Sunday, December 26, 2010

Our Wandering Savior: Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23

It always comes as a shock, doesn’t it? The letdown after Christmas. Suddenly, you feel as if the sound of one more Christmas carol just might drive you bonkers. The idea of returning to the store to exchange something that was the wrong size or the wrong color or just plain wrong is about as appealing as stale cookies. Everything builds and builds to the day of Christmas—and the peace on earth and goodwill towards all is fleeting at best. The Irish performers “The Chieftains” have a song about this very phenomenon—the evaporation of peace and goodwill on December 26. The song is called “The Saint Stephen’s Day Murders.”

And so we come to it: the dark side of Christmas. And make no mistake, there is indeed a dark side to this holiday, and every three years the lectionary provides us with a reading that is a glass of ice water in our faces to remind us of the reality that sweeps in as a result of the birth we have just celebrated. The reality is death, stark, unlovely and violent.

We are going out of order with our story, because the events described in today’s reading take place after the visit of the travelers from the East—variously called magi, kings, philosophers, wise men or astronomers—a reading we will not hear in church for another week or so. You will remember that these traveling astronomers learned from their charting of the stars that a king was to be born in or around Jerusalem, and they came inquiring of Herod the king where that child might be, so that they might pay him homage. That was their deadly mistake, inquiring of Herod.

Here are some of the things we know about this King Herod, not to be confused with Herod Antipas, one of his sons, who later sees to the killing of John the Baptist. This Herod was known as Herod the Great—a title he, perhaps, gave himself, since his brutal regime did not inspire love in his people. He was King of the Jews, but not a Jewish King—he was an Edomite, installed as king over the Jews by Rome; he was a puppet king, a client king. As long as he did Rome’s bidding, he was able to retain a certain amount of power. That power included the ability to put to death anyone who threatened his claim to the throne.

Here are just a couple of instances in which Herod used that power. First, Herod had three of his own sons executed, lest they usurp his throne. And second, Herod issued a decree that, upon his death, one member of every family in Judea should be killed. That way, he reasoned, the people would truly mourn.

And so, Herod was entirely capable of responding to the threat of a new king, a king whose birth even the stars bore witness to. And his response is a brutal and merciless act, the act of killing all the children in Bethlehem who were two years old or younger. Mind you, scholars are not convinced that this killing really happened. There are a couple of reasons for that; first, there is no evidence outside scripture, or anywhere except this passage, that it happened. And second, Matthew writes his gospel very much with the intention of showing Jesus to be a kind of new Moses, and the slaughter of children by a cruel monarch echoes the killing of the Hebrew infant boys by the Pharaoh.

Still. Bethlehem, in the years of Jesus’ birth and infancy, had a population of just around 1000. That means there would have been, perhaps, twenty infant boys of the age Herod targeted. It may be that, in the midst of a tyrant’s reign that was filled with killing, the deaths of twenty Jewish children were not considered to be worth the notice of the historians. In any case, whether or not the story is factual, it is true.

What do I mean by that? That the story may not be factual, but it is true. I mean, the empire always strikes back. When someone rises up, someone on the margins, someone like this Palestinian Jewish baby boy, born to poor parents with no political power, but still someone who, in Herod’s mind constituted a threat to him, to the Empire—of course, the empire will strike back. Think of everything Jesus came to stand for. Jesus came, preaching the good news to the poor and powerless. He came healing the blind and the deaf and the lame and welcoming sinners and children. He came challenging the system that insisted on ritual purity and instead insisted on love and compassion. He came, eating dinner with anyone and everyone. He came saying, not “Blessed are the fortunate,” or “Blessed are the elite,” but “Blessed are the poor,” and “Blessed are the merciful.”

Of course, Herod couldn’t yet know any of that. All he knew was that someone, somewhere was thought of as newborn king, perhaps only by a handful of star-gazers. For King Herod in Judea, for the Emperor Augustus in Rome—the coming of this child could only mean that the delicate balance of power of the empire was being threatened, was being challenged. In Jesus’ day, as in our day, innocents are regularly killed when they become even the tiniest threat to those in power.

