Br. Randy Greve, OHC
The Feast of Saint Joseph - Tuesday, March 20, 2018
To hear the sermon in its fullness click here.
|Br. Randy Greve, OHC|
He did not ask for this. He would be the most surprised of all at the fuss made about him. He is not a preacher – in fact he speaks not so much as a single word in the Gospels. Nor is he a writer, a founder, a reformer, a mystic, a teacher, or an artist.
He is an ordinary, common, carpenter in a small town. His death, which most scholars believe happened before Jesus began his ministry – a conspicuous absence from the text being the only basis of this theory, is not worth a mention to the gospel writers.
Even this morning’s gospel reading puts him namelessly behind Mary, who speaks for them both as they interrogate the young Jesus recently in the Temple.
The word “saint” is characterized along two streams in the breadth of the Church. The formal designation for the canonized or recognized – those figures of history that we rightly view with admiration and imitation, but who often seem so beyond us in their heroic sanctity as to be practically super-human. The impulse is to reflect on the life of a St. Antony, St. Benedict, or St. Francis and find ourselves rather ordinary by comparison, even if history has embellished the reality for effect. The weight of this definition is on what makes saints if not better, at least different, from us. The other definition of saint, the one I grew up with, emphasizes that every Christian is a saint in the exact same sense as any other Christian – the priesthood of all believers. The emphasis is on our common human experience and need and reception of God’s grace that enables us to love and serve at all in whatever way God calls us. While the first definition can hold up examples for us to emulate in our own lives, it can inadvertently create a gap between “saint” and “regular Christian”. The second approach rightly begins with our commonality, but leaves the question of how we can recognize and celebrate the lives of those with truly extraordinary gifts and character. The irony is that the really “sainty” saints always prefer the second definition, but defined by the first.
The gift for us in the story of St. Joseph is that he transcends and reframes the categories. He is a saint of the ordinary category who is extraordinary in the simplicity and directness of his life and purpose. Three verbs, three moments, three decisions are of the essence of his life and heart. The angel comes to tell him to take Mary as his wife after she is revealed to be with child. And he does. The angel comes again to tell him to get up and take Mary and the baby and go to Egypt to escape Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. He does. The angel comes a third time to tell Joseph to go back with Mary and Jesus to the land of Israel. So he got up and went to the land of Israel. He does not need to speak. His actions speak volumes. Here is his purpose and his vocation. We don’t need any more than this. These acts – if this was all there was - is a life of obedience and service. All that formed and shaped his heart lead to these moments and all that followed was forever changed by his listening and acting.
As we read the biographies of our departed brothers around their death dates in chapter, I am moved over and over again by the recurrence of a phenomena: at some point in the life of each brother he heard, he got up, he met a purpose, and he gave himself in a way that served a particular need, provided an essential offering of work and wisdom for the community. For some it was a role in leadership, especially those who brought care and calm in times of turmoil or change. For others it was the realization that their best service was a quiet, steady, behind-the-scenes gift for keeping things going. For all of the variety of stories and personalities, and indeed many struggled and suffered profoundly with their own issues, none of them could have predicted the twists and turns their lives would take within this community or how responding to the monastic vocation in this Order would be a source of stretch and challenge, of joy and consolation. The only assurance was that they had each other and their common commitment to keep getting up together. I think to myself as I hear the biographies, “It’s almost as if he were born for this”. And of course he was. If there are saints in our history, saints among us now, and there are, they did not and do not ask for the title, much less the trials and sacrifices that formed their holiness.
What St. Joseph and the greater cloud of witnesses remind us of today is that the virtues to which they and we aspire are formed more by our response to the calls and opportunities that come our way than by any decision to make ourselves holy in a vacuum untouched by the changes and chances of this life. My own plan for my life is never as adventurous and deep as God’s desire and potential for my life. We are not first formed and then declared fit to live this life. We are like Joseph prepared for and formed in the living that reveals our hearts and ushers us into humility and conversion. Saints are people who in fear and trembling show up in such a way as to allow the needs of their communities to evoke out of their hearts and minds and souls and strength the power to get up that is truly there waiting but that they did not know they had. I imagine Joseph as someone who just wanted to live an ordinary, quiet, undramatic life in Nazareth being a carpenter and raising a family. That is a good life for some, but not all. In Joseph, God saw a longing, a love, an obedience in his soul, perhaps unknown even to Joseph, and seeing that, God said to the angel, “him.”
Each of us entered this community with a “yes” to an open vista full of unknowns, a life that included our ideas of what we wanted to do. The life we want is not the life we get. Conversion begins in believing that what we get is a gift from God. If lived faithfully, the life we get has given us joys, trials, experiences and relationships we could not have imagined. Character and commitment are tested and revealed in the moments after we say to ourselves, “I didn’t ask for this. This is not what I signed up for.” Look to Joseph in those moments. Listen for the voice. Get up when the call is to ditch your plan. Get up when you don’t want to. Get up when Egypt is far away and strange and full of risks. Get up when your exile is over and it’s time to go home. Ordinary, simple, an act, a decision, a yes - some made once and others affirmed and repeated and re-entered over and over, day by day, moment by moment. May it be said of us, read about us in future generations, when all that is left of us are some ashes, a name plaque, and a story on a piece of paper, that we got up, we lived our unique purpose, we shaped a future, and so were formed by God’s grace into people who can be called extraordinarily common; in other words, saints. Amen.