This is my sermon for today. I finished it Saturday night, but this morning something wouldn't leave me alone - a conversation with a friend that I had last week. You'll see if you read it.
And yet….and yet. Probably not many Episcopalians know what day we observed on Friday. Anybody here? And if you do know what day Friday was, did you know before you read your Episcopal Calendar? On Friday, we Christians who observe such things marked the day that commemorates the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. It’s that day when Herod, in a paranoid rage about the birth of the “new king,” sent his troops in to slaughter “all the children in or around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.” You can read about that in Matthew, Chapter 2, verses 16-18. It’s when an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream (I love the way Matthew includes so many dreams) and told him to take Mary and Jesus into Egypt, to escape the slaughter. I’m not sure why we celebrate it before Epiphany, before the coming of the Magi, since it was that occasion on which Herod learned of this “new king” and sent the Magi to find him. The Magi, having also had a dream, “left for their own country by another road,” and that’s when Herod, in his paranoid rage, slaughtered the innocents. Perhaps we celebrate it now for the very reason of seeing the shadows in the light of Christmas, and the light of the miracle amidst the horror. Herod, from the distance of 2 millennia, seems pretty much like a monster. Who would slaughter innocent children? And this year when we commemorate Holy Innocents, many of us can’t help but think of Newtown Connecticut, two weeks ago.
On Friday I had a conversation that I can’t get out of my head. A friend of mine was insisting that Adam Lanza, the shooter of those children, is a monster – a mysteriously malformed, mutant human being who we can never understand. And I kept insisting that he was a human being, not so terribly different than the rest of us human beings. I guess I was too steeped in my thoughts of how God would see Adam Lanza – pretty much like God sees the rest of us – a terribly flawed sinner, for sure – but also a soul to be loved and saved, a lost sheep in need of being found, a poor, beaten soul in need of a Good Samaritan – a Samaritan helper that Adam Lanza never was able to find. I argued that if we insist on classifying the perpetrators of these terrible crimes as “monsters,” and the solution as simply identifying and locking up or killing these monsters, then we never solve the problem. We never ask the next question: How has our culture helped for mis-shape and mal-form these monsters? God’s creation is very good. God didn’t create a monster. If he is a monster, then I say that monsters are made, not born. And we seem to be making more of them, because these crimes keep happening more and more often. What can we do to stop ourselves from making monsters? Those are questions worth asking. And I believe that it takes some empathy, some compassion (some com-passion – some feeling with) in order to solve the problem. I think if we as individuals and a culture can’t be aware of and in touch with our own darker, shadow side, we have little hope of solving the problem. You know what I say about our shadow, our dark side – if we don’t face and admit it head-on, it will sneak up behind us and bite us when we least expect it. I made a list for myself that night – ways in which I am like Adam Lanza, experiences I may have had that are similar to his. Of course I can't possibly know -- I never knew Adam Lanza. But I can make some pretty good guesses; I’m going to share that list with you.
- I know what it’s like to feel like a weird misfit. I've lived there.
- I know what it’s like to be made fun of.
- I know what it’s like to ask for help, to really need help, and not get it. On the other hand, I also know how it feels when I need help and someone reaches out and helps me. It's mostly emotional help I'm talking about here.
- I know what it’s like to be so enraged that I want to hurt and/or kill people.
- I know what it’s like to feel desperate to escape some crisis or life circumstance, even if it means dying.
- I know what it feels like to want to fit in and be like everyone else, and not be able to figure out how to do it.
- I know how it feels to be imprisoned in my own introversion and my own perceptions and misperceptions.
