a sermon to the people of Holy Cross Lutheran Church
in Lake Stevens, WA
December 22, 2013
Pray with me. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.
Stepparents get a bad rap. Cinderella’s stepmother is malicious; Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother is selfish; Snow White’s stepmother is murderously vain; Hamlet’s stepfather was an adulterous, homicidal usurper. Over and over again in movies and books and culture, stepparents are portrayed as heartless, as weary and overwhelmed, and as angry at bearing the burden of raising someone else’s “problem”. They put up with “his” children or “her” children until they can devise a way to get rid of the little buggers…maybe permanently.
I’m sure this sort of terrible, terribly selfish, and negligent or abusive-to-the-point-of-death stepparent must exist somewhere, or it wouldn’t be such a popular theme in literature and in Hollywood. But honestly, most stepparents willingly accept one of the hardest jobs life has to offer. Stepparents work to raise, provide for, and love a child who is neither biologically theirs nor planned. No one grows up thinking, “I’ll have 3 kids when I grow up: a boy, a girl, and a stepson from my husband’s previous marriage.” Stepparents accept these extra kids as a package deal along with their new spouse, and call them family for better or for worse. As my former neighbor said to me, “this is my bonus child…I wasn’t expecting him, but I’m so glad he’s mine.”
In today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew matter-of-factly tells the story of another stepparent. “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.” I imagine Joseph wasn’t so matter-of-fact about that! Jewish custom in that time would have called the relationship between Mary and Joseph a betrothal…a sort of third step between engagement and marriage. A betrothal was binding and could only be broken with an act of divorce. If a betrothed woman became pregnant (regardless of paternity!), she was considered an adulteress. The penalty for adultery for women was death.
You can imagine the heartache and anger and sorrow Joseph must have felt when he discovered his betrothed was pregnant…with someone else’s child. By law, he had every right to publically expose her as an adulteress and request her stoning. But Joseph, who was a decent guy, decided to “dismiss her quietly”…or to divorce her quietly and send her out of town so as not to further disgrace either of them.
And then, Joseph had a dream…a sort of communing with the divine…and God said through a messenger, “Hey, stay with Mary, she’s a good girl. Don’t be scared. Raise my boy and name him so that all might know that I am with you.” And Joseph, who was an exceptional man, obeyed.
Exceptional or not, we tend to ignore Joseph. He’s a prop in the Christmas pageant, someone to guide the donkey, the guy who got duped into marrying a pregnant chick. Quiet. Passive. Maybe not very smart. More likely a sucker. And if we buy into cultural ideas of stepparenting, then we think, he was at best, disinterested in this kid who was not his.
But wait…we know that Joseph obeyed God. Each time in the Gospel of Matthew that God asks something of Joseph, Joseph does it. God asked Joseph to raise Emmanuel --Jesus-- as his own. And as best we can tell, he did a beautiful job with this difficult task. As a devout Jew, he raised his son according to Jewish law. As a carpenter, he taught Jesus the family trade…how to handle a hammer and saw. As a virtuous man, he modeled an obedient life. Not because he had to, but because he chose to.
Joseph was an exceedingly faithful man and a wonderful stepfather… Which is all the more amazing because step-parenting is often a thankless task. I know I drove my stepmother crazy from time to time…especially as a teenager. I made her worry about my safety and my sanity and my loyalty to our family. It wasn’t until I was much older that I ever thought to thank her for working so incredibly hard and sacrificing so terribly much to make my life comfortable and safe. And heck, I don’t even thank her enough now that I’m old enough to know better! Still, she loves me as her own, and my kids are her grandkids, and the word “step” isn’t even in our familial vocabulary.
And she did and does all of that because she chooses to.
Families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Single parent, mom and dad, mom and mom, blended, adoptive, step, half, foster, or a “house of wayward children” such as the family my in-laws kept when James was growing up, where everyone was welcome and cared for and loved. What a family looks like in a genealogy doesn’t matter very much. What matters is the willingness to show one another through our words and our actions and our love for one another what the name of Jesus-Emmanuel means. “God is with us.”
What does your family look like? Who loves you? Who claims you and allows you to be as a child, as a treasured one, with them?
Sometimes, you get lucky, and your family is in fact the group of people who raised you or grew up with you and who share your DNA. But often family isn’t defined by blood, doesn’t look like “normal”. But the word “family” is a way to talk about all of those people who love us unconditionally. Who feeds you when you are ill? Who holds your hand when you are worried or afraid? Who doesn’t pass judgment when you share your deepest shame or worry or fear? Who laughs with you and not at you? Who cries with you? Who lets you know when you are behaving badly but also lets you know your misbehavior doesn’t alter their acceptance of you? Who would willingly accept your pain and suffering so that you don’t have to do it? THAT person, THOSE people: that is your family. Those people who wander into your path and your life and your messy reality…those are the ones who are showing you Emmanuel. “God is with us.”
God loves you and redeems you and sustains you. God sacrificed himself for you. And you are blessed with people who mirror that for you. Who are those people? Who are the people who wade into your mess because they choose to do it…not because they have to do it?
Maggie shows me the beauty of God with music. Bill shows me kindness by offering a cup of coffee to me every Sunday without fail. Lisa accepts and understands my youngest son in ways many people just can’t. Pastor Susan has heard my heartache and frustration and stupidity and still brings soup to me when I’m sick. Grandma Gerry and Deborah love my daughter in ways that allow her eyes to sparkle. The Millers have given up an entire Saturday that I might have some sanity. What a gift you all are to me. What a gift you are to one another. What an amazing family. What a mirroring, a showing of Emmanuel: God is with us.
GOD is with us. God IS with us. God is WITH us.