Entrusted with Incarnation
Entrusted with Incarnation
Robert P. Hoch
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore MD 21217
December 22, 2019
18Now 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. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
If our text this morning wasn’t fossilized into stained glass windows, turned into cute nativity scenes, or transformed into a card with candied well-wishes for the season, and so on, we might actually be alarmed by what we saw in Matthew. Joseph’s anticipated life had dissolved, rather unexpectedly and from most perspectives, tragically into a situation which he had to try to resolve as best as he could. What we don’t hear is how Mary must have felt — outraged? confused? fearful? Our narrator doesn’t report how she felt.
We can deduce, however, that no one, neither Mary nor Joseph, felt that this pregnancy was good news. It wasn’t something they were holding until the right time, when they would announce to their respective families the good news. It was something they wanted to go away, to make disappear.
Joseph was running through his options . . . don’t create a scene, he thought; make her inconvenient condition disappear for the next nine months, and so on. Those were his rational thoughts. It was almost bureaucratic the way Joseph was going through his options. But notice he did not confront this as a question or invitation from God. Maybe it didn’t feel like a gift. I mean, can you imagine how doors would shut, one after another? It would not be a condition to be welcomed but one to be grieved.
If we set to one side the question of conception by the Holy Spirit, if we strip the text of its doctrinal embellishments, if we see this text from its human vantage point, it seems every bit like bad news, not good news.
Phyllis said she wanted to break the ice between our two churches. It didn’t feel like good news. Phyllis Felton is the pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, here in Baltimore. Our relationship with the Madison Avenue Church of Baltimore goes back. They’re the first Black Presbyterian Church in Maryland and our congregation bought property so they, Black people (who were not permitted to hold property), could have a church of their own. It was also a decision that grew out of the reluctance of white people in the then First Presbyterian Church of Baltimore to share leadership with African Americans. One of our members tells me that it wasn’t one of our shining moments as a congregation. So, we were breaking the ice, centuries-old ice. Phyllis said our respective communities were born in the womb of racism. That’s where our relationship was born.
To be fair, I’m relatively confident that back in 1848, when Madison Avenue was established by First Presbyterian Church, the white leaders of the church probably saw this as very progressive. But the truth is that our actions as a church then were thoroughly within the world of white racism, which persists to this day – it persists in the form of mass incarceration, white flight to the suburbs and to suburban churches while now, today, urban churches, black and white, struggle to exist, facing an uncertain future.
Trinity Church, Knox Church, Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, and yes, our own church face uncertain futures. And perhaps all of us, in one way or another, were born in the racial conceptions of our ancestors, and we have been eagerly, especially in the case of white congregations, burying that complicity. Not only are we reluctant to break the ice, we may not even acknowledge that the ice actually exists. We don’t want to carry that particular burden. It’s not one of our bright moments, right?
It doesn’t feel like a blessing. It doesn’t feel like good news. It feels like bad news. You want to put this sort of thing away. Move on, if you can. You probably won’t find a statement in our bulletin anywhere, maybe because we’ve done a pretty good job of “putting our shame” away, withholding it from public view.
Which is precisely what Matthew does not do. The power of the story of Jesus isn’t that he manages to hide our shame but that he, in some way, becomes the very expression of the thing we would rather hide. The world hides its slaving ways; but we can’t hide Jesus, who becomes as we are, even to the point of death on a cross.
The angel meets Joseph and says to him that this thing that he feels he needs to hide, he shouldn’t hide it. Why? In part, because he can’t. But maybe mostly because the good news of God enlists our bad news — Joseph and Mary to participate in the story of God, the story of the God who turns our shame into the story of good news. There’s a sense in which we need the activity of the Spirit to interrupt our reflexive feelings of shame, of wanting to put away the past, to hide it.
But there’s more here. Who would feel more embarrassed about the state of the world than the God who created it? We think we know the feeling of shame. Or perhaps of righteous outrage — as if we were the ones who invented inclusivity and shalom. Paraphrasing from Thomas Merton, God chooses the demented inn of the human being as the very place to call home. Not to rage against it, but to be bound to it, in deep personal connection.
You know the bumper sticker that says, “Baltimore . . . actually, I like it”? It gets a chuckle. But in a sense, it borrows a page from the Gospel of Matthew. It’s as if God said, the human being, actually, I love it. Love it so much that I will become identical with it, even to the point of being indistinguishable from the sick, from the hurting, from the hungry, from the wounded, from the persecuted, from the diseased, from the ostracized.
Jesus takes a form, takes on a life that none would desire . . . he chooses the very thing we would flee from. But here’s the thing that really sets this text apart: our narrator reports that Mary and Joseph were entrusted with incarnation. It felt like bad news, but God’s messenger insists that they are being entrusted with good news, against all appearances.
My junior high-school English teacher was one of my all-time favorite teachers in high school. She was calm and cool and smart. That is, until one of my classmates brought in a sonogram picture of a fetus. We were all ooing and awing at the image of the fetus, when our teacher asked my classmate whose baby it was . . . maybe she assumed it was an older sister or perhaps an aunt or maybe her own mother. You maybe guessed whose baby it was. It was my classmate’s baby, not even 17-years old. My teacher turned pale, speechless.
Maybe we turn pale, too, when we discover racism in our DNA. We get enveloped by shame, like our own skin. But Jesus grows us from the inside out, making us into true human beings, rainbow people, who are fully colored, with every hue and every hint, from sexuality to ethnicity.
We’re in the city for a reason. Because, actually, if we have been trusted by God with this difficulty, we’re not ashamed to struggle as a church. Like the City of Baltimore, we’ve got an uncertain future. We feel that. Maybe like Joseph felt it. Like Mary felt it. But you know, maybe, just maybe the City of Baltimore, and downtown churches that are struggling, maybe they’re carrying a future we shouldn’t be afraid of. Maybe we should welcome, or even run towards that future, make a place for God’s rule in our hearts.
Churches may want to practice reconciliation, but you can’t do that from 32,000 feet. Joseph and Mary were entrusted by God, in a personal way, with incarnation. And maybe, in a way, we’ve been entrusted with incarnation, too.
If we’re willing to accept that invitation, it’s personal. We’ve been invited to a Watch Night service at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church on December 31, 2019, which is the 400th year since America’s slave economy was born. 2020 is just around the bend . . . what does it bring? More of the same? Or perhaps, we’ve got the question wrong. Maybe, if Matthew is our guide, we ought to ask what is God bringing to our future? How can we be open to the new thing of God, which we seem to be carrying, in our complicated lives?
Phyllis, the pastor of their church, said to me, that our respective churches were born in the womb of racism; we need to name that, but she also says there’s more to this story than racism. There’s a sense that this thing we’re carrying in us is from God. And is the form of God with us for this generation.
Just as Joseph and Mary were entrusted by God with incarnation, so perhaps are we. Maybe it’s time to break the ice. By God’s grace and to God’s glory. Amen.