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Innocence Betrayed

Epiphany +1, Common Lectionary Year A

Matthew 2:13-23

©2020 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Scripture audio file
Sermon audio file

Now that the children have left to be messengers of hope, my job is more sombre. Anne Both and Sam Usher present a hopeful end to the gospel story, but it’s not how Matthew himself ended it.

And the family, Joseph, Mary, and the child, remained in Egypt, because of the murderous rage of Herod.
For when the king realized he had been tricked by the Magi, that they had left without reporting on this “newborn king,” he was incensed.
He sent out the command to kill all male children under two years old in and around the town of Bethlehem.
As the prophet of old, Jeremiah had written,
“A voice was heard in Ramah – the country of Judea
wailing, weeping and lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
refusing to be consoled,
for they are no more.”
Let’s pray.
Holy One, we will not declare this to be Good News
and neither, we pray, do you.
But from this news of horror, may you give us grace, wisdom,
and courage, to glimpse your Gospel,
and to re-write the ending
with our living witness to your Dream
that no mother’s child
be the victim of a tyrant’s fear,
not while we have breath, Amen.

It’s rare that I preach a sermon twice,
and this sermon certainly begins in similar fashion
to the one I preached on this text a year ago.

I used the book, and I waited ‘til the children left
to tell Matthew’s dark ending to his Nativity.
And I began the sermon in the same way…
calling it a “brutal tale”, a “text of terror.” [1]

A year ago,
I said how much I wanted to dismiss this horrid text
as a Matthean literary construct,
an echo of the dangerous, threatening birth of Moses in the thick of Pharaoh’s genocidal mistreatment of the slave population.
A counter tale to the Roman accounts
of the precarious threatened birth of Caesar Augustus.
I wanted to dismiss it as “fake news”,
pointing out the lack of any supporting
extra-biblical evidence for the Herodian
slaughter of the innocents…..

Except that every ugly detail of this story
keeps on happening, doesn’t it?
The brutality of totalitarian power,
ethnic, religious persecution,
repeated displacement, internal and global,
and in the stark brevity of horror,
the betrayal of innocence.

A year ago, I shared distress that 68.5 million
people, men, women, children, babies were displaced, like the Holy Family,
by threats from oppressive regimes, religious or ethnic persecution.
I mentioned the then breaking news about Myanmar’s policies of oppression to its Rohingya population,
and I expressed complete shock at the US implementation
of punitive deterrent child separation and detention policies
at its southern border.
Such innocence betrayed.

And yet, here we are a year later,
and this text again is begging to be preached because
the number of displaced people globally now stands at 70.8 million,
730,000 of whom are Rohingya survivors of massacre in Myanmar,
facing potentially fatal deprivation in Bangladeshi refugee centres. [2]
And far from a reduction in child separation
and detention on the US southern border,
there are now at least 5,500 children …. that we know of,
with no policy or mechanism in place
to reunite them with their families. [3]
And before we throw stones at our neighbours,
we in Canada have barely begun to come to terms with the horrific legacy of separation 150,000 indigenous children during the residential school era, over 4000 of whom died while in the system, and the descendants of whom
are still experiencing separation at a critically alarming rate. [4]
Innocence betrayed.
“The voice in Ramah,
wailing and lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children”
is if anything, louder,
and filled with more inconsolable anguish.
And we CANNOT to shut our ears to it, can we?

Why on earth would we end our Christmas season with this text?
Do we force ourselves to read this dystopian Nativity postlude
in order to depress us, to guilt us, to shame us?
Or is there another reason?
Why is this there, why is it necessary?
And what do we lose if we don’t tell it?

Put bluntly,
if we don’t tell it, dwell on it,
we will miss the point of the Gospel.
And if we miss the point of the Gospel,
the world is imperilled.

You see, the Gospel, as Matthew tells it
is about where God chooses to be found,
in the story and in our world.

And God is to be found here *
in the utter dependency
of a newborn infant upon hapless parents
who have no power against
this dystopian oppressive regime of Herod
other than to flee from it.

God’s incarnation,
God’s choice to become Immanuel,
not as a king in a palace,
or a president, nor a prime minister,
not as a military ruler with soldiers to command,
not as an ancient, wise sage,
not even as some nebulous Spirit-emanence,
but as a precarious, refugeed child.
God is in this human story,
not at its perfect apex,
but as the one most vulnerable to
humanity’s basest, ugliest, atrocious worst.

God is this child,[5]
God chooses to be counted among these children,
and every child whose innocence is betrayed
by the oppressive indifference
of privilege and power.

And if we are not prepared to complete our Nativity
with this ugly text of terror,
we may also indeed lose sight of where
God is to be found
in our own chapter of the human story.

We may end up with a plastic, false,
small, partisan or national gospel
that looks for God among the brokers of political,
cultural, ethnic or religious power,
and become completely blind to God’s abiding
among those who are most brutalized
by those who wield such power.

If we skip over this horrific beginning,
we won’t understand the rest of Matthew’s Gospel
where the poor in spirit,
those who mourn,
those who hunger and thirst, for food,
water and righteousness,
are the very ones blessed with the abiding
mercy of God;
we won’t understand why Jesus’ ministry
among the sick,
among the racially or morally outcast,
among the poor
is supposed to be the benchmark for our own living
of the Gospel in our time and place.
And we won’t understand Jesus when he says to us 23 chapters later,
“For I was hungry, and you gave me food,
homeless, and you sheltered me,
a stranger, a foreigner, and you welcomed me,
without a penny or a coat to my name, and you clothed me.” [6]

We know there is a crisis in Christianity right now.
Some will want to tell us it’s a partisan battle
between left and right, but it’s bigger than that.
It’s a crisis of vision and mission;
If you see God dwelling in the courts of power,
then your mission is to serve that power,
and all innocence is lost, betrayed.

But, if, as I believe with all my heart,
this Gospel is telling us that God
chooses to be among this planetary creation
with those on the wrong side of the fence, [7]
with those inside of the detention centre,
at the bedside of the mentally and physically sick,
with those passing bread and water through
the fences
setting longer tables to feed the hungry and
the lonely, the isolated,
among indigenous populations working
for basic human needs
with trafficked or detained or fostered children,
with those fighting for the health and healing
of a burning planet…..
then our mission is simple:
we who bear Christ’s name, *
need to be there too.

[1] People of the Way: Refuge. Preached CPU, Jan 13, 2019

[2] See UNHCR:
[3] Scherer, Michael; Dawsey, Josh (June 15, 2018). “Trump cites as a negotiating tool his policy of separating immigrant children from their parents”. The Washington Post. and see also Retrieved January 10,2020.

[5] Image: Waiting for the Wise Men, Lee Kaercher.

[6] Matthew 25:35-40
[7] Image: Christ of MaryKnoll. Robert Lentz, OFM.

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