Mary, Joseph, and Appalachia

The following is a sermon series that was preached by the Rev. Janet James, pastor of the Gayton Kirk Presbyterian Church (Richmond, Virginia). She introduces her three part series below. Janet’s full bio can be found at the bottom of the page.

“During the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany Season of 2018, I felt compelled to take the lovely stories of  Mary, Joseph and the birth of Jesus - the stories we know by heart -  and imagine what they would look like in our time and place. So in my mind, I went back home to where I grew up, on the mountain in the Brayton Community in Bledsoe County, to see what God would do with ordinary people, good human beings, who work hard and desire to live faithful lives.” - Rev. James


Part One: Joe Shares the Burden

Matthew 1:18-25


You can hardly blame Joseph for considering divorce when he discovered that, through no fault of his, Mary was pregnant.

Like all pastors, I am always looking for ways to connect scripture with the community. As soon as I read those words of theologian-writer Fred Buechner, I had an urge to take Joseph out of his long bathrobe-like clothes and put him in blue jeans, sitting on a bar stool with country music playing in the background, to see if we could hear God better there.

You can hardly blame Joseph for considering divorce when he discovered that, through no fault of his, Mary was pregnant.

Richmond is not the place where Joseph would live, and I am smart enough to not set the story nearby, given the possibility of offending someone in the congregation. So I did the safe thing. I set my story where I come from[1]–a place like Dayton, Tennessee.

Photo unknown

Photo unknown

Dayton is a place where half the time you fuss about how Walmart took away business from the downtown stores with their dusty merchandise, and the rest of the time you’re grateful for the steady employment Walmart brings to your cousins who otherwise would never have found a real paying job within fifty miles of downtown. Dayton is a place where you can get stuck with your family’s reputation because everyone thinks that apples don’t fall far from the tree. There is hunting and fishing in Dayton for those who like to be one with nature, but most folks get their sport from the seats of the football stadium.

Locals gather at Marty’s Diner with family seating at booths near the windows and six red Naugahyde-covered stools at the bar. There is a hot table for the weekly luncheon buffet, and after five o’clock you can order from the menu. The favorite special is Thursday night’s chicken pot pie.

Marty’s Diner is where we find Joe, a house builder—not a contractor and not a developer, but a house builder, someone who understands right angles and plumb bobs and treats his workers fairly even if it cost him extra. (What’s a little extra if it means they show up regularly for work?) Joe, who is also a deacon at the First Presbyterian Church of Soddy-Daisy, takes a moment to bow his head before cutting into the pot pie.

The waitress can tell by the way his cornbread is getting cold on the side of his plate that Joe does not need to be interrupted. He is wrestling with his thoughts: disappointment, embarrassment, anger, resentment. You can hardly blame Joe for considering divorce when he discovered that, through no fault of his, Mary was pregnant.

It’s almost closing time, and Marty begins finishing up for the day. As he cleans the hot grill, steam from the grill fogs the room. Through this surreal vapor a stranger walks in and takes the stool next to Joe at the bar. He starts talking (or maybe it’s the jukebox; Joe isn’t sure). In a dreamlike state, Joe gets the message from this stranger. Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.

The message is not about doing the right thing—although Joe wants to do the right thing. The message is about more than the right thing. God is asking Joe to do more than that, to go beyond what is expected, and to show compassion and understanding, forgiveness and generosity to someone whom he doesn’t know if he can trust. To go beyond what is expected with someone who has played with his reputation as a man and made him appear a weak partner. God is asking Joe to give Mary extra protection, additional emotional support. Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. God is saying to Joe, “Do more than the right thing; join Mary in what she is caught up in.”

God wants Joe to share her anxiety about the community’s opinion, about rejection, the dangers of childbirth, and the rearing of the child of God. God invites Joe to be a part of the adventure, to count on the right people showing up at the right time, and to see that this young woman has a healthy baby and that neither one of them dies in the process. Or as scripture says: to share her burden.[2]  Share the burden with the woman who made a fool of him.

The fog clears. As Marty starts flipping off the light switches in the back room, Joe leaves some cash by the register and gets his John Deere cap from the coat stand at the door. As he steps up into the cab of his pickup, he checks his watch. He has just enough time to meet Mary as she gets off her shift at the nursing home. Not even noticing the paper receipt for returning an engagement flying off the hood of the truck, he turns the wheel and begins to imagine the look on her face when he gets down on one knee in the parking lot.

