a Sermon for Christmas 2A
Text: Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
A Troubling History
A few years ago, Diana Butler Bass wrote a book called A People’s History of Christianity. Like other “People’s Histories,” it is a history told, not from the perspective of the victors, but of the vanquished: in this case, it is the people, whose ideas and very lives were defeated, destroyed, and martyred. It is a fascinating way to engage our history, because it reveals so many faithful voices that were silenced.
Reading through the book as a story, I noticed something about the way we tell our own story of Christianity: time and again tradition punishes the vanguard—those thinkers and practitioners who innovate and discover are condemned—only to have their contributions become common a century later.
Our tradition has trouble with hard things.
You may have noticed that I read more Gospel a few moments ago than was printed in the inserts. Our lectionary omits the challenging verses in the middle (16-18) which deal with Herod’s evil scheme to kill children in order to protect his reign. This certainly isn’t the part of the story we dwell on in our Christmas pageants.
We remember that several astrologers from Persia come to Judea looking for a king, telling people all about it. King Herod and all the leadership hear this and get scared. Herod hires these supposed “wise” men to go find this toddler king and lo and behold, they do. But, when the astrologers don’t return, Herod comes up with a plan B: a disgusting and brutal plan to kill all of the toddlers “in and around Bethlehem”.
Who is Herod?
We could be forgiven in our excitement over the baby’s birth to ignore these unsightly elements. It is easy to avoid Herod completely and see Jesus’s coming as pure metaphysics and not politics.
Scott Hoezee describes Herod this way:
This particular monarch named Herod was among the ancient world’s most despised despots. He was, in the last analysis, insane and dangerous. In the years prior to the birth of Jesus and the appearance of these Magi, Herod had murdered no less than three of his own sons. Why? Because he feared they had designs on usurping his throne. Herod’s proclivity to violence was so well know that even Caesar Augustus once privately told someone that it was safer to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons! Historians believe Herod came to power around the year 37 B.C. When some of the Jewish leaders of that day initially protested Herod’s presence in the area of Judea, Herod responded by rounding up a large number of Pharisees and then having them flogged and killed.
This evil that the Holy Family escapes is a reminder of an earlier experience the hearers of this gospel would easily recognize: the Exodus. That story also begins with a baby boy, wrapped in swaddling clothes, who escapes the genocide of a whole mass of children at the hands of a brutal and evil king.
That story tells us of a boy who learns of his place among his people, and when he is called by GOD, leads them out of slavery. He does this when GOD returns the “favor” of brutality onto Pharaoh and his people: slaughtering Egyptian children in the Passover.
In the Holy Family seeking safety in Egypt in response to new human brutality, we see the ongoing struggle with earthly violence: with the reminder of unsightly divine violence.
We Can’t Hide
The Rev. Russell Rathbun reminds us that the ancient wisdom of Jewish rabbis tells us that scripture always contains the hard stuff: not just the easy. When we read of salvation, we also read of violence. When we read of redemption, we also read of punishment. He says that we can’t hide the hard stuff, or hide from it.
Though even our lectionary sometimes tries.
The Evangelist we call Matthew tells us the birth story from Joseph’s point-of-view and Herod’s, rather than Mary’s or the shepherds’. We no doubt excise this tiny bit of text about genocide because there may be children present or parents who have lost their own children to accidents or violence.
But it is this tiny part that the Evangelist references from Jeremiah, which Rathbun reminds us speaks of Rachel, favored wife of Jacob, grandson of Abraham, who GOD renamed Israel. His descendents would become the nation of that name: Israel.
Here is Rachel’s grieving for all of the children of Israel. Here is the reminder of life and loss and returning and new life.
The remainder of this passage, missing from the quote in Matthew just like this passage is missing from our lectionary, speaks of return and rebirth:
Return, O virgin Israel, return to these your cities. How long will you waver, O faithless daughter? For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth: a woman encompasses a man. (Jeremiah 31:21-22)
How perfect, then that Mary returns from her exile with the Son of Man encompassed.
Our Missing Stories
GOD has a way of revealing our stories. We may try to hide them, snip them out, or cover them with black like a redacted life, but the black never stays. The stories are ours.
There’s a reason Jesus came in the midst of a violent world and preached a peace revolution. There’s a reason Jesus also preached repentance and transformation. That our pasts aren’t erased, but our predetermined futures are.
GOD’s grace is about changing today to free tomorrow. Our pasts, then, remind us not of who we are, but who we are not.
On the surface, St. Paul’s benefits by avoiding the hard stuff. We give more when we’re happy and tighten our wallets and our schedules when uncomfortable. But we can’t hide from the hard stuff.
Even our recorded history is spotty. There are gaps in the story, a century ago, in which this congregation didn’t meet for worship, but the vestry did meet to argue about money. Times in which the pews swelled with growth in the community and shrank when jobs disappeared. Budgets and generosity swell and shrink in equal measure.
There is good and bad in our story, but it remains our story. How connected are we to our story?
Claiming the Whole Story
Each year, Jews all over the world gather to remember the Passover—a story of great brutality and liberation. It’s good parts are full of thankfulness and it’s bad are inescapable. But they gather to eat the food of the story and to hear all of it that they might know their story.
We are called to know our story. Our story as Christians and as St. Paul’s. We are called to know from where we came—all of it.
Reading our written history, I noticed that we have not recorded a history of our congregation since 1968. The last 45 years, more than 1/3 of our congregation’s life, isn’t written down. I’ve challenged the vestry to lead a writing of our history: the good and the bad. I’m certain they’d love your help in this project.
The purpose of this endeavor, of course, is that we might not only engage our history, but embrace all of what we are called to do, not simply what we are used to doing. That we might see what GOD has been doing in our lives so that we can name what GOD is doing today. All of it. In retelling our past, we might more thoughtfully write our future.
In the Incarnation, we received GOD as one of us. In the Incarnation GOD became. Today, in this last day of the Christmas season, may we celebrate not just what makes us happy or thankful. May we celebrate the past that does not dictate the future. And may we celebrate all of creation, all that we inhabit, and all that makes us living children of GOD.