Would Jesus Go To the Inauguration?

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To ask the question presumes much.  What would a 2000 year old Galilean rabbi, make of a presidential inauguration in a part of the world no one believed existed until a thousand years after his death?  Would the rabbi understand the idea of democracy?  Had the Athenian ideal made it to the mean streets of Nazareth and through the lower Galilee?

I’m not even sure the founders of our republic would know what to do with our current inaugural spectacle.  The Constitution was written before the advent of electricity, indoor plumbing, and in a time when slavery was accepted.  I doubt whether they could have ever imagined much of what’s going to transpire over the next few days when they laid the foundations of the United States of America.

I do believe that Jesus can shed some light on the events of recent days.  Over forty democratic members of Congress have announced their intention not to attend the inauguration of President-elect Trump.  More may follow suit.  Some like Congressman John Lewis have called his nascent presidency “Illegitimate”.   Where is Jesus in the midst of the never ending partisan rancor?  Is he on the sidelines, like the angry middle school basketball coach, yelling to his kids, “Suck it up, you lost this one, now go over there and shake their hands like real men. Humiliation after painful losses builds character.”    In other words, it’s just how it’s done.  The “peaceful transition of power” is how grown-ups talk about being a good sport.

Or. is Jesus telling us some other simplistic answer?  Jesus said unto those unhappy millions, “Take your ball and go home.”  “No,” Jesus continued, “thou doth not have to play with those who thou deemest to be meaneth, lying, and overly amicable to the Slavic King.”  No, I’m not sure that’s Jesus’ light on the moment.

When Jesus speaks to power, it is stark, complex, and subtle.  Here’s what I do know, if you’re ready to take Jesus’ side in a political and social argument don’t bring a tuxedo or ball gown.  Prepare to be crucified.  If you stand with Jesus, before political power, you should be prepared to face death.  Jesus’ inauguration moment comes at the end of his natural life.  As he’s ending his “work”, from our perspective, he’s “inaugurating” the kingdom of God with his death and resurrection.

The high point of the inauguration comes when Jesus is brought into palace of the Roman Governor.  He tells Pilate in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world”.   Jesus comes to his own inauguration inside the palace of the man representing the Roman Emperor.  The Kingdom of God is inaugurated in a Roman Palace and the only guest is the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.  In his inaugural address, Jesus explains the contrast between a violent and nonviolent kingdom.

The governor sees it the other way round.  He is the solider, hero of the legions, veteran of the German wars, governor of a province of Rome, and this man is his prisoner.  This is not the case.  Pontius Pilate has a front row seat for the inauguration of the kingdom of God.

From the first moment, as Jesus refuses to answer Pilate’s questions, the governor realizes the tables are turned.  When the most powerful man in the country feels the need to remind Jesus, “Do you not know that I have the power to release you, and to crucify you?” he’s lost control.  Jesus tells him, “You wouldn’t have any power unless it too had come from above.”  Power doesn’t frighten life.  Truth listens to my voice.  Who placed who here?  What fate, something the Roman would have trusted, led him to this moment?  Standing before Jesus, the moral certainties of the maddening crowd were nothing like questions in Pilate’s mind.  Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?”

Jesus turned the tables at his inauguration.  In what appeared to be defeat, the kingdom of God took hold in the least likely place before the most unlikely person.  The Good News is that we have crosses to bare, scripts to flip, tables to turn, and truth to reflect.  How best do we do this?  Pray, stand with Jesus, stop following the crowd, and if Pilate asks you a question, you don’t have to take the bait.

The Messy Truth about Leo Tolstoy and Saint Paul: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

 

