Category Archives: Grief

For Sam

You cannot hurry Death, or make it wait.

It will come when it is ready, not a moment sooner.

Even after all the prayers are said, and all the permissions given,

Even after the sins are absolved,

and the Bread and Cup have been received one last time,

Even then,

Death takes its own time.

“Not yet,” Death whispers.

Soon, but not now.

Death will slip in the door when you aren’t looking.

While you doze beside the deathbed, or turn to adjust a pillow.

Just when you’ve relaxed and thought to yourself,

“He seems to be getting better – is that possible?”

Or just as someone else calls your name and you look away …

Death will come,

Stealing the last breath as you wait for the next one and realize (too late)

He’s already gone.

Who is My Neighbor? Another sermon on Luke 10:25-37

A newer sermon on this text is here. I preached on this text just a few months ago, to a different congregation, so the first part of this sermon is that sermon, with a few tweaks. But events of this past week have demanded that I speak to the violence that has overwhelmed us, and the need to remind my very white congregation that Black Lives Matter.

Here’s the set up to today’s gospel reading, from last week’s reading in Luke 10. What has just happened was the sending of the 70 (or 72) into the villages and towns where Jesus plans to go next. These disciples are the advance team, and their mission is successful.

The 72 have just returned, and Jesus has prayed a prayer of thanksgiving and praise to the Father, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit and blessing these disciples. Everyone’s feeling pretty good about what has just happened. If this were a television show, the commercial break would come right about here.

Luke sets off today’s famous story with one of his signature introductions: “And behold.” Luke acknowledges what has just happened, and connects it to this story with “and.” But there’s that “behold” to show us that we are about to hear something new.

 

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” 29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 

30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

The lawyer who steps up to question Jesus only asks two questions. The first is a test, but the lawyer’s question isn’t as simple as our modern translations make it seem. A literal translation might sound more like, “Teacher, I will inherit life eternal having done or fulfilled or acquired what, exactly?” It’s a messy question, and hard to put into simple words.

Jesus identifies a teachable moment, and answers the question with –you guessed it – another question. Actually, two – and this is important. Jesus wants to know “What is in the law? You’re a lawyer, you know the scriptures; you already have your answer. You tell me what it says.” That’s questions number one.

But then Jesus immediately follows with a much more personal question – “How do you read it?” At once we realize that Jesus does not see the Law as a dead and stagnant set of words that mean the same thing to everyone. The Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), and how we read it determines how we will respond to God’s message.

The lawyer doesn’t hesitate, but begins by quoting the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

We think of this as a command, but the verb “shall” is not an imperative in this case. It’s more of an indication that something will surely happen in the future. You are going to love the Lord your God, because the Lord is the only God there is.

The lawyer adds part of Leviticus 19:18(b), and this blending of two verses gives us what we now call “the Great Commandment.” To love God, we must also love our neighbor.

Yes, Jesus says, you’ve got it. Go do it. But just as Jesus turns back to his friends, who are still celebrating their successful mission trip, the lawyer adds a new question, and this isn’t a test, it’s an attempt to justify himself. This guy who was challenging Jesus a moment ago suddenly feels the need to get his approval, so he asks, “Yes, but … who is my neighbor?

I can imagine the others getting quiet as Jesus looks at the lawyer. They have a hunch they know what Jesus is going to do. I imagine Jesus pausing a moment, considering the best way to teach this lawyer about the high cost of discipleship. He decides to take on this expert in the law, and everyone else settles in to listen. They know that a story is coming.

Jesus sets the scene. It’s the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. About a year and a half ago, I was on that road. We stopped at a Bedouin camp to get a good view of what is commonly called The Valley of the Shadow of Death. I think I have shown you some of these photos before, but let’s get a refresher course on what this valley looks like. ….

2015-01-14 Valley of the ShadowIt was the rainy season, so there was a bit of green showing here and there, but when we looked out across the Valley toward Jerusalem, it was hard to imagine anyone walking through this wilderness.

