A high school English teacher moves to the blackboard at the beginning of class and writes these words in chalk, “A woman without her man is nothing”. “Today’s assignment,” the teacher announces, “is to give this statement correct punctuation.” All the young men in the class write, “A woman, with her man, is nothing.” The young women, on the other hand, have a different take: “A woman: without her, man is nothing!”
John Gray’s 1992 book Men Are from Mars, Women are from Venus has sold more than 50 million copies. Although roundly criticized as being stereotypical in its approach to gender descriptions, the book has helped men and women understand each other better. Gray contends men and women approach life in such different ways it is as if we are from different planets. Each gender, he says, is acclimated to its own planet’s society and customs, which is completely foreign to the other gender.
One example of our differences is how each gender typically responds to stress. Men, when faced with difficult problems or situations, tend to become non-communicative so they can work out how best to respond. Gray calls this “retreating to the cave.” Women, responding in an entirely different manner, become communicative so others can help them work through their options and opportunities. For women, often the solution is not as important as the opportunity to express emotions and to receive empathy. Again, Gray’s approach has been criticized for relying on stereotypes, but behind many stereotypes often there is an element of truth.
Most of what we know about the birth of Jesus is drawn from the Gospel’s of Matthew and Luke. While we tend to fold together the elements of each version, the two gospels present two distinct and very different stories. Luke is focused on Mary. An angel tells her she will bear the Son of God. She responds by singing the Magnificat. True to Gray’s thinking about stressful situations, Mary travels to visit her cousin Elizabeth. They greet one another and there is more singing. Luke tells us about the census and the journey to Bethlehem. He tells us about the birth in a stable and the visiting shepherds. It is a rich, lush story full of wonder and joy.
Matthew describes Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s perspective. True to Gray’s thinking, when he learns his fiancée is pregnant Joseph retreats to himself to figure out how to respond. He could have Mary stoned to death, but decides to keep the matter quiet and between them. He will give her a simple writ of divorce and be done with it. An angel speaks to him in a dream and gives him a new direction. He takes Mary as his wife. In classic Mars style, the text simply says, “Mary bore a son, and Joseph named him Jesus.” Lean and to the point, just the way a man would tell it.
Matthew uses one very telling word to describe Joseph. He says Joseph is a “righteous” man. It means he is a good person, moral, and (in the extreme) it can even indicate he is without sin. It is not easy, I think, for a good and moral person to tolerate the failings of those closest to him. We expect our spouse and our siblings and our children to live up to the moral and ethical code we expect of ourselves. Joseph must have been deeply disappointed when he discovered Mary was with child. Her version of how it happened must have seemed laughable to him.
He has, at best, two options. As we noted, he can make the matter public and demand she be executed by stoning. This would be the path of righteous indignation. Or, he can opt for the more merciful path of divorce. It will free him of Mary and responsibility for an unborn child that is not his. She will have to return to her family and hope her father will take her back under his care.
Have you ever received an email with a sentence or saying automatically fixed to the end? A colleague sent me an email this week and at the end he inserted this quote from John Schaar:
The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created--created first in the mind and will, created next in activity. The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination.
I think Schaar is right about the present and the future and about our role and responsibility in moving forward. And I think Joseph’s story illustrates exactly what Schaar describes. Before he goes to sleep and encounters an angel in his dream, Joseph is very much pondering the future by weighing the merits of the different paths available to him in the present. But after the angel speaks to him Joseph begins to consider the possibility of a future only he can create. Remaining engaged to his pregnant fiancée is not an option given to him by his culture, but it is the decision he embraces. He makes his way forward into the future in a new way. The path is made one step at a time by taking one step after another.
It seems to me, for one reason or another, I have been preaching the same message in my sermon for the last several weeks. The kingdom of heaven is not something God does for you, rather it is something God does through you. Either you are a willing and active participant or nothing happens.
Mary provides the ultimate illustration of this. The kingdom of heaven literally begins insider her body and comes into this world through her womb. Joseph, for his part, embraces the possibility God wants to do something through him. He faces what most likely is the most critical and difficult decision of his life and decides to make a new path and create a future in partnership with God’s Spirit.
We are just two weeks away from entering the 375th year of our parish’s existence. We will observe and celebrate this momentous occasion in different forms and fashions. No one is forcing us to do it. We can sit back and do little or nothing. We choose to create our future by using the occasion to remember, to reflect, and to give thanks. I believe God will act in and through our celebrating in ways we can scarcely imagine, but would not happen if we did nothing at all.
I always love concluding the reading of Morning Prayer by reciting these words from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus: “Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” God’s power, working through us, can do amazing things indeed, but only if we are willing to allow it to happen. The kingdom of heaven is not something God does for you, but something God does through you. It is something God creates in partnership with you. Either you will create the future with God’s Spirit moving through you, or you will not. Either the kingdom of heaven will be born through you, as it was through Mary, or the world will remain a cold and lonely and lifeless place. Either you will work with God to protect what is good and precious and vulnerable, as God worked through Joseph, or what the world needs most will be lost. Either your heart will be open to God and it will become a place for the kingdom of heaven to be imagined and then created, or the world will drift along visionless and dark.
“Just as the candle is host to the flame, so too may you burn with the power and the glory of God’s Spirit.”