Friday, January 31, 2014

Stuff We Really Don’t Have to Believe: “If you truly have faith, you won’t doubt" - February 2, 2014

Texts: Psalm 22:1-5, Luke 24:1-11

We have been examining some of those beliefs and assumptions people have about Christianity that aren’t necessarily true – “Stuff Christians Really Don’t Have to Believe.”  Today we’re looking at the idea that if you are a person of faith, you won’t doubt.    

There was a powerful movie made several years ago called “Cinderella Man.”  It’s the story of Jim Braddock, a boxer during the depression years.  After injuring his hand, his boxing career came to an end.  Unable to find regular work, the family struggled greatly.  Although he was a devout Christian, those bleak years strained his faith in God.  In one poignant scene of the movie, the Braddock family has no money, the kids are sick, the electricity has been cut off in their apartment, and they have little food.

Late in the evening, Jim came home from another unsuccessful day of seeking work.  The kids are in bed, coughing with a bad cold; the apartment was freezing.  The only light in the apartment comes from a small candle.  Jim sat down at the table with his wife to eat a meager bit of dinner.  He and his wife joined hands and bowed their heads to say a blessing over the meal, as was their custom.    She began, “Lord, we are grateful…” but Jim did not join her.  She looked up at him, her eyes asking, “Why are you not praying?”  For a moment he looked at her in silence, and then said, “I’m all prayed out.”

Maybe you have felt that way – as though you are all prayed out.  Maybe you have wondered if God exists, or if God is as good and loving as you have been taught.

Well, you are in good company.  Abraham and Sarah doubted the promise that they would be parents of a great nation; when she heard the news that in her old age she would have a child, Sarah cracked up – it was absurd.  Jacob runs for his life from his brother Esau only to be tricked by his father-in-law Laban.  Returning home years later, he is afraid for his life.  He is all prayed out.  Frustrated with leading the people through the wilderness, Moses is all prayed out.  Hiding in a cave, fearful, David is prayed out.  Crying out in anger and anguish, the prophet Jeremiah is all prayed out.  Over and over, the Psalmist feels that God has abandoned him.  After praying for healing but not receiving it, Paul is prayed out.

And then there is Jesus in the garden, praying that this cup might pass, and finally on the cross, crying out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Some of you may have grown up with the idea that we should never doubt.  We should never doubt our faith, we should never doubt God, we should never question.  But doubt is not the opposite of faith.  Apathy is the opposite of faith.  Questions and doubts are simply a part of who we are, a part of our makeup, a part of humanity, and the way I see it, if it is good enough for these heroes of the Bible, it’s good enough for me.  When we have questions and doubts and when we may feel far from God, we are actually in good company.

St. Augustine spoke of the value of doubt.

Nobody surely doubts that he lives and remembers and understands and wills and thinks and knows and judges. At least, even if he doubts, he lives.  If he doubts, he remembers why he’s doubting.  If he doubts, he has a will to be certain.  If he doubts, he thinks.  If he doubts, he knows he does not know.  If he doubts, he judges he ought not to give a hasty ascent.  I love this being and this knowing.  Where these truths are concerned, I need not quail before the academicians when they say, “What if you should be mistaken?” Well, if I’m mistaken, I exist.

Doubt, says St. Augustine, is if nothing else a sign that we are alive.

In his later years, the great author Robert Louis Stevenson was a person of deep faith. But in his college days, he called himself a “youthful atheist,” shedding his rigid Christian upbringing, calling it “the deadliest gag and wet blanket that can be laid on a man.”  But as he grew older, Stevenson said he began to have “doubts about my doubts.”

Our questioning can lead us to a faith that is genuine and authentic. 

A pastor told about a family that was looking forward to the baptism of their child.  We don’t baptize infants here, but this would be like a child dedication service for us.  The mother and father met with the pastor, they had a nice conversation, and a date was set for the baptism.

But after this meeting, the father sent a lengthy email to the pastor.  He said that he wasn’t sure he could go through with it, he wasn’t sure he could stand with the child as the child was baptized because he was an atheist, and he didn’t know if he could in good conscience say that he would raise this child in the faith.

Well, the pastor and father met and talked some more, and it was clear that this man wasn’t really an atheist, he was at best more of an agnostic.  He had a lot of questions and uncertainties about God.  Now, this was someone who came to church.  The pastor asked the man, “Are you planning to bring the child to church?”  “Oh, sure,” said the man, “I’m just not sure I believe all this stuff.” 

“Well, what is it that you don’t believe? “the pastor asked.  And it turned out that what was really bothering this guy was a set of beliefs from the very conservative, fundamentalist church he grew up in that he wasn’t sure he could believe. 

From his upbringing, this father had it ingrained in him that faith was yes/no, either/or, black or white, with no room for doubts or questions or even different ways of looking at things.  He had been handed the faith and told take it or leave it, this is the way it is, with no opportunity to work things out for himself, and without allowing for the possibility that faith is more than just agreement with a set of propositions.

Sometime we get the idea that Christian faith is about answers – that Christianity is a set of answers to life’s biggest questions.  Christianity certainly offers us answers, but it is a lot more than that.  And sometimes the answers are not as simple as abc, 123.

What about Jesus?  Look at his life and his teachings.  Look at the way he operated.  Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but this week I learned that Jesus asked eight times as many questions as he answered.  Eight times.  Jesus was actually a lot more about questions than he was answers.

Yet the church is stereotyped in our culture as an institution that believes it has all the answers.  We can come across as so dang sure of ourselves.

Tennyson said, “There lies more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”  Now, my mother was a Tennyson.  I’m not sure if I am related to Alfred Lord Tennyson, but I do feel a kinship with his thoughts here.

A couple of days ago I read a column by David Brooks of the New York Times.  I don’t necessarily read everything he writes, but the last two David Brooks columns I have read I thought were great columns and pretty well agreed with him.  In the past I have sometimes read a David Brooks column that I liked, but two in a row was some kind of record.

Anyway, Brooks talked about the way that many in the modern world view religious faith as judgmental, hypocritical, and out of touch.  He quoted Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who noted that the faith expressed by many is often dull and insipid – a kind of religiosity in which “faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored for the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather that with the voice of compassion.”

