3rd Sunday after Epiphany (A): Participating in the Restoration of the World

3rd Sunday after Epiphany (A): Participating in the Restoration of the World

Matthew 4:12-17, 23-25

By: Colin Cushman

As is the case with most other types of literature, we as Biblical interpreters should give an exceptional amount of weight to the beginning and end of major formal elements in books of the Bible. They are often quite revealing regarding what the author is trying to communicate through his story. This passage from Matthew 4 stands at a pivotal moment in the form of Matthew’s gospel: this is the point where we move from Jesus’ pre-ministry to his ministry proper. As such, this passage is particularly important for understanding Matthew’s gospel message.

Our story starts off with an ominous sign. In a foreshadowing of Jesus’ eventual fate, Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist (who modern scholarship suggests was Jesus’s mentor) was arrested. Jesus’ response to this was to leave home and move to Capernaum. Exegetes for millennia have tried to figure out why Jesus did this. He certainly wasn’t fleeing for his safety: Capernaum was directly in the center of the Galilee, the very domain of Herod Antipas, the Roman-installed client-king who was responsible for John’s arrest, who would later kill John the Baptist, and would put Jesus on trial. So clearly, Jesus is not fleeing toward safety here.

Interestingly, this is in contrast to his parents under the previous Herod (“the Great,” Herod Antipas’ father). The Holy Family fled as refugees to Egypt to prevent Jesus from being killed in the so-called Slaughter of the Innocents. At this time however, Jesus, now convicted of his ministry, steels himself and moves straight into the lion’s den, toward his confrontation with the powers that be. Over and over again, Jesus foretells his own death: throughout his entire ministry, he has a resoluteness about his behavior and rarely shies away from delivering his message, even though it comes at considerable personal risk.

In reflecting on Jesus’ relocation, Matthew cites a passage from First Isaiah. Along with the whole of Jewish biblical interpretation in this time period (including both Rabbinic and early Christian interpretation), Matthew would fail a modern exegesis class. He cherry-picks a ”prophecy” from the Bible (remember, there was only one Testament at this time), which he appropriates, giving little if any regard to its original context, simply plucking out the phrase that suits his purposes and disregarding the entire rest of the passage. This would not go over well under the rules of modern exegesis; he violates the most core principles of the discipline of Biblical Studies. However, in Matthew’s defense, few if any Jews in the first century C.E. would pass muster by modern exegetical standards. So Matthew’s use of Scripture here indeed is crass, but he also is behaving within the interpretive principles of this time.

However, all is not lost. We can still understand the intertextual relationship between Isaiah’s passage and Matthew’s productively, even if we add more nuance than he does. The original passage, coming from First Isaiah, reflects on the Jewish experience of exile. The people ”who sat in darkness” are those hauled off into exile in Babylon. (Which, note, is a classed experience. The Babylonians didn’t see it as worth the effort to haul off the poor into exile.) These elites who used to be so high on the cultural totem pole have now suffered a severe reversal of status and have been kicked out of their homeland, never to go back within their lifetimes. Notice as well that for many of these exiles, their descendants would never end up returning to the Holy Land. Despite the prophets’ best urgings and the laments of some of the most fervent of those exiled, many Israelites did not experience the Babylonian exile as suffering and in fact saw a marked increase in their standard of living. This then created the conditions whereby they would decline to move back to the Holy Land when they were allowed to, creating a significant Jewish community in Babylon. (This Babylonian Jewish community is so significant that it will eventually produce one of the versions of the Talmud.)

However, Isaiah is not speaking from this perspective of those who have accommodated to life in Babylonia, but from the perspective of one who sees the Holy Land itself as a fundamental part of God’s promises to Israel. Thus, beyond the emotional distress and trauma of forced displacement, the Israelites have suffered the loss of God’s gift to them. So for Isaiah, returning home was indeed a blessing, a “great light.” These people who have been sitting in darkness, as Matthew adapts Isaiah poetry to say, are finally able to return.

For Isaiah, this is fundamentally a story of God’s restoration at work in the world, restoring that which has been broken. And for Matthew, this same restoration that Isaiah talked about has come to be through the person Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah.

