Jonah Sedaris (sermon 1/25/15)

The boy eats a zephyr

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth… When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

         – Jonah 3:1-5, 10

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The author David Sedaris once wrote a short essay about his family moving from small-town upstate New York to small-town North Carolina when he was a young boy. In the essay, he talks about a neighbor family who was just a little bit different from his family and the surrounding neighbors, because they didn’t have a television – not because they couldn’t afford one, but just because they didn’t “believe in it,” as the father would say. Sedaris says that he felt sorry for the family’s two children because of all the cultural literacy that they were being deprived of without the benefit of TV. And while he didn’t really do anything concrete to be their friend, he said he got some sense of fulfillment, or a sense of goodness or pleasure just out of thinking nicely about them in a kind of superior way, as though they were benefiting from some unspoken favor he was doing for them.

Apparently, their strangeness went beyond just the TV issue though. One year, Halloween fell on a Saturday and the family was out of town that weekend, but rather than miss trick-or-treating, the kids just dressed in their costumes and went door to door on the following Monday evening. Sedaris said that was just odd, and too much of a stretch for him to accept. Making things all the worse, of course, the family didn’t actually have any Halloween candy to give to them, so his mother made him go to his room and get some of his own Halloween candy just to solve the embarrassing situation. He wrote that he’d gotten a lot of chocolate bars, which he didn’t even really like – in fact, they made him sick – but he still knew that people considered chocolate bars to be the cream of the crop when it came to Halloween candy. So rather than allow them to be given to the neighbor kids, and in a sense, rewarding their weirdness, he started cramming all the chocolate bars into his mouth and eating them, just to spite the neighbors, to keep them from benefiting. He wrote that in that moment, he’d decided that from then on instead of getting pleasure from feeling kindly toward them, he’d get pleasure out of hating them.

At that young age, he’d veered into a great truth. We can get great personal pleasure out of hating someone else. The reality is that hatred is kind of like a narcotic, making us feel good in the moment but ultimately harming us – but that’s easy to disregard when it feels so good to wallow in the hatred at the moment.

The prophet Jonah understood this same truth. That’s why he reacted the way he did when God told him to go to Nineveh and to speak God’s word to the Assyrians living there. The Assyrians were the people who all the Israelites loved to hate. The Assyrians had overrun and wiped out two-thirds of their country; they were the Israelites’ sworn enemies, and Nineveh was their capital city. Everybody hated the Assyrians; you were supposed to hate the Assyrians; it was pretty much your patriotic duty to hate them.

So on the surface, Jonah should have been happy to give them God’s message of “Forty Days, and your city will be no more!” But we learn in the story that Jonah doesn’t want any part of it, which is why he tries to run away from God, to ignore God’s call to him. But like so many people who’d come before him, and so many who came afterward, Jonah learned that there really wasn’t any future in trying to run away from something God is calling you to.

In today’s passage, we heard that when Jonah relays this message to the despised Assyrians, unbelievably, miraculously, they actually repent and ask for God’s forgiveness. And as a result, the story says, God changed his mind and didn’t destroy them.

And that was Jonah’s whole problem. In the verses immediately following what we read today, Jonah shakes his bony finger at God and says, “I knew you were going to do this! That’s why I didn’t want to do this in the first place! I knew that you were a God of love and mercy and forgiveness, and that you wouldn’t really wipe them out. You’re a flip-flopper! You’re all love and mercy and not enough justice! You’ll let them off without getting what they deserve, and I’ll end up looking like a fool!” And while he’s mad at God, he tells God to just kill him now, so he wouldn’t have to see these people he hates be shown God’s love and acceptance. Jonah wants to wallow in the mud of his comfortable and familiar hatred, cramming his face with chocolate bars that will make him sick just to keep the goodies from his enemies.

The Book of Jonah was originally written shortly after the Jews had returned home from their time of slavery and captivity in Babylon. As they were trying to rebuild their kingdom and their culture, there was a major push for religious, racial, and ethnic purity in their land. If you ever read the Old Testament Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, you’ll read about the kinds of things that were going on then. It even went so far that if a man had married a non-Jewish woman, he would be forced to divorce her and have her deported to her own country.