Heschel described another way of faith.  He frequently talked about what he called Radical Amazement.  He said, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.  Everything is phenomenal… to be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Brooks said that while there are many who seem to have that dull, rigid faith, there is “a silent majority who experience a faith that is attractively marked by combinations of fervor and doubt, clarity and confusion, empathy and moral demand.”  There are those who may not have it all figured out, may not have it all together, but can nevertheless experience joy and amazement.  Brooks gives the example of Audrey Assad, a Catholic songwriter.

She had an idyllic sort of childhood in a church with a very black-or-white understanding of faith.  But in her 20’s, life’s tragedies and complexities began to mount, and she experienced a gradual erosion of certainty. 

She began reading through the Barnes and Noble Great Books shelf, reading books she had missed by not going to college.  She began reading theology, including the early church fathers.  Her religious journey led her to various churches quite different from the church of her childhood, and she eventually became a Catholic, but certainly not without questions.  “I was ready to be an atheist,” she said.  “I was going to be a Catholic or an atheist.” 

Brooks wrote,
She came to feel the legacy of millions of people who had struggled with the same feelings for thousands of years – feelings of doubt, feelings of uncertainty.  “I still have routine brushes with agnosticism,” she said.  “I still brush against the feeling that I don’t believe any of this, but the church always brings me back… I don’t think Jesus wants to brush away the paradoxes and mysteries.”

Here is someone for whom doubt is part of a vibrant, living faith.  Her music, which does not ignore the complexities and pain of life, connects with a lot of people – because life is complex.

Our scripture today is that great Easter text, the story of Jesus’ resurrection in the gospel of Luke.  The resurrection is the center of Christian faith, and yet when the disciples first heard, they didn’t believe.  All four gospels say essentially the same thing: the people closest to Jesus had a hard time believing that he was alive.

Luke said that the news of Jesus’ resurrection seemed to the disciples “an idle tale.”  But it’s actually better than that.  The Greek word used here means “absolute nonsense” or “crazy talk.”  In fact, it’s the root of our word “delirious.”

Eventually, they came to believe.  A big part of that, I think, is that they spent time together.  Again, all four of the gospels mention the disciples being together a lot.  Sometimes hiding together when they are afraid, sometimes meeting in someone’s home, sometimes out fishing, sometimes eating together.  But they are together.  The community was very important.

The Church at its best gives a place to belong, a place to stand, a place to know we are home – even with all of our questions and uncertainty and doubt.  Sometimes, it might even be that when we have a hard time believing, others can believe for us and carry us along.  Like Audrey Assad said, “I still brush against the feeling that I don’t believe any of this, but the church always brings me back…”

There are those who are absolutely sure of everything and see doubt as weakness, who see doubt as sin.  But the Bible does not see it that way. 

Imagine a world with no doubts.  That means no questions.  That means no re-examining of things.  It means that we are stuck forever in the faith of our childhood.  If we don’t ask questions, if we don’t examine what we believe, if we are not allowed to have honest doubt, then we will never change, never learn, never grow.

I’m not sure what is behind this idea that Christians shouldn’t ever doubt.  Maybe it comes out of a spiritual one-upmanship, “my faith is stronger than your faith” attitude.  Maybe it is a way of reinforcing the power of authorities and institutions, who can say “Believe as you are told.”  I’m not sure where that comes from.

But I know this: Jesus, who asked questions much more than he gave answers, affirmed and welcomed everyone in all of their humanity, with all of their questions, and helped them to grow.  The Church is to be a place where questions are welcome.  It is a place where we care for and encourage one another as we journey together with Christ.  Our doubts and our questions are simply part of the journey.  Amen. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Stuff We Really Don’t Have to Believe: “Everything in the Bible is 100% Literally True” - January 26, 2014

Texts: Psalm 119:97-105, 2 Timothy 3:14-17

I grew up in a church that thought very highly of the Bible.  We had Sword Drills in Sunday School.  Some of you know what I am talking about; they were called Sword Drills because Ephesians 6:17 says that the Sword of the Spirit is the Word of God.  So the Bible is your sword, and in a sword drill, the teacher or leader would say something like “Present Swords,” and you would hold your Bible out like so.  They would then call out a scripture, and the contestants, being the students, would look up the scripture.  It was like a race to see who could find a Bible verse first, and you became well acquainted with the order and structure of the Bible in the process.

I remember the Bible I had when I was a boy.  It was the Revised Standard Version – we weren’t hung up on the King James, like some churches.  It was black leather or probably bonded leather, and it had a zipper.  My name was embossed on the front.  The Bible had an almost magical quality, and you treated it with great respect.  I would not have thought of marking or underlining in the Bible.

Later, as a high school student and into college, I took Bible study more seriously.  I had a New English Bible, a new translation that had come out.  I would sometimes underline and make notes in the margins.  The Bible was maybe less of a holy object and more of a guide book, a tool for study, a way of growing closer to God.

In my college years I started to think more critically and broadly about the nature of the Bible.  This was spurred in part by thought about issues such as the role of women in the church and the relationship between science and faith as well by religion courses I took.  It also helped that I had friends from other traditions, like Roman Catholics and Seventh-Day Adventists.  I took a religion class with a Shia Muslim from Iran – there were a lot of Iranian students at Evansville who had come there during the time of the Shah.  Being in a more diverse religious environment can lead you to think more deeply about your own faith.

There was a lot of talk at the time about the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture.  The implication was that Christians had always had these beliefs about the Bible, but nobody spoke of the Bible in this way until the late 1800’s, and not many spoke of the Bible in this way until the 1970’s.  Inerrancy and infallibility are clever fighting words, because to disagree makes it sound like you are saying the Bible is full or errors and lies.

Inerrancy means that the original manuscripts of the Bible were completely God-inspired and totally free of any error.  Some pushed it to what is called the plenary verbal inspiration of scripture – that God dictated each and every word to the Biblical writers – so there was really no human thought or input into the scriptures.

All of this referred to the original manuscripts of the books of the Bible, but none of those are surviving.  The earliest New Testament manuscript we have is from the first half of the second century, and it only contains parts of John chapter 18.  All of the earliest New Testament manuscripts contain only fragments of books; the oldest complete New Testament we have is from around the year 350.  I can remember this big debate over the inerrancy of scripture, but it was essentially a theoretical debate over original manuscripts that didn’t even exist.