And so what becomes of Jesus? His parents flee with him; they become vagabond refugees. Like Moses, Jesus becomes a wanderer in Egypt. Our church teaches us that Jesus is fully human and fully divine—that is the mystery of the incarnation, that is what is at the heart of Christmas . If we take that belief seriously, we are confronted with the staggering irony of the all-powerful creator of the universe, the one who fashioned every star and planet and galaxy and sun, on the run from a third-rate king who only gets to wear a crown because he is willing to play nice with Rome. This gives us some sense of the cost of the incarnation, the cost to God of becoming human. God was willing to empty God’s self of power so thoroughly, so completely, that he took on our fragile human flesh and made himself vulnerable to even this Herod, this petty tyrant. Jesus becomes our wandering savior, on the run with his parents, until such a time as Herod himself is dead and the warrant cancelled.

This is a hard gospel lesson for the Sunday after Christmas. But the incarnation is more than a beautiful baby held by his glowing mother in a warm and cozy stable. The incarnation is more even than glorious visions of angels singing their heavenly melodies, and shepherds running, jubilant, to tell the good news. The incarnation is about God being willing to experience what it is to suffer and die as a human, because God wants to put an end to our suffering. The incarnation is about love so deep, so broad, so high, it is willing to go to any lengths for our sake. That kind of love is something to make us rejoice, to be sure. And it reminds us where Jesus’ heart is, who it is that Jesus stands solidly alongside: the refugees, the vagabonds, the powerless, and the poor.

Because this story is so painful, Matthew remembers for us the weeping of Rachel, one of the matriarchs of Israel. He quotes from Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” The piece I am about to sing was written about five hundred years ago, and it too gives voice to Rachel’s pain. I invite you, if you are mourning any loss, or if you simply are mourning the ongoing violence of this world, the ongoing suffering of the innocents, to pray this lament with me, knowing that the love that saves comes at a great cost.

Rachel’s Lament From a Medieval Mystery Play

Ah! Alas! You tender babes!
Such savage wounds we are viewing!
Ah! Alas! You sweet infants,
Doomed to death by a deed of madness!

Ah! Alas! That neither years
Nor tender affection could save you!
Piteous mothers, Ah!
That you should have to realize
What we have witnessed!

What shall we do now? Alas!
How can we bear such happenings?
All these memories of ours, Alas!
Can but serve to renew our grief!

No more can there be gladness
Since our sweet pledges of love have perished!

This is, as I have said, a hard gospel to hear the day after Christmas. But we have to hold alongside this story the words from Christmas Eve: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). The empire strikes back. But the power of the empire is fleeting. And the Christmas promise of peace on earth and goodwill towards God’s people is real and enduring, despite the burnout we may feel today from overdosing on shopping or cookies. We can find that promise reflected in the resilience and courage of this little vagabond family, traveling home again after a sojourn in Egypt. They made their home, we are told, in Nazareth of Galilee. But the truth penetrates deeper than that: God made a home with humanity, forever. And nothing—no petty tyrant or superpower, no heartbreak or illness, neither heights nor depths nor things past nor things to come—nothing can separate us from God, now that God’s home is with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Tale of the Innkeeper's Wife: A Sermon for Christmas Eve

“It’s all about the hospitality,” he says, my husband, Amos. He says that all the time. I suppose it makes sense. We’re innkeepers. What else would it be about? Well, I’ll tell you what else it would be about: it’s all about the business. It’s a business! Sometimes you have to shake that man to remind him: we’re not doing this for our health.

Perhaps I should introduce myself. I am Rachel, and my husband and I are innkeepers in Bethlehem, the great City of David. Oh, it’s not so “great.” Just a thousand souls or so. But every so often, when the Roman bigwigs get it into their minds that they want a count of us, just to see how much trouble we’ll be, or where they need to send their regiments and legions, Bethlehem swells to be a city of many, many more than that. It’s a great homecoming: everyone of the house and lineage of David, which is to say, the tribe of Judah, comes home to Bethlehem. Amos and I, we’re not from Bethlehem. We’re of a different tribe, the tribe of Benjamin. And the tribe of Benjamin—let’s just say, we don’t have quite the reputation for hospitality of our brother tribes. Maybe that’s why Amos has such an issue with it. Maybe he feels he has something to prove.