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Лев Толстой

ВОЙНА И МИР

ТОМ ПЕРВЫЙ

ЧАСТЬ ПЕРВАЯ

I
— Eh bien, mon prince. Gênes et Lucques ne sont plus que des apanages, des поместья, de la famille Buonaparte. Non, je vous préviens que si vous ne me dites pas que nous avons la guerre, si vous vous permettez encore de pallier toutes les infamies, toutes les atrocités de cet Antichrist (ma parole, j’y crois) — je ne vous connais plus, vous n’êtes plus mon ami, vous n’êtes plus мой верный раб, comme vous dites 1. Ну, здравствуйте, здравствуйте. Je vois que je vous fais peur 2, садитесь и рассказывайте.Так говорила в июле 1805 года известная Анна Павловна Шерер, фрейлина и приближенная императрицы Марии Феодоровны, встречая важного и чиновного князя Василия, первого приехавшего на ее вечер. Анна Павловна кашляла несколько дней, у нее был грипп, как она говорила (грипп был тогда новое слово, употреблявшееся только редкими). В записочках, разосланных утром с красным лакеем, было написано без различия во всех:«Si vous n’avez rien de mieux à faire, Monsieur le comte (или mon prince), et si la perspective de passer la soirée chez une pauvre malade ne vous effraye pas trop, je serai charmée de vous voir chez moi entre 7 et 10 heures. Annette Scherer» 3.— Dieu, quelle virulente sortie! 4 — отвечал, нисколько не смутясь такою встречей, вошедший князь, в придворном, шитом мундире, в чулках, башмаках и звездах, с светлым выражением плоского лица.

-the opening paragraphs to War and Peace

I remember sitting in a third year Russian language class and the professor handing out photocopied selections of War and Peace in the original Russian. I was told that we, (about six or seven other people in the room) were going to “read” this together.  I still remember, verbatim, the words that went through my head.  “She expects me to read this, War and Peace, in Russian.”  It didn’t matter this was a Russian class and I’d sat there for two years.  The idea itself seemed intimidating enough.  We opened our packets and there it was, staring right back at us, a huge paragraph in French.  French was taught in the Romance languages department down the hall.  We were in the Department of German, Russian, and Japanese.  We were affectionately called the department of enemy languages.   Thankfully, our professor walked us through it.

It is an amazing way to begin one of the greatest works of Russian literature.  The first paragraph of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (a novel centered on Russia’s early 19th century war with Napoleon) is written in French.  If you, as the reader, wish to fully appreciate the conflicted hearts and minds of Russian nobles who will lead the Czar’s armies into war, we begin in the mind of a French speaking Russian.  At first, it doesn’t make sense.  If these people hate the French, why do they idolize their culture and regard the French language as epitome of knowledge.  To answer these questions, to go beyond these surface levels tensions, we must read on.

Though not nearly as long, 1st Corinthians is the War and Peace of the early church.  Paul’s words paint a picture of the definitive struggle between warring factions, love, hate, peace, and identity that define the church to this day.  Written by a multi-lingual, religiously conflicted genius at war with the culture around him; Saint Paul is a 1st century Tolstoy trying to tell a story of struggle, in letter form, to a divided church in Corinth.

In many ways, I think the two works can inform and shed light on one another.  The opening, the scripture we read this morning, sets the tone for the rest of the letter.  Despite the extreme experiences which are to follow (and there will be many), these words provide the boundaries for every subsequent ballroom dance, battlefield, dinner, worship service, and meeting.  In 1st Corinthians, God’s grace shapes everything.  In the formless void we inhabit, grace creates the divine edges and meaning to otherwise shapeless and meaningless lives.  Paul acknowledges how good we have it; how well off we are.  Like the Russian nobles on the edge of Napoleon’s invasion, we’re blind to our blessings, privilege, wealth, and well-being.  It is only when God’s grace moves in from the edges, providing some correction to our spiritual nearsightedness, do we gain any perspective as to how good things really are.  Paul wants us to realize our blessings now.  It takes Natasha Rostova a journey of 500,000 words to make the same journey.

Paul reminds us that “you were made rich in everything; in all you communication and every kind of knowledge.”  In the same way, “you aren’t missing any kind of spiritual gift while we wait for the Lord to be revealed.”  We are blessed in innumerable ways, are we aware of enough of God’s grace in our lives to appreciate these blessings?  Paul doesn’t think so.  Why do we lack such awareness?  We’ve changed.  The church is Corinth has changed.

Both War and Peace and 1st Corinthians are about people coping with change.  One doesn’t go through these life altering experiences and remain the same.  None of the characters (who survive) are the same people as they were at the beginning of War and Peace.  Paul says will go on to say in chapter 13 being a believer alters your perspective on everything.

