Sunday, January 05, 2014

sermon on Matthew 2, magi, and being an outsider

Happy Epiphany! The season of light, we call it. We are a city on a hill, a lamp on a lampstand that no one covers. We are those hundreds of little flames that made our faces glow on Christmas Eve while we sang Silent Night. We are streetlamps set out to light the path for our neighbors. Epiphany is the season of light and it’s about light illuminating everything, not just pretty twinkly lights on the tree. It’s the kind of light CS Lewis spoke of, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Epiphany is a kind of revealing of Jesus, about what difference this birth makes, kind of like Pentecost after Easter. After Easter, we’re basking in the glow of a kind of second birth and then Pentecost rolls around and the Holy Spirit says, “and…?” “Your turn!” and expects us to talk to other people about it all. After Christmas, we’re basking in the glow of the baby Jesus, and then Epiphany and these crazy magi from the East come and say, “and…?” What’s next? What difference does Jesus being born make? What light are we carrying out of the Christmas season this year?

Sharing that light can be really hard, especially when we feel like we’re stuck in the dark, on the outside. Or even when we don’t realize we’re stuck outside in the dark. When I was in junior high school, I was not popular. I was the weird kid. Big surprise, I know. I wore combat boots with girly skirts and read science fiction and talked about complicated English currency. Which, because I can’t keep my mouth shut, meant I was an outsider most of the time. And it was obvious who the popular girls were—they had more money than we had, mostly, and they had perfect hair and skin and dressed on-trend, and knew how to flirt with boys. All I know how to do with boys was argue and be awkward. This might not have bothered me because I did have friends. Nerds and skaters and punks. But when I had a Halloween party one year and my mom and I made up a scavenger hunt and had lots of tasty food, only five people came. I invited 20. Now, you might be rational here and say that 20 was a lot of people for a 12-year-old in a very small town to expect at a party. Of course, but to me it was a huge rejection. I knew I was weird, but I thought people would still like me, would still want to come to a party.

Fast-forward a few years, and I was having a birthday party. I’d invited all my friends, and most of them were coming. One friend who had not yet RSVP’d called up a few days before to ask who all was coming to the party. Surely you know how rude that is, right? “I’m not going to commit to coming until I know who’s going to be there and if I don’t like someone, I’m not coming.” Yikes.

Maybe you’ve had similar experiences. Or maybe someone at school not-so-subtly stage-whispers about how terrible your class presentation always is or how ugly your clothes are. Or someone at work is often conspicuously absent from your meetings. Or shows up and doesn’t pay any attention, which might be worse. It’s all still this question of who’s inside and who’s out. Who gets to stand in the light? Maybe popularity isn’t the standard, but we all find ourselves on one side or the other of the line. I suspect we’ve all been on both sides of the insider/outsider line at some point in our lives. What was that like for you? Who was it who was the outsider when you drew the line? Who was it who was the insider who drew the line against you?

I understand from other clergy I know that sometimes members of their congregations don’t want to hear them preach. They walk out of the sanctuary to avoid it, even. And I understand that happens even here at Good Shepherd, to Pastor Larry when he was here, to me, though I’m not observant enough to have noticed it myself. And it grieves me to know it. Not because I or my words are so amazing or because I need to be liked, but because it ends up making outsiders again. Because it means we’re not listening to each other, not really. Perhaps if you or someone you know leaves when I preach or Pastor Pat or Pastor Jess preaches, it’s because you feel like an outsider. Or maybe you don’t want to listen to whatever claptrap we’ve prepared. I don’t know why and neither do my clergy friends outside this church because no one tells us. Sometimes someone tells us but it ends up only being an ultimatum, not a real conversation about differences. And it’s not just an issue with whether y’all agree with our preaching—out there in the world, we don’t talk to each other. Politicians seem to only be about the sound-byte and the party platform. Maybe they’re having substantive conversation behind closed doors, but we certainly don’t see it. Neighbors in dispute often don’t really listen to each other, preferring to listen to the negative narrative on our heads instead. “He says he tried to get in touch with me about that tree limb, but he didn’t really. He’s a jerk.” Friday afternoon, some guys across the street from my house were not listening to each other…very loudly. Enough that my daughter began crying. Not listening to each other enough that one of them got out a gun. He didn’t use it and they left soon after, but that’s not the point. They could not understand each other, like so many people before them, and resorted to anger and violence. Thank goodness y’all don’t threaten us clergy with weapons when you don’t like our preaching, but nothing will change in any of us if we don’t really talk to one another. We don’t spend a lot of time listening to one another as a congregation when it comes to difficult issues like gay marriage or whether war is justified—are we afraid of hurting someone’s feelings? Or of being transformed by hearing someone’s story?

