29 December 2013
First UMC, Coon Rapids, Iowa
This past October I completed a significant step in my doctoral work. I had come to the moment when I needed to prove that I know generally what I should know about the New Testament and Early Christianity. This process came in the form of four exams, called general exams at Harvard and referred to at some schools as comprehensive exams. The point is that I needed to showcase a satisfactory level of general or, dare I say, comprehensive knowledge. I’ll spare you the details, but that all went well, and I felt pretty smart for a while—wicked smart, to use the technical Bostonian term. And then I got lazy because it’s somewhat acceptable just to watch lots of TV for a while after exams and before gearing up for the dissertation, so you don’t need to be too impressed.
Even as I’ve been officially certified as generally knowledgeable about the early days of the movement in Christ, still one of my favorite things to say when asked questions about the Bible is, “Well… we don’t really know much about ancient Christianity.” My point is to say that you might think I have a lot of answers, but there’s a lot that I don’t know. And it’s not just because I forgot everything when I refilled the space previously made available in my brain for general exams with episodes from the latest season of Parks and Recreation. It’s because there are many gaps in the historical record, and even where we do have evidence, we are faced with the challenges of making sense of a world so different from our own, with its own sets of questions and concerns that do not necessarily translate clearly today.
The point in saying that we don’t know much isn’t actually to claim that nothing is or can be known about the earliest period of Christianity. It’s a provocative way of resisting easy answers and insisting instead upon asking questions with an attitude of openness to the unexpected and to the unknown. We often want religion to provide clear solutions and so turn to the Bible for such guidance. Truth be told, there was a time I’d flip open the Bible hoping that God would address an issue weighing on my heart by guiding me to the right page. Sure, such a method can bring about creative readings that might even have some sort of value. But if I open the Bible and point to Mark 14:51-52 and read that “a certain young man was following [Jesus], wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked,” what deep meaning am I supposed to get from that?! Even still, in seriousness, we certainly can approach the Bible with questions about living faithfully in this world and be encouraged, edified, and even challenged by the wisdom it contains.
But the reason I often start my answers to questions about the Bible and the Christian tradition by acknowledging that there are gaps in our knowledge is because I think there is great value in having the first response to our searching to be, “It’s complicated.” Discovering and making sense of ancient history is complicated. Translating the past for the present is complicated. Answering the biggest and even smallest questions of existence is complicated. Because life is complicated. And the Bible, if it is indeed the Living Word, is complicated too. And so I start with the answer that “it’s complicated” because I believe that this is crucial for affirming and addressing our own complex circumstances.
In today’s reading from Matthew, we are startled by a narrative that complicates our celebration of Christmas. Or at least it should. Perhaps it’s become so familiar as part of the Christmas story that we don’t think too much of it, or we simply gloss over it. I’ll admit that I can sort of forget about it. I happened to be preaching here three years ago when today’s texts last came up in the lectionary (the three-year cycle of readings we follow), and I remember being so focused on the passage from Hebrews, which we heard again this morning, that I was rather surprised and bothered to read aloud the Gospel text.
When 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.
“The slaughter of the innocents” this is often called. Innocent children murdered because Herod was upset. His pride was wounded, and he feared the loss of his power. This is one of our important Christmas stories. Here in this joyous season we call to mind evil, unchecked power that deploys violence as a mechanism of control.
We can smooth over the story if we think about it in terms of presenting a simple dichotomy: Herod is bad, and Jesus is good. We know Herod is the bad guy because his murderous ambition leads him to execute a most horrific act against children. We know Jesus is the good guy (as if we didn’t already) because divine intervention leads to him being spared. If we focus just on Jesus, as we are apt to do, especially at Christmastime, we can grimace at the thought of Herod but continue on, thinking about this smaller story in terms of how it moves forward the larger, triumphant story of the life of a savior.
But what if we pause? What if we stop and hear the “wailing and loud lamentation [of] Rachel weeping for her children,” an ancient cry that the prophet Jeremiah used to poignantly describe the grief over exile from Jerusalem and that the writer of Matthew says is fulfilled in the mothers’ tears and moans over the slaughter of their young children at the hands of Herod? What if we remember that that the Christmas story is not only one of hope and joy but also deep heartache in a broken world? Christmas is complicated, and as the Gospel passage for this morning makes painfully clear, the birth of Jesus does not bring simple answers.
But it does offer a way forward through the messiness of life. And it is my sincere belief that the way forward begins by acknowledging, “It’s complicated.” We can hold joy and sorrow in tension in a way that takes seriously the reality of the whole range of tribulations and triumphs we experience.
