Dwelling in Deep Darkness
Epiphany of Our Lord – Narrative Lectionary 1
January 6, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Last summer, Cindy and I vacationed in Dubuque, IA, which you may know is a river town. We had a great time. Really. One of our stops was the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, a wonderful place where we wandered around for hours. At the museum was a special exhibit displaying replicas of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings and inventions. What I particularly enjoyed about our time there was being unhurried. We were taking our time, reading the placards, and interacting with those displays that allowed it. I’m pretty sure we saw everything. And we didn’t just see it, we sat with it. That’s a bit unusual since I have the tendency to rush through things, to “get ‘er done.”
I’ve had to fight that same tendency with the story of the Holy Family, especially regarding the slaughter of innocents. Apparently, two years have passed and for some reason Mary, Joseph and Jesus have settled in Bethlehem. The story starts out innocently enough with the familiar visit by the magi. There are a few nuances as to who the magi were, but my guess is that they were probably Persian astrologers. Their presence emphasizes a theme that Matthew leads with in the genealogy in chapter 1 and will be spelled out in chapter 28: the gospel includes the most unlikely people and goes to all nations. “Go, therefore, to all nations, teaching all that I have commanded you, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy.”
But then the story goes horribly wrong as Herod—who is no real king—goes murderously berserk. The Holy Family is forced to flee to Egypt, which is hardly a welcoming place of sanctuary or safety. Here’s where I think that there’s a tendency to rush, to either to gloss over the text with some superficial explanation or to make the text serve our purposes. I guarantee some pastors will use this text to preach against abortion, sex trafficking or other atrocity against children. Or pastors might compare those who are seeking sanctuary at our border (or anywhere else for that matter) to the plight of the Holy Family.
Now, those are not bad things to preach about and should be preached about. However, I think it’s disingenuous to move too quickly to what is to be done in order to satisfy a political agenda, no matter how worthy. Even so, I think I get why pastors (or listeners) want to do so. I so desperately want to beat the text with a stick to get something out of it that would help us make some sense of the unwarranted suffering inflicted upon the vulnerable by those who should be protecting them. Truth be told, as your pastor I’d like to say something profound to help you do the same.
Yet, as a prayed and meditated about this awful story I realized there was a different way to deal with this difficult text. I think that for today we must just sit with the text, to dwell in deep darkness with it just like those parents, family members and friends sat with the horror visited upon them. I think we need to sit with the acknowledgement that the world Jesus entered was one in which the innocent suffer, where suffering in one form or another is part and parcel of being human. We all suffer to one degree or another, to a greater or lesser degree. After all, that’s the definition of compassion: to suffer with someone. It’s also the way of Jesus Christ, the way of the cross.
Compassion is one of our proposed core values here at Grace. It’s one of our core values because I’ve seen compassion in action every day here. We continually dwell with the homeless, the broken-hearted, and the most vulnerable. Yet, as much as we’d like to fix the world and everyone in it, that’s not our primary job. The first order of being a community of faith is to dwell with people in their deepest darkness. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to make the world a better place; we do want to make a difference in the world. But that our first priority is to tell people that they aren’t alone in their darkness. We are to tell them that ultimately the darkness doesn’t win and that we have God who loved us so much that he came to be one of us. That’s not something that can be rushed. Amen.