Guarding Jesus

If I had a pocket watch I would hold it up for you to look at, and I would begin to swing it slowly back and forth. If I could, I would put you in a trance, or better yet, I would put you to sleep, so that, like an angel of the Lord, I could speak to you in your dreams. But then, I am a preacher in a pulpit! Of course I can put you to sleep… if I just keep talking, and talking, and talking. And I can already sense you getting sleepy, oh so sleepy. Your eyelids are feeling heavy, and you want to go to sleep, sleep, sleep.

I have come to speak to you in your dreams in order to bring you a warning, like the angel did for Joseph. You must take the Child, Jesus – at whose birth we have just rejoiced - and you must flee, for there are those who are about to search for this child to destroy him. And you must guard him; you must keep him safe.

This is a jarring dream, I know, because it had seemed all along that once Christmas had come and gone you would leave Jesus here – right there in his patch of straw, behind these strong walls and these locked doors. There are men in black here to protect the child: we are paid well enough and housed nearby in order to look after him while you are away. We are here to keep him safe. Why should you be saddled with this responsibility? And really, why are angels always causing such drama? (Gloria! Fear not! You must flee!) What is there to be frightened of? Surely Jesus is safe and sound in the world?

But the dream reminds us that Jesus is never safe. And I have come to warn you in your dreams.

At least three things threaten Jesus every day. Fear. Injustice. Selfishness.

It was fear that caused Herod the king to strike a deal with the Wise Men to bring him word about Jesus. And it was fear (when those Wise Men saw through him and did not return with the information he wanted) that sent Herod into a rage that left all the male babies in Bethlehem dead by his orders. What was he afraid of? The same thing we are afraid of: losing control. (As if we are always really in control.)

Fear reached its recent apex on a September morning seven years ago, attacked by another fear (masquerading again as rage), and it has cowed us into decisions that perhaps we shall some day regret.

It is fear that drives members of the same church (like our Episcopal Church) to look for conflict where there need be none, and to create it when they cannot find it. It’s the fog of fear that makes walking away from your brother or sister in Christ look like a better idea than simply disagreeing with him or her.

It’s fear that keeps us glued to the financial news; fear that thinks keeping a handgun in the house (loaded) for safety’s sake is good idea; fear that is still awkwardly, if silently, uncomfortable in the face of someone who looks different or darker than you.

Fear insists that it is always right and will tolerate no back-talk. Fear is jealous, and green with envy, too.

Fear cannot rear a child and could never produce milk to feed it; it crushes things that need to be cradled in warm arms. Fear wants no part of the baby Jesus, whose tiny hands and little heart have no idea how to instill it in others. And since this child comes to us again and again as a baby, year after year, threatening to undermine fear, fear would gladly find this baby and destroy him. But you must keep him safe.

Fear often leads to injustice. In our society, injustice is not so much a problem in the courthouse as it is in the statehouse, or the schoolhouse, or the hospital, or the street corner.

Injustice roams the halls of the statehouse when I assert that your rights can only come at the expense of mine and then I attempt to legislate this zero sum game.

Injustice roams the halls of the schoolhouse when countless kids in this city (and may others) are subjected to a pitiful education that is still separated from a diverse society, and entirely unequal to the needs of the child or the challenges she will face in the world.

Injustice roams the halls of the hospitals when the ER becomes the clinic of last resort for millions of uninsured – a disservice both to those who need care and those who give it. It lingers on the margins of irrational cost structures, and with the stigma of a pre-existing condition, driven by an insurance industry whose mission is not to ensure the best possible care.

Injustice hangs out on street corners wherever young boys (and girls) are coerced or cajoled into joining gangs; where drugs are pushed, and used; and where the mentally ill – with no place else to go and no one else to look after them – keep warm over the steam vents.

Injustice despises a child, whose patent innocence reveals the disfigured visage of injustice for what it is: ugly and cruel. But you must keep the baby safe.

Fear and injustice thrive in the company of rank selfishness. For it is selfishness that helps us rationalize them both. After all, what’s in my best interest, is in my best interest. Should my best interest require killing all the babies in Bethlehem, I ought to at least be allowed to consider the possibility.

