Won’t You Be a Neighbor?

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:25-37

This week’s lectionary reading includes the parable of the Good Samaritan, which I am afraid is so overly familiar that it has lost much of its original impact. As is usual in Jesus’s storytelling, he takes an ordinary tale and adds a startling twist.

The ordinary tale was that of a man who was the victim of a vicious mugging. Then, as now, was distressingly common enough to perhaps not even make the evening news. The character of the injured man is, I think deliberately, not fleshed out. Was he a citizen or an immigrant? Did he take unnecessary risks in traveling alone down a road known to have been frequented by robbers? Was he unarmed, or armed yet overwhelmed by his assailants? Could he have been drinking and thus wasn’t paying sufficient attention to his surroundings? We don’t know his ethnicity or religion, or whether he was rich or poor. None of these things is important to the story. What is important is that he is a person who needed help.

The injured man was ignored by a priest and a Levite, who like the lawyer who asked Jesus the question that occasioned this story, would have been among the educated, religious elite of the day. (Lawyer in this context is an expert in the Torah, a religious academic) The two men who crossed the road to avoid the victim should have known the Torah well enough to be aware that it was their moral responsibility to help the injured man. Why didn’t they? What excuse did they come up with to convince themselves to cross the road and leave the man to die? Like the priest and the Levite, the Bible scholar who questioned Jesus would have known the scriptures well enough to know there was no good justification for their actions. Again, Jesus doesn’t mention anything about what might be going on in their heads, and I think that was also deliberate. Jesus wanted those listening to the story, including us, to fill in the blanks with our own possible excuses for failing to help when it is within our power to do so.

The story takes an unexpected turn when a Samaritan, a despised outsider, stops to help the man and becomes the hero of Jesus’s story. Since the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, Samaritans had been spurned by the stringent religiously observant because their bloodlines were thought to be impure. Not all the people of Israel were deported to Assyria or Babylon at the time of the exile; some of “the poorer people of the land” were allowed to remain. When the exiles returned to rebuild Jerusalem, they refused help from the locals because it was suspected that they might have intermarried with people who could not trace their ancestry back to one of the original twelve tribes of Israel. Bad feelings between the two groups of God-worshipers intensified in the centuries between the time of Ezra and the time of Jesus. Talk about polarization! Truly, there is “nothing new under the sun“.

When the story ends, Jesus delivers a zinger. The lawyer had begun by asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus changes the focus of the question by asking, “Who acted like a neighbor?” I don’t know if Jesus had ever studied the Socratic method of teaching, but he had it down pat. There was only one answer the lawyer could give: the Samaritan. Luke doesn’t tell us how this very serious student of the Bible reacted, but the inevitable answer must have felt like a punch to the gut. The Samaritans were despised by the lawyer and other “purebloods” for not obeying what they understood to be God’s clear command forbidding intermarriage with non-Israelites lest they fall into idolatry. Yet in this story it is not the priest, not the Levite, not the Torah scholar, but the Samaritan who understands the heart of the Torah best.

Who is my neighbor” is the wrong question. “Who is my neighbor” seeks to limit neighborly behavior to those who somehow deserve it. The question we should be asking ourselves instead is “am I being a neighbor?” If I am being a neighbor, I am not limiting my compassion to those who I think deserve it. If I am being a neighbor, I will try to help whoever I can whenever I have the opportunity to do so. My actions should not be dependent on what is in the heart of the other, but what is in my own heart.

God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. God pours out his blessings on all of us freely, without regard for whether we deserve them our not. God showed his great love for us when Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. God is continually asking us “Won’t you be my neighbor?” even when we run away from God and behave in very un-neighborly ways to each other. God invites us to “go and do likewise“and be a neighbor to everyone we meet on this road of life.

And that’s good news to me.

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Mourning Tabitha

Fourth Sunday in Easter, Year C

Quick Bible trivia question: Who was Tabitha?
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In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!”Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them. Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon. Acts 9:36-43

We have an ancient (well, 1984 is practically ancient) edition of a board game, which is labeled “Bible Trivia:Where the Trivia is Not Trivial” Some of the “correct” answers given are debatable. What was your answer to my question about Tabitha? Did you answer “a woman Peter raised from the dead”, or did you answer “a woman known for doing good and helping those in need?

