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Sermon – Massacre of the Innocents

In talks on January 26, 2018 at 4:29 pm

This sermon was prepared for and preached at Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, MN on December 31st, 2017.

These last few weeks many of you have come up to me to inquire about today’s service. Your questions have uniformly been along the lines of “Are we really doing that awful story again this year?” usually followed by “Why do they make you do that? Is it intern hazing?”
In case you’re not familiar with the tradition at Unity, every year on the Sunday after Christmas, our interns are asked to lead a service using the portion of Matthew’s gospel known as the Massacre or Slaughter of the Innocents.

There are many reasons we do this here, but the reason that I’ve most often shared with you all is this – the Massacre of the Innocents is in fact the *end* of the story of the birth of Jesus – at least as told in Matthew’s gospel. Not only is it the end of the story, it’s a difficult end, and difficult stories ask us to grapple with difficult things. We know that life isn’t all raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. This story invites us into a side of life that is often less traveled. But one that we must travel because it is part of life.

Shall we enter in?

There are many ways to approach a sacred text, and one that I’ve found particularly illuminating is to listen for the character in the story I’m drawn to. Who I’m drawn to often tells me something about how the story is speaking to me, not just through my mind, but through my heart.

Let me read again for you the passage from Matthew that is our text today. As I read it, I invite you to close your eyes if that’s comfortable, and imagine your way into the story.

7-8 Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the scholars from the East. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. Then he told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.”

9-10 Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!

11 They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh.
12 In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country.

16-18 Herod, when he realized that the scholars had tricked him, flew into a rage. He commanded the murder of every little boy two years old and under who lived in Bethlehem and its surrounding hills. (He determined that age from information he’d gotten from the scholars.) That’s when Jeremiah’s sermon was fulfilled:
A sound was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much lament.
Rachel weeping for her children,
Rachel refusing all solace,
Her children gone,
dead and buried.

Was there a word, or an image that captured your attention? As you imagined your way into the story, what spoke to your heart?

Who were *you* in the story? Could you find yourself?

Are you Herod? The deceitful and murderous king? Bent on protecting your power?

Are you one of the wise men, warned not to trust the king, paying homage and leaving?

Are you the star – guiding at a distance, a cool beacon unaffected by the world of humans?

Are you Mary – cradling your precious newborn who you know is no ordinary child (yet nearly every parent feels that way, don’t we?). Do you know, as you hold this beautiful brown baby that your child’s very existence is dangerous?

Are you the baby? Jesus wrapped in swaddling cloths, god incarnate. Are you aware of what’s happening? Or are you like every newborn working to make sense of a new world of sound, sensation, and feeling?

Let me read it again. Who are you in *this* story?

7-8 Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the scholars from the East. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. Then he told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.”

9-10 Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!

11 They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh.
12 In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country.

16-18 Herod, when he realized that the scholars had tricked him, flew into a rage. He commanded the murder of every little boy two years old and under who lived in Bethlehem and its surrounding hills. (He determined that age from information he’d gotten from the scholars.) That’s when Jeremiah’s sermon was fulfilled:
A sound was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much lament.
Rachel weeping for her children,
Rachel refusing all solace,
Her children gone,
dead and buried.

I ask again – who are *you* in *this* story?

These past several weeks, I’ve been asking myself this same question. In fact, I’ve been asking it of everyone I know so much so that some, particularly in my immediate family might well appreciate if I stopped asking the question.

It’s a question that’s hard to answer, and in fact, most that I’ve asked have balked at the question, pausing. Wondering. Searching. Searching perhaps for the “right” answer? The “safe” answer? Trying perhaps to suss out if I’m leading them somewhere.

There really aren’t very many safe places to land in this story, are there?

Herod, the wise ones, Mary, the baby…. And if not one of those, perhaps you are

Joseph? Implied in the story, but not named. Do you hover silently in the background? What do you make of the visit of the wise ones?

Are you the soldiers? Implied, but also not named, surely they existed and carried out the terrible orders given. Did they have a choice? If you were them, could you have chosen differently?

Are you Rachel – Rachel who represents all the mothers in Bethlehem, sobbing for their lifeless children. Even in your grief are you enraged at the wanton abuse of power? Are you even now vowing to resist?