The story of Jonah was written at this same time, as a rejection of that extremist kind of hatred and exclusion. It was meant to be a strong witness to the message that God loves even those we consider our worst enemies.

Is there a message in there for us? Of course there is, when, whether it’s in the realm of global politics or our own personal lives, so often we’re being taught to fear and hate the “other” – and the funny thing is, we never seem to run out of “others.” Have you ever noticed that? As soon as one “other” disappears, we find another other to hate. And oddly, just like with Jonah and young David Sedaris, we know that what we’re doing is really hurting ourselves – we *know* it! But we still don’t want to accept it, because hating those others makes us feel so good.

So much of the way we think and talk about the gospel deals with our salvation in the sense of getting into heaven; a kind of golden ticket to the ultimate chocolate factory of all eternity. But I think a more immediate part of the gospel is salvation in the sense of the healing of our own souls in the here and now, and in a way that’s every bit as real as if we’d been healed from blindness or some dreadful disease. It’s a healing of the heart, made possible for us when we really grasp Christ’s message of the healing power of love, forgiveness, and acceptance – even for those who have hurt us deeply. There’s an incredible lightening of our souls, the removal of an incredible burden sitting on our shoulders when we just let all those hatreds and hurts go. When we stop eating the chocolate bars, and we allow ourselves to accept that degree of love that God has for all of us that’s all but impossible for us to even comprehend.

Yes, we learn from Jonah that it’s really impossible to run away or hide from God, or to try to ignore a call from God when you hear it, even if you don’t like where you know it’s going to lead. But I think this other message, about learning just how loving and merciful God really is, and how willing to forgive even the worst of people, is even more important. So this week, let’s ask ourselves what judgmentalism, what bias, what hatred we’re holding onto that we could ask God to help us let go of. Let’s ask God to help us learn the lesson of getting pleasure from loving people, rather than from hating them.

Thanks be to God.

You Think You Know (sermon 1/18/15)

https://i1.wp.com/seattletimes.com/art/mlk/index.jpg

(This sermon is a tribute to the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his prophetic proclamation of the equality and justice of the Kingdom of God. In a secondary way, it’s also a tribute to Dr. Phil Hazelton, a mentor of mine who once delivered a different sermon by the same name, and who somewhat loosely, and until now, anonymously, makes an appearance near the end of the sermon.)

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The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” – John 1:43-51

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 It had been a rough day of selling his fish in the marketplace. Nathaniel worked long, hard hours catching the fish, then hauling them to his stall in the market in Bethsaida, then having to smell all that unchilled fish all day long while he tried to schmooze and smooth-talk the customers to buy his fish that day instead of someone else’s. It could get frustrating. People just didn’t realize, or care, how much it actually cost him to get these fish to market. What he had to pay his workers, and the maintenance and upkeep on the boat and his nets, and the slip fees at the lake, and the health department inspections and the monthly rent for the stall in the market itself, and then all the taxes and fees on top of that, and the fact that he had so much competition in this little town where almost everybody was a fisherman; he was barely making a living. And even at the rock-bottom prices he was able to charge, people would still try to haggle him down further. There was one customer in particular who showed up every few days, a very shrewd and hard-bargaining man who’d moved to Bethsaida from further inland in Galilee, from Nazareth near the big city of Sepphoris. Nathaniel swore that if he’d set the price of the biggest, freshest tilapia he had at just two cents, this guy would try to get him to drop the price to a penny.

All the haggling, all the bruised shins Nathaniel had gotten through years of conducting his business, and from life in general, had made him jaded and suspicious of people. He was sitting there on that hot, late afternoon in the shade of a fig tree trying to enjoy his dinner of lamb, or chicken, or anything but fish, when his friend Philip came running up and started going off about something he was excited about. Ah, Philip. So naïve. Always the dreamer, always ready to believe whatever anyone said. Last week, it was some health food craze; the week before that it was the Ginsu steak knives. Now today, it was… what? The messiah? Really? Again? This was the third would-be messiah Philip had gotten worked up over in just the past year. And when Philip said this latest one was from Nazareth, Nathaniel could only think about his annoying customer and almost snorted as he spit out his scornful answer to Philip about people from Nazareth. Really, Philip, they’re all alike.

