Come home to Calvary
Above Average Joe
We can choose a better way.
The Gritty Context
The gospels contain multiple versions of Jesus’ birth. We like to lump them all together for the sake of that darling new nativity set, but the way Matthew tells it is quite different, particular. Matthew sees it all through the eyes of Joseph, careful not to claim Joseph as Jesus’ birth father. Had Joseph been the father, he could’ve just moved up the wedding and paid off Mary’s father, but Matthew doesn’t allow for that.
As we hear the story again today, think of at-risk women in the rural Deep South, in Texas, in Utah, in Afghanistan, in Iran, women who need support. The law required Mary to be publicly shamed and possibly executed. Somewhere in the world right now, an “honor killing” is being enacted against someone—male or female—that disobeyed the construct of gender expectations.
Matthew uses the word diakaios to describe Joseph, which means righteous under the law and blameless before God. But what are we to do when the love of God contradicts an unjust law? Joseph “spoils the [already] spoiled system of sexual double standards that would demand a woman’s life.” Joseph breaks the law in order to choose a better way and follow God’s command. I always wondered where Jesus got it from, that righteous rebellious streak! It comes from his stepdad, the original Original Joe.
OT & NT Josephs
Were I to ask you to name a biblical Joseph, you might think of the boy in the outrageously tacky overcoat, Old Testament Joseph, Jacob’s son, the one who interpreted dreams and eventually landed his own Broadway musical. That Joseph teaches us how to be fabulous. New Testament Joseph is more of an average Joe. He’s portrayed in every Christmas pageant by the boy most terrified of public speaking. New Testament Joseph is known not by his wardrobe nor his words but by his actions. He chooses a better way.
Arguing With a Christmas Carol
Most of what we claim to know about Joseph is completely made up. The old traditional Christmas carol “The Cherry Tree” has musicological roots that reach back to the Middle Ages. Countless versions have been handed down through Europe and the British Isles, eventually coming into this country through the people of Appalachia, my people. The Cherry Tree Carol is a cheeky example of how not to teach the Bible. Here goes.
Joseph was an old man,
And an old man was he;
He wedded virgin Mary,
The Queen of Galilee.
Scholars place Mary’s age around 14. She was a subject of the Roman Empire, a Jew, a girl, a nobody, the queen of nothing. Likewise, there is no mention of Joseph’s age. Tradition made Joseph an old man, a father figure, in an attempt to support the virgin birth.
When Joseph was married,
And brought Mary home;
Mary was with child
And Joseph hadn’t known.
In v. 18 of today’s gospel lesson, Mary and Joseph are engaged and living separately. In the next verse, they’re married. In v. 20, an angel who obviously missed v. 19, tells Joseph to take Mary as his wife. It all gets sorted in v. 24, where that finally happens. These translation problems illustrate how concepts like “husband,” “wife,” and “marriage” change with time.
As they went a-walking
In the garden so green;
There were cherries and berries
Hanging down from a tree.
Up then spoke Mary
So meek and so mild;
Saying “Joseph pluck some cherries
For I am with child.”
In anger spoke Joseph,
In anger spoke he,
“Let the father of your baby
Pluck those cherries for thee.” [ ! ]
Then out spoke baby Jesus
From his mother’s womb,
“Mary shall have cherries
And Joseph shall have none.”
And down bowed the cherry tree
All down to the ground;
And Mary plucked the cherries
While Joseph stood around.
Real People, Real Problems
None of that is in the Bible. Magical trees aside, fictions like this serve a useful purpose by humanizing Mary and Joseph. Of course they were stressed out! Who wouldn’t be? The girl on whom Joseph has bet everything is carrying someone else’s baby. And there they go, off to Bethlehem, ordered by the Empire. As your bulletin cover illustrates, all this caused Joseph to take a power nap. That’s when it happened. In a vivid dream, like Scrooge, Joseph is visited by a messenger, the ghost of salvation future, an angel who declares the baby begotten of (fathered by) God and that together, Joseph and Mary shall raise a son who will save the people. His very name means salvation. Joseph trusts God’s message.
For most guys I know, it would take more than divine intervention for them to believe Mary’s story. Perhaps you do not believe in the story of the virgin birth. You’re not alone. In 1936, the Presbyterian Church (USA), left behind the doctrinal requirement of the virgin birth. We do not preach an authoritative alternative to the virgin birth (other than biology), leaving the door open for holy questions and more meaning to spring from this ancient story.
The Davidic Lineage
Here’s the most challenging part. Scripture is clear that the Messiah must be a descendent of King David. Last week at Coffee Hour, someone asked me the question of questions. If Joseph is not the birth father of Jesus, how then do we claim Jesus descended from David? Here’s an attempt at an answer. The ancient Jews believed that adoption held extraordinary power. Once a stepfather taught his adopted son Torah and showed him God’s ways through scripture, the son was transferred into the adopted father’s lineage. Jewish midrash argues that whoever leads a child to faith becomes that child’s true parent. That’s how Joseph made Jesus the Messiah. Love is thicker than blood. Transformation requires us to choose a better way.
Adoption & Fatherhood
Adoption still holds transformative power in my life. Three years ago, my husband Lou and I welcomed into our home a 28-year-old Guatemalan asylum-seeker. Peter Pérez has awakened in us paternal instincts we never suspected. Some nights when Peter is late coming home and Lou can’t sleep, he wakes me saying, “It’s two in the morning! Do you think Peter’s okay?” And I reply, “He walked here from Guatemala, he’ll be fine.” Sometimes I sound like I attended the Wednesday Addams School of Pastoral Care.
Like OT Joseph (Genesis 37), Peter’s brothers beat him and left him for dead. This was their response to Peter confessing to them the truth about his sexual orientation. So now, Lou and I are his family, his proud padres. Peter calls Lou his Mama Pollito (Mother Hen), and I am his Papá Gallo (Daddy Rooster).
