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"The Greatest of These" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - December 18, 2016

posted Dec 22, 2016, 2:18 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Every Sunday a new candle on our wreath.  Faith. Hope. Peace. Love. Each one points - a cardinal direction - mapping out the ways we learn and grow spiritually; for an Advent wreath is more a spiritual compass than a countdown clock to Christmas.

And if faith, hope, peace, and love mark out our spiritual directions, then certainly love would be the North Star, the point of orientation.  After all, the greatest of these is love.

So this morning I want to think with you about love and the way it shapes and orients our spiritual life.  Joseph, the father of Jesus, will be our example and guide.

But at the outset, I need to distinguish the kind of love I want to talk about from two ways it’s understood.  First, I want to talk about something other than the Valentine’s Day version of love - super sweet, saccharine love; cloyingly annoying.  This version of love focuses on perfect moments - the perfect date, the perfect gesture, the perfect sparkle.  But I’ve come to realize, at least for me, that real love is rarely perfect.

So I’m not interested in talking today of love as something perfectly sweet.  Nor do I want to talk about it philosophically.  There’s a long Western tradition of turning love into an abstraction.  I’ve heard it often enough in theology: someone makes a point of separating out the greek words for love: eros - erotic love, philia - friendship, and agape - charity.  Doing so creates a hierarchy of love, with intimacy down low and goodwill up high; as if our highest aspiration were to love dispassionately.

We can easily see the problems with a saccharine kind of love, but this ‘philosophical’ love can be harder to counter.  It comes, as many of our Western ideas do, from the dialogues of Socrates.  And in particular his dialogue on love in which he set up this movement of lower and higher loves.  In Socrates’ mind, one started by loving a particular person, eros.  And this allowed one to progress to a higher love, loving other humans more broadly, philia.  Finally, one progressed beyond this, to a love freed from the constraints of particular people, to just love in general, agape.  As Socrates explained it, “one must for the sake of that highest beauty be ever climbing aloft, as on the rungs of a ladder, from one to two, and from two to all beautiful bodies.”  (No word on what Socrates’ wife thought of being a stepping stone to his greater loves).

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Socrates’ wife; and yet his idea shapes much of our Western philosophical ideas about love.  Philosophers and theologians made the highest and greatest forms of love to be an exercise in detachment.

Christmas points to a different and better understanding of love.  The classic Christmas hymn points to it, “Love Came Down at Christmas.”  Not that God’s love lead to a flight from material life, not that divine love lead away from particular people, but that love led God to take on one life fully and profoundly.  Socrates wanted love to take him away; but God’s love led to a lowly birth in a barn.  And contrary to the saccharine vision, nothing seemed perfect about that barn: it was all sweat and manure, the holiest love revealed in the most plain space imaginable.

As we lit each Advent candle this year, we read words of scripture intertwined with those of Martin Luther King.  Today we read some of his memorable comments on love.  But when I think of the kind of love King practiced, I remember a quote from one of his books, in which he said in part, “The cross is the eternal sign of the length to which God will go to restore broken community.”  That’s love.  A Calvary kind of love.  Not perfect, but eternally meaningful.  Not detached from the world, but deeply committed to healing the brokenness in community.


Joseph, in the story we heard this morning, learned to practice this kind of Calvary love.  We mostly ignore the character of Joseph in the stories about Jesus’ birth.  All the attention rests on Mary and Jesus; Joseph fades into the background.  Only occasionally, as today, do we hear his story.

But it’s worth recalling.  The story goes that Joseph and Mary were engaged to be married, ‘betrothed’ as the Victorians said.  They lived in separate houses at this time.  In ancient times, couples might spend years this way, even living far apart.  The groom needed to establish himself, to find enough work to support his future family.

Joseph, tradition says, worked as a carpenter.  He built things.  And, at this time, King Herod was building all sorts of structures around Israel - forts like Masada, religious buildings like the Temple, even whole cities.  Joseph might have traveled far and wide for this work, working hard to build a perfect life for his new family.

During this time engaged but apart, Mary became pregnant.  Those simple words can’t begin to express the shock Joseph must have felt.  “All the plans I’ve made!  My perfect life; what now?”

The Gospel described Joseph as a “righteous man,” which usually means someone who strictly follows the law.  The law laid out the options for women like Mary.  The group of men standing at the town gate would hold a trial; evidence would be presented; if the men decided Mary willing had sex then Mary would be stoned; if they decided she had been forced to have sex then she would be spared.

Joseph didn’t want that to happen; “he planned to dismiss her quietly.”  This doesn’t mean people wouldn’t know what had happened.  Bethlehem was not a big city; probably a community not much bigger than the immediate neighborhood around the church, about 1,000 people.  Joseph didn’t want to take Mary to court, to expose her to judgment by men in the town.