But Philip was persistent, and mostly just to get him to shut up, Nathaniel followed him to meet this man. As they got near, Jesus called out to him, “Ah, here’s truly a good and honorable man, a man in whom there is no deceit!” And immediately, Nathaniel’s BS meter spikes. It just sounded like the same kind of smarmy, insincere flattery he doled out to the people in the market all day long, and this particular day, Nathaniel wasn’t having any of it. “How do you know that? You’ve never met me before this very minute. You don’t even know my name!” And then Jesus smiled and very calmly answered, “Actually, I know all about you, Nathaniel, whose very name means gift from God; and in my mind’s eye I even saw you sitting under that fig tree having your diner.”

Jesus’ words hit Nathaniel like a lightning bolt. He realized that his preconceived notions about this man were wrong. He thought he knew; he just didn’t know.

We all do the same thing, of course. You, me, each of us, almost every day, in one way or another. With next to no real evidence, we’ll make snap judgments about a person based on the flimsiest of reasons. Skin color, ethnic heritage, religious beliefs, net worth, education level. My list won’t look exactly like yours, or yours, but still, we’ll pre-judge others based on meaningless things – often on things that are simply inherent aspects of their creation; no more the person’s doing, and holding no more moral content, than the color of their eyes.

You confide in your long-time friend that you just don’t like people who get piercings or tattoos; that you just don’t get it, and that you think anyone who goes in for those things is ignorant, low-class, trashy; and she gets a funny look on her face and doesn’t say much after that, but when she says goodbye and turns to walk away, fir the first time ever you notice through the thin white fabric of her top a beautifully colored butterfly tattooed between her shoulder blades. You think you know; you just don’t know.

You’re the president of the high school athletic boosters club, and one day you’re having a nice conversation with one of the kids – a big, strapping guy, first-string quarterback, captain of the wrestling team, maybe the best all-around athlete the school’s ever produced. An academic all-American to; a really great guy, and a real “man’s man,” you figure. And in the course of the camaraderie and joking around, you let your guard down, and you put on a swishy, effeminate voice and tell a “fag joke,” and then you go on to say to him that you think the gays are all a bunch of immoral, ungodly perverts, and they ought to all be thrown out of the locker room. And he laughs because he thinks he’s supposed to laugh, but what he’s really wondering in his mind is if he finds the courage to come out, will his intensely homophobic parents throw him out of the house? You think you know; you just don’t know.

Conservative guy who likes to go hunting? Must be one of those gun nuts; little education, hateful, racist, bigoted, probably from the south, too, if I had to guess. High school student? Must be shallow, self-centered; dumbed-down academically and spiritually; probably wastes the whole day texting, tweeting, and video gaming. You think you know.

This is the three-day weekend that we honor the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – I’d argue the most significant prophetic voice speaking God’s truth to the world and our culture over the past century. A man who ended up giving his life to spread God’s truth that you can never know what’s in another person’s heart by judging the externals. God’s truth, God’s good news – the gospel – that in God’s eyes those distinctions are meaningless. Because of the reconciliation that God has shown us, all of us, and made possible for us, all of us, through Christ, there is no longer east or west, north or south. There’s neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male and female. The gospel, God’s good news, is that we’re all created and loved as the very image of God. I can’t just point to myself and say that I’m created in God’s image. You, alone, aren’t created in God’s image. But you and you and you, and me, all of us, together, in all of our diversity and difference, are created to show the fullness of the very image and nature of God. So if we dismiss or discriminate against *any* of God’s creatures on the basis of those meaningless distinctions, those externals and incidentals, just as Nathaniel did with Jesus, then we not only harm the person we’re pre-judging, and we’re not only harming our own souls in the process, but we’re also harming and frustrating God’s intention of revealing more about God’s own self by having created us with all that diversity to begin with.

