Text: Matthew 1: 18-25
Restless Children of the Promise: Joseph’s Story, and Ours Too
Is there any major character in the Christmas narrative, and indeed in all of the Bible, more overlooked and less understood than Joseph, the father of Jesus? Mary gets her Magnificat, and in some wings of the Christian church she’s almost deified. Elizabeth births John the Baptist and her husband, Zechariah, gets several verses of poetry. The innkeeper has attained notoriety for turning the holy family away, the shepherds in the field have several hymns dedicated to them, and the wise men are the subject of poems. Even the animals in the stable have been the subject of poetry and song. Poor Joseph. He’s not given a voice within the story, and I know of no Christmas song that’s ever been written for him. After the birth narratives of Jesus, Joseph all but disappears. He’s mentioned a few more times, but by the time Jesus begins his public ministry, he’s simply out of the picture.
And yet he plays such an integral role in the whole drama. Conjure him for a moment. Imagine his anguish when he first learns that the woman to whom he was betrothed was pregnant, and not by him. Imagine what he might have done, had he been a different kind of person – he might have had Mary punished or killed for what, apparently, she had done. And yet the Scriptures tell us that rather than insisting upon his own honor, and rather than clinging to the defilement of that honor, he wished to treat the matter quietly, letting Mary go her own way, since all the evidence suggested that her heart belonged to another. But then there’s the dream, when Joseph is told not to dismiss Mary, because the child she is carrying belonged to God. And so he sets about doing what he must to support and care for his young bride, and the precious child she is carrying.
Consider, just for a moment, what that meant for Joseph. It meant that even as he trusted what had been revealed to him, in the eyes of everyone else, he would have been looked upon as a cuckold, duped by a duplicitous and unfaithful partner. Imagine what resolve that would require, especially in the ancient world, where purity codes and male honor were so highly esteemed. Imagine the snickers, or knowing looks, that would be exchanged in his presence. Imagine the sheer integrity of the man, knowing that his commitment to Mary and to Jesus was right all the way down, even if no one else could understand it. To anyone else, it would look like passivity and weakness. It was, in fact, a feat of enormous strength and courage. Not only that, bear in mind the enormous reserve of humility he must have possessed, knowing as he did that in this drama, he was destined to be a supporting player at best. He gets points for bravery and special insight, but he was doomed to forever be overshadowed by a heavenly Father, one that seems to have captured Jesus’s imagination far more than the father who actually raised him.
Throughout Advent I’ve had us focused upon several restless children of peace, all of whom somehow orbit around the Advent dream of Isaiah, who wrote of a time when lions would lie down with lambs, when nations wouldn’t rise up against nations, when human beings wouldn’t have to study war any more. There was Isaiah himself, but there was also William James. There was Zechariah, but there was also Dorothy Day. Last week Laura spoke about Mary’s Magnificat, while drawing our attention to the work of the Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai. We’ve emphasized those figures as a way of reminding ourselves of all that the Advent dream is capable of calling forth in human beings. We’ve done it as a way of countering all the negative portrayals of human lives, and to remind ourselves of nearly forgotten capacities that we all retain, somewhere inside: for shared purpose and meaning, for compassion and generosity, for the public and not just the private, for the greater good, rather than that of me and mine alone. Speaking personally, I can say that I’m so weary of dystopic dreams and visions of human degradation. God knows that stuff can be real. But there are other, more ennobling realities as well, and we need to be reminded of them now more than ever.
Today the restless child of peace that I would have us consider is Joseph himself. And I would have us do so because in an era of toxic masculinity, his story presents us with an alternative way of being, one characterized by gentleness, by humility, by foresight, and by his willingness to devote himself to something larger than his own ego. We don’t know a great deal about Joseph, but what we do see is a kind of tenderness and empathy that, if we all adopted it, men and women alike, might go a long way toward reducing the violence and alienation that too often characterizes the relationships of men and women, to say nothing of other relationships. Joseph, it turns out, can be understood as a gift to those of us in late modernity who wonder about different ways of inhabiting gender identities.
