Joined by Jesus, Christmas 2 – 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84 or 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

The Christmas season is a period in which the Church celebrates that God unites God’s self to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. At the very heart of Christmas is the birth of our divine Savior, Christ the Lord, who is the Word made flesh. As Christians, we believe that the Son of God took upon himself the fullness of our human nature and that at his conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary he received a human body of flesh and bone, a human heart to love, and a human mind to reason, think, and will. Indeed, following the teachings of the Holy Scriptures Christians affirm that Jesus is like us in all things except for sin.

Theologians call the belief that God became flesh “the Mystery of the Incarnation.” It is one of the key points of the Church’s faith as expressed by the Nicene Creed: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate and was made man.” It is not a mystery in the sense of being any sort of secret. Rather, it is a mystery because its reality goes beyond our limited ability to understand it.

Today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, the story of the flight into Egypt, illustrates some of the ways in which the Lord Jesus, in his humanity, identified himself with the faithful people of God in moments of both hardship and rejoicing.

First, Jesus identifies himself with the people of Israel. The passage from the second chapter of Matthew is chock-full of evocative words and names that are meant to make the reader remember the story of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. Just as there is in the book of Genesis, here there is a Joseph who sees visions in his dreams and who leads the people to refuge in the land of Egypt. Like the story of the Exodus, here we find a Miriam, or Mary. There is even a Joshua, or Jesus, like we find in the book of Deuteronomy and in the story of the return to the Land of Promise as told in the book of Joshua. Even Herod’s wrath and seeking to kill the Holy Child echoes the pharaoh’s cruelty toward the Hebrew children. Such allusions to the story of the Old Testament are an intentional part of Matthew’s story about Jesus. By connecting Jesus to the story of the salvation of the covenant people, the Evangelist demonstrates how Jesus’ life and story are one with the life and the story of Israel. Matthew is telling us that Jesus is one with God’s covenant people because he has lived their history and their experience in his own flesh. Thus, one might say that Jesus is not simply Jewish; Jesus is the authentic embodiment of Israel.

Second, Jesus identifies himself with the promise to bring all nations, including the traditional enemies of Israel, into God’s Kingdom. The story of the flight in Egypt is a healthy reminder that God’s interest is not limited only to Israel. National borders do not limit God’s sovereign power. God looks upon the whole world and upon every nation and people. As the creator of the entire human race, the Christian God offers mercy and grace to Jews and Gentiles alike. Matthew seems to revel in the irony that the newborn Messiah was rejected by the King Herod of Judah but welcomed by Gentiles in Egypt. One might consider just how deep Jesus’ identification with the children of Egypt was. He spoke their language. He played their games and shared their friendship as children across the world do. Once again Egypt, too, has become holy ground. This was, perhaps, a first step toward the long promised reconciliation of the Gentiles to the creator. This was announced by the Hebrew prophets and was fulfilled in the eschatological vision of people from every race, language, and nation singing around the heavenly throne.

Third, with the Flight into Egypt Jesus, who later teaches, “blessed are the poor,” identifies himself with the poor and the marginalized of this world. It must never be forgotten that the Holy Family were on the run, that they were fleeing their homeland as victims of political persecution. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lived as refugees in Egypt. They, like Abraham, Jacob, and his sons before them and like so many people in the world today, were exiles from their home and migrants in a foreign land. Christ, therefore, knows firsthand the experiences of the outcast, the foreigner, and the immigrant. He knows the trials of the refugee seeking safety and protection from the wrath and cruelty of evildoers and tyrants.

This experience of the flight into Egypt explains the force of Jesus’ teaching that whatever we do for the least of his brothers and sisters we do for him because he has made himself one with the marginalized. He has been the exile, the migrant, and the refugee. Therefore, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the exiled are things Christians rightly do to honor our Lord. Christians must identify with the poor and the exiled because Christ himself was counted among their number. We must serve the needy among us because in doing so we serve Jesus Christ who loves all people. As the Apostle James wrote in the first century, “true religion is to care for widows and orphans in their distress.”

