Flight of Faith
Matthew 2: 13-15, 19-23
A sermon preached by Sue Cook at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA, January 3, 2016.
Through the Holy Spirit’s grace & inspiration may we better hear & see the words of Christ’s life & have them take root in our thoughts, our hearts, and our daily actions. Amen
When last we met, be that on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, the Christ child had just been born in a refuge for domestic animals. His parents have had little chance to do more than wrap him in linen swaddling clothes and make a cradle of sorts from a straw-lined manger nearby. A cow, housed in a stall, starts lowing a timeless melody which quiets the fussing newborn. A little goat, resting in a dark corner of the shed suddenly leaps straight up for joy b l e a t ing a song that his own mother taught him not so very long ago.
A neighboring house cat silently skims across the pale straw-covered floor, jumps up on a high bale of hay, settles in, drawing her tail around her folded legs and purrs in perfect harmony with the other four-footed critters as she looks down upon the radiant face of God.
The first waves of wonder and joy at the successful birth of her Son must have been followed by a deep and abiding state of peace for this exhilarated but tired young mother. A persistent knowing that she was living out her destiny began to truly take hold; this knowing was reassuring to Mary. As the newborn suckled, she slowly rocked back and forth; she knew she had been right to accept the Angel’s invitation to become the Mother of this man-child, this Son of God, this long awaited Redeemer of her people.
She reflected on the dramatic turn her life had taken while cradling her child. The memories of the days & months preceding her Son’s birth arose and she witnessed the charged images dissipate in the sweet peace and all-consuming love she now enjoyed. Any scars remaining from the sharp-edged ill will she had endured before they came to Bethlehem, were simply washed away in His presence.
And then a star is seen – shooting across the inky black horizon. It was exquisite in its brilliance and remarkable in its proximity to the Holy Family.
Within a very short time, we are told that a group of shepherds on a hilltop with their flock nearby were visited by “hosts” of angels singing celestial songs and trumpeting the news of the glorious birth of humankind’s long-awaited Messiah, the Prince of Peace, Emmanuel.
As I prepared this sermon I wondered, “Why did the angels go to the shepherds first? Why did they not approach the temple Rabbis’or other holy men in the region. And what was the import of the Angel’s words, “And this shall be a sign unto you, ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
In researching this section of the Christmas story I discovered that, tradition holds that the shepherds would take the firstborn of the flock for the sin>sacrificial offering. To stop the newborn lamb from being trampled or injuring itself, and so that it would be without blemish, they would bind the lamb in strips of swaddling cloth and usually lay them in a manger until they were a bit stronger and ready to stand on their own and go to their mother.
Thus the sign of the firstborn son wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger would have been of special significance to the shepherds, who would later share this incredible sign with others who could also well understand it. It also sets the tone for the audience Christ would seek throughout his brief life’s shocking ministry. His message of enlightened redemption was rarely if ever offered in temples or royal courts,. It was the poor, the marginalized, and all sorts of outcasts from mainstream society he offered God’s love and healing to.
And so, heeding the angelic messenger, the shepherds left the hills and headed off to find the newborn King for themselves. And they were led right to Him. With their arrival the very intimate, private time for this holy family came to an end.
While still delighting in the newness of her baby, the Magi then arrived. They prostrated before the infant and his mother and each offered a gift as their way of recognizing and honoring the Divinity of Christ child.
And this is the image we are left with. This tableau has been imprinted upon the memories of generation after generation of Christians and non-believers alike. It has been engraved on the face of the finest crystal, seen on myriad stained glass windows, captured on breathtaking oil-on-canvas portraitures; hammered & polished into bronze statuary; displayed in dioramas we call a crèche or Nativity scene; even our holiday cards often times depict the beauty and stunning miracle born in this moment in humankind’s story.
As was customary for visitors traveling from afar, the Wise Men stayed for a few days. It was during this time one of them had a dream in which they were told to bypass Herod’s palace and leave the country without telling the king the whereabouts of the Child. And so they returned home by another route.
