Sermon, December 26 (Hillary Watson)
By Hillary Watson
Arriving here a week ago, it almost felt like coming home. But I call lots of places home, so I don’t really know what the word “home” means anymore. When I was crossing the border to Canada this week, the border patrol agent asked me where home was. And I stumbled “Sea—Atl—um, I live in Atlanta. But I’m from Seattle.” We made it across the border, but it got me wondering about home.
The Gospel reading we just heard has everything to do with coming home. Or, perhaps more accurately, leaving it. We’ll come around to that in a little bit.
So it’s December 26. Christmas is over. We’ve spent the last weeks of Advent waiting: waiting for hopes to be fulfilled, for joy to come to the world, for a cause to celebrate in the most distressing times. And now: The baby’s been born, he’s safe, he’s healthy, we all have our Christmas presents, congratulations, everyone goes home happy, right? Not so.
It’s been a rough Advent for our man Joseph. He’s spent the last nine months being the third wheel in this pregnancy. Joseph, he’s a good guy, he’s doing his best. He’s got a steady job, he plans ahead, and he listens to God. Even when it messes up his plans. And it was just the other side of the page in chapter 1 that God messed up his plan to divorce Mary with her unplanned pregnancy. So he says, sure God, whatever you say. He accepts the difficult task of entering into a marriage that has no place for him. Joseph’s is suddenly part of a story that’s not really about him. He’s a stand in. He’s just a placeholder to make Mary and baby Jesus look good.
So when the angel comes around for The Dream: Episode 2, Joseph is probably trying to pinch himself awake. Not you again. What do you want? The angel says, “Hey Joseph, about this baby. He’s in trouble so you better get up and haul your donkey and your family down to Egypt. ”
Not even a “congratulations.” Joseph’s been solid so far, but at some point he must be thinking, “You know this is not my baby, God. I never signed up for this. If you’re his dad, how ‘bout you come down and protect him?” I’ve got a place back in Nazareth, I have a house, and we just finished unpacking the wedding presents. I quit.
And of all places to go, God sends him to Egypt. Now, Joseph was a good Jew. And for good Jews, for Torah-reading Jews who know where they come from, Egypt is no place to be.
Egypt is not a happy place. Not for the Jews. Let’s look at the last Joseph who got sent to Egypt. In Genesis 37, we find our first Joseph, of the Technicolor dreamcoat. He’s 17 and he’s got more brothers than any of us would want. He’s pretty low on the totem pole, too, number 11 out of 12. And he’s decent with the sheep, but his people skills might be lacking. His brothers are all set to pull a Cain and just kill Joseph. They only sold him because they wanted to make a buck.
And yeah, things eventually came together for Joseph, after a few years in Egyptian prison. But what happened to his children? Exodus 1:8 happened: “There arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Under this Pharaoh, Joseph’s children became slaves. In the Hebrew historical memory, Egypt is the land of slavery, the antithesis of the Promised Land. It was hard labor making bricks and cultivating the fields. Arguably, the Exodus is the first salvation story in the Bible. It’s the first time in the Bible where a whole people group is suffering and God reaches out to them and says, “Let me save you.”
God makes a promise, and God delivers. The people leave Egypt and come up to the Promised Land. Call it home.
So when Jews in first century CE hear Matthew 2, they must have been astonished to see their baby Messiah heading toward Pharaoh. Egypt? We don’t go there anymore. Egypt is where we were slaves. Egypt is empire, it’s Pharaoh’s land. Israel and Judea—that’s YHWH’s land, that’s our land. Where we are now is Promised Land. Egypt means long days of work, heavy taxes, not enough food, second class citizens in ghetto homes. Egypt is where our children die. In Pharaoh’s land, we don’t live well. Sometimes, we don’t even live. Pharaoh was the one who slaughtered all those baby boys because the Israelites were becoming too numerous.
Wait. Wait a second. These stories are getting blurry now. In the Exodus, Pharaoh massacred baby boys to protect his power. In Matthew, the baby boys lived. No. No they didn’t. In the Matthew story, the baby boys got massacred by Pharaoh… I mean, King Herod. To protect his power.
