Monday, January 3, 2011

Going to Egypt

Joseph taking Mary and Jesus to Egypt

This is the sermon I gave at Morning Prayer at the Episcopal Church of the Saviour in Clermont, Iowa on January 2, 2011.

Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart Be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my rock, and my redeemer. Amen.

Sometimes,we take the long way home, just to enjoy the scenery and the companionship. Christmas is about a lot of things, but it is at least about getting back home. We sing about it: “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.

And “Over the river and through the woods.”

Over the river and through the woods,

To grandmother’s house we go;

The horse knows the way to follow the sleigh

Through the white and drifting snow

When I was young, in my mind's eye, I imagined what the stable where Jesus was born was like. It was a lot like the barn that we had. During the chill of wintertime, it was a warm place where the milk cows stayed. It was a nice, warm, steamy place with the earthy smells of the cows. So I thought I knew what a stable was like because I knew what a barn was like. I knew how warm it felt to lean against a cow. I knew what it felt like to lay on a pile of hay or straw. I had seen donkeys and sheep. It was not hard to picture Jesus’ birth place as being very like our farm on a bright, snowy, December night. It was a place of safety, where, in my child eyes, no one would want to leave.

Which brings us to this first trip of the holy family. Of all the dreams of Christmas, this one is the strangest even if it makes common sense. Joseph went to bed with his conversations with the Wise Men on his mind. What should he do? He was terrorized, for that was the way the Puppet King Herod ruled the land on behalf of Rome. Herod maintained control by a reign of terror. He had his own male children killed because he feared they might grow up and steal the throne from him by leading a rebellion. He feared Rome. He feared his own people and his own children. It was said of Herod, better to be his swine than to be his sons.

In the night, God spoke to Joseph’s mind in a dream. An angel 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. ”

To Egypt? Why such a long way? The recent history of the Mideast tells us why. During the last century there have been large movements of people across the Mideast borders of Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Amenia, Palestine, Iraq and Iran as people attempt to escape civil war. Some 1400 years before Jesus was born, the Hebrew people immigrated from Egypt, not just once, but in waves over decades. They wandered in the desert of Sinai before arriving at what is modern day Palestine. Similarly, they had migrated from Ur to Palestine then to Egypt centuries before the Exodus from Egypt. The mass movement of people through the Mideast and frrequent wars in that area has occurred throughout recorded history.

Why would the angel say “Go to Egypt?”. Why not? Though it would take weeks, it was the nearest state, and the way was on a well-marked international trade route.

The long journey is typical of our spiritual life. It is the far country, the place outside the gate, the burning bush in the desert we must turn aside to see. It is the dream in the night, the sojourn out of the way, that leads us safely home. Mary and Joseph’s long way to safety makes a point: Jesus is special. He is the person chosen to be the leader of the people. Holy men had written in Scriptures describing what Messiah would be like and how he would appear.

Out of Egypt I have called my son,” Hosea tells us in the Scriptures. To get away from Herod’s search for the heir to the David's throne, it made sense to go to the neighboring country. But something else is involved here. Getting where we want to go, really want to go, often involves going the long way home. Because it is in the journey that we are given the chance to deal with our brokenness, to discover what is missing in our lives, to confront our unanswered questions.

A gift is given in places where we are broken. We tend to equate brokenness with shabbiness. We toss our spare change into a pot for the entire lot of ill clad, unkempt people who stand on the street corners and mumble to themselves. We view them from inside our locked cars. We think that they are a problem of cities not our local small towns. We have words for them like “homeless,” or “marginalized,” and a thousand other subtle ways of saying, “Not like us.” Not so. The journey into wholeness leads us first to our own brokenness, to an inner Egypt. We can drive a nice automobile, have a comfortable home and be a pillar in our community but find our souls wandering in the desert wilderness. Each one of us who have lived any time at all have experienced a crises within our families, within our sense of who we are at home or at work or both. We are faced with death in the family, personal illness and one or another of the many losses life hands us and we wonder who we are and why there are such large potholes in our spiritual journey.

It is said that prayer is the spiritual journey into the unknown. We have to get rid of the need for certainty. It requires a long time of deep prayer for a person to understand his motivations and become vulnerable to God. The journey into our brokenness is a journey deep into our own being and outward into the unknown, where God is.

