First Sunday of Christmas 2016
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship
Lexington Theological Seminary, Lexington, KY
Author, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2016)
Text: Matthew 2:13-23
“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.” Matthew 2:18 (NRSV)
This stark scene of children’s bloody bodies lying limp in their mothers’ arms comes crashing into our silent and holy nights of Christmas peace and joy. The juxtaposition of state-sanctioned murder of babies and toddlers against the images we cherish of Mary holding her precious baby boy in swaddling clothes is almost too much to bear. We squirm in our pews and anxiously wait for the reading to be over, and hope that the preacher won’t make us think about these acts of evil perpetrated against the innocent.
Because here is an awful truth. As much as we repeat the all-too-familiar adage about Jesus dying for us to save us from our sin, this passage from Matthew confronts us with one very difficult reality that we can’t ignore:
All those baby boys died because the baby Jesus lived.
Jesus escaped with his life. Those children died.
Mary cradled her son safely in her arms in a foreign land. Hundreds of other mothers cradled their dead baby boys in their arms with excruciating cries of grief.
Most of them probably did not even know why the soldiers descended into their town, burst through their doors and reached into the cradles. But we know. A despotic ruler crazed with anger after having been tricked, kills all the other children because the one he wanted got away. A generation of little boys paid for Jesus’ life with their lives.
Some will say that this story about the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” as it’s come to be called, simply can’t be true. Some scholars say that there is no indication in the historical records of such a genocide taking place. And that may be the case. Or it may be that the murder of Jewish babies just wasn’t important enough to make the headlines. It wouldn’t be the first time that the erasure of hundreds of lives by thugs-in-power simply went unnoticed.
As we listen to this Bible story today, we can’t help but hear Rachel’s wailing and loud lamentation rising not just from Bethlehem, but from other places around the world. We hear those anguished cries piercing our ears and our hearts from the dust and rubble in Aleppo, Syria. As I scroll through my Facebook page and see the pictures of a city bombed to sandy piles of rubble, all vegetation gone, I come upon a video of a hospital where children who have survived the latest round of bombs are sitting on gurneys. The faces are dusty and blood-caked but oddly quiet. They have no tears. But the adults around them wail in grief. One teenage boy comes in cradling a baby in his arms. But the baby does not move, because his tiny body had been smothered in the rubble. The teenager has lost his parents and clings to this little body, crying like Rachel in Ramah.
Do you know why Rachel was crying? Genesis 35:16-20 relates that Rachel died in childbirth on the road from Bethel to Bethlehem. Her midwife tried to comfort her with the news that she had born a son – the one who would be called Benjamin. So there is a bittersweet quality to her tears. But in Jeremiah 31:15, Rachel becomes a symbol for all of Israel who mourns the loss of their dead after returning from exile and captivity in Babylon:
15 Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
In quoting this passage from Jeremiah, Matthew takes it one step further with the image of Rachel weeping in her grave at Ramah over the horrendous events taking place in Bethlehem.
We may wish to move on quickly, to go back to our eggnog and playing with our shiny new toys. But Rachel’s cries do not fade when we close the covers of our Bibles and walk out of the church service. In Aleppo, in Sudan and Kenya, in Somalia, Columbia, Ukraine, and Afghanistan, and so many other countries we see that war, gang violence, and poverty are killing children and ravaging families around the world. What most people don’t realize is the role that climate disruption and environmental devastation have played in exacerbating the situations in Aleppo and other war-torn areas. Alex Randall of the Climate and Migration Coalition notes that “Problems arise when patterns of climate-driven migration collide with existing violence.” Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director for ELCA Global Mission concurs: “As never seen before, over 62 million persons have been displaced from their home by violence, poverty and economic marginalization . . . But lately we have seen the huge impact climate change is having on people’s lives,” K. T. Sancken, “Seeing Jesus in the face of the other,” The Lutheran Magazine, November 2016, 15).
Climate change leads to drought and increased crop damage from insect infestations and blights in some places, which drives farmers from the land. In other places, rising sea levels cause entire towns to relocate. When this many people are forcibly displaced from their homes – a number higher than it has been at any time since World War II – corruption, violence, and authoritarian regimes thrive.
War, in turn, consumes resources and destroys infrastructure which intensifies the cycle of misery for those trapped in these areas. For example, “According to Oxfam, South Sudan has only 125 miles of paved roads and few areas have access to clean water, causing diseases like cholera to spread quickly when it appears in small villages,” (Sancken, 17). And it is diseases like cholera and other water-borne illnesses that hit children’s bodies the hardest. Rachel’s tears weep for the babies and children whose bodies are depleted by intestinal illnesses, malnutrition, and disease, lying limp in their mother’s arms.
How are we to engage such suffering? How do we avoid the sin of avoidance and the passive evil of complacency on the one hand, without getting overwhelmed with despair on the other?
