Herod in His Raging

It was a real surprise to pick up the Los Angeles Times the other morning in my driveway.  Right there on the front page, above the fold was NOT the traditional Christmas tableau of the Holy Family surrounded by adoring wisemen, camels and the like.  NO.  Each figure — Mary, Joseph and Jesus – was surrounded by a chain-link wire cage.  And Jesus lying separately in a manger wrapped NOT in swaddling clothes, but in an aluminum space blanket. 

My friends down the street at the United Methodist Church had made headlines again with another provocative theological statement.  No Pat Boone crooning “Silent Night” or Frank Sinatra softly singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  NO!  Just the graphic portrayal of the stark realities into which Christ is ever born.   Into every Christmas does Herod rage.  Babies are snatched from mother’s arms at borders around the world. 

And as one might expect, did it ever catch the public’s attention! Police Chief, Shelly Vander Veen has said that she will station two officers on the street near this nativity scene over Christmas Eve and Day to guard against vandalism.  Yes, there are some who can’t handle prophetic gospel truth. 

Jesus was born into a hostile world.  And Christ continues to seek entry into our most resistant world.  Folks, delve into scripture very deeply, and you will encounter a most political document.  Christ was crucified between two insurrectionists NOT because he preached pablum.  His words and actions were a direct threat to the Roman empire.  As much a threat as the church is to autocracies today.  Herod understood completely the gospel message, and does today as well.  The ethic of Christ IS NOT the ethic of Caesar![1]

It is no accident that the Feast of Holy Innocents follows directly upon the angelic hymns of Christmas morn.  As the hymn, Coventry Carol, proclaims, “Herod the King, in his raging charged he hath this day, his men of might, in his own sight, all young children to slay.”[2]  In Syria, in China, Brazil, and at the U.S border with Mexico – Herod would have his day.

So, outrage?  You bet.  The message of the United Methodists has reached unconverted hearts.  One woman indignantly responded, “I’m never going to attend Claremont UCC again.”  Obviously, she hadn’t been there in some while as she was crediting the wrong congregation.  United Methodist pastor Karen Clark Ristine, explained in Facebook, that this scene of the Holy Family “takes the place of thousands of nameless families separated at our borders.”

The ethic of those holding power in Herod’s name, that ethic always stands opposed to the teachings of Jesus Christ.  The ethic of slaveholding society stands over against that of Christ of the Abolitionists and the Freedman’s Aid Society.  Against Caesar Chavez’s struggle for decent wages, deeply rooted in the Christian faith.  Against workers standing shoulder to shoulder against the grower intimidation and the use of state sanctioned violence. 

I don’t want to destroy any Christmas sentimentalities – well, yes, I do.  But only to deepen what t sentiments we might rightly have concerning this most holy day.  Christmas is solely about God’s saving action breaking into our torn and destructive world.  It is definitely not about Grinches and mistletoe, Alvin and the Chipmunks.  Frankly, if I hear “Little Drummer Boy” one more time, I’m going to barf.  Give me any day “The Festival of Lessons and Carols” from the BBC – mainlined straight from Kings College, Cambridge, England.  PBS will rebroadcast this delight.  Give me fresh Christmas tamales.  Something real!

So, let’s stick to the story, just as Linus does.  Just as Bach does: Yes!  “Break Forth O Beauteous, Heavenly Light.”  Stick with the story.  Yes, a new “light shines and the darkness has not overcome it.”

 “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus for he will save his people from their sins.”[3] 

Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel commanded.  Might we as well awake from our sleep.  For in the dark of night Herod does indeed rage.

“… as the Light of light descendeth from the realms of endless day, that the powers of hell may vanish, as the darkness clears away.”

Let us wake from our sleep.  Listen, we are commissioned as radiant sparks of that very same Light.  We, that the powers of all that diminishes and destroys, the powers of Hell, may vanish.   This is what we celebrate on December, the 25th.  I’m talking about nothing less than spiritual warfare.  The powers of life arrayed against Herod’s powers of darkness and death.  It’s about that old union song, “Which Side are You On?”