In this past year, we have been challenged as a community by the decision to close the Syngenta plant and lab. There are ways this is truly devastating both for individuals and for the town. Then, more recently, there has been cause for hope in the purchase of the plant by Hartung Brothers. In new ways, the vital agricultural history of the community will be carried forward, and some people will find their jobs secure. But not all people. And so we celebrate and we continue to mourn. And so we must figure out how we respond to this kind of tension. How do we recognize, affirm, and hold in creative and compassionate tension the range of experiences in this particular moment? How do we listen to the cries of parents weeping for their children while we simultaneously celebrate the birth, safety, and hope of the Christ child?
One of the complicating factors we in the United States face of reading and thinking with the Bible today is the difference of the relative power of the Christian community. We are more likely to be the Herod of the story or to be aligned with the Herod. That is not to say that we all have such destructive levels of anger, pride, and hate. Nor especially is it to say that we are people who would wilfully do such harm to children. Rather, I’m comparing the status of Christianity in the United States today to the world in which Jesus and his early followers lived. One of the questions frequently asked both of Roman historians as well as scholars of early Christianity is whether or not the United States is the new Rome. (You all know now what my answer would be: “Well… it’s complicated.”) The question is one about power over the world. I think the interest is primarily twofold: does the U.S. have the capacity to conquer and control—politically, socially, culturally, economically—essentially any land it wants, and also, will the U.S. suffer the same fate as the Roman Empire and, if so, where do we stand in that timeframe? Often the comparison is both good and bad. There is often the assumption of a superior status of both the Roman Empire and the United States that enables them to effectively and perhaps even “appropriately” assert their will over others, bringing a relative peace, stability, and prosperity to the world. There are also critiques of both—as too greedy, as immoral, as increasingly caught up in luxuries and pleasures—that stand as reasons for their decline. In reality, both the supposed “good” and the bad are not entirely true but not entirely false. They’re oversimplified ways of telling the stories.
I sketch out this very basic comparison to highlight how the United States is put in the position of Rome, signaling its power to enforce its will over others, both citizen and foreign, and that complicates how we read scriptural texts written from the experiences of those outside the center of imperial power. Further, if we want to talk about the U.S. as a Christian nation, as it is popularly asserted, we have to reckon with the fact that Christianity too is often put today in the position of power. And sometimes that power brings goodness into the world, but sometimes—too often—it does harm. Sometimes it enables the killing of innocent persons, either directly or by policies and practices that support individuals and groups whose interests are held up over and against those without strength of voice to represent their own interests. We read today a story first told within a movement proclaiming the message of Jesus under the constraints of the Roman Empire. We hear the laments of those who could be compelled under the threat of death to bend to the will of Rome’s ruling elite.
And so it’s complicated for us to get the full force of the Gospel message because we both bear the Gospel and are subject to its critiques of power. I realize that what I’m saying might be overwhelming and perhaps overstated in that none of us here today as individuals possesses the power of a Herod, a Roman Emperor, a U.S. congressperson, or a U.S. President. And there are people of faith in the United States and abroad both who are empowered and who are subject to persecutions and sufferings. Life is complicated and messy.
But when we read the Gospel, we might do well to pause in our celebration of the birth of Jesus, in the too-quick turn to the triumphant declaration of Christ as Lord, and remember the cries of those in distress, recalling too that the Lord we exalt is also said in Paul’s letter to the Philippians to have “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” We can learn from the complex ways that the figure of Jesus embodies both lordship and enslavement, thus keeping in mind that the pioneer of our faith gives the example of power that is always ever held in complete solidarity with the powerless. And then we might ask of ourselves what forms of power we have by virtue of being in dominant groups—whether it’s that we’re American citizens, or male, or straight, or white, or property owners, etc.—and wonder about the messages we send through the ways that we live our lives and behave toward one another. Can we hold the complexities of life in faithful tension? Can we celebrate where we feel blessed while being moved by the laments of those who are suffering? And, perhaps most importantly, can we be so challenged by the Gospel as to interrogate how and where we are the cause of pain in the world, where both children and adults struggle and even die because of the ways we cling to our own ideas of what is right, of our own power and privilege, at the expense of those who are different from us?
This Christmas season, may we remember that things are complicated. And it’s into this world of complications that Jesus comes as an example of what it is to bear life’s complexities and to live in ways that bring healing and life to all those around.
The Bible does not offer us simple answers but calls us to live with hope and grace in a complex world, and on this morning when we remember the slaughter of the innocents, we find hope in the child who embodies God’s presence in the world, reminding us, as the writer of Hebrews says that, “Because Jesus himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” May we too be a help to others.