 

That’s Jerusalem off in the distance, on the very rim of the horizon:

2015-01-14 UP to Jerusalem

 

 

 

 

 

When we turned and looked down the valley in the other direction, we could almost make out Jericho.2015-01-14 down to Jericho1

 

In between is treacherous wilderness, and the distance was too great to be traveled on foot in a single day. This made travelers vulnerable to the robbers and nomads who spent their lives scrabbling out an existence in this wasteland.

bedouin homes

The place where our bus stopped was near a Bedouin camp. At first, we thought it had been abandoned, but the tour guide assured us that it was not.

The guide warned us to take valuables with us when we got off the bus, and keep them close. We were also encouraged to not buy anything or try to bargain with these Bedouins. And whatever we did, when the children asked us for candy, even if we had some, we should refuse. It might be a ruse to get us to open our bags or pockets – something you should never do in front of a Bedouin child. You also should not let them catch you taking their pictures.

Bedouins on the run to meet the bus 2015-01-14 10.35.17

Sure enough, as soon as the bus stopped, here they came.

I was careful to wait until the children weren’t looking to take a snapshot.

Bedouin girl 2015-01-14 10.36.45

 

 

Bedouin boy with backpack 2015-01-14 10.36.01This charming little guy had a backpack full of trinkets he was trying to sell us. Everything was “one dollar.” When we declined, he held out his hand and asked, “Candy? Gum?” He went from salesman to beggar in the blink of an eye.

As I tried to imagine someone walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, it occurred to me that these Bedouin children were a much milder version of the robbers in Jesus’ story. Clearly, they were not a real threat to us. We were in no danger of being stripped and left to die on the side of the road.

2015-01-14 Good Samaritan roadBut if this was the road Jesus and his listeners were imagining as he told the story, I could see why you wouldn’t have wanted to travel it alone.

Whenever Jesus tells a parable, he invites us into the story. There is almost always one character with whom we identify. Quite often, there’s a twist somewhere in the story that surprises us. It tells us we’ve been identifying with the wrong character all along, if we really want to be followers of Christ. The story of the Good Samaritan is no exception.

The first two people who accidentally happen by are a priest and a Levite. IF you were the man lying in the ditch, who better to come along than someone whose life is dedicated to God? At the very least, you would expect no further harm to come to you. These must be the heroes, surely.

But they both hurry over to the other side of the road. Neither of these likely heroes stop to help. They probably wanted to avoid contamination – touching this man, who looked like he might be dead, would make them ritually unclean.

It is the third traveler who is moved to compassion. Finally, someone who can do something! He gets down off his camel or donkey, cleans the man’s wounds with wine and oil, bandages him up and puts the man on the camel – or donkey. But there’s a catch. This kind person, whose care has saved a life, is – a Samaritan. The very last person on earth any self-respecting Jew would ask for help. The Enemy.

There was a long history of animosity between the people of Samaria and the people of Israel. It went all the way back to King Solomon’s son, who had failed to keep the kingdom together, and ten tribes had renounced their allegiance to David’s line. They stopped worshiping in Jerusalem, and within a very short time, had turned away from worshiping God alone. The tribe of Judah – the Jews – didn’t even really consider the Samaritans to be Hebrews anymore. As far as they were concerned, the Samaritans were worse than Gentiles.

The disciples and the lawyer who heard Jesus tell this parable might have had a hard time accepting the Samaritan as the hero. They probably assumed it would be the priest or the Levite. After all, it’s easy to justify their failure to help by remembering they were just trying to stay clean. But the person who does the right thing turns out to be a Samaritan – just about the worst possible ethnic group any of the disciples could imagine.