It wasn’t all that long ago that we were happy as clams and childless—the stumps Rev. Marci preached on last week. When we chose to let the Holy Spirit inspire us to care for Peter, we began to see how our lives might mean more than we thought. Now someone will remember us when we’re gone as his loving parents. Our non-traditional “family is not one of blood but is linked through respect and love in each other’s life.”
My HIV Journey
Somedays it still feels like a dream, a welcome relief to the nightmare I was imagining for myself. Let me back up and tell you my well-guarded story.
I was never supposed to live this long. In 1992 I tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. I received that death sentence while living in Atlanta, Georgia. At the age of 28, my doctor told me to expect a few more good years. During those years, while waiting to die, I watched my friends suffer and succumb to AIDS, one by one. Every one of them died alone and afraid. Similar to Joseph’s initial plan for Mary, they had put themselves away somewhere private until the shame passed away with their suffering.
To get through the work week, I isolated the parts of myself that needed the most love. A mountain of shame and stigma was heaped on all of us by TV Christians and opportunistic politicians.  It kept me fearful of telling my friends. Besides, I didn’t want to be the sick one, the shamed one, pitiful. I decided to leave Atlanta after the Georgia governor’s office leaked a proposal that would seize the medical records of everyone who had ever taken an HIV test. Using the Cuban response to AIDS as a model, politicians were discerning whether to put us all into camps, to protect the public.
I fled my home and my well-connected life in Atlanta for my personal safety. I drove to the Promised Land of California seeking a life that was unavailable in Georgia, just as families with transgender children move here now. 
You are looking at what became of a panicked 28-year-old whose doctor told him to get his affairs in order. Twenty-two years ago, I moved here to die. If I hadn’t met Lou Grosso, I would have. I have now lived longer with HIV than without it. Health is more than a diagnosis. Advances in medicine make old age possible for me. Love makes the struggle worth it.
I discovered something. Waiting around to die gets old, and it denies the core promise of our faith. My diagnosis is now a gift. I get to witness my own resurrection every day. I have been saved for a life I did not expect, the life I did not earn. What am I to do with all this grace?
Discovering this following poem prompted me to share my story with you today.
The Facts of Life by Pádraig Ó Tuama
That you were born
and you will die.
That you will sometimes love enough
and sometimes not.
That you will lie
if only to yourself.
That you will get tired.
That you will learn most from the situations
you did not choose.
That there will be some things that move you
more than you can say.
That you will live
that you must be loved.
That you will avoid questions most urgently in need of
That you began as the fusion of a sperm and an egg of two people who once were strangers and may well still be.
That life isn’t fair.
That life is sometimes good
and sometimes better than good.
That life is often not so good.
That life is real
and if you can survive it, well,
survive it well
and meaning given
where meaning’s scarce.
That you will learn to live with regret.
That you will learn to live with respect.
That the structures that constrict you
may not be permanently constricting.
That you will probably be okay.
That you must accept change
before you die
but you will die anyway.
So you might as well live
and you might as well love.
You might as well love.
You might as well love.
In the name of the non-traditional Holy Family, I declare to you:
Every person is worthy of love and respect.
Every family is a holy family. Amen.
 Thomas Bohache, The Queer Bible Commentary, 2nd edition (London: Orbis, 2022), “Matthew”.
 The dialogue style of the Cherry Tree Carol can be traced back to medieval Syria. Fun Fact: The Cherry Tree Carol was the first thing I heard our choir sing on my first Sunday at Calvary, December 2013.
 Tom Verde “Sorry, Roy Moore. Joseph Wasn’t Twice Mary’s Age” Politico, November 17, 2017, accessed online at < https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/11/17/sorry-roy-moore-joseph-wasnt-twice-marys-age-215838/> (December 1, 2022)
 Actually, the baby is begotten of the Holy Spirit, which, in the Greek Bible (New Testament) and parts of the Hebrew (Old Testament) Bible, the Spirit is female in gender. This also destabilizes our conventional binary gender system. Some say that Jesus had two fathers: God the Father Almighty and Joseph the stepfather. In a closer reading that takes into account the gender of the Holy Spirit, Jesus could be said to have two mothers: the virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit. Neither of these arguments will make you popular, although they might increase your faith.
 In the resource we use this Advent, The Rev. Dr. Christine Hong argues that Joseph should have done the right thing without divine intervention, implying, I hope, that we should do the right thing without divine intervention. While I completely agree with her point, I do not agree with her estimation of Joseph’s context. How can one be completely righteous both in the eyes of God and follow laws that require violence against women? The term diakainos is, at its least, cause for further study.
 “On what basis do we relate Aaron’s sons with Moses? Since he taught them Torah. And it is written about him as if he begot them. And therefore it is said that on the day that the Lord spoke to Moses at Sinai: Who made the sons of Aaron be called by Moses? The Torah that God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai. Thus you should teach that whoever teaches his friend’s son Torah the scriptures say that he has begotten him.” (Midrash Aggada, Numbers 3, A)
 “The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof.” Richard Bach, Illusions.
 Pat Robertson’s hit parade at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat_Robertson_controversies#Comments_on_AIDS> (December 2, 2022)
 The cruelty towards people with AIDS was actually an expression of homophobia, < https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2005/history-anti-gay-movement-1977> (December 4, 2022)
 “I left my home in Georgia / headed for the Frisco Bay / because I had nothing to live for / looked like nothing’s gonna come my way.” Otis Redding (1968)
 Padraig Ó Tuana, Sorry for Your Troubles (London: Canterbury Press, 2013), “The Facts of Life”.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
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 fulfil 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.