What Is Your Guiding Star & Ultimate Concern?

Isaiah 60:1-6,11

Arise, daughter; shine, daughter; for your light has come, daughter;
    and the glory of the Holy One has risen upon you, daughter.
For – watch now, daughter! – bleakness shall cover the earth
    and thick bleakness the peoples,
and upon you, daughter, the Holy One will arise,
    and over you, daughter, God’s glory will appear.
Nations shall come to your light, daughter,
    and monarchs to the brightness of your dawn, daughter.

Lift your eyes round about, daughter, and see;
    all of them gather; they come to you, daughter;
daughter, your sons shall come from far away,
    and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ hips.
Then, daughter, you shall see and be radiant;
    your heart, daughter shall tremble and swell,[a]
because the abundance of the sea shall turn toward you, daughter;
    the wealth of the nations shall come to you, daughter.
A multitude of camels shall cover you, daughter –
    young camels of Midian and Ephah –
    all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense
    and shall proclaim the praises of the Holy One.

Your gates shall always be open, daughter;
    day and night they shall not be shut,
so that nations shall bring you their wealth, daughter,
    being led by their monarchs.

Psalm 67: The Nations Called to Praise God

May God be merciful to us and bless us
    show us the light of her countenance and come to us.
Let your ways be known upon earth,
    your saving health among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
    let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
    for you judge the peoples with equity
    and guide all the nations upon earth. 
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
    let all the peoples praise you.

The earth has brought forth her increase;
    May God, our own God, give us her blessing.
May God give us her blessing;
    and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of her.

2 Timothy 1:5-10 Considering the recollection of your faith without pretense, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, now I am persuaded that faith lives in you. For this reason I remind you to reignite the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands, for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but one of power and of love and of self-control. Be not be ashamed, then, of the testimony of our Saviour or of me Christ’s prisoner, rather share in suffering for the sake of the gospel, do so through the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works rather according to God’s own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,[a] 10 Now it has been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus,[b] who negated death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

Matthew 2:1-18 2 Now Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod. Suddenly sages from the east came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Judeans? For we observed his star at its ascent[b] and have come to reverence him.” When King Herod heard this, he was shaken, and all Jerusalem with him; then calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] would be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd[d] my people Israel.’ ”

Then Herod secretly called for the sages and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 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 reverence him.” When they had heard the king, they left, and suddenly there was the star that they had seen at its ascent going before them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and reverenced him. Then, opening their treasure, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

The Escape to Egypt

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Holy One 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.” 14 Then Joseph[h] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Holy One through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

The Massacre of the Infants

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi,[i] 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 magi.[j] 17 Then what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “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.”

Good morning, St. Matthew!

We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging that hard past and praying our way into a better future.

And so we pray.

Holy Mothering God, it is perhaps easy as we lay aside Christmas and New Year’s celebrations and enter the season of Epiphany to think we are entering a time that’s a little pool of recovery from the hustle and bustle of the holiday. But that’s not quite the story we are hearing this morning – instead the voice of God is washing over us in the voices of the women each lesson lifts up. Give us a heart to hear the women you empower to speak. Help us to hear the promises made to the daughters of Israel. Help us to sing with the joy of Mother Earth as she births her bounty and feeds her children. Help us to be as steadfast as Eunice and Lois as they worked to build the church we have inherited. And help us to honour and respond to all the mothers who bury their children in the madness of political terrorism. Praying with all your children, we say Amen.

We are honoured to be participating in the roll out of Wil Ganey’s “A Women’s Lectionary For The Whole Church”. It is a way of hearing the words of our faith in new language, but it is also a way to remind us of what the original text intended. The Isaiah reading is full of the word Daughter – because lost in translation is the Hebrew understanding that these words are intended for the women of Israel in particular. For the most part, English does not have masculine and feminine distinctions, but the Hebrew does – and Gafney points out that the archetype of “Daughter Zion” is like the addressing of women in their power, kind of like the old song “I Am Woman” or saying females all have a Wonder Woman in them. The prophet is addressing this part of the prophecy to the women – “Hang on, you amazing women! This one is for you! Look at all the good things God gonna bring!” So while at first we might be startled by Gafney’s translation – the thing is it’s right there in the text!

Now many of us are more familiar with the idea of Mother Nature and Mother Earth – but we may not have realised that the Psalms know this language too – and again, by making the translation reflect that actual text, we hear Mother Earth herself being asked to rejoice in the establishment of God’s kindom. Now because we have these translations in this feminine voice, suddenly our hearing Paul’s lifting up of the leadership of Lois and Eunice is more overt, because we are standing more firmly in these feminine traditions and realising that women are a very big part of the story God is telling. This in turn makes the Gospel passage open up – because all the centuries of the past that told us the women were at the edges of the story, puts them right back into the middle of it.