Infallibility meant that the Bible is always right, that it cannot be wrong.  For many this extends not just to matters of theology and doctrine but to science and history and psychology and geography.  Well, the best information I have is that the earth is not flat.  And I realized fairly quickly that those who claimed to believe in an inerrant, infallible Bible nevertheless did plenty of interpretation and fancy footwork in order to do an end run on troublesome passages.

There was the televangelist who preached against divorce as a terrible sin, but then changed his mind as he himself went through a divorce.  His Biblical interpretation changed.  There was the hellfire evangelist who came through college campuses in the early 80’s, Brother Max.  Brother Max said that a woman’s place was the home, but come to find out his wife was out working to support the family while he was on campus preaching at the sinful college kids.  Brother Max had some kind of convoluted answer for that.

More than this, it seemed to me that in many cases a literal reading of the Bible just couldn’t hold water – it was intellectually dishonest.  It seemed to me that all of scripture did not have the same authority, and all of it was not meant literally.  There are plenty of sections that we don’t follow – that even those who claim to take everything literally and live by it don’t follow.

Is anyone here wearing a wool/cotton or cotton/polyester blend fabric?  Leviticus tells us that blended fabrics are an affront to God.  Does anybody like shrimp?  Or better yet, does anybody here like a good pork tenderloin sandwich?  Well, shame on you: if you eat pork you are violating God’s law.  Based on the Bible, a Bacon Festival is an unimaginable sinful event.

Did you ever get in any trouble as a teenager?  Do you know any unruly youth?  (that phrase is kind of redundant, isn’t it?)  If people followed the Bible literally, I’m afraid that very few of us would be around, because the Bible clearly says in Leviticus that unruly youth are to be stoned at the city gates.  I have heard people say, in reference to the Bible, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” but in a lot of cases they don’t really believe it and that doesn’t really settle it.

Then there were those stories that seemed just too dramaticized.  Was a man named Jonah really swallowed by a great fish and then after three days barfed up out of the fish’s belly?  Did God really give Satan permission to kill all 10 of Job’s children, saying you have to spare Job but go ahead and kill everybody else for all I care?  Maybe Biblical books like Jonah and Job are not to be read as literal history so much as something like parables, stories that convey deep truths to us.

Increasingly, it seemed to me that you couldn’t just treat each book of the Bible in exactly the same way.  They have different purposes, different intents, different styles.  And the fact is, the Bible is not one book, but a collection of books, some passed on orally for centuries before being written over a period of hundreds of years.

The gospels have differences among them.  Take the story of Simon and Andrew following Jesus.  As the Gospel of John tells the story, Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist.  So, it seems, was his brother Simon.  One day John saw Jesus, and said that Jesus was the true Messiah.  John sent Andrew to go and follow Jesus. Andrew brought his brother, and Jesus immediately chose Simon to be his protégé.

The Gospel of Matthew tells a somewhat different story.  Jesus came to a fishing village, saw Simon and Andrew at work, and asked them to follow him as “fishers of people.”  The Matthew and John accounts don’t fit together.

If you understand the Bible as 100% literal truth, historically accurate by today’s standards of history (which, it might be said, are very different from the understanding of our ancient forbears), then these differences are a problem.

But what I came to understand was that the Bible is not intended as a book of history.  Rather, the Bible is a book of meaning.  To treat the Bible as a historical factbook actually diminishes it.  The Bible is a wonderful book filled with poetry, instruction, letters, parables, hymns, the struggles and victories of the community, and towering stories of faith.  To read all of the Bible as a book of historical facts or a science textbook would cause us to miss the point. 

Matthew and John each speak to the awesome reality that two generations after Jesus died, Andrew and Simon were still remembered among those who had left everything to follow Jesus.

That is what is amazing here: they left everything to follow.  They didn’t simply choose a place to call their “church home,” or a place to get married or to make an occasional charitable contribution.  They had left their jobs, their homes, their previous loyalties, all that was familiar -- in Simon’s case, even his name – they had left everything to follow Jesus, not knowing where that would take them.

This was total commitment.  This was “all-in,” putting everything on the line for Jesus – who was, remember, still a stranger to them.

And then there is us.  We want to hold back.  We want to hedge our bets.  Sometimes we want just enough religion to inoculate us against the real thing.  The story of these first disciples puts to shame our rather feeble ideas of what it means to follow Jesus.

The calling of Andrew and Simon is a wonderful, powerful, inspiring story that challenges us deeply today.  But if you simply read this as historical reporting and try to somehow explain the discrepancies between John and Matthew, you are missing the point.

The Bible is a disorderly collection of 66 books, first told orally and then put to paper over a period of 3000 years.  It is written in ancient Hebrew and a corrupt form of ancient Greek.  It contains a whole gamut of different genres of literature.  There is a history of centuries of interpretation that has often been shallow and self-serving.  This is a complex book, and understanding the message of scripture is not always easy.  Interpreting scripture requires humility.

There are dangers in interpreting the Bible.  One danger is Bibliolatry - worshiping the Bible and making it an object of veneration.

Symbols are an important way that we convey meaning.  The flag is a symbol of our country.  It is more than a piece of fabric.  If somebody were to burn a flag, wow, that would get our attention.  We would be upset.  We would be offended. 

In communion, the bread and cup are more than just Wonder Bread and Welchade.  A cross is more than just a piece of wood or metal.  Symbols matter. 

I remember a wedding I was in, while in college.  A couple of friends, Sally and Ron, were getting married at Sally’s home church in Cincinnati.  When it came time to light the unity candle, Sally dropped the lit taper that she was using to light the unity candle.  She dropped it right on the open Bible on the communion table.  Immediately I had this image of the Bible going up in flames at your wedding.

The Bible is more than just another book, it is a powerful symbol.  Presidents are not sworn in with their hand on the Miriam-Webster dictionary or Moby Dick or The Hunger Games, they are sworn in on the Bible. 

The problem with such symbols is that we can confuse the symbol for that to which it points and wind up worshiping the symbol itself.  We can make the Bible an object of worship.  We can make the Bible into an idol.  But we don’t worship the Bible; we worship the God to whom the Bible points.

Fredrick Buechner writes,
If you look at a window, you see flyspecks, dust, the crack where Junior’s Frisbee hit it.  If you look through a window, you see the world beyond.  Something like this is the difference between those who see the Bible as a Holy Bore and those who see it as the Word of God which speaks out of the depths of an almost unimaginable past into the depths of ourselves.
The Bible itself is not the point.

