Listen to the sermon from Sunday, January 1, 2017 titled “A Season to Flee” by Rev. Stephanie Cooper.
This morning, as we begin a new year, I know there are many among us that are happy that 2016 is over. Can I get an amen? I mean come on already! But you know, you always have that one friend who says, well, 2016 wasn’t that bad… or can we really place our human made dimensions of time on the universe’s timing?
But regardless of how you feel about 2016, the year is over and we now begin again. And although most of our lives are oriented around other calendars, like the academic year, seasonal calendar, or liturgical year, there is something about this first day of January that causes us to pause, reflect, give thanks, and dream about the year to come.
Every year regardless of how good or bad of a spot we’ve found ourselves in, we begin again another trip around the sun. For once a year there is a season to give thanks and reflect. There is a season to make resolutions and to make plans.
And seasons come and go like the ebbs and flows of the tide. Like the rhythm of the night and day every morning you can rest assure that the sun will rise. Just like every spring new growth will spring forth and every autumn things will die.
And in our Hebrew Bible reading this morning, we hear this passage from the book of Ecclesiastes that perhaps wouldn’t be nearly as popular if it weren’t for the band The Byrds.
For everything there is a season, Ecclesiastes says.
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
For everything there is a season. And while I am one to stand in awe of the natural order of nature, the way the seasons ebb and flow, the delicate dance that demonstrates for us how to exist as created beings, my gut clenches when I read “a time to hate and a time for war.”
Over the years I have found myself more and more entrenched in pacifism believing that violence is never the answer. Especially when I began to take seriously this call to follow Jesus as we watch him resist violence as he was violently crucified.
And there are many who have lost their lives violently, though, adhering to non-violence: Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr.
So these last two lines of this beautiful poetry found in Ecclesiastes has always jolted me. A season for war?
And I have to remind myself that Ecclesiastes is written at a time when there was literally a season for war. In the famous David and Bathsheba story in 2 Samuel, the story it begins, “In the spring, the time when kings go out to war, David sent Joab with his officers to battle… but King David remained in Jerusalem.”
And we know where that story goes—in the spring, while David should be off at war, he was at home lounging on the roof of the King’s castle when he sees Bathsheba bathing on the rooftop.
A little insight into what sort of King David was.
But my question still remains: is there just a season for these things? Will there always be a season for war? Do we settle for the way things have always been?
Now, in this season is this season of Christmas. We get to sing all of your favorite Christmas Carols. We have this season of 12 days to celebrate the birth of the Christ child.
And if you were here for our Christmas Eve service, you heard the birth according to Luke, which could be argued to be the more famous of the birth stories. I can always here the voice of Linus from the Charlie Brown Christmas special telling this Luke version of the true meaning of Christmas. Let’s hear from Luke:
Luke 2 has the shepherds keeping watch by night, the miraculous visit of angels in the field, a birth in a manger for there was no room in the inn. The Emperor Augustus called for a census to be taken, so Joseph and his fiancé Mary who was pregnant, went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, 70 miles south to the town of Bethlehem, in Judea to be registered.
Now, Luke’s version of the birth story gives us the basic groundwork of those nativity scenes we see this time of year. Almost everything is there: the manger, the shepherds, a baby and his young mother, some animals. But what about those wisemen? “The three kings of Orient” if you will?
I don’t remember Linus saying anything about them.
The thing is…it doesn’t all piece together as nicely as we would like. And while we can try to squeeze those wisemen into Luke’s manger scene, the fact of the matter is, there are no wisemen in Luke’s story.
I have friends with children who post pictures this time of year who find some strange characters amongst their nativity scene—Army men paying homage to the newborn babe. But by far my favorite addition to the manger scene was done by Mr. Bean and because it’s Christmastide, and you made it out on New Year’s Day, let’s all enjoy Mr. Bean.
I love Mr. Bean! And while that does exaggerate the point a little, it is ironic to have three shepherds mirroring three wisemen at the same nativity.
Because it didn’t happen like that.
The wisemen come from Matthew’s telling of the birth. Luke has Augustus’ census, an inn that is full, the manger and the shepherds. And while Matthew’s story begins Bethlehem, there is no census or manger. In Matthew’s gospel, there is an angel, but instead of appearing to shepherds in a field, it appears to Joseph explaining away the pregnancy of his future-wife.
In Matthew’s story, we hear of wisemen or astrologers, coming from distant lands to Bethlehem to inquire about the birth of the King of the Jews. They have been watching the skies and the stars have risen to tell of the birth of the new King.
And in fact, Mary and Joseph were living in Bethlehem in Matthew’s Gospel, not there for a census.