The difference between the Samaritan and the first two holy men who happened along that road between Jerusalem and Jericho wasn’t a matter of eyesight. All three of them saw the man lying in the ditch. The difference is what they did when they saw him. The first two made a beeline for the opposite side of the road. Only the Samaritan saw the man and had compassion. Remember that this word compassion is more than pity. It’s a gut-wrenching, heart-changing feeling. The Samaritan didn’t see an enemy lying in the ditch; he saw a person in need.
He saw a brother, a neighbor, and his heart went out to this stranger.

Jesus says, “Go be like the Samaritan.” Go be like the person you snub. Go be like the person you think you’re too good to be around. Go be like the person you think is your enemy.This week, we have seen violence erupt in an all too familiar pattern.

On Tuesday of this week, Alton Sterling was shot and killed by a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

On Wednesday, Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. These two incidents sparked a wave of protests, prayer vigils, and calls for justice.

On Thursday, a sniper attacked police officers in Dallas Texas as they protected and served during an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration. Five officers died, and seven officers, along with two civilians, were injured.

Each of the people involved in these shooting incidents was a beloved child of God. Every single one. Every single person was a neighbor.

While violence and anger have escalated, many have experienced a growing sense of frustration and a feeling of helplessness. What can we possibly do? How are we to respond?

We may think that we are exempt from racial unrest here in our little corner of the world. But we aren’t. We may not be shouting racist epithets or actively discriminating against people of color, but even in our silence, we still experience privilege because of our white skin. We benefit from a system of oppression and advantage no matter what our intentions are.

During World War II, Martin Niemöller was a prominent Protestant pastor who opposed the Nazi regime. He spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. After the war, Niemöller gave lectures, and his point was always the same: through their silence, the German people, and the Protestant churches in particular, had given support to Nazi imprisonment, persecution, and the murder of millions of people. Even if they did not agree with Hitler, their silence had made them complicit in the evil that Hitler had perpetrated. Niemöller’s famous words, repeated in several different variations over many speeches, go something like this:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews – and I did not speak out,
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Over the last several days, we have seen T-shirts and signs and hashtags on social media repeating the phrase, “Black Lives Matter,” and sometimes I see a response that says, “All Lives Matter.” One of my black clergy colleagues wrote this week that saying, “All lives matter,” is like saying “All houses matter” when there is one house on fire. Of course all houses matter, but shouldn’t we be throwing some water on the one that is burning right now? It’s like going to the emergency room with a broken leg and hearing the doctor say, “Well you know, all bones matter.” Of course they do, but shouldn’t we be taking care of the one bone that is broken right now?

Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Samaritan lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Children’s lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Gentile lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Jewish lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Women’s lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Leper’s lives matter.”

Even though Jesus loved everyone, even dying for their sins, he went out of his way to intentionally help specific groups of people – the alienated, mistreated, and those facing injustice.
So saying, “Black Lives Matter” is one of the most Christ-like things we can do.” (from Stephen Mattson’s article ‘Social Justice is a Christian Tradition – Not a Liberal Agenda’ in Sojourners (08/11/15))

In the Friday Five this week, I issued a call to prayer that echoes our Bishop’s call to pray for peace and justice. If you use Facebook, I invite you to “like” the church’s Facebook page, where you will see a prayer prompt each day this week at noon. Prayer is the most basic, fundamental thing we can do as Christians, to begin the transformational healing our world so desperately needs. No ministry can be effective unless we first bathe it in prayer.

But prayer isn’t enough. It’s a start, but until we actively work at peacemaking, there will be no peace. Until we actively work at listening to the cry of pain in our community, we will keep walking past the very ones Christ calls us to stand beside. Until we actively work at recognizing the privilege we experience just by not having to think about racism if we so choose, our brothers and sisters who have no choice but to think about racism every waking moment will continue to suffer.

So let’s keep praying at noon every day this week. But let’s do more than that. Let’s look for ways we can actively work to overcome hatred and fear with the love of Christ. If a Samaritan can do it, surely we can. If a Jewish lawyer can do it, surely we can.

