Tag Archive: Resurrection


Sermon from June 28 at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA.

Imana ishyimwe! Praise God! Our mission trip to Rwanda was a incredibly eye-opening and moving journey. On the one hand, I learned up close about the depth of human hatred and depravity. On the other, I left feeling like I had never encountered such a depth of joy in all my travels. How could both of these things be present in the same place and even among the same people? As I reflect and try to understand, I can only think that it is because we were able to glimpse both death and resurrection.

During the genocide in 1994, men were both disproportionately the perpetrators and victims. Afterward, some 70 percent of the country was women. Many of whom had been abused, raped, wounded, and widowed. Or whose families had perpetrated crimes against others and were now in prison. How would they be able to go on after such a horrific tragedy? Men had been breadwinners and now the world had been shaken to the core. Those who were left were hurting, sick, suffering from PTSD, dealing with poverty, and finding it nearly impossible to build trust or community.

I think about the woman in the lesson this morning. She had suffered with hemorrhages for twelve agonizing years. No one could help her. And because of her disease, she was unclean and isolated from society. She must have felt so completely cut off from everything she once knew and enjoyed. Perhaps she had once loved life in her village, but now it was a place of isolation, loneliness, hurt and distrust. How could there be hope for a future?

After the woman in the Gospel quietly touches Jesus’ clothes to receive healing, she is unable to hide any longer. She tells him her whole story about all the doctors, the years of suffering, the feelings of isolation, loneliness, and shame, and how she knew she would be better if she could only touch even his clothes. Jesus looks at her and says gently, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

I hear this story and I think about those Rwandan women after the genocide, and what they must have gone through. They, too, struggled to find hope and a future. They, too, must have felt relegated to the land of the dead as opposed to the land of the living. They, too, must have felt shame for what they suffered or what they or others had done.

But slowly, things began to change. Women began to realize that in order to move forward, they needed to work together. They gathered to talk and weave. Hutu and Tutsi women began sitting together, side-by-side, weaving peace baskets, which nest to show how intricate and how long a process the road to peace and reconciliation is. All over Rwanda, co-ops have formed. People have come together across ethnic lines to begin building, or weaving, a future for their country and for their children.

We were blessed to experience this healing and resurrection in many places on our trip, but particularly in the villages of Gitarama and Nyange. In Gitarama, we participated in Azizi Life, an experience shadowing Rwandan women for the day, learning about their lives, and having the amazing opportunity to share cross-culturally.

While there, we helped prepare lunch, we harvested and planted sweet potatoes, we collected water by walking to the spring with jerry cans, we cut elephant grass and balanced it on our heads to take to the cow, we ate lunch together, prayed, sang and danced, and learned how to make earrings and bracelets from banana leaves. It was incredible. Together, these women have a co-op and they make beautiful handicrafts to sell around the world. They receive a fair wage and are able to support themselves and their families.

Sitting on Our Host's Front Porch Making Jewelry (Azizi Life)

Sitting on Our Host’s Front Porch Making Jewelry (Azizi Life)

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With Pauline who Taught Me (Errr… tried to teach me!) How to Make Banana Leaf Earrings and a Bracelet

I found myself sitting on the front porch of our host’s home filled with joy – not wanting the moment to end. We had been so warmly embraced by these women. Their smiles and laughter made me overflow with joy. So much so that when I went to say goodbye and thank you to our host, I found myself tearing up with gratitude. How could this come from the unfathomable depth of suffering of the genocide?

In Nyange, we sat with the village elders with whom Pr. John, Robin’s husband, has been working. They are rebuilding their community by working together to decide what is important for them as a whole. Together, they have decided that they are most in need of new roofs. And in the process, Pr. John has been coaching and encouraging them so that they can put together an action plan, hold meetings, make presentations to government officials, and reflect on their project and its effectiveness. I asked them what has changed as a result of this and one woman said, “We used to not even want to wash our clothes. We were ashamed and we didn’t want to interact with one another. Now we want to take care of ourselves. We are even discussing family planning. We can make presentations to people without being afraid.” Each one of them mentioned how their confidence had increased – how they are once again able to look others in the eye.

