So, some things happened in Washington this week. The last time a president was impeached (in 1998), I sat riveted to the TV. This time, I read Thursday morning’s paper, saw the news and said, “Oh. That was yesterday.”
The consensus of pundits is that the process of impeachment has become so partisan, it no longer carries the moral weight it once did. Perhaps the most perplexing–and troubling–reality of politics these days is how, now, value is determined, not by truth, but by polls. Not by a concern for the common good, but a personal concern for reelection. How did we get to this surreal place where truth has so little meaning?
A lot of people, I’m sure, were happy with the House vote on Wednesday. A lot of people cling to the hope that the president will yet be removed from office. I confess that I haven’t put all my eggs in that basket…because I think the crisis in our country runs far deeper than a president who struggles with the truth and basic norms of civility. No person becomes president in a vacuum. A person becomes president in a specific historical context. Little by little, we allow our values to slip until, pretty much, anything goes. Or perhaps I should say that, little by little, we have allowed our values to slip until, now, pretty much, anything goes.
When the Access Hollywood tape came out three weeks before the election in 2016 and it didn’t even phase the American electorate, I knew our country was in a crisis–a crisis of character. That crisis has only deepened. Removing the president wouldn’t change that fact. Our work as Americans—and as followers of Jesus–is the work of rebuilding character. Of speaking only what is true. Of working together for the common good. Of just being good people.
How appropriate on this Sunday, after this week in Washington, to hear again about Joseph…a man of sterling character, if ever there was one. Joseph gets a lot of attention for what happens after the angel Gabriel makes his visit, that is, taking Mary as his wife, despite the fact that she’s pregnant. And certainly, Joseph’s actions after Gabriel’s visit demonstrate just how good a person he was.
But Joseph didn’t need an angel’s visit to show him how to do the right thing. Joseph’s true character is revealed before Gabriel shows up.
This is how the birth of Jesus came about, Matthew writes. When Jesus’ mother, Mary, was engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together… It was the custom among Jews in 1st century Palestine to have a period of betrothal. As a betrothed woman, Mary was exclusively bound to Joseph. So, when she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit… It’s important to note here that, while Matthew lets the reader know that the pregnancy comes from the Holy Spirit, Joseph doesn’t know that yet. He won’t know it until Gabriel comes to visit.
Sidebar…Y’all know this is a story, right? It’s not a factual, historical accounting. And it’s certainly not a scientific article. It’s a story…a really good story. Some might even call it a fantastic (or fantastical) story. But it’s a story. We do ourselves a disservice when we dismiss the lessons to be learned from a story by trying to make it bear scientific accuracy. If I want to talk science, I go to Chris Cain or Jim Beggs. If I want to enter a story and, potentially, be changed by it, one of the places I go is the Bible. So. Back to the story.
In the context of this story, when Mary is found to be pregnant, Joseph’s options are limited. When Jewish law first was written, the punishment for adultery was death by stoning. By the first century, the rabbis had moved away from capital punishment, but the punishment for adultery was still severe…and publicly humiliating, especially for women.
Joseph’s response to the news of Mary’s pregnancy reveals what kind of person he was. As Mary’s husband, Joseph had certain rights according to Jewish law. As an “upright” or “righteous” person, Joseph was committed to following Jewish law. Yet, despite his commitment to following the law, Joseph was unwilling to disgrace Mary… As strong as his commitment to following religious law was, Joseph’s compassion was stronger. His concern for Mary’s dignity superseded even the possibility of his own public embarrassment. Unwilling to disgrace her, Joseph decided to divorce her quietly.
As I’ve reflected on Joseph’s character and the actions that flowed from that character, the line that keeps coming to mind is the motto of our UU friends: “Standing on the side of love.” If anyone in Scripture stands on the side of love, it’s Joseph. Based on what he knew at the time–that the one to whom he was betrothed was pregnant–Joseph understood what rights the law afforded him…and yet, he chose not to avail himself fully of that law. Why? Because to do so would have demeaned Mary…and that’s not a line Joseph was willing to cross. Joseph refused to disgrace Mary. He refused to treat her as if she were less than fully human.
We talk about love a lot here at FCUCC. That’s appropriate. We are a church, after all. At the heart of our understanding of love–of the love Jesus taught and lived–is justice. Love is the power to act each other into wellbeing. Justice is the means by which we take that loving action.
Love, justice, all of it begins by acknowledging the full human dignity of every single person. Every. Single. Person. If all of us could see the profound dignity in every other human being, if all of us could recognize that of the divine in each person… If we could do that, if we were to treat every person with equal dignity, the world would be an infinitely kinder and more peaceful place. It also would be a whole lot closer to the world of which God dreams.
The movie, Hidden Figures, tells the story of the three African American women calculators, whose computations were key to the success of NASA in the early 60s. In a pivotal scene in the film, Kevin Costner’s character, Al Harrison, comes out of his office and angrily asks Katherine Johnson why she is leaving the room again at such a critical time in their work. “Where do you go for 40 minutes every day!” he demands. “To the bathroom, sir,” Katherine says. The answer angers Harrison. “Why do you spend that much time going to the bathroom?” he shouts. “Because there’s no bathroom for me here,” Katherine says. “What do you mean, there’s no bathroom for you here?”
Finally, Katherine releases all her frustration, all her anger, all her humiliation. “There are no colored bathrooms in this building…or any building outside the West Campus, which is half a mile away. Did you know that? I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself…I work like a dog, day and night, living off of coffee from a pot none of you want to touch! So. Excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day.”
After Katherine leaves the room, a stunned Mr. Harrison slowly walks to the table holding the two coffee pots and removes the “Colored” sign scotch-taped to the smaller one. A later scene takes place outside a nearby restroom. Mr. Harrison walks up to the bathroom door and swings an axe at the “Whites Only” sign attached to the wall above it. It takes several whacks, but, eventually, the sign falls to the floor with a dull clang. Mr. Harrison says to the workers gathered in the hall: “No more colored restrooms. No more white restrooms. Just plain old toilets. Use whichever one you want…” To Katherine, he says: “Preferably, the one closest to your desk.”
Yeah. That’s definitely a move from Joseph’s playbook. Al Harrison stood on the side of love. It’s where we all must stand. We all must stand on the side of human dignity. We all must stand on the side of grace. We all must stand on the side of compassion. We all must stand on the side of love. If there is any hope of creating the shalom of which God dreams, we all must stand on the side of love.
I leave you with these words of 14th century mystic, Hafiz. “I have come into this world to see this: the sword drop from men’s hands even at the height of their arc of anger…because we have finally realized there is just one flesh to wound and it is his—the Christ’s, our Beloved’s. I have come into this world to see this: all creatures hold hands as we pass through this miraculous existence we share on the way to even a greater being of soul…
“I have come into this world to hear this: every song the earth has sung since it was conceived in the Divine’s womb and began spinning from the Beloved’s wish, every song by wing and fin and hoof, every song by hill and field and tree and woman and child, every song of stream and rock, every song of tool and lyre and flute, every song of gold and emerald and fire, every song the heart should cry with magnificent dignity to know itself as Beloved; for all other knowledge will leave us again in want and aching…
“I have come into this world to experience this: people so true to love they would rather die before speaking an unkind word, people so true their lives are the Beloved’s covenant—the promise of hope. I have come into this world to see this: the sword drop from men’s hands even at the height of their arc of rage because we have finally realized there is just one flesh we can wound.”
If this is so—that we are one flesh—how can we not, every minute of every day…if we are one flesh, how can we not stand on the side of love?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2019