John Dominic Crossan notes that Christians have always had two possible responses to Herod:  accommodation or resistance – nonviolent resistance as taught by Jesus and his followers down through the ages.  As taught by Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.[4]  And just plain folk like you and me who say NO to the operating ethic of “me first, and if anyone else survives, it’s mere coincidence.” 

Resistance by simply and humbly exercising our Gospel commission – to give witness in word and deed to the summons to kindle new life into being, to wake the dead — to let the Divine Light shine through daily acts of justice and solidarity.  We simply keep on keeping on, reflecting that pure Gospel Light as best we can.  And that shall be sufficient.

Resistance has been the message of Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia.  There, a small group of Christians over the years has lived in inter-racial community, contrary to the Jim Crow ethic of that region.   Against KKK threats and violence they have stood in the Light of the Christmas story.  By their mere existence, this community has been a rebuke to racism and exclusion.  Welcoming all, they continue to be Christ to their neighbors, born this day and every day in Americus, Georgia. 

Resistance might be the soft, gentle stand against the mentality of the world that bases one’s worth on usefulness, on wealth,

on status.  I tell another story of Pastor Craig Rennebohm, Chaplain to the Homeless in Seattle.  He, certainly, in his active ministry, has been Christ of the streets and alleyways to the homeless.[5]

Craig Rennebohm would certainly second the sentiments on Fr.  Dean Brackley, S.J., “There is a crucifixion on every corner and a resurrection on every block.”  This is definitely the case in any of our large metropolitan areas.  Craig Rennebohm has been no small part in many a resurrection on the streets of Seattle.[6]

He tells the story of a fellow who wondered into his downtown Seattle church.  A fellow who went by the nickname Breezy.  Craig noticed this unfamiliar man in the church lounge one morning at the piano.  His clothes were unwashed and a bag of belongings on the floor indicated Breezy was homeless.  His hair was disheveled and he, obviously, hadn’t had a shower in a while. 

He, actually, wasn’t half bad at the piano.  He had a good strong bass rhythm with solid chords.  Craig listened for a while then approached the man and introduced himself.  Craig had seen Breezy on the streets from time to time.  He had a gimpy leg and whenever the sidewalk would become too crowded, he would duck into a doorway.  Something was definitely not right with his left leg.

The church would let him come in from time to time and play, and Craig and Breezy began to meet at a close by diner for some eggs, hash browns and coffee.  Over the ensuing weeks Craig learned more and more of Breezy’s story.  He spoke indirectly of a hospital stay some time ago.  He had spent his recent years hitchhiking back and forth across the country.

He spoke of a music contract he had been awaiting to arrive.  It was very intricate and most complicated.  In Breezy’s mind, this was reality, though it seemed rather grandiose to Craig. 

Breezy had been sleeping in one of Seattle’s downtown shelters until it closed — closed even though the weather continued cold and damp.  Then he moved around at night from place to place.  Craig continued to urge Breezy to have his leg checked out.  One day when Breezy could barely walk, he was finally willing to have Craig escort him to a clinic and have a nurse look at it.  His problem was diagnosed as cellulitis, a very serious case.  With medicines and a prescription for a bed at a shelter, Breezy began to feel better.

In the following days, Craig and Breezy would walk the streets of downtown Seattle talking together.  Actually, Craig mostly listened.  Craig encouraged Breezy to meet a social worker, Ken, from Health Care for the Homeless.  Ken began to join the two of them for breakfast at their favorite diner – and the circle widened by one. 

On one morning, shortly after the World Trade Organization met in
Seattle and noisy street protests filled the downtown, the turmoil deeply agitated Breezy.  As some extremists began setting fire to Dumpsters and smashing windows, Breezy’s fear and anxiety became palpable.  Obviously, all this took Breezy back to a very distressing time in his life.  “They aren’t starting again?  The riots?” he questioned.[7]  For some time afterwards, Breezy remained at a heightened state of alert.  Fearful of more of the potential chaos he must have experienced sometime in his past.