At least in the Southern Baptist culture in which I grew up, the answer would have definitely been the former. The emphasis would have been on Peter, and how he demonstrated the power of God by performing the same kinds of miracles as Jesus did. Great emphasis would have also been placed on the evangelistic results of the miracle. In most sermons I heard dealing with this event, Tabitha herself seemed to be a mere prop in the story, a cipher of a woman important mainly for the role she played in advancing the message of the gospel.

But Tabitha wasn’t a cipher. She was doing exactly what all followers of Jesus are supposed to be doing: using the talents and resources that she had to help others. She was greatly loved and greatly missed by all those she had helped. Had she not made such an impact on others, had their grief at her passing not been so vocal, would Peter have even been there to to perform his show-stopping miracle? Why is it that when most people remember the story, they remember Peter more than Tabitha?

One answer might be that Peter is a man, doing manly things like public preaching, and Tabitha is a woman, doing womanly things like sewing. and of course, most of the Bible was written by men. I’m afraid there is some truth in that. There were women who traveled with Jesus and provided financial support for his ministry, yet not nearly so many stories about them as there are about Jesus’s male disciples. There were women at the foot of the cross who watched Jesus die, while most of his male disciples had scattered into hiding. The first witnesses to the Resurrection were women who had gone to Jesus’s tomb to perform a last (womanly?) service of caring for his body. In general, there are not nearly as many stories in the Bible of women of faith as there are of men of faith, and those we do have are often lacking in detail. Not only that, but in some cases the gender identity of prominent female disciples has been erased (Junia became Junias in some translations), or their moral character impugned.(Mary Magdalene) I’m sorry that we don’t know more about Phillip’s four daughters who prophesied, Phoebe , Lydia, Chloe, Nympha, Priscilla (who some think may have written Hebrews) or the anonymous “chosen lady” in 2 John.

There’s another answer, and that’s that the human mind is naturally drawn to the novel, the unusual, and the showy, overlooking the ordinary moments which make up the bulk of our lives. “Man bites dog” makes the newspaper; “dog bites man” doesn’t. Raising someone from the dead definitely falls into the “man bites dog” category. It’s just not something you see every day. And although the human mind works that way, I think the mind of God sees things somewhat differently.

Jesus repeatedly taught variations on the theme of “the last shall be first, and the first last“. When he observes a poor widow putting her last two cents into the offering plate, he tells his disciples, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.” He tells his squabbling disciples that the way to greatness lies in servanthood. and that ” it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” The hero of his story about the Good Samaritan is not the expected religious leaders who play important roles in the life of God’s people, but a nobody, an outsider, a cipher. During his last night on earth, Jesus assumed the role of the lowliest of servants, washed his disciples’ feet, and told his disciples to go and do likewise, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. He bluntly warns that God’s idea of what is most important isn’t necessarily what tends to catch human attention. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!

God isn’t more interested in man-bites-dog stories than in dog-bites-man stories. In fact, I doubt God is pleased with stories about biting anybody or anything. I think God would prefer stories about dogs that help humans, or humans that help dogs. God wants us to do good wherever and whenever we can, and God is more concerned about the intent behind our actions than how big or small it might be. Yes, God was pleased by what Peter was able to do, but God was equally pleased by what Tabitha was able to do. Both Peter and Tabitha were channels of God’s spirit of healing and love.

I mourn for all the Tabithas, those who are overlooked and their stories forgotten, whether it is because of their gender or because their acts of kindness are considered ordinary. But God doesn’t overlook or forget anyone. We are all important and beloved by God, and God notices the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. And that’s good news to me.