“Now when they were departed behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt.
…and be thou there until I tell thee: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
And he arose and took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt.
Thus joy at the honor of the magi’s visit and worship gives place to terror at the wrath of Herod’s foaming paranoia. The serene first days of Jesus’ life in Bethlehem are to be followed by a night of fear and a breathless flight into Egypt wrapped tightly next to his mother’s breast.
I am inclined to predict that my first response, had I been in Mary’s sandals, would have been to cry out in rabid fear to my husband & my God, “What will become of us?” “Oh dear God, what will become of us? I thought we had a deal!” “I’d accept this miraculous pregnancy, withstand the slings & arrows of scorn from all of my neighbors at home, try to quiet the misgivings of a suspect Joseph, travel ‘cross some pretty rough roads while nine months pregnant, ON THE BACK of a lurching, braying BURRO, and then give birth in this MOST sparce and humble of rest stops, and now, after a few pan-piped carols from those sweet Shepherd boys and some lovely parting gifts from the Magi, you’re telling me, “The good times are OVER” and “Better get a move on it folks.” I do not remember signing on for this? I’m certain I would have remembered!” “Oy-vay!!” “Holy Mother of God!” “Oh, I am the….oops”
As you can see, it is quite easy for me to project onto Mary that she would have been Jewish-Mother crazy-worried. Herod, as had his father before him, was ruthless in routing out any possible threat to their strangulating grip on the Israelites. “How can we protect ourselves from Herod and his armies of sword- slashing soldiers?” she quite honestly might ask. It makes me want to throw up just envisioning those first hours after Joseph breaks the news to her and they prepare to flee Bethlehem for Egypt under the cover of dark.
Images of our own Syrian refugees, traversing the length of Turkey only to then be seen hanging onto the edges of small rafts, paddling and swimming as they attempt to escape persecution and death in their homeland, can be seen on television, in newsprint, and talked about everywhere. What is it like for them and all the others throughout our world, in those hurried moments when situations outside of their control force them to decide how to best try and survive?
An estimated 400,000 refugees from countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East – largely from Syria – escaping war, persecution, and poverty will have entered Europe in this year just ended.
I take this moment to offer a prayer of thanksgiving for not having to embark on any of those forced flights. And Herod was as good as his threats – So terrified was he of the promise that God would, in this child, restore peace and justice that he was willing to slaughter the infants of a whole region. He indeed sent his soldiers out to find any child possibly born during the time of Christ’s birth, and they were slaughtered. As I embrace this image, I feel and hear their mothers’ ceaseless wailing resonating in my body. How could I not? How could we not?
I am reminded of Matthew’s reference to the OT writing of Jeremiah: “Weeping and great mourning, Rachael weeping for her children. And she would not be comforted…”
The image of the ancient mother of the tribe, rising from her tomb to weep, and refusing to be comforted because her children were not around her, is in-im-i-ta-bly beautiful; and this image so strikingly portrayed the weeping in Bethlehem, that Matthew adopts the words of the prophet, and says that they were here fulfilled. It was the fulfillment, not of a prediction, properly speaking, but of certain words spoken by the prophet.
Nobody loved the Jews more than Matthew did, writing till he was blue in the face so they would believe and be saved. The main thing he wanted to say was that although Jesus was born in the sticks and never had two cents to rub together and was ignored by just about everybody who mattered and was strung up in the end between two crooks, he was the same Messiah, the same Christ, he was the same Anointed of the Lord, that for centuries Israel had been waiting for with tears in its eyes. And it was from here that they were driven out of.
Egypt – What a criticism upon Israel when Egypt, the house of bondage, the seat of tyranny, the land of the immemorial enemies of God’s people, was regarded as a place of refuge from its ruler. Jesus was saved by flight.