It’s like those guests we had, in the time of that last census. Oh my, the city was packed. I had never seen it so filled with travelers. Now, most travelers, when they come to their ancestral city, well, of course, they stay with family. But occasionally, you have a family that’s not—well, let’s say, they’re not so friendly with one another. Let’s be realists here, shall we? It happens all the time. So, that’s where we come in! Some poor travelers come all the way from Bethany or Jerusalem or even, God help them, some backwater like Cana or Nazareth—and who puts them up for the night or the week or however long it takes the Romans to count them on their little beads? We do! Amos Ben Joseph! And wife. Of course.

And children. We have five, thanks be to God, five who have lived beyond the age of two, at any rate. The children work with their father and me in the inn, they tend our little garden and see to the livestock. It’s a good life, an honest living. And it’s a service that is needed.

So the town was filled to overflowing, and for the first time ever we had to turn away traveler after traveler. A lot of families having squabbles that year, I suppose. Or maybe our people are exploding in number! Who knows? But day in and day out for two weeks, Amos and I were forced to say, “No, I’m sorry, we are full—try Jacob and Naomi down the street.”

I remember I was working in the kitchen that night, trying to provide a decent meal for about thirty hungry souls when in walks Amos, with that look on his face. That look he gets when he has to tell me something he knows I’m not going to like.

“What is it?” I asked. I was kneading dough for bread. I’m sure my face was flushed, which also happens when I get angry. I wasn’t angry. Yet. He hesitated. Amos is a good man, but he can be timid. Especially with me.

“What is it?” I asked. I was so busy. I had no time for some great complication that probably wouldn’t matter in the end. I had so many things to do!

Amos straightened himself up and said, “We have taken in some additional guests. You will find them in the stable. See that they have a decent meal tonight.” And he turned on his heel and walked away.

Or, tried to. “Just a minute, husband,” I stopped him, and he turned around to face me again. I see that very same look on our children sometimes. That look of almost having gotten away with something.

“What in the world are you telling me? The busiest night of our year, the we are full to overflowing, and you get it into your mind to put someone up with the cows and the goats?” Then I thought a moment. Maybe Amos was a good business man after all. I was suddenly eager to hear what could possibly have persuaded him to open our stable to travelers. “What—did they offer you some exorbitant amount of money? Did they give you a denarius?”

Amos shook his head. And all pretense left his face, all false bravado. He was just the man I married, just for a moment. A deeply kind face, my Amos has. Kinder than his wife.

“Rachel, they were so poor. A husband and a wife. And… she was in a bad way.” My Amos, five children, and he still can’t bring himself to speak frankly about the facts of life. I knew instantly what he meant.

“The girl is with child?” He nodded vigorously. “Is it… soon?” He shrugged his shoulders. “Could be.” I nodded, still kneading.

“And there’s something else,” Amos said. I could feel myself bristling with irritation. “What? What else?” I snapped. Amos looked down. He was twisting a piece of cloth in his hands. “His name was Joseph, like my father.” Then he looked up at me again. “It’s all about hospitality, Rachel. What kind of people would we be to turn them away?”

I shook my head. It’s all about the business, except when it isn’t. Then I looked up into my husband’s kind face. I suppose even we Benjaminites have learned a thing or two about hospitality. “Fetch me one of the girls,” I said, and he nodded and ducked out of the kitchen.

I placed six fat fragrant loaves on the stone in the oven, and stepped out to the well to wash my hands and face. Hannah, my eldest came running to me, a little out of breath. She had been serving the guests in the great room. Hannah is a good girl, smart, and ready to be helpful. Truth be told, she should be married by now—she’s almost fifteen. But I have been dragging my feet. It’s good to have a good daughter by your side.

“Mama?” she said, expectantly.

I placed my hand on her shoulder. “Hannah, there are guests in the stable, a husband and wife, and the wife is going to have a baby. Go to them, see what they need.”

She nodded, turned and ran. My Hannah. I know I can depend on her.

A few short minutes later she came running back. “Mama,” she said. “I think you’d better come.” My daughter does not panic. If Hannah felt it was urgent, I should listen to her.