You’re church shopping. You’re looking for something different from the stuffy, boring church you grew up in; something current, something relevant, something that speaks to our time and place. But this Sunday you blew it, because there in the pulpit is the most old-fashioned minister you could imagine. He looks like a Hollywood caricature of a boring, ineffective minister. Just a few wisps of hair left on his head, hopelessly out-of-style wire-rimmed glasses sitting in front of steely eyes that have that extra-sharp intense look that some near-sighted people have. Not in jeans and rolled up shirtsleeves like Rob Bell or Landon Whitsitt or some other hip young preacher, but a drab, black robe; he was even wearing those goofy little white “preaching tabs” like Henry Fowler or one of the Puritans used to wear. Probably the most un-hip, un-relevant, whitebread, hypocritical, part-of-the-problem-not-the-solution minister you could ever imagine. This Sunday is going to be a disaster; this sermon is going to be a waste of time, you think.

What you don’t know is that the very un-hip looking minister was actually a star athlete in his day. Went to college on a football scholarship, then decided to go on to seminary. And one day when he was in seminary, he turned on his little black=and=white portable TV to watch the evening news. And as he watched, he saw a large number of unarmed, non-violent African-American protesters in some godawful place called Selma, Alabama, trying to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He didn’t know who Edmund Pettus was or why anyone would want to name a bridge after him, but he did know that the violence, the beatings, the sheer brutality that the police unleashed on the protesters that day was gut-wrenching, disgusting, a crime against God and country and humanity. Outraged, and inspired to make a statement and to further the real, radical, inclusive nature of the gospel, he decided that day to head south, where he was a Freedom Rider, and worked in several states in the civil rights movement. He became, to borrow a phrase from Dr. King, one of those “men of God and good will” who felt called by God to work for equality and justice, and for an end to prejudice and bigotry, for all of God’s people. Afterward, he’d go back to seminary, and out into the church, where he continued to proclaim that gospel of God’s love, and justice for all of God’s people, for many years. That was the man who stared out at the congregation that morning through the hopelessly out-of-style wire-rimmed glasses.

You think you know; you just don’t know.

Thanks be to God.

Immersed (sermon 1/11/15)

submerged

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”   – Mark 1:4-11

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It was one of the worst days of his life. His stomach was in knots; it felt like someone had punched him and he was almost physically ill. He was distraught; he felt a mixture of worry and fear and anger and confusion. And it all started the night before, when his teenaged daughter told him that she was dropping out of her Confirmation class, because she’d looked at the profession of faith that she’d be asked to make at the end of the process, and she couldn’t in good faith make that profession.

He was crushed. He felt like he’d been hit by a tractor-trailer. He was a person of very deep Christian faith, and at least according to his personal theology at the time, this meant that she was choosing to be condemned to eternal hell. This beautiful young girl who he’d watched being born, who he loved more than he loved his own life, was going to be separated from him forever. It was more than he could bear to think about. All he could do was pray. And so, with his head in his hands and tears in his eyes, he poured out his heart to God.

And that’s when it happened. Suddenly, he was experiencing something he never had before; it was an experience that he tried countless times to put into words later on but there were simply no words to really describe it. The closest he ever came to explain it was that he felt as if he was being covered, head to toe, with a warm, all-encompassing feeling of love and compassion and acceptance. Gradually, the feeling covered him completely; every square inch of his body could feel it; even in the webbing between his fingers and toes; eventually he even felt lifted out of his seat, completely surrounded on all sides, completely immersed in what he could only describe as liquid love. And at the same time, he heard in words that weren’t really words but were still words just as real and just as audible as my words that you’re listening to right now, in response to his prayer of fear and distress, “It’s all right. Everything will be fine. I love her, and I love you, absolutely and completely. She will be fine, and so will you.” He had never felt so loved and so completely at peace at any other time in his life. He knew, beyond any doubt, in some way he couldn’t ever explain, that in that moment, he’d been in the very presence of God.

