Sermons January 2021

Sermon  January 3, 2021

  Apologies for all cat lovers, including myself.  But I couldn’t resist this dance for the new year- with exceptions.  Isn’t it true that we are all like Snoopy, just a little, with our exceptions.  All creatures- except the corona virus or cancer cells, or the family member we are so mad at right now. 

   The story of the magi in the gospel of Matthew is one that faces squarely the  “exceptions” of those living in the first century.  There is good news- a new king is born in Judea- the messiah. This is the word the magi discover and bring to Jerusalem looking for this favored one. This is the dance.  But there are exceptions to this good news. Herod and his cronies are not pleased.  The text says they were  “frightened”.  That is not really that surprising.  A Messiah right now would shake up the status quo, even threaten the little power Herod held in the Roman run world.   But Herod does not share this with the magi, no he hides his fears, his exception. 

     What makes Snoopy so endearing, is that he doesn’t hide his exception-cats!  The whole world knows he hates cats.  But what makes Herod evil, is not that he is afraid of the messiah and all the changes that might come. But his dishonesty.   He hides his fear behind a false face of interest and piety. He calls together the biblical scholars to learn more. He goes to his Bible like a good pious king. Then he tells the magi, “Go and search diligently for the child and when you have found him bring word to me so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  ( 2: 8)  Now maybe he really would do this?

     Ah but we find out the terrible truth.  When the magi don’t return Herod shows us his true face.       “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi he was infuriated and he sent and killed all the child in around Bethlehem who were two year old or under according to the time hat he had learned from the magi.” ( 2:16)   Herod’s fear and anger burst out in an act of terror.  

      Denying our fears, our angers, our shames doesn’t keep them from affecting our lives.  Hiding them behind faces of looking good to others, doesn’t really help us in the long run.  So, how do we deal with our exceptions?   Those aspects of life or persons which would ruin the dance of the new year for us?  Those threats to our status quo that  frighten us. 

      Well, first we look.  What helps us stay healthy and whole is to be like Snoopy- dance and admit our exceptions.  When we admit them sometimes we can even dissipate their power through laughter or lament.  Then we can choose to act more freely, with more self awareness, more open to God’s possibilities: stars and messiahs and love and forgiveness, even dreams and guidance.  The thing about a star is that everyone can see it.  When the night sky is clear, the stars are available to everyone. But Herod missed the star completely.  He was so wrapped up in his false piety and fear, he didn’t even think to look.  The magi on the other hand when they left the city looked up and saw the star again. It lead them to the exact place were Jesus was.  They looked for guidance and followed it.

     I have to admit that these past few weeks I was feeling rather ill. Stomach upset, tired, some cough.  So I was worried that I might have the virus.  But for a while I denied the possibility. I didn’t want to get tested- to know, to look at the truth.  Finally, I realized that I couldn’t put it off any longer.  If I had the virus I didn’t want to spread it to others.  I needed to know.  I needed to look to the star.  So I got tested and fortunately it came back negative.  I still want to be careful – wear a mask, social distance, etc, but because I looked- I am freer to do my work. 

    The magi looked at the light- the star they had seen in the sky. They also listened to their dreams.  Joseph was also guided by his dreams. First of all to accept Mary his surprisingly pregnant betrothed  and then to leave Bethlehem for the child’s safety.  They listened to God.   To deal with an exception,  I have to be willing to look at it, not deny it.  But then I need to listen to God’s guidance about the situation.  

    The magi had the problem of what to do about Herod- should they trust him or not?  The dream was God giving them an answer and they listened.  Joseph had the exception of needing to protect Jesus and Mary.  God helped him through a dream and he listened and acted.  When we acknowledge an exception, a problem then we need to listen well for what to do about it. 

   ‘For example, perhaps one of the exceptions you discover is that there is someone in your life who really irritates you or anger you or has betrayed you.  These are tough exceptions.  In Herod’s case he chose to lash out and kill in his fear and anger.   We can make other choices and it starts by listening to God’s way of love and forgiveness.  Maybe like Joseph we decide that the loving thing to do is to leave a dangerous situation.  We can think of those families living right now on our border who have fled the violence of gangs and poverty in the original homes. Sometimes, listening to God means leaving a harmful situation.    Or perhaps, when we really listen, we hear God challenging us to forgive someone, to walk in their shoes a bit, to understand them better.   And we start the spiritual journey of healing for our own hurt and finding the way to forgiveness. 

    Listening to God, means that we are open to the messages of  God that help us to love and grow and care for our world.  It is not the same thing as reading the scriptures to reinforce our own ideas.   For example, both the magi and Herod had the same scripture readings about Bethlehem.  The magi used this knowledge to help them find Jesus and worship him and give him gifts.    Herod used this scriptural knowledge to feed his fear and anger and kills those he thought threatened him- innocent children.  One use of scripture led to the helping and attending to a child, the other to the rash and cruel killing of toddlers.  

   Which leads me to my last idea about how to deal with the exceptions in our new years dance.  Sometimes the except is something we can do little or nothing about. Especially if it is a grief or loss that impacts our life.  When I think of this I am reminded of the lament in this passage.  Rachel weeping for her children.  When we read past the picture book scene of the magi at the manger, the Matthew story is rather harsh- exile, violence, terror.  Matthew knows that sometimes in this world all we can do is lament.  Cry out.  So, he allows us and all who suffer such terror and injustice ever since to cry out with those parents of Bethlehem and everywhere where children die too soon and too often.   In the history of England during Henry the VIII the Feast Day of the Innocents was a beloved part of the 12 Days of Christmas because so many families knew back then the pain of losing a baby.  Although lamentation is an action we can do when we feel powerless to do more, lamentation can also energize us to action.  Over the years in Great Britain, health services improved and today the infant mortality rate is only 4.3 per 10000. One of the world’s lower rates.  

  As you take communion this morning. Consider the dance of this new year.  Your good wishes for all the world. And also confess your “ excepts” those areas where you need to look, listen and perhaps lament and bring those to God as well.  Christ came that we might have the grace we need to deal in healthy ways with the “ excepts” of our lives.  Look. Listen. Lament. Let Christ heal and forgive our hearts. Amen.  

    We in the US rank 13th in the world for per capita income.  So we would have a low   infant mortality rate, right?    No, we are ranked 33 among 36 industrialized nations for our rate of almost 6 deaths for every 1000 live births.  We are similar to places like Chile, Sri Lanka and Lebanon which have much lower per capita incomes.   Can we look and lament and act to change to build a society and a world that cares better for mothers and children?   

    In our New Years dance this year, let’s admit and pay attention to our excepts, our version of Snoopy’s cats.  When we do, we can look – and understand ourselves more clearly, we can listen to God’s guidance, those stars God offers us  and we can lament, mourn our losses and maybe discover new energy for positive, loving change in our world.  We can choose to follow the way of the Magi and Joseph to love Christ Jesus and this world he loves.

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