Listening doesn’t mean agreeing, mind you. Listening is affirming that the other is a human being with legitimate reasons for thinking the way they do. They might be wrong. We might be wrong. Listening is about seeing the light of God in the other person. When we don’t listen to each other, whether we agree with each other or not, we are, in effect, choosing to sit in darkness and reject the Kingdom of God in all its variety. To ignore another person is to put them on the outside. And it’s the opposite of what Jesus did.
It’s exactly what Herod did. King Herod met with the mysterious magi from the East and was terrified to hear that a new king of the Jews had been born. Wasn’t he the rightful king? What would happen to him if he weren’t? Wouldn’t this new king kill him to get to the throne? So, just in case, he planned to put this “newborn king” far on the outside, he planned to kill him. Now you remember from last week, he didn’t just try to kill Jesus, he killed all the kids younger than 2 years, so the story goes.

These magi who show up following a star, who are they if not outsiders? Who knows if they’re insiders back home—maybe wealthy, learned, powerful people, maybe not. We don’t even know how many of them there were or if any women were part of the group. They were, to the ancient Jews, definitively outsiders. From Persia, so not Jewish, which is outsider enough, but also sorcerers. Scripture only uses the word magi which means magicians, sorcerers, wise in astrology. They didn’t know about Messiahs and Bethlehem and Emmanuel, yet they were prompted somehow to follow the star and worship king Jesus. Matthew’s story tells us that the circle that defines who’s inside and who’s outside is much bigger than we think. Maybe much bigger than we’d feel comfortable with. Look at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians—the church in Ephesus was made up of Gentiles, non-Jews, and Paul kind of made his name on sharing the good news of Jesus with non-Jews. He says that in the past, people didn’t know of this great mystery, the mystery that God was present to all people, not just the chosen, the Jews. He says “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus.” Fellow heirs, meaning these outsider Gentiles were brothers and sisters of the Jews. Members of the same body, he says, meaning even closer than brothers and sisters, of the same flesh, necessary to functioning. And even more, sharers in the promise of Christ—these outsiders who may have hurt us and who are, at the least, strange to us in how they do things, these outsiders are part of the great Kingdom of God. God who created all things, Paul says—all things. Not just the bits we like.
We here today would have been the outsiders of the early churchwe who are now the dominant religion in America, we had to be invited in.

And what do we do once we’ve been invited? We turn and invite someone else. Narcotics Anonymous folks will recognize one of their principles here: “The newcomer is the most important person at any meeting, because we can only keep what we have by giving it away.” We can only keep what we have by giving it away. If that’s not church, I don’t know what is. Do you remember Christmas Eve, here and probably at lots of other churches, we lit candles from the Christ candle up here and then spread the light out among all our candles? The room was radiant with light and heat because we gave away what we were given.

Who is the outsider to you, personally? Who is outside the circle of who you think is appropriate or saved or polite? Who is the outsider to this church? How could we just begin to see them as brothers and sisters? Be honest with yourself—that truth can set you free.
What difference does Jesus make to our lives? Who needs to hear of our love for them? What light will you give away? That truth can set someone else free.
I want to leave you with a song that we sing at the Edge campus ministry house. It’s directly from our Isaiah reading this morning.

