“King Herod is a Liar”
Text: Matthew 1:18-2:23
I used to live in New York City. I used to go a little church there, around the corner from where I lived, called St. Mary’s Harlem. New York is a big city but the neighborhood around St. Mary’s always felt, to me, more like a small town. Everybody knows each other’s business, for better or worse. People say “Hi” to each other on the street. St. Mary’s church is an important part of this feeling of community because it’s one of the only spaces where people in the neighborhood can come hang out for free. It’s a poor neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood where the police bother people a lot—especially young people, especially homeless people. We think of Harlem, of New York City, as a place that’s very different from the Harbor. But they’re facing a lot of the same problems and dreaming a lot of the same dreams as we are. St. Mary’s called themselves the “We-Are-Not-Afraid Church.” And they meant it. They were never afraid to talk about hard stuff—about the ways they were struggling, about all the powers and principalities they were up against as a community of mostly poor and working Black people. And even in the middle of their own troubles, they never turned their backs on other poor folks.
I remember going to the St. Mary’s Christmas pageant in 2008. The Sunday schoolers, most of them children from the housing projects next door, decided that year that it was important to them to remember children in Iraq. It was important to them to remember children halfway around the world who were also trying to survive each day in the face of poverty and violence. So these Harlem kids dressed up in little red capes and marched as Herod’s army. They play-acted the Bible story we hear tonight about a wicked king who kills children because he is afraid of losing power. Then, at the feet of a young mother from the neighborhood dressed up as Mary and holding her own baby, each Sunday schooler placed a strip of paper with the name of an Iraqi child killed in the war. And at the end of the pageant we prayed together for true peace and freedom: peace from war, peace from the police, freedom from poverty, freedom from anybody feeling hungry and cold and alone from Harlem to Baghdad.
I don’t think there’s anything more important in the world right now than for poor people—all poor people—to stick together like that. I don’t think there’s a more powerful thing out there than what happens when struggling people come together to love and protect one another. That’s what I see happening here, every week. That’s why I love this place and all you people in it. It seems like anytime I turn on the news all I hear about is how I can’t trust people who have a different religion than me, or a different skin color than me, or come from a different country than me. It seems like there are an awful lot of King Herods out there telling us we should be afraid of other struggling people: telling us we should be afraid of refugees, immigrants, homeless people, gay people, people living with addiction. It seems like there are a lot of King Herods who want us to be afraid of each other, because they’re afraid of what might happen to their fancy thrones when all the different groups of struggling people come together. They’re afraid of what might happen when rednecks and refugees realize they’re fighting the same fight, just trying to live with dignity.
I see the ways our little community here refuses to be afraid. I see the ways you insist on welcoming others, especially when they’re down and out. Don’t get me wrong, we have our ups and downs. We make mistakes. I certainly make a lot of them. We have our bad days. Every community has those. But I’ve watched you all step up, take risks, and open your hearts and minds over the course of this past year. I’ve watched you sometimes literally give away the shirt off your back and your last plate of food to somebody who needed it more. I’ve watched you start to make friends with people who speak a different language and I’ve watched you try to learn a little bit of their language. I’ve watched you stand up for others and make clear that this is not a place where it’s ok to trash talk gay people, or Muslims, or undocumented immigrants. I’ve been especially blessed this year to watch what our friends from Rivercity, Grays Harbor’s first organized tent city, have done for the whole county. There’s a few of them with us tonight and if you haven’t done it yet, you should shake their hands on your way out. These are some folks who have come together to stand up for what’s right—who are letting everybody know that homeless people can think for themselves, speak for themselves, fight for themselves, lead themselves. They’ve been through it all this year: hell, high water, attempted murder, police raids, harassment. And they don’t quit. These are people who have King Herod shaking in his boots. Just like baby Jesus did.
Think about that for a minute. Why would a king with a whole army under him be afraid of a newborn baby from a poor, homeless, refugee family? Why would the mayor, and the city council, and the police be afraid of a homeless camp? I think it’s because they know, deep down, truth doesn’t come from the people at the top. Truth comes from the bottom. Truth comes from the people who are down and out. And God loves the truth. God loves when we tell the truth. God loves when we stand up for the truth and when we stand up for each other. The thing about King Herod is King Herod is a liar. He’s got all the money and all the guns and yet he’s afraid of a homeless baby whose family is squatting in a barn that doesn’t belong to them. Because he knows that baby will someday grow up to tell the truth.
And the truth is: nobody needs a king.
Nobody needs a king, but everybody needs and deserves a place to call home. Nobody needs a king, but everybody deserves all the loaves and fishes they can eat. Nobody needs a king, but everybody deserves healing. Nobody needs a king, but we sure as hell need each other. We sure as hell belong to each other. All struggling people belong to each other. All broken-hearted people belong to each other. All poor people belong to each other. We can’t afford to turn our backs on one another and hurt one another because we’re all we’ve got. The King Herods of this world aren’t coming to rescue us. We can only rescue each other. And that’s kind of scary. But it’s also kind of beautiful. It means that what we do here, with our own hands, in our little corner of the world, matters a lot. What we do here is something to be proud of. What you all do here, for each other and for struggling people everywhere, is something to be proud of. What we do together here—that is the manger. We are the manger. Because what we do here together cradles the hope of this whole broken world. So I can’t wait to see what you decide to do next. I know you’re all just getting warmed up.