“Packing For The Journey”
Matthew 2: 13-15; 19-23
Chilmark Community Church
January 1, 2017
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Over the last couple of months, I have been reading Scott Peck’s book IN SEARCH OF STONES. The theme of the book is built around his travels in Scotland with his wife, Lily, searching out pre-historic stone structures and monuments that dot the landscape of Scotland. A man after my own heart! While I was reading his chapter on Pilgrimage I happened to also listen in on one of Rick Steves’ travel programs where he was talking about pilgrims on the Santiago de Campostela – a popular pilgrimage route that crosses northwestern Spain. In the same program, Rick shifted his focus to how to pack wisely for traveling in Europe. Travel, pilgrimage, journey, packing – – images for thinking about a year ending and a new year beginning.
Given the state of massive and disruptive movements of whole populations, particularly in Syria, as a result of the unceasing war and violence there, it is easy to make the emotional connections with the story of Joseph and Mary fleeing with their newborn son to escape the terrorist reign of Herod – a king who was threatening a house to house search in order to kill every male child under the age of two.
I can’t help asking (as I do when I see the multitudes of refugees in transit) – what did they pack? If they had to move quickly, what belongings did they choose for the journey? When we see artistic renderings of what has come to be called “The Flight Into Egypt” – Mary is seated on a donkey holding the infant Jesus close while Joseph walks alongside the donkey carrying nothing but a staff in his hand. What did they pack? What did they leave behind?
Spending a few moments with the story of the journey into Egypt seems appropriate as we enter a new year. For Mary and Joseph, leaving everything that was familiar behind them in order to keep their small family safe represented the beginning of a new epic.
As 2017 begins, we too, necessarily begin a new chapter in our own lives – as individuals – – as a community – – and as a nation. Another year is stretching out in front of us. In some ways it is like a fresh canvas waiting for the brush strokes that will create the image of life in the next 12 months before another transition to another new year begins again a year from now. In other ways it carries the anxiety producing threat of the unpredictability. We are at the metaphorical beginning of a journey into 2017 – into an unknown country.
Embarking on a journey inevitably means making choices about what we will take with us and what we will leave behind. Rick Steves showed some amusing footage of travelers juggling huge, unwieldy suitcases on and off trains and buses. No matter how cleverly engineered the roller bags are, when they are large and over stuffed, they are cumbersome and can make traveling strenuous at best.
Rick‘s advice is to “travel light!” And that means making choices about what to pack and what to leave behind. The images of Mary and Joseph on the journey into Egypt show them traveling with nothing in their possession except the clothes on their backs. Pretty radical!!
When we went to Scotland, we made some choices. The first one was that we would only take as much as would fit in two carry-on bags and one day pack so that we wouldn’t have to contend with checking luggage, waiting at baggage carousels, risking loss in transit, not having what we needed when we needed it. The choice of the size of our bags forced us to make other choices – how many pairs of shoes??? What kind of outer wear??? How many changes of clothing and underwear??? And – of course -how many books could I take???
Making choices about what to take for a journey also means making choices about what to leave behind. In reality these were not serious existential choices for us as we prepared for Scotland. We would only be gone for 10 days and we were traveling in comfort and there were plenty of places to do laundry and to purchase what we needed if an emergency arose.
These were options not available to that little family on their way out of town.
The journey into 2017, confronts us with similar choices. There is much that we will want to take with us – – and there is much that will be cumbersome – that will weigh us down as we explore the unknown land that stretches out before us.
The passage we heard from Ecclesiastes invites us to consider the possibility of life as a process of continual emptying – – continual impermanence – – constant change. What has most frequently been translated as “vanity, vanity, all is vanity”…or “futility – all is futility” – – takes on a whole new meaning when the Hebrew word hevel is more accurately translated as “emptying”. The book begins with the lines : “Emptying upon emptying! Everything is emptying.”
(Ecclesiastes.1:2). Life is not in vain – – and life is not an exercise in futility.
It is far more accurate to affirm that life is a continual process of emptying – of impermanence and change. Our day to day discomfort with life comes with expecting things to be fixed, secure and permanent. We experience anxiety, frustration, anger and fear when this turns out not to be the case. The wisdom of Ecclesiastes escapes us.