During the Christmas season it is also important to recall that Jesus identified himself with the joys of our celebrations. In Matthew’s telling of the flight into Egypt, Jesus does not only suffer the hardship of exile. He also experiences the joy of coming home. The joy of returning to one’s homeland is a regular theme in the message of the Hebrew prophets that can be seen from today’s lesson from the prophet Jeremiah: “He who scattered Israel will gather him…for the Lord has ransomed Jacob from hands too strong for him. They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion…and they shall never languish again.” This is a joyous celebration that God brings God’s children home. This experience of return further signals Jesus as the one who embodies the life of Israel. It suggests something of the great expectation that God will provide a definitive return to the life of justice and peace in his divine kingdom, as Matthew suggests by his citation of the prophet Hosea: “Out of Egypt have I called my Son.”

The return from exile in Egypt reminds us that Christ also understands the human need for celebration. We rejoice in God’s blessings. We rejoice in hopes fulfilled. The desires to sing and to dance, to laugh and to rejoice are not foreign to our Lord. After all, these expressions of joy and happiness are a powerful part of what it is to be human, to be fully human as Jesus Christ was and is. In the mystery of the incarnation, God shares this human joy in all its fullness.

The incarnation of Christ therefore provides the Church with a powerful reason to celebrate. Not only is it that, “the Word become flesh and dwelt among us,” but by becoming of a human being Christ has united himself to the human race and made us members of his own family. Christ Jesus has joined the human family by virtue of his birth from the Virgin Mary, and we have joined the household of God by believing in his one and eternal Son.

Today the Church rejoices, as we hear from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, that: “We have been adopted by God the Father as children through Jesus Christ to the praise of his glorious grace and that we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” We celebrate that we, too, have become sons and daughters of God, true brothers and sisters of Christ. We rejoice that God’s grace has been lavished upon on us and that the same love that fills Jesus’ heart has been poured into our own hearts to give us new life. We rejoice that our sins have been forgiven and that we have been redeemed by the blood of the Savior. Therefore, let every heart celebrate God’s mercy and the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

Download the sermon for Christmas 2 C.

Written by The Reverend Dr. John J. Lynch
The Rev. Dr. John J. Lynch is the rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Yorktown, Virginia, having previously served in the Diocese of Honduras. He is also the Province III Chaplain to the Order of the Daughters of the King. In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, Father Lynch writes and publishes the Spanish-language blog “El Cura de Dos Mundos”.

Zigs and zags, 2 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2015

January 4, 2015

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84 or 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23 

The start of this new year invites us to take out the map of our life and look at it carefully. This is a time to recognize where we have been, so that we may be better prepared for the future that awaits us.

Where have you traveled in your life during these past 12 months? What is there to celebrate? What is there to lament? Who have been your companions on this journey? What have been the regrets, the surprises, the delights, the moments of judgment, the seasons of grace?

The end of one old year and the start of a new one invites us to look at our maps, review our travels and reorient ourselves for whatever road lies ahead.

The gospel for this Second Sunday After Christmas Day presents us with a map to look at. It is a map of where the Holy Family traveled in the months, perhaps years, after the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem.

This is a zigzag map. The silent night, holy night when all is calm, all is bright, does not last long for Joseph, Mary and the baby.

It seems that when Christ’s birth is made known, King Herod trembles for his throne. The news of another monarch born in his territory raises in his mind fears of insurrection, the end of his time as ruler, maybe the end of his life.

Meanwhile, Joseph wakes up in the dark of night out of a troubled sleep. In his dream, an angel demanded that he take up the child and his mother and leave town, because Herod’s soldiers, the servants of his paranoia, were already about the cruel business of slaughtering every baby boy in that vicinity in order to eliminate the newborn Messiah. Even as husband and wife stumble about, making the briefest of preparations, the devouring sword draws near.

The angel does not send them back to their hometown of Nazareth. Instead, he sends them on a journey lasting hundreds of miles, which takes them in the opposite direction.

They are to go to Egypt, a strange and alien land. This route saves their child’s life, yet it is a zigzag, not what they expected when they lay down to sleep the night before.

In Egypt there are large Jewish colonies, and probably it is in one of these that Joseph and his family find a place to live. The baby prospers in that strange land, and days and months go by quickly for the young family.

Finally Joseph, the man of dreams, is awakened again from his sleep. Again an angel has appeared to him with momentous news. Herod, that killer of children, is now dead. It is safe to return, safe to go back to the land of Israel, that place they left in haste and fear. Joseph, Mary and their toddler son pack up and leave, invigorated by a sense of relief and hope.

