Like many people preaching this week, the sermon I worked on before Wednesday is not the one I preached. The events in Washington sent me back to Matthew 2:1-12 for a second time—with a bit of a different emphasis.
Yes, I know I am preaching on the same passage I read last week. I’m not sure I have ever done that before. I am also aware that I need to ask you to breathe in the depth of God’s love for all of humanity as we move into a difficult reflection. But as I sat in front of my television on Wednesday–on Epiphany–and watched insurrectionists take over the Capitol building because people had been encouraged to do so by some of our elected leaders, I came back to this passage because of this verse:
When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.
The sentence has always struck me as odd because I have never understood how everyone in Jerusalem could have known that the sages had stopped by the palace to ask directions to where the messiah had been born. But once they did, Herod went on a rampage and demanded that all the children under the age of two be killed to make sure he held on to power. So, a better translation might be everyone in Jerusalem was troubled because of him rather than with him. Herod was troubled by the prospect of being replaced; Jerusalem was troubled because he took out his fear and anxiety on them—which looks a lot like what we have seen happening in our own country this week.
I want to pause here and say that I am well aware that my sermon so far may be troubling to all of us. I am the bridge pastor filling in for Pastor Jeanette. You and I don’t know each other well. We don’t even get to see each other face to face. If you are like most any congregation in this country, you are spread across the political continuum. And part of the reason we, as a nation, have gotten to a place that we had people storming the Capitol is we haven’t figured out how to talk to each other about difficult things. So bear with me.
My sermon last week focused on the last verse in the passage:
Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.
And I said,
For all that was difficult and tragic about 2020, I hope it gives us reason to act like the wise ones and go home by another way. Rather than reconstructing the life we knew before COVID-19, let’s take this chance to tear down things that need to be torn down, to leave behind behaviors that divide and discourage us, on both personal and societal levels, and to do the work to find a better way to live together.
And I still hope we do that. But today I want us to imagine ourselves in the story not as the magi who got to skip town and avoid the craziness, but as the people of Jerusalem who were already home and had to figure out how to live in the middle of the troubles because I think that is who we are in this story.
The sages went home. The people of Jerusalem had to stay and live through the massacre of the children, through the madness of their leader, through all that divided and frightened them. They didn’t have another way to go home. They were home. And home was falling apart.
Matthew’s gospel is centered on Jesus’ story, so he goes on to tell us about Mary and Joseph fleeing into Egypt and staying there until Herod died. He doesn’t give an account of how the people of Jerusalem survived. We don’t have any other stories about angels showing up to warn anyone else that Herod was on a rampage, only that he went after every child under the age of two. No wonder everyone in Jerusalem was troubled.
In my sacred imagination, I can see a variety of responses to Herod’s onslaught. But most of all, I picture people finding ways to take care of each other once they figured out what he was up to. I imagine those who didn’t have children hiding the babies of their neighbors so the soldiers couldn’t find them. I imagine people working hard to figure out ways to alleviate the suffering of those who lost their children. I’m sure there were some who bought what Herod was selling, but that kind of fear has a short self-life. No one survives for long when they are fueled by anger and fear–even when they dress it up as power.
But when things are difficult, it’s hard to choose not to be fueled by anger and fear because they are both high energy fuels. But anger and fear do not create community. They isolate us because they both require a target. In times like ours, where divisions run deep—or at least we are constantly told we need to choose sides—we need to learn how to stay home by another way, if you will. I know that is not easy work.
Like many, I have a family member that I don’t know how to talk to in these days. Mine is my brother. And my faith calls me to figure out how to do that. We have to learn how to talk to each other at every level of life or more than just our children are going to die. We have to learn not to allow our vocabulary to be limited by those in power. We are more than red and blue. We are more than our opinions, our fears, our demands, our desires, our issues, our privilege, our heritage, even our hopes. We are more than–well, pick any polarity you want. We are, first and foremost, people created in the image of God and worthy to be loved.
And that goes for every last one of us.
The troubles in our country are far from over. Whatever media gets our attention is packed with articles and speeches that dissect our problems and speculate about our future. Lots of folks are blasting blame across the airwaves. Others shout in hatred, in disgust, in righteous indignation. Many voices are going to keep shouting. We, however, are not required to join the chorus.
Let me say that again. We are not required to join the chorus.
We can stay home by another way. We can speak truth to power and name injustice without becoming one of the hateful folks that seem to be magnets for the camera. We can choose not to listen to Herod or his minions. They are not telling the truth. Power is not the point. Listen to Jesus: love God with all that you are and love your neighbor as yourself.
At the start of this sermon, I asked you to breathe in the depth of God’s love. Many years ago, two friends of mine wrote a song called “The Depth of God’s Love.” The chorus says,
and the depth of God’s love reaches down, down, down
to where we are until we’re found, found, found
a quiet word or none at all
pursues the heart behind the wall
and to those who wait with darkness all around
the depth of God’s love reaches down
No matter how loud the chorus, love will always be the last word. Amen.