“What would you not do to save your child?”
Sermon on Sunday, December 29, 2019
Based on Matthew 2: 13-23
What would you not do to save your child? This to me is the key message of this disturbing text that comes on the heels of the Nativity story, the murder of innocent children. It causes me to question the words that Saint John wrote, which we have all heard around Christmas and which were part of our ‘Call to Worship’ this morning, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” That’s because in this gospel text from Matthew we are reminded that the darkness will sometimes come hard after the light; evil will force its entrance into the homes of good people; criminals will not stop in front of children; power will overwhelm those who are powerless; the night will try to swallow the light. Read the newspapers or, if you wish, check your newsfeed on the phone. Oddly, around Christmas violence is a recurring theme in our communities, whether they are urban, suburban or rural. John says in the prologue to his gospel that the darkness can’t overwhelm the light. We want to answer John: “But sometimes John, it can feel like it!” “Especially when innocent children are involved!” For most parents in this world, having been informed of a threat to their child’s life, the following question is a purely rhetorical one: what would you not do to save your child?
In the gospel, the Holy Family is warned about a sick tyrant who is going after a newborn baby based on his own insecurities and irrational fears. And being parents, they do what they have to: they pack their bags and flee to a safe place, in this case the land of Egypt, where they find shelter and survive for as long as necessary, carving out a meager living as strangers. No wall separated the southern Judean desert from Pharaoh’s kingdom. I don’t mention this as a political statement. Rather, on a human level, I think we can all relate to the decisions and desires of immigrant mothers and fathers who only want their children to survive and thrive. They often come from communities that are violent, lacking job opportunities and decent education. No matter where we stand on the ongoing controversies about illegal immigration, I bet we can all understand the immigrant mother’s driving motivation: “What would you not do to save your child?”
I can also relate to this story on a personal level, as you probably already know. Having a child that is bed-ridden, unable to physically attend school for two and a half years, some of the time with drawn blinds during the entire day because of light sensitivity, sometimes with headaches all day long, sleep disturbance at night, unstable heart-rates, loss of appetite, inability to walk, being reduced to crawling along on the floor, it will do something to you as parents. And again, the question is purely rhetorical, “What would you not do to save your child?” You go and find the best doctors and scientists and try to figure out the most promising path to restoring your child’s health. You spend whatever you have, whatever you can spare to make it happen. It’s been an education, this exercise in persistence and patience and, yes, faith! And all the while, Saint John’s words dwell upon us like a distant promise: The light shines in the darkness; and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
I am also thinking of those of you who have dealt with an even more complicated dilemma. When you have a child who has developed an addiction, it may be the ultimate test of your faith. Because your parental instincts are still the same. What would you not do to save your child? But in those particular cases, whether it’s addiction to heroin, alcohol, prescription drugs or a combination of any of those killers, the most difficult challenge for parents and family members is that you will sometimes have to go against your own instincts. The lines between supporting your child and enabling his or her addiction are almost indistinguishable; in any case, those lines are tough to draw. Doing the right thing can feel very wrong. Doing the wrong thing can feel very right. And so, the enemy of life comes at us from all kinds of angles, with all kinds of tricks. In the midst of it all, this post-Christmas gospel passage teaches us that God is with those who desperately try to save their children, whether they are successful or not. God, Matthew implies, can relate to you!
During the long years of Sam’s illness which is not over and not overcome yet, but in the bleakest moments, I found some comfort in reminding myself that some of the most influential people in the world were actually sick and chronically ill as children. I like to read biographies, and over the years I have read several about American presidents. Most of us know that John F. Kennedy was a sickly child and continued to have major health problems throughout his presidency, which he was able to hide behind a youthful spirit, a contagious smile and a playboy image. But his brothers are being quoted saying, “Jack, as a child, was always sick.” Franklin Roosevelt was afflicted by one of the scariest diseases of his time, polio, unable to walk, crippled. His relative Teddy Roosevelt, a passionate outdoorsman, and hunter dealt with severe, debilitating bouts of asthma as a youth and young adult. Those are only a few examples. Each of them had their own story. Luckily, each of them came from families with the means to support them. Their parents said, “What would I not do to save my child?” In different ways, I am convinced, their early exposure to mortality helped them become better leaders, less scared leaders, more courageous in their decision making. They had been through their own set of scares already and had overcome them.
In this post-Christmas narrative, we are told that God not only shares the joys of being human but also the terrible scares and fears of being human. Let’s not kid ourselves. Each generation has its own set of fears and threats. It used to be fears about a nuclear war that destroys us all; now it’s about a climate that spins out of control. Also, each individual life is exposed to certain traumas and dangers. As one of my predecessors, one of your former pastors said, “There is some heartbreak behind every door in this parish.” Still, the God who called his child “Immanuel,” which means, “God is with us,” – he is with us all the way, especially in times when it may feel that few people can in fact relate. He encourages us to do whatever it takes to save our children if we ever needed that encouragement. And I think it’s not a coincidence that the Son of God, as we are told, had to experience early childhood trauma in order to get become who he was: someone tapping into a strength that can carry you through the bleakest times, someone who embodies the light that shines in the darkness. If your life is accompanied by doubt, grief, despair, exhaustion, fear, death… don’t be afraid to acknowledge it. Don’t give in to the urge of covering it up. It may well be your ticket to Egypt and back, not today or tomorrow but in God’s time; it may well be your ticket to personal transformation, not in your way but in God’s way; and people will recognize the light in your darkness and take heart.