Sunday, January 2, 2011

Second Sunday after Christmas

 Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

In the Prayer Book office of Compline, which is a prayer service for the late evening, just before bedtime, is a collect that, at various times, has meant a great deal to me:
Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changeless.
We who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life. Indeed, if the life stories of those of us who are assembled in this room this morning were told, what a collection of “changes and chances” it would make! Before a casual and unplanned conversation with Bishop Little at General Convention in 2006, the only thing I new about Warsaw, Indiana was that it was on the road between Fort Wayne and Valparaiso and that a priest named Michael Basden once served here because I met him in a Wisconsin bar in 1992! And before another casual and unplanned conversation with Bishop Little about a year ago, it never occurred to me to take very seriously being elected bishop of anywhere, except perhaps the planet Pluto. 

Uncertainties, changes of plan, circumstances beyond our control—the very shape of our lives has been determined by such changes and chances. We all live, for example, with the nagging fear of sudden death—our own or that of somebody we love. Serious illness seems to be changing the  plans of a friend or neighbor or family member every time we turn around. The great change that none of us can halt, of course,  is that of aging, and we are brought up short by those moments when we are reminded that time indeed is marching on and taking us with it.  In our social environmnet, one of the great “chances” of life is the reliability of our employment.  Members of our own parish have faced unemployment over the past year, and others face the threat of it even now. Relationships change, sometimes gradually and sometimes suddenly. Old ones slip away and new ones are formed. 

The members of the holy family—Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—were certainly not exempt from the “changes and chances” of this life. Think about it: Joseph planned on marrying a nice hometown girl, who wouldn’t get pregnant until after the wedding, and raising a nice normal family in Nazareth. But angels kept talking to him in dreams, and it never worked out quite like he imagined. 

Changes and chances. 

Mary planned on making the trip up to Bethlehem with Joseph in order to be enrolled in the census that the emporer had ordered, and then returning to Nazareth in plenty of time to have her baby at home, attended by close members of her family.  Instead, labor pains came just as they were getting to Bethlehem. 

Changes and chances. 

Joseph planned on being able to find a hotel room when they got there, but discovered that the Motel 6, in this case, did not leave the light on for them, and that he should have gone online and made a reservation before he left home. 

Changes and chances. 

After the baby was born,  and they had done their civic duty,  Joseph planned on taking his family home to Nazareth to set up housekeeping, but, no—another dream and another angel, and it was off to Egypt to escape the sword of King Herod’s soldiers. 

Changes and chances. 

While living in Egypt, they reflected on what they’d been told about just who this child of theirs was, and they thought that maybe Bethlehem, with all of its royal and messianic associations in the scriptures, would not, after all, be a bad place to raise Jesus to adulthood.  But after Herod was dead, yet another dream carried the message that they were to go all the way back home to Nazareth. Of all the changes and chances of their lives, this is perhaps    one that Joseph and Mary were tempted to resist, for Jesus’s sake. “Jesus of Bethlehem” had a certain attractive ring to it. It sounded like the kind of messiah that would do his parents proud. But God apparently didn’t have in mind anything like “Jesus of Lake Tippy” or “Jesus of Stone Camp.” He was thinking more in terms of  “Jesus of Claypool” or “Jesus of Milford.” So it had to be Nazareth.  

Changes and chances. 

In each of these instances of change and chance, Mary and Joseph and Jesus were faced with uncertainty and fear. So much was completely out of their hands, out of their control. Yet, in each case, they behaved obediently. They acted not in fear, but in faith. And, in every instance, God also acted “in faith”; he kept faith with them. Mary said to the angel Gabriel, “Let it be to me according to your word” before knowing what Joseph’s reaction would be. Joseph went ahead and married a fiancée who was pregnant with a child not his own, not knowing the social consequences. In both instances, their acts of faithful obedience were rewarded. 

Perhaps this is what gave them the courage to face giving birth in a cold, dark, and smelly stable. And even there, the sustaining and redeeming presence of God was manifest in the shepherds who showed up unannounced with a tall tale about angelic choirs in the heavens, and later on in the foriegn astrologers with their exotic gifts and their story about a star that led them from distant lands in the east. And without that encouragement, perhaps they wouldn’t have been able to face the prospect of fleeing to Egypt and finding a place to live and a way to make a living, and for how long, God only knew.

Through their faith and obedience, the Holy Family eventually made it home, quite some time—years, probably—later than they planned when they set out to sign the emporer’s register in Bethlehem. They had experienced more than their share of changes and chances, and it is precisely in these changes and chances—not in spite of them, but in them—that the redeeming grace of God was revealed. At every step of the way, what looked like defeat was turned into victory, and the loving purpose of God was made clear. 

The same God who called the Holy Family to faithful obedience invites that response in us today. Our vocation, to be sure, may be more modest than that of the Holy Family.   We may not have angels speaking to us in dreams. But the life of faith to which we are called, the obedience to which we are called, is no less holy. Our lives are filled with changes and chances, and in each of these uncertainties lies an opportunity to respond in faith and obedience and witness God’s redeeming grace present and active in our midst. Do we dare to take these opportunities?  Do we dare to trust that the same God whose wisdom and power and redemptive purpose is revealed in the life of the Holy Family will reveal that same wisdom and power and redemptive purpose in the changes and chances of our lives too? 

My prayer for you—individually and as the community of St Anne’s—is that you will have that trust, and I hope your prayer for me is that I will have that trust, and that, even as God, acting through the changes and chances of our lives, has called us to labor in different sections of the vineyard after next Sunday, we will nonetheless, acting in faithful obedience,witness a mighty work of the Holy Spirit in our midst during 2011. Amen.

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