A sermon preached by The Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
Romans 4 v 13-18; Matthew 1 v 18-end
In the post I held before coming to Salisbury I was, among other things, responsible for the training of newly ordained clergy in the Diocese of Canterbury. We used to hold our residential meetings at Aylesford Priory, a Roman Catholic Carmelite community, where we were regularly allocated a chapel dedicated to Saint Joseph for our worship. A remarkable feature of the chapel was the 8 foot high statue of the saint, which stood behind the altar. Carved in wood, of course, and holding his carpenter’s tools, Joseph looks down benevolently upon the president of the Eucharist, behind whose chair he stands.
Now: our more Protestant curates were deeply troubled by this. They feared that the scale and position of the statue obscured their vision of Jesus, literally and figuratively. They feared it encouraged a misplaced devotion. For my part, I found the saint’s presence reassuring when I presided at that altar. There is a contemporary expression, isn’t there, “I’ve got your back”. It means “I’m looking out for you”. Well, at that altar, my sense was always that Saint Joseph had my back.
The configuration of that chapel perhaps sums up the conundrum which the saints have long presented to the church. Are they a distraction from the worship of Christ, and at worst a temptation to idolatry? Or are they an assistance to the worship of Christ, companions on a path that we walk in common with them?
It may not surprise you to learn that I tend towards the the latter. Saint Joseph has a place of great honour in my personal pantheon of the holy men and women of God.
It’s interesting that the Lectionary for today places Saint Matthew’s narrative of Joseph alongside part of Saint Paul’s account of the patriarch Abraham, written in his Epistle to the Romans. Abraham is the great pioneer of trusting faith. Abraham hears God, trusts God, and acts. The Lectionary pairing suggests that Abraham is a forerunner to Joseph. He too hears God, trusts God, and acts – and this is at no little personal cost. Joseph is a righteous man, a godly man. The discovery that his betrothed is pregnant threatens his good name and brings shame upon his family. No one could have criticised him for divorcing Mary, let alone for doing so privately. According to the mores of the time, that would have been a just act. But Joseph hears God, trusts God, and acts, taking Mary as his wife and taking her child as his own. Abraham journeys to Canaan in faith; Joseph journeys to Bethlehem in faith; and Mary’s child Jesus will journey to Jerusalem in faith. So Joseph of Nazareth holds before us the pattern of faithful living that is our Christian vocation. He is no distraction; he is a pioneer on our way.
Actually, I think he is more than that. We have all become aware of an aggressive and domineering style of leadership that currently holds sway in many nations. We have all become aware of the violent street culture that currently distorts and destroys the lives of too many of the young in our cities. We have all become aware of the hate speech that is currently directed against the vulnerable online. We have all become aware of the #MeToo campaign, and those whose lives have been changed forever by sexual violence.
Saint Joseph shows us a different way of being a man. It’s the way of attentiveness to God and the way of compassion for the other. It’s the way of self-giving not self-aggrandizing. Brothers in Christ, if I may just this once address myself to you, I believe Saint Joseph has our backs, and that he prays for us. Amen.