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Another Silent Night
the Reverend Krystal Leedy
December 29, 2019
A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord 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. ”Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, 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 wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“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.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
I have a secret to tell you. Don’t tell my in-laws. Over the 1st through 4th days of Christmas, I spent with John’s family, and on the 3rd day of Christmas, I was left by myself at the house. It was lovely to have a moment of quiet after several days of cousins running around and yelling. And while they were all gone, I did something that I need you all to keep a secret. Just between you and me. I fed the fish. There’s a little fish bowl on the kitchen counter, and the fish was putting his little fish mouth on the top of the water and it seemed like he was asking for food. So, I fed him. I think he’s on a pretty tight fishy eating schedule, and I probably messed that up. But he just seemed so happy when I put a few flakes in the top of his little fishbowl. He first started eating them on the surface of that water, and the room was so quiet that I could hear his little fish mouth with tiny fish gulps as he ate his fill of stinky flakes. And then I think he saw a weird glasses-wearing, frizzy-haired monster staring at him so he started doing this thing where he would put his tail on the surface of the water and swish it around and the flakes would fall and he would dart to catch them. He almost looked like he was playing a game. He just seemed like he was having so much fun, darting all around, catching the food in his mouth. And, it was so quiet. It was lovely.
We sang Silent Night four times on Christmas Eve at the late service. I was not the first to point this out, and I won’t be the last. It’s not a critique. It’s just an observation. I personally love that song, so I’m grateful that I was able to really dig into it. After all, that’s what repetition does for us, helps us really dig in. You know how you dig your toes into the sand. You repeat the curling and extending of your toes over and over until they are covered by sand. That’s how we dig in. We gain depth by having similar things over and over. Now, that must of course be balanced with novelty. There’s something to be said about variety being the spice of life, but around this time of year, I want to dig into Christmas carols and the tree being lit on a cold winter’s night and turkey and tamales and family. I want to sing my Silent Night and raise my candle on the fourth verse for some unknown reason and sit on the front pew. I want to dig my toes in deeply into this time of year.
And yes, we see those spicy articles online that will try to debunk myths of Christmas, and pull apart the nativity into their proper chronological places. And really, that’s fine because on Christmas Eve, the Christmas pageant will still continue to be an amalgamation of the holy family and shepherds and angels and Magi and us. And these traditions that we believe have been the same since the beginning of time, we logically know have not been, we will look back on as the places where we dug our toes in the sand, where we drank deeply of this story, where we sang the carols, where we were rocked by the lullaby-like nature of this song Silent Night.
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright.
And we all gathered round. All of us: the shepherds and the angels and the magi, the holy family. And then they left. The Magi went back to the east, the angels went back north, and the shepherds went west to the hillsides. And Mary and Joseph went south, and took a turn west—but they were fleeing for their lives. And the silent night followed them as Rachel wept for her children.
All based on a dream, fleeing the machinations of a mad man, the holy family, bundled up their baby and went over four hundred miles to a land that centuries before had oppressed the Jewish people. And we only know that they stayed there for as long as the infanticide was taking place, until the tyrant King Herod was dead. They stayed there as long as it took, and they came back to another tyrannical government and settled in another part of the Middle East, Nazareth. The holy family was a migrant family, who was displaced by tyrants.
And after the fourth time of singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve, after digging my toes in really deeply into the sand, I realized that the candle in front of me was yes indeed reminding me that we are the light of Christ in the world, but the light dispelling the darkness is not only about my own individual sin, dispelling the demons that creep in on us all, but it was also lighting the way for the family. That night, that holy night, held a lighted path for a family that ran and walked over 400 miles to flee a very real threat to life and limb. We held the light not only for the Christ child coming into the world but also to go into hiding. We held the light for the Egyptian family that no doubt welcomed them into their home or the whole community that held the baby just as the Egyptians held Moses centuries before. We kept vigil five nights ago for the family.
And the placing of this story into that moment of singing holds a desperation that I know little about, but hope that I can understand more. All was calm and bright around the mother and child, and thank God so that they could flee without being detected but they could still see what was up ahead. Mary needed a silent night, not because the baby was bothersome, but because they were on the run. Her song had subsided for the moment, seeming like a distant dream. “I thought the world was going to turn. I thought every tyrant would be pulled from his throne. I thought the hungry would be filled. I thought this promise was to be fulfilled in this labor, in the bearing of God into the world.”
There are now about 2500 people that sit on the edge of the city of Matamoros, being moved around by tyrants. 2500 vulnerable people who made treks three times as long as the holy family only to sit and wait for months at a border of a country that they will probably never be allowed to enter.
