A sermon for the Eucharist on the feat of St Joseph of Nazareth, Friday 19 March 2021, 17.30
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Reading: Matthew 1: 18–end
Please scroll to the bottom of this page for a video of this sermon.
UA Fanthorpe. There is a delight waiting for you if you don’t already know her poems, many of which began life in the Christmas cards she and her partner would send each year. Always unpretentious, usually funny, sometimes gently barbed and sometimes suddenly deep, they offer musings on jolly robins, overworked reindeer, Christmas kitsch – and Jesus; Jesus and the people close to him, like in her poem ‘I am Joseph’.
In a few lines she develops the terse narrative of our gospel reading: it was found that Mary, not yet married, was pregnant; then an angel told Joseph, her intended, not to be afraid, to stand by her, because God was in this, and that the child would be great and have a great name.
Fanthorpe takes these few verses and asks – well, how would that have felt? She makes Joseph look back to before Jesus was born, and the feeling she imagines above all in him is one of dispossession. A man of his time, and like some men in every time, he had imagined what it would be like to bring up his own first-born son – and he tells us how it wasn’t like that: ‘My wife’s son wasn’t mine,’ he says, ‘nothing of him was me,’ and, ‘I couldn’t even choose his name’.
Fanthorpe’s lines put me in mind of a book I had to read for O-Level, The New Poetry. I’ve forgotten almost all of what filled that book in my days behind a 1970s school desk, but I remember one poem, ‘Jesus and his Mother’ by Thom Gunn. Gunn imagines the same dispossession in Mary. The poem begins with the voice of Mary, ‘My only son, more God’s than mine’ and each verse ends with a variation on the theme, ‘my own and not my own’.
My own and not my own. That’s true of every child. All parenthood is partly about dispossession, or it should be. Parents who treat children as their possessions harm them and harm themselves. When a child is born, every cell might come from the parents, but thanks to the ‘surging processes of creation’ (not my phrase) the genetic croupier deals this newborn child a unique hand.
That was true of you and of me. How much more is it true when the child that is born is the one in these two poems? How much more is it true of a birth in which you see (in John V Taylor’s words) ‘not the surging processes of creation alone, but creativity itself’? How much more is it true when the child is called Emmanuel, God with us?
Now a poet can do what she likes but a preacher cannot, and one of the sins of the preacher is psychologizing: pronouncing on the inner world of biblical characters when all that the Bible gives us is speech and action.
We cannot know how Joseph or Mary felt. But what we can do, should do, is enter imaginatively into their story, to find ourselves in it and to let it find us, to see what feelings it stirs, what connections spark across from that story to ours, especially if we can make that leap of imagining that we don’t know how their story ends, just as we don’t know how ours will end.
Dispossession is a feeling you may know just now. What is happening to us we didn’t plan or ask for. Like the couple I was talking to last night about their wedding, now twelve months late, we had imagined how things would be. But it hasn’t turned out like that. And it won’t. And now a voice is saying to us (why else are we here?) ‘Don’t be afraid. God is with you in this, God’s creativity is at work in this.’ How can we sense that? How can we live as if that is true?
Fanthorpe’s Joseph ends with three words that experience has taught him; three verbs, three action words (as we shall hear now). And they are pretty good words to ask God to make active, to make flesh, in us.
I am Joseph
I am Joseph, carpenter,
Of David’s kingly line,
I wanted an heir; discovered
My wife’s son wasn’t mine.
I am an obstinate lover,
Loved Mary for better or worse,
Wouldn’t stop loving when I found
Someone Else came first.
Mine was the likeness I hoped for
When the first-born man-child came.
But nothing of him was me. I couldn’t
Even choose his name.
I am Joseph, who wanted
To teach my own boy how to live.
My lesson for my foster son:
Endure. Love. Give.