In the marvelous movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which does inevitably appear on the screen at our house around this time of year, there is a poignant scene involving a run on the bank. You remember, don’t you? There is a crisis just as Jimmy Stewart, also known as George Bailey, is on his way off to honeymoon with Donna Reed. Stewart runs to the Building and Loan to keep it from closing, and as he tries to persuade the citizens not to take all their money out, he reminds them that their deposits don’t just sit in a vault somewhere behind the desk. Their money is invested in their neighbors’ homes: “I don’t have your money here. Your money’s in Joe’s house. That’s right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house… And a hundred others.” Reminding them of their mutual financial entanglements, Jimmy Stewart saves the day, staving off an economic meltdown by rekindling a sense of neighborly obligation. We look out for each other, Stewart seems to promise, and our economic system is an extension of our good will toward the people around us. We invest in each other, and communities grow.
That film was made in 1946. Communities grew, and grew beyond measure. In 2008, as we may all remember, the economic meltdown was much more vivid than a scene in a movie, and banks did close. We learned that our money was in our neighbors’ homes, in a way, but that it had been repackaged and sold again and again as mortgage securities that allowed our country, and much of the world, to ignore the fact that bad loans and feverish speculation had rotted away our economic foundations. A sense of mutual obligation, a sense that our homes and communities should provide us with stability and dignity, had been replaced by a sense that money could be made. Lots of money, quickly. With no apparent limits. Five years later we are still struggling to recover. Economists are still not sure whether the most recent positive economic numbers are a sign that we are finally making real progress, or whether this is just another one of the false starts we’ve seen since the housing market first collapsed.
As the housing market began to “sputter,” and “run out of steam,” as the commentators used to call it, a curious phenomenon began to grow in popularity. People began in larger and larger numbers to bury statues of Saint Joseph in their yards while they were waiting for a buyer to come along and make an offer on the property. The practice had been around for a long time, apparently, but as the market began to sour it picked up in popularity. An article from the Wall Street Journal in 2007 speaks of an exponential growth in sales for Saint Joseph statues during this downtrend (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB119370066239175607). I don’t know whether this is still true, but in 2007, according to the article, you could buy a “Home Sale Kit” for about $5. It came with a little statue of Saint Joseph and directions for burying him. Statues of Saint Joseph were becoming hot commodities in 2007. You could get what was billed as an “Underground Real Estate Agent Kit” if you called the number 1-888-BURY-JOE.
This fascinating article, chronicling a growing sense of panic as the market sinks to its lowest numbers in a decade, closes with a religious leader worrying out loud that people might forget where they had buried their statues, and “someone will go over Saint Joseph’s feet with a lawnmower.” I think the religious leader is being a bit facetious, but the image is haunting, isn’t it? Hundreds, maybe thousands, of statues of Saint Joseph still out there, toes up in the suburbs, silently testifying to the deep anxieties of Americans who faced—many are still facing--the rough awakening of an American Dream.
What is Saint Joseph doing, face down in this landscape?
In today’s Gospel we learn that he is indeed a taker of risks, and perhaps that has something to do with his willingness to help out nervous homeowners on the market. But I think we have Joseph planted upside down if we think he is about keeping our financial bubble from bursting. Sell a house? I don’t think so. Look what he did for the House of David, his familial line. He gave it away. To an unwed mother.
Joseph, descendent of the great King David, doesn’t appear to have much more than his lineage going for him. He is an obscure carpenter. He is betrothed to a woman who turns up pregnant. His social security depends upon his willingness to live a righteous life, and in accord with that righteousness he plans to cast Mary off quietly before a scandal breaks out. But then God reaches him, as God so often reaches the line of David, in complicated ways. An angel inspires him to trust, to dig deeper, to get down into the fertile dirt of the incarnation. He keeps the pregnant Mary as his wife, and the life of Jesus begins as it will end, in shame and danger and bloodshed.
Homelessness will follow, a risky journey to Egypt to escape the violence of Herod. Joseph will never return to Bethlehem, where Herod has killed the children of all his kith and kin. He will settle at last in Nazareth with his mysterious wife and child, and he will live out an unspecified number of days in situations that Matthew’s Gospel will not describe.
Trusting God’s promise to this woman he must marry, Joseph the son of David becomes Joseph the father of Jesus. He takes into his own family line the scandal of a risky Messiah whose birth and death are marked by vulnerability and suffering. He adopts that suffering as his own. He touches ground in the midst of human weakness and frustration and dependency. This life of Jesus that Joseph fosters begins and ends in shame.
It is a life that our world, with its money-making schemes and its deep anxieties, is pathologically afraid to embrace. We live, as a culture, in fear that there will be no Joseph among us, no one to embrace us if we are forgotten and despised. We fear, at times with good reason, that if we are not unreasonably productive and diligent at work we will lose our jobs. We fear that if we are not alluring physically we will have no one to love us. We fear that if we grow old or infirm we will be forgotten. We fear, and not without cause, that our very homes may be taken from us if illness or unemployment cause us to miss the crucial payments.
But Joseph knows how to accept Mary, the shameful woman to whom he is betrothed. And he will accept her love for a son who will die a shameful death. And the kingdom of God that bursts forth into life for us this season is a kingdom of people who, like Joseph, by the grace of God, will not let fear stop them from embracing the weak and the poor and the lost and the forgotten.
There are no fluffy, bumbling angels in Joseph’s story, as there are in the wonderful life of George Bailey. There is no real softening of life’s blows. There is no charming performance by Jimmy Stewart. And by the way, the proper response when a bell rings around here is not “Atta boy, Clarence!” It’s “Holy, holy, holy. Let heaven and earth be filled with your glory.” There is acceptance of our poverty before God, and a compassion born in the apparently bare shelter of God’s grace.
Bury Joseph if you must, but he will bear silent witness, and he will not be forgotten by the church, by the Body of Christ that he cradled in its infancy. The kingdom of God is near at hand. It is a kingdom of humility and charity and love. It reveals itself in ways large and small to those like Joseph who are given the grace to endure its visitations.
O come, o come Emmanuel. Ransom captive Israel.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
22 December 2013, Advent IV
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia