Preached by Rev. Will Brown, January 1, 2017
Taken from Matthew 2: 13-23
The Wisdom of Finnegan
Our story today picks up when Christmas is over. The reading from Matthew begins, “When the magi had departed,” and now these new parents are left alone with their baby. Like all new parents, they begin trying to figure out what in the world they are supposed to do. Feeding and potty training and skinned knees and shoes that don’t fit anymore. The pageantry of Christmas is behind them, and now they begin in earnest the slow, steady work of raising baby Jesus. Now their life gets started.
But then—as if parenting weren’t stressful enough—an angel appears in a dream, with the terrifying news that Herod wants to murder their baby. So they flee to Egypt, to a new country, where they know no one. They are refugees there, seeking refuge from Herod’s tyranny and brutality (not unlike refugees today). And there they must start over, all alone.
Eventually, news reaches them that Herod has died, and they can finally go home! Can you imagine their joy at that return? To walk familiar streets, to see beloved faces, to re-introduce their growing boy to his cousins and grandparents and neighbors. Imagine the relief they must have felt: the nightmare of Herod is finally over, and now our life can get back on track. Now we can start fresh—a new beginning.
But then, another dream, another angel, another warning. Herod’s son is now ruling Judea, and they must go. Again they must flee, this time to Galilee, to the small town of Nazareth, to start over there.
“The Wisdom of Finnegan” is the title for today’s sermon. Finnegan is not a character in this story, nor an obscure Old Testament prophet from Ireland. This is not a literary allusion to Finnegan’s Wake, or something similarly profound. No, “Finnegan” is none other than Michael Finnegan, of the children’s song of the same name. “There was an old man named Michael Finnegan, he had whiskers on his chin-egan, they fell out and they grew in again. Poor, Michael Finnegan—begin again.” It goes on and on, but each verse ends with that same line: “Poor, Michael Finnegan—begin again.” And that last bit, “begin again,” is what we’re talking about today. Each verse: begin again. Begin again, and again, and again.
Life is a continuous succession of new beginnings, isn’t it? It was for Mary and Joseph, moving from place to place, and it is for us. Time after time, we find ourselves starting over. We move to a new town, or start a new job, or start over after losing someone we love.
Some new beginnings we choose; others happen to us. Some are exciting, some tragic; some are in between, a mixture of both. Sometimes we gradually change, and other times our lives are turned upside down in an instant. And we begin again.
The Daily Progress ran a story last week—perhaps you saw it—about a teacher who works in the UVA hospital, right across the street at the Battle Building.[i] She helps kids who are sick to stay caught up in their schoolwork while they are missing school for treatments. This article describes how she was in a terrible car accident, hit head-on by a drunk driver. She barely survived, with broken bones in her neck, back, knees, legs, hands. But after multiple surgeries and months of recovery, she got back to the work she loves, teaching kids. But then she also found a new calling, volunteering with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and speaking to groups all over the area. She and her kids have been volunteering at the nursing home where she spent time recovering, doing arts and craft projects with the residents.
It’s an incredible story of perseverance and renewal. She nearly died, and had to work for months to even be able to walk. Starting over… yet, finding in that experience a new beginning, and a new way to serve her community.
Do you have stories like that in your own life? Times when you had to find strength to keep going, and then set about starting over? Some new beginnings happen in ways we never would have chosen, yet there we are. Like that teacher, or like Mary and Joseph forced as refugees to flee from place to place, we too find ourselves in unknown territory, beginning again.
And then there are days like today. New Year’s Day. There’s nothing inherently special about this specific day, except that it falls at the beginning of our calendar. But as the start of the year, it takes on a greater meaning, offering the occasion to step back and stake out a new beginning. Today… is 2017! 2016 is officially behind us, and we are starting fresh in a new year.
There are other days when we can do this, of course: the start of the school year, or fiscal year, or a baptism day, like today will be for Mel. There are also milestones like birthdays, or anniversaries. All of these remind us to examine where we are. (Actually, speaking of milestones, I should mention that today is one of those landmark occasions for a couple in our church. Today is the 75th wedding anniversary for the Norvelles. 75 years—isn’t that amazing! Make sure you give Gus and Velma a call to congratulate them!)