“Check the loaves in about an hour,” I said, “unless they smell done before that. See to the guests in the great room.” I smiled at her. “I know you can do it.” She smiled back at me.

I ran to our closet and took an armful of soft cloths, and I went to the well for water. I ducked my head back into the kitchen. “And Hannah—warm up some water for me. Not too hot.” She nodded, and pulled out a large pot. I took a good sharp knife from the table, and I was ready.

As I headed towards the stable I was shaking my head. For the goodness and kindness of my husband, tonight I would be a midwife. This was a first. Not midwifing a birth—no woman gets to be my age in Bethlehem without standing in on a birth or two or ten. No, the first was—they were strangers. It was in our stable. I said a quick prayer of thanksgiving that Amos and I had taught our boys to keep a tidy stable; I knew there would be fresh straw at least, for a bed for the mother.

I stepped into the dim light. There was a lantern near the door, and another at the far end, which is where they were, the wife already lying on the ground with her back to the wall, the husband hovering nervously over her. I looked around at the animals… they were restless. They knew what was happening. Animals have unfailing instincts about birth and death, and they lend their sympathy to all creatures going through the great passages.

I approached, and I could see she was already in hard labor—she probably had been for some time. I smiled at the husband, in a way I hoped was reassuring. The wife—young thing, high color, grimacing with pain and trying as hard as she could not to make any noise—looked up at me with, not fear exactly, something more like—hope. The husband startled me by his insistence on staying, though I tried to shoo him out more than once. He seemed—very attached to his wife, which is always refreshing. At some point Hannah crept in with the basin of warm water. She stayed by my side, wordlessly taking directions from me, helping as if she’d been doing it for thirty years instead of just an hour.

What happened next is what nearly always happens. The hard, hard work of bring a new life into the world. She was brave. Far more brave than I was at her age, and I had my mother and my sisters beside me. As the night wore on and the moment grew nearer, her face changed so that—I swear, this is true—it was filled with a kind of light. I have never before seen anything like it, or anything since.

And then all was silent, as the mother lay back in the straw, breathless, pale again. I took the babe, and showed the mother how to wrap him in clean strips of cloth. I held him, for just a moment. I saw it in his face too—that light, I swear it stopped breath in my lungs. And then I handed him to his mother. I left them, and the father had curled himself around the mother, who curled herself around the child. Just an ordinary babe, an ordinary family, after all. As Hannah and I left I realized I was trembling. I wondered why it affected me so much. Why it affects me still.

It was already early in the morning by the time we returned to our room, where we found Amos awake, waiting for us. I must have looked tired; he put his arm around me without saying a word. I was still filled with the wonder of the birth—the accident of it all, wandering travelers who just happened to find their way to us, my husband who just happened to have a soft spot for young couples in distress, and for men named “Joseph” like his father. And me, called upon to be midwife for these poor strangers. It just seemed the right thing to do. In the end, it changed me. I’m still not sure how.

It’s all about the business. That’s what I like to tell Amos when it seems he’s grown too softhearted to make tough decisions. But maybe Amos is right. Maybe it’s all about opening your home, opening your heart to the weary, needy traveler. Opening your life to a young family, to a child in need. Maybe it’s only when we do that, that we can truly open our hearts to the holy One, to God. Thanks be. Amen.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Nearness of Heaven: A Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12

Who or what draws us? By which I mean, for what or for whom would you stand in line, or go through security, or pay an exorbitant amount of money to get the tickets? In my family, we have been known to go out of our way for theater. Far out of our way. Three hour drives, for example. For my mom, it was Frank Sinatra. She first stood in line for him when she was in her twenties, and I joined her in one of those lines when she was in her sixties. Performers like Lady Gaga regularly attract sellout crowds at astonishing prices.

Of course, we go out of our way to experience things other than entertainment. About a month ago I drove almost two hours and went through pretty tight security to see former President Bill Clinton speak at Colgate University. My son got on a bus in Manhattan that same weekend to be one of about 215,000 to attend Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore the Sanity in Washington, DC, just a couple of months after about 100,000 other Americans attended Glenn Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor. Who or what draws us?

