Crisis in Bethlehem, December 29

Crisis in Bethlehem

Isaiah 63:7-9, Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23

Rev. Catherine E. Schuyler

Quarryville United Methodist Church, shared worship; December 29, 2019

 

I don’t like this story.   I don’t like it in the middle of March or in late August, let alone right after Christmas, after celebrating the birth of this beautiful baby, born to set the people free, beloved of shepherds and angels and generous travelers from far-away lands.  I love those stories. I have nativity scenes with all of those characters all over my home, like this one here.  There are no bodies of dead babies in my nativity scenes, either here or in my living rooms.  But murdered two-year-olds are in fact a fundamental and irremovable part of the story of Jesus’ birth and early childhood.  On their way to find the baby, the magi from far away come through Jerusalem, asking for directions to the new-born king. Herod, the current king, receives them graciously, and asks them back, that he, too, might go and honor the child.  So he says.  God doesn’t believe him. A messenger from God speaks to the magi in a dream, telling them to stay far away from Herod, to go home by a different way.  When Herod realizes he has been tricked, he lashes out in fury, killing all the children in and near Bethlehem born in the past two years.  One of the more haunting paintings done of this portion of the story shows a mother trying to hide behind a wall as the soldiers rush by, a look of fear and horror on her face because she knows she cannot protect nor hide her child.  Herod’s soldiers killed all the babies, because Herod is paranoid, afraid for his power, even though he will die well before any of the babies killed could ever threaten his throne.  Jesus is not killed; an angel in a dream told Joseph to take the family to Egypt, and he learned to trust angels.  So Jesus is brought to safety in another land, far away from home.  He and his family are refugees in Egypt, far away from home; there he is safe from Herod’s murderous rage.  The other babies are not safe; they are slaughtered. 

 

I saw a message on Facebook yesterday, asking for prayer. 

A beloved friend's nephew is missing in the woods in central Newfoundland. It is feared that he may have gone through the ice. His family is frantic.

 

If you watch TV, or listen to a radio, or are connected with social media on a computer or a phone, you know of an Amber Alert.  It’s a notice that goes out to and then through many if not all media outlets when a child goes missing, asking everyone, from all walks of life, to keep an eye out for the missing child.  These are alerts for people from one particular area to keep an eye out for one child.  Imagine the horror of an amber alert for 25 children, 50 children – not missing because they were lost, but because they were murdered, by order of the ruler of the land.   It is truly horrible to hear and horrible to imagine.

 

I wish I could say that killing children is unique to this one story, but we know it isn’t.  Hundreds of years earlier than this, Pharaoh in Egypt gives an order to kill Hebrew baby boys because he is afraid.  Slaveholders regularly sold or rented children away from their parents for the hundreds of years that slavery was legal in this country.  Canadian and US Governments took Native American children away from their parents and forced them to attend boarding schools whose purpose was to separate them from their families and their culture.  In Colombia, near Brisas del Mar, where Rick and Carrie and I worked with Colombian Methodists to build a clinic and schoolrooms for the community, and where Paola, our family’s Christmas guest and our lector this morning, was the leader for other US church groups of workers, they needed school rooms because the children were coming back from being sent away.  Before they were sent away from home, children were seized by the paramilitary armies in the area as soldiers and camp workers and sex slaves.  Today, in our own country, children are separated from their parents and kept in detention centers, in unsafe and unhealthy conditions.  Some are dying there.  I cannot, and do not, want to imagine the pain of losing a child to death.  There is a support group that meets in the Catskill church, Compassionate Friends, made up of parents whose children have predeceased them.  The grief is always powerful, and it doesn’t disappear; mourners learn to live with the grief, and it is helpful to spend time with others who know that particular grief, even after many years.

 

Kings and governments and soldiers with guns have been threatening and killing young children for hundreds and hundreds of years.  Because they can, because they can use such cruelty to show their power, and to humiliate the parents of the children who are taken away.  Our children are our greatest treasure.  Those of us who have been blessed with children know the responsibility we feel toward them; protecting them from harm is a sacred duty.  When your child has been deliberately taken from you or killed, you have failed that sacred duty.  Leaders know how crushing and demoralizing it is to have young children taken away or killed. 

 

Mamas weep.  Daddies cry out.  The gospel writer quotes the prophet Isaiah, “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.”  There is so little the parents can do, but they can weep.  They can weep and wail and make loud lamentation.  There is no consolation; the crime is terrible and should not be allowed to be hidden or forgotten.  Weeping is a holy response. 

 

It hurts to listen to people who are in pain.  I want to console the weeping mamas I see, in large part because it’s uncomfortable to be with them and not be able to solve their problem.  But it isn’t my job to solve their problems or make grief go away.  Instead, one of the most profound words we hear at Christmas is that Jesus Christ is Emmanuel, God with us.  Just with us. The baby Emmanuel reminds us that we, too, can be with those who are in pain.  We don’t always have answers. Somewhere along the way, we can analyze the parameters of the situation and work to resolve it.  But we can begin as Jesus began his time among us.  He dwelt among us, lived among us, was with us.  Jesus, Emmanuel, says ‘you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’  The grieving mamas of the slaughtered babies from this morning’s lesson told the truth. They wept.  They wailed.  They would not be consoled – you’ll have another; God needed another angel.  No.  What had happened was horrible, even worse than a flood or an earthquake because it was deliberate action by a ruler who abused his power and willfully destroyed lives of children of God.  It would be convenient for him if the families of the murdered babies simply accepted their fate and moved on.  The wailing and weeping that will not be consoled is resistance, an insistence that the truth be told and heard.  They will not be comforted because to be comforted is to be silenced. 

 

We are followers of the one who came to be among us, to be with us, disciples of Jesus, Emmanuel.  God with us is now residing, yonder shines his natal star.  A fundamental basis for our discipleship is the ministry of being with, standing beside those who suffer and those who grieve.  The parents who weep today for their children – children locked up in cages or in jails, or caught up in opioid addiction, or trapped in schools with shooters where they are afraid for their lives – those cries need to be heard, not silenced.  We have the capacity to stand with them, to witness to the depth of their pain, to be sure their suffering is not forgotten nor pushed away, nor named as acceptable collateral damage for some other purpose.  They will be heard.  Their pain will be acknowledged.  God gives us courage to listen, to let pain and lamentation be given hearing and respect. 

 

Five days after Christmas the good news of great joy has not altered.  The Word was made flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.  Emmanuel, God with us, has come into our midst.  We live our lives as Christ’s presence in the world.  The good news of Easter still holds as well; sin and death are defeated; love wins. God’s love and power have triumphed over evil.  The one who came as life for all people has defeated death in love, for each of us and for all of us.  This is the power that enables our ministry of presence for those who suffer and our ministry of justice for those who are laid low by the evil powers of the world.  As we enter the new year, let us recommit our lives to the work and love and listening Christ calls us to offer to the world in his name.   Amen.

Isaiah 63:7-9

7I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 8For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely”; and he became their savior 9in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

 

Psalm 148 (UMH 861)

1Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!

2Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!

3Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!

4Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!

5Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.

6He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

7Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,

8fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!

9Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!

10Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!

11Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!

12Young men and women alike, old and young together!

13Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.

14He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the Lord!

 

Hebrews 2:10-18

10It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” 13And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”

14Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. 17Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

 

Matthew 2:13-23

13Now 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.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and 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.”

16When 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. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“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.”

19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“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.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But 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. 23There 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.”