Perhaps this parallel is more than coincidence. Matthew’s gospel relies heavily on the Old Testament. We see that in this morning’s text, where Matthew quotes the Old Testament twice in these 10 verses. First from Hosea, “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” then from Jeremiah, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
Perhaps this is more than a pull quote to lend authority to Matthew’s story. Perhaps his point is, “I’m only telling you the same story you already know. It just sounds different this time.”
For modern Christians, this perspective is poignant. We’re at the beginning of the New Testament, but we’re not at the beginning of a new story. This is still God’s salvation history.
This fall, I entered seminary at one of the most prestigious schools of theology in the country. I was excited to be at Emory University, elbow-deep in the big questions about Jesus and faith and the Bible. But there was one obstacle when I got my schedule: as a first year seminary student, I was required to begin with a year-long Old Testament sequence, just me and 150 of my new best friends and classmates. Like a good Christian, I grumbled. Why did I have to wait until my second year to get the Jesus stuff?
My professor answered this question in the first week of class in a long and entertaining lecture involving several hip hop songs. The Bible has two testaments for a reason. How can we understand either one if we don’t read it from the beginning? There’s only one way to read the Bible, he said: Read it. Read it slowly. Keep reading. Reread it.
During Advent, it’s tempting to skip to part 3: Keep reading, from the New Testament. That doesn’t work. Why? Because, as Dr. Strawn likes to say, “there’s nothing new in the New Testament.” And perhaps that’s what Matthew is saying. The story’s new, but the ideas are not.
The first-century readers read the Old Testament. They knew Egypt is empire. It’s not a good place to follow YHWH. Egypt’s no place to be but according to Matthew—and this is new to his audience—neither is Bethlehem in Judea. Because it turns out, Bethlehem circa year 0 is very similar to Egypt pre-Exodus. The so-called Promised Land, now under the rule of a Jewish king appointed by the Romans, is really Egypt in sheep’s clothing. Bethlehem is empire.
This is a shock to the reader. All this time the place you called home is really empire. It is committing the same sins as Egypt. The prosperity of the nation hinges on keeping the poor, poor. The status quo allows for the prosperity of some through the oppression of many. Perhaps you know a place like this.
In Egypt, this system was fueled by a concept called maat. Maat was the principle on which the legal system was based, essentially, a concept of balance and order where everyone goes about their business. Egypt was a large, diverse country and needed a philosophy that could maintain the status quo—and so what Maat meant was that the status quo was a good thing. It was as good as it gets. For the sake of interpretation, we could call maat by other names: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Truth, justice and the American way. The Pax Romana. A time of relative peace in a smoothly functioning society where oppression existed as a necessary cog in the machine. The Pax Romana began just before, and continued through, the life of Jesus.
So what does it mean to live in a large, well-organized and ultimately oppressive empire? It means you’re no longer living in the Promised Land. You’re living in a place where following YHWH requires you to challenge the status quo.
But on a more personal level, it means that Joseph’s dream wasn’t easy to follow. Because what the angel just said to Joseph is “This is not your home. Pack up and get out of here.”
Suddenly, Joseph finds himself homeless, on the road to becoming an undocumented resident of a powerful and oppressive nation, carrying a new wife and a son he didn’t conceive. Merry Christmas.
Joseph’s tragedy is both deeply personal—his life is not what it once was—and fundamentally communal—it requires him to redefine what it means to be the people of YHWH.
I’m going to leave Joseph there for a minute.
I’ve lived in 8 places in about 16 houses in the last 5 years. Most of these moves I have accepted willingly, embracing my young adulthood as an unsettled time. My friend Steven Wilbur, another 20-something Seattle poet, summarizes his relationship to home this way: “Departure and I are dating.” I think about that every time I go to an airport. I’m just visiting my boyfriend. My boyfriend is any place.
Thanks to the grace of God and the generosity of friends, I’ve never been homeless. But all this moving given me a distorted sense of home. Two years ago, I tried to count how many beds I’d slept in over just one summer. I stopped counting around 12 and that only got me through July.