Perhaps they had expected to remain permanently in Egypt, but there is another zigzag. Back home they go.

Once they arrive in the land of Israel, they hear that Herod indeed is dead, but his son has succeeded him, Archelaus, who is no better than his father. So Joseph and Mary decide to keep away form Judah, the region where Archelaus holds sway. In response to yet another dream, they continue northward to Galilee, to their own town, Nazareth. There they find safety and familiar faces welcome them. This is yet another zigzag,

A long and unpredictable journey, a zigzag trip, has taken them back home again so long after that census in Bethlehem. It’s a strange sight to see on the map, the life of this young family and their travels over many months.

Matthew’s gospel recounts events around the early life of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecies from the Old Testament. Thus, the opening chapters of Matthew are studded with Old Testament quotations.

This happens, in particular, with the zigzag trip taken by the Holy Family. Two quotations are cited to shed light on this journey. The first, from Hosea, is applied to the flight into Egypt and the return to Israel. “Out of Egypt I have called my Son” are the words attributed to God.

The other quotation, of uncertain origin, is applied to Jesus when he’s finally a resident in Nazareth. A single word describes him: “He will be called a Nazorean.”

The significance of this second quotation is unclear. It may represent a play on words referring to Jesus as the long-expected branch growing up from the stump of Jesse, father of King David.

But the significance of the first quotation is clear. “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” The reference here is to Egypt as that place where Israel was enslaved centuries before the birth of Jesus.

God heard the cry of his oppressed people and acted decisively to win their freedom. Moses became the Lord’s agent in the struggle that culminated at the Red Sea. There the people of Israel passed through on dry ground while the Egyptian army that was pursuing them was swept away by the returning waters.

The Exodus was the Lord rescuing his beloved child, calling his son out of Egypt. This was the event that made Israel a people, the people of the Lord.

That God also calls his son Jesus out of exile, out of Egypt, back to his home, means that Jesus is a new and better Moses, about to lead a new and better Exodus, one that will deliver all people out of the realm of sin and death.

So in the story of the Holy Family, the zigs and the zags have their purpose. The path taken by this little household – driven as they are by angels, led by a man who listens to his dreams – is no purposeless wandering. It serves the intention of God’s mercy: to offer new and lasting freedom to all the people of the earth.

Now is a season for each one of us to look at our own map; not simply the past 12 months, but all the years we have lived, and those still to come.

If we consider that map with care and honesty, we will recognize zigs and zags along the way, times that seemed to make no sense, moments when the road simply disappeared or led to places that should be avoided.

Look at the map, and there may be those nights, those days, when what drove you was a dream with a good angel, one seeking your safety, your redemption and new life not for you alone.

There may be for you no straight, consistent, logical lines, no paths that make ordinary sense. There may be instead greater themes, themes that take more time to satisfy, that make sense only further down the road, themes that require you to listen to your life for what is both very old and yet still fresh.

You may find that some phrase sums it up, like a prophecy fulfilled. For once Israel was led forth from Egypt. Then Jesus, still a child, came forth from Egypt. God remains in the Exodus business, and it may be that your story, your map, reveals that once again God has brought forth his child out of some slavery into the bright hope of freedom.

God writes straight with crooked lines. Let’s amend that saying just a bit: God uses zigs and zags to prepare an open road for his people.

Like the Holy Family, you may find this true if you look intently at the route you’ve traveled. Like Jesus, you may discover that time you spent away, literally or metaphorically, was for the sake of calling you home and so that others could march home with you.

Now is the season for each of us to pay attention to what we’ve lived, the map we’ve traveled. The zigs and zags may point to angels who speak in good dreams, who in turn point to One who still calls each of us “Child” and welcomes us back home.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of ”A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

Welcoming the Light, 2 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2014

January 5, 2014

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84 or 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23 

We find ourselves in the gospel landscape of Matthew. It is a story of angelic messages delivered in dreams. It is a story without shepherds, without a manger, with no mention of other animals. It is a story that features some strangers, undocumented aliens from Persia or thereabouts – “Magi,” whatever such a word might conjure in our imaginations: astronomers, magicians, inquirers, maybe even the first-century equivalent of scientists! They come following and seeking the Light, the Word, the logos and, they say, “the Christ.”