It really only lasted less than a minute, but it felt like it could have been an hour. But in that moment, he was changed. His understanding about God, and God’s relationship with us, and his understanding about faith and salvation, changed forever. At the same time, the experience made him understand much more deeply the words he’d heard so many time in the past, that in our baptism we’re baptized into Christ’s death, and coming out of the waters of baptism we’re given new life. His experience was very much related to his baptism, and he felt in a very real way the new life, the new beginning, that it represented. Through his experience, he gained a new beginning, both in his own understanding of the faith, and also in the way he related to his daughter.

He knew that even if he never had that same experience again, he would never question the existence of God, or his belief in God, again. But in fact, he did have that experience again, two other times since that first one. One of those times was a couple of years later, when he kneeled down in the aisle crossing of his church and was surrounded by ordained ministers and elders, laying their hands on him as he himself was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. In that moment, through God’s Spirit moving through those who had laid hands on him, he felt that same extension of the seal and the call that he’d received in his baptism, and he felt the same all-surrounding, all-encompassing experience of love and acceptance.

That’s something to think about today, Baptism of the Lord Sunday. It’s a day when we think about Jesus’ baptism, but also our own, and the understanding that through it we’re sealed into God’s covenant community of faith – and not just sealed, but called, to some form of ministry that God has in store for us. So today, I’d invite all of you who have been baptized and called this way to think about that again, and I invite you to recommit yourselves to that call, whatever it might be. And I invite all of you who have been ordained in any way to a particular form of ministry, to reconsider that call, and recommit yourselves to it, also. And to those three of you who are being ordained today, I invite you, too. I invite you to recognize that this is a very special for you. This is the day that begins a new way of you engaging in the ministry God has set in front of you. It’s the beginning of a new way that you will live in witness to our Lord Jesus Christ, a new way of living as his disciple. I don’t know if you’ll experience the same feeling that that man did when he was ordained. I hope you do, but if not, I hope you feel it at some time in your lives if you haven’t already. I hope that you understand, whether you feel it today or some other day, that in your baptism, and now extended even further in your ordination, you are absolutely immersed in God’s love and acceptance, and you’ve been equipped for what God has in store for you. But beyond that, if I have any advice, any prayer for you, as you go about your ministry of compassion, both to the members of this congregation and to the people of our community, it would be this: You will indeed be very involved in ministries of social justice, and helping with social needs of people. But recognize that this isn’t just a “job;” it isn’t just being part of a run-of-the-mill social service venture. You will be involved in this form of ministry specifically to witness to Christ in the world, to spread and illustrate his love. That’s my prayer for you this day.

Amen.

Outrage

One of the things that I’ve realized for a long time now is that while I’m generally a good fit theologically in my church denomination – the Presbyterian Church (USA) – I’m almost always embarrassed by the quality of our visual communications materials. Whether it’s study guides, bulletin inserts, whatever, the graphic design – and therefore, the effectiveness of the intended message – is almost always stodgy, boring, and frankly, embarrassing. Our denominational website is one of the most poorly designed I’ve ever encountered. The generally low quality of our media has at times made me violate the Tenth Commandment, coveting after the much more pleasing and effective materials that I’ve seen coming from the home office of our brothers and sisters in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (don’t feel too proud, my Lutheran friends; it isn’t that your stuff is stellar either, it’s just that it looks really good compared to how breathtakingly bad much of our stuff has been). And that’s just one example; I’ve seen great work from a number of other denominations. Sometimes, it seems so bad that I’ve actually wondered if there’s some mutually exclusive thing going on between people who hold to Reformed/Presbyterian theology and those who actually understand graphic communications. There are days when I wonder if Presbyterians are, on some level, simply tone-deaf to effective communication in our current age.

