Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sermon for December 27, 2009: With Children Come Tears

Matthew 2: 13-23

About 5 years ago, I attended a conference out in Baltimore, Maryland. Like I often did, I chose to drive to that conference from South Dakota. I found that the learning did not merely come from the content of the conference itself, or even from the colleagues I would meet. The learning came from the prayer, soul searching, reflection and exploration that comes from long hours in the car.

On that particular Eastern swing, I hit two landmarks that beckoned my visit. The first was Kent State University. Not the Kent in Washington, but in Ohio. I went there because I wanted to see the place where four students were killed and nine were wounded on May 4, 1970. Regardless of how you saw the politics of the day, the environment was volatile. I wanted to see the place. I wanted to learn more about what happened. I wanted to think and pray about what lead to such violence. I visited a memorial built not just for the students but at the center at Kent State University that researches and addresses conflict and what can possibly be done to address violent conflict.

I also visited Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. Marshall is the home of the football team and its supporters who were killed in a plane crash on November 14th, 1970. The story is famously told in the major motion picture, We Are Marshall. The story tells about the suffering, discernment and healing of a people, a town, and a university.

The relationship between these two situations and me was that the events and surrounding stories each occurred in 1970, the year I was born. While I visited both places on my trip, I wondered what my parents thought of these events and what it meant to raise children with these kinds of stories (and many others) circulating in the news. I thought of my own child (just one at the time) and wondered what her life was going to be like--what Melanie and I were going to have to do to protect her, teach her, provide for her, care for her. I thought of the parents of those children who were killed at Kent State and Marshall Universities and wondered about their perspectives on life and children. On the day Kendall was born we were filled with elation--just like the parents from those universities. We danced, sang and laughed. We gave thanks for the child in our midst. Much like the time of Jesus birth--there was elation and celebration.

What Melanie and I soon learned is that we would not always feel that elation and joy. We weren't so naive that we thought joy would be the only experience associated with raising a child, but no one can really teach you about the experience that you can necessarily prepare. I remember a few days after her birth, Kendall was a little jaundiced and needed some blood work. Melanie and I gingerly carried her into the doctor's office and watched the nurse collect blood. Kendall screamed like she was losing a limb. Melanie is not one quick to cry, but she dumped the fattest tears I have ever seen. It was then I began to see, that with children, come tears.

In our Bible text today from Matthew chapter 2, we don't have an elaborate story of Jesus' birth, but we have a story of wise men, magi, who come to visit Jesus and mark the celebration with gifts. The circumstances of this birth story are much more dangerous than in Luke--Jesus and his family must flee, because King Herod is a man who is threatened by the prospect of anyone who might usurp his authority. It is God's vision that allows Jesus to escape Herod's reign of terror. Jesus escapes with his family, but other children of the region don't fare as well. Many boys under the age of 2 were killed because of Herod's fear and tyrannical response. We find out that the mothers refuse to be consoled in this act of terror, and we are left wondering how to respond. Jesus is protected in the equation, but what about the others? Weren't the other children entitled to be spared from this act? These are valid questions, and these and similar questions we should not attempt to explain this side of heaven. Cheapening the pain of those who mourn with a guess as to why their children die is not the task of being a faithful Christian. To be present among people's sorrow is the more challenging act of love in this situation. It's easy to make up a statement that attempts to offer consolation in the midst of a tragic situation with children (or any other death for that matter). It's harder to listen, pray and love.

I think this text offers some wisdom from the heart of God. What is it that directs the actions of Joseph? It is vision--an understanding and trust that God is leading. One could say that Joseph was acting obediently and courageously in this situation when he packs up Mary and Jesus and hastily leaves. But I also imagine leaving was not a happy occasion--leaving relationships and familiarity. It would be possible to say "No, I'm not going to leave. The cost is too great. The grief is too much." We know that a fearful response is always possible, and acting on that fear can have catastrophic results. Herod is a perfect example of the consequences of fear. The question is how do we act when the stakes are so high with our children? Do we follow God's leading and vision? Or do we respond out of fear?

How do we address fear is an excellent question. Like the events surrounding Kent State and Marshall when I was born, parents always deal with events in our environment that strike fear in our hearts in the midst of the elation of knowing children. I was dead tired on Christmas day, but watching the flurry of activity in Ashling and Kendall was pure joy. I also think about what we face in the world today and what it means for our children. The Centers For Disease Control has new numbers related to Autism Spectrum Disorders--now 1 in 110 live births are affected by an ASD. It was 1 in 150 when Kendall was first diagnosed. This week we got our children in for H1N1 mist--it had to be mist for us, because we still worry about mercury preservatives in shots. We live in the presence of joy, but we also know that with children, come tears. For every hospitalization, for every health challenge we take, we recognize tears may come--because we have cried them. The question regarding fear still remains.

In this story from Matthew, fear and danger are givens. But so is the leading and vision casting of God. If we know and assume that with children, come tears--then a variable of our action is not the tears, but what (or Who?) we follow. Are we directed by fear or vision? I think Joseph and Mary experienced tears like any parent, and later in the story--as Jesus is accused, suffers and dies, their grief will be monumental. If we live in fear, we will live in darkness with our tears. If we live by vision and God's leading, at least we can multiply our joy and the joy of the world by seeing through what God would have us do. We also can see the pain that God endures as Jesus is killed. But the grand vision of the redemption of the world allows the Triune God to move beyond the fear that often entrenches the people of God.

This choice between fear and vision is the key to the story in the movie, We Are Marshall. The people of Huntington, West Virginia, continually wonder in the midst of the tears over their dead children whether they can live a visionary life or continue retreating into their fear. Watch the movie, but pay special attention as the leaders of Marshall University consider whether to act on fear or vision in the second twenty minutes of the film.

Regardless of whether we are guided by fear or vision--with children, come tears. God invites us into the story to follow the path of Jesus, whose parents and followers are faced with tears. It is God's vision that Jesus is how we learn of God's love for us, and that not even death will separate us from that love. To live in that love is indeed visionary, even if it is filled with tears.

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