Text: Matthew 1:18-25
Sometime during my mid-20s, a wise person said to me that love is more about choices than it is about feelings. It was a lesson that stuck with me, and it’s a piece of wisdom that I have shared in nearly every wedding sermon I’ve given in my career. When a couple stands before you, passionate about each other, it has seemed prudent to point out that the flames may well burn down to embers somewhere down the line, and that’s the place where the rubber will probably meet the road, when promises will be more challenging to keep — to love when one isn’t feeling very loving.
During the holiday season, many people find themselves awash in a variety of feelings: sentimentality and affection along with anxiety and, often, grief. This particular year brings a whole new array of emotions, as uncertainty and fear have taken on greater dimensions and impacted our celebration plans, the perils of the world “out there” hitting closer to home more than we are usually accustomed to them doing.
The Church observance of Advent, with its weekly emphasis on hope, peace, joy and love, might, in normal years, be all too easily sentimentalized, and the concept of love associated with warm fuzzy feelings — a newly born infant wrapped up in a blanket, the embrace of loved ones, the embrace of God. But I want to suggest today that love is more about choices than it is about feelings — that Advent love, Christmas love, is about choosing actions of grace in the midst of situations that don’t immediately evoke a warm and fuzzy response.
The “Advent film festival” selection for this week is not an easy one to watch. It is a one-hour documentary set in a women’s juvenile detention center. The language, I will warn you, is often coarse. The girls’ stories are hard to hear, and often heartbreaking. It takes some time for the reality to sink in, that most of these young people are longing for real love — a love that is consistent and kind. It takes some time to recognize love underneath the hard exteriors, both among the staff and the inmates: love as boundaries, love as room for expression, love as rules and expectations. And it takes time for love to sink in; healing comes incrementally, in spurts, one step forward and a half a step back (and sometimes two steps back), like a dance.
Here is the trailer for Girls on the Wall, available for rent on Amazon: (SHOW VIDEO)
In the film, a drama teacher leads these girls in writing the story of their lives and creating a musical out of it. As they allow the process and the music to penetrate their hardened hearts, they find that their desire for love is the key to moving forward in their own healing and rehabilitation. It’s not an easy process; it’s painstakingly long, in fact, and the “results” are not pat or picture-perfect. Like life.
In our scripture reading for today, Joseph is called to act with the kind of love that is about choices rather than feelings. Indeed, his feelings probably did not much resemble the “warm and fuzzy” definitions of love. Likely, he felt betrayal, anger, confusion. The scripture describes Joseph as “a righteous man,” and in the very next breath, says, “he decided to call off their engagement quietly” — which was not the definition others in town might have considered “righteous,” since a “law abider” would have had Mary stoned to death. It seems, to me, that it’s because Joseph had made a choice for “righteousness” that meant compassion, that the angel appeared, to invite Joseph to an even deeper action of grace. And I like to think that Jesus learned some of this kind of righteousness from his earthly, adoptive father.
Watching Girls on the Wall can be, itself, a form of love in action. Taking the time to learn another’s story — particularly when it is an uncomfortable story, and particularly when it comes from a radically different experience of the world, or from someone whose skin color is different from your own — is an act of justice and of love. Spending time in someone else’s world, without judgment, just soaking it in, can convey respect and the compassion of God, restoring to another their sense of humanity and making space for healing.
Joseph was willing to walk in Mary’s world, and offer his privilege and protection, risking his own reputation in the bargain. This Advent, what opportunities have been afforded to you, to make a choice for love?