Apparently, there’s a kerfuffle going on in PCUSA circles at the moment that only makes me wonder about that question even more deeply. The denomination sponsors four denomination-wide “special offerings,” which are set aside for specific mission ministries, including disaster relief, assistance to hunger programs, working for peace and social justice, etc., and other extremely valuable and appropriate missional activities that followers of Jesus should be involved in. Participation in these special offerings is optional for local congregations – at present, about half of them receive one or more of them throughout the year. Each year, the offerings are introduced and explained by way of a series of inserts that parishioners receive in their weekly Sunday bulletin. As already mentioned, the quality of these inserts has often been questionable, to put it politely. With the best of intentions, they’ve usually been crammed with way too much text and in general could have been laid out better by a first-year graphic arts major. Actually, I retract that; a freshman graphic arts major of even average talent could do far better.

The point here is that, as anyone involved in visual communications will tell you, you only have a split second to attract someone’s attention with a print piece like that. It has to attract, and hold, a person’s attention long enough to convey the essential, core message; to do it in just a few seconds at most, and to do it in a way that will be retained in the person’s mind. In order to do that, both graphic format and concise, precise, attention-catching text are absolutely essential. Really, this is not rocket science.

In an attempt to increase awareness and participation in the special offerings this year, PC(USA) retained the assistance of an advertising agency to help them design the materials for the 2015 offerings. Two of the resulting designs are featured below:

“Needs Help with Her Drinking Problem. She Can’t Find Water.”

“Needs Help Getting High. Above the Flood Waters.”

They point to programs supported by the special offering – those of providing access to safe, clean drinking water, and of providing flood (and other disaster) relief in many locations worldwide. Two simple messages; two simple images. Simple text in an eye-catching layout. The point made, in ten words or less, and in a way that makes the reader do a double-take and pay attention to the insert, in the midst of all the other things – the opening music, the chitchatting neighbors, squirming kids, trying to hurry and put markers in the hymnal at the right places for the day’s service, peering around trying to see who is and isn’t there, and commenting to your pew-mate that you sure hope this Sunday’s sermon is better than last weeks.

In short, they succeed at doing exactly what they were intended to do, and what they should do.

Unfortunately, a number of people are outraged at these designs. They claim that they’re both insensitive to people battling addictions, and are racist. Individuals and special-interest groups within the denomination have spoken out against them.

I’m sorry, I disagree.

I don’t disagree with them because I’m insensitive to people struggling with addictions, or because I’m racist. I don’t disagree with them because I’m unaware of the issues of white privilege or residual attitudes of colonialism or orientalism, which some critics claim the ads display. On the contrary, I’m very sensitive to those with addictions and the stresses and stigma that they can face in society. Every congregation that I’ve served has robustly sponsored and hosted various 12-step programs, and for a time during my hospital chaplaincy experience, I provided pastoral care to the patient/residents of a detox/rehab facility. I’ve received significant training regarding racial and ethnic sensitivity and work hard to promote the same in Christ’s church. In fact, I’m facilitating an adult education session regarding white privilege and the “invisible backpack” to a group in my congregation next Sunday. I understand issues of prejudice on a personal level, too. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that I’m an openly gay pastor serving in a denomination where doing so has only been constitutionally possible for fewer years than my seminary education lasted, and where there remains significant opposition to ordination of LGBTQ individuals like myself. And as far as answering the question of whether I’m racist, I suppose I could direct you to my boyfriend, who’s a native of Hong Kong.

I don’t disagree with those fellow Presbyterian brothers and sisters who dislike the designs because I’m racist or insensitive. I disagree with them because I believe many of them have missed the actual point.

Of course these designs are meant to catch our attention. Of course they’re meant to make us stop what we’re doing and ask, “Huh? Did I really just read that?”

I suspect that part of their intention is to make us laugh a bit at ourselves and our personal preconceptions that they expose in us before we’ve actually read the tagline – and to permit that bit of self-awareness to open our hearts to participate, or participate more fully, in the special offering.

But I also suspect that his is where part of the problem begins. My guess is that some people, having had their internal preconceptions exposed in that way before they get to the tag line, are embarrassed at having to admit that they – even intelligent, enlightened they – still have within themselves, just like all the rest of us, certain prejudices, biases, and bigotries that they have to work on. And being upset at receiving that discomforting message presented to them, they lash out at the bearer of the message – in this case, a pretty effective, visually and textually well-crafted communications piece.