It is a story of a gathering darkness and danger, featuring the irritability and selfishness of all human tyrants in the person of Herod. For Israel, Herod and his family represent the failures of the last attempt to convert gentiles into the world of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is easy to understand that the Jewish people from the time of Herod forward cease all attempts at proselytizing and conversion!

Those familiar with the biblical narrative will see in Herod all the negative attributes of that earlier tyrant, Pharaoh, and the tell-tale signs of all future tyrants with names like Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Amin, Hussein, Mugabe – the list is sadly endless. They will also see the child, Jesus, connected to three formative events in the history of Israel: born in Bethlehem, home to the shepherd King David; time in Egypt, the place from which the Exodus/Passover event occurred; and a reference to the Babylonian Exile.

The last, alas, obscured by the lectionary’s curious editorial choice to omit verses 16-18, which reads:

“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet 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.’”

To edit out these verses renders the story meaningless. Rachel, of course, was one of Jacob’s wives, believed to be buried in Bethlehem; and Ramah was the place of mourning for the Exile. It seems the lectionary is a bit squeamish about presenting the genocidal slaughter of so many innocent children in the Christmas season.

Lest we draw any wrong conclusions, Matthew offers a subtle distinction easily overlooked by the casual reader. Instead of suggesting that God in any way caused this unmitigated evil to occur, Matthew has changed his usual language to introduce Old Testament prophecy, “this was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet” to the words “then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet.” A subtle change, but a change nonetheless.

As Thomas Long observes in his commentary “Matthew,”  this change suggests that “the message is not that God summons evil to accomplish divine purposes, but that the scripture knows the tragic human destruction written into the fabric of history, and that not even evil in its most catastrophic form, evil as cold and merciless as the murder of innocent children, can destroy God’s ability to save.”

Rather than look for a silver lining, we are to join with Rachel, who represents all mothers everywhere who lose their children to such senseless tyranny, and weep over this tragic loss of life, and that the Son of God, the Light and Life of the world, is sent into exile. The terrible rage of Herod proves his helplessness, and the helplessness of all tyrants like Herod past, present and future. The child survives, returns, and lives on to this day!

We also learn something about the strategy of the Light in its unending battle to transform all darkness into Light. The Light cannot be destroyed, but it can be forced to withdraw; it can be hidden; worse still, it can be shut out. Surrounded as we are by great and little Herods in our day, it is easy to overlook that we must also contend with the Herod who resides in our own souls. We are all too capable of shutting out the Light that lives inside of us, and refuse to see the Light that lives inside others – all others. So often the Light remains hidden, and we are too busy to stop, look and listen for its presence in our midst.

The growing number of Episcopalians who experience and practice Centering Prayer are beginning to learn about the barriers we construct that shut us off from the God within, from others, and from our true selves. Together we sit in silence to let go of the busy-ness of our lives and the barriers we believe necessary to carry on such busy-ness, and listen quietly for the presence of the Light, the Word – the Word that becomes flesh to dwell among us.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes it in the words, “Christ lives in me.” The German theologian Meister Eckhardt called it “the birth of the Son in the castle of our soul.” The Quakers call it “the Light Within.” All of them agree that this light appears by grace. The human soul, as it were, is its mother; the father is the eternal Spirit.

At Christmas we are to celebrate this coming of the Light, this virgin birth of Christ within each one of us. The Christ we promise in our baptism to seek and serve in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.

The Holy Innocents, the victims of Herod’s holocaust, died for the Light, the Christ, though they did not know it. Their parents, like Rachel, mourned the death of these first martyrs of our faith.

This Second Sunday of Christmas means to ask us, Will we allow the birth of this Son in the castle of our souls? Will we let down a draw bridge across whatever moats we construct to keep Him at some distance from us? Can we join with those Holy Innocents in whatever way possible to bear witness against the Herods of our own time and place? How might we console Rachel to know that her children and all innocent victims of tyranny in fact live on in, with and through Christ throughout all generations?

In our reading from Ephesians today, Paul prays that the “eyes of your heart” be enlightened so that you may “know the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”

May Paul’s prayer and the lives of all those innocent children come alive in us this day.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the Diocese of Maryland girls’ boarding school, where he teaches World Religions and International Baccalaureate (IB) English. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com.

