Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ni de aquí, ni de allá

A prayer from Gideon Addington, my twitter friend who took his own life last week. He would have liked this sermon. 
"Let us be still, O Lord, let us dwell in the gentle silence of your approach.  You who lift up the weak who repairs, the broken who heals the sick; we await You.  We struggle to remember that Your Kingdom is at hand.  Guide us Merciful Judge, in being instruments of your peace. 
May grace more abound within us!"

Sermon by Katie Mulligan
December 27, 2009
First Sunday After Christmas Day

(Audio recording of the service can be found here: http://www.mediafire.com/?juk1wtimndh )

First Scripture Reading: Matthew 2:1-12
Second Scripture Reading: Matthew 2:13-23

There is a LOT to unpack in these 28 verses of scripture.  But let me say this up front: I won’t get to it all. AND today’s scripture reading is about movement and borders, violence and refuge, remembering the past and visioning the future.

Let us begin with movement and borders.  From Luke’s gospel, we know that after Mary conceived a child, she traveled to see her cousin, Elizabeth. Then after returning home, she and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem for the census, where Jesus was born. Next, Matthew tells us, three wise men from the East came following a star in the sky, leaving behind their home and comforts to see if their astrological predictions had come true.  They stopped in Jerusalem, a center of power, in the same way that one might stop in the state capitol if one was looking for the governor.  But the only King of the Jews to be found there was King Herod.  Fearing for his own power and authority, King Herod set the priests and scribes of the kingdom to the task of figuring out where the baby Jesus would be born. And then he sent the wise men on their way, wandering toward Bethlehem with instructions to return to Herod with additional information.  The star in the sky went ahead of them, perhaps a bit like the pillars of cloud and fire went ahead of the Israelites in the wilderness, guiding them along their way.

Mary and Joseph had enjoyed a quiet period of time after their son’s birth—a few weeks perhaps a few months.  They had some shepherd visitors, but overall it must have been a time of rest, a time to learn their roles as parents, nurturing an infant, figuring out if the child was hungry or tired.  I imagine they meant to leave Bethlehem eventually, perhaps return to Nazareth where grandparents and aunts and uncles, cousins were eager to see the child. The wise men’s visit to the baby Jesus marked the end of Mary and Joseph’s peaceful time with their baby. They came bearing gifts and glad tidings but also they brought down upon the holy family the wrath of King Herod.

Having been warned in a dream, the wise men wandered home by another way. And then an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”  And so Joseph got up in the middle of the night, gathered their few belongings and went to Egypt.  Matthew does not tell us how many times Mary and Joseph prayed during that journey.  Praying for a safe journey, praying that Herod’s men would not find them, praying that when they got to Egypt that there would be someone to take them in.  Shelter, refuge, food, someplace safe to sleep.

Behind them in Bethlehem a terrifying story was unfolding. King Herod was jealous and fearful at the news of Christ’s birth.  He sent soldiers to Bethlehem to find the baby Jesus, and when he realized that the child had been hidden and the parents warned, he reacted viciously and ordered the murder of all children under the age of two.

How relieved they must have been to arrive safely in Egypt!  News of the massacre must have followed them as they traveled, and the journey must have been uncomfortable and frightening with a baby.  I imagine as new parents that Mary and Joseph were eager to settle in somewhere and raise their child in security.  But their journey was not over yet, for some time after they arrived in Egypt, King Herod died and an angel appeared again in a dream to Joseph and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”  So he took them back to Israel where he heard that Herod’s son was the new ruler, and that Archaleus was as bad as his father. And so the angel of the Lord appeared again to Joseph, and they moved on to Nazareth, where they were finally able to settle and raise their child.  I don’t know about Joseph, but by the time that angel showed up for the fourth time, I’d have been shaking my fist at God!  Your wife to be is going to have a baby that isn’t yours, but do me a favor and marry her anyway. By the way, King Herod is going to try to kill your baby move to Egypt. Oh, just kidding, Herod’s dead you can come back home now. Whoops! My bad! Try Nazareth, where you can live in relative obscurity. We gloss over the drama of this, but following God and keeping babies safe was hard work then and its hard work now.

One of the things all this movement does is begin to create a framework for the Christ child as one who transgresses borders.  The simple act of his birth necessitated the crossing of borders, both geographical and cultural. The wise men came from hundreds of miles away; cultured and educated men in their own right, they came to pay homage to a baby born under humble circumstances.  Mary transgressed cultural boundaries to bear this child and Joseph did as well to stand by her. Together they wandered the countryside, first pregnant, then with an infant, then with a young child.  Constant movement and border crossing, and such habits have an effect on a child’s identity.