***

Joseph was asked to share the burden of the wrong he felt. The burden is not be a kind person, or to be kind to your neighbor, nor is it really be kind to your enemy. The burden is an invitation to enter into the vulnerability of the one whose survival depends on you.

Enter into the vulnerability of the one whose survival depends on you.

To join, to connect at a deep level, to imagine a new way of being, and to take a deeper approach. Could this be what God asks us to do with friends who have hurt us? With deals that have fallen through? With the way we think about the death of a seven-year old child crossing the border undocumented? Isn’t this what God did for us in giving us Jesus?

This is more than going the extra mile. If we want to see miracles and feel good about living, then to participate in the mystery of God is not just to do the right thing, but to raise kindness to a higher level. God offered Joseph an opportunity to partner with God, and God does the same for us. God invites us to enter into the vulnerability of those whose survival depends on us.


[1] That is not a dangling preposition; it is the title of a song!

[2] Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2.


Part Two: Un Salvador

Luke 2:4-19

 We last saw Joe as he left Marty’s Diner to meet Mary when she got off work at the nursing home. Joe waited in the truck for Mary to come out of the employees' entrance. Obviously pregnant, she was not hard to miss as she waddled to her car. Joe walked over. "Mary, can we talk?"

Mary wiped a strand of hair from her face. Joe noticed her swollen ankles and how tired she looked. Taking care of old people is hard work, and she could not afford to take time off. What she said was "Sure," but what she thought was “What more?” Mary was near the end of her rope. She was exhausted. Her mom and dad were upset with her for being single and pregnant. She couldn’t afford insurance and had no clue what the emergency room would cost when this baby came. On top of all that, now Joseph, who found her story unbelievable, shows up. Still, despite everything, Mary was sure the angel had spoken to her.

Photo unknown. Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee

Photo unknown. Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee

Joe said, "Mary, I want us to get married. I got a message about the baby, about you and the baby. I get it; we need to do this. Will you marry me?" Joe almost didn’t catch Mary as she slumped over the hood of the car crying. What a weight she had been carrying! Was Joe really going to help her? Would the Presbyterian Church be okay with their deacon marrying an obviously pregnant single woman?

It's amazing what a little good news can do for your energy level and attitude. Mary and Joe decided to leave right away for Nashville. Mary had the weekend off, and Joe needed to get his pickup, "Ole Jack," to his friend's garage in Nashville to get the timing belt changed. The truck, at 125,000 miles, was late for a new belt, but Joe had been tight on cash and his buddy had agreed to do the work after hours. On the way, they would stop in Pikeville, at Mary's cousin Elizabeth’s home, so that Elizabeth’s husband Zach, a minister, could marry them. This baby was going to have a daddy after all!

As they drove across Dayton Mountain, the rain was getting a little icy, and Joe had to slow down around the curves. The further they drove, the heavier the rain came down. I-40 was beginning to freeze over. Finally, Joe the pulled off at the ramp and drove slowly and carefully to the garage. He had planned to leave Ole Jack there and walk the mile and a half to his friend's place, but that was before he knew he’d have Mary with him. And just then, Mary looked at Joseph and announced, "My water broke."   

Meanwhile, some miles away, a group of seasonal workers had extended their H-2A visas to work in the fields for a new farm business called "Super Greens." Freezing rain had been predicted, and they were rushing to cut tiny shoots of mustard and kale greens. (Some highfalutin Nashville restaurants paid good money for these late-season scraps.) All of a sudden they heard a whop-whop sound like helicopter blades flapping the air. A pot chopper they supposed, hunting marijuana farms, not fields of salad greens. Closer and closer the sound came and—Whap!— brilliant light flooded the area, brighter and bigger than any search light.

Over the din they heard a voice: "No tengas miedo."—Do not be afraid. (Are you kidding? Do not be afraid?) “ A ti nace este día un Salvador.”—Unto you this day a savior is born. That was about all they could hear because of the bright light and the pulsating beating noise, and their sheer fear was overwhelming. And then, just as suddenly, it was dark and silent again, and one of the workers, Angelo, found he was holding a cell phone open to Google Map directions to some place in Nashville.