As we pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the choice is ours. Will we see and cross over to the other side of the road, or will we see and be consumed by gut-wrenching compassion for those who suffer injustice, especially our brothers and sisters of color whose lives matter to God?

When Jesus finished his story, he asked the lawyer, “Who proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” He says the same to each of us. Amen.

Winter Wheat (reblogged)

Once a month, I write a short piece for our church’s print newsletter, the Circuit Rider. This publication was established fifty years ago, when the pastor at that time asked a legal secretary in the congregation to be the editor. Jo put together the Circuit Rider every month for fifty-plus years, until she joined the Church Triumphant on October 1st.

Here’s the article for this month’s Circuit Rider. It’s in memory of Jo, who I’m sure has heard her Master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Winter Wheat

Are you one of those people who suffers from melancholy this time of year? I first noticed how falling leaves affected my mood when I was still in junior high. I remember walking  home from school one day, trying to put my finger on a word for the emotion I was feeling, and not having much success.

There was a kind of sadness at the end of summer, as flowers faded and gardens were put to bed for the winter, but there was also awe at the beauty of leaves turning orange and red and gold, the crisp air, and the deep blue backdrop of the fall sky.  Even at the tender age of 13, I was overcome with the power of memories, and the relentless march of time that seems more potent in autumn as the year draws to a close.

Nostalgia seemed a good word, but it still didn’t quite fit the way I felt. I never did find a term for it. As an adult, I’ve discovered that many people experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in late fall or winter, and the symptoms seem to go away when sunnier spring weather arrives. For me, it’s the beginning of autumn that triggers these emotions, and once the snow starts to fly, I’m fine! So I’m not sure SAD is really my problem.

One thing I do know, and I learned this from watching my uncle farm his land in western Kansas: the life cycle never stops. Even when things look dormant, something keeps the cycle going so that new life can sprout and grow and flourish. A great example of this is winter wheat, a crop that gets planted in the fall, before winter sets in. To develop into a good harvest, the wheat must experience sustained cold over the winter months, the very time of year when you wouldn’t normally expect plant life to survive.

It may seem, at times, that our spiritual lives suffer from SAD, that we have a hard time sensing God’s presence through difficulties and pain. We may get caught up in memories and regrets that prevent us from seeing the future God is putting in front of us. But God is not dormant. Like winter wheat that must experience extreme cold for part of its growing season, we are being formed into new life, life that will bear good fruit.

“You did not choose me but I chose you.
And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last,
so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” ‑ John 15:16

The Scent of Myrrh

This afternoon, I sat with a woman who has decided it is time to die. She told me stories of her childhood, of her parents and her grandparents. She told me stories about her husband and their life together. It was a good life. She has no regrets. There are many things she doesn’t understand, but she’s done with asking questions. She’s done, period. This is a woman who has always done exactly what she set her mind to do. She has set her mind now to die.

I didn’t want to tell her that deciding it is time to die and actually doing the business of dying are two different things. From what I’ve seen, dying is hard work. I remember another woman, who lay on her deathbed for weeks. When she awoke one morning, she exclaimed, “Oh no, I’m still here!” When I asked how I could pray for her, she answered, “Just ask Jesus to bring me home.” She was ready for death, but death was not quite ready for her.

This afternoon, I anointed a woman’s forehead and hands with oil, scented with myrrh.  We prayed together for God to give her peace. In less than a week, I will anoint congregants’ hands with that same oil as part of Good Friday worship. Myrrh was one of the spices brought to Jesus when he was a baby. It was probably one of the spices brought by Joseph of Arimathea to prepare his body for burial. The beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega, wrapped in the same perfume.

We enter into Holy Week waving palm branches. It doesn’t take long for the joyous shouts of “Hosanna!” to change into “Crucify him!” The hard work of Christ’s death is described in vivd detail as the week progresses. Each year,  we enter into the mystery of death that becomes life, the finite becoming infinite, as we move toward Easter. But before we can fully experience the joy of resurrection, we must walk through the valley of the shadow of death. And it is hard work.