If we don’t have this awareness of the importance of women to the story of faith, it becomes very easy for the telling of the Magi, the sages from the East to be heard in a male voice. But who comes to the stable? The Bible tells us only that they are sages – it is later traditions that make them into the Three Kings. Again, this matters because the attack on the children becomes the central consequence of their arrival and makes clear the threat that drives the Holy Family into Egypt is very, very real. If we stay with the idea of Kings, however then King Herod and the Three Kings are meeting in equality of status. They have a shorthand of language and understanding. Kings deal in power, kings recognise power. But it seems pretty clear from the text that the sages are not meeting Herod as equals in his royal persona but are coming in search of answers as scholars and seekers. In that capacity, they have no understanding of why Herod would feel threat; they have the academics’ delight, excitement and narrow focus in finding new knowledge. Like many academics, they seem to have very little awareness that that new knowledge could pose a threat. Three kings speaking to an equal king would completely get that there is a power being announced that the king cannot control, and why that announcement would represent a threat to the established power.

However, the people who show up in Bethlehem – again, not named, numbered or gendered –  are more concerned with astrological charts and fulfilments of prophecies than power struggles. So this noisy convention of professors that stumbles into Herod’s hall does not recognise his power dynamic and therefore does not recognise his threat. So even before the Magi come to the toddler Jesus’ door, they have inadvertently alerted the power structure that change is coming. Two years earlier, innkeepers, townsfolk and shepherds saw stars, heard angel songs and felt the presence of God – but they were National Enquirer news and dismissed by the rulers, if they even paid it any attention at all. But with this convention, Jesus’ birth breaks into a wider awareness. In a society based deeply on class, the academics occupy a weird space. Regular folks are a little awed by their knowledge, the upper class, always looking for a leg up on the competition, want to know the best way to exploit it. So they can operate in both worlds, often connecting them to each other in unexpected ways with unforeseen consequences.

In fact, those consequences are so bad that we see the angels mobilising to redirect the Holy Family and the sages out of the way of Herod’s anger. Now I feel in my bones the protest that rises up with the question about those children who do die at the point of Herod’s sword. Where were their angels, their saving redirection? And I can’t give you an answer that will satisfy a mother’s broken heart. That’s why it is important to have women’s voices at the centre of the story! We cannot tell this story without that cry of Rachel. God gave us, as humanity, the terrifying gift of choice. We are not windup dolls in a pre-set story; we are entrusted with the ability to make our own decisions. What happens if you read the Epiphany story in that mindset? Herod doesn’t have to choose to see a threat – he could have chosen to join the sages and truly go to worship Jesus. For people who want to dismiss such a possibility out of hand, remember those angels! Joseph listens to the angel, the sages listen to the guidance of their dreams – and in doing so, they preserve the life of Jesus. Through their choices, life happens. Herod’s choices, on other hand, bring death. The medieval theologians flip out over this massacre – and it is clear that the same folks who invented the myth of the Three Kings also invent a myth of thousands of dead children. The current historical scholarship, figuring in all the Bethlehem statistics, sets the number at 33 at the highest. Still. How could it happen? Ask the folks in Sandy Hook or Ulvade. While everything in most of us cannot conceive of harming a child, there are monsters who can make that choice and do. God does not stop Herod. God knew what rulers like Herod were capable of – the original prophecy was spoken by Jeremiah in the 6th century BCE when the rulers of Babylon were killing and enslaving children of the Israelites as they were invading the southern kingdom of Judah. God our creator knows what we are capable of – great good and great evil. But in the midst of those choices, God works to make sure the bigger story of love and salvation will still be told.

It is important to remember though, as I said, that these deaths are real. The voices of their mothers are real. But so is God’s love. So the choice then becomes ours – are we going to choose to go the way of Herod, and see the love that Jesus brings as threat? Or are we going to go another way to return home? Making the first choice, makes refugees, unleashes monsters, and breaks a mother’s heart. But in making the second, we get to participate in life, that makes a way out of no way. Choosing to listen to the angels, trust the direction of dreams and follow a star – lets us tell the story that raises women’s voices in praise and power and releases God’s salvation into the world. God’s love, made manifest in Jesus, is here. Things change when a baby is born, priorities shift, and we are no longer the only ones, or even the most important ones, in the story.

We have to decide how we live into that Divine story – and here’s the caution. If like Herod, we cannot let go of our privilege and power, if we insist that we have to be at the centre of the story and won’t listen to any other voice – then we are making that choice to bring death and destruction, because we will default to protecting that misplaced power no matter what. Following a star lifts our eyes to a bigger picture, opens our hearts to a larger story and reminds us to listen to voices that aren’t our own. And that’s the life that God offers us and calls us to live – a life focused on following on God’s will to love God with all our heart, mind and soul and to love our neighbours as ourselves. There’s no room in that for protecting our power, but there’s all kinds of room for kindness, care and creation. Today, let’s let go of our flawed, failed and false power and follow the dazzling, dancing Divine star.