Everyone looked in amazement at each other; then everyone started talking at the same time, trying to describe what they had seen and heard and felt.  Then Angelo nodded toward the farm's old yellow school bus, and they piled into the bus and followed the Google Map directions. When they arrived and Angelo slowed down to a stop, they all peered out the windows at their humble destination. "Can this be where the baby, the savior of the world is? Un garaje de automóviles—an automobile garage?"

The farm hands followed Angelo off the bus, and he tried the door. It opened, and just inside the garage they saw a light in the back, coming from the garage's waiting room. The commotion startled Joe, and he tried to get out of the twisted covers of the makeshift bed. (Joe had pushed the coffee table against the couch to make a bed.) Joe got up just as the farm hands came peering through the door, all of them.  

The farm hands saw the baby wrapped in his mother's sweater. The momma, bless her heart, whose hair was damp with sweat, was fiercely holding onto that baby, ready to protect him from whoever might come through that door. Then she saw the men, with their shy smiles and caps held in their rough hands, getting down on their knees praying to Dios. From the cell phone in Angelo's hand came a tune: “Gesu Bambino.”

Mary and Joseph relaxed and smiled. They planned to go to Walmart as soon as the sun came out and melted the ice. They needed diapers.  


Part Three: The Magi

Matthew 2:1-12

We last saw Joe and Mary in the back of a garage in Nashville, Tennessee. Thousands of miles to the east, a meeting was being held on Iona, a small island in the Atlantic Ocean, a mystical place where the boundary between heaven and earth is barely perceptible, a place of light that the darkness cannot overcome. It was a meeting of 200 elders concerned for the well-being of the earth and all that is on it and in it.

Photo: Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail / Malala Yousafzai

Photo: Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail / Malala Yousafzai

At the meeting’s closing ceremony, Malala was one of four people given a ticket for a journey, an adventure to find a king. She touched the bullet scar on her head, a physical reminder of the cost of standing up for what she believed, speaking up for inclusion and respect for girls. Who would think that such pain and danger could have provided her the freedom to engage life at such an exciting level? She would be going on a journey of a lifetime. She had no idea how long this trip would take or where she would be going or whom she would travel with.  

Three other people at the conference received tickets to travel with Malala to find the child, the King of the Jews. They were chosen not because they were medical doctors or astronomers or engineers but because of their openness to the deep secrets of the universe. Each was allowed one suitcase and instructed to select and take along items from the things they already had with them.  

The four were: from Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai; from Ireland, Bono; from Puerto Rico, Lin-Manuel Miranda; and from South Africa; Desmond Tutu. These individuals, duly designated “Magi” by the conference, were to follow a traveling star. Well, it was bright like a star and located in the sky, but Lin-Manuel was fairly certain it was a satellite device leading them to some particular GPS site. But where in the world was it leading them?

***

Back in Tennessee, Mary had delivered the baby, whom they named Jesus, on a Friday night. They had two days to get out of the auto repair garage, get the pickup truck fixed, and get back home to Dayton. Thanks to the Super Greens migrant workers, the small family got an infant car seat (there was one in the back of the old school bus), and found a free clinic to have Mary and the baby checked out.

But Mary needed a place to recuperate before driving several hours home, the truck wasn’t fixed, and they really didn’t have a good place to stay. Joe’s buddy would be glad for Joe to sleep on the sofa while he replaced the truck’s timing belt, but he didn’t have room for a family of three. There certainly was no money for a hotel, and even if they had the money, there were no rooms. This was the weekend of the Country Music Awards, and every bed in every hotel, in every Airbnb, and in every home of every visitor’s relatives was spoken for.

It was better to stay in Nashville. If Joe could get work with furniture at the La-Z-Boy Service Center, he would have regular pay and insurance, Jesus could regularly visit the doctor, the family could save to buy a place back in Dayton, and, if God was willing, Joe could transfer to a job at the La-Z-Boy plant back home. Joe was not going to throw away his shot. Success was in his cards. He was hired the day after he interviewed. Praise God.

Mary and Joe moved into the apartment complex where Joe’s buddy lived: Summerwind Apartments, 20 minutes south-east of downtown Nashville in the Antioch neighborhood, not far from the first IKEA store, Bridgestone Tires, and the La-Z-Boy Service Center.

