(Read Matthew 1:18-25)
In October of this year, in the Bible-belt in Georgia, an evangelical minister, Bishop Jim Swilley, decided to do something shocking. Before any scandal erupted, before any serious indiscretion had been committed, Bishop Swilley announced to his rather conservative congregation that he was a homosexual. He was gay. And he came out on his own terms because he felt compelled to do so.
One of the main reasons Bishop Swilley felt compelled to do so was because of the suicide of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who jumped off a bridge after his roommate streamed footage of him having sex with a man. Swilley said, “There was just one suicide too many. I had this moment of clarity; I am going to tell everyone I am gay. And maybe if it helps, I can save [someone’s life].”
Regardless of one’s beliefs about homosexuality, I think Swilley’s confession was incredibly brave. He didn’t have to, but to him, it was living life in truth or living life as a lie. And it was about trying to help others who had similar struggles.
How do you think the congregation felt to his admission? How would you feel if I stood up here and told you my deepest secret? And how do you think they responded to what they felt? Did they cry? Yell? Condemn? Walk away? Stay? Offer acceptance? Show love, compassion and empathy?
Today, we are talking and thinking about how we respond to the situations in our lives, no matter what the situation may be. No matter how big or how small. No matter if its self-created or if its imposed upon us.
My ex-boyfriend’s sister is 34 years old. Just a year or so older than I am. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this year. You probably know that pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly kinds. Why? Why did she get it? Why her? She’s so young. She doesn’t deserve this sentence.
How do you think her father feels? How would you feel if your child was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 34? And how do you think her father has responded to his feelings? Does he cry? Yell? Curse God? Turn his back on God because he feels God has turned his back on him? Put distance between him and his daughter to protect himself emotionally? Or get closer to her? Help her? Care for her? Do anything he can to make the life she has left the best life possible?
In today’s Bible text, Joseph is dealt a difficult hand. He finds out that the woman he is about to marry is pregnant, and he knows it is not his child. He could have played it one of many ways. He could have left Mary. He could have humiliated her in public or done it privately. He could stay with Mary. He could have been angry and bitter for the rest of their lives or he could be accepting and loving towards her.
The Scriptures say that he thought of dismissing her, but because he was a righteous man, he was going to do so quietly, discreetly. Just when he had resolved to do this though, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. The angel said, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).
A note about angels: They don’t have to be winged, superhuman creatures. The Bible tells us that we can entertain angels unaware. An angel might be your child, your next door neighbor, a stranger in the supermarket. Listen up and keep your mind and ears open. An angel might be speaking to you at any moment.
How do you think Joseph felt about seeing an angel? About the message the angel delivered? How would you feel if the person you loved was having a child and you were not the biological parent of that child? Dismayed? Angry? Betrayed? Numb? Understanding? Loving, compassionate and full of empathy?
All day, every day, human beings engage in a dance of interacting with each other. We must respond to what each other says and does. When your husband or child walks in the house late, yells at you, and then storms off, how do you respond? Do you yell back? I know its difficult in the moment, but the best thing we can do is respond in love.
To respond in love requires courage and faith. It requires courage because we have to set our egos aside. It requires courage because we have to put our fears aside. And it requires faith because we have to believe that God is present in that situation, Emmanuel, God is with us. (This is what celebrating Christmas is all about- that God comes to be with us in the person of Jesus Christ.) It requires faith because we have to believe that God is using his power to bring about healing, even if it seems to us that God is taking a long, winding road, and maybe even seems to be going in the wrong direction.
How did people respond to Bishop Swilley? Well, the presiding Bishop of the International Communion of Charismatic Churches, David Huskins, criticized Swilley for yielding to a lifestyle that is contradictory to the Word of God. Many of his parishioners left the church. However, many stayed and embraced their pastor in the difficult situation he found himself. Perhaps most importantly was the responses of Bishop Swilley’s family. His wife, Debye, who had already known his secret all along, stood by side, defending their 21 year marriage and her husband’s character. Bishop Swilley’s sons had not known their father was a homosexual, but when asked whether this information would affect their relationship with him, his one son said, “Of course not. It took a lot of guts, and I respect him more now.” That’s responding in love, and it took them all courage and faith to do so.
How did Dayna’s father, George, respond to her situation? It caused him to get angry with God at first. It caused him to feel angry at himself because there was nothing he could do to help her. But rather than let himself get more and more frenzied, he surrendered to the situation and just started doing everything he could to care for Dayna and make her happy. He threw her a party. He went with her to chemo treatments. That’s responding in love, and it took him courage and faith to do so.
How did Joseph respond to Mary’s situation? He protected her against everything that people were saying. He took her as his wife and held nothing against her. He named his son, Jesus, as the angel told him to do, and took care of Jesus all the days of his life. That’s responding in love, and it took him courage and faith to do so.
This holiday season, while its wonderful to get together with relatives and friends, there will be difficult situations of all kinds: someone will drink too much and insist on driving, two people will get in an argument over political or religious views, an in-law or distant cousin will give you a back-handed compliment that has the potential to turn into an ugly situation if you let it. When this happens, I invite you to think of how Bishop Swilley’s sons stuck by his side, how Dayna’s father stuck by her side, and how Joseph stuck by Mary’s side. And how they all acted in love with courage and faith. All of us have the ability to act in love with courage and faith no matter what the situation.
Right now, we are going to say the Magnificat together. The Magnificat is Mary’s loving, courageous and faithful response to God when she found out that she had conceived a son. Now remember, she was a young, young, unmarried woman, and this was her response to a very difficult situation. If she can respond in love, so can we.