To find God we must be willing to undertake the journey to Egypt, into our own questionable motives and hidden wounds. It means leaving behind the familiar and going where only Gods love can feed us. Then we learn truly what Jesus means when he tells us, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,.” for we all are.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God.

The journey is about “the dark holes where something is missing.” We don’t like to think that anything is missing. We attempt to impose our definition of perfection on life while the actual process of life is something else altogether.

We imagine the things we must have to make life bearable and in the clutter of stuff, we lose sight of what makes life meaningful.

Most of us wish that life could be without trouble and trial. But we operate under a false view of a perfection that can be reached without darkness, without trouble and without sin and suffering.

We think of perfection as wholeness. Finding wholeness is a process of discovering the full life God always intended for us to have. It means finding our true selves. “

The Holy Family’s journey to Egypt is idealized in early Christian lore, glossing over the difficulty of the journey. The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas tells of palm trees that miraculously bent down to feed the holy family, lions and leopards that wagged their tails in worship. One story tells that in one of the towns they passed through, all the idols in the local temple fell to the ground. It’s human to idealize our journey, to smooth out the rough places as we retell it.

But Scripture doesn’t. The flight to Egypt is also a reminder, an anticipation of the costly and painful price of wholeness for us all. If Jesus is the new Moses, come to deliver us into a new kingdom, then we must make a journey from our present Egypt and be brought out a dangerous and difficult way.

It is tempting to sit and wait for life to come to us, to forsake the journey and simply subsist. But doing that, we stop living life and squander it. Our refusal to follow, either as individuals or as a church does not mean that opportunities won’t be missed. There is a price for delay and disobedience.

At times I have thought, and I’ve heard other Christians say after an apparent failure, “It wasn’t meant to be.” We try to blame God for our failures. The Kingdom will come, even if we have no hand in it, and our improvidence is not to be interpreted as the Providence of God.

The Magi didn’t have to follow the star.

Joseph didn’t have to wed Mary.

God can and will bring in the Kingdom with or without us. We should be diligent so as to eventually enjoy the welcome into peace God offers.

Joseph and Mary could have sought an easier way to avoid Herod’s wrath than the journey to Egypt, but what disaster might an easier way have invited? What might they have missed?

Mary didn’t have to say to the Angel, “Be it done according to your Word.” She didn’t have to be a mother. Life will not come to us on our terms. Joseph’s dream was a call to enter the full danger of the spiritual journey.

Joseph and Mary knew some of the reasons for their journey. Their preeminent motivation for leaving was to escape the possibility that Herod would come after Jesus. But here we meet the question of suffering head-on. Innocent baby boys are killed for nothing more than political insecurity. The point is not how many died, but why God, who could intervene to save Jesus, did not intervene to save dozens of little innocent babies. Never is the idea of life’s purpose more at risk than in the face of innocent and undeserved suffering. Many come to Christmas every year with some unbearable sorrow that seems to render life senseless. “Why did this happen?” they ask. And there is no answer.

Things gone wrong, evil, is not God’s will, but its occurrence is still God’s dark mystery of how he creates good from evil. Jesus did not escape death at the hands of tyranny so much as postpone it. The death of the innocents was not a tragedy Jesus avoided but a tragedy that anticipated the darkest tragedy of all: the saving tragedy of Jesus’ cross.

Matthew affirms that God is not the author of evil. But he does assert that God is evil’s editor. God has the final word. God reframes, restates and corrects evil until it fits within God’s deeper purposes. That is what we want to know in our tragedies and sorrows—that they are not in the end merely empty and sad coincidences, random and broken bits of unfortunate pain.

God’s way is to outwit evil, or use its consequences for good.

We hear from friends all over the United States during the Christmas season. Sometimes in their Christmas letters there are hints of a long journey: a death, an entry into a nursing home, an illness that has changed the course of life forever, or other such things. Some of the letters we receive are from people asking help, as they have experienced disaster or failed in an undertaking. Others are reporting recovery from failures or tragedies.

There is a long way into and out of Egypt that leads us home. It is not the way we would necessarily choose, given our perfectionist ideals and our reluctance to experience pain as a price for joy. But that way is there.

So my prayer for all of us is that we find that no matter where we go on life's journey, God will be there for us, supporting us as he leads us home, just as he did with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Amen.

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