Sermon On the Flight Into Egypt

Our scripture today is called The Flight Into Egypt (Mt 2.13-23). After the birth of Jesus, the Holy Family must flee to Egypt to escape King Herod.

As a preacher, there are different things you could do with this story. You might compare this story with Luke’s gospel, where the Holy Family just goes back to Nazareth after the birth of Jesus. The two accounts are not consistent with one another, which raises questions about what really happened. Faith, history, and all that. It could be a good sermon, but not today.

Or a preacher might focus on Joseph, who is a model of fatherhood in this story. Care and protection — he does what a father should do. He also has a deep spirituality, with a sensitivity to divine leading. That would be a good sermon for Father’s Day.

But in the end, as a preacher, I must preach on what seizes me in this scripture. And what caught me was the image of the flight to Egypt itself. Jesus is born, a healthy baby. They have foreign visitors with expensive gifts. But just as Joseph is beginning to relax, he receives news of danger and threat. He must flee with them to another land. They must live for a time in a foreign land, where the language and the geography will be strange to them.

This reminds me of times in our life when something happens that changes everything, and we must flee to Egypt ourselves. Let me give an example.

Nicholas Wolterstorff is a professor at Yale. One day, many years ago, he received a phone call.

Mr Wolterstorff? Yes…
You are father of Eric Wolterstorff? Yes…
Mr Wolterstorff, I have hard news for you. Yes…
Your son Eric has been in a mountain climbing accident. Yes…
Mr Wolterstorff, your son has died on the mountain. We need you to come immediately to Austria.

Nicholas Wolserstorff hung up the phone, and for three seconds he felt a sense of peace, with an image of giving his son to Someone. Then, after three seconds, he felt pain. Cold, burning pain.

In that moment, he had to flee to Egypt. He could no longer live a normal life in his homeland. He had to go to Egypt, the land of grief, where Rachel weeps for her children because they are no more.

This has been a hard year in our congregation. Many families are grieving. Many of you received hard news this year, news that changed everything for you. You lost something or someone precious to you. Now you are grieving, living in the land of Egypt, the land of grief.

Why do bad things happen to good people? The perennial question. I don’t have an answer, but I will share a way of looking at it that has helped me. It comes from a theologian named Gregory Boyd.

Some people, he says, see life as a blueprint. Everything that happens is a part of God’s blueprint for things. When a bad thing happens, we take comfort believing it’s all part of God’s master plan. This view is comforting, and disturbing. When a child dies of leukemia, is that part of God’s master plan? Who would want to believe in a God like that?

But Boyd offers another view. Not a blueprint, but a war. We are in the midst of a cosmic war, he says, a war we are only dimly aware of since it is spiritual as much as physical. The creation is in rebellion, at war with its Creator. The pain and suffering we see around us are casualties of this war. God can’t stop the war without stopping everything. But God, in Jesus, entered the war zone, first as a vulnerable baby, who grew up and experienced the pain, suffering, and heartache we know, and became a casualty himself, and overcame it, and is even now leading his people out into a new land where war will be no more, a new creation with peace, joy, and glory.

This way of looking at things has helped me. Not a blueprint but a war, where there are casualties. And refugees who are grieving.

If you are a refugee in Egypt, the land of grief, I’d say stay there for a while. Stay there as long as you need to. There are people around you who may not want you to stay there. They may want you to get over it and be happy. “Look at the pretty lights of Christmas,” they will say. But the pretty lights only deepen the ache of grief.

No, if you need to live in the land of Egypt, then stay there. I will even stamp your passport. I will live with you there. Eventually, you will come back to your native land, but you will return a different person. Once you have lived in Egypt, then Egypt lives in you. There is a capacity for compassion in you that is deeper than it was before. It is a strange thing, but usually it is those who have been broken who become agents of healing for others.

A few years ago there was a movie called Castaway, starring Tom Hanks as a package delivery executive. He is traveling on a plane carrying packages going around the world. The plane crashes in the ocean, and he and many packages wash up on the shore of an island. He is stranded on that island for four years. Eventually, he is rescued, and he tries to adjust to normal life again. But he can’t really go back. He has lost everything in his old life, including the woman he had been dating. Thinking he had died, she has married another man. He has one remaining package from the original trip that he never opened. The movie ends with him delivering it to a woman living on a ranch. The film hints and suggests that his new life will be with her.

