Honoring the Child:
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Susan Allison-Hatch
Preachers often end up preaching to themselves. It might be a workplace hazard or maybe a gift of the calling. I’m never quite sure. I think it cuts both ways. This week, I found myself reflecting on gifts of grace I’d received in the last year. One stood out. A moment at St. Martin’s, the day shelter where I now work and where many of you have served in the last twenty-five years.
I was standing by the desk where Sister Agnes hands out numbers for the food line. As I surveyed the room, my eye was drawn to a family seated in front of a big inflatable snow globe towards the back of the room. A man tapping his cane on the floor and woman with a child on her lap. The child’s stroller parked to the mother’s side. A tableaux really. I walked up to the father and asked if I could join them. He pointed to a chair, and I sat down. The mother drew her child close to her breast, rhythmically stroked his head, and began to sing Silent Night. At that moment a man walking through the room stopped to watch and listen. He stood there for a few minutes and then turned to me and softly said, “This is what it’s all about.”
He was so right. A family out on the streets seeking refuge in a day shelter. A sick child—vulnerable and at risk. A father and mother doing the best they can to find a safe place to raise their child. Around them people others often overlook. Outside the doors, a precarious and sometimes indifferent and sometimes dangerous world. A world not far from the world to which Christ was born; a world light years away from a snow globe nativity scene.
I find it comforting to focus on the nativity scene—the angels singing, the shepherds bowing, the cattle lowing, the baby sleeping and, later, the Magi bearing gifts. Folks honoring the child. It gives me peace; it brings me hope. But that bucolic scene belies the world to which the Christ child came. There’s more to the story. Much more
There’s the Gospel we hear today. The story of the Magi returning by a different way because King Herod was determined to destroy the baby born in Bethlehem. The story of Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt so that they might raise their child in safety. The story of their return to Israel and their settling in Nazareth of Galilee, a place far below the radar screen of those that might harm their child.
But the Gospel we hear today is not the whole story. There’s still more. Here’s the story Matthew told:
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “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.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 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.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
I think we have to wonder why our lectionary leaves out that middle passage. Some say it’s because there is no outside evidence confirming the historicity of the slaughter of the innocents. And yet I wonder if the passage doesn’t point to a deeper truth about Herod the King and the terror he unleashed on those over whom he ruled.
The world in which Jesus was born, the world to which the Christ Child came, was very very harsh indeed. Men lost their land and livelihood to debt and were forced to find work as day laborers wherever they could find it. Women and children begged on the streets. Men were drafted into the occupier’s army; women and children sold into slavery. Violence was omnipresent. Death by starvation was never far away—especially for the most vulnerable—the widows, the infirm, and the least of all—the children. No wonder Rachel weeps; no wonder Joseph flees.
There is a cost to omitting the story of the slaughter of the innocents, for that story underscores just how vulnerable children are and points to how important they are to Jesus’ reign.
This last week, I’ve found myself looking at the Gospel through the lens of childhood, reading the Gospel from the perspective of Bethlehem’s children. It’s amazing the view that emerges:
*Jesus carrying out his healing work with children—the daughter of a synagogue leader, the epileptic son, the daughter of a Canaanite woman, the children on whom he lays his healing hands;
*Jesus pointing to children as he answers the question, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”;
*Jesus rebuking his disciples when they attempt to push away the children saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as thesethat the kingdom of heaven belongs.”
Remember how Jesus ends his last sermon, the sermon he gave as he was sitting on the Mount of Olives? Remember his answer to the question the Righteous ones pose? They ask him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink….” He answers them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” “The least of these”—in Jesus’ time the children were the least.
When we look at our world through the lens of childhood, when we stand at the scene of the slaughtered innocents, we cannot help but ask, “What path are we taking—the path that Herod took, the path that destroys the child, or the path that Joseph took, the path that nurtures the child, the path that cares for the least among us?”
The singer, song-writer and philosopher Raffi Cavoukian talks about a way of living in our world. He calls it “Child Honoring” by which he means making the vital decisions of life “through the lens of what best serves the needs of young children”(Child Honoring, xii). Child Honoring—a way of following the path that Joseph took, a way of living that fosters the well-being of all by fostering the well-being of the least of all, a way of doing our best to prevent the slaughter of innocents.
There are so many ways to honor the children. There are so many ways to follow the path that Joseph took. We honor the children when we buy green; we honor the children when we live not within our means but within our needs; we honor the children when we raise questions about how our city and state and national governments make decisions about allocating scarce resources; we honor our children when we refuse to avert our eyes from the hard realities our children often face; and we honor our children when we act to stop the violence in their lives and in our world.
Today is the second Sunday of Christmas—a season that calls us to honor the child—the child born in Bethlehem, the child in each of us, the children of our world, and the children yet to come. The children for whom the angels sing; the children for whom Rachel weeps. ’Tis the season to honor the Child–a season that has no end. Thanks be to God.