Earlier this fall, Rachael and I found ourselves sitting at our kitchen table talking after the kids had gone to bed. It was shortly after the Kavanaugh hearings, and I had been thinking about the ways masculinity had been constructed in the pop culture of my youth. We talked about the ways that many of the films that I found risqué and hilarious as an adolescent in the 80’s turned women into one of two things: the butt of a cruel joke or the object of sexual conquest: Porkys and the Police Academy films, Revenge of the Nerds and Meatballs, to say nothing of the horror films of that era – the Friday the 13ths and Nightmare on Elm Streets and all the rest. Those references might not mean much to some of you, but if you came of age in the 80’s, you know what I’m talking about. Boys and men in those films are clamoring for social status of some kind, and women are always the backdrop against which that struggle for status takes place. Sitting in the kitchen that night, it seemed like there was a direct through line from the toxic masculinity of those films to the behaviors that we’re now reckoning with in public, where we’ve all been forced to confront some of the most egregious and harmful behaviors that men have enacted. From campus dating culture to the Supreme Court and the White House, from the world of entertainment to various boardrooms and corner offices, we’ve been asked to examine not only the most flagrant examples of misconduct, but the very script of masculinity that so many boys and young men inherit in our culture.
Now, what made the conversation so poignant for us both were the questions having to do with our kids. How can we educate our daughters in such a way that they’re protected from those behaviors, and empowered to be themselves, as bold, smart and fearless women? But more than that, the question that burned was how to raise a son in an environment where not only the worst male behaviors were on display, but where smaller, subtler forms of misogyny are imprinted in the consciousness of many boys and young men. What felt unsettling in that moment, what hurt most in that moment, is that for vast swaths of the population, allegations of sexual assault or casual misogyny were viewed as little more than unfortunate character flaws, but by no means a deal breaker. How do you raise boys in such an environment? I don’t mind telling you that we both shed tears as we talked that night. When the worst traits of men are so often rewarded, it can feel overwhelming at times to raise different kinds of boys, different kinds of children, and to be different kinds of people who don’t conform to those particular gender scripts.
Thankfully, those gender scripts are being rewritten – most teachers and school administrators I know, most especially those in our very town, are committed to building new scripts, of mutuality and respect and non-domination. That’s true of the community leaders I know, and it’s certainly true of the leadership in this congregation, and many others like it. The LGBTQ community has provided invaluable leadership in helping us all to rethink the gender scripts that we follow, and the MeToo movement has helped to do the same. And though the Bible is shot through with examples of gender bias, and sometimes much worse, I do believe the overarching narrative contained within the Bible prompts us to consider the subtle and not so subtle forms of violence that we do to ourselves and others when we unquestioningly obey the gender scripts our culture provides. Joseph is one of the models that the Bible provides, a man who is empathic, who is other oriented, who creates an environment in which others can flourish, who has a part to play, but who yields center stage to the woman with whom he is partnered.
Shortly after that late night conversation, I discovered an unlikely source of wisdom on the topic of masculinity and gender that I’d like to share with you, one cast in the mold of Joseph. It came in the form of a TED talk from Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL linebacker who went on to become a coach, as well as a pastor. In a beautiful fifteen minute talk, Ehrmann describes one of the most problematic phrases in all of the English language, and he outlines the myths that perpetuate it. The phrase is: Be a man! Somewhere along the way, most boys encounter it. If it’s not at home it’s on a playground. If it’s not on the playground it’s reinforced in television or films. That wasn’t a message I received in my own home, thankfully, but I remember moments that I did experience it. At a church sponsored track meet for kids when I was in third grade, I was assigned to run a race with hurdles, something I had never done. At the first hurdle, my foot got caught, and I sprawled on the gravel track while the other runners surged ahead. My knees were skinned up, and tears filled my eyes. And I remember searching for someone who might have seen what happened, and who might have helped. What I received were words from a man at the side of the track, who scoffed and said, “Well, don’t just sit there. Be a man. Go get ‘em.” So I did. I struggled to the end of the track, and felt too embarrassed and ashamed to call any further attention to my skinned knees, until later that night, when I got home, and finally put some bandaids on them. It’s a simple moment, but it’s one that gets played out again and again for young boys: don’t show emotion, keep the tears at bay, and above all, be a man, or as they say today, man up.
