Year C, Christmas 2: January 2, 2022
The Second Sunday after Christmas DAy
Year C: Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 51-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
We heard a beautiful opening collect that sums up our calling as Christians:
O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
God created all human beings with dignity. From the beginning, that is the faith that we all share. God created all human beings with dignity.
When I think about dignity or a person of dignity, I envision someone strong, calm, confident—a person who has earned the respect of others and receives that respect. I will talk about a couple of those people today.
But not everyone respects human dignity. In today’s gospel lesson, Joseph and Mary flee with the baby Jesus because Herod, who ruled Judea, wanted him killed.
Four critical verses are left out of today’s gospel. These verses are heard on December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. When he realized the wise men had tricked him, Herod had all boys in and around Bethlehem aged two and under killed. Suffice it to say, Herod didn’t much respect human dignity.
On the other hand, the world is full of people who respect the dignity of others. If we look around us, we will surely see and recognize many examples of people who cherish the God-given value and dignity in others, who lived like the blessed ones in today’s psalm:
“Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.
Happy are the people whose strength is in you!*
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.
This past week we lost two iconic people in the world—Desmond Tutu and Betty White—who were well known for their love of people, who recognized the sacred dignity of others.
I never met Betty White. But it speaks volumes to her life and her work that she stayed active in the television and film mediums for over eighty years. When her death was announced, tributes poured in from across the nation and the generations. Her obituary appeared in publications as far-ranging as the Washington Post and Rolling Stone. How often is it that a 99-year-old actress whose first foray into the medium of experimental television was in 1939 when homes in Los Angeles didn’t even have a TV is so beloved and remembered? Not often at all, perhaps never before.
Why was she such an icon? There are many reasons, but I believe that her belief in the intrinsic worth and dignity of every human being, and every animal, is among them. She was an active member of many animal foundations. She wasn’t just there to raise money. She, as you would say, would get her hands dirty.
When she was just in her early 30’s Betty White hosted a popular television show, The Betty White Show. It was a national program. In a time when segregation was at the forefront of national issues, she rejected attempts to keep a Black dancer off her show. When she was encouraged to take Arthur Duncan off the show because of the color of his skin, she politely declined. I’m sorry, but, you know, he stays,” White said.
And when it wasn’t a particularly popular or a widely held position, Betty White had this to say about same-sex marriage to an interviewer: “I don’t know why people get so anti-something. Just mind your own business, take care of your own affairs, and don’t worry about other people so much.”
Then, there is our very own Anglican archbishop, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has been described as exuberant and ebullient, an apostle of the Good News.
I had the pleasure of meeting Archbishop Tutu very briefly. I came across him as he worshipped in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at General Seminary, but in that brief encounter, I was certainly taken in by the sense of joy that radiated from him.
We know that he was the moral conscience of South Africa, a long-time advocate for racial justice and reconciliation. That alone sets him apart from so many.
But in the week since he died, so many people have shared their personal experiences of him while he was at General Seminary. Two struck me as particularly reflective of the abundant love God had for Desmond Tutu and the love of God that Desmond Tutu shared with the world.
One priest remembered being a student at the seminary when Archbishop Tutu came to stay as a guest for a big event. She said that she decided to take out her trash one morning while still in her pajamas. Here’s how she described it:
“When, lo – beside the elevator – who is there but a tiny African man in a cap, who greets me by exclaiming HELLOOOO! As if I am the friend he longed to see, rather than a strange girl clutching literal garbage. And so it was that I rode the elevator, holding refuse, with Archbishop Tutu, while wearing pajamas.”
A friend, who was at General when Archbishop Tutu was in residence there in the mid-1980s, posted her recollection about the day his Nobel Peace Prize was announced.
In Fall 1984, he was on sabbatical and in residence at General, and my work-study job was working with him. My grandfather died that October, and on the day I returned from his funeral, the campus was abuzz with the news of his just-announced Nobel Peace Prize. As I stood talking with friends, he emerged from a building with dozens of photographers following him. I waved and called out my congratulations…at which point he excused himself and walked over to give me a hug and tell me that he was praying for my family. We spoke for a few moments, and then he returned to the rather puzzled press.”
On what was perhaps one of the most incredible days of his life, Desmond Tutu saw that student’s pain and stopped to reach out to her in love and care.
Archbishop Tutu was genuinely thrilled to see these students: one, young and embarrassed, as a “friend he longed to see.” Another one was grieving the death of her beloved grandfather.
Both Betty White and Desmond Tutu were joyful in God’s love for them and rejoiced in every one of God’s creatures.
It seems as if people think that wealth, power, or influence gives people dignity. But the Gospels make clear that it is God who confers dignity on every human being, and the Betty Whites and the Desmond Tutus of the world remind us of that.
Jesus’ power throughout his life was the power of the love of God. Perhaps his experience of the flight into Egypt explains the force of Jesus’ teaching of love. God loves us without reservation. God so loved the world that God comes as a tiny baby among us, at serious risk.
Scripture does not hide the painful truth of the world as it is. Scripture does not try to pretend that everything is well all the time. But God does not let Herod put out the light of Jesus Christ. Herod could not take or snuff out the gift of love that was Jesus.
We have been living through a global pandemic now for almost two years. Our journey has been long, and we do not know when it will end. We are tired of wandering through the wilderness. Today, we are saddened that we are not gathered together to worship, just after our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day worship.
Many wonder why God would allow this pandemic to continue or happen at all, and some have lost their faith in God.
This is where our story and that of the three Magi converge. We are not lost. We are traveling toward something greater than ourselves – God with us. We are traveling, I hope, to a world of generosity, kindness, love, and respect, a world so beautifully captured by the eternal optimism of two of God’s beloved children, Betty and Desmond.
As Christians in this broken, hurting world, we can act now to reach out to our neighbors and offer hospitality of the heart. We have what the Magi and Matthew’s community had: hope for a better future in Christ, hope for a future of the dignity of human nature.
Before the Covid-19 caused us to cancel services inside our churches, the sermons were usually recorded at St. Andrew’s and uploaded by Kemp Miller, for whose ministry we are all grateful. To access the entire library of audio files for past sermons, CLICK HERE.