Meeting with the Community at Nyange

Meeting with the Community at Nyange

Meeting with the Community in Nyange

Meeting with the Community in Nyange

I hear in that an echo of the woman from the Gospel. She was healed and able to tell her story of her movement from death to life. These communities have been healed, by the grace of God at work in the world and by their faith that there could be a future. And now they are able to tell their stories – to share the joy of their resurrection with us. To point to what God can do – crossing all walls and boundaries and bringing resurrection from the darkest depths of hatred and death.

The day after our Azizi Life experience we heard about the shooting in Charleston. I was sad. I was angry. We had just visited a church in Rwanda that was the site of the killing of 10,000 people. Now here was a shooting in a church in our own backyard. Why? Why do we continue to hurt one another? Our sin runs deep. Racism, lack of compassion for those who are different, hard hearts unwilling to learn and grow and change… We have an opportunity at this moment to begin to discuss what has happened and to work together across races and ethnicities to build a better future for all people. I know that Christ can bring life out of this hurt and death – I know that more deeply after visiting Rwanda. But are we open to his working in us to do so?

Christ healed a woman on the fringes of society and brought her back into her community. He is at work in Rwanda through women and men working together to rebuild their communities. And he is at work even now, starting conversations and reconciliation among Americans in communities across the country. Might we, like the disciples, be overcome with amazement at what God is able to do. Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

The sermon I preached last Sunday (Holy Cross Sunday) on 1 Corinthians 1:18–24 at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA.

During the Emperor Constantine’s construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, his mother, the Empress Helena reportedly rediscovered the True Cross. This cross was said to be the one upon which Jesus died. On September 14, 335, Constantine dedicated the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a huge complex in which Golgotha and the tomb are enshrined, and from then on, the Western Church took September 14th as a day to venerate the cross.

On Friday, January 17 of this year I found myself standing in this massive church. We climbed a stairwell and entered a section of the church where the walls were covered with beautiful mosaics and paintings. There were ornate chandeliers and beeswax candles placed in sand illuminating the room. And there were shining gold and silver icons surrounding a marble altar. On either side of the altar, there were two glass boxes covering the rock of Golgotha. There was a line forming under the eyes of a very watchful Greek Orthodox priest, and as we crept forward we could see the protocol. Each person stooped down to kneel under the altar and reach their hand down through a hole in order to touch the place where the cross of Christ was raised.

Kneeling to Touch the Rock of Golgotha (Jerusalem - January 17, 2014)

Kneeling to Touch the Rock of Golgotha (Jerusalem – January 17, 2014)

As I approached I said a prayer that I wouldn’t clunk my head on the marble altar while trying to maneuver and then awkwardly knelt with my backpack. I crossed myself and as I reached down through the elaborate silver star, I felt a little silly and wondered what to say. But as my hand touched the rock, all I felt was a wave of gratitude. And all I could say was “thank you.”

That day, kneeling in what might be the place Christ was crucified, all I had to say was “thank you.” Thank you, God, for the way in which you came into our world to forgive and free us all our sins. Thank you for calling us to a different way of living that can change the world around us. Thank you for the ways in which we know and experience your love.

And yet, that was not the first emotion I felt. Kneeling there, awkwardly squished under the altar, I wondered how we could possibly know if this was the place of the crucifixion. What was I hoping to experience by touching a rock? Yes, the first emotion I felt was a little bit of silliness. A little bit of foolishness. And Paul, writing in the year 58, knew about this as well. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The message of the cross sounds foolish because it is not a message based on the wisdom of this world. It is not what the world normally hears or wants to hear. It is not rational.