Where is the child?, 2 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2011

January 2, 2011

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 or Luke 2:41-52 or Matthew 2:1-12

The only goal for the Magi who followed the star to Bethlehem was to find and worship the Christ with all their souls, bodies, and worldly goods. The trek of the wise men as a spiritual journey is captured well by T.S. Elliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi”:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
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.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And 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, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
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.

Weaving images from the gospel reading with Eliot’s poem serves as a guide for own journeys. T.S. Eliot wrote “The Journey of the Magi” in 1927. That same year, Eliot the intellectual who had vigorously studied Buddhist and Hindu philosophy at Harvard University, came to saving faith in Jesus Christ and was baptized. This poem chronicles Eliot’s own journey to conversion.

In 1927, T.S. Eliot was also working on a book on the Anglican preacher Lancelot Andrewes and had recently completed an English translation of St. John Perse’s poem “Anabase.” Eliot freely borrows from both a sermon by Andrewes and the French poem “Anabase” in crafting “The Journey of the Magi.”

The first five lines of the poem are lifted, with slight poetic alterations, from Lancelot Andrewes’ Nativity sermon, preached for King James on Christmas Day 1622. Andrewes used as his text for the sermon Matthew 2:1-2, the first two verses of today’s gospel. In that sermon, Andrewes said the Magi readily undertook “a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey” to follow the star to the Christ child. Then looking out on the royal court that formed his congregation, Andrewes said that people of his own day were so complacent in their faith that they would not likely travel to the manger if they were as close by as the shepherds, much less as far away as the Magi.

Andrewes went on to speak of his mid-seventeenth-century fellows, saying that they make great haste to other things, but not to worship God. If Christmas were to involve a long journey begun in December, Andrewes said, “Best get us a new Christmas in September; we are not like to come to Christ at this feast.” For Andrewes the travel, the journey, the seeking, amounted to nothing in themselves. The only motivation of the Magi was to find and worship the Christ with all their souls, their bodies, and their worldly goods. Andrewes said our goal should be the same.

This sermon of 1622 apparently had quite an impact on the scholar and poet Eliot, who read it more than 300 years later as he was nearing a critical point of decision. Eliot was letting loose of his preconceived notions of who God is and how God acts and coming to see that the goal of his own life could be to seek and worship God.

The word “satisfactory,” which ends the second stanza of “The Journey of the Magi,” brings to mind today the idea of something barely up to snuff or “just good enough.” However, for Eliot, the word more likely rang of the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion, which describe Jesus’ death on the cross as the “satisfaction” of our sins. Jesus’ death was “satisfactory” in that it satisfied any payment we were to make to God for our sins. So far from being just good enough, “finding the place,” meant satisfaction for sins.

In the first of the poem’s three stanzas, the imagery tells of the perils of the voyage. Undertaking their journey in “just the worst time of the year,” the Magi push the sore-footed camels along only to find themselves lying down in melting snow and thinking of their summer palaces as sleep escapes them. Excuses were ample for turning back, yet the Magi redouble their efforts, traveling through the night, napping briefly, and moving on.

This part of the poem shows how a spiritual seeker encounters many obstacles to a true journey of faith. The way is not easy, and all along there are inducements to give up the trip altogether. Faith will not come easily, and reaching conversion happens when we are willing to let those voices that proclaim it all to be folly to recede to the background as we press onward.

Enlightenment and conversion come in the second section of the poem. The section opens at dawn. Leaving behind the cold, we are brought into a place flowing with living water, which beats back the darkness. At evening, the close of this conversion experience, the Magi find the place, and in it, satisfaction.

In the third section we discover that all that preceded it happened long before. The birth the wise men went to see turned into something like death, their own death. The conversion experience was a death to their old life and they are no longer at ease among the old ways of being. The once familiar ways of home are now, for the Magi, an alien people clutching their gods. The wise man now gladly looks to another death, or rebirth.

Like the Magi, Eliot recognizes that his own conversion experience was not a one-time event. Other conversions would need to take place. More than one conversion is needed if we are ready to worship God with our souls, our bodies, and our worldly goods, as Lancelot Andrewes said we should. We can find ourselves converted in soul, but still following the old ways with our bodies or with our possessions. A new change will take another sort of conversion. Not a repeating of the initial conversion experience, but a journey to a deeper knowledge of God.

