The Way Home
Margaret D. McGee
Homily given at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA
4 January 2015
On Christmas Eve — this past Christmas Eve — in the middle of the afternoon, I set off on a long walk. The route was familiar: Start from my front porch, walk out the driveway & down the gravel lane. Cross the busy paved road that leads into town, but turn away from town. In a hundred feet or so turn again down a neighboring gravel road that wends its way through woods on both sides, with the occasional house visible through the trees, and every now and then the glimpse of water at the end of a long driveway. This road takes the satisfying form of a loop that stretches along and finally circles back to the busy paved road, which I cross again, to walk back along my lane, up our driveway, and finally to the porch steps, home again.
The walk takes close to an hour. And in the first ten years or after David and I moved here, I used to take it often, two or three times a week. I enjoyed the changing seasons reflected in the trees and understory, watching for For Sale signs, meeting other walkers. When a large corner lot was logged, I mourned, then watched in amazement as, year by year, first the understory and then the replanted firs and cedars sprang up and flourished in newly liberated sunshine.
Then, without meaning to, I gradually stopped taking this walk. I walked in town instead, or took my exercise in other ways. On this past Christmas Eve, it occurred to me that I hadn’t walked my old familiar route for years and years. Christmas is the season of returning home, of gathering with family or friends, sharing stories of our lives. And suddenly it felt right to me to take my old walk again. I wondered if I’d see a new house along the way, or a long-wooded lot clear and drenched in winter sun.
But as I walked along, instead, I saw pretty much exactly what I remembered. The same old houses. The same old trees. After a while, it was a little disconcerting, as though the years hadn’t passed on this road. As though time had stood still.
As I approached the halfway point, where the road curves back toward home, it came to me that while I’d been expecting to see how my old familiar friend, this route, had changed, what had really changed while we were apart was me.
In the intervening years since I walked this way, David and I had faced unexpected financial challenges. I had wandered around in the income-seeking wilderness for a while, tried some things that didn’t work out the way I’d hoped.
And found new friendships in that same wilderness. Reconnected with colleagues from long ago. Got help in unexpected ways. Said Yes to opportunities that, without the financial challenges, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed. And ended up doing useful work with people I respect.
Walking past one familiar landmark after another, it occurred to me, that I probably had not taken this path since before my parents died: first my mother, and then a few years later my father. I remembered how being with them at the end of their lives changed the way I saw death and life, which led me to some volunteer work with the local Hospice Foundation, more new friendships, the privilege of spending time in that holy place near the edge of life, of being a witness for those who near death and for those who grieve, of being transformed by transformation.
Maybe two-thirds of the way through my Christmas Eve walk, I was just contemplating this revelation — that it was me that had changed while I was away from this seemingly unchanged road, when I came around a curve, and there parked next to a driveway was a giant moving van! I had to smile. It was like God plopping a big fat metaphor right in my path, saying, hey Margaret, it might appear that nothing’s changed outside yourself, but in fact transformation is happening all the time, everywhere, seen or unseen.
That moving van, for me, was heavy laden with meaning. It helped me see that the story was bigger than me. Which is how we humans process our world. We take the events in our lives, places in our lives, and invest them with meaning. We gather for the winter holidays and sit around the table and tell each other stories, stories told to convey the meaning of ourselves, our families, our communities. And over time the stories are shaped to bring out the meaning, to help us understand who we are, and why we’re here.
Which is exactly the gift that the Gospel of Matthew offers when telling the story of the life of Jesus, the Emmanuel, God-with-us, here on earth. Of the four Gospels that begin the New Testament, Matthew uniquely starts with the genealogy of Jesus, beginning with Abraham, father of Isaac, father of Jacob, father of Judah, marching on through the generations to David, father of Solomon, through the exile to Babylon and back again, generation after generation. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus our Messiah fits in a big story of God’s presence in the lives of people, and that it transcends that story.
As is typical of genealogies of the day, Matthew’s passes from father to father, recording 42 generations of the male line. However, in his genealogy, Matthew breaks that pattern five times, by including five women in the begetting. And it’s kind of interesting which women he mentions. Because you know, there was a woman at every generation. So which five out of the 42 does Matthew choose to name?
Tamar, a Canaanite, who tricked Judah into fathering her children.
Rahab, a prostitute, the mother of Boaz…
… who marries Ruth, a Moabite, an outsider, a widow who lives through grief and exile to become the great-grandmother of King David.
The wife of Uriah (that is, Bathsheba) who becomes the mother of King Solomon through David’s adulterous relationship.
And finally, the last woman Matthew mentions in his genealogy of Jesus is Mary, who is found to be with child from the Holy Spirit, and who becomes the mother of Jesus.
By including those specific women in the genealogy, it’s as if Matthew is saying, yes, this is all connected, it’s all one big story of God’s saving grace, but this will not be a straight path. Bad things happen to good people. Not everyone behaves well all the time. Things go awry. And yet this is the path that circles, and circles, and circles home.
After the genealogy, Matthew goes on to tell of Jesus’ birth, and of the coming of Wise Men from the East looking for a newborn King. Of the Wise Men being temporarily side-tracked by paranoid King Herod, who’s fearfully interested in who this other king might be. The Wise Men get away from Herod to follow their star to the house that holds this new, small family. They give homage and gifts, then they set off and circle back for their own homes.
Which is where we pick up with today’s reading. God comes to Joseph in a dream, warning him that Herod will be searching for this already-pretty-surprising child, to kill him. Joseph, the kind of guy you want around in a crisis, picks up and takes his family to Egypt, fleeing the murderous Herod. After a while, Herod dies, and God comes to Joseph again in a dream, saying it’s time to go home. The family returns to Palestine, settling not in Judea, their ancestral home, but in Galilee. This to avoid Herod’s son Archelaus, who was yet another bloody-minded despot.
And in telling these events, Matthew illuminates their meaning, by harkening back to God’s rescue of the Israelites out of Egypt, when the prophet Hosea refers to the Israelite people as God’s own child, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Even in exile, the Gospel reminds us, especially in exile, God has always been present, and takes the exiled ones as God’s own.
When the Gospel story links the Holy Family’s flight into and out of Egypt to Israel’s exile and return, the story expands into the essential journey that we all have in common. The turns in the path, the seeming “dead ends” and back-tracks. Even the wild flights, when all we’re doing is running away from whatever it is we can’t face at the moment. It’s on that very path that salvation patiently waits. It’s on the road into and out of Egypt that we find the way to a home we never would have dreamed of without all that drama.
Each path is unique, and most of the drama is hidden, as we each present to the world our mask of competence, of achievement, of “all is okay with me.” But make no mistake about it. Every soul ever born, every mother’s child in this room today, has at one time or another been on the road with Mary, Joseph, and a tiny baby, either escaping into Egypt, or escaping out of it. We’ve been there before, we’ll be there again. And so we greet each other on the road, sit around the campfire, share our water, our bread and wine. Bear witness, offer comfort. I’ll tell you my stories, and you tell me yours. Stories of being on this road before, and of the the Love, and the miracles, that got us home again.
Jeremiah 31: 7 – 14
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a