Are you the soil of Bethlehem? Witness to so much bloodshed and so much beauty? How does the land hold what it sees? How does the land hold what we do upon it?

There really are few places where we feel we can safely land. And by safely I mean land in a place where we’re not aggrandizing ourselves nor implicating ourselves in the horrific violence that takes place.

The story is hard because it asks us to face some harsh realities of the world we live in. Like all good stories – even the hard ones – it is a mirror for us. It asks us not to look away. In fact, more than not look away, it asks us, I am asking us, to look deeper. To face ourselves in the story.

Frederick Buechner knows something about facing the world and what we might find when we do.

In an essay titled “Confusion of Face” he writes “the world has a face too, of course, the world of history. Most of the time we avoid looking at it, really looking, for fear of being turned to stone. But once in a while, we are forced into looking. Things happen that will not let us not look, different things for different people. After one of our air strikes against North Vietnam, the Viet Cong was reported to have gone into a village and killed ninety children in retaliation. Most of the time, you read these things the way you read a work of fiction; in some remote way you know that it is terrible. But sometimes the face of the world becomes so contorted, its expression so agonized, that it catches your eye in spite of yourself; and the face of the world becomes suddenly the putty colored face of just one of those dead children. And the way that well-fed people like you and me live most of our lives, unmoved by such agony, that becomes the face of the world too. At such times we say once again, not just about our own faces now but about the world’s bloody face, “Is this really what the world is – this obscenity? Is this really the face of humanity?”

To which Buechner answers “Yes it is, God help us. No, it is not. Confusion of face. . .”

Who are *you* in *this* story?

This old Biblical story that in so many ways is a little parable about the nature of reality and the powers we wield within it. Powers that move within, among, and beyond us; powers that find their realization through the actions that we take, and those that we don’t.
Buechner’s answer – “is this really the world – yes it is, no it is not…” is not the end of things. As he points out, the stories that make us look, the stories that will not let us not look are stories that force us to face ourselves, and for Buechner, facing ourselves is, ultimately, our religious task. He notes that by the grace of our existence, it is, in his words, “our destiny, in this life or in whatever life awaits us, to discover the face of our inmost being, to become at last, and at great cost who we truly are.”

So perhaps we should ask a different question. Perhaps instead of asking who we are in the story, we’re better served by asking “who in this story is someone I need to know better? Which of these characters illuminates an aspect of my self that I have denied, that I am denying even now? Which character arouses in me the greatest reaction when I’m invited to identify with them?”

Robinson Jeffers certainly invites that question. Asserting that violence is not wholly bad, that it is in fact the “sire of all the world’s values” he issues a provocative challenge to our liberal rejection of violence in our justice work, in our families, even in how we speak with each other. The Bloody Sire is at least as provocative as our biblical text, and perhaps more so ode to its brevity and bluntness. More so, and particularly if we identify as men, Jeffers and Matthew issue an even more provocative invitation, which is the invitation to reflect on the gendered nature of violence. For the human violence in the Massacre of the Innocents is the same as the violence in The Bloody Sire – ordered by, carried out by, sanctioned and not prevented…. By men.

And so, for those of you who identify as men, I invite you to ask the questions I’ve been asking myself about today’s biblical text:

Can I find the Herod within? Within, can I find the soldiers, carrying out their awful orders? Can I look upon the shape of the hapless father and feel a glimmer of recognition? Or see in myself the wise men, who know danger lurks yet do nothing?

And can we ask and answer these questions together among ourselves? Can we come to grips with the charge that Jeffers levels at us which is the charge to come to terms with the powers of destruction and violence we have wielded, and understand that today, now, in the time of #MeToo, our work is to claim the violence that flows through us not as the source of our power, but as the “old violence” that is “not too old to beget new values?”

Today we close a year in which we hear many echoes of the Massacre of the Innocents.

As we lay this year to rest, this moment of reflection on the year can be mirror as the biblical story was a mirror. We can pause for a moment and ask ourselves, who were we? Not in the story of the bible, but in this story of the year 2017?

A year in which new life and new resistance was born, literally and figuratively, even as paranoid and impotent power unsuccessfully ordered its destruction. How did we face into the year that passed? What were the stories, the times, the events, that made us look, that invited us to delve deeper into our inmost being. What were the times when we looked away?