Everybody is in the same boat.  We’re all part of the body of Christ with unique gifts to offer.  That’s a central message 1st Corinthians 1 lays the groundwork for.  Tolstoy says it this way:  there is no hero or heroine.  Andrei Bolkonsky is not Tolstoy’s hero nor is Natasha Rostova the heroine, they’re just people caught up in trying to live the best way they know how in strange times.  This is what Paul calls his Corinthian congregation to do.  Live the best way you know how, with God’s grace as the defining feature, in these strange times we call the present.  Paul and Tolstoy both grasp on to this idea I call the “wildness of possibility”.  The possibilities of the present are wild and untamed.   The possibilities of how wild God will be in our lives also hinges on our willingness to engage with God’s doings, happenings, and goings on.  Tolstoy writes his novel from the perspective of one particular observer.  In this way, the story passes from mind to mind.  How would God’s story look if it were only told from one perspective?  Paul says to the Corinthians, “You were called by him to partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord”.  You were called to take up the baton; your turn is coming in a page or two, to tell the story.

Once you get past the uplifting opening, where Paul talked about partnership, it’s going to get ugly.  You’ll read about people doing decidedly unchristian things.  There will be people with unchristian attitudes.  In War and Peace, there are characters I love and characters I hate.  Some people pull on my heartstrings and every ounce of sympathy I can muster.  Natasha is at times likeable at other times she is an insufferable bore.  The Corinthians fighting about who can eat with them and be served communion come across as the pettiest, most juvenile people in the ancient world.  They get on my last nerve.  At other times, I’m bored to tears as Paul writes to them about true love.  I’ve heard it thousands of times.  I roll my eyes.  But like any good work of literature, there are times when I come back, re-read favorite passages, and Natasha isn’t a bore and 1st Corinthians 13 makes me cry.  Paul doesn’t give up on them; God doesn’t give up on us.  We keep reading through the hard parts.

Love comes into the picture.  Love is the circus hoop through which history is made to leap again and again.  To paraphrase Paul, If there are not love stories in Tolstoy and if I write sermons and have no love, I have nothing.  Love binds each word together from the first verse forward.  Without love, there is no story to tell.  The spiritual gifts, the grace, the knowledge; it all originates in love.

You may disagree with Paul at some point.  You’ll certainly disagree with Tolstoy.  At some point, you may start to believe, as I do, that War and Peace contradicts the author himself.  Both Paul and Tolstoy want you to ask good, hard questions about what they’ve written and how it might change your life.  Does history determine our fate or can we live otherwise?  These books want you to argue with yourself before your tie your hands and jump into a box handed to you by the Greco-Roman tradition, Russian aristocracy, or 21st century digital culture.

Back to the opening:  I hated that opening sentence.  It was awful.  I think it is the worst opening of any major novel, ever.  For the record, I think Look Homeward, Angel may the best.   The closing sentence of is also the worst by a country mile.  It’s nonsense.  In the middle, that’s where the greatness lies.  Paul’s great opening, doesn’t clue you into the nasty awesomeness to follow.  The reading stops short of taking us to the meat of Chapter One.  Openings and closings mean nothing, no matter how well written, unless you read the book in between.  That’s where history gets made and lives are changed.

 

Mayberry Isn’t A Healthy Place To Live

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Sara Pulliam Bailey’s trip to Mount Airy spurred some of my own reflections about growing up in small town North Carolina, watching the Andy Griffith Show, and why nostalgia is dangerous.

Mayberry wasn’t all it was cracked up it to be.  To those of us who grew up in North Carolina, in communities which mirrored Mayberry’s ethos and identified with the show, we know the program’s depiction of life in the rural south reflects a version of life in North Carolina which has never existed.

I am fan. I’ve seen every episode.  I think the Andy Griffith show is one of the defining television programs in post-war television.  However, I don’t believe The Andy Griffith Show paints an accurate picture of what life was like in mid-century America, my home state of North Carolina, or holds up ideals to which America needs to return.

I don’t want to return to a segregated America or North Carolina.  Mayberry is a segregationist paradise; white South Africans, Klansmen, and George Wallace would feel right at home.  There are no minorities in Mayberry.  To hold Mayberry up as a model is to implicit hold segregation as the ideal American way of life.  If we argue Mayberry represents a simpler way of life, when things are better; we are arguing that things were better when black and whites lived legally divided lives.  I would have loved to have seen an episode where Andy enforced the desegregation of the local school.

