Monday, January 2, 2017

Sermon: "Danger in the Manger"

Scripture Intro - Matthew 2:13-23

Our text this morning is often titled: “The Slaughter of the Innocents” – and you will soon understand why.
In this story an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and urges him to flee with his family to Egypt. King Herod has heard that the Messiah has been born, and he has ordered the killing of every child in Bethlehem under the age of 2.

We may wonder why this story is included in our lectionary so soon after Christmas. This is supposed to be a season celebrating joy and hope, and a scripture text that centers on the killing of children appears to have none of that.
We may wonder where the Good News is found in this Christmas story.
But before we read this story it’s important to know something about its context.

This story about Herod appears only in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth.
The gospel of Luke mentions nothing about the holy family traveling to Egypt or the slaughter of children.
It’s also important to know that Matthew as a writer borrows elements from other stories that the people of Israel knew well and uses them to present Jesus as the next great prophet, the new Moses, the one who had come to set them free.
There are many ways in which Jesus’ story in the gospel of Matthew parallels the story of Moses.
Jesus gives a sermon on the Mount, just as Moses delivered the law from Mount Sinai, Jesus fasts for 40 days and nights in the wilderness just as Moses did, and the baby Jesus, like the baby Moses under the Pharaoh, escapes a slaughter of the innocents, when all children under two have their lives taken from them.
When the danger is over, Jesus comes up out of Egypt and returns to the Holy Land to lead the people to freedom, just as Moses did hundreds of years before him.

As we often discover, the message of hope we find in scripture is not necessarily found in the factual details of the stories but in the outcome.
Love wins. Fear does not.
Because love will set you free. 

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
January 1, 2017 – First Sunday after Christmas
Matthew 2:13-23

“Danger in the Manger”

Welcome to the year 2017.
Well, according to our modern Gregorian calendar this is the year 2017.
If you’re using the old Julian calendar, today is actually December 19th
and New Years Eve is still 12 days away.
Which is why our Eastern Orthodox friends will celebrate Christmas this Friday.
If you favor the Chinese calendar, we’re currently in the year 4714,
and the New Year doesn’t begin until January 28th.
It will be the Year of the Rooster, in case you were wondering.
And if you follow the Hebrew calendar, like our Jewish brothers and sisters, we’re currently in the year 5777, and the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, won’t roll around again until September 20th.

So, if you’re like me and break your New Years resolutions by the end of this week, no need to worry, we have several opportunities to wipe the slate clean and start all over again. 

One thing we learn as we mature in life, is that time is arbitrary.
Which is why it’s amazing that for the most part our entire world has agreed to follow one calendar and celebrate today as New Year’s Day.

While we owe our current way of tracking time to the Italian Pope Gregory, who corrected a slight miscalculation in the old Julian calendar,
it’s really the Romans and Julius Caesar who we have to thank for the 365 day, 12-month year that is linked to the movement of our sun.
Prior to Julius, the Roman calendar followed the waxing and waning of the moon, much like the Hebrew calendar still does.
But this resulted in a year with only 355 days – leaving it 10 days out of sync with the seasonal changes dictated by the sun. 

To account for this discrepancy and to bring things back into sync, every 3 to 4 years the ancient Romans added an extra month to their calendar.
They called it Mercedonius and wedged it between February and March.
(and those of you born on February 29th thought you had it bad – imagine being born in a leap month)

The decision of when to add this extra month and when to leave it out was left up to the chief astrologers, who also happened to be politicians.
These elected officials would often arbitrarily add an extra month in back to back years to extend their term in office, or eliminate it in years that it was scheduled to occur, to shorten the terms of their rivals.

Having a calendar that could be changed on a whim caused mass confusion and frustrated Julius Creaser to no end, so he declared that from the year 45 onward, the yearly calendar would have 365 days and remain aligned with the seasonal movement of the sun, without any human intervention.   

Time may be arbitrary, but people – and politicians - remain the same regardless of the age.

Which brings us to King Herod – and the place that he holds in our timeless Christmas story.

As many of you know, only two of our four gospels have an account of Jesus’ birth.
Matthew and Luke.
And the Nativity story that we tell every Christmas weaves together the individual elements of both these accounts.

When we look at a traditional Nativity scene we find Mary and Joseph, and Jesus in the manger, with shepherds and angels and Wise Men gathered all around them.

Most of the elements that we know from the traditional Nativity story come from the gospel of Luke –
the census that had Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem,
the gruff innkeeper who turned them away,
the baby Jesus lying in an animal feeding trough.

Missing from this scene is King Herod.
Yet, when we read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth we see that Herod is as much a part of the story as any of the others.

For Luke, who mentions Herod's name only as an aside, Jesus’ birth is heralded as a joyous event that was witnessed and celebrated by many.
But then curiously this new born King is whisked away to the small town of Nazareth where he seemingly lives a life of anonymity,
and no one gives him a second thought until he’s a full grown adult.

Matthew’s version of the story is quite different.

