Is New Life Possible?

A reflection on Matthew 2:1-12 by Andrew Stephens-Rennie originally preached at St. Brigids Vancouver.

On December 26th, the feast of St. Stephen, that ancient Christian Festival devoted to purchasing flat screen TVs at discount prices, a feast irreligiously displaced in modern times by November’s ominously titled Black Friday…

On December 26th, a woman named Amber Cartorna published her coming-out story to Facebook.

These stories aren’t as rare as they once were, even though in many corners of the world the risks are as scary as hell. But here’s Amber’s particular twist:

Her dad is an Executive at Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization that takes an incredibly strong stance against gay marriage, let alone any sort of LGBTQ rights.

You can see how that might complicate things more than a little.

As she relates the process of coming out to her family, Amber writes:

Finally, after a long and difficult climb, the Scriptures in question settled in my heart, I found the answers I needed and knew that in God’s eyes, I was not only accepted but also loved for exactly how He made me.

The odds were high, however, that my family would not feel the same. Anxiety, panic attacks and nightmares swelled as I approached the day where telling them my truth would disappoint and break the illusion of that “perfect Focus family”. As I mustered every ounce of strength I had on that chilly April day, I looked my family in the eyes and said those three small, but life-altering words, “I am gay.” With my exposed heart hanging in the air, I awaited their response. To my deep dismay, the only response that came out of my dad’s mouth was, “I have nothing to say to you right now,” and he walked out the door.

At this point in her story, I found myself reaching for a reset button. A new way forward.

But just because the antagonist walks offstage doesn’t mean the drama comes to a stop. Amber goes on to say:

Over time, because of their unwavering belief in Focus on the Family’s teaching and interpretation of the Scriptures on this issue, I was quietly pushed aside and shunned from the family. Only in my worst nightmares were the consequences as drastic as what they proved to be in real life. I lost not only my immediate family, but also my relatives, my church, many of my friends, and essentially, even my hometown.

What started with a conversation with her family and spiralled into ever expanding circles of chaos. For Amber, the isolation driven by her family’s fear was nothing short of hell.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.

So begins today’s gospel. And this week, it’s been this particular phrase that has hung in the air:

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.

Herod’s reign was one of power, terror, and fear-mongering. He was focused and brutal, ruling the Israelites on behalf of Rome. Along the way, he channeled Israel’s former ruler Solomon, the royal arms dealer who built his temple on the backs of the people. Herod’s temple, they say, was just as grand, and it came all the trappings of Solomon’s time – a military fort, a bank, a taxation centre and place of worship all in one.

The Empire’s one-stop shop for your every need. And on weekends, a petting zoo for the kids.

Herod had all this power. All this control. Yet in today’s gospel we find him scared shitless of the child revealed to him by these dreaming foreigners moved by a star – westward leading, still proceeding.

But unlike the Queen of Sheba who came to pay homage to Solomon and his wisdom and power, these emissaries from a far-flung empire come seeking a different King. One who will help Israel and her people to return to the forgotten ways witnessed to in the law and the prophets.

And so naturally, when King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.

Herod was afraid. Afraid of a baby. And we get it. Babies are hard. Unknowable. They wake you in the middle of the night, leaving you to make sleep-deprived foreign policy decisions.

That’s why modern heads of state hire nannies.

Not to mention the fact that babies throw up on your finest silk robes. And they rarely grow up to fulfil your dreams for their future. And then, when you’re not looking, they call your entire empire into question. Each and every time. Kids change everything. I get all of that.

But Jerusalem was afraid too. Herod was frightened, and life spiraled into chaos in ever expanding circles as his fear became contagious. And fear, at least in my experience, often pushes us towards isolation. Fear wants to push away that which is unknown. It needs violence. It needs a scapegoat.

Herod was afraid of the baby, sending Jerusalem into fear of a tyrant, his ubiquitous power, and his notorious temper. Nothing good could come of this.

So you can imagine how they might cower in fear. If they wanted to protect themselves, they’d duck their heads and stay as far away from the action as possible. It was self-preservation.

And this, my friends, is Epiphany. A great day to sing We Three Kings and wonder why anyone would follow a star o’er field and fountain, moor and mountain. It seems like an awful lot of work.

This week while reading an article by Eliseo Perez-Alvarez, a Lutheran professor of Theology in Puerto Rico, I learned that while “’Epiphany’ originally meant the abrupt manifestation or showing up of a sovereign to inspect a subordinate” the gospels changed the meaning to the appearance of the poor Jesus of Nazareth to inspect the powerful.

At Epiphany, we celebrate the way in which the poor and powerless Jesus calls all systems of power and oppression into question.

And as we continue to tell the story of his life death and resurrection, we discover the many ways in which he embodied this same thing throughout his life.

And so for me, I heard echoes of the power, fear and pain of today’s gospel in Amber’s story.

But I also heard glimmers of hope.

Where one way of being had led to fear, and rejection, and wounding, I also read the story of a different Jesus-centered community and friends who surrounded her. Of people who brought gifts of time, and presence, and companionship. Of a couple who walked Amber down the aisle, acting as stand-in parents when her family refused to attend her wedding because of “What the Bible Clearly Says.”

And as I reflected on Amber’s story, I felt convicted that we are, and that we are becoming just that kind of community – with God’s help.

I am convinced that St. Brigids is growing into a community that will walk alongside those who have been pushed to the side – no matter the reason – and ready to invite one and all to join us on the discipleship journey as we follow Jesus. I am convinced that there is plenty of room for more. And that God is calling us to support one another along the way.

We come here from so many different places, so many different situations. We are brand new Christians and mature practitioners. We are energized and motivated, we are hurt, tired, barely hanging on, sometimes confused.

And yet we have heard – in some way – God’s call, and found this community where we might grow in relationship with Christ, with each other, and where we can learn to reach out in love again.

For some of us, the church and its people have wounded us. We’ve been through a great deal, and we’re giving this Jesus thing one last shot. Others of us are elsewhere on the Christian journey. But what I do know, is that we can do this – together.

Jesus makes new life possible. Not life driven by fear, but abundant life grounded in the assurance that we are beloved children of God. Each and every one of us. Even on those days we’re told we’re not. And especially on those days we can’t believe it’s true.

As we track forward into a new year, I’m grateful for Nadia Bolz-Weber’s tweeted reminder:

“There is no resolution that, if kept, will make me more worthy of love.”

God loves you. All of you. And we are invited, all of us, to follow in that same path of radical self-giving love.

This morning, Matthew sent me a song he recorded, adapted from a 19th Century Hymn by William Faber. I want to close reading its words:

oh paradise, oh paradise
the world is growing cold
oh paradise, oh paradise
it’s fractured yet it’s whole

oh paradise, oh paradise
who does not crave for rest?
oh paradise, oh paradise
where they are loved and blessed

heaven in these filthy streets
heaven in the face we see
Holy One you give the earth its light
this broken wounded paradise

oh paradise, oh paradise,
it’s weary living here
oh paradise, oh paradise
the land longs to feel you near

oh paradise, oh paradise
we all crave for rest
oh paradise, oh paradise
where we are loved and blessed

heaven in these filthy streets
heaven in the face we see
Holy One you give the earth its light
this broken wounded paradise

And though we may be broken. Though we may carry scars, God is redeeming them. God’s light will shine forth in us, and in this broken wounded paradise.

Andrew Stephens-Rennie on FacebookAndrew Stephens-Rennie on Twitter
Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

Andrew serves on staff at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC as Director of Ministry Innovation, with primary responsibility for St. Brigids, an emerging Christian community where questions are honoured, faith is nurtured, and discipleship pursued.
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