Joseph, Patron Saint of FFT's
I would imagine that it was a very awkward conversation. I’m guessing that they invited Jospeh over to the house, closed the door, and maybe even drew the curtains. Anne, Mary’s mother, probably offered Joseph a cup of tea, and then told him he might want to sit down.
I imagine Mary, sitting calmly and quietly in the corner of the room, looking expectantly up at her father; wondering which one of them should deliver the news. And I’d like to think it was her father who, after receiving a nod from his daughter, turned to Joseph and did his best to explain what had happened.
I’d like to think that both of Mary’s parents, knowing her the way they did, trusted their daughter enough to believe her when she told them about the angel’s visit and her response.
And the more I’ve sat with this passage over the past week, the more convinced I have become that after hearing this strange tale, Joseph believed Mary too.
I haven’t always imagined the story this way. In the past I assumed that Joseph, being a righteous man, had resolved to dismiss Mary quietly because he simply assumed she’d been with another fellow.
The fact that he didn’t have any interest in exacting punishment on her or his rival - which would have been stoning by the way - was simply a mark of his compassion and gentle nature.
But the good people at SALT project drew my attention to a few key details in the scriptures that have changed my mind, or at least opened me up to the possibility that Joseph was determined to dismiss Mary, not because he didn’t believe her, but because he did.
For one, in verse 18 it reads “When… Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.” I don’t know who found her. I don’t know how. But there’s the sense that Mary has been found out and that this idea of the baby being conceived by the Holy Spirit is known by a handful of trusted people.
Two, Matthew tells us that Joseph didn’t want to “deigmatisai” Mary - a word that could be translated as “expose her to public disgrace,” which is what would happen if he accused her of infidelity. But it could also mean “make a spectacle of her,” which is what would happen if he told everyone that her pregnancy was of divine origin.
Either option would have given Jospeh a graceful out. And I think we can all imagine the side show, the exposure, the danger Mary would have suffered, either way. Given how Herod responded to the Magi, we can assume he would have sprung into action immediately. Either way, Mary would have suffered and most likely died long before the baby even had a chance to be born.
But what really has me convinced, is the message from the angel. If Joseph thought the baby was that of another man, it would make sense for the angel to say something like: ‘“do not be angry,’ or ‘do not be heartbroken,”’ -but ‘do not be afraid’”? (SALT). No. That is signaling something else.
In scripture, fear is often the first response of people when they encounter the divine. In Jesus’ birth narratives: Mary, Zechariah, and the shepherds all have to be told “not to be afraid,” when the angels show up and tell them God is afoot.
So more and more, I’m with the people at SALT. I think the phrase “do not be afraid,” is a tip off. I think it is all the confirmation we need to know that Joseph was in on it from the beginning. I think it’s quite possible he was afraid to go through with the marriage precisely because he believed Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit - afraid because “God had come fearfully and wonderfully close” - and he had no idea what to do with that (SALT).
After all, that sort of thing had never happened to Joseph before. As far as we know, that sort of thing had never happened to anyone before. So I think maybe we can understand if he’s feeling a little out of his depth. Maybe feeling a little inadequate. Maybe feeling, and here’s where I’m going to bring in a little wisdom from the great theologian Brene Brown, a little vulnerable.
A dear friend recently encouraged me to go back and listen to Brene’s very first podcast of “Unlocking Us,” which was released about 15 minutes into the pandemic. How many of you found “Unlocking Us,” during lockdown? I did. And if you’d asked me back then, “what is saving your life right now?,” I can assure you that Brene Brown would have been at the top of my list.
So Brene fans, you may remember that her very first podcast was titled: “Brene on FFT’s.” How many of you remember what FFT stands for? Raise your hands. Wonderful, but for God’s sake please don’t say it out loud. We’re in church after all. Which means I can’t exactly draw the curtains and offer you a cup of tea as I walk y’all through this.
But at least you’re sitting down.