To be a paradise, did you ever notice the number of thieves and con artists who make their way through Mayberry?  What was it about this sleepy village which made them prey to criminal activity?  Studies show that older, lonely, desperate, indebted people are more likely to fall victim to scams than others.  Mayberry was a community of older people.  This we know.  However, viewers were often presented with the image of a healthy community where everyone knew and looked out for each other.  This wasn’t the case.  Gossip was rampant, isolation was common, and many families were often on the brink of economic collapse.  The few wealthy individuals in the town were willing to manipulate the city’s debt to increase their own share of political power in the community.  These were the reasons Mayberry’s way of life was always at risk.  No one really looked out for each other.  Businessmen were willing to gamble with the lives of their employees.  Only Andy’s use of shame and guilt created any sense of morality larger than the community’s own self-interests.  This was not a healthy place to live.

I currently serve a small community much like Mayberry.  I live in rural North Carolina.  The local school has no cafeteria.   Our children come home for lunch each day.  No one locks their doors at night.  I’m the pastor of the cute white church.  People sit on their porches at night, play their guitars, and sing folk songs.  We have an extremely limited presence of law enforcement.  Our town drunks are both beloved and belligerent.  Paradise is word frequently used to describe where I live.  “How it used to be,” is why people come here.  Even in our modern day Mayberry, we’ve had heroin dealing, suicides, and an alleged sexual assault all this past year.  Mayberry has real problems, problems that would be easy to ignore and a lifestyle even easier to idealize.  Except, on the journey from ignorance to idealization, real people get hurt and some even die.  Andy doesn’t show up in the end to make it all better.

While we’re wistfully longing for the past, the world is going to hell.  It’s not going to get any better by hoping the status quo returns to flawed versions of the nonexistent past.  The Kingdom of God, the one Jesus said was coming, doesn’t look like Mayberry.  If you want a TV show analogy, I’d say it’s going to look like the Beverly Hillbillies.

Lord, I Can’t Talk to You if You Keep Starting Floods and Forest Fires (Psalm 29)

 

Flooding following Hurricane Matthew on Ocracoke Island, NC

Flooding after Hurricane Matthew-Ocracoke Island, NC

When we encounter the Psalms in worship, whether sung or through responsive readings, we rarely have time to think about what we’re saying.  I’m usually the person leading them and I’m more concerned about pausing at the right place so I don’t talk over the congregational responses and making sure I pronounce the words properly.  I become very self-conscious if I mangle a Psalm.

Not every Psalm in the lectionary (or the Bible) is included in the United Methodist Hymnal.  Always remember to double check; it may pop up on the list but not be in the hymnal we read from on Sunday morning.  To be lyric, beautiful, and poignant Hebrew poetry the Psalms are labor intensive.  Even the shortest refrain can be a challenging read. Your brain is on to the next word or note without considering the words you’re saying.

It’s nice to spend some time with the Psalm before it goes into the bulletin.  Many weeks, I simply trust the lectionary.  That works most of the time.  Occasionally, I pick the lectionary Psalm (and since I’m not preaching on it) and not look at it again until Sunday morning.  Next thing you know, you’re reading about slaughter, blood, guts, gore and stuff that’s not quite the thing for middle class Methodists in the rural south.  It’s not only a good idea to read ahead, thematically speaking.  Sometimes, it’s good to read the Psalm and ask, “What in the hell is this trying to say?”  If you create a speed bump, you might slow down long enough to ask, “What did our ancestors believe?” or “Were the people who wrote these verses serious about this?”  Because, if they’re (that is the writer or writers) saying some crazy stuff and you think about all the strange things said in our world today, maybe it echoes in a really familiar way.  As strange as it sounds, perhaps this little bit of poetry is too important to roll by, repeat in a chant like manner, and forget it for another cycle.  What if we were to read it one word at a time, as strange as that sounds?  I mean to really slow down and ask, “What is this poem saying about God and how God interacts with the world?”

For people accustomed to living with and through natural disasters, these are tough words to read.  However, if you’ve lived a sheltered life and never experienced any kind of “act of God”, you may read these words as an awesome mission statement of God’s abilities and where to see the evidence of God’s power.   Some of the phrases in the Psalm sound like Christian cliché’s we like to throw around as metaphors for God’s awesomeness.  “The Lord’s voice is strong,” the writer says in one verse.  He goes on to tell you how strong:  so strong that it can break trees, kill livestock, and start forest fires.  If you’ve never been through a fire, earthquake, mad cow disease in Britain (where I saw piles and piles of dead cows burning in the English countryside), stuff like that sounds great.  You want to buy T-shirts, bracelets, and tote bags to tell the world of God’s fierceness when it comes to the natural world.

