The morning of my father's funeral, my sister and I went on a mission. We drove two miles south of town to the farm where we grew up. Our parents had retired from farming several years before, but we still thought of it as "our farm" ~ even though we never owned the land. (We still had memories of dad convincing us to help weed the soybean fields ~ after all, what if the farm manager happened to drive by? What if he came for a surprise visit and found the bean fields filled with milkweeds? Surely we would be kicked off the farm. And so we weeded.)
We parked the car just south of the farmstead ~ house, barn, corncrib, machine shed. Though we knew we didn't own the land, we were going to take some. We were going to dig it up then and there, a few tablespoons of black Iowa dirt in a plastic container. We had agreed on the plan just that morning, remembering that mom had asked me (the minister-daughter) to say the words of benediction at the cemetery. I knew the words that led into that blessing. "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust." I had said the words many times, but never for my father. Somehow, I had the feeling that I could get through the words if I could hold some farm dirt in my hands. And so, we knelt on the damp ground by the side of the road and dug.
It turned into quite a project ~ for it had rained the night before and the dirt was very wet. I knew it wouldn't do to drop these wet clumps on daddy's coffin. When we got home, we spread the soil on a cookie sheet and put it in the oven ~ hoping a kindly neighbor wouldn't come with a casserole that needed to be warmed up. We laughed at the thought of it, which was exactly what we needed to do right then. We baked our dirt, and my sister smoothed the lumps with a rolling pin. "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust." The words came as I sprinkled the dirt, making the sign of the cross on the coffin. Soil from the farm mingled with soil of the grave, dirt mingled with the words of God's blessing. I know the words spoken at the cemetery didn't depend on the dirt in my hand, yet there is something deep and abiding about a sense of place. A particular place. Over the next few days we went to the cemetery often. My sister and I walked the ground near my father's grave ~ as we used to walk the land with him, up and down rows of soybeans. We noticed an almost eerie thing; the names on the stones surrounding his grave were the names of our neighbors on the farm: Buchanans, Cregers, Carisons, Langes. It seemed like the names on the rural mailboxes had been transferred to the cemetery markers. Nobody planned to have the old neighborhood together ~ but there they were next door to my father's grave.
I looked at my sister and wondered aloud: "Where will I be buried?" My sister said she would be buried right there, next to my dad. I don't think I had ever asked the question before. It is not that New York is without cemeteries, but at that moment, standing not far from my father's grave, I had a longing to be laid to rest among my neighbors. And I knew that would be unlikely in New York City.
The pull of a place can be very strong ~ the continuity of old neighborhoods and familiar streets or the feel of Iowa soil in your hand. The second chapter of Matthew is shaped by this strong sense of place. Matthew seems obsessed with particular places. The first part of the chapter leads us along with the wisemen to Jerusalem where King Herod's advisers read from the ancient scrolls to substantiate the place of birth.
"And you, Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah: for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel." Bethlehem in the land of Judah, that is the place. And it was confirmed when the star which had led the travelers from the East went before them toward the tiny town.
Afterward, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod with news of the child. Likewise in a dream, Joseph was warned to take the child Jesus to Egypt to save him from Herod's cruel plan. But Egypt, the place, is not only a safe haven; Egypt has special meaning in Matthew's gospel for the place is tied to the ancient word: "This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, Out of Egypt I have called my son."
So it was that Mary and Joseph took the child to Egypt. Jesus was saved from the king's fear and wrath, even as Moses had been saved long before, floating in a basket among the bulrushes on the river's edge. The place connects the two ~ Moses and Jesus. The place is important for Matthew. Like Moses, Jesus does not stay in Egypt. Again, Joseph receives instructions in a dream, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead. "Go from Egypt to Israel. Go from the place of enslavement to the place of promise." Go now, says God, for this child has been sent to set my people free.
And Joseph went, as the dream guided him from one particular place to another. To the district of Galilee to make his home in a town called Nazareth. There is no sense in Matthew's gospel that this had been Joseph and Mary's home town. Unlike Luke's familiar Christmas story, Mary and Joseph had not traveled to Bethlehem for the census. The child was born in Bethlehem, as the prophets had foretold, and it seems likely, according to Matthew's gospel, that Bethlehem was Mary and Joseph's home town. But it would not remain so. It was important for Matthew to show how Jesus came to live in a different place. This place, too, was important. "And being warned in a dream, Joseph went away to the district of Galilee." There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazarene."
From Bethlehem to Egypt, from Egypt to Nazareth. All according to the ancient texts, every move in continuity with the promises of God. To our sophisticated modern ears, it can seem like Matthew is going through unnecessary gyrations to prove that Jesus was living where he was supposed to be living. What difference does it make ~ according to both Luke and Matthew, Jesus grew up in Nazareth. Don't worry how he got there.
But place is important for Matthew. Bethlehem, the place of birth, was important, and Egypt, the place of refuge. Nazareth in Galilee was important not only at the beginning, but at the very end. When the women went to the tomb on Easter morning, they found an angel sitting on the stone that had sealed the tomb of death. And the angel said to the frightened women, "Do not be afraid ~ Jesus is not here, for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples. He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him."
Place is important to God. The place where you are now is important to God, whatever that place is. It may be a small town or a farm like the place where I grew up. It may be a city where you barely know your neighbors. It may be a nursing home or an army base far from what you consider "home". That place, wherever it is, is important to God. God longs to dwell with you there, in that particular place.
Listen, my friend, I want you to know in these days just after Christmas, in this first week of a new year that Jesus was born so that we would know God is not far off, not in some other place, but here in this place. Wherever you are, Jesus longs to be born there, I am not making it up. This is the word given to us in the very first chapter of Matthew when an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife," the angel said, "for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit." Then, as he does so often, the gospel writer points to the words of scripture saying, "All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel", which means, "God is with us."
Emmanuel, God-is-with-us. Not God will be with us or God was with us. God is with us. In this place. In the Iowa cemetery where my father's grave and the graves of our neighbors now lie covered with snow. In the city where I live where neighbors sometimes don't know each others' names ~ but where great acts of kindness often reach out beyond barriers of great difference. In the place where you are now. Place is important to God.
After the resurrection when Jesus brought his disciples to a mountain in Galilee, he gave them instructions for the days ahead, and then he left them there. But Jesus did not leave them in that place without a promise. "And remember I am with you always, to the end of the age." Not I will be with you in some other place. Not I was with you in some distant time. I am with you always. Emmanuel God-is-with-us. On the street where you know who lives in every house. In the nursing home with photos on the bureau and memories deep in your heart. In the apartment building where Christmas lights still twinkle from the fire escapes. At the gravesite covered with snow. Emmanuel. God-is-with-us in this place. Amen.