Sermon: Sunday, December 29, 2013: First Sunday of Christmas

Texts: Isaiah 63:7-9  +  Psalm 148  +  Hebrews 2:10-18  +  Matthew 2:13-23

Merry Christmas everyone!  We are still in that season of Christmas which spans the 12 days from December 25th through January 5th, after which we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord (which we’ll do in worship next Sunday, though technically it falls on Monday, January 6th).

It’s only been a couple of days many of us have seen each other and, whether you were here for the Christmas holidays or off traveling, I hope you were able to enjoy time with family or friends. Kerry and I left immediately after worship on Christmas morning for Des Moines, where my family lives, and got back early last night. It was a brief visit, so we had to pack lots of holiday traditions into just a couple of days.

"Saving Mr. Banks"

“Saving Mr. Banks”

One of those traditions is the holiday movie. Hollywood times the release of all sorts of movies to coincide with the winter holiday, knowing that families will be together and looking for entertainment, and our family is no exception. This year we decided to see the recently released “Saving Mr. Banks,” which tells the story of the woman who wrote Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers and the efforts of Walt Disney to bring her story to the silver screen. Travers is played by the magnificent Emma Thompson and Disney by Tom Hanks, and the cast is filled out by a host of fantastic actors working with a wonderful script. When you’ve got Mary Poppins, Walt Disney, Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks all in one place a good time is sure to be had by all, right?

Pretty quickly we discovered that “Saving Mr. Banks” wasn’t after a good time at all.  We’d gone in expecting a fairly straight-forward contest of wills between Travers and Disney, only to discover that the real story in “Saving Mr. Banks” (as the title implies) is about the relationship between Travers and her long-since-deceased father — an imaginative, free-spirited man plagued by alcoholism and trapped in a career as a banker that is slowly killing his soul. As the movie unfolds, we begin to see that Mary Poppins was the story Travers created to bring order to the chaos of her own childhood by creating a fantasy, a dream, in which all that had been lost to her — her childhood, her father, her joy — could be restored.

The texts for the First Sunday of Christmas this year have a similar kind of “bait-and-switch” quality to them. We come to worship just days after Christmas, expecting perhaps a quiet resolution to the story that began on Christmas Eve as the infant Jesus is born in a stable in Bethlehem. Instead we get a nightmare of a  story about paranoia and anger that results in the deaths of a generation of children.

“Saving Mr. Banks” begins with a quote from Mary Poppins delivered by Bert the chimney sweep,

Wind’s in the east, mist coming in, like something is brewing … about to begin. Can’t put me finger on what lies in store, but I fear what’s to happen all happened before.

The gospel of Matthew might well have prefaced its version of Jesus’ birth with the same words.  If parts of the gospel reading seemed somehow familiar, that’s because you’ve heard them before in Hebrew scripture, in Genesis and Exodus.  Once again we have a character named Joseph whom God communicates with in dreams who must flee to Egypt in order to escape the wrath of his own countrymen. Once again we have a child rescued from certain death, as Moses was when his mother set him in a basket on the river, while a generation of children are slaughtered. Echoes of the past are heaped onto this story, layer after layer.  Not only is Joseph, the husband of Mary, like Joseph, the son of Jacob whose name became Israel; not only is Jesus, like Moses, spared the wrath of a violent and vengeful ruler; but we also hear the name Rachel, Jacob’s wife, who the prophet Jeremiah imagines as weeping for her children, the entire nation of Israel, during their long exile in Babylon.

The gospel of Matthew, like Bert the chimney sweep in Mary Poppins, sees what is happening as Jesus enters the world and wants us to recognize that the story to come, the story of Jesus’ coming into the world, is tied to the never-ending story of God’s saving power. “Can’t put me finger on what lies in store, but I fear what’s to happen all happened before.”

For many, this story of the slaughter of the holy innocents — which only appears in Matthew — is a passage they’d rather avoid. There’s simply no way to stay lost in the soft glow of the star of Bethlehem and the shepherds and the angels chorus as you read about the Holy Family turned into refugees on the run from unchecked and state-sponsored violence. But, for those who have lived this story, who know what it means to be a refugee, to be on the run and in hiding from the people or the nation who was supposed to love and care for you, this story is one of hope and ultimately of redemption.