I made that list in about 5 minutes. I bet if I took some more time, I could double it. Now, I don’t want you to worry about me. I have the psychological strengths not to follow through on any of those shadowy, dark feelings. And I’ve only felt or experienced most of them for moments at a time, or a few hours -- or even a period of a few bad days -- rather than as a way of life, the way Adam Lanza must have. All I’m saying is that those dark feelings have all lived inside me – and by the grace of God, I’ve had the strength and sanity to resist them, to wait them out till they passed, to get help with them, to know that things get better. Adam Lanza didn’t have the strength and wisdom that I do, by the grace of God, or by my upbringing, or good genes, or whatever gives me what he didn't have that lets me survive and thrive. I do believe that it’s from a place of some understanding, even if it’s partial understanding, and a place of empathy and compassion, that we can begin to love our neighbor, and to help solve our neighbor’s problem – which often has a way of becoming our own problem, too – we’ve learned that, writ large, lately.
And now, and yet, we’re still in the Christmas fetival. Even remembering those Holy Innocents long ago, those Holy Innocents more recently, we’re called to rejoice and hear the good news. We’re called to revel in Isaiah’s words, to hear them as though we are saying them ourselves – not as Isaiah’s words, but as our own – as God’s children, God’s heirs, as Galatians reminds us. Isaiah says, “…I will rejoice…My whole being will exult…he has clothed me with garments of salvation, as a bridegroom decks himself… as a bride adorns herself….You shall be a crown of beauty…” I shall be…we shall be, for Isaiah is addressing Israel. A crown of beauty, and a royal diadem in the hand of our God.” Wow. This part of Isaiah that we read today was written when the exile was over, and the people felt that God’s promises to Israel were once again flowering to fulfillment. It’s a big mistake if we read scripture only as an old, dusty, historical story. Scripture is talking to us now – and not just in the waning hours of 2012, but in this Christmas season – this season of wonder and miracle and the time when God has come to live with us. It’s the time when God’s promises are being fulfilled for us, too. This is the time for us to look at our own lives and see how God’s promises are fulfilled for us. This is our job as Christians. This is not an abstract process – just like solving our contemporary societal problems cannot be done in the abstract. We start, when we study scripture, from the assumption that the promises of scripture, that God’s word is true, and it’s our job to figure out how that takes shape in our lives. We start from the assumption that it’s our perception that may be faulty or incomplete, and that our life task is to continue to hone and clarify our perception -- to get to see our life and our world through something a little more like God's eyes. It’s up to us to figure out how the promises have been fulfilled in our own life. Some people can do it alone; most of us need help. We need to study and read; we need to work in groups; we need a spiritual director. All of these are tools that can help us see God in our life.
Paul tells us (I love Galatians -- “foolish Galatians,” he says elsewhere in the letter. “Who has bewitched you?”) that before Christ, we had the law to tell us how to live. Now we have a model, a brother. Now we have been adopted into God’s family. We are no longer slaves to the law, obeying blindly. Now we’re children, heirs. We’re part of God’s family, and we learn by watching our big brother, Jesus, just like most kids learn.
Then we have this Gospel. Oh, you’ve gotta know I love this Gospel. John is the most difficult of the four gospels to understand, but this passage, right at the beginning, is so beautiful. And we know who the Word is, but do we know what that means? “The Word” is the shorthand for God’s wisdom. Jesus is the Wisdom of God. Much more than that, of course, because God’s words were also things like “Let there be light.” A Creative Force. God spoke it, and it came into being. So Jesus is God’s Creative Force, God’s Wisdom. We also know that Jesus is a clear or pure reflection of God, the essence of who God is. You know I tell you, if you want to know what God's like, look at Jesus.
And here’s the promise – the good news in this Gospel – this is the family we’ve been adopted into! This is the one with whom we are co-heirs of the kingdom, of all that is God’s! That’s pretty amazing! We’ll never figure out what all that means, for sure. What might it mean to be adopted into the family of the Word? To be co-heirs with the Word, the Wisdom, the Creative Force of God? What might God have in mind for us? What gifts might God just be waiting to give us? And importantly, how are we called to share those gifts? How can we use our knowledge and experience of God’s gifts to share good news and love our neighbor, to reach out with compassion and make the world a better place? It’s part of what God wants us to know this Christmas, part of what God wants us to ponder and dream about. Amen.