mistakenly assume that we’re supposed to do something to change it. But what this emptiness calls for is acceptance and gentle perseverance with the lives we’ve been given. With acceptance comes peace and greater capacity to love.
I invite you to hold the emptiness inside you and offer it to God. Don’t imagine that it’s yours or anyone else’s to change, fix, or fill. Let it be. Allow the love of Christ to wash over you and give you what you need. In Christ, you have a place to go with all the feelings and frustrations that you carry in your hearts, alongside your highest aspirations and dreams. To Christ, you can take your concerns for yourselves and those you love.
To cultivate such a relationship requires what all relationships require -- time, space, and intention. But rest assured that is an area of prayer in which Christ is eager to meet us far more than halfway. Think of Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans, “The Spirit dwelling within will guide us in ways to pray. For it is there that we find the acceptance, forgiveness, and strength we need to receive the emptiness of our lives with compassion. As we do, we grow large enough inside to hold what life asks of us, with love in our hearts to share.
Much of my adult life I have spent making peace with emptiness. What I have learned is that it is helpful to name it, for myself and in prayer; to accept it, without pretending it doesn’t hurt, but also realizing that, like Paul’s thorn in his side, it will not always be taken from me. Like Paul, I have learned that God’s grace is sufficient; that God’s strength is revealed and shared through my weakness. It is my offering. To the degree that is true for you, I pray this session has been helpful.
Suggested Questions for Second Break Out Session:
What part of the Christ Hymn or Paul’s exhortation speaks to you?
Where in your life are you being asked to empty your cup in order to have room to care for others?
Where, if at all, do you experience the existential emptiness that Thomas Fogerty describes? How does God speak to you there?
Closing Session: Holding Fast to What is Good
Hear these closing words from Paul:
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:8
I once sat in an grounded airplane for 5 hours in 90 degree heat with no air conditioning. It was the second leg of a return trip from overseas for most of us on the plane, and we were miserable.
Next to me sat a woman who was practiced in the art of complaining. Granted there was plenty to complain about, but listening to her lash out at everyone in the airline industry as if they were personally responsible for her inconvenience was more than I could bear.
A few rows ahead of us sat a man who has mastered the art of cheerfulness without being the least bit irritating. He wanted our plane to get in the air as much as anyone, but he kept a calm and reassuring demeanor. He spoke kindly to the children near him and supported the frazzled airline personnel.
I withdrew completely and pretended to be asleep and eventually we took off and I made it home. I often thought of those two travel companions as a perfect study in contrasts. One was practiced in finding fault with life; the other practiced in seeing the good.
I sometimes ask myself what kind of travel companion I want to be, not only on airplanes but in life. In our culture of critique, it takes absolutely no energy, not one once of creativity to be negative. Cynicism is so easy. But it takes real effort, energy, and creativity to offer a genuine word of kindness, hope, and love. It takes practice.
Paul reminds us that it’s important to make room in our lives for joy and actively seek out the good. As we bring our day together to a close, I urge you to think on all the things that restore your soul and faith in humankind. Hold them in your heart. Make room for them in your day. Trust that the God who began a good work in you will see it through to completion, that you can do all things through the One who strengthens you.
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best. Blessings and peace to you all.
1 Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), pp. 11-12.
2 Susan Beaumont, How to Lead When You Don't Know Where You're Going (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).
3 Thomas Fogarty, “On Emptiness and Closeness I; On Emptiness and Closeness II"
June 17, 2018
We are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord--for we walk by faith, not by sight.
2 Corinthians 5:6
He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’ He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’ With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
There are two “origin stories” when it comes to the celebration of Father’s Day in this country. In one, a woman named Sonora Smart Dodd, while listening to a Mother’s Day sermon in church, decided that she wanted to help establish a similar celebration to honor fathers, because, as you might expect, her own father was an extraordinary man. He was a Civil War veteran who raised Sonora and her five siblings alone after his wife died in childbirth. So in 1916, Sonora Dodd organized a Father’s Day commemoration throughout her home city of Spokane, Washington.
But there’s also a story about a Father’s Day celebration two years earlier, in Fairmont, West Virginia. There a woman named Grace Golden Clayton suggested to the Methodist minister in town that they hold services to honor the fathers who had been killed in a deadly mine explosion that took the lives of 361 men.
