Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Wailing at Christmas

This sermon was preached at Wesley United Methodist Church in Marysville, PA on Dec. 28, 2014.

Thank you so very much, Wesley bunch, for welcoming me and giving me the opportunity to share God’s Word with you today. Some of you may not know me very well, but like many you at Wesley, I practically grew up in this church. When I moved to Chicago back in 2010, you supported me with your prayers. Then when I began seminary in 2012, you began supporting me financially, and due in part because of that support I will graduate in May from Chicago Theological Seminary. One the last challenges I have in my seminary education is an internship called CPE—clinical pastoral education. It’s meant to present pastors-in-training with heavy, often emergency, pastoral situations. I have been serving at Ingalls Hospice in the southern suburbs of Chicago, so God’s been working on me to share some of what I've been learning in those hospice cases. I hope that explains a little why I feel so moved to share about “wailing at Christmas.”
           Why might someone wail at Christmas? And when I say “at Christmas,” I do mean both “during” Christmas and “about” Christmas. There are a number of famous stories of people who kinda wailed “about” Christmas. Think of Scrooge, that squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner. Or the Grinch, who was so unlike the all the Who’s down in Whoville, at least until his heart grew 3 sizes one day. There are also plenty of real-life anti-Christmas folks in the world today, and a lot of them seem to like making top-10 or top-8 lists on the Internet to explain why they don’t like Christmas. While some of them are proud pagans and atheists, others are from Christian denominations such as 7th Day Adventists or the United Church of God. And you know what? They have some pretty good points, usually wailing about how commercial Christmas has become. To borrow from the great 20th century cultural critic, Lucy Van Pelt, whom you probably know from yanking the football away from Charlie Brown, “We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.” Good point, Lucy.
            Then again, there are some other good reasons to wail at Christmas, and this time I mean “during” Christmas. I recall meeting a woman with the campus ministry I work for in Chicago. We hand out about five dozen bagged lunches to homeless and hungry people we encounter around downtown, and we intentionally go to the places where others don’t often go. We encountered this woman at the corner of Lower Wacker and Lower Michigan, which is one story below what is considered street level. If you liked the movie The Dark Knight, Batman chased the Joker down on Lower Wacker. It was early December last year, and winter was setting in. She was grateful for the food, but soon she began to break down in front of us. She had no place to go but these dingy, noisy streets, and it was getting cold out. She cried and she wailed with us, “I’m just so tired of being so cold and so tired!” Her voice is what I think these days when I think of wailing at Christmas.
             And there was wailing at the first Christmas, too, or at least shortly thereafter. Once the magi from the East had offered their honoraria to the Christ child in Bethlehem, King Herod had all the infants two years old or younger massacred. Traditionally this episode is called “the massacre of the Holy Innocents.” The gospel writer then adds a new voice to the story, that of the ancient Jewish matriarch Rachel, who was the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. Rachel’s voice is heard coming from Ramah, and she wails and laments loudly, forsaking all consolation, because her children, her dearest family and hope for her people, are no more. There was wailing at the first Christmas.
            Before we look at more modern Christmas wailing, let’s dive into this story a little bit more. After all, I’ve spent all that time and money in seminary learning to “dive into the story,” so I’m darn well going to do it now. Rachel’s voice, which Matthew adds to lament the massacre of the innocents, is a reference from the prophet Jeremiah, who was active in the 6th century BC and talked a lot about the coming destruction of the southern Israelite kingdom, Judah. In fact, he talked so much about impending doom that his peers got tired of him and put in a dry well. Sure enough, that nay-sayer Jeremiah got it right. The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 586 BC, and they took all the nobles and VIP’s of the kingdom into exile afterward. It was a nasty business, including severe famine caused by the siege of Jerusalem and a systematic execution of military leaders. It was also the occasion of the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem. The event had such an effect on the Hebrew people that Jews commemorate it in a day of mourning called Tisha be-Av. We might imagine Rachel wailing for her lost children on that day.
            So this is what Matthew wants to remind his readers of when he quotes Jeremiah—death, destruction, and wailing. But Matthew doesn’t say, “Remember what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah,” but “then was fulfilled.” Most biblical scholars would say Matthew was playing loose and fast with his interpretation of Jeremiah’s 31st chapter to get a prophecy about the messiah. However, what if something else was fulfilled in the massacre of the innocents?
            Let me first be clear about God’s will is NOT “fulfilled” in this passage. It is not God’s will that King Herod, whom the Roman imperial authorities called “the great,” should have killed children. It is not God’s will that any person, whether innocent child or convicted murderer, should suffer in such a way. It is not God’s will that thousands in West Africa still suffer from ebola or that bombs explode in Syria or that young black men are killed in the streets here in the USA. God’s will is not fulfilled when a homeless veteran in Chicago gets locked up for not appearing for a court hearing he never knew was scheduled. It is not God’s will that a trusted police officer would abuse children in anyone’s hometown, especially not this one. God’s will is not fulfilled when these things happen.
            But these things do happen, nonetheless. So what was being fulfilled in Herod’s massacre of innocent children? Maybe…it has something to do with Rachel’s voice heard coming from Ramah. Maybe Matthew was saying the prophecy was fulfilled in how Rachel didn’t stop wailing for her lost children even centuries after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. Maybe Rachel was continuing to wail for the loss of children and loved ones even as God became “Emmanuel,’ God with us, God among our wounded, hurting, throbbing people.