John the Baptist, the man at the center of today’s gospel lesson, draws people. He draws crowds. He draws all types of people—young and old, rich and poor, liberal and conservative. Pharisees and Sadducees are among those he draws, and that means he draws people from across the religious spectrum, from those considered most tradition-bound to those pushing the boundaries of progressivism. He draws them all, and we have to wonder why. What is it about this man who suddenly appears in the wilderness, proclaiming a message of tough love that has crowds flocking to him? What is it about John, about whom Matthew makes an astonishing claim—that five hundred years earlier the prophet Isaiah was referring to John when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” What is it about this man who dresses strangely, wearing animal pelts, and who survives on a diet of insects and wild honey? What is it about this man who urges people to be baptized, because, he promises, “The kingdom of heaven has come near”?

John offers people a “baptism of repentance.” John takes us back to the most ancient understanding of baptism, from a Greek word that means, “dipping.” For John, baptism is about one thing and one thing only. People come to him in the wilderness, and he dips them into the water, and when they emerge, they are cleansed. They are free. They have a fresh start. And John wants them to have a fresh start, because the nearness of heaven demands their full attention.

When John says, “The kingdom of heaven has drawn near,” he is using a euphemism. When he says heaven, he means God. It was not permitted in Judaism to use the name of God casually, or to even write it down in its entirety. Across the street from the place I went to seminary is Jewish Theological Seminary. In the seminary there is a room dedicated to the permanent—eternal—storage of pieces of paper that have the name of God written on them, but which are no longer being used. Such paper cannot be destroyed, recycled, or otherwise re-purposed. The name of God must be preserved. John uses a euphemism to indicate God. He uses the word “heaven.”

At this point in the gospel, John knows that something, someone extraordinary is coming, but it isn’t until Jesus presents himself for baptism that John knows precisely who and how. Only when he lets John dip him in the water does John come to realize that the presence of God is found in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. At this point, John simply knows that something amazing is on its way, that God’s presence will be made manifest among people in a wholly new way. And John’s judgment is that the best possible way to be ready for this presence is to throw off the old, to be done with the sin and failure of the past. John invites everyone to come with a clean slate, a new lease on life.

I think this is the answer to my question. I think this is the draw. This is what has Pharisees and Sadducees elbowing each other to get a better place in line. This is what appeals to young and old, to rich and poor: the chance for a fresh start. What would you give? What would you endure? What would you pay? How long would you wait for a fresh start? A clean slate? A sense of being totally new?

No matter that it is still Advent in here, and will be for nearly three more weeks, out there you and I know it’s already Christmas. The lights are up, the carols have been playing since mid-November, the magazines telling us how to have that elusive “perfect” celebration have long been on the stands. I think one of the things that draws us in this season is that promise of the perfect Christmas. I think it represents a kind of fresh start for us, a day when old hurts are healed and we come together with loved ones in perfect peace and harmony.

Except, we don’t seem to believe we can come together in perfect peace and harmony unless we have managed to transform our homes into some kind of magazine-spread of glittering Christmas beauty. And so we do all kinds of things to make the holiday everything we think it should be. We cook and we clean, and we bake and we decorate, and we buy and we buy and we buy, because we have somehow become convinced that the amount of love in our hearts is directly translatable into dollars and cents. And we come to the day itself, and we find that the preparations have entirely drained us of all hope of feeling anything but exhaustion or numbness.

I think that none of the trappings are anywhere near the heart of what we really want. I think what we want is a fresh start—with our family, with our friends, with our church, with our co-workers. I think that’s why the image of the “white Christmas,” in which a fresh fall of snow blankets everything, is so powerful. We want a beginning that fresh, that pristine, that beautiful. We want hope.

‎Writer Barbara Kingsolver said, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside your hope. Not admire it from a distance, but live right in it, under its roof.” John the Baptist reminds us of what it’s like to live in hope, the confident anticipation that heaven, God, is near. Living in hope means casting off what is weighing us down. Living in hope means accepting God’s gift of a fresh start each morning, sometimes each minute. Living in hope means opening ourselves to every opportunity to experience the nearness of heaven—starting now, around this table. Thanks be to God. Amen.