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slaughter of the innocents

sermon on the slaughter of the innocents--yeah, it's rough

Baruch attah adonai elohenu melech ha-olam. Blessed are you Lord our God, ruler of all possibilities.
*          *          *
[begin with long silence and gaze at congregation]
“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he was infuriated,
and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem
who were two years old or under,”
And Rachel wept, wailed, lamented for her children.
“She refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

I don’t know, guys. I mean, it was Christmas just last week.
It was, you know, fun, and happy, and candlelit and,
I know giving birth in a stable isn’t easy
and it wasn’t as clean and pretty as we like to remember it.
But, good God, it’s so much worse this week.
[rub face]
I don’t really want to preach about this story.
I don’t want to think about it.
So Mary and Joseph and toddler Jesus
and maybe a brother or sister
(yeah, they had other kids—another day we’ll talk about that)
were living in Bethlehem and things were ok.
It’d been a couple years and the magi had come
and given them some embarrassingly expensive gifts
and they’d left only recently, kind of shiftily,
like they knew something was up.
And then Joseph had a dream where an angel told him,
“Dude, it’s bad. You gotta go. Now. NOW.”
So they grabbed what they could and ran.
I imagine they weren’t the only ones.
Maybe they had warning, but once the killing started,
there were families choking the road trying to get away.
They ran and ran and hid and all the while shook with fear,
maybe trying to be strong for the kids.
And what were they running away from?
Their king who was already terrifying,
their king who shifted loyalties to foreign powers to get his way,
who didn’t hesitate to kill off anyone who stood in his way
and who raised taxes to extortion levels
so he could build fancy new cities
and make himself feel immortal.
Their king was so threatened by the idea he heard from the magi
that there could be a new king,
that he had all the little boy babies and toddlers up to age 2
ripped from their mothers and fathers
and murdered in the street.
Or others say Herod knew he himself was dying
and also knew there wouldn’t be anyone mourning his death,
so his slaughter served a dual purpose of
not only keeping the throne to himself
but also creating a ready-made misery when he died.
Their king stopping at nothing to hold on to power,
willing to justify not just murder
but the destruction of the beauty and potential of young lives.
It’s called the Slaughter of the Innocents.
I’m not ready for this, liturgically or emotionally.
Scholars say this didn’t actually happen.
That, even if it did, there were only maybe 1000 people
living in Bethlehem at this point,
so it might only have been 20 children.
As though that makes it better.
Twenty or ten or even five means it’s not horrific.
But most scholars say this is a theological point, not an historical one.
Herod never had these babies killed.
Matthew is the only account,
either in the bible or in historical sources.
He wrote it in himself to make a theological point.
Matthew is big on tying Jesus’ story to the ancient Israelites’ stories—
remember the long genealogy
at the beginning of the gospel of Matthew?
That’s him tying Jesus definitively in to the family of David.
Remember the star that the magi followed?
Related to some passages in the book of Numbers.
The holy family runs off to Egypt? And warnings in dreams?
And massacre of children?
Totally the Exodus story. Jesus is a new Moses,
the one who will change everything
like Moses did but better.
Matthew’s all about bringing in these references
to give legitimacy but also holistic beauty
to the story he’s telling about Jesus.
And it works for him in general. But…but.
We don’t need this story to be factual for that historical time and place.
We don’t need it to have actually happened to tell the story.
We tell the story        because we know the story.
It happens over and over and we don’t know how to stop it.
On Christmas here at Good Shepherd it has become something of a tradition
for the praise team to offer the song “Christmas Eve Sarajevo” by TSO.
It’s fun and exciting and for the first time,
I wondered why it was called that.
I knew it was about the Bosnian War in the nineties—
ethnic cleansing between the Serbs and Croats in the former Yugoslavia.
It was atrocious.
And it looked a lot like the Rwandan conflict and Aleppo,
and so many other conflicts.
For three years they killed each other, both military and civilian.
Families and entire towns were annihilated.
The city Sarajevo took the worst of the damage.
And a cellist sat in the middle of the fighting
and played Christmas carols through the night for days.
The TSO song he inspired is beautiful but it is heartbreaking.
Sarajevo was a massacre
and so many of those massacred were innocent.
This story repeats throughout history.
In the middle ages, the Church sent several crusades
to take back the Holy Land from the infidels.
Leaving aside the seriously problematic nature of that whole cause,
