I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.
I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.
I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.
Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree. [i]
I love the very specific, nitty-gritty ways this Appalachian poet names the people, places, things, and experiences that make up her “roots.” Isn’t it fascinating, how this litany of her particular details opens up something universal for all of us? It triggers for me a desire to make my own “where I’m from” list, which seems to be a common reaction. Lyon reports how teachers have used her poem as a writing prompt with students in all kinds of situations: “teachers have used it it with kids all over the United States, in Ecuador and China; they have taken it to girls in juvenile detention, to men in prison for life, and to refugees in a camp in the Sudan.”[ii]
The particulars of each person’s story are unique, but universal human reality is that each of us is tied into many kinds of relationships, woven into a fabric of histories which spans generations before and after us. Naming our roots can help us understand who we are and helps us find a way into the future.
And it is that annual moment when many are thinking about the future. Five days into the New Year is still a good time to set resolutions, goals, or intentions, hoping a new calendar year offers the possibility to do things differently. Many of us are seeking to make changes in our individual habits and practices.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with New Year’s resolutions. Desires to lose weight and exercise more, or to use our money more wisely, are connected to our longing to be more whole and healthy in our lives. But I wonder how often we hurry to change ourselves without thoroughly naming and owning the roots of the situations and systems we want to change. And I wonder how often we are disappointed with ourselves when we fail year-after-year at our good intentions.
Looking closely at our lives can be painful, and our “move-on-to-the-next-big-thing” culture does not help us. There are lots of confusing messages. We hear that the new year’s possibilities are endless and open, and we can freely choose a new path to make our dreams come true. Of course, this message is often paired with a sales pitch for a new item or service guaranteed to deliver us life improvement! Our culture’s gospel of consumer choice and self-realization is often confused with the truly good news of God in Jesus Christ.
Though if we’re honest, we’ll admit that we often prefer enthusiastic self-help preaching to the Word of God found in scripture, where we learn God is not especially interested in our individual happiness or comfort, and our desire for autonomy is a false hope, which dooms us to separation from God and others; where the good news so often begins in the bad news that we cannot change or save ourselves.
Take our gospel reading from Matthew. It doesn’t seem like good news. Picking up the narration of Jesus’ life after the wise men returned east “by another road,” this story moves rapidly from the wonderstruck star-glow of Epiphany to a nightmare scene of helpless families caught in the violent machinations of a fearful and cruel ruler, from Silent Night, Holy Night, to the chaos of refugees on the run; from beautiful visions of peace on earth to the stark realities of violence, poverty, and suffering.
Matthew tells the particulars of Jesus’ early story in three episodes. Angelic dream-warnings and Joseph’s faithful initiative preserve the life of the Christ-child from the event the Church remembers as the “Slaughter of the Holy Innocents.” The Holy Family becomes a refugee family in Egypt, returning only when Herod the Great dies and the threat of his paranoid brutality has waned. Even then, Judea, the central homeland of their people, is dangerous, so they settle instead in Nazareth of Galilee, a no-where back-water on the ragged edges of the empire, a marginal place where Jesus can grow up in obscurity and safety.
Matthew pulls no punches as he tells us how the baby born in Bethlehem becomes the man from Nazareth. At the same time, Matthew is also helping us take a hard, honest look at where we’re from. The world human beings are born into is not a paradise of endless happy opportunities, but a creation turned away from its Creator’s intent, a web of broken relationships, in which the consequences of fallen humanity’s sin, rebellion, and shame eventually find every us all.Bad news indeed.
And yet there is good news just next door, and I mean that literally! “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” John’s gospel tells us; Eugene Petersen renders it this way, “The Word was made flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” When Jesus was born, just like us, into this broken creation, God in Jesus Christ came to our neighborhood, a fully human being, living and dying with us and for us, right in the thick of our sinful reality.
The fully divine Jesus became like us in every respect, fully human, and he is unashamed, says the author of Hebrews, to call us his brothers and sisters. He experienced, as we do, the heights of human love and the depths of human suffering, not just on the cross but also at his birth and in his growing up and throughout his life. He experienced pain and loss, anxiety and fear, betrayal, violence, and even death. And even now, as our high priest in the heavenly places, the author of Hebrews suggests Jesus the Christ still experiences those things with us, and having been tested but what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. This means, my friends, that no matter what particular suffering we may experience in this life, Jesus is there with us.
But there is more good news, for even as we come to terms with “where we are from,” we begin to see that a new story is already being authored, not by us, but by God. Matthew has carefully crafted the particulars of Jesus’ story to emphasize this point. Do you remember another dreamer named Joseph, through whom God’s people find refuge in Egypt? Do you remember another insecure king who kills children, the Pharaoh who enslaved Israel and from whom Moses is saved, leading God’s people to covenant freedom in the Promised Land?
In Jesus’ early story, Matthew reminds us of these touch points in salvation history, punctuating them with a refrain featuring the word “fulfill.” “And they remained in Egypt in order to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord….” “Then it was fulfilled what Jeremiah said….” “And they settled in Nazareth so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled.” Fulfill is “[o]ne of Matthew’s favorite words for God’s back-stage providential work,” says one preacher. “As Matthew tells Jesus’ story, he embroiders it into the fabric of God’s Big Story—a story that has been a long time in the making.”[iii]
Jesus is from the same world we are, but he is also from the big picture of salvation history; his story reveals God’s providence at work in all our stories. God has never been distant from us, but has always been at work, changing the story when we could not change it ourselves. Where Jesus meets us is the place where our transformation becomes possible, the place where God is bringing us and all creation back into the wholeness and peace for which we were created. Christ enters our history, so that we can enter God’s history.
Whatever new possibilities and freedom there might be in the turning of the calendar, in Christ we find freedom to experience new life every day. True human freedom, which makes possible real transformation and wholeness, is found, paradoxically, as we are bound more and more to Jesus Christ.
As we seek him and follow him in discipleship, the Holy Spirit begins to author Christ’s story in the particulars of our lives. Real change becomes possible at the point our lives are joined to his, when the fear of death can no longer enslave us, and we can walk boldly through any suffering (and every change brings a bit of suffering)knowing the fully human, fully divine Christ walks with us every step of the way.
My friends, as you dream and envision and look toward the coming year, remember this well: The story begins at Christmas, but it doesn’t end, until God’s Word takes flesh again, raising us up to new life that death cannot conquer, and the scriptures are fulfilled anew in us.[iv] Christ is born! Alleluia! Amen.
[ii] Jan Richardson quotes the poem and the author in In the Sanctuary of Women, 54-56.
[iv] paraphrasing David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2973