God love the angels. Again and again, they show up heralding their catch phrase “Do not be afraid” as though this time, maybe we’ll be convinced. But here’s the problem, angels are terrifying. Whether they come disguised as strangers or six-winged seraphs, they are scary all on their own. What’s more, angels have a habit of showing up during trauma. They come crashing heaven into the earth, then they have the nerve to look at us and say “Do not be afraid!” Seriously. And here’s what I can’t get past.
The angels are right. Somewhere in each of us we know that. We know, we do not have to be afraid, and we probably need to hear the angel say it even though he knows, and God knows, and you know there’s no way we can believe it in this moment. In this moment, heaven is crashing into the earth, an angel is talking to you, and everything is terrifying, but first fear is a feeling. Then it’s a choice.
What if the “Do not be afraid” is not for right now, but for what happens next? Right now it’s Glory to God in the highest heaven! Right now it’s Shazam! Right now is the crisis, and of course we are scared! Later when you go back and tell the story, that’s when you’ll see. It’s gonna take a minute, but one day we could believe the angels. We could choose this.
Today we hear the story of the birth of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew. In this account, we learn that Joseph was visited by an angel of the Lord while he was dreaming. Not two times, not three times, but on four separate occasions.
After the baby is born and the magi deliver their gifts and pay their homage, an angel confronts Joseph in a dream telling him that they must flee under the cover of darkness and become refugees in Egypt, since Herod is on the warpath trying to kill your newborn. That’s the second time. Three: after Herod died, an angel approached Joseph in his dream and told him to go to Israel, so they did. Four: after being there, Joseph became afraid and sure enough, an angel interrupted his dream to send them to Nazareth.
These days, we know that dreaming plays a key role in regulating our mental health. Dreaming is how our subconscious processes experiences that are distressing or traumatic.1 Heller, Zoe. “Perchance to Dream.” The New Yorker. December 10, 2018. page 26. There’s also a theory that every character in your dream represents you or some dimension of yourself. This makes me wonder whether the angels in Joseph’s dreams serve to confirm something he already knew in his soul, like he needed their pronouncement to make it real.
The first time we hear of an angel finding Joseph it is in the scripture Judy just read. What happened was that Mary and Joseph were engaged but they had not begun living together. This engagement was probably a contract between Mary’s father and Joseph, so Joseph was legally entitled to her faithfulness.2http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1936
Now when she turns up pregnant, it is a serious problem. It means either she cheated on him or she was raped. Either way, it is an attack on Joseph’s honor. He is being shamed both by Mary and by whoever got her pregnant, so he has to do something. Some suggest that if the code from Deuteronomy was in effect, Joseph would be within his right to have Mary publicly tried and stoned to death. (Deuteronomy 22:23-27). He has to restore his honor. He has to do something.
The Bible does not mention how Joseph was feeling. We don’t hear his outrage or humiliation. We don’t know if he felt betrayed by Mary or deeply sad. What we know is that he was not sure what to do, then he decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. He decided to dismiss her quietly. And what if the story ended here…
Joseph was going to do the right thing. You’d think he’d finally be able to get some sleep!
Instead, the angel charges in saying, “Do not be afraid to stand with Mary and take her side in all this.” And okay, maybe it was the first time that occurred to him, but I don’t think so. I think something in Joseph had been wondering: What if. What if Mary is telling the truth? What if I could do more than give her the benefit of the doubt? What if there’s something more important than doing the right thing? I think Joseph was wrestling with all this when the angel arrived and said, “Joseph, you got this. You know what to do. Do not be afraid.”
The first thing is that Joseph made a deliberate decision to not blame Mary. Not just to not kill her. Not just to not leave her. But there comes a moment in his soul when Joseph chooses to withhold his blame. Since we know the other half of it, we know he is choosing well; she has done nothing wrong. But the first thing Joseph teaches is that we get to make this choice too, all the time.
In our world, when it comes to assigning blame, it is easy to get swept up in the crowd. We don’t even realize it. We go along without reading the terms or conditions or anybody’s story, we click on agree and cruise on the currents of popular blame.
So the poor get blamed for being poor. Surely they must be lazy or running a con to get more benefits; their poverty must be their own fault somehow. We blame the migrants who walk for miles across the desert with their children. It’s one thing to disagree on how to best help them, but that’s not even the biggest problem. It’s that we blame them for trying to get help. We blame people dealing with mental illness for their mental illness. We blame addicts for being addicted. We blame the people in trouble for being in trouble.
And if you’re thinking, “Hold on, Mariah! What’s with the Royal We? I don’t go around blaming all these people. That’s not me!” You’re right. The first thing Joseph teaches is that each one of us has to choose for ourselves who we blame and who we don’t. Nobody else can choose that for you. As Joseph demonstrates, each one of us has the power to withhold our blame.
If this is the first thing Joseph teaches, the second is that choosing to stand beside those who are vulnerable comes with risk. Now the risk Joseph took —the risk we take as allies —this is nothing like the risk assigned to the person in the more vulnerable position. In our story, Mary’s life was in danger! Jesus’ life was in danger —he had a bounty on his little head with its little soft spot! Nobody was out to kill Joseph, but of course he was scared.
I don’t know any way to show up and stand beside those who are vulnerable and not feel scared. What I know is that first fear is a feeling, then it’s a choice. While I can’t help feeling it for a minute, I don’t have to choose to claim it, and someday I’ll believe those angels.
The truth is, we can do scary things. We do all the time.
-I know the people who come to our Food Pantry are in situations more vulnerable than mine. Still, it takes courage to do intake. It’s not that hard, but it takes courage.
-A number of us are writing letters to men who are incarcerated in Illinois. These men are more vulnerable than we are, and yet, it’s calling on our courage to reach beyond the stigma and beyond our comfort zone to offer a note of friendship. And what if he doesn’t write back? Or what if he does and wants me to visit? All of this, we’ll figure out together.
-These days our church is considering whether to become Open and Affirming. Among ourselves, we know we mean to welcome all people. How do we communicate this to the world? What if we are wrestling in our own hearts? These conversations take courage. Think of anything meaningful this church has ever done, it has taken our courage.
If you want to know a trick for claiming your own courage, here’s something to try: Look for the littlest children. Look for the kids. Now when there’s been a disaster, Mister Rogers tells the children to look for the helpers. Well, sometimes we are the helpers, and if you need to remember your courage, look at the kids.
This summer I was afraid to visit at the prison, not because of the visiting part, but because of the prison part. When I got to Dixon, there were kids playing outside and a baby and toddler in the waiting area. The thing is, it’s very hard for me to stay scared with little ones crawling around on the floor. This is partly because it evokes our common humanity; at some point, we’ve all crawled around on the floor. Even more, seeing children reminds me that they are counting on us.
The next time you need to remember your own courage, try holding a baby for a minute, and just see if you’re not braver than you’ve ever been. Here this baby is looking up at you, trusting you with her life. God help her. God help anyone who threatens her while she is in your arms.
I know the angels told Joseph “Do not be afraid,” but you know it was the baby who convinced him. It all started when Joseph decided to do the right thing and give Mary the benefit of the doubt. And can you imagine if that had worked… Instead, he stands beside her and they become migrants in need of asylum. Their baby is counting on them.
We’re a church, which means —Still. The kids are counting on us to find our courage under the stars. Still heaven is crashing into the earth. Yes, of course it is scary, and we will find ourselves afraid for a minute, but then what… Still the littlest babies are proving the angels right. Do not be afraid. One day we’ll believe them.