December 19, 2010

Matthew 1:18-25 & Luke 2:1-7

“Joseph: Ready, Able, And Willing”

Audio Of Pastoral Prayer: December 19, 2010 Pastoral Prayer

Sermon Podcast:  December 19, 2010 Sermon

Franklin Circle Christian Church

Rev. Allen V. Harris

The Mysterious Spiral Staircase of the Loretto Chapel

One of my favorite places to visit in my home state of New Mexico is the capital city of Santa Fe.  And one of my favorite places to visit in Santa Fe, a city filled with wondrous historic sties, is the historic Loretto Chapel, a small Gothic chapel on the Old Santa Fe Trail built in 1873.  There is a legend about the Loretto Chapel, and it goes like this. (1)

When the Chapel was completed in 1878, there was no way for the nuns to reach the choir loft.  The sisters weighed their options, but all were equally undesirable. They could build a conventional staircase, but that would take up too much room.  They could rebuild the balcony, but that would be far too expensive.  They could climb a dangerous ladder up and down, but that would be an accident waiting to happen.  So the nuns did what you and I should do when faced with a difficult situation — they prayed.

Isn’t that a familiar dilemma.  It’s either this way or that way, and neither way seems particularly good.  We have sayings for such dilemmas: “Between a rock and a hard place,” “Catch-22,” or “The better of two evils.”  Joseph saw himself in just such a difficult predicament when Mary informed him that she was pregnant, albeit by a less messy and yet more mysterious means – the Holy Spirit.  As almost any man in his situation, he saw only two options: leave her loudly and angrily, thus saving his own reputation but leaving Mary to almost certain death by stoning, or to leave her quietly and hoping that somehow his formerly betrothed might somehow survive the shame and hardship of being an unwed mother.  Either way, it seems obvious he had to leave her.

Now, for some men, this would be no dilemma.  For many men, especially men if we’re honest, maintaining one’s image and dignity, respect within the community and especially admiration with your buddies, is of all importance.  This is even more likely for a man of ancient Israel, for according to Jewish law, Deuteronomy 22:23-23 to be precise, both the woman caught in adultery AND the man responsible for having sex with her and possibly getting her pregnant were to be stoned to death.  “So you shall purge the evil from your midst,” the text announces.  For many men there is no dilemma: denounce the whore and let the chips fall where they may for her.

But Joseph clearly was not that kind of man.  In fact, the gospel writer, Matthew, tells us he was a “righteous man.”  Not self-righteous, which is the way most of us moderns hear the word, but one who honestly and sincerely wants to be observant and faithful to the law of God.  Joseph simply wants to be a good man.  Even so, he really sees only two choices: Leave loudly or leave quietly, but, in the end, just leave.

I find this so true, even in our world today.  We very often believe there are only two choices to many, if not most, of our dilemmas, and neither of them are good.  Whether it is in our relationships, our employment, our schooling, our health, our future, our church life, our spirituality, our lives in general; we feel caught between a rock and a hard place.

But we know the story of Joseph, now some 2,000 year after, and we know very well there’s another choice.  I believe that when we are confronted between bad, and worse, we need to step back and do something to find perspective, because that kind of Catch-22 is not a quality of the God who I serve, and is certainly not the God of the Hebrew and Christian testaments!  In my own counseling, I have tended to say that “there is no such thing as a dead end street in God’s commonwealth.”  The more common imagery of this is when people say, “when a door closes, God opens a window.”

But why does this constricted thinking happen?  Why do we feel locked in to certain quandaries with few options and little grace?  Part of it has to do with an over-reliance on the law to solve our problems.  Laws were never meant to be the sum total of our thinking on any particular topic.  Laws are meant to be the skeleton upon which the flesh of moral decision-making grows.  Rules and regulations are meant to be the framework upon which a community builds its life, not the entire life.  Perhaps Joseph had begun to rely so much upon the rules of his faith and culture that he wasn’t willing to see that they were to be a stepping-stone to his own decision making, not the destination.