Another danger of interpretation is literalism.  I’ve already mentioned some of the places in the Bible where a literal interpretation can lead us astray.

The great preacher and theologian Howard Thurman told about his grandmother, who was born a slave:
My regular chore was to do all of the reading for my grandmother – she could neither read nor write … With a feeling of great temerity I asked her one day why it was that she would not let me read any of the Pauline letters.  What she told me I shall never forget.  ‘During the days of slavery’, she said, ‘the master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves … Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul.  At least three or four times a year he used as a text: “Slaves be obedient to your masters … as unto Christ.”  Then he would go on to show how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us.  I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would never read that part of the Bible.
A literal interpretation can sometimes contradict the message of the gospel.  Peter Gomes said,
Language is not an end but a means, and the end is communication with meaning and significance.  The language of the Bible is meant always to point us to a truth beyond the text, a meaning that transcends the particular and imperfectly understood context of the original writers, and our own prejudices and parochialisms we bring to the text.  Literalism is not part of the solution to this problem – literalism is the problem.
 The Bible offers us guidance, inspiration, challenge, hope, correction.  It can bring wisdom and healing.  Written far in the past, God still uses scripture to speak to us today.  The Bible is the Church’s book.  When we gather for worship, words from the Bible are read and spoken and sung.  We love the Bible and cherish the Bible.  But we do not worship the Bible.  We worship the living God, to whom the Bible points.  Amen. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

“Stuff We Really Don’t Have to Believe: God Causes Cancer, Car Wrecks, and Catastrophes” - January 19, 2014

Texts: Romans 8:21-28, Luke 13:1-5

I don’t know about you, but it’s not uncommon for someone willto make a comment about Christian faith that I find careless or uninformed, if not offensive.  The person may or may not be a Christian, but they seem to have a sense of “this is what all Christians believe” when in fact there are Christians who feel quite differently. 

It might be a letter to the editor in which Christians are set up as narrow-minded literalists, and the writer in one stroke discounts the whole of Christian faith by arguing against something that I don’t believe.  There is a whole host of beliefs commonly ascribed to Christianity that are really not the core of our faith - beliefs that we really don’t have to believe and in many cases should not believe.

“Good Christians don’t doubt.  If you have enough faith, you will never have doubts.”

“The world was created in seven days.  A Christian can’t believe in evolution.”  This is a key component of a larger belief that if science appears to disagree with a literal Biblical perspective, then science has to be wrong.

In that vein, you will also hear, “Everything in the Bible is literally true.  I don’t interpret it, I just read it and believe it.”  Nobody actually does that, but you will hear that claim.

Another one is, “When it comes to church, men are leaders and women can be good helpers.”  That is more or less the position of the church I grew up in.

“Christians should stick to saving souls and keep out of social issues.” 

“Bad People will be Left Behind and fry in hell.”  The whole Left Behind series of books tapped into a stream of Christian faith that is obsessed with End Times prophecy.  There are those especially enamored with the idea of the Rapture – even though the word “rapture” never appears in scripture.

Well, I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  For the next few Sundays, we’ll be looking at some of these statements and beliefs; I’ve imaginatively titled this “Stuff Christians Don’t Have to Believe.”

And the first of these beliefs, which I want to look at today, goes something like this: “God is in control, and for reasons we don’t understand God causes tragedies.”

Jason Berryman, a former Iowa State football player, died a little over a week ago.  He was one of the most talented players we’ve had here – as a freshman he was named the team MVP.  But he had a troubled life and was released from the team after run-ins with the law.  He played briefly in the NFL and also played Arena Football for the Iowa Barnstormers.

He was found dead of gunshot wounds in his home in East Texas.  He was 28 years old.  Former players remembered a tremendous talent, but also a good teammate who was easy to like but had a troubled life.  Trying to make sense of things, his former coach, somebody I like and respect a lot, said, “God works in mysterious ways.”

But that’s the question.  Was this God’s work?

A woman wrote, “My mother in law suffered in terrible pain with liver cancer.  When she finally passed, the nurse told my husband, “God wanted a special angel and she’s an angel now up in heaven with God.”  The nurse doubtless was trying to make this man feel better, but it only made things worse.  The woman wrote, “So what this nurse is saying is that God had my mother-in-law suffer terribly and die just because he needed an angel?” 

Or consider the experience of a woman named Dorothy:

I was nine years old when my mother died and I was very, very sad. I did not join in saying prayers at my parochial school.  Noticing that I was not participating, the teacher called me aside and asked what was wrong.  I told her my mother died and I missed her, to which she replied, “It was the will of God.  God needs your mother in Heaven.”  But I felt that I needed my mother far more than God needed her.  I was angry at God for years because I felt he took her from me.
In order to feel that there is meaning in tragedy and maybe to justify God, people will sometimes say that God needs a person and so God takes them from us.  But there is also the line of thought that bad things happen as a punishment for sin.

John Killinger is a retired pastor and professor and the author of over 50 books.  I first became familiar with Killinger when I spent a year doing a campus ministry internship at Virginia Tech.  We were just down the road from Lynchburg, home of Jerry Falwell and his growing empire that included the Thomas Road Baptist Church, The Old Time Gospel Hour, Liberty University, and the Moral Majority.  Falwell was a well-known fundamentalist.  But there was another preacher in town with a growing reputation, and a very different perspective, a different take on what faith and the spiritual life is about – John Killinger.  It all made Lynchburg a very interesting place.

In one of his books, Killinger shared that the church he grew up in attributed everything to God – even disease, heartbreak and death.  To believe otherwise would have somehow lessened the power and sovereignty of God.  When his nine year old sister died, the pastor said at the funeral, “God has taken her to be with him in heaven.”  Killinger said this may have comforted his parents, who were in shock and probably didn’t reflect on the theology of it.

But just as often, Killnger’s community would equate tragedy with  God’s punishment.  They had a neighbor who was a decent enough guy during the week, but on the weekends he drank heavily and was mean and abusive to his family, terrible to his wife.  One night when he was too inebriated to know better, he went to sleep outside in a cold rain, got pneumonia and died.  Everybody said God had done it because of his sins.  Some even said he was going to burn in hell.

When a respected citizen in town was stricken by a muscular disease, people said that there must have been some dark, secret sin in his life.  When the wild, hard-living son of the minister crashed his plane into a mountain on a rainy night, people said that it was God’s punishment for being a thorn in his saintly father’s side.

