Sometimes what happens at church is that I have to face uncomfortable facts about myself and seriously consider what needs to change.
A lot of people were out of town or sick this morning, and the weather was dismal and rainy, which probably did not help boost attendance, either; the choir had to make do with 25% of the sopranos and 50% of the altos, even though we had an interesting anthem (“Jesus Entered Egypt”).
As our pastor pointed out, our “reward” for being among the faithful few who came to worship this morning was to hear “one of the most horrifying stories in the Bible,” the story of King Herod ordering the massacre of the innocents.
The prayer of confession that took its cue from that text was jarring:
Merciful God, we recognize that at times we are like Herod. Whenever we, in our actions or in our inactions, find our own need for control more compelling than the needs of others for health and safety. Whenever we cling to the security of our privilege, rather than standing up for the rights of the oppressed. Whenever we are complicit in the harming of innocents for the sake of profit, or power, or because we fear to know, and to change, the injustices of this world. Loving God, we confess our sins against you and one another, and pray that you will fill us with your light, that we may live our lives as true disciples in your name, without counting the cost. In the name of Christ, the one who showed us the way, we pray. Amen.
Herod the Great was actually fairly popular with his subjects, according to our pastor. Under Herod, the economy was robust, so a lot of “regular people” were relatively well off. A lot of people would have gone along with Herod’s brutality, supported it more or less, on the grounds that he was at least getting results. (And anyhow, what can we expect from a ruler?)
Whether or not the story in Matthew describes an event a historian would recognize, we all know that mass killing is the kind of event that could have taken place in history, and has taken place in history. Recent history, for that matter. So, using Matthew’s story as a stand-in for all of that, we know this: Herod didn’t personally kill each of those children. People did it for him; followed his orders. And still other people would have been glad it wasn’t them and their own children, and would have done their best to put it out of their minds, or wouldn’t have given it much serious thought in the first place.
“Evil doesn’t usually go out of its way to advertise itself as evil. It doesn’t usually dress up like a monster, with horns and fangs and claws. Evil usually wears a suit of respectability.”
So it is fair to ask ourselves whether, in light of our Christmas knowledge of God, who is uniquely with and for us in the incarnation, we are also with and for God. Which is to say, are we with and for the people God is with and for. Ever. In any way.
I’m afraid that, if I seldom go out of my way to act on that kind of solidarity, the answer is probably no, I’m not – at least, not enough.
I don’t think that’s the answer I want to be my final one.
[Full disclosure: I post something that happened at church every week because I have the idea that it might communicate a taste of what makes church life meaningful and life-giving. That, in turn, might make it easier for someone who wonders “Why on earth would anyone go to church??” to begin to see an answer to that question. Maybe even to consider trying it for themselves.]