On the other hand, if you’ve seen a flood or two, lost your home, and watched cows burn these words might cause you to pause.  Wait a minute.  Whoa!  What are we saying?  Is God’s (voice) behind these events?  If God’s voice (his means of communication-your voice is how you talk, right?) how will we ever be heard over the fires, jumping cows, and breaking trees?

The Psalm begins as an address to divine beings.  There are other divine beings beside God.  We miss things like this if we don’t read one word at a time.  The Psalm says, “Divine beings”.  Are they angels?  I don’t know.  Honestly, there’s no good answer.  Could it be an implicit recognition of the Gods of neighboring countries and an acclamation that the Israelite God is the highest God?  That’s a good guess, though it’s hard to say.  It’s is possible to say that the Israelites had a much more expansive view of divinity than we do.   We worship stuff, things, power, wealth, and so on.  The Israelites inherited the cosmology of the Canaanites, Egyptians, Babylonians, and others.  There was one real God, their God.  Everyone else lived their lives surrounded by multiple Gods.  The Israelites didn’t wipe out or extinguish the faith of others but they also stood firmly by what they believed.  This Psalm acknowledges:  we live in a world with competing loyalties, affiliations, and beliefs.  It is possible to praise God and be in some kind of relationship with God, despite the existence these divine beings which aren’t God.  While close to God and divine, they are not God.  The Psalm seems to being trying to remind us who God is.

It’s important, that in the course of being reminded “Who God Is”, we also think about our own identity.  We’re not the divine beings.  We’re like the broken and despised, waiting by the Jordan for some sort of sign from God.  We are waiting on God.  Show us who you are, God.

This is a noisy Psalm.  Man, is it a bunch of racket.  It is hard to give the level of praise and glory the Psalmist demands in silence.  The last book of the Bible is full of choirs of angels, singing, trumpets, and music.  The Psalm is a hymn, after all, designed to be sung.  This amount of praise and bowing by divine beings reminds me of Revelation.  Out of this commotion and clatter we hear God’s voice and witness the effects of God speaking.

At first glance, it sounds like God is on quite the rampage.  Nothing God created is safe from his voice; which is to say the Psalmist outlines a picture of God’s conversation with creation as one to which we are not a party.  When God speaks, there seems to be little love or life.  The volume ratchets up quickly, with the Lord’s voice thundering over the waters.  Soon the cedars trees break, cows are jumping, and then fiery flames roar the wilderness.  The roar of the rage is deafening.  I think the most important question I can ask about this Psalm is this:  How can you have a conversation with anyone who’s screaming at you?  Is it possible to talk to someone who claims they love you but causes you to fear for your life?  Victims of domestic abuse would say no.  How are we to dialogue with anyone, group, constituency, or friend if we’re not being heard?  Reading this Psalm feels like I’m being shaken within an inch of my life by someone who says they love me and then tries to prove it by destroying the world they built for me to inhabit.  It feels wrong, abusive, and sad.  It’s an awful message for the church to preach but one we need to hear, especially as we move forward.   Psalm 29 reflects the deepest fears of those who’ve grown weary of the church’s attempts reform by committees.  Yet, it reminds us how comfortable we are with the “God is an angry white man who destroys things” image that has dominated our thought for 2000 years.

The Psalm concludes with a word of encouragement.   “The Lord gives strength to his people”.  Where does this strength come from? Does it come from the ashes of forest fires or from the mold growing in our flooded homes?  No, I don’t think so.  I’ve seen strength grow from the adversity of natural disasters.  That part is true.  Does that come from God or someplace deep within?  Again, I don’t know.  People pull through.  Verse 10 says that the “Lord sits enthroned over the floodwaters”.  I don’t want the Lord sitting enthroned over the floodwaters.  I want him out of his chair and in the water with me, walking through the mud and the muck.  I want the Lord to stand with me in the water.

Jesus will and he does.  As we, the broken, victimized, and abused look on from the banks of the Jordan; Jesus waits in the water.  He invites us to stand with him.  We come not to be made physically clean but to become the people God made us to be.  In dirty water and surrounded by silence, we learn that God’s love is unconditional.   Is standing in the water, ashes, and fields; in solidarity with those whom Jesus chose to identify with a possible way forward?  I hope so.

