Katherine Hancock Ragsdale +
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
If you take a look at your bulletin insert, at the citation for the Gospel I just read, you’ll see something interesting. There’s a gap. Three verses in the middle of the selection are left out. We read of the angel warning Joseph to take Mary and the baby and flee the wrath of Herod. Then we read of the angel telling Joseph Herod is dead and he can bring the family back to Israel. What we skip is what happens in between, the massacre of every male baby under two years old. I don’t know why the compilers of the lectionary chose to leave that out. Maybe it’s because it’s just too horrible. The readings of this season, today’s readings, focus on the power of God, God’s grace and blessings, the joy awaiting God’s people. Perhaps it was just too hard to imagine all that rejoicing in the face of the horror of the massacre of innocents.
I can understand that feeling. I’m having the same problem myself today. I don’t know how to get into the spirit of rejoicing in God’s power that today’s lessons call us to when today’s news is still full of the horror of the tsunami. Once again babies are ripped from their mothers’ arms and sent to their death. Once again, we stand stunned at the horror. Once again, we try to rejoice for those who were spared but the horror of those who were not overwhelms us.
At times like this I am reminded how fortunate I am not to be one of those Anti-Darwinian, Creationists who are convinced that God micro-manages every moment of history. They somehow think that to acknowledge the intricacy of the natural world, the complex wonder of natural selection and evolution, the glories of the natural world doing its thing, is to diminish, rather than highlight, the awesomeness of the Creator. How, I wonder, if they are unwilling to acknowledge natural forces at work without God’s constant intervention, do they make sense of something like the tsunami?
Unfortunately, I’m afraid I know the answer. They say that God did, indeed, directly and deliberately cause this disaster. It is all, they say, God’s punishment. Already they’re preaching that God did this to punish licentious tourists reveling on the beaches when they should be in church – demeaning the Christmas season. Or, they say, it’s because some of those beaches were popular destinations for gay and lesbian tourists. God, they are saying, wiped out families, communities, villages to punish a few.
What I don’t know is how anyone could worship a God like that. If that’s the way God works then the only reason to worship Him is to spare ourselves from punishment now or in the afterlife. I have to tell you, I’d rather be damned than knuckle under to a God like that. On the other hand, I know that not everyone is quite as stubbornly oppositional as I am. Some folks might be willing to worship such a God. But, that’s not the God we meet in scripture. That’s not the God Jesus tells us about.
We’re told of the God who promised Noah that He would never again wipe us out to make a point. The prophets tell us that God comes to us as a loving suitor wanting our love in return; that God has engraved our names in the palms of Her hand and will never stop loving us. Jesus tells us that God loves us and cares for us more than the best and most devoted parent we can imagine. This is not a God who would massacre us or anyone.
Instead, we’re told of, and experience, a God who set a world in motion, a world within which nature and people can do awful things; things that God can’t, or won’t – doesn’t --stop.
So, we’re reassured that our God is not reprehensible but faced with the possibility that He’s either impotent or impassive, which leads to the question – why bother? What’s the point of a God who can’t, or doesn’t care enough to, fix things for us? To answer this perhaps it’s best to ask God. And God’s words come to us most clearly in God’s Word – Jesus, the Word made flesh. Jesus, who endured his own encounters with depravity and evil. Jesus, who escaped the slaughter of the innocents only to face the crucifixion.
Jesus, who again and again reminds us that the choices we make, the things we do or fail to do, matter. We matter. God doesn’t, it seems, follow us around like an over-bearing parent cleaning up after us as we go so that our passing becomes invisible, inconsequential. What we do matters. It has consequences in the world and it pleases, or breaks the heart of, the God who loves us. The God who loves us allows us to matter.
The message of Jesus is that we are to love God not in the hope of being pulled out of our messes but because God loves us enough to stay with us in them and to be with us on the other side. We’re to love God much as we love one another at our best – not for what we can get out of it but simply because of who She is and how we are loved in return.
God does not spare us tragedy, disaster, or even crucifixion. But somehow God does provide an unquenchable spark of hope. It’s that spark we spoke of last week even as the drama was unfolding, as yet unknown to us. Last week’s Gospel told us that God sent a light into the darkness and the darkness could not, can not, will never, overcome it.
We’ve seen a few such sparks of hope:
Japan has pledged $500 million in relief aid.
I heard on the news this morning about a brewery that has suspended its beer-making operation and is devoting all its resources to bottling water to send for relief.
The US has sent troops to aid the effort. People who give their lives to their country’s service deserve to know that they’re making the world better. The troops now doing relief work have that assurance.
In the midst of horror there are sparks of goodness and we are invited to see them and to be them – not in fear but in love.
It’s hard to know how to respond to this disaster. I know of only a few ways:
We can give generously to relief efforts and there are baskets by both doors to collect your donations which will be sent to the Episcopal Relief and Development agency.
We can pray – for those who have died, those who will die (for there will be more), those who have lost everything and everyone, and the responders who will sacrifice their own comfort, and maybe their lives, to serve others.
We can remember that this could have been us. There is no level of prosperity or power that can insulate us from disaster. These things can happen to us, too. In fact, because we are all bound one to another, this did happen to us. We can remember that.
And we can come to this altar today to receive the gift and grace of God, not only for ourselves, but in communion with all those who have died and those who live in need of grace and blessing but who are too far removed from any sight of the light to easily see or reach for them today.
We do these things, holding on to the unquenchable light of hope for those who cannot now find it, trusting that, in our own times of darkness and despair, others will do the same for us.