Teach “Arise, Shine.”

Friday, January 03, 2014

sermon on Matthew 2:13-23, the slaughter of the innocents and flight to Egypt

This is a sermon about dead baby boys. Maybe not what you wanted here on the first Sunday after Christmas. In the Episcopal Church it’s John chapter 1: in the beginning was the word and the word was with god and the word was god. Cosmic and poetical and beautiful. And we have Herod killing baby boys. A story that, scholars tell us, probably didn’t happen. Goodness, so why read it? Why believe this stuff in the first place—that’s likely what some of my new friends on campus would say. The Edge House has recently embarked on a relationship with the Secular Student Alliance—atheists, agnostics, doubters, they call themselves many things. But not Christian, not believers. “What difference does this stuff make?” is a question they’re offering as a prompt for an upcoming conversation. What difference does this stuff make? Particularly when it’s about dead babies?

I want to offer one possible answer, and it’s a bit unorthodox. I want to read you a book. It’s called Press Here and it’s one of my 5-year-old daughter’s favorites. I want you to imagine we’re all snuggled up in the bed—yes, all of us—and we’re all in our jim-jams and we’re settled in to hear a story before bed. The book will be up on the screen, but just pretend it’s right in front of you. Feel free to follow the directions.

[read book (2min, 40sec)]

I don’t know if Abby actually thinks pressing the colors makes things happen, but she does it all the time. And she giggles
Now, maybe there are a few folks out there who are thinking, “yeah, that was cute, teaches kids cause and effect, but whatever, when’s lunch?” Fair, I often think that during church… [grimace]
Only, here’s the funny thing: every adult who has picked it up in my house and a few I’ve seen reading it in the bookstore, follow the directions and look up with a big smile when they’re finished. Every single one says something like “what a great book! I blew across the page and the dots moved! I turned the lights on and off! Brilliant!”
I’m fairly certain that my adult friends don’t really think they caused those changes. The illustrator painted those static images years ago, it doesn’t change on a second reading. Come on.

This is a wonderful example of what theologian Marcus Borg describes as the pre-critical, critical, and post-critical stages of faith development.
Pre-critical is basically us as kids: Stories about Cinderella and Jesus and Batman and the President of the United States are all equally truthful. Batman is an eccentric billionaire who became a superhero to avenge his parents’ death—totally! And Jesus was born under a moving star and magicians from the far East came to worship him--absolutely. They’re both truthful and factual. And yes, there is a difference—facts generally show us truth, but things that are true, deeply true that you feel in your gut, sometimes aren’t factual. Think of you’re most favorite movie or novel that changed how you see things in the world—true, maybe not factual.
Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with this stage except when we get stuck in it—things we understand as meaningful have to be literally, historically factual and we go to great lengths to make them so. Consider the seasonally-appropriate film Polar Express and its take on belief.

The critical stage is all about understanding the stories we tell intellectually. How much of them are historically-accurate? Why did people tell them? Were any of them codes for freedom like African-American spirituals in the pre-Civil War South? Spoiler: yes, the books of Daniel and Revelation. Which stories were several stories stitched together to make one like the story of the great Flood in Genesis? What is the history of how we got the Hebrew Scriptures and how were they edited over the centuries? In scholarly circles this might be called the Historical-Critical Method and its main point is to understand on a deeper level the Word passed down to us through the centuries using historical resources outside of the Bible itself. They ask questions about how different Hebrew or Greek words were used elsewhere or what events were happening around the Jews that made them write different things. It’s good, helpful stuff and pretty much all mainline denominations teach it in our seminaries. But we can get stuck here as well.
Some theologians like John Shelby Spong go to great lengths to disprove miracles and the more epic stories of the Bible, encouraging believers to see the meaning behind the myths. But Spong and others lose the poetry of scripture—it’s not just a list of dates and names but people’s lives and their attempts to make sense of seeing God in action. If you “disprove” that stuff, you lose much of the point. And many folks get so stuck in this critical stage that God ceases to be real at all for them. If these events were recorded and some invented by humans, where is the divine? It’s the reason so some Christians push so hard against non-literal reading of scripture—folks think that if any part of the Bible is not factual, it must not be true. And therefore all of it is suspect. Again, not a good place to be stuck.