one of them was called the Children’s Crusade.
Because they sent children.
Adults going on crusade often didn’t survive
the long, violent journey to Israel.
And they sent kids?
They didn’t make it. At all.
They all died in the cause of attaining more power
for the rulers, for the adults.
In America, we decided that the native peoples
from whom we’d taken the land needed to be more white.
You think I’m kidding or using modern understandings of racism.
I’m not.
European culture was considered the correct culture
so we took children from their families,
dressed them up like dolls,
refused to let them speak their languages or see their families,
and made them ready for polite society.
Where they wouldn’t be accepted anyway.
How many of them died of suicide or broken hearts?
I’m not being poetic here.
This was a different kind of massacre.
Four years ago a young man took guns into Sandy Hook Elementary
We don’t know why.
He wasn’t King Herod trying to keep power.
He wasn’t trying to reclaim the Holy Land with sacrificial victims.
Yet the result was the same.
Innocents sacrificed for an adult’s dream.
         For years some have thought they could change
a child’s sexual orientation from gay to straight
with prayer and psychology.
It’s called conversion therapy and is increasingly illegal
as scientists show us how damaging it is.
And I’m not talking about “oh, gosh, those kids feel bad
and we need to boost their self-esteem.”
I mean the suicide rates and self-harm rates
and psychological trauma from these programs
are unbelievably high.
I mean these kids have been massacred, in a sense,
for the adults to prove their righteousness.
And this year alone—2016 has a lot to answer for—
this year alone the number of unarmed black men shot by police,
the number of mass shootings in places like
Paris and Orlando and Dallas,
the uptick in gun violence in cities like Chicago,
the length of time Flint, Michigan has gone without drinkable water.
Matthew says Rachel weeps and laments and refuses to be consoled,
because they are no more.
These acts of violence we can’t seem to stop doing
are the slaughter of the innocents over and over.
Maybe we do know how to stop it, but we don’t. It’s too hard.
This is sin: humanity’s propensity to screw things up—
both that we actually can’t stop hurting each other
and that we don’t want to stop, not really.
Jesus the cute baby comes into this world, this sinful, R-rated world.
         And he lives in it, he sees it happening, he doesn’t hide from it,
he walks with us and experiences pain just as we do.
I think it’s important for us, intellectually and emotionally
to juxtapose sweet Christmas with horrible slaughter.
It’s hard but good to hold these different experiences together.
Ugh, but really, experientially?
If God is God, then God should do something.
And, also, shouldn’t we have something more uplifting
here on New Year’s weekend?
We’re always talking about how God is doing a new thing,
how there’s hope, how Jesus changed things.
Where is the good news in the slaughter of the innocents?
All good questions, but all predicated on a rather small God.
God who is entangled by our rules and our physics.
God who is entangled in our expectations of rightness and judgment.
God who isn’t actually as vast as the universe
and as tender and caring as nothing we’ve ever experienced.
God is so much bigger than we know, holding us in massive divine hands,
weaving the fabric of the universe together.
Years ago, I read this amazing and difficult book
Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis.
It’s very odd and heartbreaking, because his premise is
that the Holocaust makes absolutely no sense
unless it’s lived backwards. Do you get that?
There is no sense to be made of the slaughter of the innocents
during World War II as it is.
None. It’s atrocious. Period.
However, if we could live it backwards,
if we could see the smoke in the sky flowing together
into a chimney
and somehow creating bodies which awake and embrace
and are given clothing and handed children
whom they love so much they cry
and then sent on their way to lovely homes…
if we could live it that way,
the massacre of the Holocaust would be beautiful.
Matthew says Jesus is the new Moses
but he also says Jesus is not exempt from horror.
God’s presence doesn’t promise to take away the pain immediately—
         someday it will be gone, next year in Jerusalem, in the Kingdom.
God will wipe away every tear from our eyes
and there will be neither sorrowing nor sighing.
How do we make sense of this,
without being Pollyannaish,
without the science fiction of living it backwards,
without falling into infinite despair?
We don’t make sense of it,
we don’t justify it,
we simply see it, clearly and without argument.
It is a gift to have our eyes opened, to see the world as it is
—beautiful and broken—
and to know we are not alone.
2017 is filled with possibility—possibility of disaster, yes,
AND possibility in the new babies born even now,
possibility for all the generations before and after those new babies
to make different, compassionate choices,
possibility for God to do that new thing.