Does God send tragedy as punishment for sin?  There was that stream of thought in the Old Testament, but Jesus disagreed.  In our gospel reading, two tragedies are mentioned.  Pilate had slaughtered some Jews in Galilee; was this was because of their sin?  No, said Jesus.  A tower in Siloam fell, killing 18 people – was it because of their sin?  Again, no, said Jesus. 

There are those who will imagine that difficulties in their lives must be because of some sin – that the hardships they face are punishment from God.  And maybe more commonly, we want to hang that on others, as seen when somebody like Pat Robertson blames national tragedies on the sins of Americans (though not his own, of course.)  He agreed with Jerry Falwell that the ACLU, pagans, feminists, and gays had to take a lot of blame for 9/11 and he said that the earthquake in Haiti was because of a pact slaves made there with the devil 200 years ago.  (Of course, those who allegedly made the pact didn’t suffer from the earthquake, but logic didn’t play a real big role in all of this.) 

Well, it is natural to want to make sense of tragedy and death.  We want an explanation; it’s human nature.  But as Paul says, “We see now through a glass dimly,” and there are some things we will never make sense of this side of eternity. 

In an interesting take on this, Rabbi Aron Moss while we want an explanation for why the innocent suffer, it’s best that we don’t have an answer.  He asks us to imagine being in a hospital and hearing a woman screaming with pain.  Outside her room, her family is standing around chatting, all smiling and happy.  So you yell at them, “What’s wrong with you?  Can’t you hear how much pain she is in?” They answer, “This is the maternity ward.  She is having a baby.  Of course we are happy.”

When you have an explanation, the pain doesn’t seem so bad anymore.  We can tolerate suffering when we know why it is happening.

But what if someone came along and gave us a satisfying explanation?  What if the mystery were finally solved?  What if we asked God why innocent people suffer, and actually got an answer?  Then we would be able to make peace with the suffering of innocents, and that, says Rabbi Moss, is unthinkable. 

If we could make sense of innocent people suffering, we would be able to hear the cry of children in pain and not be horrified.  We would tolerate seeing hearts broken and lives shattered, because we could explain it all away.  But as long as we can’t explain suffering, says Moss, we have to work to alleviate it. 

Though as a theologian he no doubt gave thought to the problem of why bad things happen to good people, I am glad that Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t stop there.  He gave his life to alleviating suffering and improving the lot of the oppressed.

William Sloane Coffin was pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City.  I once had the chance to hear him preach there, on St. Patrick’s Day in 1985.  A few years later, Coffin’s 24-year old son, Alex, was killed in an automobile accident.  A week later, Coffin climbed into the pulpit at Riverside and preached about Alex’s death.

He said, “When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and at least one thing that should never be said.”  The night after Alex’s death, he was sitting in his sister’s living room when a woman came in carrying a bunch of quiches.  She walked into the kitchen, looked over her shoulder and shook her head and said, “I’ll never understand God’s will.”

Coffin said he was up in an instant, and said, “I’ll say you don’t, lady!”  He followed her into the kitchen.

He said to her, “Do you think it was God’s will that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper, that he was probably driving too fast in that storm, that he probably had a couple ‘frosties’ too many?  Do you think it is God’s will that there are no streetlights on that stretch of road, and no guard rail between the road and Boston Harbor?”

Tragedies in our lives are not God’s will.  God doesn’t want such pain for anyone.  The God we worship, the God whom we know as Love, does not capriciously strike down people.  The notion violates everything we believe about the nature of God.

So – where is God in all of this?  Where is God in our pain?  Where is God in times of tragedy?

God is right there, alongside us.  Even in the worst of times, God is there.  As William Sloan Coffin put it, God’s was the first heart to break when his son died in the icy waters. 

The story is told of a man lying on his deathbed, reflecting on his life.  At his bedside was his wife of seventy years.  The husband turned to his wife and said, “I remember when we were just starting out and I got fired from my job; you were there by my side.  And then when the house burned to the ground, you were right there by my side.  And then there was the car accident.  When I woke up in the hospital, you were the first person I saw.  And when I had the heart attack, you were right there by my side.”  The husband, lying on his deathbed, said to his wife, “Do you know what I think?”  His wife, her heart filled with love replied, “What do you think?”  And her husband said, “I’m beginning to think that you are bad luck.”

It’s a great joke, but there is also has a great message there.  Whatever happened, the man’s wife was there, with him.  Whatever happens in life, God is right there, with us.

We read earlier from Romans chapter 8: “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose.”  That’s the way most of us remember the verse.  But that may not be the best translation.  “All things work together for good” sounds an awful lot like saying, “it’s all for the best.”  “All things work together for good” sounds as though God is behind everything, that God causes everything to happen, and that whatever happens is by definition good. 

But that may not be the best translation of the verse.  The New English Bible reads, “in everything, as we know, the Spirit cooperates for good with those who love God and are called according to God’s purposes.”  It is not that everything works together for good, but rather in all circumstances, God is working for good.  Even in terrible circumstances, even in pain, even amidst tragedy and loss, God is working with us to bring good. 

Why do bad things happen to good people?  I really don’t know.  We can give answers like humans have free will and can choose to do terrible things.  We can use things like weather patterns and tectonic shifts to explain tornados and earthquakes and tsunamis, but none of it is very satisfying when we have suffered loss.

There was another tragic death for the ISU football team just a few days ago.  Defensive line coach Curtis Bray, 43 years old, a much-loved coach, a man described as a gentle giant, a beloved husband and father, died after collapsing at work.

Bill Fennelly, the woman’s basketball coach, was quoted in the paper, talking about Coach Bray.  He said, “Every time he’d see me, he’d put his arm around me.  He goes, ‘You got any linemen for me?’”  The article in the Tribune said that as he spoke about Bray, Fennelly got choked up.

“Those things are hard,” Fennelly said. “I don’t understand those things.  I don’t know how that happens.”

If we want to look to coaches for our theology, I’m going with Coach Fennelly on this one.  We want to make sense of things, but sometimes it’s better to just say, “I don’t understand,” and to trust that in the midst of our pain, God is there alongside us, working together with us for good.  Amen.

Friday, January 10, 2014

“The Choices We Make” - January 12, 2014

Text: Matthew 3:13-17

This past Wednesday, Zoe went back to school.  Her two roommates are both student teaching this semester, away from Cedar Falls, so she moved into a new dorm room.  When she went back to school, I drove up there as well because she had some larger items, like carpeting, to move into the new room.