Here in Chicago, RefugeeOne works with almost 2,500 refugees every year, helping acclimate them to a new culture, a new language and a new life as they flee from violence, war and persecution in their homes.  Currently the majority of these refugees are Iraqis who helped the recent U.S. military operations and Assyrian Christian Iraqis fleeing religious persecution; Burmese who have fled government-instilled violence and persecution; and Bhutanese who have fled ethnic “cleansing.”  Many of these people were raised in nations antagonistic to the United States and our allies, so this resettlement feels very much like the Holy Family might have felt as they entered Egypt, the land of their people’s former enslavement.

But the experience of fleeing from violence at the hands of your countrymen, your family, is not limited to those escaping from political violence and repression.  For millions of people right here in our own country, there is no safety even in their own homes. Research on domestic violence tells us that, globally, one in three women is beaten or abused, most often by a member of her own family and that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women — more than car accidents, muggings and sexual assaults combined.  Studies suggest that up to 10 million children witness acts of domestic violence annually, and that this early exposure to violence can lead to a continuing cycle of violence, particularly as boys exposed to violence as children become adults.

There are so many ways to lose a generation to violence.

So, to people such as these, to refugees and immigrants and all who are on the run from the violence of their own past, the first word of good news in the hard story from scripture this morning is that God is intimately aware of your suffering, and that God’s own child knew firsthand the struggle of finding yourself a stranger in a strange land. Jesus was a refugee, and escaped from the kind of genocidal violence that still continues to this day.

“Can’t put me finger on what lies in store, but I fear what’s to happen all happened before.”

One of the fascinating elements of the movie “Saving Mr. Banks” is the way the main character, P. L. Travers, struggles with the ongoing influence of her childhood on her present reality.  She is at once very much her father’s daughter, blessed with a rich imagination that is able to see the enchanted aspects of everyday life, and she is his opposite: stern where he was warm, aloof where he was familiar, and unyielding where he was forgiving. That dichotomy shows up in Mary Poppins in the characters of Bert, the lovable chimney sweep and Mr.  Banks, the children’s overly-responsible and absent father. As the film moves towards its resolution, Travers is confronted with the realization that she has become stuck in her own past, trapped by a fantasy of who she was and who she is.

When we examine our own dreams, the ones that come to us at night, wild and uncontrollable, it’s often been suggested that we entertain the idea that we might be any of the characters in our dreams and not only the one from whose point of view the dream seems to be taking place.  So P. L. Travers is not simply Mary Poppins, or Bert, or Mr. Banks, or his daughter Jane. She is all of them, trying to come to a new resolution of an old story.

Likewise, when we listen to the story from Matthew, which reads like a nightmare, we are led to wonder if we might not only be like Jesus and his family, or like those wise men from the east, but also how we might be like Herod and, if so, how we might come to a new resolution of that old story.

In the verses just before the ones we read this morning, we hear about Herod’s first encounter with the wise men.  Upon their arrival, they announce that a child has been born who is king of the Jews.  This was actually Herod’s title, given to him by the Roman Empire, by whose power he was allowed to govern Israel in Jerusalem.  His first response to the news of this infant child is fear, fear that someone has come to replace him. His second response is dishonesty, as he tells the wise men that he supports their efforts to find the child and, in fact, would also like to go and pay the child homage. His final response is anger, which controls him, and leads to the death of Israel’s children.

The truth in the telling of this story is that fear so often leads to anger, and that those who cannot face their own fears are prone not only to violence but to deception as they justify their abuses to themselves and others. This happens in settings as vast as the relations between nations who build up stockpiles of weapons to gain leverage in their relationships with one another rather than working together to find common cause and support the common good; and as intimate as our own homes as fearful spouses justify hurtful words and painful actions with excuses that justify their behavior.

