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Condition of Women - Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25

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This Sunday's gospel was concentrated around Joseph. Joseph could have set Mary aside when he heard she was with child. Joseph received instructions from an angel and chose to take her as his wife. Joseph had all the power. Because women had no power in those days. 

 This sermon is quite a bit different from how it was written, therefore, please listen to the sermon rather than read it.  The sermon notes which are included for convenience.  

Sermon delivered at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Berkeley. 

December 18, 2016 - Fourth Sunday in Advent  

"Condition of Women".  Text is from Matthew 1:18-25

Greetings to you, sisters and brothers, my family in Christ, saints and sinners, children of God. 

Now, a lot of people might be familiar with the story of the birth of Jesus, and we have seen performances from Christmas Pageants the longer and inevitably more familiar birth narrative originating from Luke. We see Mary hearing from the angel and we see Mary being the devoted pregnant mother, and Mary always seems to be the most important part. But Joseph? He has never really gotten much to say in a Christmas pageant. He seems to be relegated to a side part.

But reading the narrative from Matthew, we don't do a lot of talking much about Mary and the birth at all, so much as we do about the drama surrounding Joseph and the angst that he must have been going through. 

But what was Joseph to do anyway? When we say that Joseph was engaged to Mary, it's not so much like we understand engagement. Joseph didn't walk up to Mary, get down on one knee, pull a ring from out of his pocket and say, "Mary, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"

No. Marriage is a little more complicated in ancient Israel. First comes the betrothal, which is really a marriage contract, and it's usually arranged by the parents. An engagement period usually lasts a year, at the end of which the ceremony is to take place. The couple hopefully has some opportunity to learn about each other over the course of that year but it may not necessarily be the case. 

So when Mary shows up and tells her husband-to-be, Joseph, that she's about to have a little one, He may or may not believer her as to how the baby got there, but that's generally irrelevant. It is not something that can so easily be remedied.  Joseph, plans to "dismiss her quietly." He does not want to publicly humiliate her, which is the standard protocol for when a young woman who is to be married gets pregnant by a man who is not the father.  Matthew does not dig too deeply into the repercussions of either public humiliation or being quietly dismissed, which, while being commendable on Joseph's part, still would carry its own severe burden on the young woman's life. But she'd be sent back to live with her own family, for one thing. 

The Martyrdom and Last Communion of Saint Lucy 1582 Veronese

But look at it. Matthew is most assuredly the gospel that takes pains to see things from the Jewish point of view. And the fact that we're reading this from Joseph's perspective is compelling. Joseph is going to quietly put Mary away, somewhere. Joseph is visited by an angel who tells him not to do this. That the child Mary will bear will be his to raise, and that he married her and named the child as the angel commanded. 

But the power here all belongs to Joseph. And no matter how kind or how faithful or how good a man he was, it's evident that it was his decision to take Mary and make her his wife instead of quietly setting her aside (which he could also have done this in a loud way as well, shaming her in public, because that was also acceptable in those days and even in some places today). What would have befallen Mary had he set her aside? What befell many women in those days who often through no fault of their own found themselves in dire straights, was some type of public shaming. We're talking about in the very best of circumstances women being left with no one to care for them or their children, and in the worst, being sold into prostitution or even stoned to death. 

And so was the power--or lack of power--among women in those days. We can find numerous instances of this dynamic in the biographies of the early saints, one in particular involves the legends of Saint Nicholas, who becomes Santa Claus in folklore. One of the most notable of legends of St. Nick is that he helped a poor man who had three daughters but could not afford dowries in order that they be married. Without skills, which few women attained and without which they could not achieve gainful employment, so that meant in those days they would have to be sold into prostitution. St. Nicholas took three purses and filled them with coin and anonymously tossed them through the poor man's window in order that the daughters find suitable husbands. 

Such was the condition of women in those days. Let us take a short look at Santa Lucia, who we shall be honoring in a procession downstairs later on. One of my colleagues had an insight this week in that Santa Lucia played a similar role in evangelizing pagan Scandinavians as the Virgin of Guadalupe did in Mexico. This is because in the middle ages, the people of one part of Sweden were dying of hunger due to a famine, and on the longest night of the year, December 13 in those days, a vision appeared of the blessed Santa Lucia just when a ship arrived carrying food and saving them. No one knows where the ship came from, and it vanished as soon as the food was deposited. This demonstrated the Gospel incarnate in an indigenous goddess who appears to the poor and hungry just as with the people of Guadalupe. 

But the life of Santa Lucia was much more different. Her origins stem from a life of devotion to Christ in Sicily in what is now modern day Italy, but it was a time in the Fourth Century of persecution against Christians. Rather than being sold into marriage, thereby violating her vow of celibacy, she gave her dowry to the poor and became subject to the wrath of Roman authorities who convicted her of being a Christian. Her sentence was to be sold to a brothel, much like the fate of so many other women from poor families and those who had no opportunities. Only the miracle of immobility prevented her from receiving that fate. After subjecting her to other tortures, the Romans finally succeeded at executing her, but she never denied Christ and she became a martyr.

While most women today have much greater opportunities than many years ago, we still have serious discrepancies between the availability of opportunities for men and women and in many cultures women continue to be subject to similar restrictions in their life callings, the slave trade, prostitution, child marriage are real issues around the world, and even in the United States.

But my sisters and brothers, the good news is that the baby who Mary was carrying, who was to be born was God himself, sent to us to free the captives those who would be subject to the abuse that humankind would inflict. In God there is no gender, we are all beloved by our creator who frees us from the bondage of sin and, as king, Christ rules over us, reminding us that even as injustice happens on earth, in the kingdom we are each of us served by Christ's love and mastered by his goodness, and that knowing that in God's sacred vision of heaven, all of us receive God's mercy, all debts are forgiven, and all fates are righteous and just.



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This page contains a single entry by Cary Bass-Deschenes published on December 18, 2016 4:50 PM.

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