Mary and Joseph’s middle of the night departure at the behest of an angelic messenger epitomizes the impermanence that keeps us on edge as life unfolds.
Their journey into Egypt – into the unknown – is what the nature of life is all about. Maybe the story it can help us set a course as we anticipate the coming year.
Setting out, it is a given that we cannot take everything with us. There is much that we must leave behind. Scott Peck suggests some of what we must leave out of our figurative luggage – things that have to be emptied if we want to be able to move on in a less encumbered way: things like fixed agendas and rigid expectations; things like prejudices or simplistic and instant likes and dislikes ; things like quick answers to difficult dilemmas -arrived at without careful listening; needs for certainty and control; the need to convert or “fix” others; the desire for peace at any price.
Imagine Mary and Joseph carrying any of these into Egypt with them. Imagine them having fixed ideas about where they were going to stay or what they were going to eat. Imagine them needing to have certainty and control over their days on the road. Imagine them seeking easy answers to all the questions they must have had as they followed the commands of an angelic dream; Imagine them saying they didn’t like the food that was offered to them because they didn’t like the way it was seasoned.
Mary and Joseph are our guides for what the process of emptying is all about. Mary certainly becomes a figure of emptying when she says “Here I am” in response to the angel’s announcement that she will bear a child. Imagine her choosing safety and predictability and saying to the angel “no -I don’t think so –not at this time!” Joseph is in the process of continual emptying when he says “Yes” to marrying Mary – to becoming the father and protector of the much anticipated infant – – to being the guarantor of the child’s safety as the terrorist king breathes down his neck.
They had to empty – – everything – – and depart from all that they knew to journey to an unknown country.
The story is an apt metaphor for the threshold of a new year. A story that challenges us to think about what we need to carry with us and what we need to leave behind as we begin our own the journey into an unknown country.
Perhaps we can imagine an open suitcase lying on the bed waiting to be packed for the trip into 2017. To one side, awaiting a decision about whether to take or leave may be a significant pile of things that need to be forgiven. There may be a neatly folded stack of resentments – take them along or leave them behind? There may be outgrown commitments that have lost their vitality in our lives -that keep us from living with joy – maybe they make the discard pile. Perhaps there is a small pile of fear and uncertainty begging to be packed in a side pocket – does it make the cut? And what about the nagging need to judge the motives and behaviors of the annoying people in our lives. Judgment weighs a lot and isn’t particularly useful. Maybe it can be left behind.
When Rick Steves makes his packing suggestions, he does not intend for people to travel in the discomfort and frustration that come with not having what is necessary for a pleasant trip – he simply recommends emptying the bag of things we don’t need.
Every journey requires making choices. Entering the foreign terrain of a new year is no different. By emptying ourselves of what is no longer useful, of the things that needlessly weigh us down, we create space for what is needed – what is necessary for a safe and happy – perhaps even joyful journey – – we can tuck greater measures of patience into those side pockets. Perhaps the main section of the bag will hold a lot more creativity and expectation when we are able to leave behind rigidity and predictability. And Oh – – all those lovely extra zippered spaces on the outside of the bag can carry far more compassion and joy and excitement when we leave behind the stacks of resentment and fear – – allowing us the freedom to easily reach the positive gifts we can offer to those we meet along the way – – making their journey easier and our own journey more meaningful.
When we read the words of Ecclesiastes from the perspective of life as a continual process of emptying, we realize that, indeed, every moment is a beginning – and every moment empties into the next moment of beginning. Nothing is fixed. Nothing is permanent. We are always on the threshold of something new. Like Mary and Joseph – our spiritual task is to be about the work of emptying ourselves enough so that the flow of Grace can flood in where we have cleared the inner space to receive it.
This means always working at the idea of packing our traveling bags with care – keeping them small enough to carry easily – – choosing what we will take with us carefully – – leaving behind whatever it is that would weigh us down as we travel together. Today, January 1st, 2017, we embark. Before we leave this place, we’ll share a simple meal together – – bread for the journey. May God grant us the grace we need as the way of the journey unfolds before us.