A homily preached at St. James Episcopal Church, Hendersonville NC on the Second Sunday after Christmas, January 2, 2011. Matthew 2:13-23
Whenever I am not at church or working at the homeless shelter, those who know me well already know the reason they cannot reach me. I am usually off hiking up in the high mountain woods far out of cell phone range. You see, my friends call me a waterfall junkie. I love waterfalls. One of my very favorite waterfalls is in Pisgah National Forest. And it’s actually very easy to get to. It’s called Courthouse Falls. The headwaters for the French Broad River flow down the mountain below a rock outcropping called the Devil’s Courthouse. Courthouse Falls is stunning. My wife says it looks like something out of a fairy tale movie. There’s a natural bowl carved out into this black rock. The rock is usually covered in some sort of flowering ivy. The river flows down a gorge and suddenly pours off into this deep green pool at the bottom. It is one my most frequent haunts.
Six years ago, a fellow waterfall addict that I have come to know through our mutual love of waterfalls, took a young lady up there on a date. It had been raining hard for a couple of days, but there was a break in the rain and he really wanted to show her this beautiful spot. He was a little surprised that the water levels seemed about normal after all of the recent rain. They made their way down into the bowl at the bottom to get a closer look. Then they rock-hopped out to the middle of the river. There he spotted a photographer’s dream come true. Just opposite the waterfall, a beautiful scene was unfolding down the river. The rays of the sun were breaking through and shining down on the river through the trees in the gorge. He could not let this opportunity pass by, so he pulled out his camera and set about trying to capture it. Those of you who do any outdoor photography know what it is like to go into that hyper focus mode where time slows down and everything else just fades away as you focus in on your subject. That’s what happened to him, but not to his date. She was watching the waterfall when she started noticing something strange. That beautiful white cascade was starting to turn brown. She was not an outdoor person, but she thought that was a bit odd. Then she noticed that the water was rapidly rising around the rocks they were standing on. Then she heard a roaring noise growing louder and louder above the waterfall. She started to punch her date and get his attention. When he turned around and looked he instantly realized the danger they were in and grabbed her hand and jumped up on the bank and started to scramble back up the wall of the gorge. Some sort of natural dam from all of the stormy weather had just broken lose up stream and all of the sudden this dark churning water full of debris just gushed over the top of the waterfall and filled the gorge with water. They barely made it out in time. I actually saw a photograph he took of this terrifying scene. Instead of pouring down into the pool, the angry water is shooting straight out like a water hose. Now, I don’t think it helped him earn a second date that in the seconds following their narrow escape from death he paused to take photographs, but he did catch some really cool images!
That is what the scenario is today’s Gospel reading feels like to me. It’s finally Christmas. We have been waiting all of Advent for the baby Jesus to arrive as we relive that story. We just spent the glorious holy days in hyper focus on the whole beautiful scene unfolding in front of us. Angel choirs singing good tidings of great joy to shepherds. Joseph and Mary; the Christ child lying in a manger. We’re looking at that beautiful scene and the very next thing we know in the narrative, the Christ child is in imminent danger of being swept away. It seems like they just got here and now the Holy Family is on the run to Egypt. Like that young lady at Courthouse Falls who began to punch her date and get his attention. An angel gets Joseph’s attention in a vivid dream and says there is life-threatening danger swiftly rolling down your way. Jesus, the Savior, born in the city of David, is all of the sudden part of a family of political refugees hiding out and taking asylum in a foreign country.
On Christmas Eve I stood right there and read Luke’s beautiful Nativity story and in the earliest moments of Christmas morning we turned the lights out, lit our candles and sang together , “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” Now, this morning, I stood there and read, “Flee to Egypt…Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.” Almost in the same breath---- it’s peace, love and joy and then run, danger, upheaval! BUT ISN’T THAT THE WAY LIFE IN THE REAL WORLD WORKS?
Sometimes in the space of a single day, we experience these high moments on top of the mountain and then next thing we know the rug is pulled from beneath us and the real world seems like it is going to flatten us like a steam roller. We come together at church and worship God together on Sunday. It’s wonderful--everyone is wishing each other the peace of the Lord, hugging and shaking hands. But then a funny thing always happens after that----Monday… and it’s back to the stress of work, school or whatever place the world exerts pressure points into our daily lives. It does not matter how much security we try to carve out for ourselves we all know what it like to suddenly go from high to low, from peace to turmoil. Probably most of us here today have experienced one of those days where everything was going just right and it was on that day----that very day, that we got the telephone call we did not want to get or the news from the doctor or the boss that we hoped would never come. That is part of the unpredictable and fluid nature of life in the real world that we live in. It’s also the world that Jesus entered. Peace and stability one moment and upheaval and bare survival the next---the pattern of the Gospel story shows that Jesus entered our zip code---or as we heard last Sunday, the Word was made flesh and entered the world. It was not a world made up simply of pristine, beautiful Christmas card sentimentality, but the raw, gritty, unpredictable real life world you and I live in!
The mystery of the incarnation is that God is fully present in the human life of Jesus. God was not only fully present in the beautiful Nativity scene. God was also fully present in sudden flight to Egypt.
My brothers and sisters the mystery of the incarnation is that God is there on our good days and somehow God is there on our worst days. It does not require a great deal of faith to believe God is present when things are calmly along as planned. The test of our faith is learning to trust that God is also present in the game-changing variables that interrupt our plans.
