I work at a 911 center that dispatches emergency and non-emergency calls for police, fire, and medical. Sometimes units will do what we call self-dispatching on a call. If an officer runs across a traffic accident before anyone has called us, they will self-dispatch, which means to enter their own call and mark themselves on the scene of it without going through us at dispatch. Any time any officer or firefighter does anything, it generates a call – even if they are just taking a meal break someplace. Obviously you have to have a way to keep track of and organize all those different calls.
One way that many centers organize them is by number. Each event number starts with the two digit year, so all of yesterday’s events started with 16 and all of today’s events start with 17. After the year, the event number continues with the ordinal date. In other words, the event number continues with what day of the year it is. Yesterday was the 366th day of the year, since it was a leap year. I think that they put presidential elections into leap years on purpose just to drag out the agony. Anyway, yesterday was the 366th day of 2016, so all the event numbers start 16366 and then they continue with 4 digits that say what number of event that day it is. At many call centers today’s first event probably came a few seconds after midnight, and it was probably someone complaining about noise from fireworks or a party, and the number was 17 (for the year) 001 (for the ordinal day) 0001 for which particular event of the day it was.
Today is day one not just at my workplace, but for all of us. Today is day one of the year 2017. The reality of it is that it’s not a particularly special day, not any more special than any other day. My life hasn’t dramatically changed since yesterday. I don’t feel particularly better or particularly worse. Nothing great has happened, besides getting to come and worship with each of you this morning. It’s doubtful that tomorrow will be all that much different, except that I’ll be going back to work and that traffic will be lighter than usual since it’s a federal holiday. If we stop and think about it coldly and factually, for most of us day one isn’t very much different than day three hundred and sixty six was or than day two will be.
But we don’t think about these things coldly and factually, do we. Our minds look for patterns and for significance in events large and small, and we have long established the pattern of the three-hundred-sixty-five day year (plus one for leap year) and of twelve months and of January 1 of a new year being a special day. The significance of day one is set in our cultural DNA and few if any of us can fully escape it even if we try.
This is the first Sunday after Christmas. While in our lives it’s been a week since Christmas, for Joseph and Mary and Jesus at the beginning of our gospel reading it’s been a couple of years. Although many manger scenes show the wise men kneeling and offering their gifts before the manger, it really took them a couple of years to find Jesus. I mention the wise men because that’s who “they” are in our scripture reading who have just left.
Matthew’s gospel says in the beginning of chapter two that after the wise men visited King Herod, Herod became frightened that the newborn King of the Jews would overthrow him. This kind of political and military revolution is what Jews expected from the Messiah, as Micah talked about a couple of weeks ago. So in response to learning of Messiah’s birth within the last two years, Herod gave orders to kill all males under the age of two in the vicinity of Bethlehem. This is called the Slaughter of the Innocents.
So here we are, with an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream and telling him to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt, to escape Herod’s wrath. As he was when an angel appeared to tell him that Mary was pregnant, Joseph is obedient and takes his family along the Silk Road to Egypt. A couple of years later, Herod dies and an angel appears to Joseph yet again to tell him it is safe to return to Israel. And once again, Joseph obeys. And once again an angel appears – this last time, it seems as if it’s starting to get a little routine. Matthew doesn’t even say, “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said yada yada yada” like he has before. It’s happened so much that Matthew starts to abbreviate. Joseph was afraid and “after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.”
What does this scripture, falling as it does on New Year’s Day, tell us about our day one? Well, there is danger about. Some people are ascribing danger to the coming presidency of Donald Trump, but really there would be danger about whoever was elected President. Dominant American culture is not and has never been the friend of true Christianity. Sure, there’s the cultural Christianity where saying “God bless America” at the end of a speech and singing “God bless America” at the seventh inning stretch and saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” is supposed to be a sign of faith, but we know that’s all just fluff. That has nothing to do with love, with justice, with grace, or with righteousness. Our economy is built on greed, which is a sin. Our foreign policy is built on what is in our interests, which is the exact opposite of turning the other cheek and loving your enemies. Our political system is built on access for those with money, which is completely turned around from what the Bible says that God’s system is built on. Trump, Clinton, Johnson, Stein – it didn’t matter who was elected President. We would be challenged by danger and by enemies anyway. The type and nature of those challenges and enemies might be different, but they’d all still be there.