New Wine, Great Sheets of Animals, and the General Conference

No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’”
Luke 5:36-39 (also Matthew 9:16-20 and Mark 2:21-22

About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
Acts 10:9-16

I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to the recent special general conference of the UMC, which has been my adopted church home since leaving the SBC. The conference was specifically called to discuss what rules, if any, the UMC ought to impose on its member churches with regard to same-sex relationships. There were two main proposals, the One Church Plan, and the Traditional Plan. The One Church plan would have allowed individual congregations to decide how to handle requests to perform same-sex marriages and/or whether to allow GLBTQ people to become pastors of Methodist churches. The Traditional Plan would forbid these in all UMC churches. By a narrow vote, the Traditional Plan was approved, but its constitutionality and enforcement protocol remain in question.
I live in the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC, which is overall more inclined to take an inclusive view on this divisive subject than some of the other geographic jurisdictions. Following the vote, there was great rejoicing on the part of those who believe same-sex relationships are a mortal sin, and great sorrow on the part of those who believe GLBTQ people are part of God’s good and diverse creation.

I fall into the sorrowful camp on this, not only for reasons of science and empathy, but also for theological reasons. And I came to an inclusive perspective not because I don’t read the Bible, but because I do. I’m aware of the Bible verses usually cited to forbid same-sex relationships, but I’m also aware that translation and context matter in Biblical interpretation. What “the Bible clearly says” depends a great deal on what translation you are using, as well as the bias of the translator. And there are many things that “the Bible clearly says” that are widely ignored (like working on the Sabbath) or thought to be obsolete cultural mores (like wearing clothing made of mixed fibers) Why is this particular taboo given such relative importance?

Some will cite Genesis 1:27, where God creates mankind male and female in his own image, and commands them to be fruitful and multiply. If procreation is the criteria for a valid, God-approved marriage, what of those who cannot have children? Barring some miracle along the lines of the Sarah and Abraham story, my childbearing days have been over for quite a while now. Is my marriage still valid? Should postmenopausal women be forbidden to marry? How does the elevation of procreation as an imperative for marriage fit in with the Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary? Jesus quotes the Genesis passage, but he does so in the context of forbidding divorce to heterosexual couples. When I read the Genesis passage, I don’t understand it as being about the primacy of binary sexuality, but about the equality of men and women created in the image of a God who can’t be understood in an anthropomorphological way. When I read Jesus’s application of the Genesis passage to first-century divorce practices, I don’t understand him to be talking so much about sex, but about the misuse of power by men against women.

My theology comes not so much from individual Bible verses, but from the Bible taken as a whole, and particularly the Bible as it seems to be understood by Jesus. And it seems to me that quite a lot of what Jesus had to say and do was in the direction of inclusion, not exclusion; of principles rather than rules. What “the Bible clearly said” to Jesus was often quite different from what “the Bible clearly said” to religious people who opposed him. That’s how I understand the parable of the wineskins. The rules-based religion Jesus’s opponents promoted had become ossified, like the hardened, inflexible wineskins of the parable. Jesus wanted to bring the people of God to a better understanding of what God expects from humans in terms of their behavior. Jesus understood God’s Prime Directive to be “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and like new wine this principle cannot be confined by a set of rules.

Take Sabbath-keeping for example. “Honor the Sabbath day to keep it holy” is actually one of the Ten Commandments, unlike prohibitions against same-sex marriage or gay clergy. It’s a good commandment, and I think the principle behind it is still valid today, even if it is widely ignored. It isn’t good for anyone to work 24/7. We might call it “down time” instead of “rest”, but that’s the idea behind it. Unfortunately people have always had a nasty tendency of idolizing rules while forgetting the reason the rule was created. Hezekiah had to destroy the bronze serpent Moses had created to cure a plague of snakes, because the people of God had started worshipping it rather than remembering why Moses created it in the first place. By the time of Jesus, Sabbath-keeping had become more of a burden than a welcome respite to people. Jesus’s attention to the principle rather than the rule of law often caused him to come into conflict with those who believed the rule was inflexible. If Jesus could help somebody, he would, and it didn’t matter what day of the week it was. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

Like the Sabbath, I think marriage meets a human need- the need for intimacy and companionship. The creation story in Genesis 2 includes a statement by God that “it is not good for the man to be alone. I will create a suitable partner for him“. Yes, I know the first couple was heterosexual, but there wasn’t exactly a large human population at the time from which to make generalizations. When large populations are considered, the majority of people will preferentially seek partners of the opposite sex, but some will be attracted to partners of the same sex, or not feel much in the way of sexual attraction at all. (It’s sadly interesting, although logically consistent, that some in the no-exceptions-to-binary sexuality camp even look askance at asexual, celibate people as being deviant in some way. I find that attitude very strange from both a Biblical and an early church history viewpoint.)