Matthew continues to expand upon Isaiah’s prophecy in verse 17 by describing what Jesus’s mission ministry looks like. It contains the core of the message for Matthew’s Jesus: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Change your lives, for this restoration that God is bringing to pass has arrived. Come participate in this restored world. And what does this restoration look like? Verse 23 demonstrates that Jesus’ restoration-ministry consists of preaching, teaching, and healing. The restorations of hearts, minds, and bodies that have been broken down by Empire and exile—finally restored to how God originally wanted them to be.

So Matthew provides us a fitting beginning for Jesus’s ministry: encapsulating Jesus’ emphases, providing a characteristic example of Matthew’s crass deployment of Scripture to try to prove his point, and demonstrating how Jesus’ message fits within the broader narrative of God’s redemption of the world that the people had been waiting for in the figure of the Messiah—all of which done is a characteristically Matthean fashion to demonstrate who exactly Jesus was.

Picture1Colin Cushman is passionate about teaching the Bible. His particular areas of interest are around the intersection of social justice and the Bible: race, sexism, imperialism, poverty, etc. He lives in the Seattle area with his wife, daughter, and dog.

2nd Sunday after Epiphany (A): What is it That You Need?

2nd Sunday after Epiphany (A): What is it That You Need?

John 1:29-42

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

Is this déjà vu all over again?

Last week, churches celebrated the Baptism of Our Lord as narrated by Matthew, and this week, we hear it again—except this time, it’s narrated by John.

The contrasts between John and the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so well-known by most preachers that they hardly bear repeating here—except to say this: I have come to believe that John’s gospel doesn’t simply happen to be different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke; rather, it is my conviction that John is intentionally different from the other three. Moreover, it is from these differences that the Spirit can speak an important word to us.

Notice, for example, that in John’s gospel, John doesn’t actually baptize anyone. Rather, he reports what he has seen. The Spirit descends upon Jesus, and John shares with others what he sees.

That’s it.

Then, the very next day, John is again gathered with a few of his disciples when Jesus passes by. Immediately, the Gospel says, John shouts, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

When the two disciples hear this, they follow Jesus. And then Jesus turns to them and he doesn’t say, “Welcome aboard!” he says, “What are you looking for?”

In other words, “What are you hoping to find in following me? What is it that you need?”

That’s a remarkably simple question, isn’t it? “What is it that you need?”

And yet, how often do we create space for it to be asked authentically and discerned faithfully?

Several years ago, my Diocesan Convention hosted a series of workshops—one of which was on the topic of Millennials (translation: people born roughly between 1980 and 2000) and the Church. Given that I’m one of a handful of professionally religious Millennials in my Diocese, I signed up.

When I arrived for the workshop, we were asked to self-identify by generation: baby boomers, Gen Xers, the Greatest Generation, Millennials, and so on. Here’s how it panned out: Number of people attending the workshop born before 1980: 57. Number of people born in 1980 or after: 3—including myself. For the next hour, my two fellow millennials (both of whom were also church leaders) and I listened as the 57 other people in the room asked and answered the question of “what do millennials need” without ever actually asking the three millennials in the room.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this was an earnest and well-intentioned conversation. But it followed an all-too-familiar pattern: “I know what you need.”

Jesus, however, shows us a different way: “What is it that you need?”

If you want to know what young people need, ask young people, and then listen for them to answer.

If you want to know how to support and uplift young families, ask young families what they need from their church family, and then listen for them to answer. Note well, however, that the answer you receive may not be comfortable or easy to hear. Don’t ask the question if you can’t tolerate the answer. Madeleine L’Engle was on to something when she observed, “The truth I have to tell may not be the truth you’re ready to hear.”

Even when we struggle to name or understand or articulate our faith; even when we opt for cheap substitutes we think we can buy or earn; even when we struggle to share our faith with others; even when we wonder if we believe anything at all, there stands Jesus, arms outstretched, still asking what it is that we most deeply need; still inviting us to come and see; and still determined to love us more than we can possibly imagine!

Who knew it could be that simple?

 

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The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He is a graduate of Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (MDiv & Certificate in Anglican Studies), where he is currently completing a doctorate in Biblical interpretation and proclamation. In his elusive moments of spare time, he enjoys running, reading, and cooking–though not at the same time! He is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org.

