Readings for this Sunday: Isaiah 60:1-6 | Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 | Ephesians 3:1-12 | Matthew 2:1-12
This particular part of the gospel from Matthew has been described by one writer as an adult-only nativity. It is a story of Jesus’ birth that doesn’t highlight angels singing or shepherds gathering or babies in mangers. It doesn’t even - as much as we are used to thinking of them as so - tell of three regally clad kings, gliding into town to find the innocent babe. Actually it speaks of dangerous strangeness and threat and the powerful fear that accompanies these unsettling visitors. It shows us the deviousness and the lengths people are capable of going when they feel threatened and at risk of losing the power they think they need. It’s a story that sets the scene for some of the very worse that we can do – it starts a drama that will result in the wiping out, the killing of children.
Herod the great is the very opposite of what a king of Israel should be. He got his power through a deal with the Romans – the occupier in this territory. He is not there to serve the people but rather to serve himself. He is paranoid that his position and the things he has will be taken from him and he will defend his tenuous position by whatever means necessary – he will use the power he has amassed to silence by any means possible whomever threatens or even hints at threatening him.
And he senses a threat in our story today. These strangers, these magi or astrologers, magicians perhaps, mystics maybe, have come a long long way to see what the light is pointing to and they are creating a stir just as people who are different usually do and also because they have intriguing and meaningful news. They are telling people that there is a new king of the Jews. People have been waiting and are in need of a new king of the Jews – the Lord’s promised Messiah – the one who would free them. The light that proclaims the king’s arrival has reached far beyond Israel just as Holy Scripture promised it would. The people are stirred up. And so is Herod.
Based on the information that he solicits from the religious elite that he has in his court and from these strangers, Herod embarks on a course that will end in him wiping out all the boys in Bethlehem under two years old. He so can’t stand this threat to his power and sense of who he is and what he needs that he commits and orders others to commit the most atrocious violence. Children will be killed, parents and siblings will be left bereft, communities will be left in confusion and anger. So yes….an adult-only story. A story of fear and horror: the very worse that humans can do.
The thing is our kids know this story. They really do. They know about children killed in our streets, in our schools, and all over the world. They know about power and the tendency for us to want to amass whatever we can get our hands on and then do whatever it takes to keep it. They know about politics and taking sides and manipulation. They see all of these things in the world around us. They think about these things. They talk about them. And they are looking to see if their churches, if any churches; if the adults in their life or any adults will respond, will engage these issues and engage their thoughts on them with any kind of intention or integrity. They are looking to see if we will be present to these issues in ways that show we are more interested in finding solutions and working with those who are different than postulating and debating and adding to the difficulties that already exist.
You see, our kids not only know this story, they also have something to teach on how to respond. They know something of the kind of response that this one who came to us as a baby would have us know, something that might get us to peace.
About a month ago the kids in this church started a series of Aftertalks. A time after church to talk about some of the issues they see in our world and a time to think about how this act of worship and the things we do here would have us respond. We started this series with a discussion about race. It’s an important topic right now – it’s been an important topic for a long time, but lately the currents of pain that run through our communities are spilling over the shores that have tried to contain them. And we are seeing people voice their hurt and their frustration in demonstrations and in action.
So we talked about Ferguson and other killings of children, especially children of color. These kids of ours responded truthfully and in a way from which our leaders, our churches, and our institutions could learn. It hurts they said. It hurts and we are confused they said. Something is so very wrong, they said. But we don’t know fully what’s going on. Our story and they ways we have been shaped don’t allow us to know fully what is going on, they said. And so we can say what we feel and what we think we know but we know we don’t know all of it. That’s what I heard and it’s stunning - we can say what we feel and what we think we know but we know we don’t know all of it. And, they added, that doesn’t mean we don’t think it’s our problem. We know it’s our problem. We know everyone is connected to this, has a part to play. So we want to know more. We want to hear what it’s like for people who are different from us. We want to be a part of honoring and understanding realities that are not ours. It’s important and we will listen even if it’s painful and we get scared. We want to be present to that and we want to find a way to make sure people, all people, have what they need, even, they said, if it feels like we have to give something up for this to happen. We don’t know what that looks like to move forward, we are confused and angry and it hurts and we feel helpless and maybe somehow partly at fault but we want to be in this thing and working to find a solution. We want to see our church, our adults be in this thing too and looking, and really giving of themselves to finding a solution to the issues we see around us. We want to see our church and our adults at the table, listening and talking about the problems that our world faces; admitting that they too don’t really know all of it. We want to see you listening and hoping like we do and loving others in the way we know these stories that we hear in this place tell us to.
This gospel today – this adult-only word – sets the scene for the whole of the story of Jesus. It sets the scene for everything that our kids and that we already have planted within us – the things that we know to be true. It sets the scene for the whole of the story of God amongst us and God within us. God who is with us as a child vulnerable, honest, knowing, seeing, wanting what’s right and what has integrity. God who is with us as a grown-up, who is willing to be present to the painful and confusing realities in which we live; who is willing to offer a healing hand, a breathtaking, miraculous action, a loving touch, an honest question, and a listening presence. God who is with us as a power who threatens, who disturbs, the other powers of the world. These powers that we see in this story will continue to want to remove him, to make him go away, and although they fail this time as they wipe out the other children ultimately they will kill him. But this God who is with us is one who cannot be put to death, who remains despite the very, very worst that we can do. Who remains, who has faith in us, and who asks us to start again, to remember that there is a light, a truth in us too, that cannot be put out. Who remains, who has faith in us, and asks us to trust that we are loved and forgiven. Who remains and who offers us lights to guide us. Among these lights are our children who will teach us if we will let them how to listen well, how to remember that we don’t know the whole story, how to act on our God given connection to each other and God’s love for all of us – no exceptions. In this way there may be difficulties and we may know some pain, but there will, there absolutely will, be light and love and peace.
Thanks be to God
St. Andrew Sermons