Homily from service on March 20, 2022 – Evensong
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden // The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
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 Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Joseph never speaks. In the canonical gospels, he never says a single word. He dreams (just like his Old Testament namesake). He shoulders tremendous responsibilities: taking a young, pregnant woman (with a child not his own) as his wife, traveling with them to Bethlehem, fleeing with them across borders—becoming refugees in Egypt, returning with them and settling in Nazareth, but in all that, he never says a single word. His is a silent witness to the early years of Jesus’ life.
The earliest Christian writings—the authentic letters of Paul—never mention Joseph. Only in Matthew and Luke—written at the end of the first century—the only two gospels that construct a birth narrative—Only there does Joseph appear as a character, and really more as a literary device than a fully formed character. He’s there to be sure that Jesus can be located in Bethlehem and genealogically through the House of David.
By the time Jesus starts his adult ministry, Joseph is no longer around. Jesus is called “the carpenter’s son.” So we assume that this was Joseph’s trade, but the word is really tekton (think “technical” or “technology”) so whether this means he was someone who made rough hewn wooden yokes and plows, or whether he was an “artisan” who created finely crafted items we will never know. But because of this Joseph has long been known as a patron saint of workers…
There are other, non-canonical ancient writings—apocrypha—that were intentionally left out of the collection we know as the New Testament. In these infancy narratives, that flourished in the first couple of centuries after Jesus’ death—think of them as ancient examples of “fan fiction”—in them, Joseph does appear more prominently. In these he is a faithful, law-abiding Jew who upholds his faithful duties to both the Torah and his “virgin” wife [Infancy Gospel of James, in The Other Bible, p. 389], and he is the only one who actually disciplines the young boy, and insists that he learn to read [Infancy Gospel of Thomas in The Other Bible, p. 400].
It’s easy to see Mary’s influence on Jesus in the scriptures, she’s the one who prompts his first “miracle” at the wedding in Cana in John…we can draw pretty clear parallels between Mary’s song—the Magnificat—in Luke and Jesus’ first sermon (on the mount or on the plain)…Mary sings, God has, “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” [Luke 1:52-53] And Jesus echoes, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled…Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” [Luke6:21,25]. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the meek, [Matthew 5], etc. Mary’s influence on Jesus’ life is clear. But what about Joseph’s? That’s harder to determine.
One of my teachers believes that we can see Joseph’s influence in Jesus’s “down to earth common sense, [in his] appreciation for labor and laborer, [and his] unflinching pragmatism” [Sam Portaro, Brightest and Best, p. 61].
I think that’s probably likely, and I also wonder if we can’t also see Joseph in some of the stories and parables that Jesus told. My own father died when I was a teenager, and there are still stories, idioms, and turns of phrase that I learned from him that I still repeat over and over. And I wonder if this isn’t true of Jesus as well.
Think of the story of the prodigal son…or as it should really be known, the story of the generous father. Tradition has long struggled with how to explain that Jesus had brothers. Some claimed that they were really cousins, others that (since Joseph was older) he had children from a previous marriage. Whatever the case—since there may have been other—possibly older—kids around, couldn’t Jesus have witnessed something like this story playing out between Joseph and these other boys? I know that “the father” in that parable is allegorically God, but what if there is some of Joseph in there as well? A man who loved God and his children with all his might and all his generosity?
Or the Good Samaritan—again, I know the point of the story is that the Samaritan is an outsider, but I can also imagine a scene—maybe when they lived in Egypt—maybe when they were simply coming back from work, and Joseph, with young Jesus in tow, came upon someone needing assistance…and stopped and helped, because that’s what you do.
Did the family have a neighbor who occasionally came and knocked on the door late at night, and Joseph—perhaps grumbling—nevertheless got up, and gave the neighbor what he needed.
And what about those well-known, pithy sayings:
“Don’t put your light under a bushel basket” (Matthew 5:14–15, Mark 4:21–25, Luke 8:16–18).
“The measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Luke 6:38)
“Ask and it will be given, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.” (Matt 7:7, Luke 11:9). These are so familiar in our ears, and, to me, they also sound like things a father might say…and a son might repeat.
There’s a clear line between Mary’s Magnificat and Jesus sermon (mount or plain), and that sermon reaches a climax with the image of trees and the fruit they bear, “no good tree bears bad fruit” (Luke 6:42), therefore, “by their fruit you shall know them” (Matthew 7:20). Not only can I imagine this being something Joseph might have said, it’s also an indication of the type of father he was. If we can see him through the lens of the boy he helped raise, he was a good father, and a good man. No doubt.
It so often feels that we are drowning in sea of patriarchy and toxic masculinity. And the men who are counter examples—who are antibodies to this infection—are too often silent, head-down, “don’t-make-a-fuss” types. And in many ways they also need to find their voice…to no longer be only the “strong silent” types.
I’m grateful that we are celebrating such a man. Someone we don’t know much about, and whose influence is hard to discern, but who I believe has moved the world closer to God’s dream of peace, and justice, and equity…towards shalom. May we all, like Joseph, be “fellow workers in the world’s rebirth.”