Rosa Linda Fregoso writes in her book, meXicana Encounters: The Making of Social Identities on the Borderlands, about the intersections of identity along the Mexican-U.S. border.  We think of that border sometimes as a hard line, a wall or impassable desert, but the truth is it is rather permeable.  There are always ways to pass through that border from both sides, with our without legal permission; many of those ways carry risk of death or imprisonment, but the border is passable. And its not just a geographic border; there is a cultural divide between the two countries that is instantly apparent as one moves from the U.S. to Mexico and back again.  San Diego has its own distinctive flavor, but it looks a lot like any other large U.S. city. But one only needs to walk or drive across the border into Tijuana and it is obvious that one has moved into a very different space. The buildings, roads, landscaping, signs, and habits of the people are different. And yet again, borders are deceiving and permeable; there is movement across the border on both sides; people cross the border every day to work or live on the other side. It is impossible to draw a hard line.  Fregoso writes in particular of the term meXicana as a social identity referring to people who live along these borderlands:
As the interface between Mexicana and Chicana, “meXicana” draws attention to the historical, material, and discursive effects of contact zones and exchanges among various communities on the Mexico-U.S. border, living in the shadows of more than 150 years of conflict, interactions, and tensions. “meXicana” references processes of transculturation, hybridity, and cultural exchanges—the social and economic interdependency and power relations structuring the lives of inhabitants on the borderlands.
Not recognizably Chicana or Mexicana, “yet geographically and historically localized”—echoing the lyrics of Chavela Vargas’s song, “Ni de aquí ni de allá” (Neither from here nor from there)—meXicana is a metaphor for cultural and national mobility. And even though the term is an amalgamation of “Mexicana” and “Chicana,” it does not signal an erasure of difference, but rather calls attention to the intersections among the multiple narratives of race, gender, sexuality that inform nation building. (Fregoso, xiv)
In other words, things get complicated along borderlands, and the movement and transgression of boundaries found at borderlands contains a threat to established powers and governments of all kinds. Borders, by their nature are difficult to manage and control. Jesus, because his nature is rooted in movement and crossing borders, is difficult to manage and control. He is a threat to the status quo. Hallelujah!  He is neither from here nor from there; ni de aquí ni de allá, and therefore may be claimed by those who stand outside the borders we proscribe.

So movement and borders. This passage is also about violence and refuge. I often wonder when reading this text why it was necessary to arouse Herod’s interest. Maybe there was fog that night and the wise men couldn’t see where the star led?  Couldn’t the angel of the Lord have appeared in a dream before they spilled the beans to Herod?  A friend of mine pointed out that the scripture says the flight to Egypt was necessary so that Jesus could come up out of Egypt and fulfill a prophecy.  But in my sleep I can come up with six other plans to get Jesus and the parents to move to Egypt that don't involve the slaughter of babies in Bethlehem, so this rings false to me, even if its written right there in my Bible.  The Slaughter of the Innocents they call it, and this event has inspired many terrible paintings.  Albert Camus writes of the event in his novel The Fall.  It is an odd little tale, a one-sided description of a two-sided conversation. We only hear the voice of the main character, Clamence, a cynical man bent on causing doubt in others. Taking advantage of the very human question “Why does God let bad things happen, especially to the innocent?” Clamence explains (somewhat blasphemously):
Say, do you know why he was crucified...?  The real reason is that he knew he was not altogether innocent. If he did not bear the weight of the crime he was accused of, he had committed others—even though he didn’t know which ones. Did he really not know them? He was at the source, after all; he must have heard of a certain Slaughter of the Innocents. The children of Judea massacred while his parents were taking him to a safe place—why did they not die if not because of him? Thos blood-spattered soldiers, those infants cut in two filled him with horror. But given the man he was, I am sure he could not forget them.  And as for that sadness that can be felt in his every act, wasn’t it the incurable melancholy of a man who heard night after night the voice of Rachel weeping for her children and refusing all comfort? The lamentation would rend the night, Rachel would call her children who had been killed for him, and he was still alive! (Camus, 111-112)
Here then is the question of our hearts we ask when things go terribly wrong. Why this baby instead of any others—why did my child have to die?  What does it cost to keep our children safe—are we keeping them safe at the expense of somebody else’s children?  Where were those who could stand against the soldiers as they killed children? How many parents lost their lives trying to protect their children? How many mothers and fathers lived with the horror of that moment, the horror of their own powerlessness against violence and death?  This event is unexplainable; there is no easy justification for God’s action or inaction in this situation.  I know the angel was busy, but could it not have visited a few more people’s houses?  Where was the passover blood to paint on the door posts to keep the children from dying? Was there not room in Egypt?  I don’t know—I just shake my head at this passage.