Now obviously that was good for Mary.  But what does it tell us about Joseph?  Taking her to court, publicly shaming her through a court of men peering over her sexual history, would have proclaimed Joseph’s virtue.  “See how great I am; how fallen she is!”  He could have carried on and on with such an act.  And, in fact, we often find self-righteous Christians carrying on in just such a way, proclaiming their own holiness and devotion.

Joseph didn’t act that way.  Instead of narrowly following the law, he looked to the larger meaning of it.  The letter might call for a trial; but the spirit called for Mary’s protection.  We often focus on this thought in the teachings of Jesus; it might just be a life lesson he learned from his father; to follow the spirit instead of the letter of the law.

No matter how hurt Joseph may have felt, this move on his part showed love.  Though hurt, he cared what happened to Mary.  This was not a detached love, not a philosophical attachment to pure ideas, not a loyalty to the law above all else.  But a profound attachment, an engagement with one particular life, a devotion even in his pain to Mary.  Socrates was wrong: real love does not take us from people to the realm of ideas.  Love passionately engages us with people.

And yet Joseph did even more than protect Mary from shame.  Before making a final decision, Joseph slept on it.  This is always a good idea.  And when he slept, it seemed as if the divine itself spoke to him through his dreams.  He awoke with a clear idea: the Holy Spirit fathered my child.

Now what are we to make of such a dream?  We probably need a Freudian to know for sure.  But here’s what I think: Joseph went to sleep deeply troubled over Mary’s pregnancy.  Who was the father?  Deep in his heart came the answer: the Holy Spirit.  That is to say, his heart answered, “stop asking.”

Marcus Borg, the Biblical scholar, once coined a helpful phrase.  He talked about putting something on a “suspense account.”  And that’s what Joseph did with this question troubling him: he suspense accounted it.  

People in the ancient world couldn’t do paternity tests.  Mothers were easier to figure out, except for one case King Solomon faced.  But fatherhood could be harder.  So the ancient rabbis decided on a clear test, “If a man say, ‘this is my son,’ he is to be believed.”

Joseph’s gut told him it didn’t matter how Mary became pregnant.  His heart said, “the force of life itself caused it.  The creative power of the universe made it happen.”  In the first part of the story - by not taking Mary to court - Joseph suspended the judgment of the town.  And now in the second part - by letting go this question of paternity - Joseph suspended his own judgment.

This was not a perfect arrangement, not a sugary-sweet tale of romance.  But it was a real love; a decision to accept the messy details of life and not judge their cause.

Reading the Gospel, one of the most remarkable qualities of Jesus was not his miracles but his lack of judgment about people and their situations: to a woman accused, he brought no complaint; to a man being executed next to him, he promised eternal life; to people shunned and outcast, he sat and ate again and again.  It’s another life-lesson I think he learned from his father Joseph.

Joseph not only provided a model to Jesus, but one for us when it comes to the spiritual path of love: engage with people, not abstractions; find beauty and meaning in all the things that aren’t quite perfect.

Recently I heard a modern version of this old story of Joseph’s love.  Andrew Solomon told the story of Clinton Brown, a man born with diastrophic dwarfism.  Doctors told his parents that Clinton would never walk and probably not even have the brain capacity to recognize them.  “Best just to leave him here to die quietly,” the doctors advised.

Others saw Clinton’s imperfections; but his mother beheld her son.  She took him home.  Despite her poverty, she found doctors skilled in treating Clinton’s condition.  He underwent 30 surgeries, with long stays in the hospital, but he gained the ability to walk.

His mom brought in tutors to help with school work and he kept at it.  And finally he became the first in his family to go to college, using a specially equipped car to drive to a nearby university.  One day his mom saw Clinton’s car at a bar; as she explained:

“And I thought to myself, they're six feet tall, he's three feet tall. Two beers for them is four beers for him.  I knew I couldn't go in there and interrupt him, but I went home, and I left him eight messages on his cell phone. And then I thought, if someone had said to me when he was born that my future worry would be that he'd go drinking and driving with his college buddies…”

Andrew Solomon, the researcher, pressed Clinton’s mom to know what she did to transform him from a child deemed hopeless into a person of promise.  She told him, “What did I do? I loved him, that's all. Clinton just always had that light in him. And his father and I were lucky enough to be the first to see it there."

Joseph would know what she meant.  Love is more than perfection.  Love engages us with people, and all the messy reality of humanity.  And such love redeems and transforms; and ultimately becomes another example of the lengths to which God’s spirit will go to move through us in restoring brokenness.  May we all love as profoundly as dear Joseph.  Alleluia and Amen.


  • Alison, James, “Reading the Signs,” Christian Century, 2007.

  • Brown, Raymond E., “The Annunciation to Joseph”

  • Brown, Rosalind, “Practicing Fidelity,” Christian Century, 1998.

  • Solomon, Andrew, “Love, No Matter What,” Ted Talks, April 2013.

  • Wright, N.T., “God’s Way of Acting,” Christian Century, 1998.