And the issues on the border keep getting bigger. The stories are getting sadder. The oppression is getting larger. And we are having a harder and harder time hearing these stories that we feel like we can do nothing about, living in Texas, being so far away. We feel disconnected and like we can’t dig our feet in anymore. We feel helpless.
It seems an odd contrast to place this story on the Sunday after Christmas. On the Sunday after we made room in our hearts for the Christ child, it almost seems cruel to immediately follow that with a tyrant of a king who decided to kill all of the babies.
And after taking a look into the historical figure that was known as Herod the Great, it’s helpful to also realize that this man, in addition to calling for an infanticide, also really did a lot for the infrastructure of the region and boosted the economy. There were a lot of people that really appreciated Herod being able to put together roads and the reconstruction of the second temple in Jerusalem and even an aqueduct.
And there are lots of historians that believe that Herod the Great did not order the killing of the children under two years old, but it still does not change the fact that it could happen. We know that there are tyrants who can and do commit atrocities historically and today. A powerful, threatened man in a patriarchal culture is a dangerous thing, and the holy family fled for a reason. When the Empire wishes you dead, there’s very little that can be done to stop it, to where the angels’ message of “Do not be afraid,” seems like a distant dream.
Empire is always looming. It’s always in the background. Those huge structures that hold up this world that we have created are always there. This passage reminds us of that. We go back to work. We go back to the grocery store. We go back to school soon. We are back in the city, in the stuff of life, back among the patriarchy and the white supremacy and the American dream which lie to us continually. We are back amongst the systems that don’t mean to oppress people but do, every day.
And the best thing we can do in the midst of this season is to believe—believe the crushed, believe the fearful, believe the human beings who are telling us their story. Because there are some things that even if they truly didn’t happen, we certainly could see how they could happen. And that room that we made in our hearts for the Christ child is the same room we need to spend time cultivating for other human beings.
I know it’s hard to see 2500 people in your mind’s eye. It’s hard to see 600 tents. It’s hard to imagine the border. But the thing about tyrants is that that’s the way they see the world. They see 2500 bodies and think “threat.” We know how that kind of power leads so quickly to fear. Tyrants see masses of people ready for an uprising.
But the reason that I fed the fish had nothing to do with structure. It had nothing to do with power. It had everything to do with the fact that the fish was at the top of the bowl, and I truly believed he was hungry. And I know that it’s hard to make good decisions when you’re hungry. I know it was probably difficult for him to think properly. And then I honestly had this realization: that was a fish. I gave human characteristics to a fish, and I took action. Granted, it was simple. Moved with compassion by the anthropomorphized fish in front of me, I picked up the food, and put it in the bowl. Problem solved—for a moment. Not for all eternity.
Twenty-five people from three different organizations made the trek across the border last Wednesday with over 500 pounds of ham, 300 pounds of sweet potato casserole, 100 pounds of cole slaw, and 3600 Christmas cookies. Twenty-five people served 2500, hoping to offer a bit of Christmas cheer to children that they gave crayons and coloring books to, and a flashlight so they could read at night. They watched a Christmas movie and Santa visited them with a beard that was hardly attached. The children whispered their wishes to Santa and just wanted to be held. Problem solved—for a moment. Not for all eternity.
Because the real miracle of Christmas is our ability to be moved to compassion. It’s the miracle of opening hearts. It’s the miracle of saying “shut up” to the Empire for just one night. The miracle of Christmastide is holding onto that for long enough to make a difference. The miracle of Christmas is living into the prophetic words of the Magnificat by responding to the work of Empire. By shining a light on the great darkness, and naming the evil that exists in the world. Because that’s how we know how good love is—when we are met with Herod and find a way to feed the people anyway.
Because honestly, being moved by compassion can happen anywhere. There’s so little that can be done in the face of Empire, in the face of the border crisis, in the face of structures that seem too big and seem to crush so many. But, we are the fools who believe in love. We are those who do not give into despair, and love is our great rebellion against Herod. Find your moment to be moved and release that compassion into the world. That’s the only way that Empires fall. It’s when love starts chipping away at them one stone at a time. Because when you love your family, it makes a difference. When you love all of God’s creatures, it makes a difference. When you love your enemies, it makes a difference.
May there be more Silent Nights, where all is calm and all is bright, where people can run away from systems of oppression into sanctuaries filled with love and compassion and an embrace for each. May there be more moments for us to remember the faces. May there be more times where angels are cheering us on to courage and grace dawns with each sunrise. And may we be moved to compassion, each time we look another in the eye.
In the name of Christ Jesus, incarnated into this world, Amen.
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