Fourth Sunday of Advent
What does healthy masculinity look like in our culture today? What are the images that we hold onto in the wake of the necessary #MeToo Movement and the ongoing imbalance of power between men and women?
In some circles, we are left to wonder whether good men are becoming an endangered species. And I understand it, Lord knows I do. But we also know that men are not alone in their imperfections, don’t we? And we know, or at least we ought to know, that there is great danger in defining or categorizing a whole group of people as anything based on the behavior of a few (or even a lot), though there may be statistics for proof.
It speaks to the either/or mindset. Either women or men. Gay or straight. In or out. However, everything that we know about God suggests that God’s design was for a world in which all are welcome; where all are treated with love and respect and where there is room for all of us to grow and do better.
We live in a culture that tries to define what masculinity is and is not. From the moment a child is born, we begin to define him or her by all sorts of things: pink for girls, blue for boys. Some say that real men don’t wear pink—but oh my! A real man, comfortable in his own skin, with the right shade of pink can be a dream come true.
We tell little boys to stop crying and say that real men don’t cry, but all too often, 30 years later, we find those boys as adult men out of touch with their emotions and a partner, spouse, children, or friend, unable to break the cycle of misplaced pain with their beloved acting out, acting out, acting out, one way or another.
We say that real women, really strong women must be a certain way or she is seen as a push over, looked over, and demeaned. And so we walk around with all these labels, often masking our true selves and true feelings, trying to be something that we might not be because we know the danger of being fully who we are.
But what if there is room for all? And what if we were all secure enough to live into our full potential without risk or threat of the other, knowing full well that all gifts and graces are valid and needed?
I was thinking about this. And I know that in some churches men are scarce, but I am proud of the men in this church. I don’t know all of you well, and I know that what I see is not all there is.
But it thrills me that you have found a home here and to see examples of faithful leadership and committed love; love of God, love of church, love of neighbor – so many of you.
I was thinking about this and a certain judge whose name I won’t call. He’s a New York State Supreme Court justice, but you would almost not know that he has accomplished anything on his own. He never draws attention to himself, but every time I turn around there is a text message or email, some sort of acknowledgment of some interview about his wife, a picture, or some conference or award, with exclamation points, and it’s refreshing to see that level of pride and support, honor and esteem.
Or another gentleman—I’m not calling any names—whose wife is the director of our day school. Any time there is a problem and an extra hand is needed, he can be counted on to help out to do what needs to be done so that she shines and we all shine, from hanging the flag outside to fixing a leak on the 4th floor. And this past Friday when we were short on staff, he came across town to stand guard at the front doors so that parents, grandparents, and visitors could enter for the children’s Holiday Sing.
I’m thinking of another person, a wonderful, kind, and thoughtful soul; a brother whose baby sister was in the hospital these past two weeks. I visited her on Monday and Wednesday, and each time he was present by her bedside around the clock, asking the hard questions and tending to her in the most loving and precious way in the midst of uncertainty and the unknown.
There are many examples, and I know that I don’t know the full story. I don’t know what lurks behind the scenes and those private and not-so-private thoughts and deeds. I’m guessing that all of us have our fair share of flaws, but I think there is a place in the Church for lifting up such examples and calling them good.
Just because we are not perfect doesn’t mean we ought not to try to do what is good and right in those areas over which we have influence. We ought not to let imperfection stand in our way.
Luke’s gospel gives us a portrait of Mary and her faithful response to God. But it is through Joseph’s genealogy that we find Jesus according to Matthew.
Like Mary, Joseph offers himself, his best self. He surrenders to a power higher than his own, not knowing how it will all work out. He certainly had other options, the law was on his side. From the rabbis, friends and family, and the synagogue—no one would have blamed him for walking away or putting Mary away in shame. But he chose not to scandalize her. That kind of character does not come out of the blue. It is reasonable to think that it had been tried and true.
And just when he has made up his mind and resolved to do what he had decided to do, God sent a sign with a different perspective. A sign that all was not lost. A sign that something beautiful was emerging. And Joseph was part of it—a significant part of it.
An angel came and said, “Do not be afraid,” those same words that were spoken to Mary and that continue to speak to all of us. Do not be afraid. Can you imagine what would happen if men and women were not so afraid of one another, afraid to love one another, to celebrate one another, to booster and support one another, embracing one another as pure gift, assured that there is enough for all?
Joseph was not out to be a superhero nor to have his personal needs, desires, or ego satisfied. The priority was not what was in it for himself or what he could get out of it.
Matthew described him as a “righteous man.” We don’t hear that word too much these days. A righteous man, a righteous person, does the right thing for the right reason, just because. And when the pressure is on, when really difficult pressure is on and when we are between a rock and a hard place, having to make decisions for a bigger thing, we find out who we really are.
My theory is that in the wake of great challenge or even great joy, we rise up and live more fully or we shrink and become smaller acting out in the most childish ways.
Joseph’s story is for us a sign of God’s good news. It is a reminder that things don’t always go as planned. But still—still—sometimes the most beautiful of things can emerge.
What we learn from Joseph and Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah, shepherds and magi is how seriously God takes real human affairs, requiring us to make concrete choices about how to respond to human needs.
What Joseph knew was that the moment was calling to him, and he answered. In my mind, he was a giant of a person, secure enough in his own skin with an understanding of his own worth and value well enough to respond outside of himself.
Friends, what kind of sign do you need? And what are those signs being lifted up before your very eyes that you might not be able to see? Look around; they are there.
Joseph was the first to model what royal adoption looks like. He took on the role of adopting and caring for Jesus as his very own son in the same way that God takes us on as adopted sons and daughters, siblings of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Like Joseph, we are called to partner with others and care for others so that Christ can continue to be born in our lives and in the world.
May it be so.