The end of the poem is a new beginning. The traveler back home once again wants to seek more. He should be glad of another death, which is itself new birth. The faith journey continues. One key to where all of this leads us is Eliot’s enigmatic line from the third stanza, “but set down, This set down.” Eliot is quoted here again from Lancelot Andrewes’ Nativity sermon, which provided the first five lines of the poem. Andrewes said, “Set down this; that to find where He is, we must learn to ask where He is, which we full little set ourselves to do.”

Andrewes went on to say that there is a place to find Christ and it is not just anywhere. For Andrewes points out that Jesus said some will come and deceive you, saying of the Messiah, “Here he is,” and “There he is.” We must do what the wise men did that Herod did not do, we must seek. If like Herod we sit still, we will never find the Christ.

Our gospel reading today said that the wise men asked Herod, “Where is the child … for we observed his star … and have come to pay him homage.” They were seekers with a clear purpose. To take your own spiritual journey to another level, seek God in the places where he is found, through scripture, prayer, and worship. The journey is a long, the ways deep, and the weather hard, but in the end you will find it was, you may say, satisfactory.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon for Congregational Ministries for the Diocese of Georgia.

The terror by the name of Herod, 2 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2010

January 3, 2010

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84 or 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

The gospel reading today reminds us that Jesus was born at a time that held little to no regard for human life. Emperors and kings reigned supreme, considering themselves equal to gods. They held the power to kill, and there was no one to hold them accountable. We like to think that eventually Christianity changed all that for many parts of the Western world, but eventually human nature succumbed to its pre-Christian idolatry – the divine right of kings comes to mind. Thanks be to God that this idolatry has been extinguished in almost all parts of the world.

Today, however, we are thinking again of that old terror by the name of Herod. There were several Herods in history, but two are mentioned in these passages – the one who is known as Great and his son Archelaus, who succeeded him. Herod was indeed “great” in military successes and in knowing how to placate and bribe the Romans who held power over the world they had conquered. He built cities and magnificent edifices; he married 10 wives, had many children and suffered immeasurably as a result of so many conflicting desires and machinations for his throne. He was named “King of the Jews” by Octavius, who later came to be known as Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. There were so many internecine killings in Herod’s family, almost all of them related to his fear of losing his throne, that it is not doubtful that he was also a man capable of ordering the slaughter of innocent children. He may have been called King of the Jews, but Herod was not burdened by any of the religious commandments of the Jewish God. He was much more like a Roman emperor than a Jewish king in the tradition of David. And the Jews never quite accepted him as one of their own, since he was an Idumean.

It is true that there is no historical corroboration of the flight to Egypt, but that does not keep the Christians of Egypt, the Copts, from being utterly convinced of its truth, specifying numerous places as giving shelter to the holy family and being convinced of their length of stay in the country. We must remember that the evangelists did not have the same concept of history that we have today. Do these stories matter? Of course they do.

Look at the history of the Herods and compare them to the stories of Jesus – the child born to a poor young mother who said yes to God; the child protected by a good man named Joseph who obeyed the words of the messengers of God. Who made a difference in subsequent history and in the hearts of human beings? Who is remembered with love and devotion? Who is worshiped and obeyed? And whose life and death changed the world? Think about Herod and then think about Jesus of Nazareth. Whose kingdom do you prefer?

One bribes the Romans with money taken from the taxes of the poor people of Judea in order to curry favor with the conquerors and hold on to his throne. The other urges his followers to give what they have to the poor while he himself lives as one who has nowhere to lay his head.

Herod uses violence that brings forth more violence; Jesus resists violence by offering peace and forgiveness.

Herod builds palaces and temples to his own glory while Jesus builds the kingdom of God by turning the values of power and wealth upside down.

One lives by injustice, the other by justice.

Herod orders death while Jesus offers life.

Who is the one we long to emulate?

The story of the flight to Egypt, of a poor couple and an infant escaping to another land, has given hope to millions of refugees the world over. It is possible that thousands of refugees have been given asylum and been resettled by churches because of the memory of the One who started his life as a refugee.