In truth, Egypt had become a refuge for Israelites fleeing from famine and oppression. One hundred miles in a direct line from Bethlehem would carry Joseph well over the border of Egypt. Two hundred miles would bring him to the river Nile. In Egypt he would find friends, possibly even acquaintances. Work that would allow him to provide for his family would arise from these connections. It was here that they would stay until called back to their homeland.
The day to day challenges and attempts at fitting into the Egyptian communities they found themselves in is reminiscent of our own contemporary culture’s frequent transferring of its workforce with families in tow, lock stock and barrel, off to a new city or perhaps even a new country, so that commerce can grow and flourish.
I was called by some magnetic pull, to leave Washington, D.C. with our young family and start anew. We needed a time-out so that we might focus on our two very young kids and discern what we were to do next to create and sustain a new life. My husband sold our businesses and our home, put our meager earnings aside to live off of for the next year and gracefully drove off into the sunset with a trailer in tow, 2 babies secured in the back seat, a happy wife, complete with our dog Muffin planted next me, in our green 1969 Dodge Coronet.
I share a small segment of a note I sent off today to the relatively new rector of the thriving Episcopal parish we wandered into that Fall – St. Mary’s of Barnstable, MA: “Dear Rev. Libby: “We chose Cape Cod as our next home simply because I loved Patty Page’s rendering of the popular song, Old Cape Cod! I could not get it out of my head. A siren’s call perhaps. My husband was game and said, “Okay”, if that’s what you really want to do, we’ll go live there for a year. Who knows what will come of it?”
We scurried up to the Cape in the summer and met a family who wanted to lease their fully furnished home in W. Hyannisport for one year for next to nothing. They were a Catholic family from the Boston suburbs with 8 kids and the place was dog-earred and perfect for us. We returned the week after Labor Day. The summer season was officially over. We knew no one and all our neighbors had fled back to resume their city lives. Wow, after unpacking and settling in I had a private moment or two of questioning my impulsive insistence to move to this idyllic but now very quiet village.
It was then that I remembered my mother’s directive…”New in town?” “Find the nearest Catholic church and you will find community.” While I was no longer a practicing Catholic, I actually listened to my mother’s advice.
We were strangers Rev. Libby, and St. Mary’s spiritually clothed us and sometimes joyously fed us. We joined you in worship and in choir. We brought our babies to Sunday church and they were hugged as if they were the parish’s newest beloved grandchildren. 45 years later my son & daughter still faithfully hang their Christmas stockings created by one of St. Mary’s churchwomen and purchased by me at a Christmas Faire.
Perhaps just as importantly, I found the beginnings of a true healing for past life traumas through the attentive listening I was offered by the Pastor and his dear wife.
In this time we had together with you, my faith in God was renewed; it had a chance to poke its head from out beneath the seemingly frozen earth to experience renewal and to feel hope and belief in our future life as a family. All of this was because St. Mary’s community was doing Christ’s work.
It is said that God invariably prefers the ordinary to the extraordinary means.
As our rector Dianne charged all of us in her Christmas Eve sermon, “It is for us, on this Christmas to steep in the true richness of God’s holy presence…to let God’s message of light and hope and possibility take root deeply in us…and then to share the light of eternal, divine love with the world as we go about our lives… to live out the ‘work of Christmas’.”
I just couldn’t continue with my exploration of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, until I took this opportunity to say, “Thank you” and to tell you how very much your faraway New England village church gave to one who now resides 45 years later in a faraway North Western village church as member of another branch of Christ’s family tree.
On Christmas day, 1863, Longfellow—a 57-year-old widowed father of six children, the oldest of which had been nearly paralyzed as his country fought a war against itself—wrote a poem seeking to capture the dynamic and dissonance in his own heart and the world he observes around him. He heard the Christmas bells that December day and the singing of “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14), but he observed the world of injustice and violence that seemed to mock the truthfulness of this optimistic outlook. The theme of listening recurred throughout the poem, eventually leading to a settledness of confident hope even in the midst of bleak despair.
I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day, A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head; “There is no peace on earth,” I said; “For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”