But maybe, just maybe this passage is simply bearing witness to this truth: there are horrors and betrayals in this world. Innocent children are slaughtered, and sometimes we stand by powerless to save them. Sometimes in our eagerness to curry favor with authorities like Herod, we give away secrets that are life or death.  And sometimes we are the ones who were in the right place at the right time and escaped violence that fell on others.

Patricia Davis wrote a book called Beyond Nice: The Spiritual Wisdom of Adolescent Girls. She tells the story of a young girl name Nilla, the daughter of eccentric parents. She loved to tell ghost stories and was “the student who could be depended on to notice the odd subtexts in the Bible stories and the one who demanded explanations of hard passages.”  As a youth pastor, I loved students who asked these hard questions, because they pushed me beyond the bounds of an easy faith. Such questions transgress social boundaries in church and as such are holy questions indeed.

[I am uncomfortable quoting the lengthy passage directly here from Davis' book. You can view pages at Amazon fairly easily (pages 46-48), or I encourage you to get this excellent resource for your own library.  A quick summary: This is the story of how Nilla came to play Herod's hit man in the church Christmas pageant]
On that Christmas Eve night--thanks to Mrs. Alexander and Nilla--their Methodist church saw and heard a fuller version of the story of Christ's birth, with both the wonder and the horror intact. In this church the wise men traveled to King Herod before they arrived in Bethlehem; they were accompanied by a shadowy figure on their way to the stable. Outside the stable, a hit man lurked as Mary cherished the baby and the angels sang. On that Christmas Eve, Nilla's church may have been the only church in Christendom to remember Christ's birth in this more complete narrative, including not only the beauty and glory but also the fear, the evil, the grief, and the hit man. (Davis, 47)
Beauty and glory, fear, grief and evil. A baby and a hit man. This is a story about life as we live it, and there in the middle of all the messiness and horror, there is Jesus, God incarnate, transgressing boundaries, moving across borders, challenging the status quo simply by existing as a lump of flesh.  His birth story, in its completeness highlights the violence that is a part of our lives, and also the refuge offered by those who care enough to risk offering it.

Finally, then, let us talk about remembering the past and visioning the future. This passage is rich with Jewish history.  It was significant that Jesus was born King of the Jews in Bethlehem where King David had been made king so long ago.  Jerusalem where the wise men went to meet Herod, was a seat of power and an important part of God’s plan for Israel. King Herod’s chief priests and scribes referred back to the prophets to answer the question “Where is this child to be born?”  The flight to Egypt recalls for us Joseph’s travels to Egypt after being sold into slavery by his brothers. Ironically, slavery in Egypt turned out to be healthier for him than staying home with brothers who hated him, and he thrived in Egypt. And so this little Jewish family wandered down to Egypt to seek refuge. The slaughter of children in Bethlehem echoes the killing of the first born, a plague sent by God to get Pharoah to let the people go. Rachel weeping for her children refers back to Israel’s defeat by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, yet still the Jewish people lived on and thrived through national tragedy.

This passage is about who we are and have been as humanity: beautiful at times, yet also cruel and brutal.  There is much history to celebrate and mourn in this passage, yet also an important belief that it is possible to preserve a thread of life in the midst of terrible oppression, that even in the worst atrocities, hope can be found. There is life in the middle of the night when all the babies are being slaughtered.  We do not passively look away from evil, silently acquiescing to its advances. No we witness it. We are to find ways, subversively, secretively to bring new life into this world and preserve it. At times God is a vulnerable baby in need of adult protection.  Take care to recognize those times when you will be called to act and protect those in need. Take care to know how and where you fit in the borderlands of your life and faith.




1 comment:

  1. Excellent sermon! (As I have come to expect from you.)

    So here's my pop culture reference for the week:
    I was wondering if you have ever seen the anime "Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit"? There is a young prince carrying a water spirit inside him. The mikado, thinking this is an evil spirit, sends assassins to kill the prince (repeatedly), but the prince's mother hires a female bodyguard to protect the prince (said bodyguard had already saved the prince's life once). Of course, if the prince dies, so does the water spirit, which would mean eternal drought for the kingdom (should have done your research, mikado.) Quite a bodyguard: she has sworn to never take another life - and she doesn't. Which is not to say she is a pushover. Anyway, I hope you had a Merry Christmas!

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