Sermon ~ New Year’s 2022 Baby’s First Week (Luke 2:15-40) Rev. Betsy Hogan
What’s your earliest childhood memory? The first thing you can remember. Some therapeutic models consider early memories to be quite telling. Keys to aspects of one’s character or patterns in how one’s life has unfolded.
But I sort of hope that’s not true. Because one of my earliest memories is of the day my sister Catherine was born. And lest you imagine that this is a charmingly reverent memory of a tired mum and a beautiful little baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and smiling up at me with little sister adoration, not so much. That did come later, I hasten to say.
But the day my sister Catherine was born was the day we were moving, from our little rented bungalow to a proper house my parents actually owned, in the next town over. It was our last day before we left and I was going to say goodbye to all my friends on the street and have lunch with one and supper with another and play with them all day long… and then?
The baby in my mummy’s tummy decided to get born. And six weeks early too, so that everyone was upset and worried and whoosh, everything is chaos, and let’s just say that when I think back to that day, I am heartily ashamed to recall that I was VERY annoyed. And okay, I was five. But still. Not a shining moment for me. And I’d prefer to imagine it wasn’t somehow a key indicator of my character.
What I consider now, though, is what it would have been like for my mum. Preparing for a new baby in a neighbourhood full of friends and neighbours, folks dropping in, helping out with her other two children, and then instead of finishing that time of preparation in a new home, with time to meet the new neighbours and start to build a new sense of community, she wound up dropped in, with a new little preemie, and knowing no one.
I think it cannot have been easy. And then, consider Mary. Instead of having her baby at home in Nazareth, with her mum and her friends, in her own bed, she finds herself in an unfamiliar Bethlehem stable with a new baby and no one she knows but her husband. It can’t have been easy. For either of them. And in the meantime, they’ll just have to manage.
It would be difficult, I think, to find a phrase more ill-used, over-used, and ironically inaccurate than that luminous motto of the right -- “Christian Family Values”. Lifted on high by preachers, pandered to by politicians, weapon of blame and shame and guilt – we know when we hear the phrase what is meant. And who is meant. And who is not.
But even setting aside the attendant political marginalizing of all those who don’t fit into that particular mold of being married to a person of the opposite gender and having children, which is disturbing ENOUGH a reason to reject the cult of Christian Family Values, the staggering irony of the whole notion is that it reflects nothing – nothing – of the life of Jesus himself.
Here is a man who, the Da Vinci Code aside, almost certainly did not marry. The gospel stories include references to the wives of several of the apostles, and there’s no reason why the writers wouldn’t have mentioned it had Jesus himself married. Indeed, it would have been the norm. But it also would have been extremely odd for Jesus to have married, since he’s rather notable, in his conversations with the disciples and with others, for telling them (a mite heartlessly) to up and leave their families to follow him. Not to mention the day he told them that his true family was not his mum and his brothers and sisters but instead those who were joining him on the road.
Not a man, our Jesus, who bought into the notion of Christian Family Values! At twelve he sneaks away from his parents to chat up the teachers in the temple, he doesn’t go home for Passover Seder but instead celebrates with his friends, he never calls, he never writes – the closest to filial devotion we ever see in Jesus is recorded in the gospel of John, when at the point of his death he assigns the future care of his mother to one of his friends, so that she won’t be alone.
A noble act, to be sure, but hardly the stuff of which the usual Christian Family Values injunctions are made. Because, the thing is, there is virtually nothing about Christian Family Values that reflects the life of Jesus himself.
But there could be. If we rethink what they should be and allow them to emerge out of the actual stories of his life. Indeed, they could be much more valu-able, if allowed to grow in this way.
Because part of what the cult of family values has done to our culture, it seems to me, is that it has hallowed the separateness and self-sufficiency of individual households in a way that has enabled us to, yes, survive, in a transient society, but also to disengage from that society.
Because if all value is to be fostered within the four walls that encircle our family home, if all our energy is focussed on nurturing the relationships within that home, then we no longer feel the need, or even the responsibility, to reach out beyond our doors. In effect, we’ve allowed family values to replace community values, and we’ve done it perhaps by power of cultural suggestion or maybe just because – it’s way easier. And it’s a loss.