“FFT” is code in Breneland for …. F’ing first times. (Please don’t tell my mother I said that in church.) It’s Brene’s way of capturing the awful, awkward, angst we feel whenever we try something new. You can also call it, TFT for Terrible First Times, but, well…. where’s the fun in that?
Anyway, I think Joseph is going through a massive FFT in our story for today, and like most of us, he wants out. As Brene said in her very first podcast, about how hard it is to do things for the very first time: “if the definition of vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure, then being new at something is the epitome of vulnerability.”
She goes on to say that, “by the time you reach middle age,” which she defines as anytime between your 30’s and death - and remember that tradition tells us that Joseph was well into middle age - well “ by the time you reach middle age, you know that the only way to get to the other side of the discomfort of being new (at something) is to push right through the middle. Experience teaches us that as much as we want to fast forward through the hard … parts of doing something that we’ve never done before, we just can’t.”
So what do we do? Well, most of us do whatever we can to avoid the discomfort of being in new situations at all. Like Joseph, when a new opportunity presents itself, our first instinct is to look for a way out. We dismiss such opportunities as quietly as we can so as not to draw attention to our own sense of inadequacy and fear.
According to Brene: “we actually stop trying or doing anything that we’re not already good at doing. So if it’s not already comfortable, if we don’t already have some expertise, if we don’t already know how to do it and do it well,” we simply don’t do it at all. Which makes sense, but can have devastating consequences for us and everyone around us.
Because you see, according to Brene:
When we give up being new and awkward, we stop growing, and when we stop growing, we stop living…When we stop growing, we start declining, there’s no neutral here. When we no longer feel that discomfort of being new, of being an awkward learner, things start to shut down inside of us. The discomfort of exploration of doing new things, of being a rookie again, that’s the juice, it’s our lifeblood. It’s the secret sauce.
Friends, being vulnerable enough to try new things is what keeps us alive: as individuals, as churches, as a species.
Being vulnerable enough to try new things is what keeps our faith alive, because it keeps us open to the Spirit of God in our midst; that Spirit that is always doing “a new thing.”
Imagine your life, our church, the world….our future… without the gifts of innovation and invention? Imagine a world where no one ever dared to try anything new?
You can’t. It wouldn’t work. We wouldn’t survive. And yet, I get why it’s so hard. I feel Joseph’s pain. Getting married was already enough of an FFT, but now there’s a divine baby on the way and in order to bring that baby into the world and take Mary as his wife Joseph is going to have to disregard the law and rules around betrothal and forge a whole new path.
God is doing a new thing and Joseph is not sure he wants to be part of it, because he doesn’t know how. He’s not a priest, he’s a carpenter. If this is God’s work, shouldn’t it be left to the professionals? He didn’t sign up for this. I imagine he’s 100% certain he is not cut out to be the human father of the messiah. And if he dares to try, to even imagine he might be able to handle this, everyone will see just how incapable he is of doing the new thing he is being called to do.
Joseph is terrified, and I get it. I remember that feeling well. It’s exactly how I felt when God called me, and a handful of others, to start Common Ground - the dinner church ministry we used to have here at First Churches.
Common Ground was an FFT for me and for everyone who came and participated every single time we did it. We were literally doing church in a new way, and a part of me hated it because I never felt like I knew what I was doing.
I confess that I am so much happier doing traditional Sunday morning worship like this, because this is what I was trained to do. No one can teach you or prepare you for something that new, and it showed.
And I hated when it showed.
The truth is, sometimes Common Ground was awesome and other times it was just awkward…but let me ask you this? How many of you are a part of First Churches because of Common Ground? And how many of you are here today (and don’t raise you hands, I just want you to think about this) how many of you are here in large part because you appreciate my ministry here at First Churches?
Believe me, I know there are plenty of people here because they were here before I came and they’ll be here after I go. I know it’s not all about me. But I ask because I need you to remember that I am here because of Common Ground.
The only reason I am the pastor of First Churches right now is because when I got the call to start a dinner church and started looking for a place to realize it, this was the only church for miles and miles that was willing to take a risk and do something that radically new.