Paul knew this even in his own time because both the Jews and the Gentiles – the Greeks and Romans – had a hard time swallowing his message. The Jews were expecting a Messiah who would use miracles and adhere to the respected teachings. And there were a plethora of different thoughts about who this Messiah would be or how his role would play out, but dying as an insurrectionist on a shameful cross of the Roman oppressors was not part of the picture. As for the Greeks and Romans who prized logic, wisdom and power, why on earth would you want to follow a God who died broken on a cross? It was a disgrace and an affront to their sensibilities.

And I think that sometimes, even though we come to church and are Christians, we feel a little foolish about the cross. It’s acceptable as a piece of jewelry, sometimes even used as bling for celebrities and rappers. But to actually talk about what the cross means to us – that’s hard to do. We can find ourselves stumbling over words. Or, as I used to experience, literally facing a lump in our throats. It’s uncomfortable to talk about the fact that we believe in a God who came into the world to live among us, who died on the cross, and who was raised from the dead.

As Lauren Winner, an Orthodox Jew turned Episcopalian, writes in Girl Meets God, “Admittedly it’s a little crazy. Grand, infinite God taking on the squalling form of a human baby boy. It’s what some of the old-timers call a scandal, the scandal of the Gospel. But it is also the whole point.”

The cross calls us to live in ways that are foolish to the world. It calls us to forgive and love our enemies as Christ did from his cross. It calls us to stand up for what we know is right even if it is not popular. It calls us to be vulnerable and ask for help when we need it rather than striving for rugged individualism. It calls us to help the poor and the stranger even when we are not always sure if the money or goods will be used responsibly. It calls us to believe in and work for justice and equity for all people even when it seems we make no progress. And, ultimately, the cross gives us joy in despair and hope in sorrow because we know that after the cross there is resurrection.

It’s utter foolishness. But I think there is one thing that helps us to understand it. And that’s love. As William Goldman writes in The Princess Bride, “…love is many things, none of them logical.” And I think it’s God’s love that makes God’s apparent foolish actions for creation into the very wisdom and power of God.

It’s this kind of scandalous love that knocks us off our feet. At least, that’s what I remember it doing to me when I first heard it. You mean Jesus, a person I don’t even know, would do that for me? You mean God loves me that much? You mean everything I’ve done wrong and will do wrong is forgiven? You mean that life bursts forth out of death? Yes!

This kind of love made me wonder about the God who would do all of this for the sake of the world. It was a love that drove me to seek God and long to learn more. It was this kind of love that led me to the church and later into ministry. Because I found that it was difficult to keep that love to myself – I wanted to share it with others so that they could experience the love, peace, hope and joy of Christ that I had experienced.

And sharing this message isn’t just something pastors or missionaries do. Each of us is called to share this incredible news. As Paul writes, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. … we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” God uses the silliness and foolishness of our proclamation to make God’s love known in the world. Crazy pants!

We are called to proclaim the crucified Christ in our words and deeds. People may not always respond positively or may be apathetic, but that does not change the fact that God has called us to share God’s foolish and abundant love with everyone. We are called to share this love, not to judge or condemn, but in order to save and heal.

When I look at the cross, I am filled with wonder and gratitude, love and hope. It also causes me to turn and look at where I have fallen short. It leads me to think about how I have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done and by what I have left undone. The cross is the place that turns me from myself and calls me into deeper relationship with Christ. It is both a place of suffering and death, not only for Christ, but for dying to myself. It is also a place of new life and beauty.

What does the cross mean to you? Have you thought about it much? Do you struggle with it? Do you have a hard time connecting this event from 2,000 years ago to your everyday life?

Knowledge and wisdom are wonderful things. But I think it’s only through looking at the cross with the eyes of faith, through prayer and meditating on what the cross means to us, that we delve deeper into the life to which this symbol is calling us.

So what does the cross mean to you? Since school is starting, I’d like to give you some homework this week. I know, collective groan! But stick with me. As you go about your week, spend some time praying and thinking about the cross. Write down what the cross means to you. It can be simple thoughts, or a poem, or a song. Or take a picture of something that symbolizes the cross. Or paint or sculpt. Submit your thoughts or creation via e-mail, on Facebook, or bring it back next week. The cross of Christ is at the center of everything we do – let’s start a conversation about what it means to us and how it shapes how we live. Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

God Keeps Showing Up

This morning’s sermon on John 20:19-31 from Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA.

Thomas was framed! Every year we hear this story the Second Sunday of Easter and I think – oh man, Thomas was framed! All of the other disciples disregarded Mary Magdalene when she ran back Easter morning and told them, “I have seen the Lord!” Yet, we don’t collectively refer to them as “doubting disciples,” although maybe we should. Poor Thomas. He gets stuck with this permanent label of “Doubting Thomas” when, in fact, the word doubt doesn’t even show up in the Greek – he’s disbelieving or not believing.

So I was thinking about all of this and a song from the musical “Oklahoma!” kept popping into my head, but with different words.

Here is tune I used as the inspiration for my song about Thomas – “Poor Jud is Dead:”

Poor Thomas was framed,
Poor St. Thomas was framed,
He wasn’t there when Jesus appeared,
And when he said to believe,
He needed to touch and see,
All through history people jeered.

Poor Thomas was framed,
Poor St. Thomas was framed,
He always looks so doubtful and so sad,
He wanted to meet Jesus,
He’s got a lot to teach us,
And really I think he’s pretty rad.

This is what I do in my free time… Anyway, I do think Thomas has a lot to teach us. And I do think he’s pretty rad, although that’s a word I wouldn’t normally say – it just rhymed in the song!

So what exactly do we know about Thomas? As we hear in the reading for today, Thomas was called “Didymus” or “twin.” He shows up throughout the Gospels, but only speaks in the Gospel of John. We’ve already encountered him once in the past couple of weeks, when Jesus says he wants to go to Bethany to resurrect Lazarus. At that time, even though there was the fear that Jesus would be stoned, the Gospel records that, “Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’” Pretty bold fellow, I think.

Then, a few chapters later, after the Last Supper, Jesus speaks about going to prepare a place for the disciples in his Father’s house. He says, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” But Thomas, apparently the most inquisitive of the bunch says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Reflecting on these little snippets of Thomas that we get in John’s Gospel, it doesn’t seem to me as if Thomas is a doubter. It seems instead to show that Thomas is someone who wants to be engaged in his faith. He wants to follow Jesus, to ask questions, to understand more deeply, and he wants to really encounter the crucified and risen Christ.

Think about it, on Easter, the disciples, except for Thomas, were locked up in the house, shaking in their boots for fear that they might be persecuted and killed like Jesus. Mary Magdalene had come running, telling them about her garden encounter with the risen Christ, but they were still scared and confused and didn’t act on the good news she brought. With the doors still dead bolted, Jesus came into the house, stood in front of their weary eyes and said, “Peace be with you.” Then, in order to show them that he wasn’t a ghost or an apparition, he showed them his scars. And when they saw it was really him, in the resurrected flesh, they were finally able to rejoice!

Jesus then tells them as God the Father has sent him out, he is sending them out. In order to empower them to serve in the world, he breathes on them, filling them with the Holy Spirit.   It’s like the lion Aslan breathing new life into the statues in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Jesus breathes new life into disciples turned to stone by fear, worry and doubt. But Thomas missed out. It was the worst kind of “Oh, I guess you had to be there!” experience.

Later, Thomas returns and hears about what his fellow disciples have experienced. And surprise, just like the other disciples listening to Mary Magdalene before their encounter, Thomas doesn’t jump on the bandwagon when he hears that the others have seen the Lord. And so, Thomas says his now famous line: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

But then, a week after the empty tomb, something happens. The doors are shut again, but this time Thomas is there. And Jesus shows up again, saying “Peace be with you.” Then, Jesus turns to Thomas and offers him exactly what he needs. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” And Thomas, so overcome by the event, exclaims this beautiful confession of faith, “My Lord and my God!” He’s so moved by his experience of the risen Christ that he doesn’t even need to put his fingers in the wounds. He’s so moved, overjoyed and maybe even relieved, that he claims Christ as his Lord and his God. None of the other disciples did that. He sees the resurrected Christ and he knows that it’s really God in the flesh.