Our way through this double-bind is illuminated by a Word from God. There remains the proclamation of hope and the call to action. In Jeremiah 31, after acknowledging the unimaginable pain of Rachel, the voice of God says this:
16 Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
17 there is hope for your future, says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.
Thus we know that what all of those who have been displaced – refugees, migrant workers, and those we mistakenly label “illegal” – all of them want to return home. They want to live in their homes and communities and countries in peace. They want to raise their children and grow their food and drink clean water and have access to basic health care, education, and governments free of corruption. They want to have meaningful work with enough money to live comfortably and to pray in their houses of worship. They want what you and I want. Which means they are not so different than you and me.
And so there stands before us today the choice of how to respond to what we have seen and heard. If we are to be part of the fulfillment of God’s words of promise to Rachel and all mothers who long for restoration, then we as Christians and as the Church must take seriously what our role is in this world of refugees. As we begin a new year, this is an opportune time to think about what we can do both individually and collectively to help those in crisis, prevent the immediate bloodshed, and address the long-term causes that are contributing to these conditions in the first place.
Jennifer Crist is a friend of mine who is an ELCA mission developer of Communities of Hope in Harrisburg, Pa., and has done incredible work with children in Guatemala for over a decade. She says, “I really want people and congregations in the U.S. to know that there are so many things that they can do.” She acknowledges that while there are huge systemic problems, “we as a church have such a great asset in having the ELCA Advocacy office and the AMMPARO strategy.” AMMPARO stands for Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities, and is a strategy approved by the 2016 Churchwide Assembly to work with organizations to provide legal assistance, community outreach and family reunification to migrants who are in the U.S. In 2017, maybe your church can consider doing a study about AMMPARO (which is a play on the Spanish word amparo which means “refuge”) and discern where God may be calling you to give “hope for their future” (Jeremiah 31:17).
Or perhaps your church can organize a teach-in to help people learn about the effects of climate change and the ways in which drought, sea-level rise, temperature rise, increase of illnesses, crop blight, and catastrophic storms contribute to and exacerbate the refugee crises across the globe. And then work on ways you and your congregation can help address climate change, including communicating with your local elected officials on the need to adapt measures to mitigate climate disruption.
Or your church may decide to partner with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS) to help resettle families in your local area. For example, Gethesemane Lutheran, the congregation in which I now worship, has been working with other neighboring Lutheran churches to collect household items for refugees who will be settling in the Lexington area. And a church I once served in Media, Pa., not only collected household items, but also organized volunteers to be translators, help find jobs, and navigate the complexities of becoming U.S. citizens.
At the very least, our sermons and Sunday School lessons must discourage the use of disparaging language when talking about the human beings who are fleeing desperate situations in their home countries. They are not “illegal.” The religion they practice does not make them “terrorists.” And the color of their skin does not make their lives any less valuable than those of us with white skin.
As Christians who are celebrating the Nativity, we have to remember that Jesus’ birth came at a price. And it’s obvious from the life he lived and the death he suffered that he did not forget all those babies who lost their lives.
When he said to the disciples who wanted to shoo the children away from Jesus, his rebuke of them was stern because he knew that a generation of children had already been lost: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs,” (Matthew 19:14).
When his disciples were arguing about who was the greatest among them, Jesus reached out for a little child as an example of the ones who are the models of greatness in God’s Kingdom (Matthew 19:1-4). He did not forget those babies who had been murdered.
Even his dying request for the Beloved disciple to care for his mother Mary shows that the cries of Rachel weeping for her children were not far from his mind (John 19:26-27).
Despotic rulers are still killing children. Soldiers are still murdering babies. Belligerent leaders are still denying climate change and refusing to act to mitigate its effects. Facebook posts and Twitter feeds are still spewing forth hatred of immigrants, refugees, and desperate people seeking to escape the horrors that have taken over their homelands.
But the Word of God still calls to us. The Church still stands. Your congregation has work to do. And you have a role in the Kingdom of God. Listening to Rachel’s cries is part of our work. Taking action on refugee issues and climate issues and immigration issues is an extension of our Christian faith. As Malpica Padilla reminds us, Matthew 25 is the test of whether or not we will see the face of Jesus in these children in Aleppo, in Sudan, in Guatemala. “We see Jesus in the face of the other, the vulnerable others, the refugee others, the marginalized others. At the end of the day, we will be judged not by how much theology we know or how good our doctrine is, but how we have cared for the vulnerable ones,” (Sancken, 19).
Sancken, K. T. “Seeing Jesus in the face of the other,” The Lutheran Magazine, November 2016. http://www.livinglutheran.org/2016/11/seeing-jesus-in-the-face-of-the-other/
Randall, Alex, “The role of climate change in the Syria crisis: how the media got it wrong,” New Internationlist, June 10, 2016. https://newint.org/blog/2016/06/10/climate-change-and-the-syria-crisis/