You know, you can accept a dorm room just as it is.  A bed, a dresser, a desk, a chair, a tile floor.  But very few students who actually do that.  You accessorize.  You fix up the place.  You bring in carpet.  You bring a microwave, a fridge, a TV set.  Maybe a really big TV, with an Xbox or PlayStation.  You loft the bed, you put up posters, you get a funky lamp.  (OK, the lamp and posters might be more a part of my generation.)  It may be a tiny space, but you do what you can to make it your own.

We have the ability to change our corner of the world.  There are limits, of course – we are limited by money and structure and opportunity, and there are some things we don’t have the power to change.  When it comes to something like a dorm room, for example, there is only so much you can do.  You can’t put in a hot tub or a skylight or add a deck.  But in decorating - as in life - we don’t need to accept everything as a given.  God made us to be active, not passive; creators and changers of things, not prisoners of cells, both literal and figurative.

We can end up as bystanders in life, passively letting life happen to us.  It’s not uncommon; it’s the approach a lot of people seem to take.  But that isn’t God’s doing, and it isn’t what the life of faith is about.

Jesus is our model of an active mind and liberated soul determined to live in God’s way.  He made choices, he took action, and one of the first choices we read about in scripture is that he submitted to John’s baptism.  This was very much a choice.

The big news item this past week, other than Cyclones basketball, has been the announcement that the Iowa State Fair would go to a system in which fair-goers would have to purchase tickets that they would then use at the food vendors.  There was pretty much instant and universal disdain for that plan.  Nobody wants to stand in line to buy a ticket, and then stand in another line to order your food.  It would cut way down on impulse buying – you would go past a giant turkey leg stand but decide it’s too much trouble to find the nearest ticket booth and wait in line for tickets.  And what about unused tickets?  The fair would get all of that profit.  Bottom line: fairgoers would be inconvenienced, the experience would be less enjoyable, vendors would sell less and earn less and the fair board would make more.  Not surprisingly, the fair board dropped the idea a couple of days after announcing the policy.

When you go to the state fair, you see some kind of deep-fried, high calorie food on a stick, and you decide on the spur of the moment to buy one.  You happen to be in the neighborhood and you buy what they are selling.

Now, think about John.  If you think of baptism and repentance as what John is selling, it is the absolute, complete opposite of the state fair.  He is out in the wilderness.  There is no walk-by traffic.  Nobody just happened to be in the neighborhood, happened to overhear his sales pitch and decide to buy.  You had to really want to hear his message.  You had to be very intentional about it.  You had to make a deliberate choice to go hear his preaching, and you had to make a personal choice to be baptized by him.

To go and be baptized by John in the wilderness was not expected, and it wasn’t easy.  Jesus makes a deliberate choice to be baptized by John.

When Jesus is baptized, the Spirit of God descends like a dove on him, and a voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”  Jesus says Yes to the anointing of the Spirit, and he proceeds to live into his calling.

Jesus chose to take charge of his own life.  He chose to make changes in his life and in his world.

People want to ask, “Why was Jesus baptized?  Wasn’t he without sin?  Isn’t baptism about repentance?  Why did he need to be baptized?”

That’s a good question, and we’ll come back to that in a minute, but those kinds of questions followed Jesus throughout his ministry and throughout his life.  His followers and detractors alike kept asking that same question: why?

•    Why did Jesus hang out with sinners and tax collectors?

•    Why did he go home to eat with somebody like Zacchaeus?

•    At the height of his popularity, with crowds growing, why did he seem to purposely offend people and make following him sound so hard?  Why was he so bad at marketing and PR?

•    Why did he flaunt convention and upset established piety?

•    When Jesus would heal somebody, why did he say to the person healed, “Don’t tell anybody”?

•    Why did he keep using Samaritans and foreigners as the good guys in stories he told?  Why did he make religious leaders out to be the bad guys?

•    Why would he hold up a poor widow as an example and criticize wealthy members of society, on whose generosity the running of the temple depended?

•    Why did he choose a bunch of everyday guys to be his disciples?  Why not respectable folks of high social rank? 

•    And why did he include Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot in the group of disciples, people at opposite ends of the political spectrum?  He had both a Roman collaborator and a nationalist insurrectionist among his disciples.  This surely increased the dysfunction of the group while also creating negative publicity for Jesus. 

•    And then why were there women among his group of friends and supporters?  In that day, it was seen as scandalous.

•    Why was Jesus so self-effacing?  Why did he wash the disciples’ feet?  Why didn’t he insist on the honor and respect due and appropriate for such a prophet?

•    Why did he teach using such obtuse, hard-to-understand parables?  Why couldn’t he just spell it out for us?

•    And why was he so big on forgiveness and loving enemies?  What was up with that?

Jesus carried out his calling in free and completely unexpected ways.  The question that followed him was, “Why?”  Time and again, Jesus’ teaching and behavior baffled his followers and enraged the religious establishment.

Jesus was a man of his time.  He was connected to the community and the culture.  He responded to his environment – he wasn’t controlled by it, but he wasn’t aloof from it, either.  He chose to do the right thing, and then the next right thing, rather than the conventional or the easy thing.

Why did Jesus do what he did?  Why did he make the choices he made?

Jesus made the choice to serve others, rather than himself.

He made the choice to serve God, not power or popularity.

He made the choice to pursue righteousness rather than personal ambition.

Jesus chose to violate traditions that he considered hurtful to people.  He believed that we were not made to serve traditions, but traditions were created to serve us.

He chose to follow the commandment to love God and love neighbor, even when it was hard, even when doing so came with a cost.

And it did come with a cost.  We all pay a price for acting freely.  But the fact is, we’re going to pay a price anyway.  There is a price to most anything we do – or don’t do.

You can live in a drab dorm room, or you can pony up for carpet and a TV and a microwave.  Either way, you pay.  The point is, we need to choose the price we are going to pay.

A few chapters later in Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and mammon.”  We have to decide.  Mammon is money or greed or the pursuit of wealth, but in a larger sense it represents all of those things that we may be tempted to serve rather than God.  We have to choose who or what we are going to serve.  We have to choose what our life is going to be about.

