Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Foolish Message

I Corinthians 1:10-18
January 22, 2017

            The Gods Must Be Crazy. Back in 1980, this was the title of a little independent film out of South Africa. It told the story of a bushman named Xi. Xi knew only his particular world, his family, his clan. The way of life that he was born into, and the traditions and customs and world understandings that went back generations, provided his only lens for the world. But Xi was starting to see strange things, such as giant birds that flew across the sky without flapping their wings. One of those strange birds was flying in the early moments of the movie, and while Xi looks up to watch it, the audience gets to see the “bird” up close. The pilot of the small bush plane was drinking a coke. Emptying the bottle, he threw it out of the small opening in the window next to him. A terrible act of littering and environmental recklessness I know, but the bottle drops to the ground near Xi. Xi followed the sound of the bottle meeting earth, and went to find its source. This bottle was like nothing he had ever seen before. It was clear like water, but hard. It did not break when he hit it against the ground. Xi could not fathom what the bottle was or what it might be meant for, but as the narrator said if something drops from the skies it must be a gift from the gods. So Xi took this “gift” back to his people.
            Everyone was fascinated by it. They had never seen or touched something this strange and beautiful. It turned out to be one of the most useful gifts the bush people had ever been given. It could be used to open the hard rind of fruits. Rub some dye on its mouth, and it decorated cloth with perfect circles. It could roll dough into thin, even strips. You could even make music with it by blowing air across the top. The gift was wonderful. Or was it? The people in the clan began to experience feelings they had not known before: jealousy, frustration, anger. Two women began to fight over the gift, each one trying to take it away from the other so she could have her turn. It resulted in one woman hitting the other on the head with the gift. When the woman fell to the ground in pain, the other woman immediately dropped to her knees to hold her and comfort her. What had she done?! What was happening to them? Xi realized that if this was a gift from the gods, then the gods had gotten it wrong. He tried to give it back to the gods by throwing it up into the air. The second time he did it, the bottle fell and hit his own daughter on the head. The gods must be crazy, because this was a gift that only brought harm. The rest of the movie chronicles his journey to return the gift to these crazy gods, as well as the strange new and supposedly civilized world he encounters along the way.
            “Crazy” and “Foolish” are not necessarily synonyms. However, trying to dig into and understand Paul’s words to the church in Corinth made me wonder what someone who had no knowledge about our country or our civilization would think if they suddenly encountered it as Xi did. What would someone unfamiliar with us and our ways think about us if all they had to go on was media, commercials, news, etc? Let’s narrow that question down a bit. What would someone think about our faith, our churches, our denominations, if they had no context to go on, no understanding to draw from? I wonder if they might not come to a conclusion similar to Xi’s. The God we worship is one God, but we proclaim that our one God is three-in-one. We proclaim that God is powerful, omniscient, omnipotent, but this powerful God became like one of us. Not only did our God become like one of us in birth, but also in death. Our God died! Our God died, not in a noble way, but in the way of a criminal. Our God didn’t just die, our God was executed.
            We also proclaim that we are all one in Jesus the Christ. Our unity is in Christ. Because of Christ the barriers and walls that we erect to keep us separate are torn down. The labels and the categories that we place one another in are meaningless and swept away because of our God who we know in Jesus the Son. What Paul seemed to be telling the Corinthians is that they either forgot or misunderstood the meaning of their baptisms. They forgot or misunderstood to whom they belong, and into whom they were truly baptized. They didn’t get it. They were not baptized into the camp of the evangelist or preacher who did the baptizing. They were baptized into Christ. No person’s baptism or evangelist made them superior or inferior to someone else. They were baptized into Christ, and Christ was not divided into pieces and parts.
            We can look at the factions in the Corinthian church and see how they got it so wrong. We can imagine that someone like Xi, a stranger to Christ and a stranger to the church, might see their squabbling as hypocritical and foolish. But let’s be honest, would Xi think any differently of us? Not just our congregation or our denomination but the church universal. What would Xi think of us?
            I realize that I am getting at two different kinds of foolishness here. There is the foolishness that can be seen in the gap that lies between who we are called to be and who we are. There is the foolishness that can be found in how often what we proclaim and what we do are very different. And then there is the foolishness that Paul expounds: the foolishness of the cross.
            “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
            Why is the cross foolish? It is foolish for all of the reasons I’ve named. It is foolish because an all powerful God should not die like a criminal. It is foolish because it is an instrument of death, but in that cross we find the gospel of life and hope and love. It is foolish because any stranger would see that the cross seems to fly in the face of every value that is exalted in our culture. It was about the power of God, but not power exerted through might. It was power shown in sacrifice. It was about serving rather than being served. It was about a willingness to be poor so that others might be rich in spirit, in hope and in love. It was about love – love of neighbor, love of the stranger, the other; love of those who would remain at the foot of the cross and those who would not. It was about love, even love for those who made the cross possible in the first place.
            The cross was foolish, is foolish, because it upends every expectation, every understanding, every notion that we might have about the world and how it should be ordered. It reverses every category we impose on one another, every label we use, every wall we build, every way we try to divide ourselves. It overturns what we think we know about God, about other people and about ourselves. It preaches a powerful sermon about how we see one another. Do we see one another in the way we desire or in the way God sees us? Do we see one another through our differences, or do we see one another through the cross and through the man who willingly went to it? Do we see one another as God sees us? It seems to me that seeing one another in that way, through God’s perspective, is probably the most foolish thing we could do – at least in light of every standard our world is ordered by. It is crazy. It is nonsensical. It is foolish.
            Yet, that is how God works, in foolish ways through foolish people. God chose and chooses the most unlikely ways and unlikely people to bring about God’s purposes. The cross may be the most foolish message of all, but it is in that foolishness that we find life. It is in that foolish message that we receive grace. It is in this foolishness that we are encircled and embraced in God’s foolish, gracious, merciful, wonderful love. The cross is a foolish message indeed. But thanks be to God for its foolishness. Thanks be to God!

