God’s Only Plan

As the days move on toward Christmas, I want to welcome you to Blue Christmas at Holy Communion. This is a slightly unconventional way to engage the moment just three days before Christmas. I want to welcome you, whether you are a regular here, or just needed a place to step in out of the chaos that are the roads and workplaces and family gatherings this season. You are welcome. Whatever brought you today. You are welcome.

Take a moment. At church, we don’t need you to put on a happy face, to smile for a picture, to tell everyone you’re doing “fine,” or “surprisingly well.” Take a moment. Be who you are. Be where you are. Maybe there is joy, embrace that joy. Maybe the feelings are more complex. Welcome to Christmas. If we’re honest, Christmas is complicated.

Also, take permission, let the blues music do some of the emotional work for you. I’ve got to tell you, I’m so glad that Larry Gregory and Gene Dobbs Bradford are back with us this year. Your music at this service a couple of years ago made some real space for folks, and I know it will serve similarly this year.

I want to turn to our Gospel story, and to the character of Joseph.

I find myself wondering about Joseph. These few verses tell us more about Joseph than any other in Scripture. We don’t know much about the man who gave Jesus his name, who called him “my son.” We know a bit more about Mary. But these few verses have me intrigued. If the Bible were a movie franchise, and I worked for Disney (because they own all the movie franchises), I would argue Joseph would be a great candidates for an origin story, a film focused just on his backstory. I think Joseph has something to teach us.

While Scripture doesn’t give us very much on Joseph, tradition fills in a bit more. We have a sense that Joseph was probably much older than Mary. It would be easy to get stuck here, to talk about this injustice of marrying a teenager to an older man. Today, let me say simply, thank God (and thank generations of feminist activists) our views on marriage have evolved since the first century.

With that caveat, Joseph surprises. He isn’t the old man husband we expect. Because he listens. He doesn’t react. He responds. He waits. He would have been within his rights to humiliate the girl, but he doesn’t act out. Joseph listened to that dream, he listened to God, and he listened to Mary. He didn’t dismiss her. He believed her. And he chose a surprising path. How did Joseph become this kind of person? How did he buck his masculine training, his sense of the law? How did Joseph show up this way?

Here is my pitch: Here is my wonder: I have this hunch that Joseph’s story matters. Joseph is celebrated as the chosen father for Jesus. In my own life, as my spouse and I are choosing to be fathers for a non-biologically related child, Joseph’s story has a certain resonance this year. I’ll say more about that Christmas Eve. But today, I want to say: “Joseph helped shape the person Jesus would become. And something made Joseph patient. Something made Joseph listen. Something in Joseph’s story, something we don’t know from Scripture itself, I wonder, did it make all the difference?

And was that bit of Joseph’s story, was the part of who Joseph was by the time he married young Mary, was that part shaped by tragedy? What did Joseph lose? Who did Joseph lose? Those are the questions I find myself with just three days before Christmas.

Saint Oscar Romero of El Salvador once preached, “Hay muchas cosas que sólo pueden ser vistas a través de ojos que han llorado.” There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have wept. I wonder if the Joseph who shows up for Mary had to be shaped by loss, by pain. I wouldn’t be surprised if Joseph was a widower, a single parent, someone who had to cope with the loss of a partner, of a care-giver, of a dream of a life.

There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have wept. There are ways of being ourselves that we only learn because we go through loss. There are depths of patience, and ways of slowing down, there are ways of showing up for other people, that we learn when we have to let go of our first dreams, our first loves, our first choices. Loss is one of life’s great teachers. I wonder if it was loss that allowed Joseph to be who God needed Joseph to be for Mary, so God could show up for them both.

If I’m right. If you buy my script, I’ve got to tell you this: I’m sure it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t quick. I’m sure Joseph heard all of the wrong things from folks trying to be comforting, trying to be helpful, but oversimplifying.

There’s a phrase I wish I could ban from church. It’s this: “God has a plan.”

As a preacher, it’s not JUST oversimplification. It’s theologically problematic. If God’s plans all played out, I am sure our world wouldn’t be such a mess. I believe in a God for folks like Joseph, folks like Mary, pregnant out of wedlock, I believe in a God who shows up in difficult circumstances to bring strength, to bring a shoulder for tears, to stand with us.

The only plan I dare to call God’s is to show up when life hurts.

Yes, there may be a moment, years and years later, when lessons learned in loss can bring healing, peace, grace to others. But you don’t get to jump from point A to point Z. All of the steps on the journey take work. I wish I could banish the phrase “God has a plan.”

Now I have a bit of a reputation as someone who makes changes to church. I’m not sure the reputation is entirely deserved. Your vestry and building committee can tell you, I can be a bit of a conservative, when it comes to things like flooring. They had to sell me on the tile we ended up with, and I am glad they did. But I will admit, there are a few changes I would like to make to church. I’ve already mentioned banishing “God has a plan.”

I want to conclude this sermon by offering one more change, one particular change I wish I could make, especially for folks outside our walls. The change is this: I wish I could convince people that church isn’t a place where you show up because you have your life together. I’ve invited folks to church many times only to hear a response something like, “well, after I get this financial mess sorted out” or “after I get past this divorce” or “after I figure out how to balance all my kids soccer games, appointments, school and work.” Well friends, Jesus didn’t come to take care of those who have their lives together. He says as much in Scripture. Jesus came for those of us who are lost. Jesus came for those of us who need some grace.

And in my experience, this is a church that wants to make the change too. This is a church that welcomes folks, not just shiny family types, with 2.5 kids, in nice clothes, with their hair all perfect, and all their shoes and all their socks on. Nope. Now, if that’s you, you’re welcome too, and you are miles ahead of my family. Know that in this church, we welcome everybody. We welcome you wherever you are are your journey.

We buy tissues in bulk at Holy Communion, to have for folks who need them. Because there are times in your life where there is nowhere better to cry than in a church. It’s good to be reminded of God’s plan to show up when life hurts. And it’s good to be in a community that has practice gauging whether you just need some space to cry, or you might need someone to sit next to you as you in the pew as you cry, or you might need someone to take your hand, walk you over to the coffee, and listen.

I wish I could change the image of church as a place you need to put on your Sunday best, and to play out some image of perfection. It’s why I give thanks for Joseph, and it’s why I want to know more of his story. It’s why I continue to want to know more of the stories of folks here. For all of us, the person who arrived today came by way of a long journey. Some of the steps were rough. We may never wish to repeat that section of the road, but it gave shape to who we are, to how we walk today.

So, just for today, take a little breathing room before Christmas. Know that God, know that the church, doesn’t need you to plaster on a happy face. If you need some space to breath. If you need to shed a few tears. God isn’t going to count you as the Grinch. Christmas is hard, because so many of us love this time of year. And so many memories of family and loved ones crystalize around this holiday. And this is a time when we miss folks who aren’t with us. And this is a time when we miss the dream of Christmases future we won’t spend. And that is okay. That has to be okay. And God will still come, Emmanuel, God with us. God’s only plan is to show up, and meet you exactly where you are.

The whole story ahead is the story of God choosing to be with unlikely parents. Folks who knew loss. Folks who knew sorrow. The whole story of Christmas is a complicated human mess of a story. Don’t settle for less than the whole story this Christmas. Take the time. Take the space you need. Know that God plans to show up, wherever you are.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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