Why did Jesus submit to baptism by John?  We shouldn’t be surprised that this raises questions for us; pretty much everything Jesus did raises questions.  But it seems to me that Jesus was choosing to cast his lot with humanity.  He was choosing to be one with all of us.  He was choosing to identify with our needs, our struggles, our pain.  He was choosing in baptism to set the course for his life.  He was choosing to identify with the movement which John had started.  He was choosing to serve God rather than Mammon.

This was a choice he made in his baptism, and it was a choice that he made over and over, again and again.

It’s that way with us.  We follow Jesus daily, making choices large and small along the way, again and again.

Baptism is a symbol of new life, a symbol of God’s grace, a reminder that God says to each of us, “You are mine.  You are my beloved child.”  There is nothing we do to earn that, so in a sense baptism is a witness to the fact that God has chosen us.

But baptism is also a choice, a choice that we make.  And it is symbolic of all the choices that we will come to make.  In baptism, we are saying that we have chosen to follow Jesus, that we have chosen to continue down that path of loving God and neighbor.  We are saying that like Jesus, we are choosing to do the right thing, to trust God, to serve others, to love by the law of love.  We are committing ourselves to Jesus’ way in all of those daily choices that we make, large and small.

This may sound it sound like a huge, cosmic undertaking, and it might sound like a lot of pressure.  Well, don’t worry: we’re not called to be perfect.  We are not called to bat 1.000.  There will be bumps and mistakes and failures, even major failures along the way.  But in baptism, we are committing our lives to Christ and choosing, as best we can and for better or worse, to follow the way of Jesus – even when it may lead people to scratch their heads at the choices we make.

Baptism is also a reminder that we are God’s beloved children, and that in those times when we fall short, we are still loved and still surrounded by God’s grace.

Like Jesus, we have choices, every day.  We don’t have to accept our lives as they are.  We don’t have to accept the world as it is.  We can redecorate our dorm room or take a vacation.  We can speak up for what is right at work or choose a career path that fits our gifts.  We can help a neighbor in need or encourage a person who is hurting or use our gifts by joining the choir or a writer’s group or volunteering to get involved in a cause we care about.  We can choose for kindness, for understanding, for patience.  We have choices about how we are going to live every day, and the small choices really do add up.

Jesus didn’t have to submit to John’s baptism.  But he chose to do so.  He was free to choose, not following a blueprint, and he knew that the choices he made would matter.

It’s like that with us.  Like Jesus, we are called to take our lives, our freedom, the choices we have, seriously.  Amen.

Friday, January 3, 2014

“Home By Another Way” - January 5, 2014

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12

We’ve taken down the Christmas trees and put away the decorations – though if you have outdoor lights, they will likely be up for a while (unless spending time on a ladder in -15 temperatures is your idea of a good time).  We are into the New Year, with the last of what used to be the New Year’s Day bowl games to be played tonight.  The holidays are over and we are moving on; they are already well into the Valentine season at Target.

But as Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend.”  In the Church Year, tomorrow, January 6, is Epiphany.  We all know the song “The 12 Days of Christmas” – well, Epiphany is the 12th day.  In many cultures, including much of Latin America, it is called Three Kings Day and is the day when gifts are exchanged. 

Epiphany marks the visit of the Wise Men to baby Jesus.  Literally, the word means “showing,” or “revealing.”  The star led the Wise Men to the Christ child, and the visit of the Wise Men was the first revealing of Christ to the Gentiles.

Just who were these Wise Men?  We really don’t know.  The Greek word that is used here is magoi, which we transliterate as “Magi.”  This is the root of the word magic.  In the only other occurrence in the New Testament, in Acts chapter 13, it is translated as “magician” or “sorcerer.”  Whoever the Magi were, they were able to get an audience with Herod.  They were people of some means, and the kind of people who were open to being led by revelations and dreams and stars.  Because our reading from Isaiah speaks of kings bringing gold and frankincense, the Magi have often been spoken of as kings – as in our carol We Three Kings, or as in Three Kings Day. 

We really don’t know how many there were.  The Bible says nothing about three magi, only that there were 3 gifts.  There could have been 2 or 5 or 10.  In fact, in Eastern churches, the tradition is that there were 12 of them.

We call them wise men, but however wise they may have been, they didn’t have everything right.  (Someone pointed out that if they were Wise Women, they would have asked for directions, arrived on time, made a casserole and brought practical gifts.) 

The Wise Men follow the star, but they assume that a newborn king would surely be found in the palace, and so they go to Jerusalem.   They go to the center of power, the center of culture, the center of urban sophistication.  It’s a pretty good assumption that this is where the new king will be found.  They go poking around town, asking if anybody knows anything.  But nobody does.

Herod gets wind of this and is understandably irritated and upset by these visitors.  There is only room for one king.  So he inquired of the experts and asked where the messiah was to be born, and was told that according to the prophet Micah, it was to be Bethlehem.  He meets with the Magi, sends them to Bethlehem and asks them to please report back so that he too could pay homage to this newborn king.

Now by the time the Wise Men arrived, the shepherds were long gone.  The family is not in a stable, but in a house.  According to Matthew, Mary and Joseph settled in Bethlehem and lived there until fleeing for Egypt to escape Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.  We put everybody together in our nativity scenes, the shepherds and the cows and donkeys and sheep along with the Wise Men, and that’s OK - it would be hard to have separate nativity sets, one based on Matthew and one based on Luke, but Jesus is not a newborn baby by the time the Wise Men get there.

The Three Kings, the Magi, the Wise Men, whatever you want to call them – they are such a familiar part of the Christmas story that we lose sight of how surprising their appearance really is.  Matthew is the most Jewish of the gospels.  He takes great pains to tie Jesus to Old Testament prophecy.  He clearly has a Hebrew audience in mind.

And yet, right in the middle of the story of Jesus’ birth, we have Gentiles, and not simply Gentiles, but very different Gentiles, strange foreigners from another land coming to worship the newborn king.  They are astrologers.  They are not Jews, but practicers of some kind of weird foreign religion.  This is not at all the kind of thing you would expect to find in Matthew. 

What in the world are foreign astrologers doing at the birth of Jesus?  How would Mary and Joseph feel about the arrival of these very strange strangers?  It’s just bizarre. 

The visit of the Wise Men is a clear indication, right from the beginning, that Jesus is not simply a messiah for the Jews.  It is a clear message that this birth holds great meaning and great hope for all people.  If this birth merits a long, hard journey by astrologers from Persia, then this birth is for everybody.