While neither commemoration sparked a movement, gradually momentum grew to make Father’s Day a national holiday, as Mother’s Day had been in 1914. But it wasn’t until 1972 that Father’s Day received the same official recognition. At times in the intervening years, the idea was strongly resisted by some, and twice the U.S. Congress voted it down.
Why is that, do you suppose? Have we, as a society, underestimated the importance of fathers, relative to that of mothers, in raising children? My parents divorced when I was an infant, and in the early 1960s it was inconceivable that fathers were of equal importance as mothers in the raising of children. Yes, the father's role was to provide financial support, but mothers were the primary source of emotional support.
Our collective understanding has changed considerably since then, and our laws are starting to reflect that, with a movement toward joint custody in cases of divorce and even paid parental leave for fathers as well as mothers. For a father’s emotional support is something we go looking for, in one form or another, in any number of relationships, no matter how present or absent, our own fathers were.
In other countries, the tradition of honoring fathers goes back to the Middle Ages. Where national holidays are influenced by Roman Catholicism, Father’s Day is typically celebrated on March 19th, the Feast of St. Joseph.
This week I’ve been thinking about Joseph, Jesus’ adopted father. We don’t know very much about him, for he disappears from biblical accounts well before Jesus begins his public ministry. In one tradition, Joseph is assumed to have been much older than Mary when they married and presumably died when Jesus was a child. In other accounts, Joseph is imagined as a young man who was perhaps killed when, in response to a peasant uprising, Romans soldiers brutally attacked the nearby town of Sepphoris, where he, as a carpenter, would have found work. There are references in the gospels that suggest Mary and Joseph had several more children after Jesus was born, but Joseph himself is rarely mentioned.
Yet in the few biblical passages where Joseph is the main character, he is portrayed as extraordinary man who, to use the imagery from St. Paul’s words to us this morning, walked by faith and not by sight. Those passages are found in one of the accounts of Jesus’ birth that we sometimes read in church in the weeks leading up to Christmas. But we don’t always read them, because we tend to focus on Mary, Jesus’ mother.
So hear them now, on Father’s Day:
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.’ . . . When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.
Then comes the story of the wise men from the East in search of the King of the Jews, their conversations with King Herod and eventual arrival in Bethlehem where they offered him precious gifts. The story of Joseph continues:
Now after they (the Wise Men) had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
And a bit further on:
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth.
That’s about all we know of Joseph. And what do these vignettes tell us about the man who raised Jesus as his son?
First, we know that Joseph was kind. No matter how devastated he was to learn that his betrothed was pregnant with a child not his own, he refused to publicly shame her, as cultural norms would have encouraged.
Second, equally important, we learn that Joseph was a man of faith--not in the sense of believing certain things about God, but in his willingness to walk through a time of great darkness and confusion according to the small bits of light that came to him. He dared to trust that the voice he heard in his dreams was of God and to live according to what he heard, no matter how little he understood.
I invite you to think back on your life, on those times when you had to trust your intuition and walk, as Joseph did, by faith and not by sight.
For most of us, those are typically times of disorientation, when we’ve lost our bearings, or when certain aspects of life no longer make sense to us. Times of grief can be like this, or whenever we’re feeling completely overwhelmed.
In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.
So begins the great medieval poem by Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy in which he begins a journey walking by faith and not by sight. He goes on:
It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.
It is an astonishing, miraculous truth: good can come from those dark and disorienting places. But when we’re in them, first we have to get through them, which requires us to keep going, to keep walking in the dark.
If, in those times, like Joseph, we’re blessed to hear some sort of inner guide--an intuition, a hunch, a guiding inspiration--he would encourage us to listen to it and trust it. He would tell us what follows from that act of trust can be one of the greatest experiences of intimacy with God. We wouldn’t wish the darkness on anyone, but when we’re in it, we can feel profound gratitude for the bits of insight that help us to walk by faith when our sight fails.
I heard a story on the radio yesterday, told by a young man, about one of the happiest summers of his childhood. He was six years old at the time, and he and his father were living alone, “like two bachelors in their 20s.” They were moving one city to another, traveling by car with rock music blaring. It was heaven, he said. They ate cereal for dinner whenever they wanted; they scouted out toy stores on the road, in search of action figures. They rarely took baths. It was a magical time, spent with his very best friend, his dad.
And why were they alone? Because earlier that year, his mother had died. That was the saddest memory of his childhood, so oddly contrasted with his joy he remembers now in the months that followed. As an adult, he’s now trying to understand what it was like for his father in that season of grief, who did everything he could to who ensure that his young son would have happy memories that summer.
How did he do it? His son, now himself a man, wonders. How did he stay so strong? Where in their tiny apartment, did he go to cry that his son didn’t see? While he didn’t use the language of Scripture to describe his dad, surely here was a man walking not by sight, but by whatever bits of light that lit up his darkness.
Once we’ve had this kind of experience, of walking by faith in a time of disorientation and uncertainty, when we’re received sufficient inner light to guide us, then we can help others do the same. We do so not by attempting to illuminate their path with our light, no matter how much we might want to, but rather by encouraging them to pay attention to their intuitions, their dreams, the voices that come to them in the dark.
There’s a wonderful example of this in another story in the Bible, from the ancient Jewish text known as First Samuel. It’s the story of Samuel, a young boy born blessedly and unexpectedly to an elderly couple who never thought they could have children. In thanksgiving, his mother, Hannah, brought him to be mentored by one of the wise priests in the Temple, whose name was Eli.
One night as Samuel lay sleeping, he awoke to a voice calling his name: “Samuel! Samuel!” Assuming that it was Eli, Samuel ran to him and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Eli said to him, “I didn’t call you, my son. Go back to sleep.” The same thing happened two more times. The third time Samuel came to him, Eli realized that God was speaking to the boy in the darkness. When he sent him back to bed, he said to Samuel, “The next time you hear a voice call your name, simply say, ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.’ Then wait and listen for what the Lord will say to you.” (I Samuel 3:1-10)
I wonder, when Jesus was a child, growing up with Mary and Joseph, how Joseph encouraged Jesus to trust the inner voice of God speaking to him. It’s not so hard to imagine. For whatever degree we have experienced that kind of grace guiding us, we can encourage those in our circles of relationship--be they children, friends, or even our parents as the relationship between us evolves with age--to do the same. We can encourage them to walk faith and not by sight, to pay attention to the ways insight and guidance comes, not unlike the mustard seed that Jesus spoke of in the passage we read earlier. These small bits have the potential to guide us through the darker times, step by step. It’s one of the greatest gifts parents can give their children, teachers their students, anyone helping another who is coming up behind them in some area of life: the encouragement to trust their own inner intuition, where God speaks to them.
There’s much more we can glean from the story of Joseph. A pastor I admire, Adam Hamilton, dedicated an entire Advent sermon series sermon to the life of Joseph which I commend to you.
Let me close here where I began to underscore the importance of Joseph’s kindness, and of kindness in particular. When Jesus spoke of God, as his heavenly Father, he did so with an extraordinary confidence in God’s lovingkindness. Consider the parable of the Prodigal Son, as but one example, in which the father waits for the opportunity to welcome home his wayward child and gently teaches the elder brother what it means to love. Is it not likely, Hamilton suggests, that Joseph was that kind of a father to Jesus?
We were created with great capacity for kindness, as God is kind. Is that not why we are so heartbroken, outraged, even, by how children and parents are being treated at our southern borders? No matter your position on immigration policy, surely there is a higher calling for us now, rooted in the lovingkindness of God for all people.
As we go about our lives with one another, stumbling as we often do, in dark woods of our own, not sure of our way; as we seek to trust the ways God may speak to us through our intuition and dreams and the voices of friend and stranger, I hope that we all can remember to be kind--kind to ourselves and one another--as Joseph was kind.
Remember the kindnesses you have received from the fathers of your life and what they meant to you. Thank them, if you can today. Commit yourself today to similar acts of kindness, large and small, in the week ahead, remembering what a difference such kindness means to you when you are on the receiving end. From small things, Jesus reminds us, great things can happen. We never know where and when and how the seed of kindness will bear fruit. Often our kindness can help illuminate someone else’s darkness and give them courage to believe in a loving God when they must walk by faith and not by sight.