However we answer these questions, the good news, or the bad news, is that the year to come is likely to bring more opportunities to practice looking, to practice seeing more deeply who we are, to move closer to the face of our inmost being. And for Frederick Buechner, this journey toward our inmost being is also the movement through which we find not just our own face, but the face of God.
May this be a year in which we practice letting our inmost being be the source of what we do, and how we be in the world.

May it be so.

Translation of Matthew from The Message.

Frederick Buechner quote from “Confusion of Face” in The Hungering Dark.

Robinson Jeffers poem: “The Bloody Sire”

Dreaming and Yearning: a meditation shared at First Universalist

In meditations, talks on April 27, 2014 at 9:23 pm

On April 6th, I had the honor of appearing on the chancel at First Universalist Church in Minneapolis for a service that started our theme of “Life Beyond Your Wildest Dreams.” As noted in the order of service:

This month, we delve into the power of imagination, and dreaming big as pivotal

factors in creating a world of wholeness. . What is a dream that is brighter? What are

the dreams that reach beyond you? What is life beyond your wildest dreams?

In that service, we were joined by the choir performing Eric Whitacre’s “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine,” a truly remarkable piece.

Here’s a recording of my homily for that service, and you can hear the rest of the service here.

Show Me Your Heart: September 29, 2013 Call to Worship at First Universalist

In meditations, talks, writing on September 30, 2013 at 10:19 am

On Sunday, September 29th, 2013, I had the honor of calling the First Universalist congregation to worship as we kicked off a large racial justice initiative. Here’s a recording  (courtesy of First Universalist – more recordings from First Universalist here), and the text is below.

 

“Arif, will you show me your heart?”

I was sitting across from my wife on the first morning of a week long couples retreat. In her outstretched hand, she held a heart shaped stone. She was inviting me to take the stone, and share with her anything that was in or on my heart.

I looked from the stone up into her eyes. Saw the same fear and excitement that I felt in my own belly. And in that invitation to be available and vulnerable with this person I so deeply love…I wanted nothing more than to bolt from the room.

But I didn’t. I took a deep breath, settled in, and spoke from my heart.

Ten minutes later, I extended the same invitation back to Channing, offering her the stone: “will you show me your heart?” And let me tell you, if the invitation to share my heart was scary, the invitation to receive hers was even more terrifying. Would she trust me with her deepest longings, her loves, her regrets, her full humanity? What would she say? All my doubts and fears came flooding in. Channing must have seen that because she reached out, held my face for a moment and said: “Yes, I will show you my heart.”

Show me your heart has become a bedrock practice of building and feeding our relationship and our marriage, because of the way it breaks through the trance of busyness and iphone mania. It calls us into on the spot availability and vulnerability.

I’m sharing this with you because I think if we’re going to walk the walk of racial justice with each other, we can’t do it without being more available and more vulnerable.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you turn to the person next to you and say “show me your heart” but, think about it.

What might it mean for us to be more available to each other, within and beyond these walls? Availability is another word for presence: The presence we cultivate through meditation, prayer, or other spiritual practices. The presence we experience when listening deeply to each other’s longings, loves, regrets, being available to one another’s full humanity.

What might happen if we were truly available to those we know, and those we don’t?

What might it mean if we were able to be more vulnerable with each other, creating trust, and connection, one of the pillars of right relationship?

What might happen?

We’d get better.

We’d get better at sharing the things that make us uncomfortable, the shame, the fear, the pain that racism has etched in different ways on all of our hearts.

We’d get better at sitting with each other’s discomfort, the idea that I can’t fix, save or set straight your pain, but I can sit with you as you are in it.

And getting better within these walls helps us outside these walls too, increasing our ability to join our allies, acting in harmony for justice.

The legacy and impact of racism is deep. I usually avoid talking about it in mostly white groups because I inevitably trigger someone. I’m talking about race and racial justice here because I have to. The work of racial justice is the work of digging in. The walk of racial justice is the walk of availability and vulnerability. To be a part of this community as we start this journey of racial justice work, I have to be more available to you, I have to be more vulnerable with you. And I invite you to join me.

Will you show me your heart?

Come, let us worship together.