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

To the Church of God

I Corinthians 1:1-9
January 15, 2017

To my dear friends, my sisters and brothers, in the church of Shawnee,
            To all of you who have been made new in Jesus Christ, to all of you who are called to be saints, along with all the other people in every place who call on the name of Jesus, their God and our God; God’s grace and peace to you and to your loved ones.
            Everyday I give thanks to God for each and every one of you, because you have been grace from God through Jesus. Because of this grace, you are all amazing people. You have such incredible gifts – gifts of speech and knowledge of all things. God’s grace that enfolds you has strengthened the witness of Jesus Christ in your midst. None of you lack any spiritual gift, and these spiritual gifts will help you and abide with you as wait for the complete and total revealing of Christ Jesus. Not only will the spiritual gifts that you have been given strengthen you as you wait, Jesus himself will strengthen you as well, until everything in this world is complete. Because you have been given such strength, so many gifts, you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Remember that God is faithful. It is through God, not any human being, but through God that you have been called into the fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus our Christ. It is through God, not any human being, that you are a church.
            The first time I learned the word epistle was in a letter that my dad wrote to my sister, Jill. I don’t remember where she was living or what she was doing at the time, but she must have been struggling. My dad sat at our dining room table, carefully typing on our old typewriter, a letter of encouragement and love. I offer my apologies to both my dad and my sister for reading over his shoulder as he typed; but honestly I don’t remember anything else about the letter other than he closed it by saying that he was sorry for writing such an epistle. For some reason, that stuck with me. An epistle was a letter. That memory came back to me when I was in seminary, not only studying Paul’s epistles in New Testament, but also struggling. My dad sat down, probably at our dining room table once again, and wrote me an epistle of encouragement and love.
As often as we refer to the letters of Paul, sometimes I still forget that he was writing letters. I know how silly that sounds. Of course they’re letters. But so often we turn to a particular chapter and verse somewhere in the middle a book, and it easy to forget that the chapter and verses are not something we consider in isolation. They are part of a larger context. They make up a letter written by Paul to the churches that he started and ministered to. David Hay, in his opening remarks about this first letter to the Corinthians, stated that Paul felt a deep responsibility to these churches. He kept in touch. He would send his associates to the churches if he could not go. He planned return trips. And he wrote letters.
            I suspect that Paul did not have the luxury of sitting at a table as my dad did, but his letters, his epistles, were meant to encourage, to discipline and to share the love of Christ. Paul was a master of rhetoric; in other words, he wrote some mighty fine letters. Paul knew how to use language to persuade, convince, and exhort. That does not mean that Paul was manipulative or sneaky. I think Paul was sincere in his passion and zeal for Jesus and the gospel. But let’s not underestimate what seems to be Paul’s innate understanding of how to phrase something to capture his readers’ attention.
            The church in Corinth was a divided and fractured church. They experienced conflict and strife. There were misunderstandings about Paul’s earlier teachings to them, and misunderstandings about the purpose of spiritual gifts. The church in Corinth was home to both wealthy people and poor people. As converted gentiles, the Corinthians would have brought practices and understandings from their pagan context into their life together. They were people in a particular time and place, just as we are here in Shawnee, in the United States, in North America, in the 21st century. The Corinthians were struggling to live out their faith. They made mistakes. They bickered with each other. Some in the community believed that they were superior to others in the faith community. Perhaps some believed that they really did not belong to the church at all.