We may not be kings, like Herod, or Pharaoh, but we each exercise some measure of power in our respective lives. And we each, to some extent, misuse the power entrusted to us, whether that be at home, at work, or out in the wider world. Which is why we so often begin our worship with the act of confession and the assurance of forgiveness. Our constant confession is not an effort on the part of the church to shame those who gather here, but to liberate them from the guilt that — when we are honest with ourselves — plagues all of us who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, in whose image we are made.

At one point in the movie, as the script and song-writers keep working to translate Travers’ book into a film, Travers gets fed up with their efforts to capture the essence of Mary Poppins and her relationship to the Banks family and storms out of the room saying, “You think Mary Poppins is there to save the children?”

I think that’s where I so often get stuck in my effort to interpret this story of the slaughter of the holy innocents.  I am outraged by the suffering of so many children, and I want God in Jesus to save them.  But, in God’s eyes we are all the children, even the grown ups, even the violent and abusive ones, even Herod.  Mary Poppins came to save Mr. Banks, just like Joseph spared his family by taking them to Egypt, just like Moses saved the people of Israel by leading them out of slavery, just like Jesus saved us all by bringing an end to a system of sacrifice in which each sin had to be paid for with blood, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  In Jesus God is saving us all, the holy innocents and the fearful, violent offenders. All of us.

It is such a strange story, so unconventional in its plot and execution that it’s hard to believe, and perhaps we wouldn’t except that it keeps happening over and over and over again. Us getting lost in our fear and our anger and our violence, and God finding us and saving us time and time again.

And I trust what’s to happen has happened before.




Sermon: Sunday, July 28, 2013: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Hosea 1:2-10  +  Psalm 85  +  Colossians 2:6-15  +  Luke 11:1-13

Preaching last week on God’s wrath, I named a couple of ways that most of us dodge the discomfort of dealing with divine anger — by defending ourselves as mostly good, or by declaring that most of us (though not all) are good.  My assertion was that both of these dodges keep us from recognizing the power of anger in the work of love.


Icon of the Prophet Hosea

Well, I have to confess to you, my sisters and brothers, that I’ve been trying to dodge all week long as I prepared for this week’s installment of the “School for Prophets.”  All summer long we’ve been reading and studying the oft-neglected prophetic books from Hebrew scripture, the books that form the backbone of Jewish and Christian ethical reflection on the world, and in their call for personal righteousness and political reform we have heard a good word for our day. But today we move into two weeks with the prophet Hosea, and his language and imagery are so difficult to read, much less to preach on, that I really wanted to dodge the bullet and go back to preaching on the gospels.

This week the gospel of Luke presents Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer.  While the spirituality of that prayer is certainly radical in its call for simplicity, forgiveness of debts, and reliance on God; the language is so familiar that it barely registers with us anymore as anything other than a word formula to be recited from memory.

The language of Hosea, on the other hand, is shocking.  So shocking that, in the end, after looking at about five different translations, I ended up softening the language of the text we heard Bob read a few minutes ago out of fear that we’d lose half the room after the first two verses.

The actual, commonly accepted, translation of these verses begins,

When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord. (Hosea 1:2, NRSV)

You can see why I might be tempted to just focus on the Lord’s Prayer.

This ends up being, really, the dominant motif of the prophet Hosea, that Israel has prostituted itself out to foreign nations and other gods.  That Israel has broken the covenant between itself and Yahweh by placing its trust in other powers to give and sustain life.  And as I tried to think about how to preach the prophet Hosea with integrity, the real temptation (other than to simply not preach Hosea) was to excuse the prophet’s misogyny and explain away the rhetoric of violence against women that follows the verses we read this morning.  I wanted to mount a biblical “It Gets Better” campaign by skipping ahead to the brief, rare verses in Hosea that promise reconciliation with God and a new future for the people of Israel.

But to do that, to read these verses out loud in the sanctuary and let the words “whoredom” and “prostitute” ring off the walls of the church, and then skip ahead to some other passage in order to escape the ugliness and cruelty of those words is another kind of dodge that, in the end, does not produce faith but instead sows doubt — doubt that these scriptures are actually trustworthy after all, doubt that we can read and wrestle with difficult texts and come out the other side stronger for having done so.