Baptism of Our Lord (A): Jesus, Bumblebee, and Our Journeys of Self-Discovery

Baptism of Our Lord (A): Jesus, Bumblebee, and Our Journeys of Self-Discovery

Matthew 3:13-17

By: The Rev. Joe Mitchell

If you’ve read my bio line at the end of this entry, you’ll know that I am a huge fan of the Transformers. I don’t have nearly the time to go into the ‘whys’ and ‘what-nots’ of my hobby, but one of the (few) highlights for the Transformers franchise in recent years was 2018’s Bumblebee, a movie about a giant alien robot that turns into a VW Beetle and befriends a young woman named Charlie Watson. Their stories mirror each other beautifully: Bumblebee is far from home, separated from those he knows and loves, and to make matters worse he has lost both his voice and his memory. Charlie is estranged from her family following the death of her dad. She doesn’t really know who she is anymore and feels lost. Their paths cross, and together they go on a journey of discovering who they are meant to be. Girl meets alien robot. Tale as old as time.

Like Bumblebee and Charlie, we find Jesus today on a journey of self-discovery, as the time has come for him to become the person that he was always meant to be. And what is the initial public action in which Jesus participates when he takes his first steps into this larger world? It’s the rite of baptism. It’s the rite of belonging.

But we can’t help wondering why Jesus would need to participate in such a rite. Luckily, John the Baptizer wonders the same thing. Jesus’ response to him is: “We must fulfill all righteousness.” I’ve often wondered what he meant by this, and over time I’ve come to believe that at the core of Jesus’ desire to be baptized was the need to belong to the human family, that this is what he means by fulfilling all righteousness. How could Jesus do what he did, be who he was meant to be, if he were not one of us?  How could we possibly look to him as not only our Savior but also our model for how to live faithfully in this world if he did not do what we do, including participate in our rituals? It wasn’t that Jesus needed baptism to wash away his sins—we know that he was the sinless one—but he chose to be baptized so to fully embrace his own humanity, to share in the human journey with us, to be part of our family. This is what baptism does. It brings us into the family of Jesus and gives us a place of belonging.

But there’s another layer to it. Baptism doesn’t just bring us into the family, it commissions us for the lives that we were always meant to live. In his own baptism Jesus is declared by the voice of God to be God’s “Son,” God’s “Beloved,” and in our own baptisms we are called children of God, we are called beloved, and like Jesus we are sent out into the world to do what God has called us to do: to be agents of God’s love and reconciliation in the world. Before Jesus can begin his public ministry, he goes through the rite of baptism, taking his place in the family of God, and the same is true for us. The waters of baptism not only make us brothers and sisters in this family, but like Jesus we whom the Holy Spirit has sealed and marked forever are called to go into the world, empowered by that same Spirit, to love and to serve. Those waters transformed Jesus from the simple carpenter of Nazareth into the Savior of the world, and they have the same transformative power to make the wounded, vulnerable, and lost part of the family of God.

The desire to be part of something, to belong, to have a family—whether one of blood or one of our own choosing—is a fundamental characteristic that is shared by every person. Is there anyone who does not seek some form of belonging? Who does not seek a relationship with someone who tells us that we matter and that we are loved? This is what makes Bumblebee such a good story, not because it’s about a car that turns out to be an alien robot—although that’s cool, that’s cool—it’s because in the characters of Bumblebee and Charlie we see that desire played out, and we see these two form such a relationship. The whole world is longing with such a desire, and we are the agents who can go and say to the lost, lonely, and outcast, and tell them: “You matter. And you are loved!” We not only discover our own selves when we become part of the family of God, but we are equipped to go and invite others in.

I suspect many of you, like me, refer to your congregations as your sisters and brothers in your sermons.  It seems natural, doesn’t it? We belong together, as a family, united by the love of God made manifest in Jesus and given outward representation by the same waters of baptism that washed over him and washes over us. I wonder how we will live into this journey of discovery and belonging among our congregations. How will we equip them to be sent out, to find those who need to hear such a message? We have been transformed by baptism into children of God, now how will we transform this world that God loves so much?