That’s how a new life begins, with a hint, a suggestion, and a possibility.

Joseph, Mary, and Jesus returned from the land of Egypt, and they made a new home in a place called Nazareth. So Jesus would become Jesus of Nazareth. They made a new life there.

Know that you will make a new life too. Even now there are hints and new possibilities bubbling inside of you. You will come back from Egypt and make a new life. It will take time, but it will happen.

All that is needed on your part are three things: trust, wait, and listen. Amen.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

An Evening Prayer

From the Prayer Book for Earnest Christians:

Praise and thanksgiving to you, almighty God and Father, for your protection and blessing, and for all the good which I have enjoyed this past day. I would gladly enter the inner sanctum of my heart to worship you in spirit and in truth. But it is still so full of impurity, for today I have been burdened with many scattered thoughts. Also, in my actions and life, I have not responded in the best way, for I am full of defects and mistakes; I am poor and miserable.

Although I am only dust and ashes, I still have dared to call upon your holy name. I pray and woefully implore you, O my God, forgive me all my transgressions and mistakes with which I have offended you. Cleanse my heart of all fleshly and worldly desires. Fill me with your Holy Spirit. Illumine me with your light of grace. Thus may I come to know how my hidden mistakes look in the light of grace.

Truly soften my heart, making it the bearer of remorse and sorrow. Through your grace bring about true regret and repentance in my soul. Give me the true, living, and saving faith. Kindle the fire of your divine love in my soul, and let it glow and burn until my selfishness is completely consumed.

I also pray for all people, for all the poor and unknown sinners, for all my enemies and opponents, for all the sick, and for all the widows and the forsaken. You know the needs of each one, and may you aid each one who needs your help.

Now I lay my body down into the arms of your grace and mercy and commit myself, body and soul, into your hands. Protect me with your holy angels. Bless and shield me from all evil, whether I am asleep or awake. Teach me to reflect upon my nothingness, my dying, and my death. Finally receive my immortal soul into eternal joy and rest. This I pray, O almighty God and Father, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Another Morning Prayer

Here is another morning prayer from the Prayer Book for Earnest Christians, with pronouns changed to singular.

O Lord, merciful, gracious God, Father of eternal light and comfort, whose goodness and faithfulness is new each morning. To you I declare my praise, honor, and gratitude for the treasured light of day, for protecting me graciously during the night, and for granting me a gentle sleep and rest.

May I now once again arise in your grace and love, under your care and protection, and make use of the cherished light of day in a useful and joyous manner.

Above all, enlighten me with the eternal light, my Lord Jesus Christ, that he might shine in me with his grace and knowledge. Preserve in my heart the light of faith. Grant increase to this faith and strengthen it. Awaken your love in me, and confirm the hope. Grant me true humility that I may walk in the footsteps of my Lord Jesus Christ. In my every act allow your godly fear in me to be seen by others.

Dispel all spiritual darkness in me and blindness of heart. Today and every day, safeguard me against superstition and idolatry, against arrogance and blasphemy of your name, against despising your Word, against disobedience and loathsome anger, so that the sun might not set upon my anger this day.

Protect me from enmity, hate, and envy, from disorder and unrighteousness, from falsehood, lies, and damaging greed, and from every evil desire. Awaken in me a hunger and thirst for you and your righteousness. Teach me to act according to your pleasure, for you are my God.

May your good Spirit lead me onto a smooth path. I commit myself to you. Bless all my actions that they may bring honor to your name and be useful to my neighbor. Make me an instrument of your grace. Permit me to continue safely in my calling, and restrain all those who would obstruct my walk of life.

Safeguard me against slander and the liar’s murderous arrows. Accompany me at all times with your grace. Hold your hand above me constantly, whether I am walking or standing, awake or asleep. Safeguard me also against evil, painful sickness, and deadly epidemics. Bless all my nourishment, provide for me in all my human needs in accord with your will, and keep me from misusing your gifts.

Protect me from war, hunger, pestilence, and from an evil and premature death. Guard my soul, indeed, my going out and my coming in forevermore. Bestow upon me a blessed end. May I with longing and joy await the good day of the last judgment and the glorious appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

May God the Father bless and keep me in Jesus Christ, and in his holy and good Spirit. Amen.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

An Anabaptist Morning Prayer

Lately I have been using the Prayer Book for Earnest Christians: A Spiritually Rich Anabaptist Resource. I am at a time in life when it is useful to have someone else supply the words I pray since it’s difficult to come up with my own. The prayers in this book date back to 1708. (Anabaptists are today’s Mennonites and Amish.)

I took one of the morning prayers and changed pronouns from plural to singular, adapting it for individual use.

O Lord, almighty God and heavenly Father, you have created me as a human being, formed me and given me life. You placed me in this world to obtain my sustenance with grief and toil until I again return to the earth, from which I was taken. You have also set for me a time for my life, that I may fear and love you, and hold fast to you wholeheartedly.

Just as you have given me the day for work, so also have you, through your divine kindness, ordained the night for rest. This rest I have enjoyed, merciful God, under your gracious shelter and keeping. For this it is fitting that I praise, honor and glorify you from the bottom of my heart and the depth of my soul.

O almighty God, forgive me for whatever I did last night or on any day of my life that was not time spent in a holy way, whether through misuse of your blessings, transgression of your holy commands, or neglect of my duties in words, actions, and thoughts, while asleep or awake. However I may have sinned against you, I confess with remorse and sorrow that such has happened. May you in mercy forgive me and pardon my sin through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, your dear Son.

You have again let this day dawn, O God. Help me remember that it is your gracious gift. Teach me to understand gratefully why you are again bestowing this gift. As a merciful Creator, you let your beautiful sun rise above my head. Thus may I spend all the days of my life following your will, preparing myself for the eternally long and everlasting day that you will create through your grace.

Grant that I may understand and learn to forsake the night of darkness and sin, and be freed from it. May I walk in the clear light of your divine grace. Help me lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, so I may walk honorably as in the day.

O merciful God, let me radiate the light of your divine mercy. May I constantly keep you foremost before my eyes in all I do or leave undone. You see everything, right now, with your eyes like a flame of fire, even what I am thinking and planning. Therefore, give me grace that I may spend all my days in a way that will bring praise to your holy name.

O God, may I be obedient to you with childlike love. Just as I have experienced your tender love, so may I love my neighbor as myself. May I do nothing contrary to this love, so I may truly deal justly with my neighbor.

Holy God, I pray that I may enjoy with moderation all the gifts you have supplied for my needs, using them only for their intended purpose. May I not misuse them through extravagance, greed, or selfish pleasures. Give me a heart willing to share, which does not complain about food and drink, or worry about physical nourishment. Teach me instead to place my trust in you and to await your divine help and grace. Give me a broken, lowly, and contrite spirit, a penitent heart and true gentleness, and a genuine hunger and thirst for your righteousness.

Give me today a heart that is pure in your sight, O God, that I may see you. God of love and peace, grant me your eternal peace and grace that I may at all times show myself to be peace-loving in my relations with others, avoiding all evil strife and dispute. And help me, with a gentle spirit and quiet heart, to bear patiently all the calamities I may encounter in this life — whether the cross, or grief, or disgrace, or other misfortune.

Since you are my God and Creator, direct my life and walk according to your holy and divine will. All my works and deeds are in your hands. I commit myself into your hands, with body and soul and all that I have. Rule over me, and advance the work of my hands according to your divine will.

I also pray for all people, everywhere, especially for my fellow believers wherever they may be scattered on the face of the earth. I pray as well for all troubled and desperate hearts, suffering and in need. I pray for my enemies, for they do not know what they are doing. And I pray for all rulers and persons in authority over me.

O Lord, let all of them together enjoy and partake of your mercy and your comfort. I ask this, holy Father, in the name of your dear Son, Jesus Christ, who promised me that you would respond favorably when I call upon you in his name, praying with a reverent and believing heart: “Our Father…”

Lord, may your gracious eye be open upon me day and night. Take me into your divine care and protection. Judge, guide, and bless all my undertakings and works, to your honor. Amen.

This will be a sad December, but I am finding the prayers in this book comfort me and speak to my condition.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Jesus Calling

last praise service

(Kelly, Bradene, Stacey, & Me in August 2011)

Kelly was devoted to her family and friends. She was devoted to music. And she was devoted to Christ. I want to lift up this last piece, her devotion to Christ. Jesus was her Savior, Lord, and Friend. She listened for his voice in her daily life. Like a lot of women and men, Kelly loved the book Jesus Calling; it helped her imagine Christ speaking to her.