So just as it was for Joseph and his family, day one is a day of action for us. Not just the action of loosening your belt after a big meal or of changing the channel to find the correct football game, but action of self-defense, of self-protection. Do I mean buying a gun? No. Do I mean demonstrating in the streets? Well, maybe. Do I mean taking political action or making a contribution of some kind? Perhaps. Instead of “maybe” or “perhaps” I guess I should say, “It depends.”
It depends because the first action you should take is to seek God’s will. That’s what happens for Joseph. He waits for God’s leading, which comes to him again and again in a dream, to take action. God spoke to Joseph in a dream, and he went to Egypt. God spoke again in a dream, and Joseph returned from Egypt. God spoke yet again, and Joseph went to Nazareth. God speaks, Joseph acts.
Is God speaking to you? I don’t know. Probably, but I admit that I don’t always know when God is speaking to me. I try to make time every day to listen to God, but just because I try doesn’t mean I succeed, and just because I am listening doesn’t mean I will hear, and just because I hear doesn’t mean that I will understand, and just because I understand doesn’t mean I’ll do it. That’s why the best I can do when I consider if God is speaking to you is “probably.” It’s also the best I can do when I consider if God is speaking to me. The more pertinent question is whether I am listening, and hearing, and understanding, and acting.
God may not be speaking to you in any particular way about Trump or Clinton or politics or social justice in the broad sense. Imagine that everything was perfect in our government, whatever that means for you. Imagine that all of your preferred policy prescriptions had been put in place and that, miracle of miracles, they had all worked even better than you had hoped they would. Imagine that in the political realm internationally, nationally, state-wide, and in your local community all is well.
Guess what. You’re still surrounded by danger. You’re still surrounded by sin. Whether it is brokenness in your family, or gossip at your workplace, or hatred and discord among neighbors you are still surrounded. There are still poor people around. There are still hungry and sick people around. There are still selfish people and violent people and hateful people to deal with. When I say those words your mind may have flashed on someone; are you ready to act? Are you ready to love them? Are you ready to turn the other cheek? Are you ready to forgive them, even if they don’t think they’ve done anything to be forgiven for?
Here on day one we as a congregation are surrounded by sin. No matter who becomes President on January 20th, there will be hungry people to feed on January 21st. There will be poor people and homeless people and sick people and there will be other people and policies that have helped to create the poor and the homeless and the sick. Not intentionally, at least not necessarily, but we all do things that harm others whether we are aware of it or not. We all do things and support systems in ways seen and ways hidden that create poverty and racism and violence at one level or another. Sometimes we do it intentionally, because it benefits us.
Do I always buy fair-trade coffee or chocolate? No. Usually I buy plain old Hershey’s and Folger’s. Are they exploitative multi-nationals? Probably. Could I do better for the poor if I bought something else? Probably. Why don’t I? Because Hershey’s and Folger’s are right there when I want them. They’re cheaper. I’m used to the way they taste. Does that mean I am sinning? Yeah, probably. Am I going to try to do better? I hope so. Am I going to succeed? We’ll see.
We as a congregation are surrounded by sin and danger, we as individuals are surrounded by sin and danger, and as sad as I am to say it, we contribute to the sin and danger that surrounds us. Sometimes we do it unintentionally – hopefully most of the time – but if we’re fully honest then sometimes it’s intentional.
Today is 17001. Day one in the year 2017. Like Joseph, we are surrounded. Like Joseph, we need to listen for God, and then take action. Some days we will be like Joseph. Some days we will hear God and do what God calls us to do. On these days we will be building the kingdom of God. Other days, well, other days maybe not so much. But today, today is day one. Today is where we make the decision, today is where we set the pattern for the rest of the days of the year. But guess what? Tomorrow will be another day one, where we once again have to make the decision and set the pattern. January 3 will be day one as well. Every day is day one. How will we spend our day one? We’ll see. Amen.