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The Rev. Joe Mitchell

The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell is Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, North Carolina. He is your typical Transformer-collecting, baseball-playing, theatre-loving, moonshine-drinking priest from the coalfields of Virginia. He runs the blog Father Prime (www.fatherprime.blogspot.com), where he wishes and works for a world transformed.

Epiphany (A): The Light Shines

Epiphany (A): The Light Shines

Isaiah 60: 1-6

By: Anne Moman Brock

The darkness arrived a few months ago and now we are right in the middle of it. Last week I told my husband that I was heading to bed. He looked at the time… it was only 7:30 pm! As much as I love the moon, it’s the sun that gives me energy. On long summer days, I can stay up late working in the yard, but now, as we are in the midst of winter, I can barely keep my eyes open past 7:30. The darkness is here.

And yet, each year when those of us in the northern hemisphere are in the depths of darkness, we read passages declaring — no, shouting! — that the Light has come. Isaiah seemed to understand our experience: “Though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations, the LORD will shine upon you” (v. 2a). He’s right about that… darkness and gloom abound, so where’s the Light he refers to?

He has an answer for that too: “Lift up your eyes and look all around” (v. 4a). Because the Light is shining upon us, nations and kings are drawn to us. If we look all around us, we’ll see them coming toward us.

We are only seen because the Light of God shines upon us. The same is true for the moon — without the Light of the sun it wouldn’t shine in the night sky. So, with this Light on us “[we] will see and be radiant” (v. 5a). Our hearts will tremble and open wide — the abundance will be turned over to us.

It’s because of the Light that the shepherds found Jesus.

It’s because of the Light that the Magi found Jesus.

It’s because of the Light that we find Jesus year after year.

The shepherds were drawn to the Light of Jesus.

The magi were drawn to the Light of Jesus.

We, too, are drawn to the Light of Jesus.

And, we are drawn that brilliant, shining Light because we live in darkness.

It’s hard not to be overwhelmed with the darkness — it’s all around us. Unending wars. Children separated from parents. Despair and hopelessness. Lack of care for the vulnerable. Chronic illness. Unimaginable loss abounds. Political leaders speaking words of hate. We are in the depths of darkness. We cry out, how long, O Lord?

In the depths of this darkness, the Light shines bright. It only takes a pinprick of Light to illumine our faces in this kind of darkness. A small candle can brighten an entire room when darkness overcomes us. It doesn’t take much Light to show us where to step next.

How has your heart been opened wide because of that brilliant, shining Light?

I was diagnosed with infertility during a fall season, just as the darkness was beginning to take over the light. It felt right. It made sense to be in the dark when all the hopes and dreams for my future were ripped away. I didn’t want to see the sun; I wanted to sit in the darkness. But I noticed during these dark days that Light still found a way into my life, despite my persistence in pushing it away.

One Advent candle after another began to light up my dark mornings. Denali, my constant four-legged companion, urged me to walk in the dark, our path lit by the light of the moon. Friends sent empathetic texts — ones that didn’t require me to fake positivity but allowed me to sit in my grief. It was the light of my phone screen reminding me of their love. Small moments of laughter and joy, hugs from loved ones, warm quilts — the Light couldn’t be kept away even on the darkest of days.

My heart was broken open, that’s for sure. My heart trembled because of the Light shining upon me — a Light I couldn’t hide or push away. A Light that claimed my pain and heartache. A Light that came in the form of a child, which then breaks my heart all over again.

“Arise! Shine! Your light has come; the LORD’s glory has shone upon you.”

We all find ourselves in darkness at one time or another. We all know what it’s like to sit in the darkness. But the Light appears in big and small ways. The Light shines upon us — the Light is here.

How has your heart been opened wide because of that brilliant, shining Light?

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Anne Moman Brock

After thirteen years of youth ministry in the United Methodist Church, Anne Moman Brock is now in another form of ministry with Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, part of the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She is a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary. Anne lives with her husband and two dogs — an 11-year-old husky and a 1-year-old chocolate lab — in Indianapolis, Indiana. She writes about her experience with infertility at www.annebrock.com and on Instagram @livinginthemidst.

