January 5, 2020
Matthew 2:1-12 holds the Epiphany story of the wise men. It’s a great story. We have a villain who poses a real threat to the baby Jesus. We have mysterious strangers and unexpected gifts. We have a dramatic intervention and a happily ever after “by another road” ending. It’s a great story. The lectionary passage ends with Matthew 2:12 and then next Sunday we pick up with Matthew 3:13 and Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River. Needless to say, we skip over Jesus’ childhood, but we also skip over the second half of Matthew 2. You see, the story doesn’t end with the wise men’s warning. No, it continues as this little family of three become refugees seeking to escape a maniacal tyrant, leaving devastation and tragedy in their wake as the mothers and fathers, the grandmas and grandpas of Bethlehem mourn their slaughtered little ones.
In the month of December, Hallmark movies become very popular. I understand the appeal. I’ve watched a few myself. In Hallmark movies you don’t have to try very hard to uncover someone’s big heart. The troubles life throws at you are tough, but they aren’t insurmountable. Romantic love always wins. Happy endings are bountiful.
This is often what we look for in our movies. Maybe this kind of escapism, in some form or another, is even needed to buoy our hopes in what is possible. But scripture is not a Hallmark movie. It is instead a much more accurate reflection of life.
And real life presents us with crazy and scary world leaders who are ruthless, who will do whatever it takes to secure and keep their power with the unholy ethical motto, “the ends justify the means”, leading the charge. This has been true since the beginning of human civilization. In real life, innocent people… innocent children die. Massacres pollute our history. Disease takes no prisoner, mowing people down in epidemics of all sizes and shapes. War is rife with “collateral damages”.
In our more sheltered lives here in central Kansas, maybe we are mostly exposed to the blood of violence in salacious news stories. Or maybe we hold our secrets close to our chest and keep quiet our personal knowledge of domestic abuse or the unraveling influence of addiction. Certainly, we have been trying to get a little more informed about the violence of poverty shaping young minds and lives in all of our small hometown communities.
Here’s another sobering story to add to the mix. I spent some time at a middle school basketball game before Christmas talking with the 2nd grade teacher at the Kansas elementary school where I worked as a para for three years. She told me it’s been an emotionally grueling year. She had just had all her students write their letters to Santa Claus as she has done each year since she started teaching. Copies of these letters are then published in the local newspaper where the community delights in reading them. However, this was the first year she was choosing not to publish her letters because in this class of around 20 kids, these were some of the Santa requests this year: Santa, could you bring us a Christmas tree? We haven’t been able to get one. Santa, can you help my mom not to have to work so hard so she can spend more time with me? Santa, can you bring us food so we’re not so hungry. From a child who is parented by his grandma…Santa, can you help my grandma feel better. From a child who recently lost his mother… Santa, can you bring my mom back again?
This is so not the Hallmark movie world we long for. In real life scary and bad things happen. Tragedies snag innocent bystanders. We have to learn how to be wise as serpents taking certain precautions to minimize the dangers that lurk there in the darkness.
But real life is reflected in the first half of our Matthew story as well. Good does thwart evil. Herod-like plans are fortuitously foiled. Wise people help us find our way. Strangers have our back. Unexpected gifts arrive. The light of Christ leads us to new homes of understanding in surprising ways. And God goes with us…always.
So how do we respond as we live in a Herod world but look for the guiding Light to lead us home? One of my nieces is a senior this year and she recently competed for a large scholarship along with a handful of other kids. The group was asked to write an essay on the greatest threat currently facing their generation. Several kids wrote about different concerns related to technology. One wrote about the environmental crisis. My niece took a different angle and wrote about polarization. Her thesis statement was something along the lines of, “It doesn’t really matter the different critically important issues our nation and our world is facing in the present moment. If we can’t listen to each other and learn from one another, if we can’t loosen our grip on our own opinions and preferences and make room for others to sit at the decision making tables, if we can’t overcome partisanship and polarization then we will not be able to make needed advances on any of the fronts threatening our society and life as we know it.”
Technically, tomorrow is the beginning of Epiphany season in the church, but we’re going ahead and celebrating Epiphany a day early this morning. An epiphany, of course, is a sudden new insight or understanding. In the church we capitalize the word Epiphany and use it to describe the magi’s revelation that this child bathed in unearthly starlight was indeed the Christ child sent to all nations, all peoples – was the unlikely king they had been searching for.
Epiphanies don’t just happen. In fact, they are rare and usually follow a time of great processing and pondering. A new piece of information filters in and suddenly all the connections appear. Epiphanies also generally require an open heart and a seeking mind that is willing to look for and genuinely explore unexpected routes and unusual byways.