Historians, both Christian and secular, try to denigrate these stories of the infancy and childhood of Jesus as written by Matthew and Luke by calling them “legends.” The first answer to this is that the evangelists were not writing history but were telling a story of faith. The second answer is a kind a comparison that may help us put things in perspective. In 31 B.C., a great battle took place at Actium, a Greek port city. Antony and Cleopatra, great and famous personages of their time, were defeated soundly by Octavius, who became the all-powerful Roman emperor, Augustus. This is documented in history. Nearly three decades later a son was born to Mary in Nazareth, an obscure village in Galilee. In the eyes of the contemporary world, Octavius/Augustus was all-important, a self-proclaimed son of god. Yet none of his acts proved to be godly.

In the eyes of the same world, Jesus was unknown and ignored; yet his followers came to be convinced that he, indeed, was God’s Son. His life and death testified to the love, justice, and mercy of God.

On this day we remember only Jesus of Nazareth with gratitude and praise. Thanks be to God.
— Katerina Whitley is a lecturer at Appalachian State University and the writer of “Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross” and other books of biblical storytelling.

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.

Endings and Beginnings, Christmas 2 (A,B,C) – 2006

Endings and beginnings

December 31, 2006

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52

Our life is filled with endings and beginnings. Today is the last day of the calendar year. Yet we know in the church calendar that we began a new year on December 3, Advent Sunday. The federal budget year began on October 1, and many institutions have a fiscal year beginning on July 1. Sometimes endings and beginnings mark clear boundaries, and at other times they seem to blend. For example, when someone finishes a program we say they have graduated, yet the service is often called a commencement. When loved ones die we say they have entered larger life. Throughout our life we experience other endings that lead to the possibilities of new beginnings.

We might remember some of those experiences when recalling events in children’s lives. A child is named and handed over to the priest who, after baptizing her or him, gives that child back to godparents, symbolizing their important role in that child’s life. A new expanded family responds that they too will support that child in the days and years ahead. A child is dedicated to a life of service of God and God’s people. Endings and beginnings are telescoped in the short duration of childhood and soon new endings and new beginnings can bring expanding horizons to both the child and to all of us who journey with them. Yet our journeys are somehow inextricably connected to each other, if only in memory. In some special way what affects one affects the other.

In our lessons for today we get a glimpse of two little boys whose lives were undergoing a radical change and whose endings and new beginnings were to transform not only them but also the world around them. Both of them were fortunate. They experienced what many young girls and boys don’t; namely to be loved and treasured in those early years that is so crucial for a lifetime of health, wholeness, and the possibility of growing into responsible maturity. Both accompanied their parents in a religious journey to offer sacrifice and to remember how much God (Yahweh) was involved in their child’s life and in their own.

Samuel had been dedicated for service to God very early in life. Hannah, who had been barren, was able to become pregnant and offered her son, Samuel, to the priest, Eli, for service to God. He stayed in Shiloh and as it says in 1 Samuel 2:11 “served the Lord under the priest Eli.”

Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, accompanied his parents to Jerusalem at the time of Passover. Passover was a special time of giving thanks to God for allowing their ancestors to flee from bondage in Egypt, to remember that God had been with them in time past, and to anticipate the coming of a new messenger. This messenger would announce that the new age had begun. The hope that God would send them someone to announce this new age was growing, especially in the 200 years before the birth of Christ. A cup was placed on a table (the cup of Elijah) in hopes that the messenger might appear, drink from the cup, and announce that the new age had indeed arrived. It was believed by many that Elijah, who at his death was assumed up into heaven by chariots of fire, would return as that messenger and announce the new age had begun. This cup and this sacred meal are also part of the Seder meals celebrated in our time at Passover. Little did anyone know that a young boy attending the Passover with his parents that day in Jerusalem would be that messenger.

So these two young boys, Samuel and Jesus, both seen as gifts from God, were indeed about ready to transform the world in their day and in ours.

At least Hannah knew where her son was. He was in Shiloh with the priest Eli. But Mary and Joseph, trusting that their son was with the familiar crowd who had gone into Jerusalem suddenly lost track of him. This is a parent’s worst nightmare. It was after a day’s journey that they realized he was not with the group. Perhaps you and I might have a hard time understanding the lag in time but obviously this was a trusted group of family and friends who were walking together.

Panicked, Mary and Joseph went back into Jerusalem to find him, and it took another couple of days to do so. When they did, Jesus was in the temple sitting with the teachers, listening to them, and asking questions. His depth of questioning and understanding apparently astonished the teachers.

