A Stand-up Guy

Long, long ago – in the dark ages of junior high – one lesson was firmly implanted in my mind by our P.E. coach, Mr. Jorgensen.  This was the time when the seventh-grade boys would be taken aside for sex education.

We were fortunate to live in a reasonably progressive town, Long Beach, California, where such things could be dealt with on a rational basis.

So, one morning to titters and some surreptitious giggles, a few elbow jabs to the ribs of a nearby friend, we boys were assembled in the weight room of the gym.  Of course, all us guys were already experts on the subject – we thought.  All sorts of salacious tidbits had been passed around the playground and on the playing fields.  But interest was piqued to the max.  Now we were going to get the real low-down

Mr. Jorgenson was a no-nonsense coach.  He literally once threw a screw-up boy out of our history class – without first opening the door.  We could tell by the look on his face and stern demeanor, that this was more serious an occasion than we expected.  More serious than his usual about sportsmanship.

After introducing the subject and what we would be covering, Mr. Jorgenson asked one boy, a kid named Joe, a very pointed question: “Joe, how many sperm does it take to make a baby? – Joe, how many?”

There had been rumor that Joe might have gotten a girl in trouble, and this was the confirmation.  What Joe did not comprehend was that he, also, was in deep trouble. They both were.

As Jesse Jackson would admonish kids from the hood, “Babies have no business making babies.”  What girl, what boy, is mature enough to bring a baby into adulthood.  Not a one! 

Definitely not our classmate Joe.  To him, this baby was just an unfortunate occurrence that really didn’t concern him all that much.  A throw-away kid.  Joe was not prepared In the slightest to care for a pet dog, let alone a child.  Joe was a complete screw-up.  Totally incapable of taking responsibility.

This was, indeed, a most memorable sex education class as we boys sat there in stunned silence — Serious stuff!  Way beyond smirks, playground wisdom and tales.  I’m sure none of us ever forgot that afternoon session on the gym floor.

I sometimes wonder that ever happened to that little tyke.  My fondest prayer is that he or she was put up for adoption and taken in by some responsible family.  By adults!

Today we read in Matthew’s gospel of another Joe, Joseph if you will.  Like our junior high Joe, he is to discover the shocking news – he’s going to be a father. 

Even if you’re married and forty, I can tell you that this is most disconcerting news.  Yes, we were hoping for a baby.  But when the reality of a flesh-and-blood child dawned on me, I was overcome with doubts.  “Am I ready to be a father?  Will I be a good enough parent?  A supportive enough husband?”  This is scary business.  I’m not ready.  Even having had courses in early childhood education, I instantly forgot everything.  I wasn’t ready.

Imagine Joseph in a small village with loose tongues and fingers wagging.  He must have been beside himself.  Did he have the courage to still be seeing Mary?  Was he up to being emotional support for her?  No, he was shaking in his sandals.  He’d gone all soggy like a wet meringue. 

“Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

I’m sure he was about to get out of Dodge quietly before the scandal became the talk of the entire village.  This brief announcement of Matthew gives us absolutely no hint of the mental anguish of both parties to this announcement.  We can only guess.

“But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “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.”

Now we don’t know with any certainty the nature of this holy message.  Was it conscience, character, upbringing, a listening to the inner Spirit? …but in any case, Joseph does not bug out on Mary.  He stays and raises Jesus to adulthood.  Perhaps even taught him the carpentry trade.

Joseph is the sacrament of God’s steadfastness.  He was faithful to the task at hand.  He and Mary were in this together.  Faithful as God is faithful.

Quite a departure from our first Joe, who as far as any of us knew, never saw the girl again.  That episode only turned out the be the first of Joe’s many troubles – another story to be told.

Mary’s Joseph turned out to be a righteous man, a stand-up guy.  Faithful for the long haul, though he soon drops out of the pages of scripture.  He remains the paradigm of God’s faithfulness.  For that reason, the Roman church celebrates a feast day for the Holy Family.

Last Sunday we focused on a stand-up woman – Mary.  Today we’ll focus on a stand-up guy – and all the stand-up guys God sends each and every day. 

This week, December 14, ten years ago, the anniversary of the Sandy Hook school mass shooting, was featured on news programs all across the county. 

Senator Chris Murphy of Massachusetts, another stand-up guy, spoke on where we are as a nation.  He, like St. Joseph, has not forsaken his call of leadership on the issues of military weapons of mass destruction in our communities.

Senator Murphy through an insightful op ed piece speaks to the mental health issues that are producing such tragedy in our communities.  In spite of all the electronic connections, we are producing a generation sucked into the dark hole of loneliness and despair.  We now have an epidemic of suicides.