But then Ehrmann suggests that the lie of masculinity, of being a man, is enforced by three powerful myths that nearly every American boy is subjected to: masculinity is defined by ballfields, bedrooms, and billfolds. As children, boys are elevated and given just a little more status on the playground when they demonstrate some form of athletic mastery, whether through speed or agility, by tracking a curve ball or sinking a jump shot. That’s the myth of the ballfield, where status as a boy or man is defined by athletic skill. But then by the time kids are in junior high, and sometimes well before that, they’re taught that their manhood is defined by their sexual prowess. That’s the myth of the bedroom, where manhood is defined by your ability to use sexual or romantic conquest to compensate for a form of insecurity. And not long after that, if it hasn’t already been hammered home, boys and young men are told that their masculinity and self worth are defined by their financial prowess, the size of their bank accounts. Ballfields, bedrooms and billfolds become the indices for what it means to “be a man.” They become distorting lies when they become measures of one’s dignity and worth as human beings. As often as not, they lead to social isolation, ethics violations, and sometimes, outright violence, because each of those indices actively prevents boys and men from accessing their emotions. According to the American Psychological Association, some 80% of American males are afflicted with a form of alexithymia, which simply means an inability to use words to express what we’re feeling. If violence is simply unprocessed grief, is it any wonder that America is such a violent place?
Ehrmann goes on to counter the lies of ballfields, bedrooms, and billfolds with two new codes that he believes can guide male life, but really, all of human life: first, the emotional depth found in quality relationships, and second, devoting oneself to a cause bigger than the self. Regarding the first, Ehrmann notes that it’s the capacity to love and be loved that is the single most defining feature of our lives, the ability to look another human being in the eye and to say, “I love you.” And yet for so many people, men especially, that sort of emotional exposure feels scary. What if we collectively redefined masculinity as the ability to maintain quality relationships? What if churches, schools and other cultural institutions modeled relationality – friendship – as a defining feature of one’s humanity? What if success was defined away from ballfields, bedrooms, and billfolds, so that one’s relationships, as a friend, as a spouse, as a parent, as a child, as a colleague, were the most important indices of one’s worth? That would mean engaging the heart and not just the head, and learning to dwell with one’s emotions rather than repressing them. It’s in the heart and not the head that empathy, compassion, and values are developed and shaped. It’s within the realm of the heart, and of feeling, that respect for the dignity of others is encouraged. Imagine how different our public discourses would be if the emotional depth of quality relationships were everywhere emphasized and modeled. Imagine how much less isolating and violent the world might become.
But then regarding the second rewritten code or script, Ehrmann notes that human beings come alive when we find something worthy to give ourselves to, in order to make a difference, in order to give back, in order to make the planet, or at least one’s small corner of the planet, just a little better. What if that too was one of the new scripts of masculinity that we all embraced for our children, but really for each one of us? We all have a responsibility to discover a purpose greater than ourselves. But I think we have a responsibility to shift gender narratives so that boys grow into men who have found a purpose that extends beyond ballfields, bedrooms, and billfolds. Many of you have already been doing that work, in your families and in the ways you contribute to the world around you. But it’s a task that continues to extend before us as a powerful challenge.
You may be wondering by now if I’ve forgotten about Joseph, about Advent, about the wider Christmas narrative that we’ll get to celebrate over the next several days. I haven’t. Joseph’s bearing, humble, empathic, and willing to play a supporting role in a wider drama, is a part of the Christmas narrative that we need right now. We need to recall other, more life giving masculine scripts than the ones on such prominent display at the moment. Our sons and our daughters, our grandchildren and our great grandchildren need the Josephs and the Joe Ehrmann’s, along with so many other restless children of Isaiah’s Advent promise, to help us rewrite the script of masculinity. They help to remind us that perhaps the most significant gift this Christmas, for everyone, but especially for boys and for men, won’t be the loot piled up around the tree, but the ability to look one another in the eye and to say, I love you, I love you, and then to grow from the seeds planted around those words.
 It was a brief article in Reflections, a publication out of Yale Divinity School, that introduced me to Ehrmann. See “What Makes a Man a Man,” by David Teel. Fall 2018, pg. 57.