We didn’t know how to do it. And we certainly didn’t know how to fund it. And yet as a congregation you discerned that God was up to a new thing and you chose to be a part of it anyway. That took tremendous courage and vulnerability, but it also breathed a tremendous amount of energy and new life into this place and into me.
I don’t know that I would still be in ministry if it wasn’t for your willingness to do a new thing, and we can only imagine what First Churches would be like now, if I’d never come. But we did. Together, we took a chance on something new, and look at us now.
Friends, we didn’t know how to do church during a pandemic, at all, but we didn’t give up. And yeah, it was awkward and uncomfortable and stressful and sometimes we flat out failed in our attempts to do it and do it well. But we kept showing up for each other in spite of all of that, and how many of you would say you actually grew closer to the church and to God during that time? Me too.
And frankly, most of us don’t know what we’re doing right now post pandemic in so many different areas of our lives: as a church or at school or as parents or children or partners or singles or even as humans on this beautiful, fragile planet. It feels like we’re all living through one FFT after another these days.
But here’s the good news. Like Joseph, we have had no idea what we’re doing, but we keep showing up and trying our best to do it anyway. And when you go ahead and do new things anyway - in spite of all your fears and doubts and discomfort - guess what? You get better at doing new things in general.
You learn, in the words of Brene Brown, “how to normalize discomfort. (And) If there’s one thing I know for sure,” she says, "normalizing discomfort, learning how to (stand) in the midst of feeling unsure and uncertain, that’s the foundation of courage.…Knowing that we have the strength to survive those (vulnerable, uncomfortable ) moments and come out on the other side with new information, new ideas, new habits, new skills, that’s how we get braver with our lives and with our hearts.”
That’s how we become the kind of people who can change the world for the better. That’s what Joseph does in this passage and look at the change he ushered in through Jesus.
Brene tells us that the most powerful thing we can do in any new situation is name it for what it is - an FFT - because it help us get a handle on why we feel so uncomfortable. What I love about this story is that the angel does just that. “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
The angel acknowledges that what is happening is frightening precisely because it is so new and extraordinary. But what I love even more is how Joseph shows us exactly what it looks like to stand in our discomfort, to show up in all our fear and vulnerability, and the power that comes through when we do.
“Sometimes,” Brene says, “we’re afraid to name experiences or feelings because we think naming them gives them power…. But…when we name and own hard things, it doesn’t give the hard things power, it gives us the power to effect change and achieve purpose.
So if we can simply say, ‘Oh my God, this is hard because I’m in an FFT,’ (even if) it’s something small, like trying to (style new) bangs or ride a new bike, or your first yoga with goats class, or a new job, or a new relationship, (or, I don’t know, agreeing to be the father of the savior of the world).’”
If we can just pause and name it for what it is, it can help us understand why we feel so vulnerable, which can enable us to show compassion for ourselves and others, and in that compassion we can find the courage to push though.
Joseph found the compassion for himself and for Mary that he needed to press on in the face of one of histories most significant FFT’s, and friends, if a humble carpenter from a little town like Nazareth can do that, well, we can too.
So the next you feel inadequate, ill-prepared, like you just can’t because you don’t know how because you’ve never done this before…take a beat. Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel out of your depth in a new situation because you are. That’s exactly how you should feel. You are in the midst of a FFT for God’s sake!
But you don’t need to let that feeling stop you. You doń’t have to have the right words. You don’t have to have all of the answers. You don’t need to know what you are doing - because frankly none of us do. Not really. Not anymore.
Instead, take a breath, listen for the angels…show up with compassion for yourself and the people in this with you. Name the hard, but don’t let the hard stop you from being part of the good things God is doing in the world.
Joseph turned out to be a great husband and a really great father…I mean, just look at Jesus. He showed up in all his fear and vulnerability and look what God was able to do through him. God only knows, if you show up in all of your fear and vulnerability, what God may yet do through you.