No Consolation – Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23

Have you already taken down your Christmas decorations at home?  We haven’t.  We leave them up as long as possible.  In fact, one year, we barely got Christmas put away in time for Ash Wednesday!  I grew up in a church that did not really observe the liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.  For us, Christmas was a day, or two at most, if you counted Christmas Eve.  The twelve days between Christmas Day and Epiphany were nothing more than a vacation from school.

As an adult, however, I began to appreciate this span of time that forms a bridge between the birth of Jesus and his presentation to the world as its Savior.  We know so little about the years between Bethlehem and Jesus’ appearance at the Jordan River, asking to be baptized by John.  It seems appropriate that we should pause here, on the first Sunday of the season of Christmas, to consider how Jesus got from the manger to Nazareth, the village where he would grow to adulthood.

Matthew follows a clear pattern to tell us this story.  He uses three dreams, three “obediences,” and three geographic locations to describe how prophecies about the Messiah are fulfilled in the birth of Jesus.  Today’s reading picks up the tale where we left off on Christmas Eve.  The magi have come to pay homage to a king.  On their way, they have stopped to ask Herod where to find him.  Herod tries to smooth-talk the magi into letting him know how their quest turns out, but an angel of the Lord warns them to go home by a different way than they came, and they follow this advice.  The main character in this story is not the magi who have just left, and it is not Mary who gave birth to Jesus. It is not Herod, the evil and paranoid king.  This is Joseph’s story.  Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel of Matthew, the second chapter, beginning at verse 13:

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” 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.” When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

This passage falls neatly into three sections: God’s call into Egypt, what happens “meanwhile, back at the ranch,” and God’s call back from Egypt, to a final destination in Galilee.  While the writing may be tidy and well-organized, the story Matthew tells is certainly not.  This young family did a lot of traveling, and many preachers choose to focus on Jesus the Refugee as the main point of the story. 

Such a focus offers plenty of preaching material. We could talk about the obvious parallels in Matthew’s Gospel with Old Testament writings.  We could consider how Joseph’s flight into Egypt recalls another Joseph, back in Genesis, who went to Egypt against his will, but who became Pharaoh’s right-hand man and made it possible for the nation of Israel to survive, grow, and thrive, even under the hardship of slavery[1].  Matthew reminds us of the story of the baby Moses, hidden in the bulrushes to protect him from Pharaoh’s slaughter of newborn Hebrew boys in Egypt[2].  It is clear that Matthew draws a connection between the return of Moses to Egypt after Pharaoh’s death, and Joseph’s sudden return when he learns through a dream that Herod is dead.  The young family’s trip back home to Israel reminds us of the journey Moses led through the wilderness, as the Israelites escaped their captivity in Egypt and headed toward the Promised Land.  Matthew connects the story of Jesus’ early travels to God’s call, protection, and provision for his people throughout history.  It’s a powerful connection.  And there are certainly strong connections between Jesus the Refugee and the plight of refugees throughout the world right now.  Refugees who have been displaced by politics, war, and poverty struggle with the same fears and anxiety that Joseph and Mary must have experienced, as they did whatever they could to protect the young child, Jesus.

But nagging in the back of my mind, and perhaps in the back of yours, is the horror of what happens “meanwhile, back at the ranch.”  While it’s important to see how the greater story of God’s activity among his people is connected to, and completed in, the story of Jesus, we cannot ignore those middle verses, the ones that speak of an unspeakable tragedy.

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.”

The question has been bothering us since the beginning of human history:  How can a just and loving God allow evil to exist?  How can God let innocent people suffer, while evil people thrive and prosper?  The book of Job is filled with this question.  In seminary, they even give us a name for the problem: theodicy.  But giving it a name, and even knowing that brilliant theologians have been struggling to find an answer for as long as we can imagine, doesn’t help when it becomes personal.  When it’s your child being put to the sword, the question is no longer hypothetical.  The pain is real, and the only question we can raise is “Why, God?”

