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Sermon and Reflections For For The First Sunday After Christmas - Year A
Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23
"Rachel's Children"
Barry Robinson

From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada).   Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way".   Contact Barry at fernstone@fernstone.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
1st After Christmas - Year A
Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23
"Rachel's Children"

     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 were no more."

You may remember Rachel.  She never had it easy.  On the one hand she had
Laban for a father.  On the other she had Jacob for a husband.  Then there
was her sister Leah.  If you know what I mean.

She was the prettier of Laban's daughters when Jacob came to work for them
and she stole Jacob's heart the first time he laid eyes on her.  Jacob
agreed to work seven long years for her and he was good on his word.  But
when it came time to close the deal Laban tricked him and sent Leah into
the wedding chamber after the lights were turned down.  Jacob ended up
having to work another seven long years for Rachel while learning to live
with Leah for whom he didn't bargain.  When they finally did get married,
Rachel found that she couldn't have babies. 

As if to add salt to the wound, her sister Leah had four and found
not-so-subtle ways to hold it over her sister's head.  Eventually, Rachel
did have a child named Joseph.  She just didn't get to enjoy him for very
long.  By the time she gave birth to her second baby, her body wasn't up to
it.  With her dying breath, she named him Benoni, which means 'child of my
sorrow'.  Jacob eventually changed it to Benjamin.

She became a symbol for Israel, in other words, of inconsolable sorrow. 
How can anyone console you when so much that seems to happen to you is
unfair and full of sadness?  So, when the Babylonians carried off Israel
into exile centuries later, Jeremiah wrote that it was like old Rachel was
still crying out from her grave.  Rachel's children were God's children.

     Is Ephraim my dear son? - Jeremiah 31.20

God said in response to the tragedy that befell the lot of them.  Then,
answering his own question, he said,

     As often as I speak against him, I still remember him...
     Therefore my heart longs for him.

And if anybody would have understood, Rachel would have.

                                     +

As it has often been pointed out by skeptics, the slaughter of Bethlehem's
baby boys by Herod is probably a pious legend.  Matthew is doing what
Matthew does best, using scripture to interpret scripture.  The slaughter
of innocents is a biblical motif, which forms the tale of Moses as well.
Moses had to flee from Pharaoh.  He stays away until God informs him that
it is safe to return.

     So Moses took his wife and his sons and set them on an ass, and
     went back to the land of Egypt. - Exodus 4.20

     And he (Joseph) rose and took the child and his mother, and went
     to the land of Israel."

It all fits very nicely into what Matthew has a mind to do, which is to
remind us that Jesus is the new Moses, the one who will finally and fully
lead his people out of bondage. 

But Matthew's story is more than just midrash.  It is a deliberate reminder
of the kind of world into which Jesus was born.  While Herod may not have
slaughtered Bethlehem's babies, there is no doubt he was a child murderer. 

     He had three of his own children executed under accusation of
     conspiring against their father: in 7 B.C., his sons Alexander
     and Arisoboulos by his second wife Marianne (whom he killed in 29
     B.C. for adultery); and, five days before his own death in 4
     B.C., his oldest son, Antipater, by his first wife, Doris.  Herod
     had been married to a total of ten wives. His murderous behaviour
     is said to have made Augustus remark that he would rather be
     Herod's pig than his son.  The point of the joke is that in
     Greek, which cultivated Romans spoke at the time, the word for
     pig (hys) and son (hyios) sound alike.  As Jew, Herod didn't eat
     pork, but he did murder his sons. 
                   - Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Putting Away Childish Things

The brutal face of Herod hangs over the Christmas story like a funeral
pall.  It is about a cruelty, an utter disregard for human life that we see
again and again throughout scripture and throughout human history.

     Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet...

We need to be careful about interpreting Matthew.  He is not saying that
the murderous events that do happen in the world are God's will.

     The message is not that God summons evil to accomplish divine
     purposes, but that the scripture knows the tragic human
     destruction woven into the fabric of history and that not even
     evil in its most catastrophic form, evil as cold and merciless as
     the murderer of innocent children, can destroy God's ability to
     save.   - Thomas G. Long, "Matthew"

In Moses' story an infant was spared so that a leader could be born to save
his people.  In Jesus' story, the "new Moses" was spared so that a saviour
could be born.

     A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel
     weeping for her children...

Matthew probably had at least two reasons for including this quote from
Jeremiah.  We know that Rachel was associated in Jewish lore with the
village of Bethlehem.  A popular legend was that Rachel's tomb was there.
More importantly, the passage from Jeremiah refers to the Babylonian
captivity of Israel.  In Jeremiah, chapter 40, verse 1, Ramah is specified
as the place where Jeremiah parts company with the exiles who are being
taken by their captors to Babylon.  Ramah, in other words, is the place of
mourning for all of God's people, where the mother of God's children,
Rachel, still weeps from her grave.  The poignant picture of a mother
weeping for her lost children is used as a foil to the picture of
redemption.  God is coming to save his people, Matthew wants us to know.
And it is as if God is saying,

     Keep your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for...
     they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope
     for your future,... your children children shall come back... 
                                               - Jeremiah 31.16-17

And the question we need to ask this Christmas is: will they?  Will
Rachel's children come back?

