The Rev’d Matthew David Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Feast of the Epiphany, Year C
January 10th, 2016
“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.”
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A.J. Jacobs wrote a book called A Year of Living Biblically. Now A. J. identifies as non-practicing Jew. In his own words, he is “Jewish in the same way that Olive Garden is Italian.” But he did this experiment to test the idea of “taking the Bible literally,” as so many in American claim. He read through the Bible and wrote down every command, something like 750, and spent an entire year living according to those commands. At the end of the experiment, he concludes you simply cannot take the whole Bible literally. It’s just not something we can do. It’s impossible and anyone who says they take the Bible literally is lying or at least kidding themselves.
So how do we use the Word of God? Taking it as a list of rules is obviously reductive. Doing so has led to slavery, allowed people to underwrite their own bigotry and hatred as “just following the Bible.” It has led people to take their own life. So what then? Our Gospel reading today models a different perspective for us on the question of what scripture is and how to interact with it. Let me show you what I mean.
A Jew living around the time in which Matthew 2 is set would recognize all the elements in this story: three numinous visitors, god speaking through a dream, an escape to Egypt, a tyrant killing infant boys, more dreams, a return from Egypt. “I know that story,” they would say. It’s the story of Genesis and Exodus.
The storyline in which you emplot a fact changes its meaning. For instance, let’s say the fact is that you will show up for work tomorrow. If the story line is that your boss is incompetent and your work is alienating, then that fact takes on tragic meaning in the tragic plotline. But if the story line is that you have been looking for work for years, then the fact takes on a happy meaning in a comedic plotline.
Matthew models for us how to emplot our lives scripturally by placing the facts of Jesus’s childhood within the narrative framework of the Exodus. The Exodus gives meaning to Jesus’s life.
When Matthew tells about the visit of the three Magi, he tells it through the lens of the three angelic visitors who visit Abraham and Sarah. When Matthew tells the story of Joseph’s dream, he tells it through the lens of God leading the patriarchs through dreams. When Matthew tells the story of Herod slaughter of the infants in an attempt to kill Jesus, he tells it through the lens of Pharaoh slaughtering the infants in Egypt in an attempt to kill Moses. When he tells about the holy family fleeing to Egypt for safety, he tells it through the lens of God leading Jacob’s family down to Egypt. When he tells the story of the return of the holy family from Egypt, he tells in through the lens of the Exodus. Matthew takes the flight to Egypt seriously by emploting it through the narrative of the Exodus.
When we use the story of God’s redemption in the scriptural narrative to make sense of our world, it gives us a framework for making meaning of our realities. Take the refugee crisis in our world. Look at that fact in isolation, and you can make lots of meaning out of it. Fox News meaning; MSNBC meaning, etc. But if you emplot that fact in a scriptural story, it becomes frankly impossible for a Christian to see any kind “us” non-refugees versus “them” refugees. Our God and Savior Jesus Christ was a refugee. So was Mary, the mother of God, and Joseph, guardian of the Incarnate Word. If there is such a thing as judgment day and if we want to have any chance, I can see no choice but to acknowledge that, in the narrative of scriptre, God’s people are refugees. I am a refugee. You, o Christian, are a refugee. To those who don’t, Jesus will say “I am hungry and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink. I was seeking a home and you turned me away.” But, Jesus, we didn’t think you and “your type” were safe. We couldn’t welcome you with open arms; what if we got harmed, or worse—were financially inconvenienced?
No, if we want to imagine that in any way we are living in the continuing storyline of God’s redeeming work in the world, as evidenced by scripture, then we must see the faces of the refugees and also see Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—and Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and Miriam, Ruth, Naomi, and all the rest. As far as I can tell, no one who has the courage to call themselves a Christian can dare do otherwise.
Our Gospel story, at least as it continues with the rest of the chapter, also gives us a storyline in which to emplot the facts of Tamir Rice, of Laquan McDonald, and of too many other young black men to count. Scripture gives us a narrative in which to emplot these facts of government agencies acting violently against young men and turning a blind eye to evil. Herod cowardly slaughtered the infants because he just couldn’t let them continue to exist on earth and also continue to enjoy his own privilege.
The facts of Matthew chapter 2 could be emploted in tons of different ways. Infanticide, refugees, displacement, tyrants—how would you make meaning out of these facts, how you tell the story? The first thing we can learn from Matthew is that he looks at these awful realities and, while he does deny their evil or injustice, he also doesn’t narrate God’s absence. When he looks at the facts of infanticide, refugees, displacement, tyrants, he is able to find the good news of God’s presence.
It can also offer us a lens for looking at our own life. Maybe you will indulge me in a personal example. One of the first times I ever showed up at an Episcopal church was during this time of the liturgical year. The preacher talked about how to listen carefully to God’s voice and showed how Joseph heard from an angel in a dream. The preacher told a story about being a Baptist minister who was feeling called to make the Episcopal church their new spiritual home. God sent a dream about becoming a priest and he chose to listen to the dream. Now here I am, in almost the exact same situation as the preacher in the story, a Baptist minister trying to discern God’s new direction for me. I could, of course, chalk it up to chance, just take it as a well-placed story in a sermon about listening to God. Or, I could emplot it scripturally, invite myself to play Joseph. After all, how many ex-Baptist ministers are now Episcopal priests (I have since learned that the number is actually pretty high, but I didn’t know that then)? What are the odds that I would be there that night and that the preacher would be preaching? What are the odds that he would tell that story while I was listening and in such a similar situation? I chose to emplot myself as Joseph and see God as giving me a new opportunity and new direction.
We all face these choices everyday. A relationship ends or a new relationship begins, a project you’ve been working on for years dead ends or a new opportunity presents itself and you don’t think you can find the courage to face it: how would you emplot these facts? As a tragedy, as a satire? I wonder what it could look like to emplot those facts scripturally?
Here is the challenge: whatever comes this week, whatever facts life throws at you, I wonder what would it look like to make the conscious decision to see them, like Matthew does with Jesus’s childhood, through the lens of God’s redemption in scripture. I wonder how things might change if we emploted the facts that face us in the coming week, through the lens of the calling of Abraham, through the dreams of Joseph, through the total shock and bewilderment of the women at the tomb. I don’t know for sure but I have to suspect that it would really change the meaning we make of those facts. Maybe emploting our lives biblically would give us the strength to choose forgiveness over resentment, courage over fear, love over hate, openness to God’s best over stubbornly clinging to what is. To see that event not as a dead end, but as a new beginning, your work not with resentment, but with gratitude, your family not with anger but with joy, that person not with animosity, but with patience, the news not with fear or callousness but with cross-shaped compassion.
What if 2016 was the year of living biblically? Not as A. J. Jacobs imagined in this book, but as the year of looking out at our own lives and our world, and learning to see it through the lens of God bringing freedom from slavery, God returning the exiles home, God dying to destroy death, God rising to restore life, God offering us the lens of unconditional love to make meaning of our world.
Here a suggestion about how to start. Remember that story when Samuel was a young man and he tries to hear God’s voice in the night. Remember his prayer: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Not a bad place to start. The cross before you and God within you, open your heart and mind to the possibility that God might chose to do something new in our midst, and in a still, small place, to pray: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
 A. J. Jacobs, A Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007).
 https://www.ted.com/talks/a_j_jacobs_year_of_living_biblically?language=en. Accessed on January 1st, 2016.
 On emplotment, see Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).