The more I move, the more my definition of home shifts. These days, home is a couch soft enough to sleep on, food in the cupboards, and a friend sleeping in the room next door. Home is anything full of the familiar, whether or not I’ve seen it before. I find home in surprising places: the dingy bar in downtown Seattle where I can hear good poetry every Tuesday; every Ten Thousand Villages store I enter, which always smell like a different variety of my childhood; in the SeaTac airport decorated with distinctively Northwest art; in any church that uses the blue Hymnal; in Vietnamese sandwiches and bubble tea, my comfort foods; the smell of pine trees and salt water; hugs from old friends. Home has little to do with the bed I sleep in.
The adventures of the last few years have taught me the truth of the old folk song, popularized by Jim Reeves: “This world is not my home. I’m just a’passing through.” My home is in God’s grace. But this kind of homelessness in the world doesn’t allow me to detach from it; rather, by choosing to make my home in God, I have to reckon with the fact that this world is God’s creation. Every place, for that matter, every person, on it could become my home.
The theme for this Sunday is Weep and Rejoice. That seemed unfair to me because there is a lot of weeping to be done on this day after Christmas. And weeping is something we must do gently. The church, even though we carry the deepest hope for the best of reasons, must allow space for sorrow. As my friend Daemond Arrindell says, “We must learn to care for our suffering with reverence.” We must not kill it with shallow optimism.
The lectionary seems to do that this week. There were four scriptures selected for today, although we only heard two (and a half) this morning. If you’ll remember, we heard Isaiah proclamation of joy and celebration in 63:8-9: “he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”
Sounds pretty good. But then we go into verse 10, conveniently left out of the Scripture selection: “But they rebelled and grieved his holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy and he himself fought against them.” We have reasons to weep. For our own rebellion; for the sins, individual and communal, which separate us from God; for the suffering that happens because we live in empire. Empire tries to blind us to weeping, to pull the rug over the graves of the innocent, over the thousands of baby boys killed in the name of maat, the thousands of Iraqi civilians killed in the name of defense; the thousands of undocumented immigrants mistreated in the name of truth, justice, and the American way.
As a church, we are called to mourn against empire. Mourning is an act of faith. We are called to stand in the streets with Rachel, refusing to be comforted. We are called to challenge empire.
And yet. That is not our only calling. When Matthew quotes the Old Testament, he quotes two prophets, Hosea and Jeremiah. Jeremiah describes Rachel’s weeping, but at the same time he offers a petition for hope. Immediately following the verse about Rachel’s mourning, he says,
“16 This is what the LORD says:
“Restrain your voice from weeping
and your eyes from tears,
for your work will be rewarded,”
declares the LORD.
“They will return from the land of the enemy.
17 So there is hope for your descendants,”
declares the LORD.
“Your children will return to their own land.”
We get to go home. And it may be that home is a place we haven’t been yet. When we call this world home, it really means any place where we find rest. Where we find God. Home is a promise we wait for, like the Promised Land. And we may be waiting a long time. But one thing we know about God is that he keeps his promises. We saw it in Exodus. We saw it in the birth of Jesus. Maybe not the way we wanted it, but it’s coming. We have good reason to keep hope. Home is on its way.
In the passage Matthew borrows from Hosea, the prophet says it this way:
“They will come from Egypt,
trembling like sparrows,
from Assyria, fluttering like doves.
I will settle them in their homes,”
declares the LORD.”
What a beautiful image. Us, trembling refugees, fragile birds, finally settling in our home. In a place of rest. No, the Advent does not promise us easy from here on out. We don’t return home with our Christmas presents and turn on the TV. We return to the world, asking “How do we be the church? How do we embrace God’s kingdom in the midst of empire?”
For those of you who have houses, I invite you this week to hold your house a little less tightly. Find home in surprising places. And in finding home, you will find God.
For those without physical houses, I invite you to find home. Whether that is somewhere you have been recently or if you have to dig deep into your memories to find it.
In Seattle, I’m 2000 miles from the house I rent, from the physical space I call home. But lacking that, the ground on which I’m standing right now will do just as well. Maybe better. I would like to live this way, as if home is a place I’m always on my way to and at the same time, it is a place I make with the people who surround me. And what a blessing that is, to know home is never something that can be lost by foreclosure or financial problems. To be Christian is to rely not on the stability of a physical home, but of the love of God. Home was never a house.