Bless Us with Courage

Fourth Sunday in Advent, 18 December 2016. Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25.

Recording here.

After the death of astronaut and Senator John Glenn ten days ago, a story circulated again about his wife Annie.

John Glenn was a model of courage. He flew 149 combat missions in World War II and the Korean War. He was one of the Mercury Seven, the first men selected for astronaut training. He was the first man to orbit the earth.  Then he took on the challenge of politics. At age 77 he volunteered for a Space Shuttle mission to help NASA test the effects of space on older people.

But his wife Annie was equally courageous, if not more so. They grew up together because their parents were friends. They married in 1943. But for most of her life, Annie struggled with a  stutter so severe she had trouble with about 85 percent of the words she tried to say. She struggled to care for their children when John was away. She couldn’t talk with neighbors. She couldn’t give interviews as her husband became more and more famous.

She told the Washington Post, “Those were difficult times for me. In times of difficulty or defeat, it’s easy to think that we really have no choices. That we are trapped. I know I felt that way. Having tried, having failed so many times.”

Then in 1973, when she was 53 years old, she and John heard about a treatment program. She enrolled, and her stutter was cured. When she got home, according to John’s memoir, one of her first statements to her husband was, “John, I’ve wanted to tell you this for years. Pick up your socks.”

She became a tireless advocate for the disabled. She gave speeches when her husband campaigned for Senate. And she always sought out the people others were ignoring. At one campaign stop, she noticed a group of deaf people. She went to them and learned some words in sign language. John Glenn pointed this out to the press who were crowded around him and said, “That’s what you should be covering.”

He later wrote of her, “It takes guts to operate with a disability. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do all the things that Annie did so well.”

Annie Glenn is like Joseph in the Nativity story – a quiet person behind the scenes who acted with courage.

Of course it took tremendous courage for Mary to say yes to God and bear Christ into the world. We honor and revere Mary for her courage to sing about God’s dream of justice and live out that dream as a human vessel for the divine life. We hear Mary’s experience in detail in Luke. But Matthew tells us Joseph’s side of the story. .

We don’t know as much about Joseph as we would like to know. It appears he was still living when Jesus visited the temple and got separated from his parents. His mother scolded him, saying “Look, your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety.” But there is no mention of Joseph or of a father of Jesus after that time. Three gospels report the family of Jesus came to him, worried that he had lost his mind, but those stories mention only the mother and brothers of Jesus, no father. Those who believe Mary remained a perpetual virgin throughout her life have assumed the brothers and sisters of Jesus were Joseph’s children from a previous marriage. For all of these reasons, it is often assumed Joseph was an older parent who died before Jesus became an adult.

By tradition he was a simple carpenter. He was from the House of David. Bethlehem was his ancestral home. But he was a simple man. There is no indication he had an ambitions toward greatness. But you and I both know so many people like him. These simple people, these quiet saints, often make the biggest difference.

We see the courage of Joseph all over this story.

First, he had the courage to forgive. When told of Mary’s pregnancy he made the obvious assumption that Mary had been unfaithful to him. They were betrothed, not yet married, but contracted to each other. By law, he had the right to shame her publicly and let her be stoned to death. Yet, even before the angel explained the situation to him in a dream, he made the courageous decision to set her free. Even before the angel spoke to him, he let go of any desire for revenge. He let go of any grudges. He chose to set her free.

Forgiving those who have harmed us, letting go of our resentments from the past, takes great courage, the courage of Joseph.

Then, when the angel explained the holy thing that was happening in Mary, Joseph had the courage to take Mary and her child into his care. She was a vulnerable woman. Her child would become a target of Herod’s wrath and insecurity. He would eventually take his family to Egypt to protect them.

Protecting the vulnerable is an act of courage. Finding ways for God’s beloved vulnerable people to live abundant lives takes great courage, the courage of Joseph.

And he named him Jesus. In his day, it was easy for faithful people to think God had abandoned them. Joseph lived under the oppression of imperial power every day. He became a political refugee, like desperate people today trying to flee Syria. But as directed, he named the child Jesus, a name that trusted in the saving power of God. Every day, in calling this child’s name, those who heard it were reminded to hope in God’s salvation.

It takes courage to hold on to hope. It takes courage to protect the vulnerable. It takes courage to forgive and set others free.

So thanks be to God for the Josephs among us. Thanks be to God for you – you who get up every day and keep trying to make the world a better place, you who serve children in this community, you who love all people no exceptions, you who let go of resentment about the past, you who keep living your baptismal promises even when it is hard. Thanks be to God for you.

It takes courage to live our baptismal promises. It takes courage to persevere in resisting evil and proclaim the good news of God in Christ. It takes courage to love your neighbor as yourself and strive for justice and peace.

It takes more courage than is humanly possible. So thanks be to God, we are given this courage in baptism. The divine life and power of God come into our lives through these waters and make us more than we are. Being sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever changes us into something new. We are reborn.

So God bless us, everyone, with the courage of Joseph and the courage of baptism. Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Grace Burton-Edwards, 2016

The Washington Post story about Annie Glenn is available here.

Photo of Mary and Joseph Seeking Refuge, Simon de Vos [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.