Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Sunday Sermon: Out of Egypt

Some years ago, the Washington Post ran an article about the Washington Auto Show, which takes place annually just before Christmas. A star of the show was the Mercedes G-Class sport utility vehicle. Someone in the admiring crowd was quoted as follows: "Jesus would love to drive one of these ... if he's Jesus here-and-now he needs him one of these." Not everyone shared her opinion, however. No, according to a salesman, Jesus needs a full-size van, something that "seats himself and seven of his favorite friends".

Whose Jesus are they talking about? Which Jesus is this? We've just heard the story of the holy child with his parents, forced to flee to a foreign land as refugees from politically-inspired violence. The image of Mary on the donkey, cradling the baby, while Joseph trudges along holding a leading rein, the image of flight by night through hostile territory is a far cry from the luxury images of the auto show.

How could we have gone so wrong? The Christian story is 180 degrees distant from popular culture. The misinterpretation of our faith is breath-taking. And, adding to our disorientation, the Gospel reading assigned for today skips the verses that make sense of the story. You may have noticed that our Deacon read verses not included in your printed bulletin; that's because I asked her to restore the missing text.

This is the last of Matthew's stories about Jesus as a child. Other than a brief detour on Tuesday for the feast of the Epiphany, we are about to leave Christmas behind and launch into the adult ministry of Christ, starting with his baptism by John in the Jordan river. But first, Matthew provides some depth to the infancy stories with this reminder of just how vulnerable the child Jesus was, just how dangerous and unpredictable the world into which he was born. Matthew portrays Jesus as the new Moses, chosen to lead his people out of slavery to freedom. So he tells us of this journey into Egypt for refuge, echoing the asylum offered Jacob and his family in Genesis when they fled famine in Canaan; and Matthew tells us of the return from Egypt to Nazareth, echoing the liberation of the Israelites and their settlement in the promised land.

Joseph and Mary took Jesus away to Egypt because Herod was making good on his promise to the wise men, to "search diligently for the child", and the re-inserted verses that you just heard tell us why that search was very bad news for the little family: "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."

He sent and killed all the children. How could a ruler do this to his own people? Tragically, we don't have to look far to find modern-day examples of similar appalling behavior. Just a couple of weeks ago we learned of the massacre of school-children in their classrooms in Peshawar, Pakistan, by Taliban extremists, who were looking to avenge the deaths of their militants in combat. Children in Syria and South Sudan are dying every day from bullets and bombs, caught in the crossfire between government troops and rebels. And, lest you imagine that this kind of tragedy occurs only on the other side of the world, on December 29 we remembered the Wounded Knee Massacre, which took place in 1890 on the Lakota Pine Indian Reservation in South Dakota. A detachment of the US 7th Cavalry Regiment surrounded the Lakota settlement and went in to disarm the Lakota. One tribesman who was deaf minsunderstood what was going on and resisted giving up his rifle. The situation rapidly deteriorated and the cavalry opened fire indiscriminately from all sides, shooting men, women, and children, as well as some of their own colleagues. Over 200 Lakota died. We can all recite numerous recent examples of young children caught in crossfire in our cities and communities. And then there is human trafficking, the second largest global industry and a thriving business in southern California; there is the horror of child soldiers in central Africa; there are the thousands of Central American children sent north by their parents in a desperate attempt to find safety away from gangs; and there is the daily incidence of child abuse in homes, schools, even churches, the vast majority of which goes unreported.

Far too often, in our own time and throughout history, in our own cities and across the globe, children are hunted, sold, exploited, and killed in the causes of political expediency, profit, sexual gratification, and fear. The dignity of human nature, held up in today's Collect, is attacked and tarnished every day on every continent. And our Sunday lectionary encourages us to skip the Scripture verses where this outrage comes right up against our Christian story. Hmmm. When I initiated a conversation on Facebook about this omission, one clergy friend - not an Episcopalian - reflected that it's a hard thing to think about in the midst of the Christmas season. Yes it is. It's a hard thing to maintain the cheery sentimentality of the holiday season in the face of tragedy and loss.

