Journeys

Sermon on Jeremiah 31:7-14 and Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

In 1987, organizational theorist Jerry Harvey published a management parable he called The Abilene Paradox. The story goes something like this: a family in Coleman, Texas is trying to decide what to do for dinner on a summer evening. Someone halfheartedly suggests going to Abilene, some fifty miles down a sun-parched highway. Though no one is enthused by the prospect of making trip, no one is willing to express their dissatisfaction, and so the family piles into the car. Predictably, the journey is miserable: the heat is in the triple digits, the car breaks down along the way, and when they finally get to Abilene, the only place to eat is a grubby cafeteria,. By the time the family returns home, they are exhausted and thoroughly dispirited. Gradually, it becomes clear that no one wanted to make the trip in the first place. If someone had simply expressed their opinion, the family would have been saved a miserable evening. Harvey relates this parable to illustrate the benefits of conflict and disagreement in an organization, but the story makes an even simpler point: some journeys are just not worth taking; sometimes, it makes more sense to stay put.      

This morning, our lectionary offers us two depictions of journeys that seem to be worth taking. One is Jeremiah’s sweeping vision of God’s people journeying out of exile to their homeland. The other is Matthew’s account of the Holy Family escaping from the murderous intentions of King Herod and ultimately returning to their home in Galilee. In many ways, these stories are similar. Both depict journeys that have significant implications for the future. Both are stories of loss and restoration. Both are incredibly dramatic. Jeremiah writes of a people who have been removed from their homeland because of their disobedience and failure to honor the commandments of God. His is a spectacular vision of repentance: “Thus says the LORD,” he writes, “I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth…with weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back.” In the most comprehensive way possible, Jeremiah is inviting his people to return to their God, to reestablish their relationship with the one they abandoned. Moreover, Jeremiah implies this journey from exile to restoration is central to the experience of God’s people.Rembrandt_Dream_of_Joseph If anything, the language in Matthew’s gospel is even more arresting. Matthew describes a journey marked by the haste that comes when lives are at stake: “Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.” This gripping tale seems to confirm Jeremiah’s implication that it is movement toward God that characterizes our lives; after all, even the Christ child, the Word made flesh, found himself on a journey when he was just a few months old.

This image of a journey toward God is common in many of the world’s religious traditions. Most follow the same basic idea: if we follow along the path that has been set before us without stumbling too many times, we will achieve union with the Divine. This seems to be what Jeremiah articulates in calling his people to repentance, and it seems to be what Matthew reiterates in the first chapters of his gospel. Yet there is one crucial distinction between the words of the prophet and the words of the evangelist, and it is a distinction with dramatic implications. In Jeremiah, God’s people are on the journey, God’s people are striving toward the goal that has been set before them. In Matthew, however, God himself is on the journey. In the two gospels that include birth narratives, the early life of Jesus is characterized by movement (Nazareth to Bethlehem, Bethlehem to Egypt to Galilee) in order to illustrate how God journeys toward us in the incarnation. The unique witness of the incarnation is this: it is not we who make the journey to God; it is God who makes the journey to us. During this Christmas season, we make the astonishing claim that God reconciled us to himself and to one another by becoming one of us.

This has startling implications for the way we live. We tend to live our lives constantly thinking about what comes next, constantly looking for the next challenge to overcome or milestone to achieve. This constant striving, however, is the source of nearly all our anxiety, because no matter how hard we try, our efforts to live perfect lives, to create a perfect world, to do everything right are ultimately fruitless. A mature understanding of the incarnation allows us to put striving in its proper perspective, to recognize that no matter how hard we try, it is God who is the ultimate source of everything that is important in our lives. At the beginning of this service, we heard that marvelous collect for the Second Sunday of Christmas: “O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature.” Note that God is the actor on both counts, God is the one who both creates and restores. The mission of Jesus Christ was not to provide an example of how we should live; the mission of Jesus Christ was and is to show us that our striving toward perfection is ultimately fruitless because God is bringing all things to their perfection by dwelling among us. The incarnation invites us to stay put and receive joyfully the life God has given us, to recognize that everything we experience is a gift.