But mostly selfishness is so much more mundane. That purchase, that drink, that puff – none of which has done me any good, but which I wanted and enjoyed, dammit!

Selfishness delights in stinginess and calls it thrift – whether it’s money or affection, it’s parceled out oh so carefully. Selfishness dresses up greed as its just desert, when there is nothing just about it. Selfishness disregards the other for no other reason than, well, it is not me, and let every man fend for himself, and then calls this self-centered stature some kind of liberty.

Selfishness resents babies, who start out this life entirely self-centered, but who so regularly grow in respect, care and concern for others. But you must protect the child.

And I am here in your dream to warn you. These three, at least – fear, injustice, selfishness - have heard that a child was born in Bethlehem. And they would like to find him to destroy him. Because this baby’s cries bring to our ears echoes of the antidotes for fear, injustice, and selfishness: Compassion. Justice. Love.

This little baby will grow up to teach that God’s righteousness is always tempered by his mercy; that his anger is nothing compared to his loving kindness. He will grow up to embody the Golden Rule by actually doing unto others as he would have them do unto him – even if they are tax collectors or sinners or harlots or worse.

His compassion is known when the sick are made well, the poor are given cause to rejoice, the lame are able to walk, the blind receive their sight, and even when the wine runs out at a wedding. Jesus brings compassion not just to those who deserve it, but to any who ask for it by truly seeking forgiveness of past wrongs. And he must be guarded against those who would come for him.

This baby’s cries for justice ring out in every statehouse, schoolhouse, hospital, or street corner, or anywhere that ugly cruelty threatens to prevail. His innocence is a rebuke to those who abuse power for their own gain, to the wealthy who exploit the needs of the poor, to the privileged who simply don’t care about those who have less than they have.

His justice is not blind; it is eagle-eyed in its search for the poor, the needy, the hungry and those in want, to whom justice is so often denied. He must be kept safe from those who would come for him.

This baby’s love disperses the gloom of selfishness the way the rainbow fills grey heavens with light. It promises to overcome selfish despair. It looks beyond its own needs and prejudice to the one who lies bleeding in the road and it sees a neighbor there. His greater love willingly lays down his life for his friends.

His love is not jealous or boastful, not arrogant or rude, not irritable or resentful; it does not selfishly insist on its own way. Jesus’ love rejoices in the right; it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. His love never ends – but he is still just a baby, and his love depends on you and on me to be protected from the tyranny of selfishness.

So now, while you are sleeping, listen carefully. You must take the child with you when you leave this place. You must wrap him warm and tight; cradle him in your arms.

If you believe me, if you remember this dream when you awake you will do everything you can to guard this child Jesus, which means that you will not leave him here: you must take him with you when you go.

Because how can you know that he is safe otherwise? Fear, injustice, and selfishness have been known to seep even under the cracks of the doors of the church. And the fact of the matter is that the care of this child cannot be delegated only to the men (and women) in black (who have also been known to fall down on the job, it must be said).

Can you see and hear, in your dreaming, why this baby needs you to care for him, to hold him, protect him, keep him safe? Do you realize that lives depend on it?

And will you heed the warning of this dream the way Joseph did?

You do not have to look far to see the forces of fear, injustice and selfishness in the world. You can hear them scurrying around like mice in the night, and roaring past your window like heavy traffic in the daytime.

But you may not have realized how they conspire against this child whose birth brought joy to the world.

And you may not realize that his mission of compassion, justice and love depends a lot on you and me. You may not realize that this baby could easily be left right there in his manger to suffer the consequences of the fates of fear, injustice and selfishness. You may not realize that every time you hold him he strengthens you for the ministry of compassion, justice, and love.

Which is why I have put you to sleep: so I can speak to you in your dreams with this warning. You must take the child with you and go. You must keep him safe, guard and protect him for the sake of God.

And when you awaken, you must remember this dream, when I snap my fingers, you must recall what is at stake. And you must take the child with you. And go.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
4 January 2009
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on January 4, 2009 .