More About Those Who Get My Goat

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  1. Goat getters who tell me that Snoop Dogg gave Willie Nelson a Marijuana themed sweater. This does not make my day any better.  I do not need to know, nor do I care.  Remove yourself from my feed, goats.  News like this, I can no longer bare.
  2. Goat getters who tell me they’ve already screwed up their New Year’s Resolutions. Please, take my goat; to your failure it is my contribution.Goat getters unable to turn the page on Mariah Carey’s New Year’s Eve. Take that goat, and shove it off stage.Goat getters who tell me that “Gone Goat” and “Goat on a Train” aren’t good ideas for Goat themed novels. You may goat elsewhere to read, if you please.  Goatless and alone, I grovel.
  3. Goat getters who are thermostat Hitlers. Take my goat and be cold all Winter.
  4. Goat getters who sneak around confusing “Purpose” with “Meaning”. I mean for you to go Goat, Go! Do you see the strength of my feelings?

–Richard Bryant

Hacking King Herod (Matthew 2:13-23)

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This scripture is about genocide, refugees, and power  In this way, it is also front page news.  I do not mean genocide as a conspiracy theory.  I mean the modern day version; thousands of years before television cameras could cover such suffering.   All of this, not happening to nameless people on the news, but to the child who we worship as the Savior of the world.   To be honest, we have a dog in this fight. Our sweet baby Jesus was a refugee torn born into homelessness and taken into statelessness.  Our story compels us to care for Christians, Muslims, and refugees of all faiths.

To say these verses are about one thing is to sell the passage short.  It is not about the wise men or their three symbolic gifts.  I can’t clean this up, make it funny, draw a cute analogy, or somehow turn it around into an inspirational life lesson on the power of awesome New Year’s Resolutions.  That’s because my conscience won’t let me do it, the text is clear, and current events have brought the past, present, and future together-in this reading.  It is what it is.

 

At first glance, this story appears to be all about the Wise Men.  We don’t even know there were three.  The Bible doesn’t say, “There were three wise men”.  Look anywhere you want, it’s not there.  We assume, because three gifts were presented, there must have been three people.  That’s a pretty weak assumption.  There could have been five of fifteen.  The number of gifts didn’t have to correlate to the number of people.  Again, something we’ve made up (3 guys at the stable on the night of Jesus’ birth), which didn’t happen but most people would swear is the gospel truth.  The guys, probably more than one didn’t arrive until perhaps 2 years after Jesus was born.  At Christmas and Epiphany, we compress time to tell a story but we sometimes play with the facts because we’re in a hurry to open presents.   That makes me nervous because if we’ll believe on tiny thing about the Bible that’s not there, who knows what else we might be led to embrace.

The Wise Men are minor characters, providing a backdrop and context to what King Herod already believes.  Herod knows he’s unpopular, overly dependent on Rome, and living on borrowed time.  The Wise Men show up and give fuel to his already anxious ego that his life and power are threatened from all sides.  In Herod’s mind, the information he’s received from the Wise Men and his own theologians/advisors can only point to one thing:  a revolution to overthrow him beginning in Bethlehem.  Herod will do anything to survive.  Does he understand he’s dealing with a child?  Children are powerful symbols of hope, particularly those supported by interpretation of important scriptures.  He will take no chances.

Herod bears all the hallmarks of a fascist imperial dictator, in the model of his Roman overlords.  What will he do to stay in power?  First, he manipulates the control and dissemination of information.  Look at Matthew 2:8.  He tells the Wise Men disinformation, propaganda, something other than his true intentions.  He plants a fake news story.  “Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  That’s step one.

The second step occurs earlier in the chapter.  Herod reads the religious texts, interpreted by the scribes and the Pharisees, literally.  If the Bible said “ruler”, it could only mean a ruler as he was a “ruler”, in the full kingly sense of the word.  This overly literal reading of scripture would lead to thousands of innocent people dying.

Herod must control both information and people for his plans to succeed.    In contrast, Jesus and his family have control of nothing.  They are solely dependent on God’s direction.  They can’t count on the Wise Men.  Funny how they don’t offer them asylum in their country or shelter them somewhere to the east? They are gone in an instant and nowhere when you need a friend; that’s the wise men.