            Here’s another thing: there’s no evidence outside the Bible, even outside this one passage in the gospel of Matthew that this massacre of the innocents historically happened. Now, of course this is not the kind of thing that official historians on the king’s payroll would record, so maybe we shouldn’t expect archeological evidence about the massacre of the Holy Innocents. You may believe that it literally happened, or you may believe that the story is more metaphorical. There’s a lot of stuff in Bible like that. In this case, it’s not belief in facts or metaphors or whatever else that matters. In this case, faith matters.
            Paul Tillich, a German Lutheran theologian who was pretty existentialist and whom I think is pretty awesome, says that faith is “the condition of being ultimately concerned about something unconditionally.” In other words, what matters to you more than anything else in the entire world? What makes you get in the morning? What keeps you up at night? What makes your pulse run faster? What would you sacrifice for? The answer to those questions will help you understand where you have faith.
            Given all the awful stuff that has happened on the earth since the dawn of humanity, I have to think that God must have a lot of faith in us. Why else would God trust a working class Jewish family to care for Jesus Christ during one of the most violent regimes in the history of violent regimes? When bad stuff happens, our faith in God might be challenged. We may doubt God’s absolute power or complete goodness, and that’s perfectly all right. Paul Tillich also said that the opposite of faith is not doubt—but certainty. Considering that Tillich lived in Germany during World War I and then was exiled by the Nazis before World War II, I can understand why he might not be so keen on certainty. After all, both Herod and Hitler were certain that they should defend and grow their power by all means available.
            So those of us with faith in God through Jesus Christ come to Christmas. Do you want to wail? I’ve already mentioned that I work with a lot of homeless people in Chicago. There is this one homeless couple, probably teenagers (I haven’t asked them their ages), who have helped with our bagged lunch program. They started coming back in September in the hopes that they would get a bite to eat, and then they stayed to help make the lunches and hand them out. Angie was several months pregnant, so after that first week she stayed back in the church where we have an office. Her boyfriend Tony walked with us to bring food to the streets, and boy, did he bring energy to our little group! Angie and Tony became such a part of our ministry that we planned a baby shower for Angie for the last Sunday of November.
            Then it was like Angie and Tony disappeared. It’s not uncommon for homeless people to come and go, but these folks had become part of our little family. My boss even tried calling their schools in order to try to find them. The day of the baby shower came, and we still weren't sure what was going to happen. Thank God, Angie appeared at the church for the shower. She had come with about six other relatives to celebrate with her, but Tony was not among them. Bit by bit the story came out. Tony had missed a parole hearing, which isn’t surprising given how he is homeless and has a hard time getting his mail. He arrested and sent to jail. We had a great time at the baby shower despite Tony’s absence, but Angie would spend the Christmas season without her boyfriend. In fact, she had her baby while Tony was locked up. So you know, sometimes, you just want to wail at Christmas.
            Wesley bunch, I know you feel some absences this year, too. This is your first Christmas without Allie Speck, and I know you miss her. I remember how shortly before I left for Chicago, you laid hands on Allie and me. For Allie, the prayers were for strength and healing. For me, it was safety and boldness. I tracked Allie’s progress through emails which my mom forwarded me, and I continued to wear my “Praying for Allie” t-shirt. By the way, a classmate of mine told me that the Korean characters on the back mean “strong tiger.”
            Like so many people, I was inspired by Allie’s story. I even included her story in a sermon about the power of prayer which I preached last year while I was interning at First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple. Then on Ash Wednesday of this year, I saw the news on Facebook, and my sister Jess confirmed it. Allie was gone. I have to admit, it was only in preparing this sermon that I finally read Zina Speck’s final update. Maybe living far away made it harder for me to find meaning in Allie’s passing. Maybe it makes me want to wail at Christmas.
            But like Allie said, God has a plan for her, even while she dances in heaven today. And God has a plan for us, too, no matter what terrible things happen around us, among us, to us. God had a plan for Jesus even when Herod was trying to kill him. And even nay-saying Jeremiah had more to God’s plan to tell us. After giving us Rachel’s wailing, Jeremiah goes on to say, “There is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country.” God had a plan for those exiles taken away to Babylon.
            So go ahead! Wail at Christmas! Do not cover your tears with that lovely sweater your Aunt Betty gave you. Do not quiet your voice with your favorite holiday beverage. Do not hide your mourning with faux festive cheer. As the prophet Isaiah says, shout out! Do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Wail at Christmas and the God who comes to be with us at Christmas. Wail in your loudest voice, “Where are you, God? I need you because I am hurting so much right now!” And I promise you, God will come. God will come to you and say, “I’m right here, I’m right here. And I have a plan for you while we both hurt.”
            God’s plan is to come to us at Christmas because we were and we are hurting. God’s plan isn’t necessarily to stop the pain, but God is with us in the midst of the pain. When we hurt, God hurts with us. When we wail, God wails with us. God’s plan is salvation. God’s plan is redemption. No, it’s not the palliative care that Christmas commercialism offers. It’s deeper than that. God saves us in the midst of our despair, and God redeems our doubt and grief. Even as we wail at Christmas, God comes to us and says, “I have a plan to save and redeem you.” Even as we wail at Christmas, God’s plan of salvation and redemption is being lived out among us. Let’s live into God’s plan this Christmas.