Monday, December 23, 2013

From Lament to Redemption -- Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 1A

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.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 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.”
16 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. 17 Then 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.”
19 When 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.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 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. 23 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.”


               The word genocide is not one we desire to say or consider, but genocide is something occurs with great frequency.  There is the Nazi instigated Holocaust that captures the hearts and minds of so many.  Hitler and his thugs sought to exterminate all and everyone who might taint his vision of a pure race.  Thus, Jews, gypsies, the mentally ill, the disabled, gays and lesbians – all were targeted with his final solutions. The Armenian people know the story of their own genocide.  The people of Rwanda have their own stories.  Then there are the stories told in the Americas about a genocide that nearly wiped out those who lived in this part of the world before its “discovery” by Europeans.  Genocide occurs when those who have power feel threatened by those who do not.

                The Gospel reading for the first Sunday after Christmas tells the story of another genocide.  We call it the slaughter of the innocents, the killing of all male children in the town of Bethlehem, lest a child arise who would challenge the rule of Herod.  Why Herod would be afraid of a child born in a small town makes little sense.  Herod had the full backing of the Roman Empire.  But, a word about a child born to be king spooks him, so he has the children murdered.  In a parallel to the Exodus story, the promised child is rescued.  Word comes to Joseph and Mary that Herod is seeking them out and so they flee to Egypt.  Matthew, always concerned that his vision is rooted in prophetic testimony, suggests that the flight into Egypt fulfills the promise that “out of Egypt I have called my son.”  In the Exodus story, the promised child is rescued when the mother of Moses allows her son to be adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter.  Both Moses and Jesus have a destiny.  They are called in birth to save their people.

                Herod’s murder of the children fulfills its own prophetic testimony – that of Jeremiah.  Rachel is weeping for her children.  But despite Pharaoh’s efforts and those of Herod, the purpose of God cannot be thwarted.  Both Moses and Jesus are essentially hidden from view until the time is right.  Moses hides out in Pharaoh’s own household, while Jesus hides out in Galilee, in the village of Nazareth – fulfilling the promise that he will be called a Nazarene. 

                When we read this text it’s so easy to just pass over it and not take in its implications.  We ask the question – where is God when genocide strikes?  It is a good question.  Matthew places Jesus, the one who is known as Emmanuel, right into the center of it.  He is the survivor, but he survives for a reason.  He is called to bring a new reality into existence.  In this new reality power will be exercised quite differently.  Instead of following the ways of Pharaoh and Herod and Hitler, Jesus will offer us a vision of justice and peace rooted in love.  In this new vision all life is to be honored and respected. 

                The story of the slaughter of the innocents isn’t the kind of story we want to hear when we’re still singing joyous carols, but it is a reality that we share in as residents of this world.  But here’s the rub when it comes to this text.  We can excuse ourselves from heeding it because we’ve not participated in such acts.  But, as Ruthanna Hooke reminds us, there are many forms that these pernicious acts of injustice take.  It needn’t be genocide.  She brings to our mind the uncomfortable truth that children in our country suffer from violence, hunger, and impoverishment.  They may find themselves facing the prospect of not having access to sufficient healthy food or clean drinking water.  In many urban centers children attend schools where lead is ever present, causing learning difficulties and disabilities.  She writes:
If we are appalled by Herod’s murder of children, we need to change our own priorities and actions so that we protect the children in our midst from suffering and death.  The first action we can take is that of Rachel, who “weeps for her children . . . because they are no more” (Matt. 2:18).  In situations of injustice, lament is the first act of awakening our consciences and spurring our wills to action.  To join Rachel’s lament over injustice, violence, and murder is to take the first step toward rectifying these situations.  (Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year Ap. 37). 

                We begin with lament, but we must also see this as a call to action.  Moses didn’t end up just basking in the glory of Pharaoh’s household, and Jesus didn’t just finish out his life working as a carpenter in Nazareth.  When the time was right they came forth and fulfilled their calling.  We can do the same.  In reflecting on this text and Hooke’s own reflections, I’m reminded of a principle I learned from my training in community organizing.  Action is most often rooted in one’s anger or grief.  We don’t like to think of ourselves as being angry, but anger need not be sinful.  The sin comes in if we act on our ire in ways that are destructive rather than redemptive.  We are called to move from lament to justice.  Being that this is the last Sunday of the year, may this reading open our eyes to what God might do in the coming year, inviting us to live lives of justice.  Our calling therefore is to move from lament to redemption.

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