In the name of Jesus, who calls us to follow.
Our Gospel today on this first Sunday of the new year, is the story of people going where they do not want to go.
We begin with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in a house in Bethlehem. Matthew is the only Gospel to mention a house, to suggest that the Holy Family found a home in Bethlehem and the magi visited them there.
Soon after the wise ones left, Joseph was fast asleep at night when an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to tell him that he must flee immediately with Mary and Jesus, that he must go to Egypt, because Herod the ruler was coming to kill the child.
Joseph wakes up from the dream and the family leaves that very night. They hit the road to Egypt, which was the traditional destination for those fleeing persecution in Palestine.
Joseph’s feelings about leaving aren’t recorded; neither are Mary’s. But I think we can assume that neither of them wanted to travel 500 miles across the desert with a small child. We can assume that they didn’t want to leave their family, their friends, their home to go to a foreign place where they didn’t speak the language, where they knew no one.
But God speaks, Joseph gets up, and they flee. To a place they probably didn’t want to go.
Matthew tells us that the family stayed in Egypt until Herod died. Again, an angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream 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.”
We don’t know how the Holy Family felt about moving this time – perhaps they were delighted to go home, perhaps they had gotten comfortable, put down some roots. Either way, they obeyed.
They set off for Judea, for Bethlehem, the city of Joseph’s family, the city where they have a home. But Joseph and Mary soon learned that Bethlehem was not safe; and an angel directed Joseph to Nazareth in Galilee. Despite having lived there before, it was not Joseph’s first choice- After all, Bethlehem was known as the City of David, the city of kings. Prophets said it was the birthplace of messiah, and it was within view of Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life.
Nazareth was another story. Later in the New Testament, Philip tells Nathaniel that he has met the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Nathaniel’s response: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Nazareth was in Galilee, known for its large population of gentiles, of people who did not practice Judaism. People who lived in Galilee were suspect – surely pagan religion had rubbed off them. And Nazareth was even worse, a backward town, a long way from anything. It was not somewhere, most people thought, that a serious Jew would live.
But the angel spoke, and Joseph and his family went. Yet again, they go somewhere they do not want to go because God has called them there.
And I want to think a little bit more about this idea of going somewhere we don’t want to go. About having to move when we are not ready.
Because sometimes I feel like that’s what is happening to the church and to us as individuals in this time. We are being pushed against our will to travel to a foreign country, to go somewhere new, somewhere we don’t really want to go.
I mean, I love to learn new things, and I’ve learned a lot over the past 2 years. But I didn’t really WANT to learn how to host a zoom funeral, or how to have a socially distanced baptism. If you had asked me 5years ago what my dream for the church was, where I really hoped we’d go, facebook live would not have been my answer. I did not dream or hope for virtual church.
The pandemic is pushing us as individuals and as a community to learn new things, to go in a new direction, and you all are doing it with grace and style – but it’s probably not the destination we would have chosen.
And historic changes in the world around us are pushing us somewhere new as well. The Pew Research center released a study this week showing that the percentage of Americans who practice Christianity has declined 12 points in the last 10 years. The percentage of Americans who describe themselves as unaffiliated with any religious tradition has shot up by 10 points in the last 10 years. This move away from religious practice shows every sign of accelerating. We are being forced to travel into a new religious landscape, in which the way we usually do things will not work anymore. In which we will have to learn to do more with less, to live without the comfort of majority status or an acknowledged social role.
We are going somewhere new, and it might not be the place we would have chosen.
And as we face going somewhere we might not want to go, I find great comfort in the story of the Holy Family. I find it comforting that despite being parents of a divine child, Mary and Joseph were still at the mercy of forces larger than themselves. Where they lived was determined in part by life under colonial rule, by the life and death of petty tyrants. But none of these extremely disruptive and at times destructive forces were enough to interrupt the working out of God’s will, the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. Of all the hopes and plans and projects that must have been disrupted in Mary and Joseph’s lives, the only plan that mattered remained intact.
I find this comforting, in this season we are at the mercy of school boards and town councils; when we can control even less than usual; when it seems like everything is dependent on the unpredictable behavior of a virus…in this season I find it helpful to remember that while the experience of feeling out of control might be new to us as westerners, particularly to those of us who have privilege by virtue of our race and class, it has been the reality for most of humanity most of the time. And that while our hopes and dreams and plans can be disrupted, God’s work of justice and love in and through us cannot be driven off course.
We are invited by God to go somewhere new, and it’s a tough journey and perhaps not the destination we would have chosen. But in following where God leads, in staying steady when we are pushed into new places by forces beyond our control, we find that wherever we end up, God is there. And God’s plan to bring in the Kingdom of love is advancing, even if our own personal plans fall by the wayside.
It might be mostly legend, but Esther de Waal tells the story of a tradition in the early Celtic world. The saints would build a coracle, a circular boat shaped like a basket, made with animal hides stretched over the frame. And they would set out on the sea without oars, praying for the Holy Spirit to lead them. And wherever they landed, they would begin a ministry. The tradition was that the place that they landed would be the place of their resurrection.
I have to tell you, I am not excited for another year of pandemic church. I want to be together physically, to see each others faces, to share eucharist in person. And I know that none of us are excited about more social distancing, disrupted plans, postponed visits, and so on. We want to go to Bethlehem, but we are headed to Nazareth.
My prayer is that together we as a church can trust that all of this disruption, all the hard things, all the plans falling by the wayside – that none of this can disrupt God’s powerful work of love and justice. And that we can trust that this place where we find ourselves, this difficult place of pandemic, might just be the place of our resurrection. Amen.
Permission to reprint, podcast, and/or stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-700170. All rights reserved.