            So Paul wrote a letter. If you remember later sections in this first letter to the Corinth church, Paul was not afraid to call the church folks on the carpet for taking wrong paths. But his opening greeting to them, the words we read today, sets the tone for the rest of the letter. He writes to them in the love of God made manifest in Jesus, God’s Son. The love of God is at the foundation of the letter. Paul reminds them that it is the love of God that is the foundation of the church as well.
            In spite of the fact that Paul had heard disturbing reports about what was happening in the Corinth church, he did not begin by admonishing them. Instead, he gave thanks for them. He gave thanks for them because God’s grace had been given to them in Jesus Christ. He gave thanks for them because of their knowledge and spiritual gifts – both of which are the source of many of their conflicts. He gave thanks because the testimony of Jesus, the witness of the gospel, was strengthened in their midst.
            It may seem strange that Paul started off in this way because the Corinthians were messing up big time. If we look only at their errors, their mistakes, their false assumptions, it would be easy to conclude that they were failing to be the church of God. Wouldn’t it make more sense that Paul would begin his letter by telling them to knock that nonsense off? Wouldn’t we expect a letter written to address the conflicts and issues they were experiencing to be a rebuke from beginning to end? As I said, Paul excelled at rhetoric. I suspect that he knew if he started off by telling them they were blowing it, they would stop reading. His words would have fallen on the proverbial deaf ears. Paul understood that, so he began by giving thanks for them. He even gave thanks and lifted up the sources of their conflicts.
            Again, I do not think that Paul was trying to manipulate them. I think Paul was sincere. But his opening words of thanksgiving and love not only made his later, harsher words more palatable, they serve as a stark reminder that the Corinthians were a church not because of themselves, but because of God. The people were not responsible for creating that church. Paul was not responsible for creating that church. God called their church into being. God blessed them with grace. The gospel of Jesus Christ was made strong among them because of God. They were a church because of God’s grace and because of God’s love through God’s Son.
            It seems to me that this is a reminder we all need to hear. How is that we are a church, a congregation? Yes, we keep on keeping on because we are determined, because we love one another in spite of our differences, and because we feel called to be a witnessing presence in Shawnee, Oklahoma. But first and foremost, we are a church because of God and God’s grace. God called us into being in the earliest days of Shawnee, and God called us into being when two churches merged into one, and God calls us into being right now. We are a church because of God. We are God’s church.
            Yesterday in officer training, we studied and discussed some of the creeds and confessions that are a fundamental part of being Presbyterian and in the Reformed tradition. At the General Assembly last summer, the Belhar Confession was adopted and added to our Book of Confessions. This is a confession that comes out of the Reformed church in South Africa and apartheid. As apartheid was dismantled, this confession came into being to state clearly the need for reconciliation and unity; the reconciliation and unity that is given witness to in the gospel of Christ. The church in South Africa offers this confession as a gift to the larger Reformed body, because we are all in need of reconciliation – one with another.
            One statement of belief that we read yesterday was this: “that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.”
            “That the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands.”
            I have been repeating those words in my head since yesterday morning. I need to be reminded that this church is not ours. We are the possession of God. God created us, claims us, calls us – as individuals, and as a congregation. How does knowing that, how does understanding that, change how we view ourselves, our situation and our future together? I so rarely have the answers to the questions I ask you, but I do know this: we are the church of God. God is faithful. God keeps God’s promises. We may not know what will happen in our future, but knowing and trusting that God makes of us a church is trusting that we are in God’s good and gracious hands. Knowing that means that we also that there is always, always, always, always reason to hope.
There is always reason to hope. Thanks be to God!