I like them, and I hope they’re a sign of a more comprehensive attention to better visual communication coming from the denomination. We’re living in the postmodern, post-Christian, 140-words-or-less, 21st century – a world that’s more visually driven and demanding than perhaps at any other time in human history. If we want our messages of gospel and mission to be successfully heard, we’d better make sure we present them in the current language spoken. I hope that the denomination uses the same ad agency to consult on many other projects.

Epiphany (sermon 1/4/15)

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.- Isaiah 60:1-6

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In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.  – Matthew 2:1-12

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A few weeks ago, I mentioned the movie “Ghostbusters,” which featured the actor Dan Aykroyd. Another one of his films that most of you have probably seen is one that often plays around Christmastime due to its story line is “Trading Places.” In this movie, Aykroyd plays a rich, well-heeled commodities broker who’s got the world in his hands, while Eddie Murphy is a poor, down and out small-time con man. As the story line unfolds, Aykroyd’s bosses – two ultra-rich brothers – make a bet to see if, given the proper alterations in the circumstances of these two, if Murphy’s character would become just as successful and respectable as Aykroyd, while Aykroyd’s character would sink to the depths of poverty and crime that Murphy’s character was living. If you know the movie, you know that eventually, these two meet up and learn what’s going on and they set out to seek revenge on the two rich brothers who have set them up. While they’re trying to figure out how to get their revenge, Eddie Murphy’s character says “You know, it occurs to me that the best way to hurt rich people is by turning them into poor people.”

It was  pretty astute point. It does seem that many who are rich or otherwise powerful spend an awful lot of their efforts simply holding on to that power; doing whatever they can to maintain their control over things. And that becomes an important part of what’s going on in today’s gospel lesson.

This is Epiphany Sunday, when we read about the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus. The word epiphany refers to a revelation, an awakening, or an unveiling, and today we observe just that kind of revelation that God made to the Magi – that the long-awaited Messiah had come into the world, in the person of the infant Jesus. At some point after Jesus’ birth, maybe even up to a year or year and a half afterward, the Magi travel to find the baby Jesus – which makes me wonder how they found him in Bethlehem, instead of back home in Nazareth – surely Joseph, Mary, and Jesus would have gone home by then. In any case, the Magi are following a star to find him, and for some reason the star first takes them on a short detour to Jerusalem, where they receive an audience with Herod. And in a great literary foreshadowing of the end of Jesus’ life, when Pontius Pilate puts the sign on his cross, the Magi tell Herod that they’re seeking the one who was born to be the king of the Jews. It’s interesting that the Magi never said they were looking for the predicted Messiah, the Christ, the specially anointed one of God; they just said they were looking for a child who would become king of the Jews. There would be many people who would be the king, without being the Messiah, including the one they happened to be speaking with at the moment. But as soon as Herod hears it, he goes into power-protection mode. He doesn’t want to end up broke and out of power, in the same boat as the two rich brothers in the movie. To Herod, there’s only one king of the Jews, and it’s him. But he’s caught off guard by the Magi. He’s supposed to be the one in charge, the one in power,the one who knows everything, but nobody’s told him anything about this special birth. So he calls his cabinet of advisors together to ask them about it.  And even though the Magi only say they’re looking for the king of the Jews, Herod senses there’s something more at work here than that, so he asks his religious experts where the Christ, the Messiah, is supposed to be from when he comes. So they quote a passage from the prophet Micah, saying that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. With that knowledge, Herod sends the Magi on to Bethlehem a little town about six miles away as the crow flies, maybe nine miles by road, and with the guiding star’s GPS recalibrated, they follow it on to Bethlehem. But as we know from the story, Herod’s got his own agenda. Eventually, Herod believes that there’s a clear and present danger to the status quo that has him at the top of the food chain. This newborn would-be king poses a significant existential threat, so Herod makes a pre-emptive strike by killing all the innocent males of Bethlehem under two years of age, collateral damage in Herod’s attempt to preserve the current order. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves in the story; let’s get back to the Magi.

