Monday, January 09, 2017

Sermon from Sunday, January 8, 2016 (Epiphany Sunday)

Reading:  Matthew 2:1-23

It would be nice if we could say it was an honest mistake.  It might let them off the hook.  Maybe us too.

But it's a mistake we have made for too long.  And too often.

It's a mistake that usually has tragic consequences that we as a species don’t seem to have learned from yet.

Why did the magi go to Herod to find God's newborn king?  Why did they assume the king of God’s people would be in a courtly palace of an empire?  The magi were wise, but sadly not wise enough yet really to grasp the way of God and God’s kingdom in the world.  And because of it they very nearly ruined everything – as Bruce Cockburn puts it in the song “Cry of a Tiny Baby”, the magi who “come to pay their respects to the fragile little king, get pretty close to wrecking everything.”

The magi are the height of human evolution so far.  They are smart, rational, far-seeing, imaginative and scientific.  They are able to see great signs, amass and integrate great knowledge, and travel far distances to be able to put their own mark on anything new and momentous taking place in the world.

They then and we today are a lot alike – in control, powerful, analytical, able to cover the face of the Earth with relative ease, able to bend and move the world – and other people, to our desires, master of the food chain, lord of the jungle. 

We have come a long way.  But by and large we still lack that one more essential step – that one further necessary stage of evolution and transformation that will help us become fully human as God intends us to be, to be human finally in the image of God – that one essential step not farther up, but down – down from power and privilege to powerlessness and vulnerability, down from control to service, down from relationship-against and relationship-over that have got us where we are, to relationship-with and relationship-for that will get us where we are meant, and where we need to be.

God tries to lead us there.  God’s journey has been in that direction all along – down rather than up, and God has called us over and again to follow.

Like Good King Wenceslas calling us to notice a poor peasant in a far-off corner in need, then leading the way himself down from the tower and out from the castle, into “the rude wind’s wild lament/ and the bitter weather.”  The king himself leads the way through the snow and the storm, and as we begin to falter and fail in the cold of the night, he turns and says:

“Mark my footsteps, good my page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shall find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

It’s all through the Bible and in other world religions as well – the journey downward into humility, into honest and open mutuality with others – especially the poor and powerless, into groundedness in the Earth, away from control, self-protection and domination, towards compassion, openness and commitment to the common and shared good of all life on Earth.

But we resist in so many ways, little and big.  We obsess about power and fear powerlessness.  We worship success and punish failure.  We idolize celebrity and cannot imagine letting go of privilege.  We seek control.  We are in love with being on top, and do all we can not to fall or have to let go.

And we suffer the consequences.  Others do too.  And sometimes we let others – even make others, suffer the consequences for us.

I blame Herod, not God, for the massacre. 

It was God’s intention to be born in Bethlehem among and as one of the poor of the day, maybe even God’s plan to be born in a stable.  But it was not God’s intention for Herod to go and kill every child under the age of two to try to protect himself against God’s reversal of the order of the day.  There are some things done in God’s world for which we have to accept responsibility.

I blame the magi, too, for not knowing better than to look for God's new king in the palaces of the old way, instead of following the star all the way to a stable and a humble house among the poor.  Even with all they knew, they were still bound in critical ways to the old ways of doing kingdom.

But there is hope – some light, some good news.

Jesus survives the massacre.  This is good news – although it doesn’t start to undo the horror of the massacre that took so many others, does it?  It doesn’t begin to touch the suffering of those who do not escape – whose children are killed by soldiers of their own kingdom at the order of their own king.

Another piece of good news is that Herod dies soon after.  There is hope in the knowledge that every tyrant at some point falls, and every unjust kingdom and government at some point comes undone.  And yet – we also know there will then be another just as unjust, also to be feared, also to be avoided if at all possible.

I wonder if the greatest good news and the real light in the story are in the ability and willingness of the magi to be changed?  Once the magi leave the palace of Herod and once again follow the star God has given, and they find Jesus and God’s kingdom in vulnerability, poverty and powerlessness, they are changed.  Seeing what God is really like in the world, hearing God as Bruce Cockburn says “in the cry of a tiny baby,” they awake from the nightmare of power in which they have been living, to a dream of a different way of being and of being themselves in the world. 

They don't go back to Herod.  They travel home “by a different road.” 

Like Ebenezer Scrooge in The Christmas Carol, we sometimes fear – or use the excuse that we’re too old to change, that it’s too late to change either ourselves or the world around us.  But Ebenezer, once his heart is truly touched, and once he sees how truly poor and empty and broken and hurt his own life has been, he also learns that in God’s time it’s never too late to change – that we’re never too old or too far gone to take a step in a different direction and start going home on a different road.

When Scrooge’s Christmas finally comes – Christmas morning in his apartments, waking up to bells, feeling giddy as a schoolboy, knowing now that all along he’s not yet known anything … Christmas day sending a goose to the Cratchits and sending himself all gussied up to his nephew’s Christmas party … and the day after back at work suddenly seeing and knowing the joy of using what he has to make the world a better place for others … when Scrooge’s Christmas finally comes, it never fails to make me cry. 

Because isn’t that what we’re really looking for in Christmas – in the birth of the baby in  Bethlehem and in our coming to pay him honour, aren’t we really looking for a chance and a way to be reborn to living in a different direction ourselves?

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