Archives for January 2009

Why frightened?, 2 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2009

January 2, 2009

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23 

When Herod heard about the child who had been born King of the Jews, we read in Matthew that “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Isn’t that odd?

All Jerusalem was frightened with Herod. It’s not like they had our technology that’s capable of getting news from one end of the planet to another. Communication had to have been excruciatingly slow then, compared to ours. How could all of Jerusalem even known the wise men were consulting with Herod at the palace?

That’s probably one of those odd little questions we might ask ourselves as we hear this very familiar passage about Herod whose wickedness astounds us several verses later. We might even remind ourselves that the stories we all know and love about the Christmas event as they’re told in the Synoptic gospels all have variations of time and characters and symbolism. But still, the idea of others in Jerusalem being frightened about the news of the birth of this child is intriguing.

Why frightened – when the birth of the Messiah should have been a cause to rejoice? Why frightened – when the arrival of wise men from afar could have been like the circus coming to town? In those days the idea of three men on their own camels traveling alone from another country would be unimaginable. They’d have traveled with an entourage, armed men as protectors against desert robbers, families perhaps, other animals for food and the portage of tents and other necessities. They may have made quite an entrance into Jerusalem. They got an audience with the king, so they must have had credentials.

Well, we don’t know any of this, and it doesn’t matter, because that’s not the point of this passage. Matthew uses this story to establish that Jesus is the Messiah and as a prologue to establishing Jesus’ ministry in the following chapters. He uses this story also to show that Jesus’ ministry is to all God’s people. The wise men would have been gentiles. The shepherds would have been the poor. Jesus would later challenge the religious leaders by saying tax collectors and prostitutes would go into the kingdom before them. That alone could cause the leaders to be fearfully angry.

But fear – that’s still intriguing, especially as we hear this wonderful story of Jesus as a baby again. The whole idea of wise men, shepherds, angels, a star, our Christmas card version of a cozy, very clean stable (as if there is such a thing), gold, frankincense, and myrrh gives us such a beautiful picture, a magical picture, that we might be tempted to stay with that picture and not look further to what we might reflect on about ourselves.

So, fear. Who should be afraid? Well, not the faithful, not the remnant of Israel as our reading from Jeremiah tells us. The Old Testament reading talked about redemption and restoration for those who had been scattered. While this isn’t a prophesy about Jesus’ birth, it does remind us that God never forsakes God’s people. Even if they have turned from God and have been scattered, the faithful and those who repent will be led by God’s own hand out of sorrow into joy, out of hardship into comfort. Among the remnant will be the blind, the lame, and those with children – they have no need to fear. The poor, the helpless, the marginalized have no need to fear. Generations later, it’s the same. God takes on human flesh and comes to dwell among God’s people as a child. No fear here.

Awe perhaps, and awe has been used as a synonym for fear. This awe is described so beautifully by John Donne in his poem “Annunciation.” He calls the pregnancy of Mary “immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.” That one phrase just explodes with beauty and wonder. To begin that same poem Donne wrote, “Salvation to all that will is nigh.” Here may be what this passage from Matthew could teach us.

“Salvation to all that will …”

Salvation is certainly offered to all, but not all seek God’s truth or accept the free gift of grace. That should be no surprise to us. We see too much evil in the world today, even in this wonderful Christmas season. We see our own governments pandering to the powerful and ignoring the powerless. We see too many in our own church giving lip service to caring for all God’s people, while putting energy into seeking ways to marginalize many and destroy unity.

Children living on the street, family farmers being run out of business by an oppressive economy, humanitarian aid being the first thing cut from a country’s budget, workers losing jobs and often homes while CEOs retire with golden parachutes: these things should give us real cause to fear, just as the arrival of the wise men dropping the truth of God’s incarnation right into Herod’s lap made him fear.

Our fear, however, shouldn’t be a fear of God turning away from us. It should perhaps be the fear that we could be tempted to feel so overwhelmed by all we see in our world today that we might just give up trying to witness to a different way of living as godly people. Fear could make us close our eyes and pretend all is well. Another English poet, T.S. Eliot, in his magnificent poem “The Journey of the Magi” had one of the magi describe this feeling of being overwhelmed by what they returned to after seeing the Christ child:

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

If we take seriously all that the Incarnation calls us to, we might also find that we’re no longer at ease in our own “old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.” We must ask ourselves, who or what inhabits our old dispensation, our old lives.

Can we see who or what in our lives are an “alien people clutching their gods?” Like that wise man, we should be uneasy with some of what we see around us. Our fear of what we see should – instead of paralyzing us – empower us, propel us forward into doing something. A response to God’s free gift of grace will turn fear into the kind of deep joy we associate with the story of the wise men. That doesn’t mean it will be easy.

Eliot’s wise man talked about the journey to Bethlehem.

A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

The whispering that this journey might be all folly could have been a real source of fear for that wise man. But they kept on, and in the end:

arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again.

Our collect for today offers us a wonderful prayer to help us as we reflect on our fears, but more hopefully on how we might respond to God’s invitation to affect for good the world we live in.

“Oh God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him, who humbled himself to share our humanity.”
What greater thing could we ask? May it be so for us all.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.

Holy Janitors, Feast of the Holy Name / New Year’s Day (B) – January 1, 2009

(RCL) Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

The ancient Romans had among their pantheon a god of doorways. His name was Janus. With two faces, one looking forward and the other looking back, he was the god of beginnings as well as endings. He gives his name, of course, to this month, “January,” and to “janitors,” the keepers of doorways.