Chris writes, ”Growing up, my identity was strongly connected to the town I lived in, Wethersfield, Connecticut, and the “localness” of my daily experience reinforced that identity. For instance, I fondly remember my local grocer, who slipped me a free slice of American cheese every time I visited the deli counter with my grandparents.”  That local grocer is now gone, replaced by a Walmart, Sam’s Club, and Amazon.  Not much human contact needed at all.

“Loneliness is driving people to dark, dangerous places, and those young, white men carrying tiki torches are only the tip of a giant iceberg of isolated, angry people whose search for meaning might lead them to a seething antisemitic or racist mob.”

Senator Murphy is willing to issue a stand-up clarion call – a warning on what we are doing to ourselves in service to the almighty dollar, not to mention the worship  of a gun culture.  The cheapest goods at those big box stores, are now costing us plenty – our loss of connection to each other.  The glue that holds society together.

More than Senator Murphy, how many other stand-up men have stood by their families and community of Sandy Hook to bear witness to the sorrow of their loss?  God’s gift of solidarity to us all.

One husband writes: “My wife, Mary Sherlach, was the school psychologist at Sandy Hook Elementary School…It has never surprised me that she died while confronting the shooter in the front hallway.”  It takes real courage to relive those tragic moments – to bear witness to one’s own grief, lest the rest of us forget.

Like Joseph, this man did not bug out, but has become a part of “The Sandy Hook Promise.”  Like Joseph, this man is staying put, right where God has planted him.  He is a token of God’s faithfulness, God’s solidarity with us.

Another stand-up guy is Lawrence O’Donnell with his promotion of school desks for children in Malawi.  It’s the K.I.N.D Fund, Kids in Need of Desks.  Every year during this season he has school children expressing their thanks to the American people for promoting their education.  The K.I.N.D. fund, in cooperation with UNICEF, has these last few years been promoting girls’ high school tuition.  Because high school education is not provided by the state in this impoverished nation, girls graduate at half the rate of boys. 

One of those young high school girls I featured in a sermon a couple of years ago, Joyce Chisale, recited her moving poem, “Little by Little.”  Joyce is now fulfilling her dream, attending her first year in medical school.  Lawrence O’Donnell and his team have made this possible for Joyce and many other girls like her in Malawi – with the dollars sent in by a lot of us.  In highlighting girls like Joyce, Lawrence is certainly a stand-up guy living out the Catholic social teachings of his faith.  A token of God’s faithful promise.

Adam Kinzinger is another guy, cut of the same cloth.  Like Liz Cheney, he has chosen country over party – sacrificing any hope of a future political career.  His willingness as a Republican to serve on the January 6th Committee has greatly benefited our nation.  He has spoken truth to the insurrectionists and seditionists in his own party.  He, like Rep. Cheney, must be accompanied by armed security agents at all times.

This last week he spoke the bottom-line truth of that fateful day, January 6th.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said Wednesday that former President Trump is “absolutely guilty” of a crime surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

“I think he’s guilty of a crime. I mean, look, he knew what he did. We’ve made that clear. He knew what was happening prior to January 6th. He pressured the Justice Department officials to say, ‘Hey, just say the election was stolen and leave the rest to me.’ And then the Republicans all need to put the stamp of approval on it,” Kinzinger told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead.”[1]

He did not walk away from his country in its hour of need.  He did not walk away from the truth.  He did not walk away from decency.  He is to be counted among the righteous.  A token of God’s steadfastness, keeping the faith.

We should also include Dr. Anthony Fauci in this honor roll.  He has steadfastly stood by our nation as we have endured one of the greatest medical challenges in our lifetime.  And for his efforts, he has been vilified and received death threats.  He also needs an armed guard to carry on his duties.  As he retires after many long years of service, no words can express the gratitude we own him for his service.  Dr. Fauci, you are indeed a stand-up guy.  It would have been easy to just walk away under the deluge of the scurrilous attacks on your integrity — but you have stood firm, a token of God’s steadfastness and solidarity.

This year as we come ever closer to that manger of promise, let us remember and give thanks for faithful Joseph, standing with Mary in spite of her ostracism, in spite of the threats of Herod.  And for all the stand-up guys who have followed in his footsteps.  Who have changed diapers, comforted tears, held their families close – and stood with our nation in her hour of need.

Inspired by, and grateful to paraphrase Joyce Chisale’s poem, “Little by Little.”

Little by little we follow that star-lit path to a humble manger bed.
Little by little might that Holy Child takes up residence in our hearts.
Little by little, might our lives be tokens of solidarity and steadfastness
  with the destitute
  with those who thirst for an education
  with those seeking shelter and a hot meal
  with those who work for a more just world
Little by little might that Christ Child be born anew in us.  Little by little.  Amen.

[1] Julia Mueller, “Kinzinger says Trump ‘absolutely guilty’ of crimes ahead of Jan. 6,” The Hill, December 14, 2022.

December 18, 2022, Advent 4

“A Stand-up Guy”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1: 18-25

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