Delivered at Ames UCC
on June 24, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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What is the most powerful act you have witnessed or experience you have had because of your faith or life in a community of faith? Have you ever used that experience to justify your faith or life in a community of faith? Today’s passage is all about witnessing and using the fact of being an eyewitness to bolster an argument. An argument about Jesus.
Here are the two sides: Early Christians who believed Jesus was fully divine, called Docetists, versus those including the followers of the disciple John who authored this essay, who believed he was divine and human.
For the Docetists, divinity could not suffer pain, as on the cross, so the physical appearance of Jesus was a mask, his carnality unimportant. For our authors, having witnessed Christ’s life and death with their own eyes, they were convinced that Jesus was fully divine and fully human. They give this witness statement that their joy might be complete.
Which reminds me of another set of witnesses from the beginning of Jesus’s life, a group of people from whom we have no letter or essay describing and interpreting what they saw: the magi.
In the gospel of Matthew we learn that King Herod, the local puppet of the Roman occupiers in Jerusalem, receives some foreign astrologers at his court. The astrologers ask Herod where the newborn king is, for they saw a star that announced his arrival and they wish to pay him homage.
Herod is afraid because there has been no such birth in his house. He’s afraid of losing his power so he asks for counselors to assess where such a birth might have happened. They point toward Bethlehem. Herod calls the astrologers back and points them to Bethlehem, asking only that they let him know what they find in return for the favor.
The astrologers go and find the infant Jesus and Mary, his mother. They kneel in respect and offer gifts. Then they leave without sending word to Herod. The story says they all had a dream about the frightened king so they go home by way of another route, keeping the location of Jesus a secret.
We are left with an account of what the magi did—fact or fable—but not what they thought or felt or what they saw in that moment we call the epiphany, and which we mark twelve days after Christmas.
So we are left to our imaginations, one of our most important tools for both prayer and for justice.
Here’s what I imagine the wise men witnessed: The newborn infant of stateless parents who were forced to travel because of the policies of a foreign government. Sweat and hunger and fatigue. A mother sore and barely recovered, her breasts heavy with milk. The smallest of eyes and hands and feet, and the basic demands of feeding, sleeping, and cleaning up.
The magi saw what we all have been—fragile—and where we all come from—a state of complete dependency. And they saw all of that banality bathed in the cosmic spotlight of a star.
It brought them to their knees.
These trained and well-traveled men were brought to their knees by cooing, not braggartry; humility, not hedonism; human touch, not physical isolation; the borderless, not the barricaded.
I think you know where I am going with this.
In a news report last week the head of the American Academy of Pediatrics described going to one of our nation’s southern border detention facilities, one of the ones that houses kids who have been pulled away from their migrating and even asylum-seeking parents.
She said the toddler room was equipped well enough but was eerie: All of the children were quiet except for one that was sobbing. None of the toddlers were interacting with each other and the staff was not allowed to pick up the one racked by keening.
Imagine that. Picture two- and three-year-olds who are not crawling or playing or chattering, but silent and separate. In the midst of that unnatural still, a small body is loud and wretched with tears, and not a single hand reaches out to provide comfort.
It was a room of trauma embodied, of development arresting, of small souls rending.
We cannot see what the disciples saw at the cross and the magi saw at the stable, but we can see that. Today we witness humble and stateless children who should be cooing instead suffering from the lack of their parent’s touch.
Which means that we actually are witnessing the cross and the stable.
CROSS AND STABLE
And special as our versions are to us, crosses and stables are more the rule than the exception. The reason we have so many stories in scripture about children in jeopardy and poor people persecuted is because human history has had so many children in jeopardy and poor people persecuted.
But we do not tell them over and over to affirm the status quo, to shrug our shoulders and say, “That’s just the way it is and that is the way God wants it to be.”
Our faith is the starlight and sunrise, the light which evades the control of the domineering to illuminate what we have done and what we have left undone, like loving our neighbors as ourselves.
The authors of our scripture today want people to understand their experience of Christ, as one who was fully implicated in the worst humanity has to offer, yet who could persevere and endure to such a divine degree that we might choose another way. They share this, they say, so that their joy might be complete.
There is no joy at our border. That will take reunification, which may take months. And even then, both the children and the parents alike will carry scars from what the frightened kings of our nation have done to them. This latest iteration of the same old story is not yet done.
I wonder, though, if in the substantial backlash against this policy and practice, from all parties and so many people, we are seeing the magi calling Herod out instead of returning home by another route.
I started my time by asking about the most powerful act you have witnessed because of your faith and whether you have ever used it to justify your own faith.
I know that all of the suffering in the world can contradict our devotion to a God of love. But that’s because we keep wanting to make suffering all about God, and God the whole of the story.
God never relieves the suffering except through us. We are the ones who, in response to the love of God, shine a spotlight on indecency. It is in response to God’s love that we are so brought to our knees that we can rise up in action no matter how large the problem or entrenched the resistance to us.
And when we do that, when we practice redemption locally as we do in AMOS or by proxy through our national church leaders, not only might children and our own souls be saved, but God’s joy, maybe God’s own joy, will be made complete.