In her groundbreaking book, “Texts of Terror: Literary – Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives,” biblical scholar Phyllis Trible explores the problem of violence in scripture, particularly the all-too-common violence against women found in scripture.  She names the dodges we too often take in our approach to the problem of violence like this:

From the start, certain theological positions constitute pitfalls.  They center in Christian chauvinism.  First, to account for these stories as relics of a distant, primitive, and inferior past is invalid.  Resoundingly, the evidence of history refutes all claims to the superiority of a Christian era.

Trible already catches me, red-handed, in the act of trying to dodge the problem of the prophet Hosea by explaining his use of misogynistic language like “whoredom” and “prostitute” as if those words are somehow a relic of the past that I would need to explain to you in the context of biblical history; as if they aren’t thrown at women (and men) everyday as insults and forms of social control; as if prostitution isn’t a global industry that creates wealth for men at deep and devastating cost to women.  No, we can’t escape the problem of the prophet Hosea by pretending as if his rhetorical violence is a relic of a biblical past, when we know that it is an all-too-common fact of the present as well.


Trible continues,

Second, to contrast an Old Testament God of wrath with a New Testament God of love is fallacious.  The God of Israel is the God of Jesus, and in both testaments resides tension between divine wrath and divine love.

This is also a move we Christians too often make, to the detriment of our own faith and at the expense of our Jewish sisters and brothers as well.  There is a subtle anti-Judaism that creeps into Christian language when we contrast what we call the Old Testament, which is Hebrew scripture, with the New Testament, as if Christians really only need the later, not the former.  As if the Jesus we meet in the second testament, and the authors who are presenting him, are not quoting frequently and directly from the first testament.

We must learn to say plainly that it simply is not true that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, while the God of the New Testament is a God of love.  God acts again and again in Hebrew scripture, moved by love, to create, save and restore God’s people and God’s creation.  Likewise, the New Testament is filled with language — in the gospels, in Paul’s letters, and elsewhere — that affirms the power of anger in the work of love.  So, no, we cannot dismiss Hosea’s angry, violent language toward his wife and children as “typical” of Hebrew scripture.  If it is typical, it is of something far more universal and encompassing than any one religious tradition.

If we cannot pretend that the issue of violence against women is limited to the ancient past, and we cannot dismiss these verses as diminished Old Testament precursors to a new-and-improved Christian Testament, then how are we to read these passages?  How are we to read the bible as a whole?

Phyllis Trible makes this suggestion:

Offsetting these pitfalls are guides for telling and hearing the tales.  To perceive the Bible as a mirror is one such sign.  If art imitates life, scripture likewise reflects it in both holiness and horror.  Reflections themselves neither mandate nor manufacture change; yet by enabling insight, they may inspire repentance. In other words, sad stories may yield new beginnings.

Honesty and integrity demand that we not gloss over the violence of Hosea’s rhetoric.  We can neither read his message to the nation of Israel, “for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord,” as a relic of the past, nor can we gloss over it and pretend it is not a feature of our own present-day society.

Instead, let’s do this.  Let’s affirm that the women and children, both female and male, used in prostitution are entirely human, equally created in the image of God, deserving of love and compassion,  and worthy of respect.  Let’s not pretend that prostitution is something that only happens to people we don’t know, or is engaged in by people we don’t know.  Given how prevalent it is in our own city, that is simply too unlikely to be true.

What that means in very practical terms is this: in this house, in this church, you are always welcome.  This does not stop being true if you have been prostituted.  This does not stop being true if you are currently engaged in prostitution.  Those are facts that cannot define a person.  Our deepest reality is that we are, each of us, created in the image of a loving God who unrelentingly searches us out so that we can be healed and restored to right relationship with God and with one another.

So I think one of the gifts that can be wrangled out of these explosive verses from Hosea is this: they force us to say words we’ve been taught not to say in polite company.  They hold a mirror up to our society, and they demand that we be clear that the good news of God’s justice-making love is intended for everyone, and by putting us on the record they also insist that we act in ways that make this affirmation true.  I know that, this past Christmas, our social justice committee hosted a holiday shopping party at which all the items being sold supported the work of a Christian ministry advocating for an end to human sex-trafficking.  I’ve been encouraged to see that the Evangelical church in particular has been active in working to shed light on this problem, and to support women and children who are able to leave prostitution and build new futures for themselves and their families.