After the Peshawar attack, the Pakistani defense minister made this poignant comment: "The smaller the coffin, the heavier it is to carry." It is indeed a heavy burden to acknowledge and carry the grief and guilt of humanity over the way world powers trample on children. But that doesn't give us permission to take a pass on the topic in church. We should, indeed, be weeping and wailing, lamenting with the parents and friends of those children, refusing like Rachel to be comforted. The small Christian community in Peshawar canceled their Christmas celebrations after the attack last month. They couldn't ignore the gaping wound in their community. They got the link between the targeting of Jesus in Bethlehem and the targeting of the sons and daughters of the military establishment in Peshawar.

When Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled their home they joined a great throng of refugee families, stretching back and forward through history.

The New York Times this week ran an article about the Syrian children in a refugee camp in Turkey. Their families and others, totalling more than 1 1/2 million people, have fled the civil war and the onslaught of ISIS. Some of these children are lucky enough to attend school in the camp. But most of them don't speak Turkish; and all have been traumatized. The music teacher at the school commented, "Because of the war, the children are behind in their education; they miss out on their childhood." They live in tents or building still under construction, and as the winter proceeds, cold rain seeps into their inadequate living quarters. It's easy to predict hunger, exposure and disease in the immediate future for these and innumerable other refugees in the Middle East, Africa, and many other parts of the world. Here in San Diego you could call many of our homeless citizens refugees: refugees from domestic violence, refugees from inadequate veterans' and mental health care systems, refugees from hatred and bigotry directed at LGBT and trans-gender teens. The divinely created dignity of human nature isn't just at risk across the world; it is challenged here on our doorstep, every day.

If we take Matthew's story seriously, we have to ask, why did God allow the massacre of innocents in Bethlehem? Why save only Jesus and his family? Why do innocent children continue to be the victims of violence and neglect? This question is one of the central mysteries of and stumbling-blocks to our faith.Why do the innocent suffer? Our inability to answer doesn't mean we have permission to live in denial. We may ask why God allows such atrocities to happen. Maybe a better question is why WE allow such atrocities to happen. Why do human beings do such terrible things to each other? What can we do to prevent them? Perhaps we can reach across community divisions to develop relationships with people who seem different from us. Perhaps we can sincerely and humbly seek to understand different cultures. Perhaps we can support educational and development efforts in communities and nations where people are displaced and their dignity challenged. Perhaps we can get involved in efforts to reform the systems in our own cities that create homelessness.

As my friend wrote on Facebook, this is a difficult Scripture for us to interpret. There is nothing comfortable about poverty, or homelessness, or politically motivated murder. In fact, Scripture as a whole deals with uncomfortable material, starting with the very first refugees, Adam and Eve, evicted from Eden and forced to live in exile from God's near presence and continuing all the way through to the Gospels. The whole story of Jesus is soaked in violence from beginning to end. And our Christian worship holds our feet to the fire, as we repeat the story every week in the Eucharistic prayer. Matthew's nativity story reminds us that God works out God's purpose through the sinfulness of humanity, through the broken world, through the worst that human beings can do to each other. And this is actually where, finally, we find the good news.

It's good news that, as helpless as the child Jesus was, he was cared for and rescued from danger. It's good news that the day of a tyrant eventually ends. It's good news that the hopeful words of the prophets can and will be fulfilled, whether it's Jeremiah singing aloud with gladness for the return of the exiles, or the psalmist finding a place of springs in the desolate valley, or John the Baptist predicting the coming of the Holy Spirit through the ministry of Jesus. It's good news that God chooses to be with us in all circumstances, in the journey, in the camps, in all of humanity's mess and muck.

As we launch out into this new year of grace 2015, we go equipped with the knowledge of God's tender love for us and for all humanity. We carry hope for peace and reconciliation, expressed in prayer by Pope Francis in his Christmas Day sermon: "May the Holy Spirit today enlighten our hearts, that we may recognize in the Infant Jesus, born in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary, the salvation given by God to each one of us, to each man and woman and to all the peoples of the earth. May the power of Christ, which brings freedom and service, be felt in so many hearts afflicted by war, persecution, and slavery, May this divine power, by its meekness, take away the hardness of heart of so many men and women immersed in worldliness and indifference... May his redeeming strength transform arms into ploughshares, destruction into creativity, hatred into love and tenderness. Then we will be able to cry out with joy, 'Our eyes have seen your salvation.'"

January 4 2015 
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges 

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