Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day, January 5, 2020 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Jeremiah 31:7-14+Psalm 84+Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a+Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

There are a lot of dreams early in Matthew’s gospel. Joseph dreams that he is to wed Mary his pregnant girlfriend rather than setting her aside. The Magi dream a warning not to return to King Herod with news of the infant king. Joseph dreams again that his little family is in danger and he needs to head down to Egypt, and again when the coast is clear and they can return to Israel, and one more time warning them to go to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem.

I don’t know about you, but on the rare occasions when I can remember that I have dreamed, there is nothing so clear or understandable as an instruction from God. My dreams are generally a hodge-podge of disconnected scenes that might have some bearing on a situation in which I find myself or an upcoming event that needs planning. Of course, there is also the one in which I am completely unprepared to lead some important service or preach some important sermon and everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Oh yes, those are the dreams that I dream, not divine messages.

I wonder if I would listen even if they were messages from God? How would I know? Would I need a second opinion? Go to a dream analyzer? Would people think I was completely off my rocker if I told them I had a vision from God?

Thank goodness that Joseph and those Magi had no such doubts. It was all quite clear to them, at least as the story is told, and even though the dreams led them through long and perhaps perilous journeys, they went.

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, also known as Christmas in the Eastern Church. Some congregations, even Episcopal ones, are celebrating Epiphany today, even though it is not considered a moveable feast. Epiphany is Epiphany, and that’s January 6. But that’s only one reason not to transfer Epiphany to today. If we do that, then we miss the Second Sunday after Christmas and this story of the Flight into Egypt. In fact, I have never preached on this text because I have never been at a place that did not use the Magi reading on this Sunday. We miss out on something significant, however, if we skip this Second Sunday.

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My niece is a midwife working in a community hospital over in the Bronx. She shared this poem with me a few days ago:

sometimes I wonder 
if Mary breastfed Jesus.
if she cried out when he bit her
or if she sobbed when he would not latch.

and sometimes I wonder 
if this is all too vulgar
to ask in a church 
full of men 
without milk stains on their shirts
or coconut oil on their breasts
preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.

but then i think of feeding Jesus, 
birthing Jesus, 
the expulsion of blood 
and smell of sweat,
the salt of a mother’s tears 
onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth,
feeling lonely 
and tired
hungry
annoyed
overwhelmed
loving 

and i think,
if the vulgarity of birth is not 
honestly preached 
by men who carry power but not burden,
who carry privilege but not labor,
who carry authority but not submission,
then it should not be preached at all. 

because the real scandal of the Birth of God
lies in the cracked nipples of a 
14 year old 
and not in the sermons of ministers 
who say women
are too delicate 
to lead.[1]

Birth, while beautiful in the end, is painful and hard in the process of it. For a poor young woman far from home in a borrowed patch of privacy, it was undoubtedly coarse and lonely and frightening.

We forget the harshness of Jesus’s beginnings at our own peril. If we sanitize the birth and the visit from the Magi, then it can be something that happens in fairy tales rather than in the mess of our world.

We have no idea how long it took the Magi to arrive in Bethlehem, but however long it took, Herod was determined to find the One they sought, and when they thwarted him by going home by another way, he did what tyrants, ruling by fear and intimidation, do. He had all the boy babies killed. This is the part that’s missing in those 3 verses we didn’t read this morning. The Feast of the Holy Innocents is remembered on December 28 every year. It is a gruesome and terrible day to remember, but it is a part of our story. It is our reminder that earthly power is dangerous, even in the face of such goodness coming into the world.

Jesus and his family were saved by this dream and fled into Egypt to live until Herod died a few years later. When they returned to Bethlehem, a new and unstable ruler was in place, so they kept going to Nazareth, where Jesus grew to manhood.

There has been furious debate in the Twittersphere over the past several weeks (actually, the debate rages annually on different platforms) between those who say that Jesus was a refugee and those who say that he was not. Well, if the definition of “refugee” is “a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution,” then it’s pretty clear that the Holy Family were refugees when they fled to Egypt, escaping from the reign of terror that was Herod the Great.[2] Of course, this is a debate that falls on partisan lines concerning the current refugee crisis on our southern border. I wonder what lines it falls upon if we imagined every woman as the Holy Mother, doing everything in her power to make sure her child could live? Herod may not live in Honduras or Guatemala, but the corrupt rulers and vicious gangs do and pose no less threat to the Holy Innocents of Central America.

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On New Year’s Day, a few of us gathered here in the chapel for the first eucharist of the New Year, remembering the naming and circumcision of Jesus. It is important for us to remember that Jesus may have been the Son of God, but he was also an infant Jewish boy whose customs required a bris and a name on the eighth day following his birth. These Twelve Days of Christmas are not all about golden rings and calling birds and maids a-milking. They are about a family far from home with an infant child, compelled into Egypt as refugees, aliens in an alien land, until it was safe to return.

In many ways, this story is still very much our story. Pain and sorrow continue to infect our world. Australia burns. India simmers. Iran and Iraq and the US are in dangerously heightened tensions. And yet we are here, because where else would we be in times such as these? The world is full of goodness and beauty at the same time it is filled with ugliness and hardship. It is hard to hold onto this light of Christ, the joy of the angels, the unfathomable love of God at times such as these. Yet as our presiding bishop said in his Christmas message, “Love is not a sentiment; it’s a commitment.”[3] It is up to each of us to be committed to that kind of radical love in this world, all evidence to the contrary.

As our Christmastide comes to a close, let us be resolved to heed the words of the great Howard Thurman who wrote

When the song of the angels is stilled,

when the star in the sky is gone,

when the kings and princes are home,

when the shepherds are back with their flocks,

the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost,

to heal the broken,

to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoner,

to rebuild the nations,

to bring peace among the people,

to make music in the heart.[4]


[1] Kaitlin Hardy Shetler, https://www.facebook.com/ezerrising/posts/1035784890100782

[2] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/refugee

[3] https://episcopalchurch.org/library/video/2019-christmas-message

[4] Howard Thurman. “The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations” (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1985).

ASEPSermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day, January 5, 2020 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas