Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 1:18-25
For many years, the Swain Smith household had two pet gerbils. One was named Ginny and the other Wolfy. Unfortunately Ginny and Wolfy did not get along. We did try. But there was a terrible squabble, a surprising amount of blood and an urgent call to the animal hospital. To keep the peace, we were advised each would need their own cage, complete with a little water bottle, some curvy tubes to run through and of course a wheel for running. And so, for years, at some point in the night we would hear the drone not of just one wheel but two. Round and round and round they’d go. Running and running, but never getting anywhere.
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen
Running and running but never seeming to get anywhere. Can you relate? Didn’t I just do the laundry? What happened to all the food in the refrigerator? How can it already be Sunday? Is Christmas really just two days away? Where in the world did this year go?
The days sure do seem to be flying by. Round goes weeks, the seasons, the years. At staff meeting the other day, Amy said it feels like we are speeding along a long stretch of road where the telephone poles, just keep coming. We all resonated with that image.
The relentless pace of the days is one thing, but what I find to be rather shocking is how little I seem to remember about them. The days fly by and seem so full but with what? I cannot remember. Just this past week Mark and I were racking our brains trying to remember in whose house the Smith clan gathered for Christmas last year. We just could not recall.
For my birthday a friend gifted me a memory book. It is a rather ingenious little thing. It has a page for every day of the year and the page then is divided up into five sections. The idea is that for five years, one is to write down something memorable about one’s day, every day. Then when the next year comes around and one is writing one’s daily entry, one can look back and read what was memorable on that same day exactly a year ago. Such a good idea! Only trouble is I keep forgetting to jot down my daily entries.
How does one find a meaning filled life worth remembering, in the midst of the relentless demands of our days?
As the children and youth led us in the Christmas Pageant last week, I was struck anew by how much movement there is in the Christmas story. I set up our Creche scene in our living room a couple of weeks ago, and not one piece in it has moved an inch from where I carefully placed it.
But in our sanctuary last week, everyone was on the move. The angel Gabriel traveled from the heavenly court to Nazareth to see Mary. Then Mary traveled to the hill country of Judah to see Elizabeth. Then Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to comply with the royal decree that all will be counted in the place of family’s origin. Then the Shepherds traveled from the field where they had been tending the sheep in order to go to the Manger and see for themselves what the heavenly host proclaimed. Then the wise ones traveled from the East first to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem. And next week, we will hear about how Joseph and Mary are going to have to travel down to Egypt in order to save Jesus from Herold’s wrath.
As much as I hate traveling this time of year, (I’m headed to MN next week — flying United through O’Hare, God save me) being on the move comes much closer to the experience of the Christmas story that sitting in front of the fire with a cup of hot chocolate. For when love is born into our world, everything and everyone is suddenly in motion.
But there is a difference, and to me this is key. There is a difference between motion we see in the Gospel story and the busy, hectic pace of our days. There is a difference between what Joseph Campbell would call the “hero’s journey” and the running the wheel in our proverbial gerbil cages. There is a difference between the unfolding discovery and journey of faith and a life of numbing repetition.
And that difference, for me has to do with whether we hold open the possibility of Emmanuel — that God really is dwelling among, in and with us or not. The difference for me has to do with whether we can envision the universe as an active conversation partner or not. The difference whether we are continually creating together with each other and with God.
Many of you, I am sure, are familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell and his articulation what he considers to be our primal narrative as human beings. He calls it the “hero’s journey.” He says we have a deep yearning, and longing with in us. This longing bids us to sets out, to leave the familiar, face new challenges all the while growing and learning about our capacities before returning home with new insights, wisdom and powers to serve those around them. This narrative is baked deep into our story telling as a people. It was told in the story of Odysseus, and the Hobbit. In Harry Potter and Star Wars. But before it was any of those, it was lived in what we know as the Christmas story – and in our Gospel today we hear of Joseph’s role in it. We hear of Joseph’s journey.
We don’t really know that much about Joseph. I am always so moved that we hear Mary sing, Elizabeth proclaim, the wise ones question, the angels shout but we hear nothing from Joseph. Not a word. Not just in the nativity accounts but throughout the gospels, Joseph is silent. And perhaps that is the hero’s journey that he now is taking. From the moment we hear in the Gospel passage today, from this moment on, Joseph decides to set out into the new territory of love. He will take Mary as his wife, he will raise Jesus as his own, he will watch over them as they sleep and keep them safe and when the angel warms that Herold is on the hunt, he will bundle them both up on the back of a donkey and take them down to Egypt to save them and keep them safe. Joseph travels into new territory. We may not hear directly from Joseph but his actions speak volumes as he takes up his role in this greater narrative of God with us.
This hero’s story is also the story Isaiah tells. It is the story that calls the people out of cycles of violence and into a journey of transformation. “Let us go!” he says. Let us go to a place of encounter, of learning, and of transformation which is not only an inner awakening but also has ramifications for how the world is to be ordered. Swords into plowshares. Spears into pruning hooks.
Friday night at our contemplative service, Tom read to us a poem by Rilke entitled “Go to the Limits of your Longing.” Rilke puts the journey we are to take this way:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
Now I would not be surprised if there were not a few of you perhaps here today that may be thinking, “Sure It is fine for you to talk about the hero’s journey and going to the limits of your longing. You have a sabbatical coming up!” Fair enough. But what I am coming to understand is that the hero’s journey need not take one to far away lands for months at a time. The hero’s journey also happens in the midst of the ordinary. For if we take the message of Christmas seriously than what it is telling us is that we are living in a Christ drenched world (to borrow a phrase from Richard Rohr). Or in the words of a sweet YouTube video I discovered a few years ago entitled “Hey Mary: “There is no such thing as ordinary now, God is here. Every life and breath is blessed! You never know when God might appear.”
The journey that God invites us into, that Jesus set out into and bids us to follow him in, is one of deepening our understanding of who we are with God. Maybe, just maybe we do not need our own cages with our own water bottles and curvy tunnels and our own separate wheels to run in. Maybe there is something more. Maybe the place of encounter will be found in the sweet longing of the oboe’s sound. Maybe it will be in the grocery store or dropping off the kids. Maybe divine in breaking will tonight when you are resting from the day. Every day in every way, the Christmas story asking us to take up our role within it and to journey to our truest selves and with the God that creates us.
James Baldwin, Novelist, playwright, and activist born in Harlem in 1924 wrote “love takes off the mask that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” He continues “I use the word ‘love’ as a state of being, a state of grace, not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” “Love is a state of grace that bids us into the universal sense of quest, daring and growth.” I love that and for me I cannot think of a better description of what following Jesus looks like. “love takes off the mask that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” Love is a state of grace a state of grace, that bids us into the universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
How does one find a meaning filled life worth remembering, in the midst of the relentless demands of our days? The Good News is that there is no such thing as ordinary now, God is here. Every life and breath is blessed, and we will never know when God might appear.” If that is true, and I believe it is, than every moment has within it the makings of a hero’s journey. Come let us go! Let us enter in!