Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Ordinary Lives, Exceptional Drama

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, January 4, 2009

“What’s new?”

“Oh, nothing. Same old, same old.”

You’ve had that conversation. You probably would have had it last week had it not been Christmas. Not a lot happens in your life. Work. Home. Groceries. Doctor’s appointment. Home. Sleep. Up. Work. Home.

Or maybe that is not you at all. Your life has a bit, maybe more than a bit, of excitement. But you have surely known somebody whose life is like that. You meet him in the post office or on coffee break, or you get to talking with her while you’re both waiting to have your hair done.

Theirs is a deceivingly simple little narrative that masks a whole lot of drama going on. Scratch the surface of such quotidian little lives and you frequently discover all kinds of insects crawling around, the howling of pain, bursts of enthusiasm, heartfelt joys, storied griefs. Take a life, yours or the guy’s in the apartment across the hall, and chart it. You will find some themes. One is a flood. Sometimes it is a literal flood of swollen rivers washing away the family home. More often it is a figurative flood, a torrent of mortal ills that all but drown the human caught in the middle. Another theme is a flight. Sometimes it is a literal flight, such as a flight into Egypt to escape a tyrant’s pogrom, or a desperate flight to avoid starvation or danger of economic disaster. Other times it is a figurative flight. It can be a flight of fantasy to survive unconscionable abuse. It might be a flight into drugs or behavior that a person uses to medicate himself against depression or fear or a generalized anxiety. Almost everybody has at one time or another chosen, or been forced, to flee one thing or another.

Jesus was no exception.

Matthew alone among the gospel writers tells us of the story of the Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt. And he doesn’t tell us the story to demonstrate how Jesus is just like us in some or all respects. Quite the contrary. Matthew’s Jesus is the one who is the distinctive Son of God who sums up the whole history of Israel including its flight into Egypt. Matthew’s Jesus is the new Moses, yet greater than Moses, who will lead his people out of darkness and slavery and death into light and freedom and life. Matthew’s Jesus will be rabbi and prophet and law-giver who will be something quite unlike anything the world has ever seen. But, strangely enough, in showing how Jesus is so categorically different from the average human, Matthew at the same time weaves a story of just how much in common with humanity Jesus really shares. He is a strange, and somewhat isolated infant. He has enemies, even before he is two years old. He suffers. He dies. And he flees, a refugee at an early age. All these are pretty human developments.

So let’s open the story of the Flight into Egypt and use it as a mirror to see ourselves.

At first glance, it seems that the story is about Joseph, who apparently does very noble things. But on closer inspection, the story is not about Joseph so much as it is about God. God is a provident God, and has a stake in the well-being of Jesus. And so God communicates through the angel to Joseph in a dream with instructions to take the child and his mother and depart into Egypt. So God is the chief actor in this drama. God is interested in preserving the life of the child.

Do you find it possible to believe that God is every bit as concerned about you as about Jesus? No? I wonder. A week or so before the recent election I was in an airport and needed something to read. A prominent display offered copies of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, a memoir that he wrote when a young man just out of law school. I had read his later book, The Audacity of Hope. It is good, but Dreams from My Father is better than good. It is remarkable. Obama tells quite candidly and without varnish the story of his life, the loss of his father from his childhood years, his reluctance to study as a growing boy, his ongoing struggle to make sense of his bi-racial background. He writes frankly of his adolescent escapades, his flirtation with marijuana and alcohol, his desire to be accepted. One can read all that and wonder how he decided on some level to listen to other voices, beckoning him to make something of himself, calling him to spend his energies in organizing the poor to exercise political power, often when they saw no reason to follow his leading. Did Obama believe from the beginning that he had some big destiny? I don’t think so. I think he simply went from one thing to another, keeping an open mind about what he could best do. And we now know where that life has taken him. It would have been quite easy, even sensible, for him to have said when he was sixteen or twenty-one, or thirty-three that his life was “only” another ordinary life, with no particular promise of being distinctive. But it is also possible to see that his is one example of a quite ordinary life in which Providence was actively working. The same thing is true of you. Your life is quite possibly just that significant. You can choose to live as if it is so.

