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Archive for December, 2010

Floor mosaic Strage degli Innocenti (Slaughter...

Matteo di Giovanni, floor mosaic, Cathedral of Siena (detail)

The Gospel lesson for the First Sunday after Christmas in Year A is filled with pain, and so are many people’s hearts this Christmas.  Here is a sermon I preached on this text in January of 2002.  Circumstances made it necessary to delay this sermon until Baptism of the Lord, which was also a communion Sunday for us.

Rachel’s Tears
A Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23 with allusions to Isaiah 25:6-9 and Revelation 21:1-4

One person can cause unbelievable amounts of pain, especially if a few people cooperate and a lot of people look the other way.  No wonder all Jerusalem was disturbed when the Wise Men brought the news of a baby King of the Jews.  All Jerusalem knew what King Herod was capable of if he felt there was the least threat to his position.  Already he had ordered the execution of one of his wives, her mother, several of his sons, three hundred of his court officials, and countless others.  Later, shortly before his death, Herod ordered the imprisonment of a number of the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem.  At the moment of his death, all these innocents were killed, so that there would be weeping and wailing in Judea.  Herod was well aware that no one would mourn his passing.

What did the lives of the children of Bethlehem matter to Herod?  Compared to the rivers of blood he had already spilled, what did he care about the blood of the twenty or so infants and toddlers that lived in the village?  When the Wise Men failed to return with the intelligence Herod needed to zero in on Jesus, he ordered his soldiers to search out and destroy every child in Bethlehem age two and under.  Jesus would surely be among them.

In a dream, Joseph received a warning about this evil plan.  In a flash he was up, waking Mary, and hurrying to pack a few essentials.  There was no time for more.  In the dead of night they slipped away as quietly and as quickly as they could, leaving everything behind.  Now they were refugees.  Now they would have to find a way to survive in a strange land.  Joseph would have to start all over again: find food, find shelter, find work.  Jesus’ earliest memories would be not of home, but of Egypt.

Soon there was weeping and wailing all over Bethlehem.  (more…)

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Rech St.Luzia Fenster742

Image via Wikipedia

There is a shepherd in Matthew’s Christmas story, and it is easy to read right over him.  Here is a Christmas sermon that points him out.

Our Shepherd Is Born
A Sermon on Matthew 2:6, Matthew 9:35-36, and Luke 2, with allusions to Isaiah 40 and Ezekiel 34.

If the people are sheep and the leaders are shepherds, then the world Jesus was born into was struggling under the rule of two very bad shepherds.   The propaganda of the day declared that Caesar Augustus is son of God, lord and savior and bringer of peace on earth.  You can still see this message etched in stone in Roman ruins.  What Rome called “peace” could be more accurately called “forced order.”  Maybe it was a kind of peace, but what it means for the people was relentless oppressive taxation.  It meant the threat of torture and death.  Crucified bodies lined the roads—the message being: this will happen to you if you don’t cooperate.  The Empire jerked all its subject peoples around.  That’s what’s happening when Joseph hitches up his donkey, lifts a very pregnant Mary up on it, and leads it the hundred miles or so from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register.  Roman orders.

King Herod was a henchman to the Romans.  Rome ceded some local authority to him, and he guarded it jealously.  History books list him as Herod the Great because he was a most impressive builder.  Under Herod the majestic temple in Jerusalem that Jesus visited was built.   Its remnants are still visible.  The Wailing Wall is left from Herod’s temple.  But Herod was also a butcher.  He assassinated members of his own family that might pose any challenge to him.  It was nothing to him to order the slaughter of Bethlehem’s little boys.  It was all in the name of security.  His.

Bad shepherds were nothing new.  Through the centuries people longed for a good shepherd, one who would feed the flock, not eat the flock.  One who could carry the flock, not exploit the flock.  One who would gently lead, not jerk people around.  One who would strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strayed, seek the lost, feed the hungry. (more…)

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Cover of "Joyeux Noel (Widescreen)"

Cover of Joyeux Noel (Widescreen)

It is very difficult to kill the enemy once you have seen his face and discovered his humanity.  That is what happened during the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914, when French, British, and German troops came up out of their trenches and met one another in no man’s land.  And that is the point of Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas), a beautiful film based on the accounts of those who were there.

The film begins with flashbacks of schoolchildren reciting nationalistic litanies of hate, and then shows the war interrupting people’s lives in Scotland, France and Germany.  Soon we see soldiers hunkered down in trenches and moving out here and there to slaughter each other.  The enemies are near enough to hear one another, and on Christmas Eve, the sound of music coming from the trenches of their foes catches their attention and arouses their curiosity.  The German soldiers begin to bring small Christmas trees decorated with lighted candles up out of their trenches.  Officers of the three armies meet and agree to a cease-fire for the evening.  Soldiers from all sides begin to come out and meet in the middle to exchange gifts of chocolate and wine.  They share photographs and stories of their families.  A priest with the Scottish unit celebrates a mass in Latin, expressing the Christian faith that is common to many.  The next morning over coffee the officers agree that their units will bury the dead from all sides on the day of Christ’s birth.  Later we see soldiers playing soccer together.  On the following day the commanders decide that they must now go their separate ways.  The commanders and troops are now extremely reluctant to shoot at one another.  Word of what has happened soon spreads.  The military and civil authorities are not pleased.  The commanders are reprimanded, and the units are broken up and moved to other fronts of the war.