Before I sat down to write this sermon, I just happened to read such a neat article that a facebook friend had posted. I kind of feel like this was an unexpected God gift in my morning. The article is about an unfolding epiphany moment James Hatch had at the age of 52. Hatch is a Navy Seal veteran and has multiple deployments under his belt. In May of this last year he enrolled at Yale University and became the oldest freshman in the class of 2023. He seems to struggle a little in articulating why exactly he chose Yale. He could more easily have gone to a community college in his home state of Virginia, but for whatever reason, he chose Yale. And he arrived on campus with some pretty major stereotypes in place including a disregard for the “liberal snowflakes” (his words) he knew he would encounter all over the place and especially within the student body. He headed for his first class of the semester, which he described as “absolutely terrifying” and then his epiphany journey began along roads he never could have anticipated.
He befriended students, and more importantly, kids befriended him and showed him a respect and appreciation that took him by surprise. Here is what Hatch writes as he concludes his story…
“In my opinion, the real snowflakes are the people who are afraid of that situation. The poor souls who never take the opportunity to discuss ideas in a group of people who will very likely respectfully disagree with them. I challenge any of you hyper-opinionated zealots out there to actually sit down with a group of people who disagree with you and be open to having your mind changed. I’m not talking about submitting your deeply held beliefs to your twitter/facebook /instagram feeds for agreement from those who “follow” you. That unreal “safe space” where the accountability for one’s words is essentially null. I have sure had my mind changed here at Yale. To me there is no dishonor in being wrong and learning. There is dishonor in willful ignorance and there is dishonor in disrespect…
“One of my professors, a Professor of Philosophy, told me once “a good leader is a bridge builder.” …I want to build bridges and lead, in some small way, a new conversation where we stop pointing out the perceived differences in each other, or this group vs that group, and start pointing out similarities. We don’t need more condescending friction in humanity. We need less. One step in the direction of less societal friction is to seek commonalities. Another step, and one that is sorely needed, is respect.
“Now before you think I’m preaching, please know that I come from a place where I was distinctly the opposite of this ideal. I looked for reasons to disregard the opinions of those I didn’t respect. I discounted the ideas of people I felt like hadn’t earned the right to share what was in their mind. Particularly when it came to national security issues, I felt that if you hadn’t taken a gun into combat, I didn’t give a [darn] what your opinion was.
“I’d like to count this as my first brick in attempting to build a bridge between the people here at Yale and those like me before I arrived here. We need everyone who gives a [darn] about this American experiment to contribute and make it succeed. We humans have much more in common than we have different. Thanks Yale, for helping me to become an aspiring bridge-builder at the age of 52…If this place is peopled by “snowflakes” I’m proudly one of them. I’m a snowflake with a purple heart (“My Semester With the Snowflakes” by James Hatch, Gen, December 21, 2019).”
In my children’s story I talked with the kids about the different ways we all see Jesus. A little girl from Kenya, a child in Moundridge who doesn’t know where his next meal will come from, a Honduran boy sitting in a refugee camp at the Mexican/U.S. border, a wealthy child skiing down the slopes at Banff, a farm child, a city child, an only child, a child among many. They will all see Jesus differently and relate to him differently as well. This is good. And if they see themselves reflected in the face of Jesus, this is gift, God’s gift. Children are good at this. If kids are encouraged to be loving, to be accepting, they will find a place at the table for all these different kids to sit and eat, to be themselves, to be included.
But I’ve got to say, as adults, this country should be setting a better example. Do we see Jesus in the people we meet? Do we have room at our table for the young, black liberal woman from New York? For the conservative farmer from Nebraska? For the undocumented family living quietly in Buhler? For the addict struggling to put life’s pieces back together in Inman? For the special artist working in Clay Works at McPherson? Do we have room at our table for the opinionated, the entitled, the messy, the broken? Are we open to Epiphany moments breaking through the darkness and shining the light of revelation in our midst? Are our arms open to receive unexpected gifts, not maybe of gold, frankincense and myrrh but of insight, understanding, and bridged connections? Are our hearts open to the light of God shining upon us and the light of Christ shining through us? Are we prepared to kneel at the Christ child’s feet and offer our own gifts? Are we ready, in this Herod darkness, to let the light of Christ shine within us helping others find their own way home on a strange and twisting path with God by their side?
The two halves of Matthew chapter 2 are startling in contrast. Mystery, gift, possibility, grace, epiphany – living in tandem with coldness, calculation, power, violence, fear and tragedy.
God’s light shines in the darkness in every verse of this Matthew story, from beginning to end. But let us find ourselves in a wise man frame of mind as we embark on this new year before us, where the gifts, while unexpected – are cherished, are respected, are honored.