31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
December 22, 2019
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
What a joy it is to lead you in ministry and serve amongst you! I am always thankful for the generosity of this congregation, and during these Advent days and especially last Sunday, I have been so grateful for the willing spirit of this community of faith, for your openness to trying new things as we open ourselves more fully to God’s Holy Spirit.
I have been especially overjoyed by the enthusiastic participation in our Advent & Art worship series. The Names of the Messiah posters are beautiful and almost ready to hang – just a bit more coloring to do at Fellowship. The songs of praise from last week’s worship were fun and faithful, as were the nativity sets.
If you had the opportunity to see the Nativity display in the upstairs atrium hallway, then you know how unique and special all of the nativity scenes were. There were scenes from around the world; some were delicate and some were “please play”; and one was even hand painted by a church member’s sister.
As we saw from our nativity display, nativity scenes can be really different. Some include only the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Others have angels, shepherds, magi, camel herders, and animals galore.
Despite their unique characteristics though, most nativity scenes depict Mary and Joseph in about the same way.
Artist after artist depicts Mary holding the Christ child or kneeling beside the manger with Joseph standing beside her, holding a staff, head bowed. And their faces are almost always calm, serene, and almost, if not completely expressionless.
Is this what faith looks like?
There is no question that Mary and Joseph were extremely faithful people. God called them to the most amazing, important ministry, and they faithfully, they trustingly, said yes.
Scripture tells us that Mary’s was an enthusiastic yes. Mary rejoiced that she would be God’s instrument for bringing peace and justice and righteousness to the world. Mary sang her joy in what God was doing for her and for all people.
Scripture tells us less about Joseph’s reaction to the news that he, too, would be the one to fulfill God’s prophesy. Scripture does tell us that after this amazing dream, Joseph “awoke from sleep, [and] did as the angel of the Lord commanded him” (Matthew 1:24). Joseph faithfully, unquestioningly, said yes to God, but was he happy? Was he disbelieving? Was he reluctant? Or did he have no thought or emotion at all?
As people of faith, we look at artist’s renderings of Mary and Joseph, like the nativity sets that graced our atrium hallway last week, and we get the impression that faith is calm; faith is composed; faith is faces bowed demurely; hands clasped in prayer. Yes, faith is those things and faith is so much more. Faith is a rainbow of emotions.
Our faith tradition has blessed us with tremendous gifts – an emphasis on educated clergy and lay people, the belief that all people, young and older, lay and ordained, black, brown, white, differently abled and differently thinking, we believe that we are all equal in God’s eyes, all welcome in Christ’s community, all gifted with abilities to transform our world with love.
Our faith tradition has blessed us with tremendous gifts, and our faith tradition also hampers us in some respects because like these artist renderings of Mary and Joseph, we sometimes mistakenly believe that a person of deep and abiding faith is always calm, always serene, never, ever emotional, and nothing could be farther from the truth.
It’s hard to imagine that Mary’s face could be expressionless or even calm as she sang about the great things God had done and was going to do for her and the world. Mary was joyful on that day she sang, and I imagine Mary was joyful on the day Jesus was born. Joy is probably the most common reaction to a child’s birth – even strangers light up to hear about a new baby. Mary would have been no different. Her faithful response to God’s good news was to rejoice because joy is what faith looks like.
And just because the gospel of Matthew doesn’t give us details about how Joseph felt when the angel visited him in his dream doesn’t mean Joseph reacted like a placid robot. He was human, just like us. So imagine how you would feel if an angel came to you in your sleep and told you that you, you would be an instrument in God’s plan to fulfill a prophecy that your people had been waiting for for thousands of years.
Would you be surprised? Incredulous? Awe-struck? Even totally disbelieving?
If Joseph had felt any or all of those things, that would not have changed the fact that he was deeply faithful. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt and belief work together, like the bicep and tricep work together in our arm. We need them both. Doubt and belief work together to strengthen our faith. So just as calm and joy are what faith looks like, doubt is also what faith looks like.
Faith looks like emotions we expect. Emotions – like peace, where we are taking deep, slow breaths and projecting a calm exterior as we are also paddling furiously like a duck under the surface. Faith can be gratitude, being filled with such thanks for God and God’s blessings in our lives that our faces glow with heart felt appreciation.
And faith can be anger. Yes, faith can be anger. In my years of ministry, I have sat with many a person who has denied their anger, bottled it up inside, pretended that it did not exist – which just always makes our anger come out in unhealthy and inappropriate ways.
Anger is also what faith looks like, because anger is the emotion of justice. Anger is the emotion of knowing things are not right and wanting them to be right. Anger fuels us to fight for change in our world, to advocate for others, to seek reconciliation, and to work for justice.
Even anger at God is what faith looks like. About five years ago, I struggled with this. I was very angry at God, and I thought my anger was something to be ashamed of. And then, at the end of the journey, I realized that if I did not believe in my whole heart that God existed, if I did not have faith that God was in control of my life and our world, then I would not have been angry with God. What would have been the point?
I was angry because I wanted to trust in my plan and not God’s plan, and when I realized that, my anger led me to a place of deeper faithfulness.
Nativity creators make Mary and Joseph’s faces look calm and serene; however might they have also been angry? Was there a moment on this journey when they got upset because life was going to be different from what they had expected? With doubt, might there also have been moments of sadness and anger, of grief and loss, for the life they had planned? Faith can look like all of those emotions, too.
And faith can be fierce. As I was contemplating Joseph this past week, I wondered about the staff in his hand. Nativity set after nativity set has Joseph with a staff in hand – as if he were a shepherd, and I guess in a way he was. Joseph was called to shepherd, to protect, to safeguard the Christ child, the Messiah, Emmanuel, God with us. While in the form of a helpless, vulnerable child, God needed Joseph to be God’s protector and advocate. Joseph was faithful enough to do that, and Joseph faithfully did it – safeguarding Mary on the journey to Bethlehem and then protecting Mary and the Christ child on the long and dangerous journey to Egypt, keeping the Messiah safe from King Herod.
Fierceness, dedication, all of those emotions that inspire us to keep others safe no matter what, Joseph shows us that they, too, are what faithfulness look like.
When we look at these works of art that we display in our church and homes, we gaze upon these figures and imagine that calm, serenity, even stoicism are what faith looks like. Yes, and faith is so much more. Faith is every emotion we feel, because all of those emotions are from God.
On this Sunday of joy, I invite you to faithfully rejoice, and I invite you to faithfully offer to God everything else you are feeling – your sadness and grief at the loss of a loved one or the loss of how you hoped life would go; your anger at the ways people and creation are being treated with indignity; your strength and courage to advocate for the world-transforming, status quo-upsetting way of Jesus Christ; and your peace, your deep and abiding trust in God, that God has the world and God has us. God is with us. Emmanuel. All of this is what faith looks like.