If you are going through some sort of sudden, unplanned, unpredicted life-altering upheaval, today’s Gospel declares that God is still with you. God is with us at the peaceful moments and God is with us when life seems to have us on the run. Please understand that I am not in anyway trying to minimize the real pain or trauma caused by the situation. The Holy Family had to get out of town and flee for their lives. They had to leave the comfort and security of friends and family behind. IT was, no doubt, both awful and absurd at the same time---just like some of the things we all experience. The good news we need to hear in the midst of our pain is that God is still with us even when we are wandering lost in exile. God is still in those times of limbo when it would be tempting to believe that we have been abandoned by Divine presence
The Gospel declares that God has been there and is there with us. is The Word was made flesh and lived among us in a human life that was as times as vulnerable and painful as our is. God does not simply dwell somewhere up there in the sweet by and by. Through the incarnation God entered the nasty now and now that is common to human experience. Through Christ God enters into our suffering and chaos and stands in solidarity with us in the midst of our pain.
At the Rescue Mission we usually seek to have a balance in the way we hire our staff. We need some people who have a great deal of professional experience, but we also try to hire some who have come through our programs or other programs like ours. We want people who now have some stability under their belts. We need them because of their ability to relate to what it’s really like to be homeless and to struggling with the issues that of that. experience. I have come to recognize that they can offer something vital that I can never offer: the solidarity of a shared experience.
One fellow once put it to me like this. “I respect education, but I am fighting to get sober. I need more than someone’s Master’s degree. I want to talk to someone who has fought this same demon that I am fighting. I want to hear how that person got through it.”
Rowan Williams, our Archbishop of Canterbury, writes about the incarnation and the ups and downs in the life experience of Jesus. He says, “… it means that God understands exactly what we are and what we suffer and why we struggle.”
The Gospel story of the flight to Egypt declares that through the human life of Jesus, God entered into a solidarity of shared experience with our upheavals, interruptions and moments when it seems we are running for dear life.
It also means that because God entered into a real world of pain and suffering, if we are going to be followers of Christ, so must we. The Gospel calls us to let go of our comfort and security to go out into that real world that is outside of our beautiful church walls. Jesus did not stay frozen in time in a nativity scene in the holy city of David.. The Messiah became a refugee child far away down in Egypt. My sisters and brothers, the Body of Christ does not remain between two candles on a beautiful altar. Each week we come forward, we eat it, we take the body of Christ into us and then go out into the real world to BE the living body of Christ. When I dismiss us each week, we go out to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ to a truly hurting world full brokenness and upheaval.
That is part of what I love about the Episcopal Church. Anglicans are people of the incarnation. It’s part of what drew me in. It is who we are. It’s in our spiritual DNA to be out in the real world making a real difference. The Episcopal Church is not my native tradition. In the tradition I grew up in, the world was very scary place. A place to retreat from and not be defiled by it. However, the Episcopalians I knew were always right in the thick of it. Why? Because that’s the real world the Word made flesh entered into. Other traditions see the world as a glass that is half empty and leaking. It’s a lost cause. It’s heading for the flames. Give up on it. Retreat and circle the wagons and just wait for it to go there in a hand basket. As Anglicans, as people of the incarnation, we see it as a glass that is half full awaiting redemption and the fullness of God.. While other traditions are trying to modernize their buildings and worship styles, but keep their theology and members pulled back a safe distance from the world we are doing just the opposite. We hang on to our ancient liturgy and traditional worship styles, but we actively engage the world. We don’t run from the world, instead we run in to it!
St. James, as your new deacon, I am so proud of all that you are doing in the real world. You not only get it---you really get it. I am proud to say that there is so much ministry to celebrate here. In my work at the homeless shelter I interact with many other service organizations and charitable groups. I have discovered that St. James seems to be embedded in just about every transformative activity in our community. Whenever I tell people in that I am now at St. James, I hear a chorus of, “Oh they are involved in our organization. They support it and people from there volunteer here.”
Since my arrival a few weeks ago, I have been asked by a few people why I am always smiling up here. The answer is really very simple: I am just so happy to be here! I am proud to be associated with a place that follows the example of Jesus and engages the real world where people are really hurting. You are not only a grace-filled parish --- you spread that grace into the world. I am delighted about our shared journey that is ahead of us. I hope to be a cheerleader who fans the flames of your good works. I also hope to invite you to continue going out and entering into the messiness of the real world to be the living Body of Christ.
One of my favorite spiritual authors once wrote, “Life offers only one tragedy in the end: not to have been a saint.” He goes on to define “saint” as “to be in the world who God is.”
Ronald Rolheiser wrote about a four-year-old child who woke up one night frightened, convinced that there were all kinds of spooks and monsters in her room. In terror she fled to her parents' bedroom. Her mother took her back to her room and, after soothing her fears, assured her that it was safe there: "You don't need to be afraid. After I leave, you won't be alone in the room. God will be here with you!" "I know that God will be here," the child protested, "but I need someone in this room who has some skin."
The world needs more than just another sermon about the presence of God. The world needs the good news to come alive and have some skin to it. That is our calling. It is not enough to simply tell the world that God loves it. We must be in the world and let that love take concrete form in our lives and actions. By living as the body of Christ in the real world God’s presence takes shape in a tangible way.
To be a saint is “to be in the world who God is.” May God continue to grant us the courage and grace to enter into the real world and live up to that calling…to be in the mix of this world as God is. Amen.