Baruch attah adonai elohenu melech ha-olam. Blessed are you Lord our God, ruler of all possibilities.
* * *
[begin with long silence and gaze at congregation]
“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he was infuriated,
and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem
who were two years old or under,”
And Rachel wept, wailed, lamented for her children.
“She refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
I don’t know, guys. I mean, it was Christmas just last week.
It was, you know, fun, and happy, and candlelit and,
I know giving birth in a stable isn’t easy
and it wasn’t as clean and pretty as we like to remember it.
But, good God, it’s so much worse this week.
I don’t really want to preach about this story.
I don’t want to think about it.
So Mary and Joseph and toddler Jesus
and maybe a brother or sister
(yeah, they had other kids—another day we’ll talk about that)
were living in Bethlehem and things were ok.
It’d been a couple years and the magi had come
and given them some embarrassingly expensive gifts
and they’d left only recently, kind of shiftily,
like they knew something was up.
And then Joseph had a dream where an angel told him,
“Dude, it’s bad. You gotta go. Now. NOW.”
So they grabbed what they could and ran.
I imagine they weren’t the only ones.
Maybe they had warning, but once the killing started,
there were families choking the road trying to get away.
They ran and ran and hid and all the while shook with fear,
maybe trying to be strong for the kids.
And what were they running away from?
Their king who was already terrifying,
their king who shifted loyalties to foreign powers to get his way,
who didn’t hesitate to kill off anyone who stood in his way
and who raised taxes to extortion levels
so he could build fancy new cities
and make himself feel immortal.
Their king was so threatened by the idea he heard from the magi
that there could be a new king,
that he had all the little boy babies and toddlers up to age 2
ripped from their mothers and fathers
and murdered in the street.
Or others say Herod knew he himself was dying
and also knew there wouldn’t be anyone mourning his death,
so his slaughter served a dual purpose of
not only keeping the throne to himself
but also creating a ready-made misery when he died.
Their king stopping at nothing to hold on to power,
willing to justify not just murder
but the destruction of the beauty and potential of young lives.
It’s called the Slaughter of the Innocents.
I’m not ready for this, liturgically or emotionally.
Scholars say this didn’t actually happen.
That, even if it did, there were only maybe 1000 people
living in Bethlehem at this point,
so it might only have been 20 children.
As though that makes it better.
Twenty or ten or even five means it’s not horrific.
But most scholars say this is a theological point, not an historical one.
Herod never had these babies killed.
Matthew is the only account,
either in the bible or in historical sources.
He wrote it in himself to make a theological point.
Matthew is big on tying Jesus’ story to the ancient Israelites’ stories—
remember the long genealogy
at the beginning of the gospel of Matthew?
That’s him tying Jesus definitively in to the family of David.
Remember the star that the magi followed?
Related to some passages in the book of Numbers.
The holy family runs off to Egypt? And warnings in dreams?
And massacre of children?
Totally the Exodus story. Jesus is a new Moses,
the one who will change everything
like Moses did but better.
Matthew’s all about bringing in these references
to give legitimacy but also holistic beauty
to the story he’s telling about Jesus.
And it works for him in general. But…but.
We don’t need this story to be factual for that historical time and place.
We don’t need it to have actually happened to tell the story.
We tell the story because we know the story.
It happens over and over and we don’t know how to stop it.
On Christmas here at Good Shepherd it has become something of a tradition
for the praise team to offer the song “Christmas Eve Sarajevo” by TSO.
It’s fun and exciting and for the first time,
I wondered why it was called that.
I knew it was about the Bosnian War in the nineties—
ethnic cleansing between the Serbs and Croats in the former Yugoslavia.
It was atrocious.
And it looked a lot like the Rwandan conflict and Aleppo,
and so many other conflicts.
For three years they killed each other, both military and civilian.
Families and entire towns were annihilated.
The city Sarajevo took the worst of the damage.
And a cellist sat in the middle of the fighting
and played Christmas carols through the night for days.
The TSO song he inspired is beautiful but it is heartbreaking.
Sarajevo was a massacre
and so many of those massacred were innocent.
This story repeats throughout history.
In the middle ages, the Church sent several crusades
to take back the Holy Land from the infidels.
Leaving aside the seriously problematic nature of that whole cause,
one of them was called the Children’s Crusade.
Because they sent children.