In the Acts passage cited above we read of Peter’s hunger-induced dream of the great sheet filled with items on his potential dinner menu, including, I assume, shrimp and bacon as well as steak and lamb chops. “Do not call unclean anything God has called clean“. This had to have been extremely difficult for Peter to accept, as it was a monumental change of the rules for an observant first-century orthodox Jew. The books of Moses clearly prohibited him from eating non-kosher foods. Peter understood the meaning of the dream to be that the good news Jesus brings is for everyone, not just for Mosaic law-abiding descendents of Abraham. In response, he goes to the home of a Gentile God-seeker named Cornelius and says, You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”…I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. Peter then shares the good news of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection with Cornelius and his family. God shows up in a dramatic way, demonstrating his approval of both Peter, who broke what he thought were the rules by coming under Cornelius’s roof, and Cornelius, who was already considered to be an uncircumcised rulebreaker.

Of course, nothing is truly settled, then or now. There were some believers who held to a more rules-oriented criteria for inclusion in the family of God, and some who held to a less rules-oriented criteria. Later in Acts, we read of the Jerusalem Council which was convened to decide which, if any, rules Gentile converts were required to follow. Paul’s letters seem to indicate that he repeatedly had to deal with the same problem in the nascent Christian churches. (for example, his sarcastic suggestion to some of the Galatians here) On the other hand, while the Philippians and Galatians erred on the side of rules-for-the-sake-of-rules, Paul had to rein in the “if it feels good, do it” Corinthians. There’s a difference between breaking rules in order to do good to people, and breaking rules in order to please yourself, without thought of how your behavior might cause harm to someone else. Both “the rules are the rules” and “anything goes” are incompatible with the principle of the One Rule to Rule Them All that we call the Golden Rule or the Royal Law.

Does God sometimes change the rules? And if so, which ones? Or does the Bible show an evolving human understanding of God, and how God expects people to behave? My bet is on the latter. The books of Moses contain quite a few rules that are questioned by some of the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, as well as by Jesus and Paul. So I think that I’m in good company when I question the rule that only heterosexual marriages are valid, or that God only calls heterosexual males to be pastors. I’ve seen those rules hurt too many people. I’ve seen those rules cause too many people to turn away from God. And I don’t think God is too happy when we use rules in ways that harm rather than help people, or cause people to turn away from God.

To those who ask me, “What if I’m right and you’re wrong?” I will answer “What if I’m right and you’re wrong?” I would rather err on the side of inclusivity than exclusivity, because it seems to me that’s what Jesus did. He was continually criticizing those who threw up insurmountable barriers of religious rules that kept people away from God, and he was often criticized for the company he kept.

I think that God’s grace can’t be limited. God pitches a bigger tent and invites more people to the table than we think. And that’s good news to me!

Know Jesus, Know God

First Sunday After Epiphany

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” -Luke 3:21-22

In the Western church, Epiphany is associated with the coming of the Wise Men to visit baby Jesus, but in the Eastern church, Epiphany is associated most closely with the baptism of Jesus. I think the Eastern church has the correct focus. While it is certainly an important epiphany to realize that God is God for all people, not just a select few who happened to have been born in the right place from the right parents, the greatest epiphany of all is that if you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus.

NT Wright relates that in his role as a college chaplain, some of the incoming students would tell him. “You won’t be seeing much of me, because I don’t believe in God”. to which Wright replied, “That’s interesting. Which god is it that you don’t believe in?”  The student’s responses were usually along the lines of what Wright describes as “spy in the sky”, a celestial Santa Claus that watches you all the time, knows when you’ve been naughty or nice, and doles out candy or lumps of coal accordingly. Wright would then say, “I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god; I don’t believe in that god either.”

