A sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas
January 3, 2016
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.
Today is the tenth day of Christmas, the church’s annual festival of the Incarnation. It is the Second Sunday after Christmas. Each year, we focus on something in Jesus’ life that happened after his birth. It also has a beautiful collect, that sums up our calling as Christians:
O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
When I think about dignity, or a person of dignity, I usually envision someone strong, calm, confident. A person who has earned the respect of others and who gets it. So it is sort of ironic that the Gospel lesson is basically about a young couple that throws their belongings into the back of an old Chevy and jumps in the car with their kid and heads south, out of town.
Of course the pictures always show them with a donkey or burro, and Mary wearing a blue cloak and veil, but for those of us who didn’t grow up in the deserts of Palestine with limited means of transportation, it’s better to think of a beat-up old car, than a picturesque ride through the wilderness. Heading out of town at midnight with just what you can throw together is something that happens, particularly to young people with limited resources—jobs are lost, rent is due, family elsewhere is in need, or … perhaps there is a war in your country, or crops are failing. In any of these cases, this sudden flight does not feel very dignified to those who have to flee, and usually people looking at them don’t regard them as having dignity, and seldom do they give respect to the refugees.
So Joseph and Mary and their toddler were refugees in a foreign country. They had no real rights, and no security. When they returned, they didn’t go back to Bethlehem, which was basically out in the suburbs of the big city of Jerusalem, they went way upstate, to a little no-account country town called Nazareth, because Joseph was warned in a dream that there was still danger for them in Judea.
That little toddler, Jesus, lived an early life that was not so much different from that of many children in this world and this country. He had loving parents, but security and stability were not theirs to give. And we look around, and many people, including many people who proudly proclaim themselves to be Christians, refuse to regard those children and those parents as having dignity that must be respected.
Nowadays, it seems as if people think that it is wealth or power or influence that are what gives people dignity. But the Gospels make clear that it is God that confers dignity on human beings. And he came as a baby in the most humble of circumstances, to parents who weren’t even sure they could afford enough gas to get that Chevy to Egypt. Yet is was to him that the sages from the farthest corners of the world brought gifts, signifying their respect for his dignity and the overwhelming grandeur of God’s gift to us.
The Collect begins: “O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature”—the dignity of human nature is created by God—and if we pay attention, even when dignity has been torn down by our lack of respect for the dignity of God’s creation—it is restored, not by our niceness, or the benevolence of human beings—but by God’s action in that most unexpected of places: a child, born of humble and hard-pressed parents, who lived a blameless life, but was executed as a criminal because he was courageous and lived the truth for all of us.
In the service of baptism, we are all asked this question: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” In that, we follow Jesus. We receive dignity from God by acknowledging that God has bestowed that dignity on others.
Jesus was a refugee in this world from a very early age. In some sense even at his birth, his family were refugees. He came from a powerless family and throughout his life, his only power was the love of God. It is in that power that we live, in the abundance of God’s love. The riches that give life are those of God’s love, his power to bring forth the dignity of every person.
As the prophet Jeremiah has told us today:
The Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. … Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy. I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year.