You Can’t Go Home Again

Sermon preached December 26, 2010

Text: Matthew 2:13-23

I hope you have all had a wonderful Christmas. I hope you were with people you enjoy. I hope the food was good. I hope you gave a gift someone really appreciated and that you received something that brought some joy to you.
Part of my appreciation of the season for me is in the music. I love the hymns we sing this time of year, and I love how people tend to sing out a little more. I enjoy many of the more secular songs of the season. I have fond memories of the Goodyear Christmas albums of the 1960s. I remember them around our house growing up.
I find that some of my favorite Christmas songs are tinged with a certain sadness – sometimes in the tune, sometimes in the words, sometimes both. Christmas Time Is Here from “The Charlie Brown Christmas Special” is beautiful and melodic but with a certain sad undertone, and the lyrics wistfully hope for a better world – “oh that we could always see such spirit through the year.” I’ll Be Home For Christmas is a delightful reminder of some of the small things that make Christmas special – snow and mistletoe, and yet there is sadness because the singer may only be home in his or her dreams. The song was copyrighted in 1943, during World War II when many could only be home for Christmas in their dreams. The lyricist says he first penned the words as a homesick college student. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, likewise combines a beautiful, haunting melody and lyrics both hopeful and sad. There are references to troubles that may someday be out of sight and to muddling through somehow.
Maybe I have grown in appreciation of these songs because in the last few years I find that I am making more peace with sadness in my life. It is partly a function of age, but it is more than that. It is a part of my spiritual journey. It is part of the work of the Spirit in my life trying to deepen my humanity. I remember encountering these words from Elizabeth Lesser a few years ago, and they rang so true to me: The opposite of happiness is a closed heart. Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness. A happy heart is one that is larger at all times than any one emotion. An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a bigger and wiser experience of reality…. We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead, we isolate ourselves even more from joy. From my own experience and from observing many others, I have come to believe that the opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart. Happiness is ours when we go through our anger, fear, and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness. (The New American Spirituality, 180). That has been something of my spiritual journey for a number of years, working with the Spirit toward a more open heart, a heart open to my own sadness and a heart open to the pain of the world. I am working with the Spirit to weave into my spiritual life the sadness, disappointment, discouragement I have known and to keep my eyes and heart open to the deep sorrow and pain in a world where there is too much hunger, too much violence, too much oppression, too much injustice.
I appreciate this difficult story we read today. I don’t necessarily like it, but I appreciate it. It is not the best story for the day after Christmas. No shepherds. The wise men have left (and oddly we will come back to their story next week). Angels don’t announce good news, only warn of danger. Joseph, Mary and Jesus have to flee in fear to Egypt. Herod, fearful for his power seeks to destroy all potential rivals, going so far as to eliminate children.
I appreciate this story for its realism. The world is sometimes a dangerous place. The powerful abuse their power. Children suffer unjustly and mothers weep inconsolably. The journey of Jesus’ family reprises the journey of his people so many years before. Jesus, Mary and Joseph go to a place of great pain for the Israelites, the place of their enslavement. Sometimes the spiritual journey of our lives requires that we, too, revisit places of difficulty, pain and sorrow – not to wallow in them, not to be perpetual victims of our pasts, but to weave all of our experiences into our hearts so our hearts can be more open and tender.
Jesus returns to Palestine, but he returns different. Though he was a boy during this time, he would have experienced exile in Egypt, even in his young life. He would have known displacement and wandering. He goes home, but he is different, marked, changed. You can’t go home again. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it this way: You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters and yet others go ever flowing on. (Fr. 21; Wheelwright, The Presocratics, 71) Jesus returns to Palestine, but different. He has experienced something of the suffering of his people. He has probably experienced some sadness himself – leaving the familiarity of Egypt for a home he has not seen to years.
I appreciate this difficult story because it invites us to be open to all of our experiences, the highs, the lows, the triumphs, the disappointments, the joys, the sorrows, the pain and the healing. Take our experience and weave it more deeply and creatively into our lives. Take our experience and use it, use it to create a better world.
This story invites honesty. Life is not easy, nor perfect. Joan Chittister puts it well. When we manage to create for ourselves the perfect living space, uninterrupted and uninterruptable, we can be sure that we are no longer living life (Living Well, December 21). There are disappointments and sadnesses in our lives, and if we ignore them our lives shrink and our hearts harden. There are tragedies and sorrows in the world, and if we ignore them we abandon others, we leave weeping mothers inconsolable. We need to begin where we are in life to move forward. We need to see the world as it is to change it. We begin where we are, and we meet God there.
We begin where we are and we make choices about our lives and our world. C. S. Lewis penned these powerful words in his work Christian Behavior. Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing into one state or the other. (Mere Christianity, large print, 154-155) Every moment we choose. Every moment, God invites us to choose toward well-being, to weave all that we experience into a healthier whole – our joys and sadness, our accomplishments and disappointments. Every moment God invites us to create deeper peace in the world.
Friday night I shared some of the story of Frederick Buechner. Buechner is a Presbyterian pastor and prolific author. Friday I shared with you some of his struggles with his anorexic daughter and where he experienced the love of God in that struggle. Buechner’s story has even more sides to it. [Listening For God, I] One November morning in 1936 when I was ten years old, my father got up early, put on a pair of gray slacks and a maroon sweater, opened the door to look in briefly on my younger brother and me, who were playing a game in our room, and then went down into the garage where he turned on the engine of the family Chevy and sat down on the running board to wait for the exhaust to kill him. (40) Buechner was raised by a mother who did not want to discuss what had happened. “Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel” were the rules of the family.
Buechner writes about his father’s suicide, his mother’s emotional closure, his daughter’s anorexia not to air depressing family facts, but because his story might help others be more honest in their lives and in that honesty connect more deeply with God, with others, and with themselves. My story is important not because it is mine… but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually. (52-53) He goes on to write: The sad things that happened long ago will always remain part of who we are just as the glad and gracious things will too, but instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret that make us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of strength and wisdom for the journey that still lies ahead. It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought to life by and healed by all these years later. (54)
Even this sad story from Matthew offers a Christmas message. God meets us in the midst of life, even when it is difficult, painful, sad and worse. God meets us. God is with us. We can’t go home again, but we can work with God to create a newer home, a newer world. God invites us reweave our live so that they are more whole. God invites us to work with God to create a world with fewer tyrants, less misuse of power, fewer children dying before their time, and fewer mothers weeping. God invites us to begin where we are to create with God peace on earth and in our hearts. That, too, is from a wonderful Christmas song (by Sheryl Crow). In the end, that song plays most forcefully in my life, in our lives. And God invites us to sing along with the whole of our lives. Amen.