The Flight to Egypt

low angle photo of coconut trees

Photo by Elina Sazonova on Pexels.com

 

My sermon from Sunday, December 29, 2019….

Matthew 2:13-23

2:13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

 

This passage from Matthew is the lectionary reading for today – this first Sunday after Christmas Day. The Wise Men had come from Persia to visit the baby Jesus – and this visit happened some time within the first couple years of his life, even though we tend to place the Wise Men at our Nativity scenes with the shepherds and the newborn Jesus. You might recall that the Wise Men had sought information from King Herod when they were following the star to look for Jesus, and Herod wanted them to tell him where the infant “King” was once they had found him. Being wise in many ways, they returned home by a different way.

So once Herod discovered he had been tricked, he decided to have every child under age 2 executed in the area of Bethlehem. An angel spoke to Joseph to warn him of the upcoming murders, so Joseph took Mary and Jesus to seek asylum in Egypt – and there they stayed until Herod died.

It’s not easy to hear this text immediately after Christmas Day. We are still in the Christmas season, and we have sentimentalized this season in recent decades to the place that it is only about being happy. We even sing, “It’s the hap – happiest time of the year!”

We place a great deal of pressure on ourselves to be happy at this time of year, and to do everything we can to ensure happiness for others. And studies have shown that it is actually a very depressing time for a significant number of people. Happiness doesn’t come with the season for large numbers of people.

Our society has done an amazing job of setting up Happiness as our primary goal in life. Americans talk about one of their inalienable rights being the “pursuit of happiness.”

But this Christmas season we don’t celebrate the Prince of Happiness – we celebrate the Prince of Peace.

Happiness is a superficial veneer – Peace is something different and much deeper.

It’s important for us to hear this passage from Matthew today, often entitled “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”

We can’t really be happy when innocents are slaughtered – when children die every day in this country from gun violence, when people of faith are in danger simply for worshipping as with the violence facing our Jewish siblings in New York, when hundreds of thousands of children around the world are seeking asylum or living in camps in terrible conditions, when there are children within a few miles of here who go to bed hungry every night, when there is the greatest income inequality that our nation has seen in almost 100 years and the vast majority struggle just to get by.

Any feeling person can’t be always happy if they are really paying attention to what is going on in the world.

But we can have Peace. We can have Peace if we follow in the steps of Jesus and work towards justice.

That is what the Christmas season is truly about– not attempts to “feel” happy or insulate ourselves from the bad tidings of the world around us – it is about accepting the peace we find when we truly follow this baby in the manger – as he flees to seek out political asylum in Egypt – as he lives in the forgotten backwoods in poverty – as he loves every person he meets, especially those outcast by society – as he loves people in such a radical way that the people in power decide he must die.

Our scripture for today reminds us that Jesus is both, and always, a beacon of hope, and the constant irritant for those in power, even as an innocent baby. This passage reminds us that Jesus entered a real world of pain, brokenness, oppression – a world where the killing of infants and the easy ability to forget and not care for the children of our world exists.

This is how we celebrate Christmas – eyes and ears wide open – loving others – looking for the moments of joy and happiness when they come – and knowing that true Peace comes from following the Prince of Peace, the light in the world, wherever it may lead us.

Pastor David Lose shared this story – “When I was ordained, a retired pastor and parishioner gave me a print made from a woodcut depicting the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt. What made this particular rendition distinct is that they were not alone. Instead, they were surrounded by a group of refugees, reminding us that in this story of forced flight, God-in-Christ identifies with all who have been driven from their homes by the threat of terror, all who are displaced by violence, and all who flee in fear with hopes for, but little assurance of, a better future.God is with us, even in the darkest times. And God is also for us, promising not only to accompany us through difficult times but also to bring us to the other side that, in time, we might know the fullness of joy that is life in Christ.”

Happiness can and will elude us during this season of Christmas, but Peace remains. We know that we are not alone – others are with us, physically and spiritually, during the challenges we face – both individually and as a society.

And the Christ Spirit of Peace remains with us always, and will empower us to work towards justice in the world which cries out for it, just as Rachel cried out in Ramah for her children. Peace be with you, and with the world around us. Amen.

 

The Depths of Winter

a cold January day at an old Irish cemetary

a cold January day at an old Irish cemetary

My daughter and I had a recent conversation about “winter music.” As we drove around in my car, I yet again forced her to listen to Sting’s If On A Winter’s Night. She didn’t seem to mind, but was curious why I was still listening to Christmas songs and it was after January 6. (We do observe the full 12 days of Christmas in my home.) I shared that throughout the centuries, people had songs they would sing during the dark, short days of winter, and this was the music Sting honored with his album. That definitely included some tunes about the Christmas story, but winter was broader than just 12 days.