Herod’s plan was simple: kill anyone who fit the description of the new ruler as defined by the scripture (it happened to be from the book of Micah) the Chief Priests and Scribes gave to Herod.  This means all male children under the age of two.  How could Herod be certain he killed the right child unless he killed all the children?  It is illegal in Jewish law, at this time, for a death sentence to be passed without a sentence being handed down from the Sanhedrin, that is, a court.  The dictator Herod, the fascist, has no use for the rule of law.  It’s called genocide and just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t make it any less horrific.

Joseph receives better information than the Wise Men.  Did you notice this?  This story, the survival of Jesus hinges on the flow of timely and accurate information.    It’s important to tell God’s story as well as we can.  An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him of Herod’s plans.  Joseph hears the truth.  I know it’s easy to miss the angels in our lives but who pays attention to their dreams?  Before Freud introduced the idea, Joseph was listening to his subconscious.  Here’s where listening becomes important.  “Get up, take the child to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”  Two words jump straight out this verse.  Herod is on a search and destroy mission.  This will be a house to house search to destroy those he fears most:  children.  Jesus, our Lord and Savior, become a refugee.  In the middle of the night, he and his family flee their country.  That’s a big deal.

Herod eventually realizes the Wise Men have skipped town.  Without the cover of their legitimacy, he has no reason to feign mercy?  At once, the slaughter begins.  The Bible is clear, “He sent and killed all the children in around Bethlehem who were two years old or under according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.”  What do we do with this kind of horror?

Matthew tells us these actions fulfilled something Jeremiah wrote six hundred years before Jesus, Mary, Joseph, or King Herod were born.  He quotes Jeremiah 31:15.  It’s a passage in which Jeremiah refers to the removal of the people of Judah to Babylon as captives.  Ramah is where the captives were gathered prior to their physical removal to Babylon.  Jeremiah is asking Rachel (an ancestor to both he and Jesus) to weep for her descendents as they are deported.  It works but it doesn’t fit.  Jeremiah wasn’t talking about mass, genocidal slaughter of children.  He was, however, referring to the mass exile of the people of Judah.  Jeremiah didn’t have Jesus in mind when he wrote those words.

What was Matthew thinking by quoting Jeremiah?  Why try to explain away, with scripture, the actions of a genocidal madman?  One or two verses of scripture, taken out of context, shouldn’t justify the deaths of countless children?  What’s most troubling about this passage is the appearance of divinely ordained and God sanctioned death.   How many innocent people died in the wake of the Wise Men’s visit?  In order for Jesus to be saved, that’s even strange to say, “Save Jesus” (we usually say it the other way around), innocent people had to die.  It’s the exact opposite of salvation.  In Matthew 2, God appears to allow innocent children to die while forcing Jesus and his family to become refugees, and leaving Herod on the throne for a few more years.  I think it’s wrong for Matthew to use scripture and send the idea that God kills innocent people.  If that’s who God really is, I’m not sure that’s the God I want to worship.  It’s a message to us:  we need to be careful about what actions we do and do not attribute to God.  In 2017, everything good thing that happens to us won’t be the result of God’s will.  Nor will the bad things be signs of evil working in our lives.  Sometimes our days just stink.

For all of his very real flaws, what was Matthew trying to do?  Matthew had Moses on the brain.  For Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses.  He’s sent to re-deliver the Israelite people from bondage.  His whole book is built around this theme.  The Sermon on the Mount, that’s your new 10 commandments.  Moses came out of Egypt and entered the Promised Land.  If Jesus is the new Moses, Matthew needs to tell this story in a way that shows Jesus coming out of Egypt, as a savior and lawgiver, just like Moses.    This is why I believe much of Matthew 2 is parable designed to show Jesus in this light.  The book’s stories and themes resonated with Matthew’s Jewish audiences in ways Christian readers still don’t understand.  It’s a story about the boy, being persecuted by a modern day pharaoh, who comes back home from Egypt to make things right.    It’s a mish-mash of ideas and stories designed to show this one child as the successor to Moses.

Is it history or parable?  Maybe it’s a little bit of both.  It is a cautionary tale about unchecked political power, the misuse of information, foreign diplomats influencing local kings, genocide, and refugees.  We are reminded that the distance between here and there is not very long indeed.  It is a story of what happens when we paint a picture of God with too broad a brush and don’t ask the right questions when we’re done.  Does this picture really look like the God we love?  If not, then we need to go back to Sunday School. Ultimately, it’s a parable about Israel, Moses, Jesus, freedom, liberation, and God’s ongoing work to bring salvation into the darkest corners of the human soul.