March 18, 2013
Good morning. Tomorrow is the day when Lutherans commemorate Joseph, the Guardian of Jesus, so I thought it might be appropriate, in preparation for that day, to reflect for a few minutes on Joseph. There is a big cathedral in the town where I grew up called the Cathedral of St. Joseph the Workman. I’ve always admired the emphasis in that name on Joseph not as a saint, not as the guardian of Jesus, but as a maker of real things, someone who worked with his hands, someone engaged with the tangible, the practical, the useful. You can imagine him getting up every day and making things that people used every day in their daily lives.
Joseph is one of the more humble of the figures in the Bible. He doesn’t say much, he doesn’t appear all that often, and half the time it seems as though he doesn’t necessarily fully understand what he has been called upon to do. But he is a striking figure, nevertheless. Imagine, there he is, minding his own business, being engaged to Mary, making things, and suddenly he receives the extraordinary message, and has the extraordinary responsibility thrust upon him, that we just heard about in the reading.
It’s one of many examples in the Bible of God’s people being called upon to exert their faith by believing that something miraculous will happen, by accepting a role they have been chosen to play, by trusting in an order to do the unthinkable. The story of Abraham told to sacrifice his son Isaac comes to mind; or Abraham and Sarah being told in their old age that they will become parents, to give another Old Testament example. Or Mary, being told that she will give birth to the Savior. Or, in this passage, Joseph being told that his fiancé is pregnant by the Holy Spirit and that he and she will be entrusted with the care of a baby who will save his people from their sins.
It’s striking that all of these examples of people being called upon to exert their faith involve parenting. Parenting seems to be a theme in chapel recently. Two Sundays ago Pastor Marohl gave a powerful and touching sermon on the story of the prodigal son, who was welcomed home with open arms by his father, even though the son had spent his patrimony, dishonored the family, and come home in disgrace. Sometimes it’s more important to stay in relationship, Pastor Marohl told us, than to be right. Why the attention to parenting in the Bible? Is it that the parent/child bond is so intimate, so precious, so sacred that interfering with it is an ultimate test of faith? Or is it something about the sacred responsibility you shoulder when you are entrusted with the care of another person that the Bible wants to weave into its narrative of God acting in our lives?
It’s hard work being the guardian of anyone, especially a young person. It’s particularly challenging at key transitional moments in the life of your child. It’s Junior Preview day today at St. Olaf, and looking out I see lots of high school juniors and their parents in chapel. We’re glad to have you here to visit the College, and I’m especially glad that you came to chapel. All of you will be facing a major parent/child transition in about eighteen months when you high school juniors get dropped off at college and you parents go home minus one kid. I’ve done that.The first few miles with the college in your rear view mirror are some of the loneliest miles you’ll ever travel.
I vividly remember where I was and what I was doing when both of our children called excitedly to tell me they had been accepted at the college where they wanted to study. I was so pleased for them. Also, secretly, I was a little pleased for my wife and me. It’s gratifying to see the fruits of your parenting ripen. But buried in that excitement was some dread at the separation that was ahead of us, even though it was an important step forward for our kids and I knew they would be in good hands. The college search process can be tough on parents. You have invested so much of yourself for seventeen years in this person that you love and for whom you want the best, and you want so badly for their choice to be the right one, and yet you can’t make it for them.
And it’s not that easy from the student’s side either. There you are, like Joseph, minding your own business, being in high school, doing the things high school students do, and perhaps occasionally shouldn’t do — get that out of your system, by the way, before you come to St. Olaf — and suddenly everyone is all over you about college, and the visits to campuses, and getting the applications in on time, and everything else. Suddenly everybody is interested in your future. Well-meaning people ask you cheerfully, and repeatedly, how your plans are coming it. It’s almost as irritating as when you were little and people would pinch your cheek and call you sweetie pie. It’s ok, though. Most things come to an end sooner or later, and your college search will, too. You’ll find the place that is right for you, and one day in late summer you will go there and begin a fun, challenging, engaging, expanding, deepening chapter in your life.
One of the things you will likely experience during college is a dawning sense of your vocation. I’m using the word “vocation” in the Lutheran sense to mean not a job but, more deeply, a calling — what it is that you are good at, that you like to do, and that can constitute your life’s work. I heard Professor Jim Farrell in our History Department describe it the other day as something you are good at doing that is good to do. Many of the St. Olaf students sitting around you in chapel today are in the midst of that process. Your vocation doesn’t have to be limited to discovering the kind of work you will do to support yourself. It can also embrace other aspects of your life that constitute your ultimate commitments, the purpose behind your life.
We describe the discovery of one’s vocation using language that suggests an activity that takes place over time, because most often it’s not a Saul on the road to Damascus kind of thing where you are walking along one day, minding your own business, and boom! you’re a financial analyst, or a refugee worker, or a microbiologist, or a dancer. At St. Olaf we like to use the word “discernment” to name the process by which gradually, over time, with lots of input from your professors and your friends, and your family, and lots of introspection and experimentation and practical experience, you gain clarity about what you are called to do.
Joseph, the Guardian of Jesus, didn’t have that luxury. He may have actually gone through a process of discernment that led to him becoming a carpenter, but if he did it turns out that wasn’t the full extent of his vocation, for he was called to other work: a holy and mysterious event would redefine his life, his identity, his responsibility, and his purpose.
One of the most striking things to me about Matthew’s narrative of the angel’s visit to Joseph is Joseph’s reaction. If an angel came to me with this message, I’m willing to be that there would be a lot of spluttering, a lot of questioning, a lot of why me?-ing, maybe some attempts to negotiate the responsibility down a few notches. But the Gospel reports that Joseph, a just man, reacted very differently: “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.”
Acting quietly and with purpose, Joseph followed the commandment he had been given. And it doesn’t end there. The next thing you know he’s getting another visit from an angel and again, quietly and with purpose, he packs up in the middle of the night with Mary to take the baby Jesus to Egypt to preserve him from the paranoid wrath of Herod. One minute he’s making chairs, the next minute he’s a fugitive, an instrument of the Divine, the Guardian of Jesus.
It’s worth pondering Joseph’s reaction to his vocation, reflecting on the humility with which he embraced it, and attending to the effectiveness with which he undertook it. I don’t know that the Bible ever tells us or shows us whether Joseph rejoiced in his vocation — he doesn’t seem like a guy who typically went on his way rejoicing — but clearly he embraced it.
What is there in the story of Joseph, the Guardian of Jesus, that applies to our lives as people of God? Not necessarily the angel visitation. Blessings on you should you experience one, but for most of us a more proactive approach to discerning and then following your vocation is probably required. That means we should think of our lives as guided and formed by and for some purpose and consequently to think of ourselves as responsible for finding that purpose and then being guided by it. This is not a solitary task. We are gifted by God, by our families, by our teachers, and by our friends with talents and abilities, with passion and energy, with the capacity for faith and a connection with the Divine. Using these gifts, and supported by those around us, we can define the purpose in our lives and shape those lives to that purpose. That’s what it means to live as people of God. We can also rejoice—out loud or in Joseph’s more inward key: rejoice in lives that have purpose, rejoice in the gifts that enable us to accomplish that purpose, and rejoice in a God who calls us, who sustains us in our work, and who guides us in our vocations.
David R. Anderson ’74