But if we dig a little deeper, if we think a little harder about the actual life of the One in whom these Christian Family Values are meant to be founded, we’re given an alternative.
Just consider baby’s first week, from the gospel passage that Margaret read for us just now. Probably baby’s first month, but the gospel writers are not notorious for providing actual dates to go along with their stories, so whatever...
The infant Jesus has been born far away from his parents’ actual home, they’re all the way south in Bethlehem, no grammies and grampies anywhere close by, mum’s not getting back on that donkey for a while, but tough luck, there are things which must happen. Rituals, celebrations, this little boy must be circumcized, he must be presented at the temple, his mother must be purified after the birth – there are rituals, celebrations, that happen.
And Mary and Joseph did not say, oh we’ll wait till we’re back home, too much trouble to try to arrange this when we don’t know anyone here. It probably never occurred to them.
Because for Mary and Joseph, home is where you are. Family is who’s around you. So sure -- instead of mum coming to see you after the new baby’s born, there are shepherds – not sure how they knew to come, but they’re the first to tell you how beautiful he is, and he is!
And sure -- it would be nice to have a grandpa or an uncle taking the baby in his arms at his dedication and giving him a blessing, but this fellow Simeon you’ve never met is filled with as much joy – you can tell! -- as you’re feeling yourself. And your grandmother would have adored this little great-grandson, had she lived to see him, but see how this stranger Anna touches his face and coos at him.
Family is who’s around you. Home is where you are. And there’s great value for us in learning from Mary and Joseph just how deep and wide both can be.
It’s a relatively new lesson to be learned, here in the Maritimes. I used to laugh when I was living down in North Queens county, when I’d ask someone if they’d grown up in Maitland Bridge and they’d tell me “oh goodness no, I grew up in Kempt!” Which amounted to a distance of about one mile and twenty houses down the highway. Come From Away doesn’t always mean Far Away, it would appear. And some of us here are still living in the homes we ourselves grew up in.
But that is much rarer now than it was. There are more of us now, who find ourselves here in this place without such roots, or who ARE the roots for others who have left. And here at St. Matthew’s, surrounded as we are by apartment buildings and condos, there are many of us whose single life, or child-free life has apparently left us utterly outside that cult of Christian Family Values. But that’s alright, because they’re rubbish anyway.
Because instead we’re given, in these stories of baby’s first week, an alternative. Actual Christian family values from the actual family life of Jesus himself.
In which the notion of “family” is expanded into the “chosen family” so fundamental to queer discourse – of those who are family when family has failed –
Into the “chosen family” of a faith community. In which, like Mary and Joseph, we can in fact be entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers. Like Anna and Simeon. Because that’s what community is about.
But it does have to get built. Particularly in our age of isolation. The good news, I think, is that the church is one of the last places in our current culture in which strangers gather, across the generations, as strangers came together in the temple on the day baby Jesus was brought for his dedication. It’s one of the last environments nowadays in which we’re given the opportunity, the gift, of transcending age-divides and family-limit-divides and being family for each other. And we see, in those early days of Jesus’ life, how good that can be. What a difference it can make, if we let it.
Because Mary and Joseph could have shut the door against the shepherds. After all, she’d just given birth. Not exactly the perfect time for company. And Simeon in the temple, reaching out his arms to hold Jesus, to give him a blessing? They could have politely refused; they’ve never seen this man before. Nor Anna, and she looks quite frail. What if she drops him! Or gives him a piece of candy when they’re not looking!
It’s all a bit risky. But the sad truth is, families can be awfully risky too. And even when they’re not, why draw a line around them? We can be for one another, and for our neighbours, what the shepherds and Simeon and Anna were for Jesus and his mum and dad – family when the family’s not around, an extra set of eyes to keep a watch for one another, even just more people to grow up and grow old with.
Early memories, some say, are quite telling. There’s a reason Simeon and Anna were remembered. It’s because they mattered. Because they were family for Mary and Joseph, all those miles from home. So may we matter to each other.