This year, my 18 month old has been experiencing Christmas for the first time. While she was obviously around last year, this is the first Christmas that she has been able to appreciate what is happening, and the first Christmas that she has really gotten excited about presents. Wrapping-MessHer favorite part of opening presents, however, is not the gift, but the wrapping paper. In fact, like many toddlers, she is usually more interested in the wrapping paper than in the gift itself. This is a source of some frustration to those of us who spent time, energy, and money selecting gifts we thought she would enjoy, only to be upstaged by a square foot of brightly colored paper. I wonder, however, if my daughter has the right perspective, even if she doesn’t know it. For her, everything is a gift: every toy, every piece of wrapping paper, every meal, every hug, every moment. She implicitly recognizes what the incarnation calls each one of us to remember, that everything: every triumph and tragedy, every success and failure, every joy and sorrow, that everything is a gift from God.

 

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Making Music in the Heart

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

You may have heard that there is a new Star Wars movie. I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently, it’s pretty good. Most reviewers are excited that this new version is more like the original trilogy that came out in the 1970s than the prequels that were released about a decade ago. That’s a good thing, because the prequels were pretty bad.300px-Opening_crawl Perhaps nothing illustrates how poorly the prequels compared to the original movies better than the differences in the iconic opening crawls that gave the backstory for each trilogy. On one hand is the crawl for the 1977 Star Wars: “It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.” Now that’s how you begin a space opera; you definitely want to find out what happens in that movie. On the other hand is the crawl for The Phantom Menace, which came out in 1999: “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.” Taxation of trade routes? Really? That sounds less like a thrilling sci-fi movie and more like C-SPAN.

There is a level at which the beginning of Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus sounds a little like the opening crawl from The Phantom Menace. Luke unfolds the Christmas story in an unusual and frankly banal way. We would expect the evangelist to begin by focusing on the joys and trials of the Christ child and his family. But instead of tugging at our heartstrings, Luke begins his account of the birth of Jesus by talking about politics. Specifically, he reminds us that Augustus is the emperor of Rome and Quirinius is the governor of Syria. On one hand, the evangelist is just providing context; he is affirming that the incarnation is an event that can be considered part of the historical record. On the other hand, the reminder about who is in charge is deeply significant for our understanding of this story, because this story announces the arrival of a new king. When the shepherds hear the angel announce,“behold, I bring you good news of a great joy,” the word we translate as “good news” refers to much more than new information; it is the same word that was used to announce the birth of a new emperor. In other words, Luke describes the birth of Jesus with a word that usually indicated a fundamental change in the political reality of the world.

Yet, as Luke reminds us at the beginning of this passage, the political situation in the world doesn’t change much after that angelic announcement. Augustus is still the emperor and Quirinius remains the governor. The shepherds return to their hardscrabble existence in the Judean wilderness, and the Holy Family ekes out a modest living in the Galilee. God’s chosen people remain under the thumb of an oppressive regime, and tyrants persist in forcing their will on the weak. By reminding us who the political leaders are at the time of Jesus’ birth, Luke creates a stark juxtaposition: he announces the arrival of a new order even as the old order continues to flourish.

And yet, that’s not where Luke ends the story. After the shepherds depart and everything apparently returns to normal, Luke interrupts the flow of the narrative and turns our attention to the mother of Jesus: “But Mary,” he interjects, “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” Mary seems to know implicitly that these glorious things are fleeting, and yet she resolves to hold them in her heart. imgresThis may not seem like much, but remember that Mary endures trials that no mother should ever have to endure. She is forced to watch the rejection and crucifixion of the child she gave birth to in that lowly stable. In the midst of this soul piercing grief, Mary continues to be animated by the joy of the incarnation, she continues to “ponder these things in her heart.” This statement is deeply and quietly subversive. This statement is where the second chapter of Luke’s gospel moves from charming folktale to a story that has the power to change the world. Because in this statement Mary affirms that the agents of sin and death; disease, war, pestilence, oppression, famine, murder, intolerance, violence; that none of these has any power over us. Mary locates a persistent and enduring joy, an inextinguishable light that cannot be overcome by any darkness. By doing so, she demonstrates that the true Christian vocation is embodied in our ability to find joy in every circumstance of our lives. This joy does not deny the reality of evil in the world; this joy we claim tonight insists that evil has no power over us because it has been defeated through the death and resurrection of the child who was born to Mary.

Howard Thurman was the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University and a mentor to countless imgresreligious leaders, including Martin Luther King. During his time at the Chapel, a time of great unrest and upheaval, he meditated on the things Mary pondered in her heart: “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, then the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.” The ultimate “work of Christmas,” the one that transcends all our other responsibilities, is to make music in our hearts: to celebrate the salvation God has created in the midst of the earth and to claim the joy of the incarnation at all times and in all places.