GOING INTO EGYPT
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
January 5, 2020
Texts: Jeremiah 31:15–22; Matthew 2:18–25
In Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye realizes that he and the rest of the Jewish community must leave the town where they were born and grew up and raised their families, he sings: Anatevka, Anatevka . . .
A little bit of this, a little bit of that.
A pot, a pan, a broom, a hat.
Someone should have set a match to this place years ago.
A bench, a tree.
So, what's a stove? Or a house?
People who pass through Anatevka don't even know they've been here.
A stick of wood. A piece of cloth.
And they load up their few possessions into their wagons and head towards the new world. As they are leaving, Tevye learns the friend will be in Chicago and he will be in New York, he shouts, “We’ll be neighbors!” We laugh, but when the exile had to go into Egypt it was no laughing matter.
Threatened with Herod’s wrath, according to Matthew’s rendition of the Gospel, Mary and Joseph fled into Egypt. An Egyptian Copt who now has asylum in the United States told me of being in Hermapolis, the first stop of the Holy Family in Egypt, where a fifth century basilica sits in ruins. “In ruins?” I asked. “Ah,” replied Akram, “in ruins for we Christians cannot worship there,” and after pausing, he added, “Christ is in exile in his own land.”
Akram did not want to leave Egypt. A successful businessman, he found himself threatened by Islamic extremists. After the threats to him came the threats to his family. Then came the assassination attempt. His wife told him, begged him to leave. “How can I leave you and Samara?” he asked. “Better you leave than die” came her response. Having been granted asylum, he filed for his wife and his daughter. They came and are now safe here in the United States.
It took a long time before he began to think of here in New Jersey as home. I listened to him cry that his former country would not protect him. He told me about the many holy places where the Holy Family stayed during their trip into Egypt, and I reminded him that sometimes one has to leave home to find it.
Akram is now a U.S. citizen. His daughter does not even remember the country where she was born. He built a new business here and still calls me when an Orthodox Christian has come here because he or she fears the full force of a warped ideology. The last time I saw him, he told me that he was and still is grateful for freedom. He worships at St. Mina’s in Holmdel.
I can’t even imagine what it’s like to leave my home––my homeland. Yes, my grandparents left their homeland as did all of your ancestors. That’s how we all got here, but I keep thinking: This is my country; this is my country; this is my country. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that an angel came to Joseph in a dream and told him that “those who were seeking the child’s life are dead” enabling Mary and Joseph to return to Nazareth.
But we know that the danger did not pass. It became even more serious as the child grew into a man who shook society to its very foundations in his message of God’s welcoming love.
How do you sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? This morning’s lectionary only includes the verses about Rachel weeping, but the passage is actually one that says after the weeping there is a new hope in restoration. Just as God promised restoration to the people of Israel, so we need to promise restoration to the many internal exiles in our own country.
So many have exiled themselves because they no longer feel comfortable or safe––usually because they are marginalized. They are the ones who have no right of return, whether to their families or their communities. They are from all parts of the world: the Honduran gay teen-ager who is afraid of being killed; the Salvadoran who found that police corruption marked him for death; he Guatemalan woman abused all her life.
There is also an Egypt of the mind, our own internal exile into despair. Refugees often feel this way because they are struggling to deal with a new country with new ways of doing things. Often their old skills are not really important. There’s a great New Yorker cartoon that expresses this: the cabbie has a crown and says, “In my country I was a king.”
We laugh because most of the cabbies in New York are from someplace else, but how often do we know where they are from or what they did? Struggling to learn English, which is not an easy language. Former Colombian doctors become hospital orderlies and Russian concert musicians become school janitors.
Within our own culture we often become displaced when the world around us changes too quickly for our comfort. Look at the way that the church has changed over the last fifty years, for instance. Many of us grew up in the church of the 1950s. We sang the hymns our parents sang and we worship much in the same way as did our parents.
The sixties rocked the church. Many young people left because they did not find that old church, that comfortable church, relevant to the social reality around them. We don’t remember this but pastors who joined civil rights or anti-war demonstrations were actually fired from their pulpits; priests married and sisters took on modern dress. The form of worship changed as well with the introduction of guitars and other instruments. The church reflected the social upheavals and divisions of the time.
The seventies and eighties were more placid for the church, but many worshippers felt themselves in internal exile. Many felt the old forms of worship were unsatisfying and people left to find new ways to connect to their deep yearnings to connect to God, to experience deeply what that connection meant. Contemporary worship forms emerged, some only using bands or taped music, others totally junking what we think of as worship.
Combined with the new issues of the day, churches broke up, people formed new worshipping communities that enabled them to experience a connection to God. And then, of course, there’s the internet enabling people to conduct spiritual searches in an individualistic manner, but we need to remember that worship is always in community and so even the internet junkies need some community with whom to share their journey
In this century we are often in internal exile, torn apart from our old patterns of living as well as worship. Although fifty years sounds like a long time, many of us who are older look back to a time when the world at least seemed more secure. That security, of course, was an illusion.
Beneath every placid time, there is a rumbling akin to the shifting plates of the earth’s crust until the crust can no longer stand the pressure and there is an eruption we call an earthquake. Those eruptions do two things: first, as in an earthquake, although there is terrible damage, the pressure on the earth’s crust is eased; secondly, the cracks and fissures expose what is beneath the crust––the struggle and yearning for something different, something new.
Scripture tells us that Rachel wept for her children, the hope of restoration emerged. Restoration does not mean a return to what once was, for no exile ever returns to the same home that was abandoned. Tevye’s descend-ants would not be able to even find Anatevka. It remains only a distant memory, not even a real place.
During exile we are forced to adapt to new situations, but it becomes a time when we can use our creative juices to reorient ourselves and to develop the skills that will not only enable us to survive but to thrive. That is what Scripture tells us to do: We need to move beyond the weeping for the past; we are to move ahead into the future.
Let us pray: God of exiles, God of home, enable us to shape our lives as you have called us to do, welcoming the stranger in our midst and being an instrument of restored hope as you have been to all exiles in all places and at all times. In the name of him who sought refuge in Egypt, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.