18 December 2022 – Fourth Sunday of Advent
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
I almost never remember my dreams. And if I do they tend to be ridiculous presider’s nightmare type of things where I’m supposed to be in church and the opening hymn is starting, but for some reason I can’t find my stole, or something, and I’m running around like a maniac looking for it…
But on the rare occasion when the dream is about something other than just some free-floating anxiety…and I do happen to remember it…and I talk to some one about it, and they don’t just say, “yeah, that sounds weird,” on those very, very rare occasions…I may have gotten an insight into…something.
Which is all to say that I am…a bit skeptical about today’s Gospel. Joseph having a dream and just waking up and doing exactly what he was told…is…let’s say…WAY outside of my experience.
But as I thought about it, I remembered those rare times when I had a dream that did provide insight…and I wondered…maybe Joseph talked to someone…I mean, he wasn’t the only one who had a visit from a divine messenger about this. Granted, Mary’s vision is in Luke, and we’re reading Matthew…and it’s a fools errand to try to make the birth narratives of those two texts line up in any coherent way…but let’s imagine for a moment, shall we…
Luke’s focus is on the women: Mary who is visited by the angel, then goes to see her cousin Elizabeth who lives a really long ways away…she stays there for three months…and then returns home. Is that when she tells Joseph about her divine visitation? Or did she just “ponder these things in her heart” and keep it to herself? There is zero indication in Luke or Matthew that Mary says anything to Joseph…But she returns—clearly pregnant—and he (being a righteous, and very kind man) decides to “dismiss her quietly” so that she doesn’t have to bear any public shame.
But then Matthew tells this story about his dream. So I can imagine a scene where Joseph wakes up, and is…perplexed…and says to Mary, “you know, I had the weirdest dream last night,”…and when he starts to tell her about it, she says, “The same thing happened to me, only it wasn’t a dream, it was actually Gabriel who showed up…NO! Really!…and he said the exact same thing…”
Again, there is zero evidence in the text that this happened… But it’s really hard to believe that the two of them never had a conversation about this. Plus, I like to think that God is always working at breaking down the patriarchy—and so—working through Mary and Joseph in this way—bringing them together in this…shared mission of birthing this child…God is helping them develop a relationship that is just slightly more egalitarian. I mean maybe they were both just that righteous…Maybe. But clearly they had a shared experience…so maybe they actually shared that experience—talked about it—and that conversation made all the difference.
Because conversations really can change you. You know the words conversation and conversion share a root. Convertere means “to turn together.” Conversations are often how we are converted. And all true conversations—if they are really conversations and not just people taking turns spouting opinions at each other—all true conversations carry the risk and reward of conversion. When you are really in conversation with someone you are opening yourself to conversion…to turning with them.
Again, zero textual basis for this, but I think that’s what happened…I don’t think Joseph just woke up and did what he was told…I think he had a conversation with Mary and was converted to sharing God’s dream with her…the dream of healing the world through—what was then still just a human embryo…
I say zero textual basis, but that’s not quite accurate…because all through scripture God seems to prefer working through conversations. God converses with Adam and Eve, with Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, with Moses, and Elijah, and Job…It’s through a conversation with Eli that Samuel figures out what God is trying to tell him. It’s through a conversation with Nathan that David realizes how badly he’s messed up…God tries to convert Ahaz today by sending Isaiah to converse with him…but Ahaz won’t listen.
We typically refer to Mary’s meeting with the divine messenger as “The Annunciation,” but really it’s a conversation. The angel comes and says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” And she is “much perplexed.” So Gabriel lays it out for her…”here’s what’s going to happen…” And she could be like Joseph and just not say anything and do what she’s told. But that’s not Mary. She asks a question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” And so the angel explains about the Holy Spirit, and about her cousin Elizabeth… And only then does she say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” It’s a conversation…a short conversation…but a conversation none-the-less, and a life-changing, converting one, to say the least. (Luke 2:22-38).
One of my mentors, Sam Portaro wrote this about Mary’s conversation with the angel: “God is certainly straightforward and blunt, especially for the kind intimate and personal engagement experienced by […] Mary. And […] Mary […is] right to be cautious with such invitation to engagement. Conversation is a dangerous business; it can change your life. Look at Mary[…]” She was not the same after her conversation with God.
Sam points out that, from this point on in scripture, we have very few pronouncements or Annunciations and a lot more conversations, because from this point on he says, “the Word is made flesh… God enters the conversation at our level, in a helpless and vulnerable infant who [grows] into a precocious but thoughtful child who [grows] into a gentle, even taciturn, man who said very little but carried on the most intimate of conversations in a life open for all to see. No more annunciations, only conversation—and a child born not as a sign or wonder, but a invitation to intimacy, opening a conversation with power to change us all.” (Portaro, Brightest and Best: A Companion to Lesser Feasts and Fasts. p. 66)
So go ahead and share your dreams…share your visions…share your struggles with one another…and with God. Engage in the holiest of conversations…open yourself to being converted to God’s dream for you…for us…and for the whole community of creation.