December 29, 2019
Years ago when my children were young, I taught the first grade Sunday School class with the Interfaith Families Project, and I told the kids the big stories about the Hebrew people and their God: Creation, Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Sarah, the Exodus, and so on. One year there was a precociously skeptical little boy in my class. After I told the story of, say, Noah’s Ark, he would ask, “Did that really happen?” And I would answer, “I don’t know if these things really happened. But what I do know is that there is so much truth in this story that people are still telling it, thousands of years later.”
The gospel stories about the birth of Jesus include many hard-to-believe elements: visits from angels; babies miraculously born to an elderly couple and to a young virgin; a star that moves across the sky, to name a few.
Today, many scholars consider these stories to be Christian midrash. Midrash refers to a Jewish method of studying sacred scripture. Midrash is a collection of stories and interpretations from Judaism’s long oral history that seeks to fill in the gaps of the biblical story. The purpose is to create understanding, meaning, and application of the scriptures.
As Deborah reminded us last week in her introduction to our delightful “No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant,” the gospels give us two accounts of Jesus’ birth, and they tell rather different versions, which we weave together into the familiar story of Mary and Joseph and the donkey, the stable in Bethlehem, the shepherds, and the Three Kings. Actually, when you combine Matthew’s and Luke’s stories, you end up with seven scenes, beginning with the Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary, continuing with the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, the Nativity (including the angels and shepherds), the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the Adoration of the Magi, and concluding wtih the two scenes we read today: the Flight into Egypt and the Massacre of the Innocents. It is Matthew who tells these stories; they are not told in Luke, nor is the story of the Magi, the Three Wise Persons. Also, Matthew does not have Mary and Joseph travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem and back again, as they do in Luke. They are already in Bethlehem and, at the end of today’s reading, Joseph, warned in a dream not to return to Judea, goes to Galilee instead and makes his home in Nazareth, so that, Matthew says, “what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled.”
This is the fifth time in two chapters of Matthew that an ancient Hebrew prophet is quoted. In fact, with every event in Matthew’s Christmas story we are told explicitly that this event happened “to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet” — generally, Isaiah or Jeremiah.
Although Matthew and Luke tell different stories of Jesus’ birth, they do have in common the theme of referencing the Hebrew scriptures. In Luke, the miraculous birth of John to the elderly Elizabeth and Zechariah reminds us of the birth of Isaac to Sarah and Abraham. Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, echoes the prayer of Hannah after she has borne the child, Samuel, for whom she had prayed so desperately. The stories about Jesus not only place him firmly in the salvation history of the Jewish people, they tell us that, as great as our ancesters were, this Jesus is much greater.
Now that we have some of the background of today’s gospel, what next? Where do we go from here, and how can we understand the two scenes we read today?
King Herod, furious at being tricked by the astrologers, orders the murder of all the male children two years old and under, in and around Bethlehem. We could bring this story into our present time and ask, Where are children being killed by the hand of the state today? We wouldn’t have to look far. African-American youth savagely beaten and killed by our police. Children dying in the custody of our government immigration officials along our nation’s southern border. And there are the children who live in a deathly hell made by our pharmaceutical industry: babies born addicted to opioids, children whose addicted parents cannot care for them or who die, leaving them orphaned by drugs that enrich the wealthy and powerful people who manufacture and market the drugs.
As Deborah wrote in her reflection for today’s Inward/Outward column, “It’s hard to hear the tidings of comfort and joy when I turn on the morning news.”
We could ask, as a sermon on the gospel is supposed to ask, Where is the Good News in today’s gospel?
When I was new to Seekers and considering whether I wanted to make this community my faith home, I read Marjory Bankson’s book The Story of Seekers Church 1976-2006. This book was later published in 2014 with the title Stalking the Spirit in a Do-It-Yourself Church. You can buy a copy, and I encourage you to do so! But you can also still read the original, spiral-bound manuscript; there are copies in the library upstairs. As I was exploring this book, sometime in 2007-08, I learned that in 1982 Muriel and Ed Lipp had lost their 25-year-old son to suicide. This is just about the worst thing I can imagine happening to any parent. By then, I had gotten to know Muriel a little. She was in her 80s, a founding member of Seekers Church. I knew her to be one of the most joyful people I had ever met, and one of the friendliest. Having survived such an awful thing, she was so full of joy and generosity. She wasn’t the only reason I continued to hang around Seekers, but she was definitely someone I wanted to know better.
Muriel occasionally preached here, and her sermons were always spiritually practical, drawn from her experiences, questions, study, and prayer. In a sermon she gave in May of 2008, on part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew’s version), she spoke of the time following her son’s death.
What did I feel? Devastation, yes. Pain, guilt, anger, yes. But something like grace, and certainly love, came through the pain. That year of grief was the most fertile time of my spiritual life, and everyone in our family attests to the fact that we are diffferent now. Our love for one another is stronger and deeper than it has ever been. Though we were scarred, and we’ll always be scarred, I think we have learned much about love. Jesus, in his teachings, gave us that theological twist, the paradox, where opposites are true. In sorrow there is joy; in losing, we find; in the end is the beginning.
Muriel also reminded us that, as Jesus went about preaching, teaching, and healing, he was heading toward his own death — the end that was also the beginning.
Muriel was 91 when she died, in September 2017. At her memorial service, held in a large community hall, there was standing room only.
A few days ago I looked up Muriel’s story again in The Story of Seekers Church and found that Marjory had followed it with a note about another longtime Seekers member. Marjory wrote:
Lewise Busch told me that the first time she came to Seekers, she was feeling lost and alone. She happened to sit next to Muriel, who was weeping over Eddie’s death, and Lewise was able to feel included by Muriel’s tears — here was a church where feelings were welcomed! (p. 47)
In sorrow there is joy.
The end of the Christmas story shows us that evil and sadness coexist with joy. As Christians, as seekers who stalk the Spirit, we are not free to ignore the killing of children, then or now. We are not free to accept passively our complicity, our participation in the structures of power and privilege within which these killings take place. African-American theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman wrote that the work of Christmas begins now, and he told us what that work is:
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among the people,
To make music in the heart.
Amen. May it be so.
The Story of Seekers Church 1976-2006, Marjory Zoet Bankson, 2007