When Pastor Tom asked if I would add a service and a sermon to my student intern expectations, I did not hesitate to agree. Preaching and leading traditional worship are two growing edges of my ministry. I didn’t think to look at the text prior to agreeing. Then I read the scripture. Sure, give the minister who feels an ordained call to children, youth, and families a passage involving the slaughtering of innocent children. Thanks Tom.
In all seriousness, this is a hard passage for me as an educator, a minister, and a person of faith. But, we can’t sanitize this story away. As I was preparing the children’s message, I couldn’t find a single resource for this scripture that included the portion about Herod, was age appropriate, relevant and in line with our polity and beliefs . Several preaching resources also cut out the middle section.
This is often what we do with difficult Scripture. We edit it, avoid it, especially in progressive Christianity. But we can’t water down our stories to make us feel better. What we can do is pray with the text, discern themes, and continue to learn together by asking questions.
This section of scripture is written akin to the “sandwich method” of feedback I used as a supervisor. Say something nice and fluffy like bread, then say the meat or difficult feedback, then round it out with another slice of feel-good. Angels visit Joseph, he listens and moves his family to another country. Herod is visited by Magi and slaughters newborns. Angles visit Joseph again, and moves his family safely back home. What an interesting sandwich to chew on.
Why are these two stories combined? What is the connection between Joseph and Herod in this story? I believe it is fear. Both Joseph and Herod were afraid. For Joseph, although he is probably getting used to angels visiting at this point, but that does not make it any less frightening to be visited by one, and then on top of that to be told that your family is in danger. But Joseph chose to trust and follow his faith in God.
Herod is afraid. I wonder, what would have happened if Herod just went to see Jesus directly? Surely he could have gotten time off – he is the king. But he doesn’t. Herod is afraid and chooses to turn his fear into actions that harm countless others. Herod fears the unknown. He fears change. He fears having to understand his own power in a different way.
The more I reflect on this scripture, the more I understand Herod. Just like the music directors of Frozen, once I thought about Herod’s experience, I began to see how fear motivates us all toward different actions.
We are called to respond to fear with faith, not more fear. When we respond to fear with fear, we hurt others. We hurt ourselves, and I believe, we hurt the connection within and between Creation that is God.
When I first sat down to reflect with this text, it was the day after a school attack in Peshawar, Pakistan. In addition to staff and teachers, over 130 children were killed at school by radical militants. And it seems like the news doesn’t stop with stories of children being killed at the hands of adults, and even other children. There is innocent life lost every day. And I can’t find a single headline that is not rooted in fear.
As I sat with this text, I wept. Why is this hard, difficult to talk about scripture at the beginning of Jesus’ life still so relevant? Has nothing changed in 2000 years that we are still finding ways to continue systems of hatred and oppression based in fear? Why there are countless examples of King Herod in our day?
It is because fear is how we are hardwired. Fear is universal, real, and in several cases, important for survival. It is a good thing that we are afraid of moving vehicles so that we do not walk in the middle of a busy highway.
Within the anatomy and physiology of fear there is what is referred to as the fear “low road” and the fear “high road.”
The low road is fast. Our amygdala is told that there is a threat. Our hearts start beating. Our breath increases to get more oxygen to our muscles, and adrenaline kicks in to help us be on defense in our environment.
The high road is physiologically slower. It engages our sensory cortex, and our hippocampus to assess a situation using memory and common sense, versus the instant “fight or flight” response.
We are hard wired to be like Herod, to respond to fear with more fear. Yet we are called to be like Joseph, to respond to fear with faith.
To respond faithfully to fear, we will get uncomfortable. Responding in faith, does not erase consequences or wave a magic wand to make our fears go away. But it does mean that we follow Jesus by focusing on something bigger than ourselves to continue the Kingdom of God here on Earth. As Scripture says in countless ways, faith does not make things easy, it makes them possible. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for Joseph, Mary and Jesus to pick up and leave their home. I’m sure they lost possessions, friends, and memories. But they followed by faith.