As Ken and Craig continued to meet with Breezy in the coming weeks, more and more of Breezy’s story emerged.  He began to look upon Craig and Ken as trusted friends.  And over the breakfasts a plan was developed.  Ken would help Breezy in his applications for various benefits.  Though Breezy wouldn’t go to a doctor’s office about his leg, he was okay if a doctor joined the trio at breakfast.  After some getting acquainted conversation, Breezy discovered that Doc played a little guitar, more of a hobby than anything else.  He invited Breezy to stop by his office when he might be in the neighborhood. 

One day, as Craig and Breezy passed Doc’s office, Craig suggested they go in and Breezy agreed.  Doc was between appointments and the three chatted for a while, and Breezy agreed to an appointment.  An appointment that turned into regular visits.  Breezy’s circle widened by yet another.

Ken helped Breezy find an apartment and slowly Breezy formed some friendships with the other residents.  His circle continued to grow. 

He bought a guitar and the church secretary got him several sets of new clothes.  Breezy would hunt the alleys for items of use, or that could be repaired, assembling in his small space a computer he had fixed with a monitor and printer that he was still working on.

Breezy loved Christmas.  The previous year he and Ken had driven to an elaborate Nativity scene with children and live sheep.  He asked if Craig might come by his apartment for a special blessing as Christmas neared.  Shortly before the holiday, Craig and Ken stopped by. 

Craig asked if Breezy had some ideas for what he might include in his prayer.  Breezy asked for a special blessing for his Christmas tree he had scavenged.  Decked out in various ornaments Breezy had come across with a string of colored lights, there it stood.  Should Craig include anything else in the prayer?  “A home,” he said, “is good.”

“We blessed the tree and Breezy’s home, and prayed for his continued wellbeing and healing from all that weighed upon him and caused confusion in his life.  We gave thanks for his special gifts: music and a good heart.  And we gave thanks that in this world we need not be alone, but have the help and encouragement of others to find our way.[8]

After the prayer, Breezy took Ken and Craig over to a small table, and turned on the computer he had rebuilt.  “It did not work perfectly – and might never.”  But Breezy tinkered with it every day. 

His delighted grin said a lot.  It was one of those moments when Breezy’s soul shone forth unmistakably.  His Christmas tree, decorated with castaway treasures from the streets that Breezy had carefully collected, evidenced a coming together, a new iteration of life.[9]

The blessed companionship of Craig, Ken, Doc and Breezy is ever the work of Christmas.  That small circle of love will forever remain unbroken.  It is of God. 

This is work Herod in his raging would never understand, certainly not to expend time and treasure for.  Yet it is priceless.  It is the gift of Mary and Joseph, who many long years ago, gave birth to it in a lowly manger stall.  

This is the gift that lives on in hearts of all who still make pilgrimage to the Christ Child with service and gifts.  On the streets, in jails, shelters, in offices — wherever there is need.  With hands, minds and hearts, pocket books and credit cards honor is bestowed.

Yes, deck the halls.  Raise another cup for Auld Lang Syne.  Trim the tree.  Welcome friends and family.  But never forget:  Jesus is the reason for the season.  Not so much to adore, but as to follow.  Follow, as do those who are companions to the homeless on cold, wintry nights.   

My friend Jim Strathdee, drawing on a poem by Howard Thurman, put these sentiments into a wonderful song:

When the song of the angels is stilled.
When the star in the sky is gone.
When the kings and the shepherds have found their way home.
The work of Christmas is begun!

With Tiny Tim, I say, “And God bless us, everyone.”  Amen

[1] John Dominic Crossan, God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (San Francisco, Harper Collins, 2007).

[2] Coventry Carol, 15th Century, The Hymnal 1982: according to the use of the Episcopal Church (New York, Church Hymnal Corp., 1982), 247.

[3] Matthew 1:21-22, RSV.

[4] Crossan, 89.

[5] Craig Rennebohm, Souls in the Hands of a Tender God: Stories of the Search for Home and Healing on the Streets (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008). 65 ff.

[6] Dean Brackley, The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times (New York: Crossroad Pub. Co., 2004).

[7] Ibid, p 67.

[8] Ibid. p. 68

[9] Ibid.

Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach, San Bernardino

Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22 2019

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

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