When Mary and Joseph expressed their worry about his being lost, Jesus responded that it should have been obvious where he was, as it was his Father’s house. We might wonder what the scriptures are not telling us – for if any of us got an answer like that from one of our children after being missing for three days, we probably would be a little upset with him. The story did say that Jesus returned with his parents and was obedient to them but also said that Mary treasured all of these things in her heart. Apparently in the midst of her worry and Jesus’ response to her worry, Mary sensed that something profound was going on here, so much so that she took it into her heart and pondered the meaning of it all.

The stage is set for the next chapters in Samuel’s and Jesus’ life and ministry. What can we make of all this, and how did what happened to them in their youth affect our lives? These lessons for today say two important things: (1) the signs of God’s activity are prevalent in children; and (2) children can be given opportunities to grow, question, and flourish in ways that will benefit them and us for a lifetime.

In the baptismal service we pray that the baptized person might have an inquiring and discerning mind, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. These are gifts that ultimately both Samuel and Jesus possessed, but they began possessing them when they were very young. So on this last Sunday in the calendar year and the first Sunday after Christmas when we still hear the wailing of a new born babe in a manger as well as his changing voice throughout his life, on this day we are invited to consider again how important children and child-rearing are.

Samuel and Jesus, in his full humanity, were both able to see what others did not, in part, because of their connection with others who cared about them at a very early age. What we know about child development is that the time before the age of 6 is critical in forming a person’s identity, an identity that will be able to carry them, healthily, into later years of life.

There is a wonderful photograph of a granddad taking a picture of his granddaughter. The picture shows the shadow on a sidewalk of the granddad taking the picture of his granddaughter who had just turned over a rock to seek a bug that had gone under it. The discovery of the bug was a pearl of great price. The particularity of the search was, and is, a reminder of treasures in life being unearthed in minute forms or in hidden places. God is not only available to us in obvious ways but also in the still, small voice; the quiet wisdom from the lips of a friend or stranger; the example of courage and faithfulness of the frail and infirm; in a drop of wine and a small morsel of bread; and in the gaze of a child making a new discovery.

Children not only need to be welcomed to our church, but we need them in our church. We need their inquisitiveness, energy, restlessness, forthrightness, sense of awe and wonder, playfulness and laughter. We need children amongst us not only because they are significant and important and have wonderful abilities to show God’s love, but also because they can help unlock the child that is still in us, the children that Jesus, as an older man, welcomed into his midst and into the new kingdom that was evolving around him.

We gather around Holy Table to remember, to be reminded, and to be surprised. Like Samuel gathering with Eli or Jesus with his parents, family, and friends in Jerusalem at the time of Passover, we gather to remember the stories of our tradition. As we remember them, we are reminded of who we are, whose we are, who is the “we” that we yearn to be, and the work that lies ahead. And all along the way surprises come to us, often in people and circumstances we would least expect. And in this rhythm of life, this rhythm of remembering, being reminded, and being surprised we can realize that it is never too late to dig wells of future memories for another person. For Samuel and Jesus, their early years of observation were of great value to them in their ministries. We obviously can’t help people recoup their early years but we can do something. To help dig wells of future memories for others helps them remember that they are – and have been – treasured by another human being and by God. It reminds them that they have gifts and an identity as a child of God that can never be taken away from them, as well as an ability to dance with life so that they can, like the writer C.S. Lewis, be surprised by joy. When this happens, that person and us are never the same again.

So here we are at the precipice of a new year, looking back at what was, looking forward to what might be, and invited to look around and within to see what we might do and be in the here and now.

We gather around stories from our tradition and expressions of prayer and song. We gather to exchange peace, which can be an entry way, a foyer, to digging wells for future memories. When we exchange peace we realize three things: (1) we don’t gather here alone; (2) the Eucharist or other worship service is not just about any of us individually or what we can get out of it, but rather what God can do through the worship and through us for God’s work of reconciliation and love; and (3) we realize that the greatest gift we can give one another and the stranger about to come into our midst is to offer the peace of God.

These were gifts given to Samuel and to Jesus of Nazareth. These were gifts they gave the world, and the world has never been the same since. We are called to do the same. May it be so on this special day of the year and in the year to follow. Shalom.

 

— Bud Holland is coordinator of the Office for Ministry Development at the Episcopal Church Center, which is involved in a number of initiatives related to education, lifelong learning, leadership and ministry development. He has previously served in congregations and other diocesan positions.