Thomas needed to have his own encounter with Jesus. He needed to see him risen and encounter him, in order to continue his relationship with him post-resurrection. The other disciples had that kind of experience and relationship because Jesus appeared to them. They saw him, they heard him giving them his peace, and they even received the life-giving Spirit when he breathed on them. Thomas missed out on all of this. And then he had to wait for a week until he had his own experience. What was that like for him? He must have wanted to see Jesus so badly – just like the others did and, yet, there’s nothing…for a week. He must have been longing for an encounter with the crucified and risen one, but feeling left out from the experience that the others had had, and probably feeling separated from the other disciples, too.

How often are we like Thomas? We ask questions of our Lord and our God, trying to make sense of it all. We wrestle with God’s Word for our lives and try to follow what Christ has called us to do. We see the violence and hurt in this world and wonder how the resurrection has changed things. We long to encounter – to stretch out our hands to touch the crucified and risen Lord and know that this is for real. We want something personal and tangible in our faith.

And God knows that. Thomas had to see Jesus before his very eyes in order to believe, so Jesus shows up and offers his hands and his side to Thomas so that he can believe. God knows what we need in our lives, and amazingly, God keeps showing up, making Godself known to us. The wounded God shows up and reaches out his hands to us in our woundedness and brokenness. And we experience Jesus, maybe not like those first disciples, but we see him nonetheless. We see the God that journeys with us in our wounds and the scarred Jesus in the scars and hurts of others. We encounter God in sharing a great evening with family or friends. We experience the joy and hope of the resurrected One in the laughter of children. We are awestricken by the beauty of creation and the creativity of the One who shaped the world. We touch and taste Jesus in broken bread and wine poured out for the healing, forgiveness and redemption of all creation.

Yes, Christ keeps showing up, pointing to the wounds of the world, and inviting us to see how he is at work. He calls us to look at the scars and to see his very own wounds. To walk with others in their brokenness, working to bring healing, and to be surprised, shouting out, “My Lord and my God!” when we recognize Christ’s presence in the world. And he calls us blessed that we believe when we encounter him in the word, in water, in bread and wine, and in community.

The lesson for today ends with two sentences. “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” The writer thought it important that we hear this account and that we know that even if we don’t see Christ like the first disciples, God will keep showing up and helping us to see, understand and believe in different ways.

The writer thought it was important to share this so that we could believe and continue believing, and have abundant life in Christ. So that we wouldn’t remain locked up in our rooms of fear, doubt, worry, or stress, but that we would be filled with Christ’s peace and the animating breath of the Holy Spirit. Christ is calling us to go into the world and to encounter him in the woundedness there, so that we too may see and believe, saying “My Lord and my God!”

I’d like to end with blessing. Thomas was blessed and transformed by his encounter with the risen Christ. And we, too, are blessed and transformed by Christ as he walks with us in our beliefs, as well as in our doubts, wounds, brokenness, struggles, and unbelief.

So in a few moments, I will ask you to stand up, find a neighbor and bless them.   With their permission, you can trace the sign of the cross on their hands, a symbol of their work in the world. And maybe you can offer a blessing such as, “God bless you, bring you peace, and help you to see Christ in the world.” So start blessing!

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

This was Sunday’s sermon on the raising of Lazarus and the amazing new life Christ gives us right here, right now.  The text was John 11:1-45.

 

What does it mean to be raised from the dead?
And what does it mean to be Holy Spirit led?
What does it mean to be truly, abundantly alive?
And what does it mean in Christ to thrive?

John’s Gospel gives us a wonderful story,
About death, resurrection and God’s glory.
It all started with one of Jesus’ closest friends,
Who had an illness that was proving tough to mend.