2nd Sunday of Christmas: The End of the Pageant

2nd Sunday of Christmas: The End of the Pageant

Jeremiah 31:7-14

By: The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

A lament for The Second Sunday after Christmas Day.:

Celebrant: Oh oft maligned and regularly forgotten Second Sunday after Christmas Day! Whereas the First Sunday after Christmas Day has a rotating cast of texts for each year of the cycle, never deigning to repeat a text in three years, you are constrained to the same four texts year in and year out!

All: SELAH!

Second Sunday after Christmas Day, rarely do we see you. You appear only if the First Sunday after Christmas Day visits the calendar on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or 5th. Often you are dethroned by Epiphany or the First Sunday after the Epiphany!

SELAH!

Oh Second Sunday, on you the Revised Common Lectionary doesn’t place such a heavy weight as an Old Testament or Psalm reading, instead letting you venture into the rarely explored realms of the Apocrypha, so valiant Priests and Preachers can spend time explaining to the faithful few parishioners who braved the post-holiday doldrums just exactly what the “Apocrypha” is (and why it might not be in their bibles).

SELAH!

The Methodist’s method includes dropping you completely from the Lectionary in the Book of Worship! The stalwartly traditional Episcopalians can’t make up their minds about you, dear Second Sunday after Christmas Day, for the Book of Common Prayer assigns to you the same text for all three years!

SELAH!

You, Second Sunday after Christmas Day, truly are the Gen-X of the lectionary.

Amen.

All joking aside, the text from Jeremiah and the particular day it occupies in the liturgical calendar presents some difficulty when it comes to interpretation and preaching. The Old Testament text selected is  joyful but found in the midst of some of Jeremiah’s more acerbic prophecy, stopping just short of a weeping and wailing Rachel refusing to be consoled in verse 15. The Interpreter’s Bible spends all of its time with this text (vv. 7-14) debating if Jeremiah even wrote the passage, without actually discussing the text itself. It seems like the Church/Revised Common Lectionary committee picked out one of Jeremiah’s most hopeful passages, hoping that no lector accidentally overshoots and crashes into verse 15 so we can all just keep the peaceful feeling of Christmas going for another week.

In spite of being consigned to a forgotten role, my now beloved Second Sunday after Christmas Day is probably one of the most real days in the Christian Calendar, exemplified by this prophetic word from Jeremiah. Often on a Sunday when there is snow on the ground but the roads are still passable, I look out at a diminished congregation. On those Sundays, many chose not to risk getting out in the ice and snow, and I wonder what makes some people willing to gather for worship on those days? I suspect that for many, it is because they are searching for something. All of us come (or came initially) to church because we are looking for something;  something we can’t find anywhere else.

What is it that makes people come to church on January 5th knowing that some of the joy of Christmas will have evaporated into simultaneous exhaustion and relief knowing that they made it through another holiday season? Why do most churches get a bump in attendance after the new year? (Why do we go back to “normal attendance” in February?)

Jeremiah’s vision for the future in chapter 31:7-14 is compelling. It tells of a time that is coming when all will find themselves coming into a kingdom prepared for them by God, on straight and smooth paths leading to lush gardens. In this land there will be dancing, singing, and shouting. God will trade the people’s mourning for laughter, and their sadness for joy. Those who don’t have a place now; the blind, disabled, mothers, and those in labor, will have a place of honor in God’s gathering.

In a world that is constantly growing louder, busier, faster, and more overwhelming, the Church gets to be a counterpoint. The church has an opportunity to be a people and a place where you do not have to fight for a place or position, because in the gathering of God’s people our place is secure.

The pageantry of Christmas and Epiphany is beautiful, but it fades into the calendar and is overtaken by the dark and cold of winter and “normal” life. There is no candlelight illumined “Silent Night” in January, only a joyful promise from God of healing and dancing, sandwiched between anger (30:24) and Rachel’s weeping and wailing (31:15). How blessed is the community of Christ that we are called to live into this kingdom of healing, joy, and dancing. Be careful while extolling the ability of God to heal, don’t discount or make light of the pain and grief people carry into worship. Hope and healing don’t negate grief, oppression, and suffering; instead, they show us that while pain might be a part of our story, it is not the end of our story with God.