Happy New Year.

sermon on Matthew 2:13-23, the slaughter of the innocents and flight to Egypt

This is a sermon about dead baby boys. Maybe not what you wanted here on the first Sunday after Christmas. In the Episcopal Church it’s John chapter 1: in the beginning was the word and the word was with god and the word was god. Cosmic and poetical and beautiful. And we have Herod killing baby boys. A story that, scholars tell us, probably didn’t happen. Goodness, so why read it? Why believe this stuff in the first place—that’s likely what some of my new friends on campus would say. The Edge House has recently embarked on a relationship with the Secular Student Alliance—atheists, agnostics, doubters, they call themselves many things. But not Christian, not believers. “What difference does this stuff make?” is a question they’re offering as a prompt for an upcoming conversation. What difference does this stuff make? Particularly when it’s about dead babies?

I want to offer one possible answer, and it’s a bit unorthodox. I want to read you a book. It’s called Press Here and it’s one of my 5-year-old daughter’s favorites. I want you to imagine we’re all snuggled up in the bed—yes, all of us—and we’re all in our jim-jams and we’re settled in to hear a story before bed. The book will be up on the screen, but just pretend it’s right in front of you. Feel free to follow the directions.

[read book (2min, 40sec)]

I don’t know if Abby actually thinks pressing the colors makes things happen, but she does it all the time. And she giggles
Now, maybe there are a few folks out there who are thinking, “yeah, that was cute, teaches kids cause and effect, but whatever, when’s lunch?” Fair, I often think that during church… [grimace]
Only, here’s the funny thing: every adult who has picked it up in my house and a few I’ve seen reading it in the bookstore, follow the directions and look up with a big smile when they’re finished. Every single one says something like “what a great book! I blew across the page and the dots moved! I turned the lights on and off! Brilliant!”
I’m fairly certain that my adult friends don’t really think they caused those changes. The illustrator painted those static images years ago, it doesn’t change on a second reading. Come on.

This is a wonderful example of what theologian Marcus Borg describes as the pre-critical, critical, and post-critical stages of faith development.
Pre-critical is basically us as kids: Stories about Cinderella and Jesus and Batman and the President of the United States are all equally truthful. Batman is an eccentric billionaire who became a superhero to avenge his parents’ death—totally! And Jesus was born under a moving star and magicians from the far East came to worship him--absolutely. They’re both truthful and factual. And yes, there is a difference—facts generally show us truth, but things that are true, deeply true that you feel in your gut, sometimes aren’t factual. Think of you’re most favorite movie or novel that changed how you see things in the world—true, maybe not factual.
Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with this stage except when we get stuck in it—things we understand as meaningful have to be literally, historically factual and we go to great lengths to make them so. Consider the seasonally-appropriate film Polar Express and its take on belief.

The critical stage is all about understanding the stories we tell intellectually. How much of them are historically-accurate? Why did people tell them? Were any of them codes for freedom like African-American spirituals in the pre-Civil War South? Spoiler: yes, the books of Daniel and Revelation. Which stories were several stories stitched together to make one like the story of the great Flood in Genesis? What is the history of how we got the Hebrew Scriptures and how were they edited over the centuries? In scholarly circles this might be called the Historical-Critical Method and its main point is to understand on a deeper level the Word passed down to us through the centuries using historical resources outside of the Bible itself. They ask questions about how different Hebrew or Greek words were used elsewhere or what events were happening around the Jews that made them write different things. It’s good, helpful stuff and pretty much all mainline denominations teach it in our seminaries. But we can get stuck here as well.
Some theologians like John Shelby Spong go to great lengths to disprove miracles and the more epic stories of the Bible, encouraging believers to see the meaning behind the myths. But Spong and others lose the poetry of scripture—it’s not just a list of dates and names but people’s lives and their attempts to make sense of seeing God in action. If you “disprove” that stuff, you lose much of the point. And many folks get so stuck in this critical stage that God ceases to be real at all for them. If these events were recorded and some invented by humans, where is the divine? It’s the reason so some Christians push so hard against non-literal reading of scripture—folks think that if any part of the Bible is not factual, it must not be true. And therefore all of it is suspect. Again, not a good place to be stuck.