Lazarus’ health was going quickly downhill,
And his sisters, deeply worried that he was so ill,
Sent messengers to Jesus in whom they believed,
But from his place that Rabbi chose not to leave.

In that time in which Jesus waited and stayed,
Dear Lazarus died and in a rock tomb was laid.
The sisters cried and the community mourned,
And when Jesus arrived, they all felt torn.

“If you had been here, he would not have died.”
Martha choked out to Jesus as she cried.
“And still I believe that whatever you ask,
for God it will not be too great a task.”

Seeing the pain of all who’d come together to grieve,
And filled with sorrow, that Death should cleave,
The gift of life from his own beloved friend,
Jesus went to the tomb – what should’ve been the end.

Then, loudly he shouted, “Lazarus, come out!”
Out he came – he was alive, without a doubt!
But it wasn’t enough to leave him alive and wrapped,
Jesus asked others to unbind him – he wouldn’t be trapped.

He was miraculously free to go about his life,
But that meant that once again he entered the strife,
Of living in a world of pain, hurt and weariness –
A world sometimes filled with loneliness and dreariness.

Just as Jesus stood weeping at his friend’s tomb,
So we will soon stand in the dreary gloom
Of that Friday and Saturday that went down in history
Holy and terrible days shrouded in a veil of mystery.

But we know that this is never the end of the story;
At the end of those days is brilliant Easter glory,
The gracious light of the resurrection dawn,
The victory of Sin and Death forever gone!

Jesus doesn’t just promise resurrection down the road,
But also new life now that from his heart freely flows.
How often though, do we miss this invitation,
While struggling with life’s trials and tribulations?

We experience the sting of our own mistakes,
Feel the weight of our sins and the errors we make.
And how often do we hard-heartedly refuse to forgive,
Not realizing that we’re making it harder to live?

We suffer with terrible illnesses and situations,
We bear witness to wars among the nations.
We hear horrific tales of woe on the news,
And all of these stories have us singin’ the blues.

But against all of this Jesus offers a new way to live,
A way of hope, peace and joy that he alone can give.
He doesn’t promise we’ll avoid hardship as we travel,
Instead he’ll walk with us even when things unravel.

Being alive means stepping out of the cave,
It means shedding the clothes you wore in the grave,
Putting on the brilliant outfit of your baptism,
Embracing life as God’s child in Christ arisen.

It means listening deeply and trying hard to hear,
The calling of God whispered in your ear.
Seeking to use the gifts you’ve been given,
To make this world a place for kingdom livin’.

It means walking though life with a spirit of gratitude,
And cultivating a prayerful servant-leader attitude.
It means being vulnerable and loving others,
And getting hurt for doing so, against our druthers!

It means stepping out into the great unknown,
Going in faith, even shaking, outside our comfort zone,
Maybe meeting people we think are different from us,
Only to then ask – why were we making such a fuss?

It’s finding the magic and miracle in each human life,
Finding the beautiful and divine in a world simply rife
With all too much tough stuff, worry, fear and stress –
A world where God chose to be present nonetheless.

To each of us Jesus calls, as he did to poor Lazarus,
“Be free! Come out! Get out of your well-worn ruts!
Step into the sunlight and embrace the transformation
I’m working now in you – it’s a celebration!

Look at the things I’m doing around you all the time,
They range from the subtle to the outright sublime,
Still, they occur around the world every second –
Do you see them? Do you hear how they beckon?

I want you to take notice of the Spirit at work –
When you hear it, your ears upward should perk!
Whether it’s a story of reconciliation or hope,
Don’t keep it to yourself – no way, uh-uh, nope!

Share it with those you encounter along your way,
Look for the new life I’m bringing about here, today.
Healing and resurrection happen in great and small things,
Incredible schools in Rwanda – a flower blooming in spring.

I have set you free to be creative, bold and to serve,
So do not be afraid and gather up your nerve!
What dreams are you dreaming about this place?
How will you respond to my abundant grace?

