Sermon, 12/25/21: THE MOVE

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Christmas 2021

Psalm 97; Isaiah 62:6–12; Titus 3:4–7; Luke 2: 1–20

Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David, and he went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. Luke 2:3f

You have just heard it, less than minutes ago, and I repeat it as it is vital to expanding our knowledge of the Christ child: “Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem . . . and he went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.” Luke 2:3ff. I read this for a third time to you, on this Eve of Christmas 2021, because I wish us to think seriously what this says about your and my image of the dilemma that confronted the Holy Family, as well as what benefits we derive from their dilemma.

On this Eve of Christmas, surrounded by the beauty of our sanctuary and the warmth of families and friends, and our image of an innocent baby in a crib, we might be tempted due to tradition and familiarity with the story to gloss over what makes our celebration so special. We have cause to celebrate, cause to be joyful. However, does the carol/hymn “Away in the manger,” tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? To that end, I pose one simple question: How many of you have moved since March 2020? Because we are Episcopalians, and as we Episcopalians do not show emotions (at least not in public worship), you will note that I did not call for a show of hands. Still, I repeat my question: How many of you have moved since March 2020?

I suspect that some, if not most of you, may find my question not a little puzzling, because after all are we not here to focus attention on the birth of Jesus? It is Christmas Eve, for heaven’s sake! I ask this question precisely because my attention is directly focused on the birth of Jesus. I imagine that you are further puzzled, because when you think of moving, you probably think first of a physical relocation, namely from one house or flat to another, from one town to another. And because you have not engaged in that kind of relocation since March 2020, you conclude that you have not moved. That is fair.

However, I stand before you on this Eve of Christmas to declare that you have moved, and you have moved in ways not sensed or felt consciously or physically by you. I shall use the next several minutes in order to lay my case before us. And you will serve as judge and jury as to whether my case, as I state it, has merit, and whether I should retain my license to practice my vocation. To do so, I offer three points for you to consider:
• Moving: a disruption/discomfort
• Moving: a letting go/discarding
• Moving: an embarking on an adventure/opportunity/a renewalI.

I. Moving: a disruption
Why March 2020? Because that date serves to mark the beginning of our move, just as the opening line of the Gospel lesson from Luke. You and I, individually, in our families, in our places of employment, in our places of worship, in our community, in our nation—you and I set out on a journey, not one of our choosing, but one imposed on us by coronavirus. Joseph and Mary set out on journey which was imposed on them: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” (Luke 2:1)

When we gather, as we do in this Holy Season, we do so with joyful thoughts. Because of tradition, we have in our mind’s eye a picture of a sainted Holy Pair, as they make their way to Bethlehem. What we do not include in that picture, are the many stages of disruption and discomfort which the Holy Pair had to endure, as they made the trek by foot, Mary occasionally pictured as sitting side-saddled on a donkey, to Bethlehem.

Frankly, as a male, I could not imagine a more trying time for a young couple to travel than when one’s spouse is expecting. (With sincere respect and apologies, women will have to speak for themselves.) In my era, in another century, airlines often refused to fly couples if the woman appeared near to giving birth—and this I know from experience. A new position at a new university called and thus we made the trip from Germany to the U.S.A., also so that our child would be assured of American citizenship. And this we did not once, but twice, not only again for reasons of citizenship, but to ensure access to a top-drawer medical staff and facilities. Mary and Joseph traveled by foot in order to register for taxation purposes. But where, for Mary, was the ob-gyn or even a mid-wife, should there be complications? Could Joseph, in his absence [from his work], rely on an apprentice to meet the demands of customers?

In the best of times, moving is challenging. If we hire out the move, can we rely on the movers to arrive on time and to handle our precious and valuable belongings with the same care as would we? When we move, we leave behind not only things but, perhaps of greatest importance, people. These two elements set the parameters of our daily existence. To move can set us adrift, produce feelings of uncertainty and discomfort that cause us to reconsider our decision to move. The Old is going to be replaced, eventually, with The New. But we do not yet know The New. Mary and Joseph were forced to move, and action caused disruption. Moreover, when they arrived at their destination, they could not even acquire a room in the local inn. Their move was one long series of disruptions. A pandemic has caused our disruptions. I declare that a move.

II. Moving: a letting go
Moving forces us to let go, to let go of old familiar haunts, of old habits, and also of lots of physical items, things which we may have held onto, things still in boxes since the last move, untouched in the cellar or attic. We do discard them, or gift them to charitable organizations. Yet, sometimes stored in those boxes are things lacking monetary value on eBay, but which we would never discard. Several years ago, during one of the unfortunate wild fires in California, the TV camera zoomed in on the face of a distraught woman, a woman in deep, deep anguish, who had to be restrained by two firefighters from rushing back into her burning house. She struggled to get back into her home, not because her spouse or child was inside, or the family silver, passed down through generations, had to be rescued. Rather, she wanted to save the family photo albums. Those pictures had far greater values than silver or gold, even more than frankincense or myrrh. Those albums contained her and her family’s life.

The image of this devastated women was still fresh in my memory when I moved in Summer 2020. My move required me to let go but letting go was voluntary. There was no Caesar Augustus, no raging fire. In fact, I parted willingly and gladly with five of the ten rooms of furniture from my past, and decades of “stuff,” stuff that in good repair found new homes among families who had suffered California-like disasters. I remembered St. Paul’s admonition in his letter to the Philippians, that if we had two coats and knew of someone who did not have one, we should give away one of our two.

