The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights ended 2019, as did much of the rest of the church of Jesus Christ, by hearing the awful news of the “slaughter of the innocents” as described in Matthew 2:13-23. The second reading was Hebrews 2:10-18.
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Well, you almost made it. Almost, but not quite. You did very well, I must say. You’ve survived the gauntlet of Christmas. For some of you, it was tough, I know. You didn’t know how you’d get through – it was so foggy, and there was so much going on, it seems. Maybe you had some time with friends. I suspect you spent some time alone. And perhaps you managed to temper, for the most part, your great expectations for the entire holiday season. And even if you can’t say you can say had a great Christmas, you made it. And now you duck in here to close out the year, you come to church looking for a little peace and quiet, one last shot at “good will toward men,” and perhaps a couple of carols, and the preacher goes a pulls something like this.
What kind of gospel reading is this, anyway? You’d think that once — just once, we could come into church and not have somebody bleeding all over the carpet. What is it with this place, anyway? Why is it that every time we open the Bible, somebody’s dying, somebody’s smiting, or somebody’s getting smitten?
And while I’m at it, this is some God, too. It wasn’t a month ago that we opened the scriptures and found Mary singing the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord . . . He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things.” We sang with her on December 15: “My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the world is about to turn!” Were you here? Isn’t that an amazing song, and a better word from the Lord?
So excuse me for asking, but is this the same God? Mary, are you sure? Who is going to tell that to those mothers in Bethlehem? Who was on duty in heaven the day that old Herod went through Bethlehem and killed all those kids?
What about the pictures on the front of all those Christmas cards? What about GENTLE JESUS MEEK AND MILD?
I’ve got to tell you, this is a hard text for me to listen to this week. For a long time now, I’ve been aware that the Christmas story ends with this reading. For weeks, I’ve been walking around it, sticking it here, probing it there. For the most part, it’s defied me. I come into my devotional time and it sits there and laughs at me. “All right preacher, what will you do with me????”
I have not been able to escape from the wailing of those mothers. Everywhere I go, I hear that loud lamentation — during dinner, walking through the Heights, in the hospital, watching the news, at the Funeral home, laying in bed trying to get some sleep. Everywhere I look, I see the mothers and I hear their wailing. I ask myself, didn’t Jesus come to bring hope? To share joy? How is it, then, that this first Christmas has cost the town of Bethlehem so dearly?
And maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if somehow I could leapfrog to the end of the story and see Jesus trashing Herod soundly. But you know what happens — they get Jesus, too. Mary’s voice is added to the chorus of mothers weeping for their children. And as far as I can tell, the innocents keep getting slaughtered. There’s Jesus, yes. But don’t forget Stephen. Paul. Joan of Arc. Dietrich Bonhoffer. Martin Luther King. The children from Sandy Hook School. Millions of other women and men and children — all killed. It sure is a funny way to bring in a kingdom.
So I sat, and I glared at the text. Suddenly, it came to me. Why don’t I skip this one? Preach out of something else, Dave! Forget about all that gory stuff. My fingers fairly flew as I rifled the pages from Matthew to Revelation. But the story stayed with me.
And then it hit me. The news in Matthew’s story is not that some cut-throat dictator had a couple of dozen babies killed in a fit of jealous rage. Heck, Herod was a thug through and through – he had killed 300 of his court officers. He had iced his own wife and three of his sons. In his dying breath, he arranged for the killing of all the leading citizens of Jerusalem. No, it’s no great surprise that tinhorn power-mongers get violent.
Here’s what is news: that God cares about those babies that died. And God cares about Paul, and Joan, and Martin, too. And God cares about children stuck in cages and South Sudanese whose lives are imperiled every day. You heard it in the reading from the epistle: Hebrews tells us that because of his own sufferings, Jesus is able to remember yours and mine, and that he is able to help us bear the load of grief. The news in this story is that God knows where you and I hurt.