Make no mistake: the slaughter of those children in Bethlehem was not God’s idea.  It was Herod’s.  Herod the Great wasn’t even a Jew; he was an Idumean, or an Edomite – descended from Esau, not Jacob, whose sons would become heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.  Herod never felt his position was secure, and he was known for his paranoia and brutality.  He even had his favorite wife and some of his sons murdered when he suspected them of treachery.  He decreed that forty Jewish nobles should be brought to Jericho to be killed when he died, so that there would be abundant mourning throughout the land at his death.  Thankfully, the son who succeeded him decided not to carry out this final wish.

Matthew is the only source to describe Herod’s murder of the children in Bethlehem.  Some scholars think the event wasn’t noteworthy for first century historians to record, partly because it was only one of many atrocities committed by Herod, and partly because the number of children affected was probably no more than twenty, given that Bethlehem was such a small village.  Such violence against innocent children may have been unremarkable by first century standards, given that children were considered to be little more than property at that time.  They were expendable.  But Matthew names it as an atrocity.  United Methodist pastor Cherie Baker writes, “Matthew tells us that God cares that children are massacred.  Misuse and abuse of children was common then, and the Good News names that as wrong.  Misuse and abuse of children is far too common now, and the Good News names that as wrong”[3].

For example, fighting in South Sudan has taken countless lives and sent over a hundred thousand refugees to neighboring countries over the past two weeks.  Two of my former students are there, with their missionary father, attempting to help displaced children find their parents as they work to get food and supplies to overcrowded camps where children are only slightly safer than they were in South Sudan.  Please pray for my friend and his family, as they work to protect innocent children from becoming “collateral damage” of the growing conflict in South Sudan.

But that’s only one example.  Halee Gray Scott writes,
“The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that Christians suffer persecution, discrimination, and harassment in 133 countries—a full two-thirds of all countries worldwide.  In September, 85 congregants were killed in bombing of All Saints Church in Pakistan while a consecutive attack at Nairobi’s Westgate mall claimed the lives of 72 people. On October 21, … Islamic rebels invaded the Syrian town of Sadad and carried out one of the largest massacres in the country’s history. Forty-five Christians, including women and children, were tortured and murdered.  The Syrian rebels documented the massacre in YouTube videos.”

We hear of the children in our own country – in our own state – who are victims of human trafficking.  Child abuse continues to escalate throughout our country.  Atrocities against children are just as real now as they were in Bethlehem in 4 BC.

Meanwhile, many of you have suffered the terrible loss of your own children.  Maybe they did not die violent deaths, as those twenty children did last year at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but the loss is still real, and the pain is still acute.  You know, as others may not, what it means to weep with Rachel, who will not be consoled, because her children are no more.

So, when we ask, “Why, God?  How is this Good News?” it may not help to know that Matthew is painting a Bigger Picture of God’s providence and protection for his people.  Being reminded that God is not willing for any to perish, but wants to give each of us eternal life might seem like an empty promise.  Knowing that bad things happening to innocent people has more to do with our sinful condition than God’s will for us might be difficult to explain.  We can’t just shrug off the sorrow.  We can’t diminish the pain of the here and now.

It’s a dangerous thing to be human, to be vulnerable, to face the fact of our own mortality. The Good News is not always sweetness and light. That pretty baby in the manger grows up to die on a cross. God has to watch his own Son, his only Son, die a horrible death. And God grieves.

God grieves all the Herods and the Pharaohs and the murderers of innocent children. God grieves us when we turn away from him. God grieves as only a bereft parent can grieve.  Friends, that is exactly why this story is part of the Christmas story.  Christ came to be God With Us – Immanuel.  He came to be God with us in our sorrow, God with us in our fear, God with us in our wandering, God with us.  Always.