In Matthew’s gospel there are no kneeling shepherds, no heavenly chorus of angels singing Hallelujah, there’s no Little Drummer Boy playing “Ba Rumpa Bum Bum.”

For Matthew, Jesus’ birth itself is pretty uneventful, in fact he doesn’t include any details other than Jesus was born in a house in Bethlehem, presumably because that’s where his parents were living at the time.

Matthew is more concerned with what happened after Jesus was born –
As much as 2 years after, when Magi arrived from the East following a star, and looking for the child who was said to be the “King of the Jews.”

The news that a new king had been born proved to be very disconcerting to the current King of the Jews – Herod.

We know from historical records that Herod was a polarizing leader to say the least.
He’s been championed as the greatest builder in Jewish history –
he rebuilt the Second Temple in Jerusalem so that “he would have a capital city worthy of his dignity and grandeur.”
In fact many of the buildings erected in Herod’s name still stand and serve as tourist attractions to this day.
But Herod’s taste for wealth and luxurious living are often cited as one of the reasons why the people he ruled lived in such poverty.
He built his empire on their backs and they were given little compensation in return. 

And then there was Herod’s even darker side.
Herod’s critics have described him as "a madman” who was "prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition."

At varying times, he accused his wife, his sons, and his mother-in-law of plotting against him and one by one he had them killed.
Any rabbi who disagreed with him or mocked him met the same fate.
Jewish historians have called him "the evil genius of the Judean nation."  

This is the man that Matthew placed at the center of his Nativity story. 

Because like Luke, who had the pregnant Mary singing about the powerful being brought down from their thrones, Matthew was leading with the idea that the birth of Jesus was a radical and world changing event.

Not in the sense that heavenly angels gathered over his birth and everyone held hands and sang Kumbaya, but in the sense that those in power –
those who had the most to lose – were frightened to their core at the thought of this Messiah existing in their world.

The two accounts of Jesus’ birth that we have in our gospels may differ in many of the details, but they agree on this:
The Christmas story – the story of Jesus’ birth – is not just a feel good story, it’s meant to be a story that is challenging, and life altering, and dangerous.

One that has us imagining the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt to protect the precious gift that had been entrusted to them

One that has a madman slaughtering innocents in his desperation to hold on to his wealth and his power.

One that is rooted in the belief that this tiny baby represented a dire threat, because he alone would hold commoners and Kings alike accountable to the core teachings of their faith – to love God with all your heart and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.

This is a dangerous idea, because if enough people start believing in a loving and merciful God, and start living as if they were created to be vessels through which God’s love, compassion, and grace flow into this world –
then the world IS going to change.
There’s no doubt about that.

We can’t crawl inside the minds of the Herods of our world and change who they are.    
But we can change who we are.
We can change how we react to the injustice that they create and feed off of.
We can change how we respond to and treat those who are marked as threats by the Herods of our world and resist being used as vessels for hatred and bigotry and fear – and instead allow God to use us as vessels of love, compassion, mercy, and grace.

You may have noticed that the title of this sermon that’s printed in your bulletin is “Dare to Dream.”
That’s partly because I had to come up with a title two weeks ago to meet our holiday printing deadline.
And at the time I thought we might focus on the dreams that Joseph had regarding his families future, and how they connect with the dreams that we have for our future here on this New Year’s Day. 

Yet when I sat down a few days ago to write this sermon and further reflect on this Nativity story from Matthew, the actions of Herod kept rising up for me, and I wondered if a better sermon title might be “Danger in the Manger.”

It’s certainly one that grabs our attention and gets us to slip out of autopilot as we pack away our Nativity Sets and Christmas decorations and think again about what a radical story this was in its time.
And how it’s still a radical story in our time.

As we stand on the threshold of a new year – this year 2017 –
may we continue to reflect on this timeless story of Danger in the Manger. 

This story of a baby who came to change the world.  

And allow it to seep into every word,
every action,
every darkened corner of our lives –
and dare to dream of a better future for us all.

Thanks be to God.

Sermon: "Christmas Wish"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 24, 2016 – Christmas Eve

“Christmas Wish”

Every year, in early December, I haul out all the Christmas decorations that we keep in our storage area in the parsonage next door and set about decking the halls with bows of holly.

During the cold, dark nights of winter, somehow the house looks a little less dreary – a little less ordinary – with a Christmas tree in the living room,
a festive wreath on the front door, and a single white light burning in every window.
But that’s as far as my decorating usually goes.
Here in Amherst village, there’s an unwritten rule that the external Christmas displays should be simple and understated, in keeping with the historic character of the homes and the age in which they were built.

Which is why you’ll see most of the homes in the village sporting a single white light in every window.

Those of us who live in the village have been known to joke on occasion that one year we’re going to shake off the chains that restrain us and plant plastic reindeer and giant inflatable Santas on our front lawns,
and deck out our homes with multicolored neon lights that flash in time to the music of Mannheim Steamroller.

But in reality, I think most of us much prefer the understated white lights,
and are quite happy to leave the more elaborate displays to those who have no unwritten expectations holding them back.

