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Sermon preached at 7:45 a.m. at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on December 18, 2016.

Advent III; Year A (RCL): Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

         Driving south last week on I-95, I saw a roadside sign for Caroline County. It caught my attention because I’d just seen the movie, “Loving,” about Richard Loving, a white construction worker in Caroline County, and Mildred Jeter, a local bi-racial woman; they had fallen in love. Learning she was pregnant, they decided to marry in 1958. However, Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 prohibited interracial marriage, so they drove to Washington, D.C. for the ceremony, but returned to their life in Caroline County.

           Five weeks later, sheriff's deputies raided Mildred's home to arrest and jail the Lovings, saying their marriage was invalid in Virginia. After pleading guilty to breaking the anti-miscegenation law, and being sentenced to one year in prison, the judge suspended their sentence on condition that they not return to Virginia together for at least 25 years. The Lovings moved to the District of Columbia, but when they returned briefly to Caroline County so their first child could be delivered by Richard's mother, a midwife, they were arrested again. Only after their lawyer pleaded that he’d advised them erroneously were they able to go free to return to D.C.

           Two other children were born, and Mildred grew increasingly frustrated being away from the country. After watching the 1963 March on Washington, Mildred wrote to then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for help, and he referred them to the American Civil Liberties Union. Two young ACLU lawyers took their case and, after considering constitutional law, they concluded the Lovings' ordeal had a good chance of being heard before the United States Supreme Court after losing in the lower courts. When this happened, attorney Bernard Cohen asked Richard if he had a message for the Chief Justices; he replied simply, "Tell them that I love my wife." Ultimately, the Supreme Court's ruling in 1967 struck down the country's last segregation law. I suspect some of you might remember this landmark decision.

           Today in Matthew’s Gospel, we hear of the birth of Jesus Christ from Joseph’s perspective, sometimes called ‘The Annunciation to Joseph.’ With little in Scripture about this most important surrogate father, it is understandable that if this were the birth of a common child, we would not need to hear anything more. Yet this is no ordinary birth. This is the birth of Christ Jesus the Messiah: The Son of God, begotten by the Holy Spirit, the Incarnation, when God became flesh and dwelt among us. This is also a story about a man’s devotion and character. In this, I see similarities between Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Richard Loving, the husband of Mildred.          

Looking more closely at Joseph’s part in the Christmas story, let us consider the Jewish tradition regarding Marriage. Marriage, a life step so significant as to not be dependent only upon matters of the heart, was often arranged by the parents or a “matchmaker.” The first action was to show intent through engagement. It was effectively a contract managed by family who determined if the couple was well suited for one another and a future marriage. We know nothing about the length of time Joseph and Mary were intended for one another.

           But later, that intent would be forged into a stronger union through betrothal, declaring that these two were now husband and wife. A betrothal was a public ratification of engagement, allowing time and space for the couple to become known as being with one another, but not yet having the rights of living together as husband and wife. She would continue to dwell with her parents for months, up to a year, before then going into his house. Mary was to consider Joseph her husband, and Joseph to have Mary as his wife, in all manners except for that which would lead to family. Furthermore, this pledge was binding. The only way a betrothed relationship could be ended was by divorce. In this reading, Mary and Joseph were in the middle stage. The last step would be marriage proper.

           Luke’s Gospel tells us Mary had found favor with God, and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, had conceived in her womb the Son of God. Mary returns from visiting her cousin Elizabeth carrying this child which is not Joseph’s. How did Joseph see the expectant Mary? What did he think? Did he feel disgrace and shame? How did Joseph react seeing the faces of others who had seen Mary, a mother-to-be, not yet living with him as his wife? It’s curious that we never actually hear from Joseph.

           We do hear that Joseph was a righteous man and we could suppose many things from the word “righteous”—maybe that Joseph was good and gracious, practical, honest, and hardworking. These attributes sound like Richard Loving also.

           Joseph, who was devout, kept the laws and tradition of his faith as a descendant from the house of David. Under Jewish Law, Mary could have been judged an adulteress and stoned to death for her infidelity. But the gospel tells us that Joseph did not want to subject Mary to public scorn and ridicule. Rather, Joseph sought to handle the matter quietly for her sake, and for his own. Here we learn more about Joseph. He displays tenderness and charity as a man of compassion. Without an accusation from him, there could be no trial or any action taken against Mary.