This is hard work. The writers of the Bible knew this would be difficult. They knew we would need a lot of encouragement to overcome fear. There are over 350 passages in scripture that say, in essence, do not be afraid. One of my favorite is in Paul’s 2nd letter to Timothy – “For God did not give us a Spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” We are given the grace to overcome our hardwiring.
What we have to overcome is dependent on our environment. What we fear reflects who we are.
Our fears come from learned and observed experiences. I have an extreme fear of revolving doors…because my older brother trapped me in one once for what felt like 4 months…which was probably not even 4 minutes.
As a person with white, straight, cisgender, economic and educational privileges what I fear on a daily basis is extremely different from the global community.
I do not fear going hungry. I do not fear being shot when I walk down the street. I do not fear that I will not have a place to sleep at night.
I am privileged that I fear failure, and I do not fear survival.
I do not mean to belittle my own fear, or fears we all may share in this sanctuary. We are not called to judge someone’s fear as easier as or harder than our own. Fear is personal relative. Joseph and Herod had fear. We must understand the context in which our fears manifest. We must acknowledge the different fears that exist and seek understand others’ fears to reconcile humanity.
Faith is hard. Fear is easy.
We live in a fear economy. We manufacture it. We sell it. We consume it. Just look as most media outlets or popular movies. Fear is everywhere, and it’s easy to take it into our heart. Ancient Rome was no different than today. Rome had the fear market down cold. And yet, the ministry of Jesus is not one responding to this culture with more fear. Jesus and his disciples spiritually break systemic culture of fear. They respond to the fear in faith, in love.
If this journey of faith were easy, more would be on it. And yet, if each of us here had not had at least one meaningful experiences of faith, we probably wouldn’t stay. So how do we create more spaces that foster faith, love, and community, over fear?
This is no easy task. And there is a lot of work to do. As I sifted through my notes to figure out a way to do this, I went to my strength in ministry – which is summarizing important lessons in a few minutes in ways that everyone can remember.
So I offer the following phrase to remind us how to act through faith when we are afraid: “Stop, Drop, and Roll”
Now, I learned this phrase and the corresponding technique so often in my childhood, I assumed catching on fire would be a regular occurrence in my life. It’s not. But being in times of fear is a regular occurrence.
Stop. This is the first step. And often it takes us the longest amount of time to get here. We have to stop and breathe, allowing the high road of our physiology and spirituality to take center stage. We have to get off what I call “the hamster wheel” in our heads that we just keep spinning on. We need to stop being in spaces with people who thrive on fear. We need to stop participating in the fear economy. Stop.
Drop. In times of fear we need to drop to our knees and pray. This is hard concept for us to hear in our culture. And it is what makes being a Christian so radical. By dropping to our knees to pray we acknowledge that we need help. That we alone cannot fix or change our environment. We drop in adoration to God and seek refuge, guidance, and counsel. Drop.
Roll. Now this is the hardest step for me personally. I can stop, breath, reflect, pray, but then I would like to move forward doing exactly what I had planned to do to begin with. But that is not faith. That is pride. We must roll with where God pulls. We must stay in a place of flexibility and openness. Roll.
Let us resolve in this New Year to respond to fear with faith. Because when we respond to fear with fear, we hoard money, possessions, power and control. When we respond to fear with fear the line between “us” and “them” hardens.
But, when we respond to fear with faith, we call attention to oppression. We make new discoveries about planets and new molecules. When respond to fear with faith, we forge new connections. We grow strong. We bring about the change that Jesus so desires for this world.
What fears are you holding on to right now? How can you stop, drop, and roll with faith? How can we as a church community join together in this process? Let us leave this morning seeking answers to these questions together….Because I believe that this is work of the Kingdom of God on Earth. That we can learn from the difficult stories of our traditions, and make better choices. We can and will learn to lean on faith in times of fear.