There is another fact, however, that faces us in the mirror that scripture holds up to us in the words of the prophet Hosea.  I’ve struggled with how to say this, and I’m not entirely sure I’m going to get it right, so I just want to ask for your patience with me as I try to say something I see in these scriptures in the best way I know how, entirely aware that I likely won’t get this right.

As horribly intimate as Hosea is with his imagery — a wife used in prostitution, three children who he names “Jezreel” as a sign of punishment, “Lo-ruhamah” meaning “No Pity,” and “Lo-Ammi” meaning “Not My People” — he is trying to communicate something to the entire nation about their conduct as a people.  He uses his own marriage to a wife who has been prostituted to describe the state of affairs in the relationship between God and Israel, and to his way of thinking God is like a faithful spouse who endures humiliation after humiliation at the hands of a faithless partner.  I’m stripping the genders away from the metaphor, which I understand is a problem since the symbol is so rooted in patriarchy and power, but I’m trying, very imperfectly, to get at what I think Hosea was trying to get at, very imperfectly; and that is that when we talk about politics in church, we’re not talking about some impersonal set of ideas or laws or trade practices — we’re talking about ways of structuring our life together as a community that have deep and profound impact on all of us, as individuals and families, as neighborhoods and nations.

As you read through the entire fourteen chapters of Hosea you discover that what he’s really angry about is the way that Israel has misplaced their trust in the very powers that have previously enslaved them.  He writes, “they call upon Egypt, they go to Assyria,” (Hos. 7:11b) and goes on to say,

You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies.  Because you have trusted in your power and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall rise against your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed. (Hos. 10:13-14)

Hosea accuses Israel of being faithless, of abandoning their covenant with God, of seeking power and pleasure from the hands of the very people and places that have always been the source of their oppression.  He indicts them of placing their trust in their military, of using war as a method for getting what they want at the expense of others.

Doesn’t this all sound a little bit too familiar?  Don’t we sense that sometimes our own culture, our own society, keeps turning again and again to powers that we know are broken, systems that we know are hurting us, but which we have decided are “too big to fail.”  Can we imagine that as these systems rob us of our homes and our jobs, as these forces commit us to war after war so that we can maintain control over resources that rightly belong to all God’s people, that God’s wrath — which is God’s anger directed toward the work of love — might be kindled?

The image that Hosea reaches for, the symbol he uses to try and help Israel understand that talking about politics in church is actually talking about the very things that affect us in our homes on a day to day basis, is a symbol of domestic violence.  He uses language that demeans and denigrates his wife and his children, and he goes on to describe the ways they will be punished for their faithlessness that would, and should, get him arrested if he tried them today.

I am not excusing that, but I am trying to understand the message he is trying to deliver as he speaks in such graphic terms on behalf of God to the nation of Israel.  Here is my best attempt to boil that message down to something that does not harm or objectify women and children:

Oh my people, when will you learn that the personal is political and the political is personal?  When will you understand that your chasing after dreams and illusions of pleasure and privilege always come at the expense of someone else, the expense of the very land we rely upon for life?  When will you start living as if the promises we made to one another in baptism mean something to you, and not just to me?  When will you finally treat me, and one another, with the love I have always given to you?

Hosea uses the language of marriage and infidelity, I think, because it is some of the most powerful language we have available to us.  If you have ever had to talk with your lover, your partner, your spouse about infidelity, then you know how scary and painful and explosive those conversations can be.  Hosea draws on those emotions, and our almost universal experience with those emotions, to try and help us understand on a visceral level what is at stake in our relationship with God, not just at home in our private religious lives, but out in the world, in public, in our collective lives.

In many ways, he fails.  His inability to really even see the violence he perpetrates against his wife and children as he tries to make his point to the nation of Israel is a reminder to us all that we must guard against self-righteousness.  Still, I’m glad that our tradition has kept Hosea in the Bible.  His personal failures teach us something about the frailty of our own best efforts, while still demanding that we all be honest about our collective failures before God.