I acknowledge I am like much of our society when I want to skip winter, unless it involves a pretty snow that is easily drivable in a day or two. It seems Christmas is about bringing as much happiness and light into the world as we can, and then we immediately turn to Valentine’s Day where love reigns supreme, and then we immediately skip to swimsuit season. Unless we enjoy winter sports, we try our best to ignore the short, gray days, and the sadness that can often accompany them. When Sting gave interviews about his winter music, he discussed the importance of diving into winter and embracing what it means spiritually. When we just try to survive it – to skitter through in anticipation of bright, sunny days – then we miss an important aspect of life.

In the past couple decades, our society seems to have become more and more obsessed with being happy. The pursuit of happiness appears to take precedence over anything else in our lives. We don’t see the value in things which don’t make us happy. Many years ago I met with my wise spiritual director, Susan, and I can remember telling her that I just wanted to be happy. She responded, “Perhaps wanting to be peaceful might be a better option. Happiness can be superficial, and doesn’t really speak to your soul.”

Peace can only come when we really face the gray days of winter. If we try to ignore those times in our lives, we will not truly know peace. I invite you this winter to observe a full winter. Find times of quiet. Reflect on the purpose of your life. Embrace the darkness, knowing that it will shed light on the easier days. Dive into winter – the cold, the lack of light, the isolation – and look into what your soul says to you. We will definitely appreciate the warmth more fully when it comes, and be able to grasp the deep peace which truly does bring joy into our lives.

The Prince of Peace in today’s world…

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The traditional Moravian beeswax candles for our Christmas service

The first Thursday of December is when Salem College holds its annual Christmas Candlelight worship service, which has been a tradition since the beginnings of our school in the late 1700s. As College Chaplain, I am privileged to provide a meditation. Our world right now is so particularly shattered by hate, violent rhetoric, fear and misinformation, that it begs to be addressed, especially during this season of advent. Below is the message I gave last week –

We come together today for this annual worship service to prepare for the celebration of Christmas. And Christmas is all about honoring the Christ Child. During this season, there are many names we call the Christ Child – the Light, the Messiah, Emmanuel, the Prince of Peace. This afternoon, I would like to focus on what it means to prepare for the coming of Peace.

Peace is something we talk a lot about in this world, but it is so elusive. The name Salem itself comes from the Hebrew word Shalom, which means peace. The Moravian founders of this area sought to build a peaceful society in the midst of a world that seemed so far from it. At the heart of this sacred ground of Salem – peace should reside.

Just as the early Moravians knew, just as Sister Oesterlein (our first teacher) herself knew, this world is not peaceful. In recent months, we have been particularly reminded of that. Violence pours forth in so many parts of the world – whether the streets of Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Kenya, Nigeria, or other places not deemed as news-worthy. Violent, mass shootings have become so commonplace in our own country that many of us aren’t as shocked as we should be, and think that all we can do is pray. Institutionalized racism is still a core fabric of our society – 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement – racism is present, whether it’s obvious, subtle, or unrecognized by the people in power. People who don’t fit what society deems the “norm” are seen as less than and less worthy.

And we all know the saying “Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” – and we know the lie that fills that phrase. Words of hate, fear, division and ignorance do hurt us. Peace is that intangible thing we talk about, especially at this time of the year, but which we struggle to grasp. Before we can even define what Peace in our own lives, and Peace in the world, truly means – it slips through our fingers.

The child we gather to hear, sing and pray about this afternoon was someone who lived in a time of great violence and upheaval. He knew that Peace was something greatly desired in his world of unrest, hatred and fear. And when he talked about Peace – it wasn’t a sanitized version, where everything was clean, neat, happy, and uncomplicated. It wasn’t just the absence of violence. It can be too easy for us to buy into this – to sit in our nice clothes in a beautiful setting with the comforting aroma of beeswax candles and think this is Peace.
This – this that we experience here today – this is what propels us to work for Peace. Peace is real – it’s authentic – it’s messy. We come together not because this is Peace – but because this gathering lets us glimpse the possibilities before us. As we see the goodness in our sisters and brothers – we want to carry the hope and promise of true Peace with us tonight and tomorrow and the day after – we want the world to reflect what we see in small part here.

There is an old saying that holds true – If you want Peace, work for Justice.
Jesus was someone who didn’t just sit around and talk about lofty ideals. How he lived – his actions spoke far louder than words. He reached across lines of division – whether it was religious or cultural or political or socio-economic – and brought people together in unity. He insisted they operate with respect for the other, and place others before themselves. He modeled that Peace does not come from a place of power, but from a place of servanthood, of understanding, of walking in someone else’s shoes – especially if they are shoes in which we’d rather not walk.

I encourage you today – take the glimpse of the beauty and peace of this afternoon – this wonderful hint of a better world that is before us at this moment – I encourage you to carry it forth to a world filled with violence, division, fear and hatred. Take steps – both big and small – to work for the abolition of violence in all its many forms, to work for justice – so that peace may prevail. Breathe in the Peace around us, and release that breath of peace to the world. One place, one person, at a time – let peace begin with each one of us, as we seek to go forth and change the world for the better.

Peace be with you. Amen.