Luckily, Marcus Borg offers a third stage which many of us dip in and out of when it comes to our faith.  The post-critical stage takes both the wide-eyed belief in the stories as told and the scholarly, perhaps cynical understanding and holds them next to one another at the same time. The story in Matthew about Jesus and his folks fleeing to Egypt is a literary device to remind readers of both the Exodus led by Moses and the later Exile when thousands were killed and displaced by invading Babylon. There is no historical evidence and no other mention in the Bible that Herod had any children killed, because of Jesus or not. But Matthew recalls the prophet Jeremiah speaking of Rachel weeping over her children Israel. Matthew is making past grief new again to make Jesus’ miraculous birth and miraculous life even more miraculous. AND this story about a family becoming refugees to avoid terrible death at the hands of a despotic leader is deeply true. We have only to consider Syria and the 2,000,000 people, 1,000,000 of them children, who have fled the war there. Or mothers escaping abusive relationships with their children. Or students fleeing a school-shooter. Post-critical reading of scripture doesn’t take away from the beauty and authority of the Word, it adds to it, deepens it. Like nostalgia or parenthood adding flavor to the reading of Press Here, even more do history, literary criticism, and our own life-experiences add to the reading of scripture.

Now, there’s good news here beyond this lecture on how to read scripture, I promise. It’s good news in itself that we don’t have to check our brains at the door here,
BUT ALSO in the midst of this horrific account of the slaughter of baby boys, Matthew recalls for us Jeremiah’s words, not only of Rachel’s weeping for her children, but what follows: “Return, O virgin Israel, return to these your cities. How long will you waver, O faithless daughter? For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth: a woman encircles a man.
“God has created a new thing” is spoken by Jeremiah and Isaiah and Matthew and John of Patmos in the book of Revelation. God is always doing a new thing. And “By quoting this small bit…of Jeremiah,…Mathew…implies the rest of the rest of it: it is Mary…being called back from exile, Mary, as virgin Israel, that returns salvation to God’s people through the new thing on earth which the Lord has done, through the man she encircles in her womb.”[1]
I just read a wonderful article in which a prostitute who is also a junkie and a mom of 5 said, “you know what kept me through all that? God. Whenever I got into the car, God got into the car with me.”[2]

how could we not draw parallels to school shootings or mass graves in Sudan and WWII Germany? And we’re meant to. Herod’s evil, Babylon’s evil, Pharoah’s evil are not unique nor is our mourning. We cry for our own children—we cry when we lose them, we cry when they’re happy because the world isn’t good enough for them, we cry because the same story seems to keep happening. And then Jesus comes and, to the critical eye, the story is the same and it doesn’t make any difference.
And to the post-critical eye, Jesus comes and there’s something else going on. It’s the same story, but the themes are different, it’s meaning is different, how we react to it is different.
It’s the same story, “A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…” and the no room at the inn, and the shepherds, and the flight to Egypt to avoid the slaughter of the innocents.
It’s the same story, and with a post-critical eye, with the eye that knows and embraces the traditional words and also knows how Matthew has carefully crafted his account,
we see hope. We see that God is doing a new thing. God is writing a new book and taking our crappy lives and memories and actions and making something else, something unexpected with them.
There are people out there fighting against the world’s brokenness and hurtfulness.
People inspired by Jesus and people who’ve never heard of him.
People who will not just accept Herod and Babylon and Pharoah.
May we be those people. May we see the hurt, may we stop and ask if we can help. May we offer love in the place of judgment and embrace in the place of fear.