New Year’s Day is a milepost for us, a time to pause and look around at where we are and where we are going. And of course, it is a time for resolutions. Many of us use this occasion to make changes in our lives, to re-calibrate in one way or another. Have you made any resolutions this year?
This is a popular tradition in our society, to resolve to live a little better, and we all know that these usually don’t last but so long. Apparently, though, researchers have found the exact date when these effects wear off: the first Thursday in February[ii]! Looking at social media data, the first Thursday in February is the date when, each year, declining gym attendance rates intersect with increasing fast food consumption rates. By early February, the good habits of exercising and eating well begin to fade away and we’re back out at Burger King instead of ACAC.
Still, there’s something powerful about resolutions and the New Year as an occasion to re-assert control over our lives, to have a fresh start. At its best, this is a time when we take a hard look at ourselves and make intentional choices about who we want to be: to live more the way I want to live, to be more fully who I know that I am, to leave behind what needs to be left, to be freed to live fully.
That’s what the promise of a new year offers, isn’t it? A new chance to move more fully into who we are meant to be…
Oddly enough, we accomplish that, and step into our new beginning, only when we can also look back. Looking back, and stepping forward.
As Mary and Joseph trudged through the desert into a strange, foreign land, surely they must have been carried along by their memory of what had happened before: startling visits from angels, and then God’s promises kept. Their baby was proof of God’s faithfulness. And as they traveled from place to place, surely they drew strength from that: even if we don’t know where we’re going or why, God has been faithful to us before.
The passage we read from Isaiah puts this sentiment into words for us: “I will recount the Lord’s faithful acts; I will sing the Lord’s praises, because of all the Lord did for us.” Surely Mary and Joseph’s memory of God’s faithfulness emboldened them to step out in confidence. Looking back, and stepping forward.
And we must look back. The writer of this Gospel went to great lengths to show how Mary and Joseph’s story was connected to the past. Just in the passage we read today, there were three separate quotations describing how the narrative is a fulfillment of Scripture. Matthew makes clear that to understand this story, you first have to hear the prophets. God is doing something new and incredible with this Christ child, but it can be understood fully only when we are also looking back.
And it’s the same for us. Life sometimes forces us to start over (like the teacher in the car wreck), and sometimes we claim for ourselves a fresh start (like in a new year), but always we bring our past with us. The truest new beginnings begin by looking back, reaching deep into who we know ourselves to be. Looking back, and stepping forward.
Take those New Year’s Resolutions. It’s not just about making a checklist of things you’re supposed to be doing better in life: reading more, exercising, spending less time on Facebook. That’s all fine, but it doesn’t take you very far—probably only until the first Thursday in February. Instead, what would happen if we dug a little deeper, to ask questions like: “Looking back on my life up to this point, when did I feel most alive, and most fulfilled? How can I move deeper into that?” Or, “Where has God been leading me until now? What has God been preparing me for? Where might God want me to be going now?”
Maybe you still end up saying “read more books” or “pray more often,” but it’s because you see how those make you more fully who you are supposed to be. You see the changes that align with who you have been becoming. Sometimes that means consciously letting go of what is past, to free yourself to move forward.
Looking back, and stepping forward.
It’s the same for us as a congregation. In this transitional period of our church’s life, we are doing a lot of soul searching about what kind of new chapter is beginning. But the reality is that we don’t become something we’re not. A new pastor doesn’t change who we are. Yet within our own story, there are new beginnings, turning points, new chapters and new opportunities. The question for us is, what does it look like to imagine a new beginning here, yet one rooted in our past and our identity? What are those best parts of who we are and who we have been? How can we move more fully into that?
Looking back, and stepping forward.
As a church, and in our individual lives, we are always facing opportunities to “begin again”, as Finnegan tells us. But it is when we look back that we discover more clearly who we are and what God has been doing in our lives, and only then are we able to start anew, living more fully into who we have always truly been.
And so, we start this year the way we start each month in our church, by coming to the Lord’s Table, to remember what God has done for us, to remember our identity as God’s beloved children, and in finding ourselves there, to step with confidence into the future to which God is calling us. Let us look back now, together, in remembrance of Christ.
[ii] From Episode 4 of “Tell me something I don’t know” podcast, available here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/tell-me-something-i-dont-know/id1171534532?mt=2&ign-mpt=uo%3D4