And so, on the threshold of another year, as the vast majority of our fellow citizens are waking up from last night’s revelry and switching on holiday parades and football games, we are holy janitors, gathered here this morning to sanctify this transition – Janus was also the god of transition and change, by the way – and to greet this beginning with prayer and song and fellowship.

Just as the ancient Romans felt the need for a god of beginnings, and gathered to pay him homage when the wheat was sown, or when the harvest began, or when a baby was born, there is, within our human nature, a deep yearning for new beginnings, and a natural hope that this year will be better than the last.

That same yearning, that same hope, was ascribed to Jesus Christ by the early church. Paul in the first chapter of his letter to the Colossians, writes very simply: “He is the beginning.”

And, though as far as we know Jesus had only one face, looking forward, in the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos records the Lord saying again and again, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” the beginning and the end.

After Pentecost, in a time of transition, the early Church struggled with its identity and purpose, longing in the face of persecution and skepticism for a new beginning, for the coming of the heavenly Jerusalem that John so vividly describes. The first followers ached for a second chance.

On this Feast of the Holy Name our readings are all about second chances, as we look backward and forward at the same time. In the book of Numbers, God pronounces a blessing on the new priests as they begin their new way of life. God has brought the people out of Egypt, and now God begins trying to build them into the vision of a priestly kingdom that is the culmination of God’s plan. Centuries later, after prophets have risen and kingdoms have fallen, God tries again. Yet another chance, and again, God has a new name – officially given on this holy day: Jesus, Yeshua, the Lord is Salvation.

As a sign that it is indeed a new beginning, that God is crossing a threshold that has not been crossed before, as a sign that things are to be different, the news of the second chance is told first to shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks. Not to kings or sages. Not to the rich and the mighty. And where are the shepherds to find him? Not in Jerusalem. Not in the temple or in a palace, but in Bethlehem of all places, in a barn, wrapped in rags and lying in a feeding box. An old way is ending, and a new one is beginning. The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us.

Christ’s birth, his advent, is a second chance for humanity, and for our relationship with God. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, declares that by it we have received adoption as God’s children. And what is adoption but a second chance? God in Christ has chosen us – adopted us – and given us a new beginning; and even more than a new beginning, a whole new life, a new birth, a new creation in which to live. We are no longer slaves but children of God. And so on this wonderful morning, on the threshold of another year, the news is good: God so loved the world, that in Christ, he gave us another chance, so that we may not perish, but have eternal life.

The tension built into the theology of Advent is its focus on both the first coming and the second coming of Christ. We prepare to celebrate the first even as we wait for the second. And some of us may wonder if we are to give thanks for the second chance that God offered us in Christ while all we can see around us is the need for the third chance?

In our most grounded, centered, and prayerful selves, we know that cries of “How Long, O Lord?” must be tempered by an understanding of the first coming. And the tension of Advent, the pull to give ourselves over to the hope of a new beginning that will fix everything, is balanced by an understanding of the incarnation, and the Church in God’s plan of salvation.

The tension of Advent is resolved in some sense by the knowledge that no matter when the second coming takes place, the first coming has given us the ability to live in the kingdom. That deep desire of every nation, that profound longing that we hear in Isaiah’s oracles, that Mary articulates in her song of praise, that Jesus foresaw – that possibility is present. It’s here. Jesus, as Paul says, is the Beginning.

In other words, we are living in an in-between time. We are living between the first coming and the second coming. And somehow, though we have been given everything we need to build the kingdom of God, we haven’t built it yet, at least not to the specifications of Jesus’ blueprint.

And so, as we step boldly once again across the threshold into a new year, perhaps our greatest hope should be that in this in-between time, God is not finished with us. That God is still at work in our lives and in creation.

On the Feast of the Holy Name, we might remind ourselves that our society has given God a lot of other names: “money,” “success,” “things,” “alcohol,” “drugs,” “sex.” Many people don’t know God’s name at all.

Our work as Christians, what we, in fact, must do, is to help people discover that God can still transform their lives. We are not just following an ethical code set forth by a lovely and kind teacher 2,000 years ago. We are building the kingdom of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, co-creators with God of a transformed reality. We must show the world that God, the great “I am,” the alpha and the omega, is not finished, but is at work, and has the power even now to give us new lives and new hearts.

It won’t be long – just a few months from now – until we gather before the cross, to witness the baby whose coming fills us with such hope, now grown and dying. The power of God, friends, is to draw Easter out of Good Friday.

The power of God is that beginnings follow what seem to be endings.

The meaning of the birth is connected to the meaning of the death and resurrection in this way: the kingdom breaks in where and when it is least expected. And despite any sense of powerlessness or hopelessness or cynicism we might experience, our purpose in this in-between time, this time of transition, is to be agents of the in-breaking. The kingdom comes – it can come and it will come – when we, by our work and witness, manifesting the power of God that we know, bring it to bear.

Our work as Christians is to make the kingdom real where and when it is least likely to appear. Isn’t that what it means to be the Body of Christ?

And so, fellow holy janitors, keepers of this new day, let us pray that God may fill our hearts with joy and hope in believing; save us from our fears and doubts; and give us courage and strength to be instruments of the in-breaking of his promised kingdom.

 

— The Rev. Timothy Crellin is vicar of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Boston and founder of the B-SAFE program, which serves more than 500 children and teens in Boston every summer, and the St. Stephen’s after-school program, which serves more than 125 young people every afternoon. He lives in Jamaica Plain with his wife and seven-year-old son.