Rev’d Ann J. Broomell
Christ Church, New Haven
January 3, 2016
Second Sunday after Christmas
The Gospel of Matthew was written for people who were Jewish, yet followers of Jesus Christ. They were a minority among the Jews of that time and there was growing tension between the two groups. Thus the story of Jesus’ birth and flight to Egypt in Matthew reflects the Hebrew ethos of the time.
In this Gospel, the birth story is grounded in genealogy. Fully two thirds of the first chapter is a list from father to son showing that Jesus was a descendent of Abraham and of David.
The story focuses on Joseph—Mary never speaks. Angels appear to Joseph in dreams four times in the first two chapters. All of Joseph’s actions are result of the content of these dreams. He is told to stay with Mary, to name the child Jesus, to take child and Mary to Egypt and then not to return to Jerusalem, so he settled in Nazareth—more distant from center of Roman rule.
Dreams, angels show the powerful ongoing presence of Holy Spirit in the birth narrative in Matthew. Joseph trusted the Spirit and fled Herod. While our Christmas card drawings show Joseph leading Mary with Jesus on a donkey, it’s likely a couple traveling so far would join up with a camel caravan. It was a long and perilous journey—taken on faith in the Holy Spirit’s leading and protection throughout journey.
When I first visited the Holy Land we spent a night in a Bedouin Hospitality Center. After leaving our bags in the large tent where we would sleep, we gathered around a camp fire. Two pots were resting in the fire. The Bedouin who welcomed us explained that it was their custom to welcome every traveler that came to their camp. The offered a radical welcome because of the life threatening dangers of the desert, of the night.
The pots held coffee and each visitor would be offered a cup half filled with coffee. It would be refilled as the night went on, but always only half filled. If a visitor became rowdy or seemed to pose a threat to the community, their cup would be filled to the top. This let them know that they were no longer welcome and needed to leave immediately.
The countryside was hilly and barren of trees or vegetation. There was little water and much danger in the travel. Joseph’s decision to journey through the desert, and Mary’s willingness to go and take Jesus, can only be explained if it was grounded in faith in the leading of the Holy Spirit. It must have been a powerful experience. It left Joseph changed forever. Throughout the birth narrative, for that matter, we hear of people changed—Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi—all were changed through the actions of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is the activity of Christ in the world throughout history of humanity. The Spirit is just as strong a force in our world today as in any earlier time, present and acting in each of our lives.
I wonder, how do you know movement of Spirit? Our individual experience of Christ, of the Holy Spirit, is as different as we are different from each other. Yet people over centuries have braved hardships, they have turned their lives around to go in a different direction, because of the Spirit.
The movement of the Spirit is much like receiving bread and wine, body and blood of the Holy Eucharist. Its impact may hit us like a thunderclap, or go totally unnoticed, yet we are changed.
Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest and spiritual writer, writes in her book, The Wisdom Jesus, of such a transformation. She spent her childhood in Quakerism and Christian Science. In college she fell in love with early music. Having read that a boy choir from London was going to perform Byrd’s Mass in Four Voices at a Cathedral in London, Ontario, she talked her roommate into going with her.
Enraptured by music, she writes that she didn’t notice the “long talking breaks”, the words of the Eucharistic Prayer, between movements. All of a sudden an usher was standing beside her pew, motioning her to get in line. She didn’t realize for a while that the line was to go to altar rail to receive communion. She was afraid to risk displeasure of the usher and get out of line, yet she had no idea what to do, what to expect. She knelt down, and her roommate whispered instructions from her Roman Catholic childhood: don’t chew host, don’t touch the cup.
She wrote that as she walked back down aisle she thought, well that’s that.. Soon she realized that’s “That!” Quietly, unmistakably, she wrote, “something utterly real, strangely compelling, strangely familiar had entered my life that day—“something I didn’t know I’d been missing, but for the first time made me feel really right.” Beyond the experience, she was literally astounded that she could know the impact.
It came completely out of the blue. She describes it as a meeting with a person never again seriously absent from her life. She knew the Eucharist to be place where she encountered the living Jesus. (1) The Holy Spirit does this.
Look back on my life, my whole world view was changed twenty-five years ago at a mid-week Eucharist in a side chapel of a church in New York City that I’d first wandered into some years before to listen to the organist practicing for services the next day. A said mass. No trumpets. No music. A very quiet service. For me, everything changed.
Movement of Holy Spirit is for me usually totally unexpected. In the midst of anxious rumination, dozing off reading a novel, dodging oncoming people on a crowded city street--I recognize some salient truth. It could only be God. Could only be the Holy Spirit.
Just as each person in the nativity story is changed by their encounters with the Holy Spirit, we are changed as well. Surely the movement of the Spirit in the lives of Mary and Joseph changed them creating within each a radical trust. They could trust when every one of their senses, their culture, their religion saw it differently. They trusted and were changed
Shepherd, wise men, Mary, Joseph…as you know the list goes on throughout Jesus’ life. In an encounter with God they are changed.
Change is part of our understanding of New Year’s Day. Our culture has traditions that New Year’s is a time for resolutions to lead healthier, more deeply grounded lives. In our resolutions we seek to change: How can we become better people? More deeply committed to God, to JX. More healthy, more focused, more able to play?
May I suggest that whether you’re into making resolutions or not, you might resolve to listen for the Spirit. Pray that you will recognize those thoughts, those words spoken, subtle as they may be, that are of the Spirit. That will change you, support you, and erich your journey of spiritual growth and change.
Our parish is in the midst of time of transition—a time when the Spirit will be both deeply present and called upon. Who are you as a community today? World changing exponential speed. Consider the impact of changes of last 12 years. Then consider who is God, the Spirit, calling you to become?
This is a time of deep listening for the movement of the spirit. A time of growth and a time to journey together as Joseph, Mary and Jesus journeyed. Into the future, trusting the Spirit, building on the strengths of the past.
Consider Joseph and Mary journeying with Jesus into Egypt. Those weeks of walking or of sitting on the bony back of a donkey or camel, not knowing where your next drink of water or food or shelter would be found. Not knowing who to trust, but trusting completely in God.
God gives all this to you, today, now. Resolve, pray to be aware, to be listening, to be open. At the altar rail, here, or at home, driving the routes you’ve driven so often before…wherever you are the Spirit is with you. Listen to its movement in your heart, in your life, listen and you will hear God speak. Trust in what you hear and allow God’s presence and movement to lead you, inspire you, and enrich your path.
(1) Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – A New Perspective on Christ and His Message. Boston: Shambhala, 2008, p. 184.