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Public Notice --Baptism of the Lord

Matthew 3:13-17
January 8, 2017

            Long trips are perfect for audio books. They make the time go faster. They keep me alert and awake while I’m driving. One of the best books I’ve listened to in a while has been Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. This was her “lost novel,” published in 2015. Like her classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Watchman also tells the story of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her relationships with her father and family in Macomb, Alabama. Watchman begins with a grown up Jean Louse on a train from New York, coming home to Macomb for her annual visit.
            Although the story is set in Jean Louise’ present, she has flashbacks, memories, of her childhood with her brother, Jem, and their best friend, Dill. One of these memories centered on the annual revival that was an annual summer event in Macomb. It was a joint effort of the Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists. Scout, Jem and Dill had been attending the revival, along with everyone else in the town, for three nights. On the fourth day, a hot, hot, hot summer day, the three children were trying to come up with a new game to play. Dill suggested they have a revival.
            Jem was the preacher. Dill and Scout were the choir and the congregation. Jem preached a longer sermon than any Scout had ever heard from any adult. Dill jumped up to be the usher and took the two nickels Scout had in her pocket. She warned him that he better give them back to her when they were done. They sang “Amazing Grace,” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.” Then it came time for anyone who wished to unite with Christ to come forward. Scout went forward. 
            Jem asked her if she repented. She replied, “Yes sir.”
            Jem asked, “Have you been baptized?” “No sir,” she said.
            Jem dipped his hand into the fishpool they were gathered next to and started to sprinkle Scout on the head, because Jem and Scout were Methodists. But Dill jumped in and said that this was a Baptist revival, so it had to be a Baptist baptism.
            “You’ve got to duck her.” Dill decided since he was the only Baptist, he would also be baptized. But Scout threatened him. Dill had gotten to do everything else. She was going to be baptized.
            She took off her overalls, the only item of clothing she was wearing. But before Jem could baptize her in the dark, slimy water of the fishpool, Dill ran into his aunt’s house. He returned covered in a sheet that he had cut two eye holes in. When Jem asked him what he was doing, Dill replied, “I’m the Holy Ghost.”
            Scout stood in the pool and Jem stood on the edge. The Holy Ghost stood next to Jem and “flapped its arms wildly.” Jem dunked Scout and had just begun to baptize her in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, when Dill’s aunt came after him with a switch. He had taken her good sheets off the bed and cut holes in them. They were taking the Lord’s name in vain. She switched him and got him out of the water, then marched him back to her house.
            Jem and Scout turned to go home, and saw their father standing there watching them. Two people were with him, the minister who had been preaching every night at the revival and his wife. [1]
            The memory goes on from there, but I’ll let you read it for yourselves.
            When I heard that scene, I laughed so hard I almost had to pull over to the side of the road. But along with being hilarious, this moment in the book is a wonderful illustration about some deep seated beliefs concerning baptism.
            Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ baptism is powerful. We meet John at the beginning of chapter 3. He came from the wilderness in Judea, and called people to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” People were coming to him to be baptized in the river Jordan. They were confessing their sins. As I understand it, baptisms or ritual cleansings were fairly common. Jesus did not institute a whole new practice when he was baptized. But when Pharisees and Sadducees came to John, he confronted them, calling them a “brood of vipers.” John went onto preach that while he baptized with water for repentance, one was coming after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
            Sometime after John preached this fiery proclamation, Jesus came to him from Galilee. Jesus came to be baptized. John not only questioned Jesus doing this, Matthew writes that John would have stopped him from being baptized.
            “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
            Jesus responded, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
            I have to be honest, I am not sure I fully understand what Jesus meant by these words. Commentators point out that Jesus coming to John was as a response to John’s message about repentance. That seems confusing, because why would Jesus need to repent of sins? There is a sense that Jesus was deliberately illustrating that his ministry chronologically followed John’s.
            Perhaps most importantly, Jesus’s words to John about letting it be, or as one commentator said, “permit it,” is not about legalism but about discipleship.
            Jesus being baptized was the beginning of his ministry. Jesus’ baptism was a declaration and a confirmation of his identity as the Son of God and as the one who issued in the kingdom of God. Certainly that became apparent when heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended on Jesus like a dove, and God’s voice was heard proclaiming that Jesus was his Son, his beloved Son. In his baptism, Jesus proclaimed who he was. It was a moment of discipleship, and it was a moment of commissioning. It was a public notice of who Jesus was, what his presence ushered in, and what he was there to do.
            At the YMCA Bible study last Thursday, I asked the people around the table to tell the stories of their baptisms. Although a couple of people spoke about being baptized as infants, most of the folks talked about being baptized as believers. It was part of the ongoing debate over which is better – believer’s baptism or infant baptism. They also spoke about being baptized and being saved. They accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and they were baptized and saved.
            I don’t argue with their understanding of baptism and salvation, but it isn’t the language that we generally use as Presbyterians. Certainly we talk about accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. We take salvation seriously. But we do not necessarily consider salvation and being born again in the same way. We baptize infants, and the reason I am comfortable and confident in doing so – my children were baptized as infants – is because we believe that God’s grace works in our lives whether we recognize it, understand it, get it or not. To be honest, I think that’s how grace works in my life all the time – not just when I was younger. I rarely recognize grace in the moment.
            Yet, looking at this story of Jesus being baptized and seeing it as a moment of identity formation, of commissioning, of giving public notice about Jesus’ ministry, is causing me to consider our baptisms in a new light. When we are baptized, whether or not we are believers or babies, our identity is being marked. As a believer, we claim that identity ourselves. As babies, the people around us promise to help us know and grow into that identity. Identity formation is a lifelong process. It is not complete at our baptisms, no matter how old we may be. But baptism marks a beginning. It is public notice that we are at the beginning of a life of discipleship, of growing into Christ, of being molded and shaped by the Spirit, of being in relationship with God and with others.
            Our baptisms are public notice, that we are a new person, that we are disciples, that we are beginning a life that is marked by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. In Go Set a Watchman, Dill dressed as the Holy Ghost stood by the fishpool and waved his arms. In our baptisms, the Holy Spirit descends on us, perhaps not as apparent as Dill or as the dove that descended on Jesus. But the Holy Spirit is there, marking us, making us, molding us. As we prepare to reaffirm our baptisms, let us once again see this moment as public notice of our discipleship and of our commissioning to be bearers of God’s love and light and hope. The world needs all three. The world needs to hear from us. This is our public notice.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