I’ve had similar experiences with some of my former students, many of whom were professing Christians as high school students but are now professing atheists. I tell them I don’t believe in the “angry sky god” of the new atheist writers, either. God is not a cosmic policeman, a celestial Santa Claus, or Thor for that matter. The God in whom I trust (which is, by the way, a better word choice than “believe”) can best be seen in the person of Jesus. If you want to know what God is really like, look at Jesus- what he taught, how he lived, how he treated people.

The story of Jesus’s baptism affirms Jesus as God’s special representative. “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased“. The same phrase is repeated toward the end of Jesus’s ministry at the Transfiguration.  I like the way the writer of Hebrews phrases it,

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.  The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

In my mind, this passage expresses the thought that people have often had wrong, or at least incomplete, ideas about God. That includes not just those opposed to the idea of God, or nominal believers, but some very devout believers. Even Biblical characters are not exempt from having wrong ideas about God. For example Jephthah apparently thought God was okay with human sacrifice; otherwise why would he have made the foolish vow to sacrifice “whatever first comes out of my house to greet me should God give me victory” Jeremiah hears God saying of human sacrifice, “I have never commanded such a horrible deed; it never even crossed my mind to command such a thing!” Even John the Baptist, who recognized Jesus as God’s promised Messiah, didn’t have a complete picture. The Gospel reading for today includes excerpts from John’s sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God sermons about winnowing forks and unquenchable fire. When Jesus didn’t turn out to behave in the ways John had expected, John wondered if he’d been mistaken. Jesus’s response was, “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard–the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.”

During his ministry on earth, Jesus attempted to clarify what God was like and what God asks of the people of God. He compared God to a loving father, not an angry, capricious dictator. He instructed his disciples to address God as “father” in what we call the Lord’s prayer. The story we know as the parable of the Prodigal Son could better be titled the parable of the Loving Father. When he instructed his disciples to love their enemies, he equated that to behaving like God: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” The God revealed by Jesus is not an “angry sky god”.

Jesus repeatedly condemned the kind of bad theology that harms other people. He hinted that some traditions which were considered of paramount importance by the people of God in his time were not so much God’s commands as traditions of human origin.He often used the phrase “you have heard it said….but I say to you to elaborate on or even change the meaning of the rules that should govern the lives of God’s people. For example, “Man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man.” The God revealed by Jesus is not a cosmic policeman setting up a speed trap in order to punish violators.

Unlike some of the most religious people of his time, Jesus didn’t equate health and wealth as God’s reward for good behavior and sickness and poverty as God’s punishment for bad behavior.  John relates a story in which Jesus and his disciples encountered a man who was born blind. “His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.  As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me.”The God revealed by Jesus is not a celestial Santa Claus doling out rewards to rule followers and punishments to rule breakers.

Jesus lived what he taught. He fed people who were hungry and healed people who were sick, without regard to whether they were worthy or not. He went to the cross for our sake, where some of his last words were “Father, forgive them.” If Jesus is the beloved son in whom God is pleased, if Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of  God’s being, if Jesus is the image of the invisible God, then Jesus’s words and actions are what shows us what God is really like.

Theology matters, and mistaken ideas about God have been the cause of some very terrible things throughout history. If you want to have the right ideas about God, and about how God expects humans to behave, look to Jesus. God is like Jesus.

And that’s good news to me.

 

Eureka!

The following is the script for the sermon I gave on Epiphany Sunday at Spirit of Hope United Methodist Church, with added hyperlinks to supplemental information.