Part of this impasse is also due, let’s be honest, to those in power who either gain power when people feel they have few good choices or those who have bought into the system of laws and regulations so much that they cannot even envision a different way of doing things.  How many people have you met who, after having described a predicament they are in, have completely dismissed or even ridiculed several other choices that you have offered them?  It’s almost as if they are convinced there can be no more than two choices – ever – and that there can never be a good choice in the lot!  I think our language perpetuates this when we say that we are “on the horns of a dilemma.”  Everyone knows that most animals with horns have two, and only two horns.  Three- and four-horned animals are only in science fiction and fantasy.

And this leads me to my third reason for why we get stuck in such either-or problems: a lack of imagination.  We forget that one of the God-given gifts to humanity, making us significantly different from almost every other creature on the earth, is the ability to imagine things.  Albert Einstein, the Nobel-prize winning physicist, once said, “Logic will get you from A to B.  Imagination will take you everywhere!” (2) As a person of faith, I would say that the ability to imagine is one of the greatest and most useful gifts of the Holy Spirit.  And this takes us back to Joseph.

Joseph was a righteous man, but he could only see two options, and neither of them very good.  So what did he do?  He did one of the best things anyone can do when they feel trapped by too few good options: he took a nap.  Yes, lack of sleep is one of the chief causes of “Rock-And-Hard-Place-ism.”  Getting rest allows the body to recalibrate, the logical brain to take a break, and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to flow.  And it did for Joseph.  The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.  Hearkening back to his namesake in the epic storybook of Genesis, Joseph was called upon to interpret a dream.  “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.”

Joseph woke up, knocked his palm to his forehead, and exclaimed, “OMG!  There’s another way to resolve this dilemma.  I could actually believe the woman to whom I am engaged and marry Mary!  Maybe, just maybe, this cockamamie story she told me is TRUE!  Maybe, just maybe, God has a plan for me to be the father of this child, a dad to this Messiah-to-be.  Maybe, just maybe, God can make a way out of no way!”  And Joseph did as the angel had told him.  He chose to be a dad, and in the long-lineage of father’s who adopt their children and exemplify this extraordinary grace, Joseph becomes a patron saint of fatherhood.

When we give ourselves the chance to imagine alternatives, finding the spaces and times for rest, reinvigoration, renewal, meditation, true dialogue and discussion, and contemplation, we can allow God’s Holy Spirit to work wonders on our earth-bound minds, bodies, and spirits.  Perhaps there is an angel waiting for you to be quiet long enough to whisper in your heart an option… or two, or three!  Or maybe Joseph himself might come to you to tell you his story and help you find a different and more excellent way.

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you the end of the Legend of the nuns of Loretto Chapel.  It seems that one night while the sisters were praying about their predicament, a white bearded stranger appeared at the door of the convent asking for work.  A toolbox was strapped to his burro and he told the sisters he was a carpenter.  When they told him their problem, he immediately saw another solution and offered to build a spiral staircase, taking up little space and without rebuilding the loft.

Months later, the elegant circular staircase was completed.  His spiral staircase was an engineering feat for its time, containing thirty-three steps and two complete turns of 360 degrees with no center support.  The carpenter used wooden pegs instead of nails, and his only tools were a saw, a T-square, and a hammer.

As soon as the staircase was finished, the unknown craftsman disappeared without asking to be paid, and without thanks.  After searching for the man (an ad even ran in the local newspaper) and finding no trace of him, some concluded that he was St. Joseph himself, having come in answer to the sisters’ prayers. (3)

Oh, maybe it’s just a legend.  But I say Joseph is out and about this Advent, toolbox in hand, helping the Holy Spirit along, a model of faith in finding new and creative options to seemingly hopeless dilemmas.  Don’t expect lots of conversation from him.  Expect, rather, a demonstration of how to build a good – perhaps even marvelous – new never-before-imagined option that not only releases despair, but opens up hope and announces the Good News of God-With-Us, Emmanuel.

May it be so.



(1) I am indebted to a sermon by Alyce McKenzie for reminding me of my own connection to the Loretto Chapel and its amazing staircase.  Her sermon can be found at:

“The Fear of Betrayal: Advent Reflections on Matthew 1:18-25” By Alyce McKenzie

(2) Quotation found at:

(3) For more information on the Loretto Chapel and its amazing staircase, go to their website at