[1] “Go Set a Watchman.” Copyright © 2015 by Harper Lee. 

God Promised -- New Year's Day

Matthew 2:7-23
January 1, 2017

            If you’re anything like me, after hearing our gospel story you must be wondering, “what the heck happened to Christmas?!” Wasn’t it just seven days ago that we were listening to angel choruses? Wasn’t it just last week that we followed the shepherds to Bethlehem? Wasn’t it only 168 hours, 10,080 minutes, and 604,800 seconds since we were gathered around a manger, oohing and ahhing over a brand new baby?
            It was. But within a week’s time, everything has changed. Technically, we were not supposed to hear any of the Epiphany message this morning, but I added those earlier verses in because I felt like we needed to pay homage with the Magi, and give thanks for the coming of this new king just a little bit longer.
            Yet sadly, the birth of a baby, even the birth of Jesus, does not hold back the sadness of the world. God’s incarnation – God coming into the world as a baby, as one of us – did not forestall terrible tragedies or reign in the power of a despot king’s tyranny. It would seem that the opposite were true. God’s incarnation brought about the tragedy that unfolded. Herod was a jealous, mean, paranoid, desperate, narcissistic ruler. We know from other accounts that he would do anything, anything, to protect his seat of power. He had his own son killed because he thought Junior was trying to usurp Herod’s throne. Herod had a strange, icky sort of relationship with Salome, his wife’s daughter. What came from that relationship? John the Baptist’s head on a silver platter. So, honestly, it should be no surprise that Herod would turn to infanticide in order to protect his kingship.
            That does not negate the horror of what Herod did however. It does not diminish his abominable act against innocent children, against mothers and fathers. We may be outraged and horrified that Herod would have as many children killed as necessary in order to stop one child from growing up. We may be sickened by the thought of Herod massacring infants to prevent a child king from one day unseating him. But we should not be surprised. Jesus’ whole life and ministry was about speaking truth to power. But those in authority – those powers and principalities – fought back. They always do.
            Still, it would have been nice just to bask in the Christmas glow for a little while longer. It would have been lovely to have skipped these verses altogether. But that is what is so difficult, so challenging about Christianity. These kinds of texts present themselves to us. They confront us and our sensibilities. They demand to be read. They demand to be heard. As I understand it, being people of faith means that we have to sit with these stories, as painful as that can be. Matthew wanted his listeners, his readers to know what Herod did, what Jesus, Mary and Joseph went through. He wanted us to know these things. So we will.
            Magi, astronomers and wise men from the East, saw in the stars a Star – a Star that meant a great king had been born. Although our nativity sets and popular lore might have us believe that they showed up in the same night as the shepherds, it most likely took the magi two years to make the journey. That would explain Herod’s order to kill male children two years and younger.
            It really is amazing that these men of a different country, of a different religion, would travel so far to bring gifts to this king. As so often happens in the gospels, it is the outsiders, the others who recognize the true nature of Jesus. When these strangers finally reached Jerusalem, they went to Herod to find out the new king’s specific location. Perhaps they thought that if anyone would know the whereabouts of a baby royal, it would be another royal. But they didn’t know Herod. Unwittingly, they tipped him off about Jesus’ birth. This set in motion the terrible events that followed. Following the Star that had led them thus far, the wise men found Jesus with his parents. They brought him gifts that do not sound practical to our ears. I suspect they were not entirely practical then as well. But their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh signified that this baby boy was a king. As I said, these strangers got it.