There are a number of question surrounding this story.  Who were the Magi, where were they from, when did they arrive, what was this star they followed, how do you follow a star to a house, on and on.  And all of that is very interesting and can shed light for us on the story, help us to understand its significance.  But perhaps the bigger question, the more important question this morning is, “What can we learn from the Wise Men?”

They came bearing gifts, but through the journey, through the experience, they received gifts as well, and if we learn from them, they will pass gifts on to us. 

To follow a star in search of the King of the Jews, they must have been alert.  They must have been attentive.  Not everybody looks at the stars and surmises that they need to go and worship a baby born in a far-off land.  They were open to new ideas, new revelation, new truth.  They were paying attention.  We could probably learn something here.  We need to pay attention.  We need to be open.

Richard Mouw was president of Fuller Seminary in California for 20 years and is still on the faculty there.  He told about a job he had while he was a seminary student.  For several months he worked third shift at a mirror factory.  His title was “prism inspector,” and he inspected car rearview mirrors for possible defects.  Each hour, he was to take a ten-minute break to rest his eyes.  During those breaks, he would study.  Along with the mirrors on his workbench he had textbooks – Hebrew grammar, systematic theology, pastoral counseling, and so forth.

But he said that his attempts to cram study into his work shift were often frustrated by Jed, the night watchman.  Jed always seemed to show up right when he had important reading to do.  Jed loved to talk and he didn’t seem to take a hint when Mouw especially didn’t want to be distracted.  Jed did not strike Mouw as a very bright human being.

He came along one night when Mouw was reading church history.  “You really like books, don’t you?” Jed asked.  “Yes, Jed, I do, and right now I have to be reading this one for a test tomorrow.”  But Jed was oblivious.  “Ernie liked books a lot too,” he said.  Without even looking up from his book, Mouw said “Ernie who?”  “Ernie Hemingway,” he responded.

Well, that got Richard Mouw’s attention.  He had been an English major in college and studied Hemingway.  “What do you know about Ernest Hemingway?” he asked.  Jed proceeded to tell him about working as a hunting and fishing guide for a wealthy physician who owned a large tract of forest land.  His employer often hosted Hemingway, and when Hemingway came the doctor would have Jed accompany him on hunting excursions.

“Yeah,” said Jed, “Ernie always had a book.  He would read with a flashlight in the tent at night, in his sleeping bag.  Sometimes the light kept me awake!”  (related in Christian Century, Dec. 25, 2008). 

For Mouw, Hemingway was a larger than life figure, and suddenly Jed became a much more significant person – here was someone who knew Ernest Hemingway personally, who spent hours in a tent with him and called him “Ernie.”

Mouw realized later that there was a real defect in the way that he viewed people.  Just because Jed had known Hemingway, Mouw now saw him in a very different light.

But Jed was a person of worth all along.  Mouw just needed to be open to seeing it.  He just needed to hear his story.  Everybody has a story, and we need to be open to hearing it.

The Wise Men were open to seeing, open to learning, open to new truth.  They saw something in the stars and saw something in this child born to poor parents in a faraway place.

We can learn more from them.  The star leads them to the child, and the text says that when they arrived, they were “filled with joy.”

The birth of a child can have that kind of effect on you, as many of us know.  Jesus’ birth brought joy.  This child represented great hope – hope for peace, hope for goodness, hope for salvation, hope not only for his own people but for all of the world. 

The Wise Men, if they had much wisdom at all, had some premonitions that Herod was not completely on the up and up.  They had seen oppression.  They knew about corruption.  And in their travels, they had seen plenty of need in the world.  They had seen the demoralizing effects of poverty.  They knew about injustice.  They knew that life could be harsh.  And yet, when they found Jesus, they were filled with joy at the birth of One who could bring change, who could bring hope and peace and usher in a new age.

And then, they worshiped.  They recognized that this child was different, was one worthy of worship.  As an act of worship, they brought gifts – not practical gifts, not blankets and a changing table and pampers - but gifts to convey honor.  Gifts appropriate for a king.  Not only was gold of great value, frankincense and myrrh were expensive aromatic resins that were not native to Palestine.  They carried a variety of religious and medicinal connotations.  They were very valuable gifts.

All in all, it is a very odd scene.  Strangers from another part of the world bring expensive, exotic gifts to a child born to peasant parents in Judea, and they are filled with hope and joy.  Gentiles are those outside the Hebrew faith, and it is pretty clear that these wise guys are about as outside Judaism as you can get.  And Jesus is revealed to them.  Jesus is a messiah for all people.

It strikes me that these Magi exercise discernment.  There is a dream in which they are warned not to return to Herod.  And so they don’t.  They take the dream seriously.  I imagine that after being around Herod a bit, they could see through his supposed interest and helpfulness as he says that they should tell him where the child is so he can come and pay homage too.  After all, they are wise men.

And so after finding the baby, after experiencing great joy and kneeling in worship and offering their finest gifts, they return home, but go home, as the scripture says, by another way.

This is our experience of faith.  We meet Jesus, we find joy, we offer our worship and gifts, and when we do that, or perhaps because we have done that, we go home a different way.  We may follow the same geographic route, but we have changed.  Things are not the same.  It’s not that the route is necessarily different; we are different. 

Going home a different way means that we are able to focus on what matters and not be deterred.  It means avoiding that which, like Herod, might bring us down.

The beginning of the New Year might be a good time to think about going home another way.  It’s a good time to think about change.  What change would you like to make?  How is God calling you to change?  How is your experience of following Jesus changing the way that you live and relate?

Sometimes we can get so caught up in doing things the way we have always done them that we can lose sight of what we’re trying to accomplish in the first place.  We can forget that there are other ways, other options.

I think that somehow the sacrifice that was needed in making the journey and in giving these extravagant gifts opened the wise men to God’s revelation – made them ready for the Epiphany.  It works that way for us.  When we truly give of ourselves, when we are truly seeking, we make ourselves available and are better able to perceive God’s leading.

The star was a revelation, an unveiling.  It was an epiphany, but it was not the only epiphany.  The dream was an epiphany.  And the greatest epiphany, the greatest revelation, was Jesus himself.

The Wise Men were filled with joy.  They worshiped the child.  They brought gifts.  But the gifts they received were even greater.

They worshipped, they gave gifts, and they were changed.  They went home by another way.  May we do the same.  Amen.