Imagine what Christ is saying to us today, as we celebrate and remember Kelly’s life. To help us listen to Jesus, here’s a portion of a story from the Gospels. Christ has been called to the home of a little girl who has died. This is what happens after he arrives:

And when he came to the house, he permitted no one to enter with him, except Peter and John and James, and the father and mother of the child. And all were weeping and bewailing her; but he said, “Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. But taking her by the hand he called, saying, “Child, arise.” And her spirit returned, and she got up at once; and he directed that something should be given her to eat. And her parents were amazed; but he charged them to tell no one what had happened. (Luke 8.51-56 RSV)

So Jesus comes to a home where a girl has died. Everyone is crying and mourning, as they should be. Death is not a natural part of life – death is the enemy of life. Death is an ugly thing, and no disease comes from God.

Jesus understands their sorrow, but responds in an odd, almost playful way. He says “She isn’t dead, only sleeping.” They laugh at him. His own disciples and the girl’s parents laugh at him. I love their honest reaction. She may look peaceful, but she certainly isn’t asleep. This they know. Jesus disagrees, though, because he knows something they don’t know.

All of us live our lives within a frame. What is real is what we can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. We live inside this frame, and if there is a world beyond it, we’re not really sure. The frame is what we know. Jesus knows differently. He knows what we perceive with our senses is only a slice of all that is real. Jesus knows there is no frame – there is only the unbounded love of God. This is why he could say, “She’s not dead, only sleeping.”

If you knew Kelly, you knew she loved yoga. She took yoga classes. She taught a yoga class here at church. Sometimes she would demonstrate a pose that was too flexible for the rest of us. And we’d look at one another and laugh. But we’d try anyway because Kelly’s enthusiasm carried us on.

In a yoga practice, you move through a series of poses. Each has a name. You’re a mountain, or a plank, or a dog, or a cobra, or a child, or a warrior, or a stargazer, to name a few. Life itself is like this. In life we go through a series of poses. We bend this way; we bend that way. Some poses are easy; other are strenuous. But you go on, pose after pose, year after year.

A yoga practice always ends with the same pose. It is called by its Sanskrit name: Shavasana. You hear the yoga teacher say, “Find your way to Shavasana now.” If it’s been a hard yoga practice, you may be grateful to hear this. In Shavasana you lie flat on your back, with eyes closed and palms open to the sky. It is restful. Shavasana translates as ‘corpse pose.’ You end a yoga practice as if a corpse, resting from your labors. It’s the last pose in yoga, and it’s the last pose in our earthly life.

On Tuesday, Kelly found her way to Shavasana. It was hard, strenuous, but she found the pose. She found rest. And in that instant, two things happened. First, she broke through the frame and discovered there never was a frame to begin with. There is only the unbounded love of God, embracing all creation. The second thing that happened when Kelly found Shavasana: she heard Jesus Calling her. He said to Kelly the same thing he says to the little girl in the Gospel reading. “Child, arise.” Arise. Amen.

Posted in Health, Sermons | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Falling Waters Trail

20131013-191225.jpg

My friend Stacey and I took part in the Wild Life Marathon today in Concord, Michigan. We walked the half marathon along the Falling Waters Trail. Leaves just starting to turn. Beautiful. A half marathon is 13 miles or 21 kilometers. We finished in 3:34. A number of marathon runners finished around the time we did. This was the first race I have ever entered. I was #410. It was recommended to us by a friend (who also walked) as being walker friendly. It was well organized and enjoyable.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Mourning Bench

20130921-172216.jpg

Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote Lament For a Son after his son Eric died in a mountain climbing accident. Excellent book. He gave me a phrase to help me see where I am: sitting on the mourning bench. Grief has put me there. Grief present and anticipated. Grief in the lives of people I cherish, which deepens it. Sitting on the bench of mourning makes me see the world differently. Things I thought were important aren’t. I have little to say now and little inclination to write. I am going to sit quietly for a while on the mourning bench.

Posted in Books, Emotions, Psychology | Tagged | 2 Comments