Will you help one another through life’s struggle?
Will you prioritize knowing me as you schedule-juggle?
Will you give money to feed the poor and share my gospel?
Will you walk in faith and trust, doing the impossible?

You’re full of my Spirit and I’ve made you alive,
I’ve given you life and I want you to thrive,
So don’t stay locked away, trapped in your tomb,
But come out and change the world – BOOM!”

Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

 

Born Into Our Suffering

This is the sermon I preached at Community Lutheran Church yesterday on the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.

Here’s the text from Matthew 2:13-23 for the First Sunday of Christmas:

13Now after they [the wise men] 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.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and 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.”
16When 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. 17Then 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.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20Get 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. 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But 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. 23There 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.”

As Jerry Seinfeld might say, “what’s the deal with the Gospel reading for today?!” I mean, seriously, it’s the First Sunday of Christmas, and the lectionary gives us the slaughter of the Holy Innocents?! What happened to the angels and shepherds, the wonder of the manger and the word become flesh?!  It even feels like this gospel sets a totally different tone than the other readings for this morning.  Isaiah speaks of recounting the gracious deeds of the Lord, of praise and God’s mercy.  The Psalm speaks of angels, men and women, birds, beasts, sea monsters (that’s my favorite part!), and, indeed, all of creation praising God.  Hebrews speaks of God bringing God’s children to glory.  And then Matthew speaks of Herod killing all of the children two years old or under.  It’s… awful.

All together, the readings present celebration and praise of God alongside the struggles and pains of life under Herod’s rule.  Herod the Great, who is the ruler Matthew is writing about, was a powerful king – a “Jewish” king in name only known for his complete and unabashed loyalty to Rome as well as his incredible building projects, which included the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, entire cities, and several fortresses.  He was also known to be a ruthless leader, harshly squashing opposition, even to the point killing multiple members of his own family! Talk about family drama…

Bearing all of this in mind, it makes sense that Matthew writes about Herod being afraid when the magi mentioned that they were looking for “the child who has been born king of the Jews.”  And it makes sense that Herod is infuriated that the wise men hadn’t returned to tell him where exactly they had found the boy king.  Herod the Great, a man who lived to defend his power, was terrified at the prospect of a new threat to his throne, even if that person was to be the Messiah!

Now, different traditions say that there were varying numbers of children killed, and we may never know if this massacre actually took place.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that there was a vicious tyrant ruling the region where the Messiah of God was to be born.  A Messiah who was to be the true ruler of God’s people – not the empire of Rome, not the puppet kings appointed by Rome, but a true king, with the best interest of God’s children at heart.  A king that would be worshiped not only by Israel, but also by Gentiles like the wise men who had come from afar.

Needless to say, this made Herod a wee bit uncomfortable and he responded to his fears by commanding that all the children under two be killed.  Now, if Herod had remembered his peoples’ history, he would have recalled the slaughter of the baby Hebrew boys at Pharaoh’s hand and how one baby, Moses, was spared.  He would have remembered that Moses was saved to deliver God’s people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land – to bring about a whole new chapter in Israel’s history.  And if he had remembered all that, it might have crossed his mind that maybe God was acting again in his own day to bring about a new type of liberation.

But he ignores all of that, or at best, forgets, and, instead, innocents die while Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus flee to Egypt.

Last week on NPR I heard a shocking statistic about the war in Syria.  There have been many statistics about this war, but this one caught me completely unaware and caused me to tear up in my car.  I heard that so far, 11,420 children have been killed in this brutal civil war.  11,420.  That is roughly 10% of the total war deaths.  And over half of the 2 million refugees are children.

In addition to these statistics from overseas, we cannot forget that on December 14, we experienced the first anniversary of the shooting of 20 children and 6 educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

Sadly, it’s clear the slaughter of the innocents continues in our own day – this isn’t just a story about Herod, Jesus and the children of Bethlehem.  It’s a story about us, Jesus and all the children of God.