We don’t really know much about them, really; there are only a few verses in the scriptures that mention them at all. The scriptures don’t tell us how many of them there were, but over the years Christian tradition came to say that there were three of them. We came up with names, and even races, for them. In Christian tradition, the Magi were sometimes considered kings, just as it says in the hymn. When they aren’t called kings, we call them “wise men,” a term so ingrained in Christian tradition that, even though translators know that isn’t what “Magi” means, many English translations of the Bible, including the one we read from this morning, still translate it that way. And that’s a problem, because if we think of the Magi this way, we’re going to miss something important that Matthew wants us to see. So if they weren’t kings or “wise men,” what were they?

Magi were people who studied the sky; the movement of the stars and planets; in sort of a blend of astronomy and astrology. They were part scientists, part fortune tellers, part sorcerers. Our word magic comes from the same source. Magi were highly trained in their vocation, and to the rest of the world, I suppose they would have been considered intelligent, even wise men, people to look to for answers. But to the Jewish people, Magi would have been considered anything but wise. The Hebrew scriptures warned them to never engage in the astrology, divination, or what they’d consider witchcraft or sorcery, all these things that were the Magi’s stock in trade. Instead, the Hebrew scriptures said to look to God, not to all those things, for answers. In short, even though the rest of the world might have considered them wise, the Jews would have considered the Magi to have been foolish. Just coming into contact with them would have left them ritually unclean and defiled. They would have been considered evil, if not downright demonic, and Matthew’s author knew that.

But that was precisely the point he wanted to make. The coming of the Christ, the Messiah, is the inbreaking of a new world order, a new cosmic order. It’s the beginning of a breaking down of all divisions, and a disruption all established powers in favor of the kingdom of God. To Matthew, there are only two kings in the story, Herod and Christ, and Christ has come into the world to challenge the civil empire’s claim to ultimate power. To Matthew, the wise men in the story aren’t the Magi, they’re Herod’s political and religious advisors. Matthew is trying to make the point here that rather than going through the channels people might have expected – through the powerful, through the religious experts and leaders – God chooses to reveal the news of Christ’s birth to Magi. Outsiders. Foreigners. People who were engaging in some of the worst kinds of blasphemy and sin spelled out in the scriptures. These are the people that God reveals the birth to, and who God draws into the story themselves.

Did you get that? Because really, I think that might be the biggest, most important point of the story of the Magi. Yes, Matthew is making a literary parallel to the passage from Isaiah that we heard this morning, as a validation of Jesus as the Messiah through the offering of gifts of gold and frankincense, but even more importantly, Matthew is making the huge news – the radical, stop-the-presses, Fox News Alert proclamation that this new thing that God is doing in the world is really for all the world. Not just the Jews. To all the world. And as shockingly as this story tells it, the very first Gentiles that God draws into this story, which is no longer just for the Jews, are these Magi – people whom the righteous Jews and the Jewish scriptures would consider to be among the worst and dirtiest of the world’s sinners.

This is all really, really good news for all of us. God reaches out to humanity, to the world, not through the rich and the powerful. Not through the established religious leaders and experts. But rather, to the outsiders. To the everyday people. To those that the religious establishment and all polite society would turn their noses up at. And that the God who opens the doors of salvation and reconciliation to even the scripture-scorned Magi, reaches out to us, too. Each one of us who would stand condemned and damned by one or another part of scripture now have the hope and the promise, seen in God’s actions and sealed in Christ’s birth, of God’s own acceptance and welcome.

An awful lot of Epiphany sermons focus on the gifts that the Magi brought to the baby Jesus, and encourage us to wisely use the gifts that we have for God as well, throughout the coming year. If I hadn’t just written a newspaper article that made that same point, maybe this sermon would have run along those lines, too. But instead, realize that yes, we’re supposed to offer our best to God as a sign of our devotion and worship, just as the Magi did. But even when we don’t, the same God continues love us, and to reach out to us, and to welcome us, today and every day of this new year and beyond.

Thanks be to God.