In the film, the religious authorities are not pleased, either.  One of the storylines follows the Scottish priest who serves as a chaplain and stretcher-bearer.  He says very little during the film.  Most of his story is told in his face.  Early in the film, for example, we see his face fill with pain when the young men of his parish rejoice at the outbreak of war.  After the Christmas Truce we see him caring for a dying soldier in a hospital.  His bishop arrives, announces that he is to be sent back to his parish in Scotland, and rebukes him for his actions during the Truce.  The quiet priest responds, “The Lord Jesus Christ guided me in the most important mass of my life.  I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all.”  He listens as the bishop exhorts a group of new soldiers.  The bishop tells them that they are wielding the sword of the Lord on a holy crusade. The Germans “are not like us,” he declares, “and with God’s help you must kill them all so that it won’t have to be done again.”  While the bishop moves on with his liturgy, the priest removes his cross, hangs it up, and leaves the scene.

Joyeux Noel shows us what a small outbreak of peace looks like, and it longs for more.  O come to us, Prince of Peace, Prince de la Paix, Friedefürst.

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” Luke 1:78-79.

**Joyeux Noël (2005) Rated PG-13, Sony Pictures.   If you’d like to read more about the Christmas Truce, see Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub.  Plume Books, 2002.

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Joseph is one of my favorite characters in the Christmas story.  Maybe it’s because we glimpse his humanity as he struggles with what God is asking of him.   Here is a sermon about this father in faith.

A New Dream

A Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25 and Isaiah 43:16-21

For Joseph, the Christmas story began in a place of pain.  At its beginning, he was hurting.  Joseph had looked forward to a life with Mary!  The wedding was near.  And then there would be children.  Joseph would support this family by the work of his hands, building and crafting with wood.  This family would be founded on the central commitment of Joseph’s heart: to live as people of God’s covenant, serving and honoring God by keeping the commandments.

But now Joseph’s hopes and dreams lay in pieces. “I am pregnant,” Mary said.   Unfaithfulness had to be the only explanation.  Word would soon spread all over town and he and Mary would both be shamed in the eyes of the neighbors.

This good man now had a dilemma.  How should a son of the covenant handle this?  These were the options that the law offered:  one option would be to charge Mary publicly, with the result that she could be stoned to death for immorality, which of course meant the child died, too.

Divorce was the other option, but it wasn’t much more palatable.  Mary still might be disowned by her family, condemning her and the child to a life of misery.

Divorce seemed to be the only way, but it had to be done as carefully and quietly as possible.  Joseph didn’t want to be punitive.  Joseph didn’t want Mary held up to public ridicule.  Perhaps he was hoping to work out a way for Mary to make a new start somewhere else.

With all of this going around and around in his head, Joseph fell asleep.  In his film Jesus of Nazareth, Franco Zeffirelli pictures Joseph tossing and turning.  In a horrible nightmare, Joseph sees the people of the town chasing Mary down and crushing her with stones. (more…)

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'Unwanted Grief' photo (c) 2007, neys fadzil - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/It’s been a difficult Advent for us at Morton this year as we struggle with sickness and death.  Our hearts yearn for God’s comfort.  Thanks be to God, divine comfort is on the way.  Here is an Advent sermon for people who need to be comforted. 

Love Is On the Way

A Sermon on Matthew 11:2-6 and Isaiah 40:1-11

“Are you the one we’ve been waiting for?”  No wonder John the Baptist sent that word to Jesus.  John was longing for the Messiah to set the world on fire, gather the wheat, burn the chaff, make things the way they ought to be, thy will be done, O God, on earth as it is in heaven.

But that hadn’t happened yet.  And now John was chained in King Herod Antipas’ dungeon.  Prison was a place of great suffering even for someone as tough as John, who dressed in camel’s hair and was used to eating insects.  It was dark and damp and teeth-chattering cold.  John’s disciples brought food to keep him alive; otherwise there was nothing to eat.  Prisons didn’t provide luxuries like food.  Prisoners depended on the mercy of people outside for food.  It looked like John was probably not going to live to see his dream fulfilled.  Who knew when Herod might issue the execution order?  If Jesus really was the Christ, the Messiah, why didn’t he get on with things?  What was Jesus waiting for?

I can’t blame John the Baptist at all for his urgent question: Are you the one, or must we wait for another?   People who know what desperation is know what John was getting at.  In a place of pain, the heart questions.  This happens even to people of the strongest faith, like John the Baptist; like Lucy Rose, the Presbyterian pastor I told you about many months ago.  You might have met Lucy when she did a student in ministry year in the early seventies at First Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount .

Lucy Rose was much loved across the Presbyterian Church and at Columbia Seminary where she taught preaching.  In her forties she developed breast cancer, and at first it appeared that she had beaten it.  Three years later it showed up again all over her body and she struggled mightily with it and with stubborn pain for a year.  Lucy taught as long as she could.  She kept singing hymns with her friends and family even after she could no longer leave the bed.  Yet even tough, faith-filled Lucy humbly asked in those last hours, “Why doesn’t God take me home?”  (Lucy’s story is found in Songs in the Night, a book compiled and edited by her father, Ben Lacy Rose, ©1988 CTS Press, Decatur, Georgia.)

In a place of desperation, when all they can see ahead is more pain, people ask, “Why am I still here?  Why is God keeping me here?”   Loved ones witnessing the suffering ask, “Lord, why?  Can’t you see the pain?  What is with the timing?” (more…)

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