There are a lot of popular songs on the radio, and playing over the speakers at the stores, that tell stories related to the birth of Jesus. But not many songs deal with the wise men. I want to play one for you now that was recorded by James Taylor, back in 1988. It was on the album Never Die Young, and is called “Home by another way”.
Taylor’s take is that Herod is corrupt and greedy, and has his soldiers chase down the Magi for the gold, frankincense and myrhh. He does not dig into what I think really motivates Herod, which is fear. Herod cannot abide the thought that another king might appear on the scene- especially not a king who has God’s blessing.
Herod represents evil that conspires to protect the way things are, no matter the cost. In the story, the cost is borne by the Magi, who go out of their way to avoid another encounter with Herod. The cost is borne by Joseph and Mary and the infant Jesus, who travel even further out of their way, to Egypt, to avoid Herod’s forces. The cost is borne in the most terrible way by the families of all the boys 2 years and younger, living in the vicinity of Bethlehem. The story says these children were killed in Herod’s campaign to protect the status quo, and eliminate a possible rival king, before he can become old enough to start shaking things up.
This part of the story is traditionally called the Slaughter of the Innocents. It is a hard story to hear. We don’t like to be reminded of the brutal cruelty people, and political systems are willing to inflict, usually on other people’s children, to protect what they fear losing.
We might prefer to think the world has changed, and these things no longer happen. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if political systems, governments, power structures had rejected the fearful ways of Herod, and were willing to be courageous, to protect the innocent, rather than see them suffer?
Not long before Christmas I listened to an amazing interview with a Conservative Senator, Hugh Segal. The first amazing thing was that he was not defending his expense account claims. The second amazing thing was that he was talking about a vision for a different kind of Canada, that puts a higher priority on nurturing and supporting our most vulnerable people. He spoke about how different things might be, if there were a guaranteed minimum income for every person.
Segal suggests we use the federal tax system to top up every household to above the poverty line. This would eliminate the need for provincial and municipal welfare, free up money for other programs, and change the way we look at our lowest income Canadians. (I have put a link to an article he wrote on the Trinity Facebook page.)
Segal has been working on this issue for years. There is logic to his idea, but he is largely dismissed, I think largely for ideological reasons, which mask prejudice, and fear. People who are well-off seem to resent the idea that tax money might be used to raise people above poverty conditions.
Anyone who has had to deal one-on-one with the current systems knows how dis-spiriting, dehumanizing, and time-consuming it can be to apply for benefits, satisfy the conditions, pass the means tests, and do the ongoing reporting required to receive support. Segal argues these layers of bureaucracy are punitive, and expensive, and have created comfortable careers for all the fact and form checkers, inspectors, and front-line workers.
I would argue that if governments had to face the same scrutiny that charities and churches face, with regard to the ratio of administrative costs compared to help delivered, we might declare the whole welfare machine hopelessly inefficient, and top-heavy with highly paid managers- none of whom have real incentive to change things- for fear of working themselves out of their jobs.
Fear is a powerful force, that can persuade basically good people to defend the status quo, even if it clearly is not making things better.
I remember the day in 1989 when the members of Parliament voted unanimously to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. At that time, there were 912,000 children in Canada living in poverty conditions. 24 years later we still have 967,000. 1 in 7 Canadian kids live in poverty.
It would be overly dramatic to compare this to Herod’s campaign against the infant boys. But in a country where there is so much luxury, and so much disposable income, it seems clear that if we could move through our fear of change, and away from our sense of entitlement and protectiveness of our little kingdoms, we could do so much better.
I usually don’t talk so blatantly about worldly issues. As I was editing my sermon, and realizing how I might come across, I was reminded of the words of a Brazilian Roman Catholic Bishop, Dom Helder Camara, who said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
I can assure you that I am neither a saint nor a communist. I am quite surprised at myself for saying as much as I have today. I am also surprised that I would end up quoting the words of a conservative senator. Maybe it is a Christmas miracle!
Another name, in churchy language, for Christmas is the Feast of the Incarnation. The root word for incarnation is the latin word “carne”, which means in the flesh. The birth of Jesus is seen to signify God amongst us in human form- in the flesh.
For people who follow Jesus, the place to live out our faith is in the flesh, in our everyday lives. The story of the infant born in a stable, asleep in a manger because there is no other shelter reminds us that God is absolutely aware of how vulnerable, how precarious life can be in this world.
The world can be a very cold place. Followers of Jesus are called to do what they can, to take risks, to live beyond fear and prejudice and self-interest, to embody, to put flesh on the message of God’s love. That may mean putting ourselves in the middle of hard conversations, and situations of conflict. Those may be the places where the faithful voice, that points to another way, is most needed.
It was just over a year ago, on December 14, 2012, that another slaughter of the innocents happened at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. A young man with numerous powerful firearms and copious amounts of ammunition made his way into the school, and shot many students and staff, wounding many, and killing 6 adults and twenty children.
It is an awful, awful story, perhaps made worse by the fact that in the weeks and months that followed, sales of firearms and ammunition spiked dramatically as did the number of new applications for gun permits. A powerful response to this slaughter of the innocents was to hoard more weapons, and campaign vigorously to protect the status quo, and retain the constitutional right to bear arms. A year later, and despite promises made, and calls to action by all levels of American government, it is as easy today to get access to the weapons and ammunition used to attack that school as it was before the tragedy. Fear is a powerful force in our lives.
Thank God that fear is not the only force in our lives. Thank God there is another way to get home. We do not have to follow Herod’s path. We can allow love to show us another way. A year after the tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School there is another voice being heard out of the wilderness. A community based group called Newtown Kindness, that has as its mission “to promote kindness as a guiding principle of humanity. Newtown Kindness is committed to fostering compassion in children and inspiring life-long contributors to society.”
They support projects such as one by two 7 year old girls from Monroe Connecticut who raised $500 for Wounded Warriors, an organization that helps wounded military veterans. They raised this money through an event called the “Cool Carnival” because as they say, “Cool kids care”. These two girls are also working on a project to make journals for all the Sandy Hook Elementary kids to help deal with the tragedy and move ahead.
I learned about this group by accident. I was watching the Christmas episode of NCIS, and heard a song playing in the background of one of the closing scenes. I loved the singer’s voice, and the poignant words, and wanted to know more. In researching the song, which is called “Nothing More”, I learned the creators of the song are a band called The Alternate Routes. Even their name sounded good to me- it hints at going home by another way!
The Alternate Routes are based in Connecticut, and the Newtown tragedy has been on their hearts. They decided to donate half the proceeds from I-tunes sales of this song to Newtown Kindness. They also have put an invitation on their website, that people can make their own videos synched to the song “Nothing More”, and they can be uploaded to YouTube, and to the band’s website.
A lot of the home-made videos are beautiful expressions of the theme of the song, which is choosing the way of kindness and love. They leave me feeling very hopeful that it really is possible to go beyond fear, to something better. I want to show you my favourite video, which is the work of a class of grade three students, and their teacher, Mrs. Fitzpatrick.
Show video. Amen