            Dreams play a significant role in Matthew’s birth story. It was in a dream that the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph telling him to take Mary as his wife. Herod told the magi that he wanted them to return to him as soon as they found the child. That way he could pay a visit as well. But the magi were warned in a dream to not return to Herod, so they went home by another way. And for a second time, Joseph was visited by the angel of the Lord in a dream, warning him to take Mary and the baby and flee from the nightmare Herod was about to unleash.
            Joseph obeyed. He and his family fled for their lives. Didn’t they do what all refugees do? Their own homeland was so dangerous, that they fled to a place, anyplace, that would give them some shelter. As many times as I have read and heard this story, I never gave much consideration to the place where the young family fled: Egypt. When I visited Egypt, I saw signs of buildings proclaiming that this was the spot where the Holy Family stayed – or this one – or this one. But think about it. They fled to Egypt. Egypt was the land where their ancestors once fled. It was in Egypt where they were enslaved and abused. There another king ordered the death of children in order to protect his power. Yet, for Joseph, Mary and Jesus Egypt was safer than Bethlehem. Egypt was safer than Jerusalem. Egypt was safer than Israel. A land of strangers was safer than home.
            The real problem of this entire story is this: the magi were warned in a dream; Joseph was warned in a dream, but what about the parents of those children who were killed? Why weren’t they warned? Why did they not get a chance to flee, to protect their babies? Did God not care? Did God manipulate the events so that Jesus would be saved at any cost? I know that other folks believe that this is an example of God being in complete control. It’s terrible what Herod did, but everything happens for a reason. People suffer for a reason. Terrible things have always happened for a reason.
            But to that I have to say, “no.” I don’t believe Herod was God’s puppet. I think Herod was an awful man, an evil man, who did evil things. Were those children killed, were those families torn apart, because that’s what God wanted? No. I just can’t believe that. God made promises to God’s people, covenants. God promised that Abraham would have more descendents than the stars in the sky. God promised that God would be with God’s people. God promised to be with us, no matter what. God promised to be present in our lives, in times of joy and times of suffering – especially, I think, in the suffering. As terrible as it is to think about, Jesus’ birth brought about suffering. Because the powers and principalities always fight back. That was true then, and it is true now. The powers and principalities of the world fight back when truth is spoken to them. They fight back when they are threatened. Herod was a fearful, paranoid ruler, and he acted out of fear.
Fear still abounds. How often do we respond to the events around fearfully? How often are our actions guided by fear? Every night before our family goes to bed, I make sure the house and our cars are securely locked. I leave on outside lights to discourage people from trying to get into the house. Those kinds of actions stem as much from common sense as they do from fear. But fear drives me in so many ways. Fear keeps me from speaking out and acting and living. Fear lulls me into the belief that I, through my own power and will, can make myself secure. I can keep my kids completely safe. I can prevent all bad things from happening – to them or to me.
But we all know that’s not real. All fear really does is keep me from living the life God called me to live, from being the person God called me to be. God did not call us to be fearful. God called us to be hopeful. God did not promise that our lives of faith would be easy or free from tragedy or suffering. But God did promise that God would be with us. I don’t believe that God wants his children to suffer; but I do believe that in God our suffering is redeemed. God promised that God would be with us.
On this first day of this New Year, with the reality that suffering is alive and well all around us, we are called to be hopeful. We are called to live lives of courage – courage that is born of faith. We are called to live in hope, not because it is easy, but because God promised.

Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.