While Joe was at work, Mary stayed home with Jesus and provided child care for working mothers in their apartment complex. Their home became the center of the neighborhood’s activities. In a city bustling with politics and music, Mary had not forgotten her calling, her interaction with the angel, her inspiration of the spirit, her song. She sang her song in the way she taught the children to reach out and help one another, to be truthful and sorry for hurting each other, and to forgive each other. She sang her song as she organized the community garden in the courtyard and made soup and casseroles for the sick and elderly from its produce. Mary continued her music as she insisted that the children get scheduled physical check-ups and drink clean water from the city’s reservoir, and as she represented her community before the city council. Life was hectic but good.  

***

Meanwhile, the Magi had followed the star from Iona by ferry, by bus, by train, and finally by airplane to—who would have imagined—the headquarters of an evil empire. Violence was regularly practiced there, and status purchased with favors. Gains and promotions were made by stepping on the backs of anyone and everyone who happened to be in the way; the vulnerable were dispensable there. It was the opposite of Iona, a place of deep darkness as in the time of King Herod, a place of death and violence, of greed and murder and seduction.

The local boss of the empire was a jealous person who would have his own sons murdered to keep status and power and would gladly order a religious man’s head presented on a platter to be on the right side of a fickle wife. The four Magi were brought before him for questioning, and in a formation reminiscent of those cowering before the Great and Wonderful Wizard of Oz, they innocently answer questions about why they were there:  “We were selected to follow a star. It led us to this place. We are looking for a child who is to be the king of the Jews.”

Image by K. Turajczyk

Image by K. Turajczyk

This answer startled the boss because he considered himself the king of the Jews. He asked a lot of questions and gathered his men in the back room. After several hours, he came back to the waiting Magi and with a devious smile on his face—the only kind he could produce—said, “My friends, please be on your way and follow your star. Here is my cell number. When you find that babe, you let me know. I want to meet him and celebrate him.”

So the four once more boarded a plane, this time bound for Nashville, Tennessee. “I’m not telling that man anything.” said Malala. And with only a glance the other three agreed. From the airport, they could see the bright lights of Nashville as the Uber driver headed downtown. The wise men were sure there was no need to hunt the skies for guidance. Bono knew musicians in the town, Lin-Manuel was in touch with production managers, and Desmond could hardly wait to touch base with some of his friends at Vanderbilt. Each one was sure he knew where God wanted them to go.

Then Malala spoke up. “Guys you are going the wrong way. There is our star. It looks like it has stopped over the south-east side of Nashville.” Malala gave directions to the Uber driver, and they disembarked into the apartment’s courtyard where Mary was pushing Jesus on the swing and Joe was building a raised garden bed.

The Magi presented their gifts to Jesus. Malala gave the toddler books—“door shaped portals to carry him across oceans and centuries, to help him feel less alone.”[1] Desmond, with a twinkle in his eye, handed over an emergency first aid kit. Lin-Manuel finished up a rap song for his gift, and Bono reached into his backpack and brought out what looked like a deck of cards, but was actually a stack of visa gift cards. (Everyone can use some extra cash.)


Then they all got down on their knees and thanked God for the courage of Mary, for the faithfulness of Joe, and for the baby full of grace and light who would know how to be a king for the people—even a king of the universe.

***

This is not the end of the story, but it is a good place to pause and reflect. This is the story of people who leave the safety of what they know to find hope and new possibilities. It is the story of people who focus on a vision that carries them beyond the preoccupation of today’s immediacy and pulls them toward the possibilities of vibrant life. It is the story of traveling through wastelands, standing up to dragons, and staying on a sure and steady course to find where the Light of God rests.

Sometimes we find ourselves in just the right place, at just the right time with just the right people. Or as people of faith might say, “God puts us in the right place, at the right time with the right people so that we have an opportunity to choose to be creative with God.” 


[1] An adaptation of lines from a poem “Tula” by Margarita Engle.


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Janet James serves as the Pastor of the Gayton Kirk Presbyterian Church. She has a Master of Divinity from Columbia Theological Seminary, a Master of Education from East Tennessee State University, and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Tennessee.  She previously served as Associate Pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond, VA. Janet served as the Moderator of the Presbytery of the James in 2011. She preaches and teaches regularly, is a talented artist, and does a zillion other things to help the Kirk further God’s mission in the world.