When I was a science teacher, I used to tell my students a story about Archimedes, the Greek philosopher and scientist who lived in the 3rd century BC. Here’s how it goes: The king had commissioned a goldsmith to make a solid gold crown. When he received the finished work, he suspected that the goldsmith had cheated him by substituting a cheaper metal for some of the gold the king had given him. But he didn’t know how to prove it. Archimedes, who was employed by the king for his scientific knowledge, knew that different metals had different densities. If he could determine the density of the crown, he would know whether it was solid gold or not. Density is mass divided by volume. He could determine the mass of the crown by weighing it, but how could he calculate the volume of an irregularly shaped object without melting it down and destroying it? For days he thought about the problem, trying to come up with a solution. One day, he happened to be puzzling over the problem as he lowered himself into the bathtub. He noticed that the water level in the tub rose as his body went under water, and suddenly a light bulb came on in his head. He could calculate the volume of the crown by measuring the amount of water it displaced! Archimedes was so excited that he jumped out of the tub, forgetting to dress, and ran naked down the streets of town shouting “Eureka!” which translated means, “I have found it!”

You might say that Archimedes had an epiphany. If you look up “epiphany” in a thesaurus, you’ll find that its top synonym is “revelation”. Other synonyms include appearance, manifestation, and realization It comes from a Greek word that means to reveal. In is a moment like Archimedes had, you realize something you hadn’t realized before, you understand something in a new way. An epiphany is a sudden realization that can change everything…a Eureka moment!

The story about the Wise Men is an epiphany- something about the nature of God is revealed to those who are paying attention enough to notice it.

Despite what the carol “We Three Kings” says, the Wise Men were probably not kings and we don’t know how many of them there were. The tradition that there were three of them probably came from the three gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. The idea that they were kings probably came from a passage in Isaiah which says “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

Matthew just writes that “there came Magi from the east. “Magi” is often translated “wise men”, but it has the same root meaning as the word “magic”. It’s the same word used of Simon the Magician in Acts, who was not an exemplary character. Magic was not exactly kosher; God’s people were advised to stay away from it in rather strong terms. Although we are not sure exactly where in the east they came from, one widely accepted theory is that they were most likely from Persia, where modern day Iran is.

The book of Jeremiah makes a couple of references to magi in the role of advisors to the Babylonian king, and their presence is implied in the book of Daniel too. Magi were astrologers and priests of the Zoroastrian religion, who cast horoscopes and interpreted dreams in order to advise the king. This would have been a high-status position in the Persian court for which they would have been well compensated. They must have been wealthy in order to afford the long trip to Bethlehem, bearing expensive symbolic gifts.

So what’s the epiphany? What did Matthew realize about the character of God that caused him to include this particular story in his gospel? You’ll remember that Luke chose instead to include the story of angels announcing Jesus’s birth to shepherds, but in Matthew the good news of Jesus’s birth is communicated to those on the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum. As one of my Baptist Sunday School teachers used to say, “God is concerned with the down and outs, but also the up and outs.” God cares about everyone and everyone needs God, whether they know it or not.

The epiphany, the big reveal of the Wise Men’s journey is that God is God of all people, both Jews and Gentiles. God doesn’t play favorites. Paul came to this realization when he wrote to the Ephesians that the mystery of Christ,“ was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.  This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”(Ephesians 3:2-6)

This idea that God was the God of all people would not have gone over well with many of the religious leaders at this time. Most of them thought of God in rather tribalistic ways. That is, they were God’s special favorites. As long as they were careful to observe all the laws God had given to them, God would specially bless them. Outsiders were dangerous and should be avoided, because they had different customs and beliefs that might cause God’s people to fall into sin.

Although the Wise Men were well-educated, rich, and well-respected in their own country, they would have been considered outsiders by most of God’s people at the time. They were of a different religion, were of a different culture, spoke a different language. They worshipped one god, but they called their god Azura Mazda rather than Yahweh. Their primary prophet was Zoroaster, not Moses. They were not descendants of Abraham and they did not observe the laws of Moses or the traditions interpreting these. They were not of the same tribe, and therefore potentially dangerous.

God’s people at that time took very seriously what they understood to be God’s command to separate themselves from Gentiles. They feared they might be contaminated by association with them. Had the Wise Men wanted to learn more about the God of Israel, they would have found it very difficult. For example, they would not have been allowed into the Temple past the outermost courtyard. They would have been told that in order to become a part of the people of God, they would have to be circumcised and follow all kinds of dietary laws and other customs. They’d probably have to give up their day jobs, too, as the magic arts were generally frowned upon.

