Delivered to the United Church of Jaffrey
January 1st, 2017
Readings: Hebrews 2:10-18 | Matthew 2:13-23
When my daughter was a certain age, she would have birthday slumber parties in which one of the activities that you might witness was a circle of girls, with each girl braiding the hair of the girl in front of her.
Can you picture that?
Perhaps you were one of those girls yourself.
There was a time when my beard was long enough to braid — a time, actually, that coincided with the time when my daughter was the right age to enjoy doing that…
“Daddy,” she would say “let me braid your beard.”
Sometimes she would braid beads into my beard and I would come out looking a bit like Captain Jack Sparrow.
I would wait until she was out of sight, and I would unweave the braid.
Needless to say, when this period of her development was over, I heaved a great sigh of relief and promptly shortened my beard.
A simple braid has three strands of hair.
One strand is lifted over the center strand, and then the strand on the other side goes over that, and so forth.
Before long the three strands of hair are woven into a single braid.
Why am I talking about braiding hair?
I find it helpful to talk about braiding because I find that there are three concerns that are vying for my attention this morning.
So if I can, I want to braid these three strands into a short message for you.
The first strand is the fact that today, of course, is New Year’s Day.
New Year’s Day is a day of beginnings.
It is a day when we find ourselves looking forward.
It is a day when we may make resolutions for a new time in our lives.
And it is nice, when you are looking forward, or making resolutions, to have an optimistic feeling.
The second strand this morning is, of course, the scripture lesson that we just heard from the gospel of Matthew.
Unfortunately, as is often the case with the Gospel, it is not proving very cooperative.
Let me put it this way — if I wanted to find an optimistic set of verses from the gospel to start our new year with, this reading would not be it.
Welcome to the conundrum that has been plaguing me all week. I want to be optimistic, but the gospel is making it difficult.
But perhaps the third strand of hair in this morning’s braid may help. The third concern vying for my attention is the fact that today is the first Sunday of the month, and so it is communion Sunday.
The bulletin, this morning, does not call this part of the service, the “sermon.” This morning, the sermon is called but the “communion meditation.”
I think this is great. Holy communion is important to our religion, and so I think it’s worth spending at least some time, every month, meditating on its meaning in the religious life of our community.
There is a new calendar hanging in my kitchen today.
Is there one in yours?
Out there in the rest of world New Year’s Day marks the beginning of a new 12-month calendar.
But here, in the life of the church, in addition to the regular calendar, we also observe another calendar – the calendar of the church seasons.
The church calendar follows the life of Jesus, and so it begins with the beginning of Jesus, which means that it actually started a while ago — with Advent, the season when we anticipate the birth of Christ.
Advent traditionally begins on the first Sunday after Thanksgiving, which, this year, was November 27th. You will remember that that Sunday was my first official Sunday as your new settled minister.
So it may be New Year’s Day in the world, but in the church we find ourselves making the transition from Advent to Christmastide – the transition from a season of anticipation to a season in which the story of Jesus’ life begins.
And here we come to the second strand of our meditation – the uncooperative scripture passage that I spoke of previously, from the second chapter of Matthew.
Why, you are asking, is this passage uncooperative?
Its uncooperative because I was hoping to start the year on an up note.
And this passage, which tells of the first things that happen of after Jesus is born, is not a very optimistic passage.
No sooner do the wise men go away, than Joseph and Mary and their newborn Jesus find themselves compelled to flee for their lives.
An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
From the moment of his birth, before he even says or does anything, Jesus is already identified as a threat to the powerful.
Herod, the Roman client-King of Judea, has been tipped off by the Magi that a “King of the Jews” has been born. Fearing for his position of power, Herod makes a horrifying decision:
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under…
In Christian tradition, then, the first thing that happens in Jesus’ life is that he and his family are forced to flee across borders from one Middle Eastern country to another, in order to avoid a cataclysm of violence.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, over 361 thousand refugees (the majority of whom were Syrians fleeing the bloody civil war in that country) attempted the dangerous passage across the Mediterranean in 2016. More than 5 thousand of these refugees perished.
As we move into a new year, and we listen to our holy scripture, we hear a story about our savior – and this messiah, this Jesus Christ, is in the same position – fleeing for his life – as the untold thousands of migrants who, even as we speak, are fleeing horrifying violence.
A humanitarian crisis of immense proportions is happening right now in Syria.
The website for the International Medical Corps calls the Syrian civil war the “21st century’s worst crisis.”
Syria’s civil war the website goes on to say is in its fifth year with no end in sight. The conflict has claimed an estimated 250,000 lives and driven over 4.8 million Syrians to take refuge in neighboring countries. An estimated 6.1 million additional civilians have been displaced within Syria itself.
We don’t have to try very hard to find the contemporary relevance of our New Year’s passage from the Gospel according to Matthew.
This Jesus, who’s life we celebrate…
This Christ, in whom we trust – who we call divine! began his life as a migrant, fleeing violence.
What does that mean for us, today?
This is the question that arises out of the first two strands of today’s meditation.
I do not think there is an easy answer to this question.
However, in closing, I would like to bring your attention to the third strand of our braid – the fact that this Sunday is communion Sunday.
Later in today’s service we will celebrate communion, and I will tell the story again – the story of how Jesus shared a final meal with his disciples, and how, during that meal, he told his followers two things – to remember, and to love.
To remember, and to love.
“As often as you do these things, (Jesus says) do them in remembrance of me,”
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, (Jesus says) you also should love one another.”
To remember, and to love.
This is what we do when take our place at Christ’s table – we remember and we love.
And remember this: Christ was not a Roman Client King. Christ was not a Roman Emperor. Christ was not a Bashar al-Assad.
Christ was a migrant, fleeing violence.
Let us remember this, and love.
Remembering this will help us move into the New Year with Christian humility.
Remembering this will help our small church in the hills of New Hampshire live out our mission to “Grow our Christian Faith Through Acts of Love Toward All”