Giotto di Bondone - The Holy Innocents

Giotto di Bondone – The Holy Innocents

It turns out that this story isn’t the antithesis of Christmas after all.  In fact, it is the very meaning of Christmas that God comes into our hurting world and walks with us through all that we encounter and go through. You see, Christ is born in the midst of the ugliness and hatred and violence of this world.  In a fragile, helpless baby, God enters into history and human time in the flesh.  God is born into our pain and suffering.  And there’s the good news.  God is born into our lives and our experiences – not just into some far off land in another time, but directly into the middle of – the very heart of – our darkness, pain, brokenness and suffering.  And we heard it in the Isaiah reading for today: “…and he became their savior in all their distress.  It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”  In God’s love and pity for us, God chooses to be fully present with us in Jesus.

And Jesus didn’t only live as a human, but also died as a human.  God is a God of the cross, bearing our pains and experiencing death as fully human.  Because God has taken on human life, God is intimately acquainted with the distress, despair and grief we encounter.  As the author of Hebrews wrote: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Or, in the words of one of my favorite Christmas songs “O Holy Night:” “The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger, In all our trials born to be our Friend; He knows our need, To our weakness is no stranger. Behold your King, before Him lowly bend! Behold your King, before Him lowly bend!”  The fully human and fully divine Jesus is our real king, not a tyrant like Herod.

Of course, we can’t forget that the story continues after the crucifixion.  Our God is not only the God of the cross, but also the God of the resurrection and of new life, conquering sin and death once and for all.  He brings forgiveness, life, comfort and hope to all in need.  This is the promise of Emmanuel – “God with us” – in all that we go through, no matter how difficult or hopeless the situation seems.

In our baptisms, we too, are marked with the cross and given new life in Christ.  As such, we are called and challenged to walk among and with those who are suffering as Christ did, meeting people in their needs and journeying with them – helping to bring about transformation in the name of the One whom we serve, one step at a time.  Where we see the slaughter of the innocents, the oppression of God’s children, the destruction of creation, we are called to step up and respond.  To make a difference, acting in loving service as a response to God’s amazing love and grace in our own lives.  Where there are barriers between God’s children, we are called to work to knock down the walls and bring reconciliation.

As we reflect on God being present in our suffering and that of the world, we can reflect on how we can be present to those around us in their time of need.  What can we do for those suffering in Syria?  What can we do to lessen the violence in our world? What about the children hungry in our own backyard – the children who receive backpacks of food each Friday at our local schools before leaving so that they can eat over the weekends?

Herod feared Jesus and what this baby boy might do.  He feared change and the loss of his power.  And to some extent, Herod’s fears were grounded because Jesus’ birth did change things.  And as our texts for this morning point out, that’s what Christmas is all about.  It’s the celebration and praise of God’s almighty acts and God’s entering into history to bring hope and new life.

Today, Jesus continues to threaten the status quo and promise change and transformation in our lives and in our world.  It’s like that line so often heard in movies: “Is that a threat? No, it’s a promise.”  Jesus doesn’t only threaten change and transformation, but promises it.  Continuing to try to follow Christ in our daily lives transforms us, little by little.  And through God’s grace, we are invited to be a part of changing the world even if it’s hard to see that we are making any difference.

We, like Herod, may fear the change and transformation Jesus brings to our lives, even if we don’t respond as dramatically as Herod did.  We might find ways of ignoring or resisting God’s call, or just feel uneasy about what we might need to face within ourselves to better follow Christ.

But God has come to walk with us in our lives.  The question is, how we will respond to God’s presence? Will we respond with fear like Herod and continue abiding by the status quo? Or will we welcome and embrace God’s presence and the kingdom of heaven?

God never stops coming to us in our lives, seeking us out, and calling us to welcome the ways of God’s new kingdom.  Even if we respond with fear or trepidation, God continues to gently invite us to be transformed by grace.  Thanks be to God for God’s steadfast love that comes to us at Christmas and every day.  Amen.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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