As people seek refuge from the wounds of disillusionment, discontent, exile, expectations, and oppression, the church gets to stand and say, “The Lord has saved!” (v. 7). There is a place of healing and abundance for the hurting, the exiled, the oppressed, the tear-filled, and grief stricken.

People show up on January 5th, make resolutions to go back to church, and continue to walk through the doors every Sunday because they are looking for a community of abundant healing and salvation. What will you and your congregation find on this the Second Sunday after Christmas Day?

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The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord grew up in Florida and is a lifelong United Methodist. He’s a graduate of Candler School of Theology. His focus is on preaching, pastoral care, and exploring the spiritual practices that connect us to God. He enjoys running, hiking, and backyard gardening. Jonathan is married to Keri, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Jon and Keri welcomed their first child in July 2018, they also have a dog and some bees. Jonathan is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church and serves Yadkinville UMC in Yadkinville, North Carolina.

 

 

 

The Holy Name: Poetry in the Midst of Prose

The Holy Name: Poetry in the Midst of Prose

Philippians 2:5-11

By: The Rev. Brandon Duke

Even though St. Paul found himself penning another letter behind the dank walls of a jail cell, he must have been humming when writing, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend…every tongue confess…” Within Chapter 2 of his optimistic letter to the Philippians, Paul stops his prose and begins quoting poetry. It’s a song of praise, a whirring hymn, an ode to Jesus Christ our Lord. Like any meaningful melody, music petitions a response. Aaron, acting as priest, blesses the Israelites with poetry. God, in turn, blesses God’s people (Num 6:22-27). Choirs of angels teach lowly shepherds a song of adoration, sending them on their way to Bethlehem where they would welcome Christ the King. While returning to their work they found themselves whistling the refrain just learned, hearts expanded (Lk 2:15-21). Not missing a beat, the Church’s lectionary gifts us with Psalm 8, a righteous hymn revealing the divine majesty of God’s creation. This time the response comes “out of the mouths of infants and children” in the form of cheers and acclamation (Ps 8:2).

By now, the Christmas music has ceased. While no longer played in department stores, on radios, or family road trips, within the walls of churches, parishes, and cathedrals it is still unabashedly Christmas. The Church finds herself on its eighth day singing carols through Sunday—the twelfth and last day of this short feast. Unbeknownst to most, the “New Year” was the first Sunday of Advent (this past year, falling on December 1st) so on today’s Feast of the Holy Name, the Church continues to celebrate. Today, the Christ child has been “given [a name] by the angel before being conceived in the womb” (Lk 2:21). Enduring to still sing carols is counter-cultural, offsetting what transpires outside the walls of the church; and yet, like St. Paul we must pause in the middle of prose and quote poetry. Today, the culture is quoting “Auld Lang Syne,” an 18th century poem written by Robert Burns. The opening lines are:

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?

It’s a poem asking the rhetorical question, “Should we remember the old times?” When asked in the context of New Year’s Day it serves as a reminder not only to remember the old, but to anticipate the coming year with new learnings and recollections, bearing in mind the experience of the past when discernment may be needed in the future. When asking this question in the context of Christianity, the Christian will ultimately point to Christ as its answer. For it is Christ who resolves Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, new and old. In his very body and being the living and the dead are made alive as the audacity of hope births unfamiliar imagination. Quoting St. Paul again, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (v.5). Put differently, if Christ is the music, then our minds respond accordingly – Take note, keep awake, and listen. Christ, like music and poetry, has the potential to transform our attitudes and ambitions. Like the shepherds, we walk away from the angelic concert changed. We are sent out on mission wanting to teach anyone and everyone this new way of participating in the Divine mind. When was the last time you stopped in the middle of conversation and quoted lyrics to a poem, song, or hymn? On this octave of Christmas why not give it a go?

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The Rev. Brandon Duke

The Rev. Brandon Duke serves as parish priest to St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia. Follow his blog at https://fatherbrandon.com.

 

 

 

 

Christmas 1(A): One Long Nightmare

Christmas 1(A): One Long Nightmare

Matthew 2:13-23

By: The Rev. Steve Pankey

 

When is a door not a door?