Letting go is almost always disruptive, but not always negative. My preparation for the movers was delayed not only by COVID, but because I was able to do something that was denied the woman in California. When I got to the many albums and the truly innumerable loose photos “that no man could number,” I sat down on boxes, chairs, the window sill, on whatever was convenient, and turned each of photographs over, one by one. I suspect that those of a younger generation may need to look up the definition of “photo album.” However, for me, being able to linger over pictures loosely bundled or in an album afforded me a comfort in moving that I cannot even now imagine receiving from a smartphone, whose invention I do not regret.

The time spent, was not a loss. I do not recall shedding a single tear. On the contrary, I smiled, laughed aloud even, alone in a house that had begun to acquire an echo. Those photographs, all of which accompanied me to my new location, gave me opportunity to recall those individuals whose paths of life had crossed my own, who had supported me both in good times and in not so good times, or conversely, I them. I could. I could let go, knowing that even though some of the individuals, captured pictorially, were no longer physically with me but on another shore, as we say liturgically, their spirit was making this move with me.

As we have moved through this pandemic, I have observed you struggle, having to let some things go. But I know as well that you have looked in your mind’s eye at old photographs because I have also heard wonderful stories of reestablished relationships, of notes and letters being sent to old friends, of younger neighbors offering to shop for neighbors who could not go out. Although advised to maintain social distancing, and this we did and continue to do, we actually grew closer. We let go of some old habits and beliefs and attitudes that had separated us from each other and, without much mental thought, have allowed us to move on to something new. I declare that an attribute of a move.

III. Moving: an adventure
We know the outcome of the story of the Holy Couple; at leas, that of their stay in Bethlehem. Mary gives birth. Folks from the new neighborhood, a.k.a. the shepherds from the surrounding hills, form a welcome party. They come to check up on the new couple and to admire the new baby boy. Everyone rejoices. People from afar bring gifts. Even the universe gets involved. However, the move did not become a stagnant one. Mary had to learn what it meant to be a new mother, no longer concerned primarily for her own needs, but now having to consider the needs of another, a totally helpless and defenseless infant. Joseph did not rush off to celebrate with the shepherds. At least, there is no documentation of such thing in our Book of Records, in the Bible.

I can imagine other scenarios. Joseph may have been of the House and Lineage of David, but he was not a duke or prince or earl. He was not someone who could ring a bell or pull a cord in an ornate sitting room of a Downton Abbey, upon which a servant would appear almost immediately [to serve] the infant Christ child. Joseph was a carpenter in Nazareth—middle class perhaps by the standards of his day—but he was a stranger in Bethlehem, and he needed to provide for his wife, himself, and now a child. We know also that he and Mary and the infant Jesus had not completed their move. Their lives were still in transit, and now in greater jeopardy. Their future was yet before them.

Moving is like entering a marriage. We set forth, not knowing the future, but committing ourselves to the joint adventure, pledging to support each other in building that union into a long-lasting community. Moving provides an opportunity, , often necessitates discovering new things, new ways of doing things, new acquaintances who later become friends. Moving offers us an unexpected, unannounced freedom. Moving can liberate us from a complacency that threatens to dull the senses of what and who are important in our lives; moving liberates us and enables us to look at The Other, no longer as a stranger, but as a fellow being who is created in the image of God.

When I posed my question, you may have thought that you have not moved since March 2020; but upon reflection, you may see that you have. I would argue strongly that you have moved. You greet people differently. You may even now acknowledge a stranger, but without a grimace or an immediate suspicious thought. You have devised new ways of doing things because of restrictions placed on you by COVID. And of greatest importance of all, you see those whom you love in a different light. You have moved without relocating physically. Nevertheless, you have moved. I have moved. We have all moved.

While it may seem to you that I have focused my attention this Holy Night on Mary and Joseph and not on the Holy Infant, I say to you, people of the jury, that could not be further from the truth. For you see, central to all that I have said, is the infant child himself. Were it not necessary that the child be born in Bethlehem of Judea, there would have been no reason for Joseph and Mary to upset their daily, comfortable, familiar routine.

Our Creator God has set Mary and Joseph before us for a reason. If that be the case, should not we also recognize of what value this lowly-born couple are for our relationship to the Divine? Mary and Joseph are more than mere conduits. Mary and Joseph are the premier example of the futuristic nature embedded in moving. God’s intervention in human affairs was not backwards-glancing, but future oriented. Yes, God’s plan caused a disruption in their lives, but it was a disruption that eventuated in something ‘that shall be for all people.’ Joseph and Mary provided the human grounding, the strength, endurance, protection, and love for the Holy Infant that, in the fullness of time, would enable him to go forth to carry out God’s plan for the Creation.

Indeed, on this night we celebrate in songs and prayers the birth of God’s Messiah. ‘It is meet and right so to do.’ However, with Mary and Joseph as our example, we give thanks to the Divine Will, who came to us once in the form of a vulnerable baby. Greater, though, is our thanks when we, through our actions, hold aloft to the world the Good News of that birth and what followed. Finally, an FYI: The birth of the Christ Child is not acclaimed and celebrated only once a year on this Holy Night. Each time we declare, as we shall shortly, with the Church universal our faith in the Creator God, we celebrate the birth of Jesus: “who for us and our salvation came down from heaven…and was made man.” Without Joseph and Mary’s aid, that would not have come to pass. That is the reason for our celebration tonight, and every time we gather. And with that I rest my case. Amen