Adults going on crusade often didn’t survive
the long, violent journey to Israel.
And they sent kids?
They didn’t make it. At all.
They all died in the cause of attaining more power
for the rulers, for the adults.
In America, we decided that the native peoples
from whom we’d taken the land needed to be more white.
You think I’m kidding or using modern understandings of racism.
European culture was considered the correct culture
so we took children from their families,
dressed them up like dolls,
refused to let them speak their languages or see their families,
and made them ready for polite society.
Where they wouldn’t be accepted anyway.
How many of them died of suicide or broken hearts?
I’m not being poetic here.
This was a different kind of massacre.
Four years ago a young man took guns into Sandy Hook Elementary
We don’t know why.
He wasn’t King Herod trying to keep power.
He wasn’t trying to reclaim the Holy Land with sacrificial victims.
Yet the result was the same.
Innocents sacrificed for an adult’s dream.
For years some have thought they could change
a child’s sexual orientation from gay to straight
with prayer and psychology.
It’s called conversion therapy and is increasingly illegal
as scientists show us how damaging it is.
And I’m not talking about “oh, gosh, those kids feel bad
and we need to boost their self-esteem.”
I mean the suicide rates and self-harm rates
and psychological trauma from these programs
are unbelievably high.
I mean these kids have been massacred, in a sense,
for the adults to prove their righteousness.
And this year alone—2016 has a lot to answer for—
this year alone the number of unarmed black men shot by police,
the number of mass shootings in places like
Paris and Orlando and Dallas,
the uptick in gun violence in cities like Chicago,
the length of time Flint, Michigan has gone without drinkable water.
Matthew says Rachel weeps and laments and refuses to be consoled,
because they are no more.
These acts of violence we can’t seem to stop doing
are the slaughter of the innocents over and over.
Maybe we do know how to stop it, but we don’t. It’s too hard.
This is sin: humanity’s propensity to screw things up—
both that we actually can’t stop hurting each other
and that we don’t want to stop, not really.
Jesus the cute baby comes into this world, this sinful, R-rated world.
And he lives in it, he sees it happening, he doesn’t hide from it,
he walks with us and experiences pain just as we do.
I think it’s important for us, intellectually and emotionally
to juxtapose sweet Christmas with horrible slaughter.
It’s hard but good to hold these different experiences together.
Ugh, but really, experientially?
If God is God, then God should do something.
And, also, shouldn’t we have something more uplifting
here on New Year’s weekend?
We’re always talking about how God is doing a new thing,
how there’s hope, how Jesus changed things.
Where is the good news in the slaughter of the innocents?
All good questions, but all predicated on a rather small God.
God who is entangled by our rules and our physics.
God who is entangled in our expectations of rightness and judgment.
God who isn’t actually as vast as the universe
and as tender and caring as nothing we’ve ever experienced.
God is so much bigger than we know, holding us in massive divine hands,
God is so much bigger than we know, holding us in massive divine hands,
weaving the fabric of the universe together.
Years ago, I read this amazing and difficult book
Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis.
It’s very odd and heartbreaking, because his premise is
that the Holocaust makes absolutely no sense
unless it’s lived backwards. Do you get that?
There is no sense to be made of the slaughter of the innocents
during World War II as it is.
None. It’s atrocious. Period.
However, if we could live it backwards,
if we could see the smoke in the sky flowing together
into a chimney
and somehow creating bodies which awake and embrace
and are given clothing and handed children
whom they love so much they cry
and then sent on their way to lovely homes…
if we could live it that way,
the massacre of the Holocaust would be beautiful.
Matthew says Jesus is the new Moses
but he also says Jesus is not exempt from horror.
God’s presence doesn’t promise to take away the pain immediately—
someday it will be gone, next year in Jerusalem, in the Kingdom.
God will wipe away every tear from our eyes
and there will be neither sorrowing nor sighing.
How do we make sense of this,
without being Pollyannaish,
without the science fiction of living it backwards,
without falling into infinite despair?
We don’t make sense of it,
we don’t justify it,
we simply see it, clearly and without argument.
It is a gift to have our eyes opened, to see the world as it is
—beautiful and broken—
and to know we are not alone.
2017 is filled with possibility—possibility of disaster, yes,
AND possibility in the new babies born even now,
possibility for all the generations before and after those new babies
to make different, compassionate choices,
possibility for God to do that new thing.
Happy New Year.