Jean Vanier, in his wonderful little book From Brokenness to Community , describes how our discovery of our own pain can lead us to God. “The cry makes us touch our inner pain. We discover our own brokenness and the barriers inside of us . . . It is when we have realized this that we cry out to God. And then we meet the ‘Paraclete’ whom Jesus and the Father have promised to send to us.” We often translate “paraclete” as the comforter, or the Holy Spirit, but Vanier points out that it literally means “the one who answers the cry.” He suggests that it is not possible for us to receive the Holy Spirit unless we cry out, and unless that cry comes from the awareness of our own brokenness and pain.
And that’s a dilemma for us. How is it that we cry? And how is it that we are heard? And why is it that there is often such a long time between the cry and the recognition of its being heard? There are so many ways to look at this.
I am, to many of you anyway, a friend. I am your brother in Christ. And in the context of that relationship, I am one who cries out. You have helped me to find the broken places in my own life and to raise them, sometimes with cracking voice, to God. Many of you in this room have pointed me toward hope when I wasn’t sure where to look.
And I am a pastor to you as well. It has been my privilege to cry with you, to struggle with you, to wait with you as together we look for meaning in the face of suffering. You have invited me into deep, sometimes dark, sometimes frightening places in your world and asked me to stand with you while something unimaginable was happening.
But this day I am also a preacher, and I have the honor of announcing that in the end, cries are heard and comfort is felt. The hard part is, that sense of peace can only come after the shock is gone, after the sobbing has muted, after the wrestling match with God is over. Perhaps you have heard of a young man who received substantial injuries in the Civil War. For the rest of his life, he cried to God, asking to know where God was in the midst of his pain. At the end of his struggling, he is said to have penned these lines:
I asked for strength that I might achieve; I was made weak that I might obey.
I asked for health that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy; I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men; I was given weakness that I might feel the need for God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life; I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I have received nothing I asked for, and yet everything that I hoped for.
My prayer is answered.
Where are your deep aches this day? A dream unfulfilled? A cancer-ravaged friend? A vacant chair at the breakfast table? A lost job? A broken marriage? Welcome to the family, dear friend. Your cries have been heard, and they are remembered. And you can be re-membered. I like that word: re-membered. Often, we use it as the opposite of “forgotten”. We say, “Oh, no! It’s your birthday! I forgot! I can’t believe I didn’t remember.” But it’s also the opposite of another word: dismember. When we dis-member something or someone, we take it apart, often with violence, hatred, or evil. Dis-membering is cruel and gruesome. We have, some of us, been dis-membered in a metaphorical sense; we have had bits of ourselves hacked off or plucked out or walk away. But as your pastor, I am here to tell you that those who have been dis-membered will be re-membered. What has been lost will be found, and what has been cut off will be restored.
You know, Matthew is the only gospel to mention the slaughter of the innocents. Perhaps it’s not too surprising, then, to note that when the Gospel writers talk about the resurrection, Matthew is the only one to mention that when Jesus rose, “the tombs also were opened, and the bodies of many of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised … they came out of the tombs and appeared in the holy city” (27:52
Sheesh — there he goes again. Why is it that I can’t even walk into this place without dead people rising up? It’s so messy, so confusing all the time. Why can’t they just stay dead?
No. Not with Jesus. The bad news is that we’re all dead or dying in one way or another. The good news is that Jesus gives us life each day – in spite of the death that we share.
So when you walk into this room, remember, that yes, it is a room of death. We do wind up bleeding on the carpet a good deal of the time. But remember, too, that it is a room of resurrection. The cross is empty and the table is set. We have the promise of our brother, Jesus, that death is not the end, but rather a gateway to resurrection — for children who die too soon, for saints, for me, and for you. Do not marvel that we die, or that difficulties come; be grateful that we have lived! Thanks be to God for the gift of life and the promise of hope to come! Amen.
 From Brokenness to Community , Paulist Press, 1992.