It certainly makes decorating a lot easier and less time consuming.
And there is something magical, about driving through the village in the weeks before Christmas and seeing a single white light glowing in every window.

In our culture, where individuality is celebrated and we feel compelled to plant public displays of our identity and our allegiances on our car bumpers, on our Facebook pages, and on our front lawns – it’s comforting to see us come together with one subtle and simple expression of this season –
a single while light – a symbol of this season of hope, peace, joy, and love.

Often times it’s the more subtle, and simple, things that we encounter in life that have a greater impact and turn out to be much more meaningful than something that smacks us in the face with its grandiosity and complexity.

This may seem counterintuitive for those of us who live in a country that prides itself on going big or going home.
We supersize our meals, drive cars that are large enough to haul around half a soccer team, and build 10,000 sq ft homes with the expectation that every occupant should have their own bathroom and their own walk-in closet.
Simple and subtle is not our forte.

A few years ago, the British actor Stephen Fry did a TV series in which he traveled to every state in America, to explore the beauty and the bounty that our country has to offer.
There was one episode where Fry attended a college football game between the University of Alabama and their closest rival, Auburn University.
Fry stood on the sideline just prior to the start of the game with his mouth agape at the pomp and pageantry that surrounded him.

National television coverage, 200 member marching bands, pyrotechnic displays, military color guards, fighter jets zooming loudly overhead while an American flag the size of a the entire football field was unfurled below.
As Fry astutely noted, “This event had the scale, intensity, and hoopla of an English Football League National Cup Final when in reality it was just a local match between amateur students.”

As Fry discovered, subtle and simple, tends not to be the American way.

Which is why it may seem surprising that once a year we step away from all the hoopla and the multitude of things that occupy our time, and we huddle into churches like this one, and lean in to hear the Christmas Story.

This story of weary travelers, gruff innkeepers, simple shepherds, and a baby, born in a manger, who was said to be the savior of the world.

This is not to say that we don’t do Christmas over-the-top as well,
with two-month long advertising campaigns, maxed out credit cards,
and the aforementioned giant inflatable Santa displays…

But it’s the simpler, much more subtle story of this baby in a manger that captures our attention on the Eve of Christmas Day.
Why is that?

We might say it’s because the story captures our hope and our anticipation and our expectations of all the joyful rituals, memories, and experiences we associate with Christmas.
Gathering with our families and our friends, exchanging gifts, eating way too much food.

But I’m not that cynical to think that this story of the birth of Jesus is just the appetizer we partake in before we consume what we’re really looking forward to – The four course meal of joy, pleasure, gratification, and overindulgence that we experience on Christmas Day.

I think this simple little story is about so much more than that –
and it means so much more to us than perhaps we even realize.

It can be a scary world out there.
On this Christmas Eve, there’s no need for us to list off all the ways in which our world is broken and in need of healing.
There’s no need for us dwell on all the ways in which WE are broken and in need of healing.
We already know all of that.

But every year in late December, after immersing ourselves in all of the “stuff” that being human in an unpredictable and unforgiving world throws at us….we come here.

We come here
to peer into a manger.
To see the Christ Child be born.
To look at this baby - and pour out all our Christmas Wishes –
All our hopes, our dreams, our desires, our longings –
for a better world.
A better us.
A better tomorrow.

One where we treat one another with more compassion, and empathy, and grace.
One where we find happiness – and healing – and wholeness.
One where we love each other fiercely,
And forgive each other often.
One where we seek to understand one another
as much as we seek to be understood.

This may seem like an impossibility.
But as our faith continuously tells us, nothing is impossible with God.

Which is why we celebrate this story that is both simple and subtle.
This story about God letting go of everything that makes God infinite and all powerful and all knowing – and choosing to step into human skin -
To experience what it’s like to be finite – and powerless – and fearful
of a future that is unknown and unsettling.

When we peer into the manger and look at the baby called Jesus –
Jeshua – Emmanuel – God with Us…
We see a God who reached into our world to give us a glimpse of all that we are meant to be.
A glimpse of our potential.
A glimpse of our future.
A glimpse of all our hopes – and dreams – and longings
Bundled into one tiny package.
In the one gift that we all long to receive on Christmas Day.
The gift that makes our Christmas Wish come true.

What is it that you’re wishing for this Christmas?

More time with your kids? 
The healing of a relationship?

To get through Christmas Dinner with your extended family without anyone bringing up politics?

Perhaps you’re wishing for fewer personals upsets and fewer unexpected challenges in the coming year.

Or perhaps you’re optimistic and hopeful enough to wish for world peace…
Or at the very least, that we’d all spend less time talking at one another and more time listening.

Regardless of what it is we’re wishing for….chances are it has little to do with the presents that we all have wrapped underneath our trees….
…and more to do with this presence we find in this simple manger.

This presence of God.

This presence that tells each and every one of us what we long to hear -
You are loved – 
You are wonderfully and beautifully made –
As is everyone around you.

So be good to yourself.
Be good to one another.

For your Christmas Wish – on this day - has come true.

Thanks be to God.