           When Joseph resolved to dismiss Mary quietly, God acted and Joseph responded. God did not intervene until Joseph had decided himself what he thought he must do. An angel of the Lord visited Joseph in a dream, confirming Mary’s story: “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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Joseph did as the angel commanded.   But we might consider that when God chose Mary, God chose Joseph also. It is Joseph’s response to what happened which tells us he said “Yes” also. And for me, Joseph’s “Yes” is as important as Mary’s. He chose to claim God's promise rather than shame his wife.

           I think this is how Richard Loving also felt, claiming the love and not shaming the beloved. Richard, having started a family with Mildred, sought to wed her, even knowing the circumstances of their time. He did not abandon her when the law struck back and life got hard. Richard stayed and he continued to grow in love.

           “You are to name him Jesus.” In Jewish tradition, it was the father’s right to name his child. Joseph assumed that role of the recognized father of Jesus, legally adopting him as his own by naming him. The name Jesus means "Salvation of Jehovah" or "Jehovah is the Savior.” Joseph, through his active obedience to God, fulfilled the prophecy of the Davidic line for the Messiah foretold by the prophet Isaiah (7:14): “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel”.

           I am constantly amazed at the immediacy of peoples' response to God's commands in Bible stories. Case in point -- when Jesus called his disciples. They leave boats and fishing nets, their families, and former lives to follow Him. There are few if any questions. I, on the other hand, feel like I am always questioning. Yet my hope for all of us is that, when we are called to whatever God has in store for us, we will Watch and See, Listen and Hear, Plan and Act, to rise up and go forth.

           The angel told Joseph not to fear, giving him clear instruction about what to do with a difficult situation in his life. But that command took Joseph away from the security of Jewish Law and practice of his heritage. Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter’s relationship, acceptable in their own small community, had butt up against long-standing prejudices and racial injustices. Yet they persevered through many trials and tribulations. Could I be that strong and sure in facing such circumstances? Could you? [pause] Yes, with God's power behind us.

           I tell you that the Good News is true, bringing salvation to all people, including us today. We all know the name we hear prominently today in Isaiah and Matthew – Emmanuel – means "God with us." God abides with us today, even as God was experienced in our readings from today.

           What does this mean for us? In what ways do we need to strike out in new directions, to persevere in opening our doors and our hearts? In what ways can we listen to the still-speaking God for instruction as Joseph did so long ago? Can we also ‘be not afraid’ like Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter? What is the Good News we await on this Fourth Sunday of Advent? What hope do we have of something new, different and challenging that we long to come to fruition? How do we need to be restored by the birth of this Holy Child, and the coming of the Reign of God? What are we doing -- what do we need to do -- to participate in its coming?

           After the Supreme Court unanimously held that laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional, the Lovings returned to Caroline County and Richard began working on their dream home. I think Richard Loving knew he would build a marriage with Mildred Jeter, strong and resolute, in the face of dangers and injustices. Just as Joseph, strong and resolute, built a life for Mary and Jesus.

           The Gospel stories of Joseph and Mary have profoundly formed us in our faith tradition as Christians. The contemporary story of the Lovings has significantly shaped our current society. They both speak to Claiming and Not Shaming. Loving v. Virginia is remembered annually on Loving Day, June 12th. And that case was cited in another landmark decision in June 2013, when the Supreme Court ruled the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, paving the way for same-sex couples to marry.

           A Facebook friend recently shared a prayer from the Iona Community. It seemed fitting to share today, during this last Sunday of Advent, as we contemplate how the ‘Yes’ of Joseph and the courage of Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter have influenced our Church and the world. I hope it speaks to you as it speaks to me, about where we are, and with what is before us:

           You keep us waiting.

           You, the God of all time,

           want us to wait

           for the right time in which to discover

           who we are, where we must go,

           who will be with us, and what we must do.

           Thank you . . . for the waiting time.

           You keep us looking.

           You, the God of all space,

           want us to look in all the right and wrong places

           for signs of hope,

           for people who are hopeless,

           for visions of a better world which will appear

           among the disappointments of the world we know.

           Thank you . . . for the looking time.

           You keep us loving.

           You, the God whose name is Love,

           want us to be like you—

           to love the loveless and the unlovely and the unloveable;

           to love without jealousy or design or threat;

           and, most difficult of all,

           to love ourselves.

           Thank you . . . for the loving time.

           And in all this,

           you keep us.

           Through hard questions with no easy answers;

           through failing where we hoped to succeed

           and making an impact when we felt we were useless;

           through the patience and the dreams and the love of others;

           and through Jesus Christ and his spirit,

           you keep us.

           Thank you . . . for the keeping time,

           and for now,

           and for ever.