And when Herod, who was King of Judea heard of the wisemen’s visit, he became terrified. He called for a secret meeting with the wisemen and told them to go search for the child so that he could go and pay this babe homage. The wisemen went, found the child with Mary and Joseph in their home, paid homage and then, because of a dream they had, they did not go back to tell Herod where the child was, but snuck out of the region by a different way.
This infuriated Herod. When he realized he has been tricked by the wisemen, he ordered that all male babies under the age of two to be slaughtered.
And this is where our gospel reading for today picks up. After the visit from the wisemen, Joseph is visited by an angel telling him to flee to Egypt for Herod plans to find Jesus and destroy him. And so, for the safety of their very lives, in the middle of the night, Joseph takes Jesus and Mary and flees to Egypt and stays there until after Herod’s death.
Joseph, Mary and Jesus live in a land unknown to them for the safety of their very lives. A King who, for fear of the loss of his power, orders for the slaughter of his own people. And when Joseph hears that Herod has died, he doesn’t have much trust in the new ruler, Herod’s son, so instead of taking his family back to their home, he moves them to the district of Galilee to a town called Nazareth, 70 miles north of their home in Bethlehem.
So in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth, we begin in chaos. For the first two years of Jesus’ life, according to Matthew, Jesus and his family are fleeing persecution and political unrest. They have no place to call home. They are uprooted from their normalcy. They are refugees.
So this takes me back to my original question: Are there just times for these sorts of things? Is there just a season to flee? A season for war? A season for famine? A season for political upheaval?
Is that really how things go? Or is this an easy answer to the problems that have always been. Is it easier to just explain it away? I just can’t get on board with the fact that this is just the way things are and will be. In fact, I think Jesus’ life demonstrates that there is another way to be in the world.
That at the heart of the gospel message there is new life springing all around and we have the choice to live into it and cultivate it—or—say “there’s just a season for these things.”
On Thursday, it was announced that a cease-fire would be put in place across Syria. Since 2011, 400 thousand Syrians have been killed and nearly half of the country’s population has been displaced. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a difficult time watching this stuff on the news. And it’s my tendency to self-protect, to throw up a wall so that I don’t have to feel the horror that these people are experiencing.
But earlier this week, Ashley and I watched the FRONTLINE special “Exodus.” The film tells first-person stories of refugees and migrants fleeing war, persecution and hardship some from Syria, but some from other places. The film uses first-hand footage filmed by the families themselves as they journey towards Europe. And as I watched this film, I could not help but hear this week’s gospel passage in my head: “Then Joseph got up, and took the child and his mother by night, and fled to Egypt.”
I think we do Jesus a disservice when we water him and his message down to a “buddy Jesus” who fits nicely into our materialistic, consumer-driven culture. When in reality, this was a man who was spent the first two years of his life as a refugee, personally experiencing the plight of the outcast, poor, neglected and disowned.
What would it take for you to leave your home? It is difficult to think about. It’s uncomfortable to put yourself in those shoes- to imagine your life so unsafe, unbearable, or dangerous that you would consider leaving home. But can you do it for a minute? Can you really imagine what it would be like to leave your spouse and child in an unsafe place to go ahead of them to seek out refuge and protection? Can you imagine seven months of traveling through unknown lands with unknown languages? Can you imagine boarding a raft to go out to sea in hopes of arriving on the banks of a country that might let you in? Can you imagine what sorts of things you would have to be experiencing that would push you to these extremes?
Now, I know that we are all ready for this refugee crisis to be over. And maybe you have already humanized the crisis in this way and allowed yourself to look into the eyes of the other. Maybe you have already put yourself in the shoes of these refugees and imagined what this would look like for your family. But even then, the severity and enormity of the problem can feel paralyzing. But I refuse to settle for the assertion that there is just a season for these things.
We in this Christian faith are followers of a refugee child. And that child grew up to show us the fullness of God through his life and teachings and actions. He came proclaiming release to the captives and sight for the blind and freedom for the oppressed.
He warned against selfishness and promoted a kingdom where all are included. And he demonstrated that when systems are set up to oppress, you turn over tables and you work right the wrong.
We have a calling y’all, because there is work to be done. And as followers of the one who showed us the way to new life, we have a responsibility to rid this world of the living hells that exist among us.
I am reminded of a quote from Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor during the Nazi regime. He spent 7 years in a concentration camp and in reflecting on his experience he wrote:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Is there just a season for these sorts of things? I refuse to believe that. We must work until the fullness of God’s kingdom is on earth as it is in heaven. We must work unto the time when we may beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. We pray your kingdom come, but “be ye doers of the word also”.
So today I wanted to end with our Epistle reading, which comes from the book of Revelation. It paints the picture of God’s dream for this world, which is what we work towards. So hear now these words from Revelation 21:1-6a:
21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
Thanks be to God.