Luckily, Marcus Borg offers a third stage which many of us dip in and out of when it comes to our faith.  The post-critical stage takes both the wide-eyed belief in the stories as told and the scholarly, perhaps cynical understanding and holds them next to one another at the same time. The story in Matthew about Jesus and his folks fleeing to Egypt is a literary device to remind readers of both the Exodus led by Moses and the later Exile when thousands were killed and displaced by invading Babylon. There is no historical evidence and no other mention in the Bible that Herod had any children killed, because of Jesus or not. But Matthew recalls the prophet Jeremiah speaking of Rachel weeping over her children Israel. Matthew is making past grief new again to make Jesus’ miraculous birth and miraculous life even more miraculous. AND this story about a family becoming refugees to avoid terrible death at the hands of a despotic leader is deeply true. We have only to consider Syria and the 2,000,000 people, 1,000,000 of them children, who have fled the war there. Or mothers escaping abusive relationships with their children. Or students fleeing a school-shooter. Post-critical reading of scripture doesn’t take away from the beauty and authority of the Word, it adds to it, deepens it. Like nostalgia or parenthood adding flavor to the reading of Press Here, even more do history, literary criticism, and our own life-experiences add to the reading of scripture.

Now, there’s good news here beyond this lecture on how to read scripture, I promise. It’s good news in itself that we don’t have to check our brains at the door here,
BUT ALSO in the midst of this horrific account of the slaughter of baby boys, Matthew recalls for us Jeremiah’s words, not only of Rachel’s weeping for her children, but what follows: “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 encircles a man.
“God has created a new thing” is spoken by Jeremiah and Isaiah and Matthew and John of Patmos in the book of Revelation. God is always doing a new thing. And “By quoting this small bit…of Jeremiah,…Mathew…implies the rest of the rest of it: it is Mary…being called back from exile, Mary, as virgin Israel, that returns salvation to God’s people through the new thing on earth which the Lord has done, through the man she encircles in her womb.”[1]
I just read a wonderful article in which a prostitute who is also a junkie and a mom of 5 said, “you know what kept me through all that? God. Whenever I got into the car, God got into the car with me.”[2]

how could we not draw parallels to school shootings or mass graves in Sudan and WWII Germany? And we’re meant to. Herod’s evil, Babylon’s evil, Pharoah’s evil are not unique nor is our mourning. We cry for our own children—we cry when we lose them, we cry when they’re happy because the world isn’t good enough for them, we cry because the same story seems to keep happening. And then Jesus comes and, to the critical eye, the story is the same and it doesn’t make any difference.
And to the post-critical eye, Jesus comes and there’s something else going on. It’s the same story, but the themes are different, it’s meaning is different, how we react to it is different.
It’s the same story, “A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…” and the no room at the inn, and the shepherds, and the flight to Egypt to avoid the slaughter of the innocents.
It’s the same story, and with a post-critical eye, with the eye that knows and embraces the traditional words and also knows how Matthew has carefully crafted his account,
we see hope. We see that God is doing a new thing. God is writing a new book and taking our crappy lives and memories and actions and making something else, something unexpected with them.
There are people out there fighting against the world’s brokenness and hurtfulness.
People inspired by Jesus and people who’ve never heard of him.
People who will not just accept Herod and Babylon and Pharoah.
May we be those people. May we see the hurt, may we stop and ask if we can help. May we offer love in the place of judgment and embrace in the place of fear.