When it’s ajar.

When is the Revised Common Lectionary not common?

When it’s Christmas.

The Episcopal Church formally adopted the Revised Common Lectionary at its 2006 General Convention, but only in part. I’ll save the reader, especially the non-Episcopalian crowd, the full legislative history, but as a piece of the process of adopting the RCL, in 2000, the Episcopal Church revised the Revised Common Lectionary. The most heavy-handed revisions occur during the Christmas Season, wherein the old Book of Common Prayer Lectionary is substituted fully for both the First and Second Sundays after Christmas. So, while y’all are preaching from Matthew’s long nightmare, I’ll be sharing with my people the lofty and uplifted image of Jesus Christ as Logos from the prologue to John’s Gospel. In fact, all things being equal, I’ll never actually have the opportunity to preach on Matthew 2:13-23, as that full pericope is never appointed in our revised version of the Revised [Common] Lectionary.

If you made it that lengthy introduction, then you know that I’ve already betrayed my opinions on the standard Gospel lesson in the RCL. Sandwiched between two dreams in which God sends a message to Joseph is the brutal story of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. It is the kind of story that brings up all kinds of questions about theodicy and the role that God plays in the evil that happens in the world. These are the kinds of questions that people don’t much enjoy with their peanut butter blossom cookies and hot apple cider, but they are questions that a tired preacher ought to probably consider before the rush of services from Advent 4, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, through Christmas 1 leave you scrambling at midnight on December 28th.

We can all understand why God would send an angel to appear to Joseph in a dream in the hopes of protecting Emmanuel, the Second Person of the Trinity who was sent to earth bring salvation for our sins. What is less easy to understand is why God didn’t send angels to every father of a toddler under two living in and around Bethlehem to protect them from the crushing sadness of losing a child to the deranged paranoia of a powerful tyrant. Sandwiched between the two dreams of Joseph as it is, the slaughter of the innocents is exceedingly troubling for those of us who follow a God who is assumed to be loving, just, and compassionate such that the story can feel like one long nightmare from the flight to Egypt, through the slaughter of the innocents, to the return to Nazareth. The quotation from Jeremiah makes matters worse. At least in Matthew’s mind, the death of these small children seems to be a part of God’s plan. A plan that is elsewhere in Scripture described as “good and perfect.”

God’s good and perfect plan was to send the Son into the world so that the world might be saved, but how that plan gets lived out in real life brings with it all kinds of skirmishes between good and evil, the God and Maker of All and the powers and principalities which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. While this story is meant to show us that even as an infant, Jesus is more powerful than any political leader hellbent on destruction, a preacher, especially a preacher in Christmastide, would do well to help their congregations see and understand that the Innocents weren’t killed by God’s divine plan but by the sinfulness of humanity, the wonted corruption of political power, and a madman who lived every moment of his life in fear of losing all that he had gained.

The Slaughter of the Innocents is remembered with its own Feast Day on the Fourth Day of Christmas and recounted by the Revised Common Lectionary on Christmas 1 to remind us of God’s ongoing plan of salvation in the light of humanity’s epic ability to do evil. We remember those young souls as martyrs because their deaths remind us of what happens when the powers of this world are confronted by the power of God’s love. We tell this story during the “most wonderful time of year” to remind ourselves that God’s will, as our Presiding Bishop often says, “is to change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.” In order to get there, we must admit the truth of that nightmare, that this world is corrupt, evil, and violent, in order to then flip the script and move toward a place we dream of when on Christmas we sing “Peace on earth, and mercy mild/God and sinners reconciled.”

 

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The Rev. Steve Pankey

The Rev. Steve Pankey is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  Steve holds a Master of Divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary (’07) and a Doctor of Ministry from the School of Theology at the University of the South (’17), but the degree he seems to use most often these days is the BS he earned at Millersville University (’02). As a disciple, a husband to Cassie, a father to Eliza and Lainey, and now a Rector, Steve struggles to keep it all in the right order, and is constantly thankful for forgiveness and grace. You can read more from him at his personal lectionary blog, draughtingtheology.wordpress.com.