The world is filled with darkness, with evil evident in every corner.  But God is with us.  The violence that surrounded Christ’s birth was the same violence that would eventually lead to his crucifixion.  Christ went into every dark place we humans must go, even into the darkness of the grave.  But he rose again.  There is no darkness that can frighten God.  God is with us.

Christmas is a dangerous holiday.  It’s dangerous to be human, to admit our mortality, to hold in tension both this awareness of our vulnerability, and the awareness of God’s great gift to us in the person of Jesus Christ, who made himself vulnerable to the power of evil, and yet conquered it.  The joy of Christmas depends on the joy of Easter resurrection.

There’s a little detail in this story, Joseph’s story, which we need to notice. Every time an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, Joseph immediately did what he was told to do.  He did not ask, as the weeping mothers of Bethlehem must have asked, “Why, God?”  He got up in the night, packed his family’s belongings, and he went where he was told to go.  Even when he was afraid, he obeyed.

Only Joseph saw the angel.  Only Joseph had the dreams.  Only Joseph knew the magnitude of his task, to protect the Messiah from the danger of Herod’s henchmen.  Just as Mary did not argue with the angel who told her she would give birth to the Savior of the World, Joseph did not argue with the angel who said, “Go!”  He just went.  He answered God’s call with action.

God is calling us, today.  He is calling us to be a voice for peace, justice, and grace.  He is calling us to challenge the way things are in the world, to stand against evil when we see it, to be the presence of God for those who suffer violence and abuse, to let them know that God is with us, Immanuel.

When we challenge the world, we make enemies.  Herods and Pharaohs will try to crush us.  But our job is to connect the human story with Christ’s story, to rescue our history from being reduced to a timeline, and allow it to be converted into God’s event.  That event is the breaking into our sin-filled world of the kingdom of God.  As we become aware of God’s constant working in our lives, we are called to participate in that work.  Whether we are sent to Egypt or Nazareth, whether we are called to feed the hungry or clothe the naked or heal the sick, whether we are tasked with comforting the bereaved or spreading hope to those who have lost it, God calls us. May we, like Joseph, answer that call without hesitation, knowing that God is with us, Immanuel.  Amen.


[1] Exodus 1:7

[2] Exodus 1:22; 2:15

[3] Comments by Cherie Baker, UMC pastor, in online chat.

How is this good news?

Pharaoh murders innocent babies, but Moses escapes in a basket.
Herod murders innocent babies, but Jesus escapes into Egypt.
Rival factions in South Sudan have killed more than a thousand, but over 100,000 have escaped into neighboring countries until the conflict can be resolved.

How, exactly,  is this good news?

Biblical scholars say, “You have to keep the Big Picture of God’s story in mind.” I get that. I understand that God does not desire for anyone to perish, but for all to believe and to have eternal life. I know that Bad Things Happening to Good People has more to do with our sinful human condition than God’s will for us. If I want to blame someone for atrocities, I might as well go all the way back to Adam and Eve. There are times when I’d like nothing better than to pound their chests with my fists and yell, “What were you thinking!”

All that knowledge doesn’t help much when I sit next to a woman whose son died, and she asks me, “How could a loving God let this happen?” 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 (Matthew 2:18). How do you comfort a grieving parent who refuses to be consoled?

You don’t.

Just because I can’t explain it doesn’t mean I can shrug off the sorrow.  Just because I know God has a bigger plan in mind for eternity doesn’t diminish the pain of the here and now. It’s a dangerous thing to be human, to be vulnerable, to face the fact of our mortality. The Good News is not always sweetness and light. That pretty baby in the manger grows up to die on a cross. God has to watch his own Son, his only Son, die a horrible death. And God grieves.

God grieves all the Herods and the Pharaohs and the murderers of innocent children. God grieves us when we turn away from him. God grieves as only a bereft parent can grieve. How do you comfort a grieving parent who refuses to be consoled?
You don’t.
You weep, too.