                                     +

In the early morning of October 10, 2001, 20-year old Claudia Ivette
González Banda arrived two minutes late for the assembly line job at a U.S.
owned auto parts supplier in Juárez, Mexico, after missing her bus.  Her
employer told her to go home under a company policy that bars workers from
starting their shifts late.  That was the last time anyone remembers seeing
her alive.  A month later, her body was found along with those of seven
other young women in a mass grave in a cotton field across the street from
the Maquila owners Association of Juárez.  Two years later, Mexican
authorities had no one in custody and no credible suspects for the
killings.

Since 1993, 370 young Mexican women have been killed in Juárez, just over
the border from El Paso, Texas.  More than 450 women have disappeared since
that time.  At least 137 were sexually assaulted before they were murdered.
Most of the murdered women came to Juárez from desperately poor rural areas
in order to make $10 a day in maquilas, foreign-owned plants that
multiplied along the U.S.-Mexican border, after NAFTA, the North American
Freed Trade Agreement, was signed by Canada, the United States and Mexico
in 1994.  The maquilas in Juárez employ some 220,000 people and include
companies such as Ford, General Motors and Dupont.

Often alone and with little means of contacting their families, the young
Mexican women work for wages that seem like good money compared with what
they could earn back home, but it is not enough to pay the cost of living
in a booming city like Juárez.  They become mired in poverty, forced to
work in jobs where they are fired at will, with no legal protections,
including the right to join unions.  In short, these are young women with
no power in society, whose deaths have no political importance to local
authorities.  "While the city and its industry depend on them totally, they
are important only as paid workers, not as human beings," says Rosario
Acosta, the mother of one of the disappeared and co-founder of May Our
Daughters Return Home. " If they disappear, they cannot be replaced."
  
The slaughter of the innocents in Matthew may be a pious legend.  It is a
fact of life for thousands of women and children who are the victims of
violence in this world every passing day.  When we support government
policies and buy products from corporations without demanding
accountability for the kinds of circumstances that are created for the most
vulnerable in our midst, we end up with innocent blood on our hands. 
Rachel still cries out from the grave for her children who are no more. 
The missing women of Juárez is simply one of many reminders that we live in
Babylon.  We will not return home, not any of us, until we learn to weep
with Rachel, until we learn to weep with the God who cannot forget any of
her children.

                                     +

Isaiah 63:7-9 - The rabbis say that when God's people suffer, God suffers.
That is the reason God called to Moses from a thornbush.  Can you think of
a more painful place from which to speak?  God is speaking in the prelude
to this week's text like an aggrieved parent, wondering out loud whether
Israel will remember and appreciate everything God has done for them.  Then
follows a most remarkable assurance.  God will come to save his people
without using anyone else.  God will simply butt in and save his people
like a parent who picks up a child and carries him.

1.   As a text for returned exiles to Jerusalem, why would this be
appropriate?
2.   When you have endured a terrible trauma, like the experience of exile
must have been, what is the great temptation?
3.   What is so comforting about such a text?  When have you experienced
such comfort or embodied it?


Hebrews 2:10-18 - The author of Hebrews reminds his readers that God kept
coming to them time and again through the centuries not because they were
"angels, but the descendants of Abraham" and anybody who was anybody knew
what that meant.  If ever there was a people that had a habit of looking a
gift horse in the mouth, it was the descendants of Abraham.  Is that what
the author means to say about why Jesus suffered?  Because Jesus would
embody the long-suffering heart of God for his people?

1.   What would be the author's point in the phrase "he did not come to
help angels, but the descendants of Abraham"?
2.   Did Jesus suffer for us or because of us?


Matthew 2:13-23 - The fury of Herod finds tragic expression.  He decides on
a "permanent solution" to ensure that a messiah is not born in Bethlehem.
Matthew changes his usual formula for using Old Testament prophecy to prove
why something has happened and he stops short of claiming that the murder
of innocent children is God's will.  Instead he uses the tragic story to
illustrate how not even evil in its most catastrophic form can thwart God's
determination to save.

1.   What have you learned about Rachel from this week's reflection?
2.   Why is her lament such an appropriate one for people like us?
3.   List as many places and events for which you can imagine Rachel
mourning today.


FOR FURTHER REFLECTION AND ACTION  - To date, Mexican authorities have been
slow to act in response to the horrifying pattern of violence against women
that has been taking place since 1993.  You can help by signing a petition
sponsored by Amnesty International urging the Mexican government to take
the appropriate action to protect its citizens.  Violence against women
must be tackled at its roots.  All instances of it must be thoroughly
investigated, those responsible brought to justice and steps taken to
address the causes of women's vulnerability to violence.  You can sign this
petition by visiting: www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/895598023. 


HYMN: "Unto Us a Boy Is Born"  (Voices United 54)
Keeping the Faith in Babylon:
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
A publication of FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
All rights reserved.
FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
R.R. 4, Lion's Head, Ontario Canada N0H 1W0
Phone/Fax: (519) 592-4551
E-mail: fernstone@fernstone.org

copyright - Barry Robinson 2005
            page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2005
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.


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