Another thing that we can see is that this “Egypt” into which Joseph flees with child and wife is not at all unlike some of the places that we escape to, fleeing the threats which assault us. Egypt is a mix of things. It offers some protection; it also offers stagnation. It might promise stability, but it also holds the possibility of escape from reality. Israel had gone into Egypt in order to avoid starving in the famine in the land of Canaan. But after generations the promising land had become an installation of slaves. Israel had to make a move to get out of Egypt. In order for the story of Jesus to get on with its purpose, “out of Egypt” God called his “son.” There may be parallels in your life. Is there some place you are hiding? Is there something to which you are called but have not yet found a way to embrace? Is there some form of slavery—perhaps an addiction—that you are holding on to, perhaps believing in a comforting fantasy—but which you would need to be called away from if you are going to be the whole person you are meant to be?

And what about these dreams in the story? God communicates to Joseph through dreams. Before we skirt that as a literary device, maybe we can pause to consider that dreams are in fact the language of God. As crazy as dreams can sometimes be, your dreams will not lie to you. If you pay attention to them, it is quite possible, even likely, that you will begin to connect patterns in your life. Most people need to do that with a practiced guide, either a spiritual director or a psychotherapist. The point is that God frequently mediates the truth to us through quite normal and ordinary means, like dreams, not in smashing signs and wonders that are quite rare and exotic. We can, like Joseph, learn to trust our dreams.

Look, too, at the end of the story. Joseph takes the child and his mother and settles in Nazareth. For Matthew, the importance of this is that he sees it fulfilling a prophecy that has to do with Jesus’ vocation. But in a larger, more general sense, the story’s third movement has to do with an exodus, a coming out of Egypt, and the finding of a new home. Threats are still around—not all the Herodians are dead. For you and me, the trip into Egypt frequently ends in a homecoming. I remember some years ago talking with Russ, a parishioner, on a Sunday morning. How, I asked him, had he come to be a part of the church community. Russ then told me a remarkable story. Having grown up in a good family, he had lost his way, spending some years after his marriage drinking his life away, ultimately winding up seriously drunk and thoroughly depressed. One night Russ put a gun to his temple, and had even begun to put some pressure on the trigger when he heard a voice somewhere within saying, “Not yet.” He put the gun down, drove himself to an AA meeting, which happened to convene in the undercroft of Trinity Church. After going to meetings for several weeks, he would hear the organ being played upstairs. He went to listen. He decided to return. He kept coming, finding his way out of Egypt into a new place, where he ultimately found a new life and started a new family.

The Flight into Egypt has been a favorite theme of paintings, especially in the Renaissance. Some depict the Holy Family in haste. Some imagine them exhausted, greatly tired by the flight. Others pick up on the angel imagery and see Joseph, Mary, and the baby surviving through the ministrations of angels. But none to my knowledge shows them leaving Egypt, but always on their way there. I suppose one could argue that the flight to and from Egypt looks so much the same that it is really impossible to distinguish between the two. But the story of Jesus is that Egypt ultimately ends and it is time to go home and get about growing into manhood. And the story of our “flights into Egypt” are about not staying but leaving eventually. There is ministry to be done, there is life to be lived, there is indeed a story to be told. Maybe there will even be other flights into Egypt for whatever reason, and yet more deliverances in the future.

But the point of it all is that there is, in the end, an exodus. There is a way out, a coming out, a calling forth. Those who sought the child’s life die, and the child has another crack at living. In some sense ministry can begin—that is to say, life can take on some purpose—only after we have left the flight and have begun to be aware that the drama of these ordinary, sometimes dull, frequently unexciting lives of ours are in fact being lived within the embrace of one who both leads us to places where we can survive, and leads us out to sometimes rare occasions to proclaim liberty to other captives and justice to the forces that seek to destroy new life.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009

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