God had commissioned his people to be a “light to the Gentiles” beginning with Abraham, whom he promised “in thee all the families of the earth shall be blessed”. Whenever God’s people decide to hide God’s light under a bushel and hoard God’s blessings for themselves, God is going to act, sometimes in ways that surprise us. God met the Wise Men where they were. If you think about it, God actually used one of the tools of their religion to bring them to Him. They studied the stars looking for meaning and guidance, so God gave them a star, a star that led them to Jesus. And when they finally found Jesus, they knew they had found what they were looking for. Eureka!

The Bible records many Eureka moments, moments when God breaks through our blurred vision and our impaired hearing and makes an appearance. With Abraham, we have the beginning of the understanding that there is only one God. With Moses, we have the genesis of ethical monotheism; that is, the one God expects us to behave in certain ways. With the great 8th century prophets like Amos, Micah, and Isaiah, we see the light beginning to dawn on people that God is more concerned with how we treat other people than if we are saying the right religious words and performing the right religious rituals.

All these glimpses into the nature of God are leading up to one great epiphany, the one that was first glimpsed in a manger in Bethlehem. If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus.  The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Hebrews 1:1-3)

Epiphany is more than a once-a-year celebration of divine revelation. God revealed his nature fully and completely in Jesus and God is still revealing himself to those who seek him. During his last night before he gave his life for us. Jesus told his disciples that epiphanies would continue: I still have much to tell you, but you cannot yet bear to hear it. However, when the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak what He hears, and He will declare to you what is to come. He will glorify Me by taking from what is Mine and disclosing it to you.” (John 16:12-14)

Not everyone in Bethlehem heard the voices of the angels which directed the shepherds to the manger. Not everyone in Persia understood the meaning of the star that guided the Wise Men on their journey. The year to come will hold many Eureka moments for those who seek God, for “The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:18)

May we have eyes to see and ears to hear what God is saying through the Spirit to us today. Amen.

Audio of sermon can be found here.

Love is an Action Verb

” For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

On the fourth Sunday of Advent we lit the candle of love. A day later, on Christmas Eve, we lit the Christ candle in the center of the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love.

Love seems to be pretty important to God, and that’s a consistent theme throughout the Bible. In Deuteronomy we read, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.  

Leviticus commands the nascent Israelite community, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Later, Jesus would affirm that these two commands were the essence of the Hebrew scriptures. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Love isn’t a feeling, but an action, and that’s a pretty consistent theme throughout the Bible too. God gave the dearest part of himself to the world in the person of Jesus. The ancient Israelites showed their love for God by their loyalty to him, by forsaking all other gods, following God’s commands, and teaching their children to do the same. The Levitical passage is pretty specific about what love of neighbor looks like, as were the great prophets of the Israelite monarchy. Jesus, Paul, James, and John all taught that love is not a feeling, but an action directed toward the well-being of others.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,  and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.  If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

Love is not a warm fuzzy feeling toward someone. Love is more than sending “thoughts and prayers”. It is a behavior. Or as Doctor Who once observed, “Love isn’t an emotion. It’s a promise”.

Pax Romana and the Peace of Christ

 

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests!” Luke 2:13-14

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27

On the second Sunday of Advent we light the candle of peace. It is interesting to note that the assurance of peace is a motif that appeared both at the beginning of Jesus’s earthly life and at the end of it. The angels proclaimed peace when Jesus was born, and Jesus reassured his disciples that his peace would remain with them, even when he was no longer physically present with them. But, as Jesus said, God’s definition of peace means something different than the way we usually understand the meaning of the word. 

The Pax Romana was a period of about two hundred years, during which the known world was relatively free from war, and which enjoyed relative domestic tranquility. This was accomplished through the power of the Roman Empire, which had had no serious international rivals since Augustus defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra. Domestic tranquility was assured through a heavy-handed law-and-order approach which brooked no dissent and offenders were severely punished. (Remember “Spartacus“?) 

When Jesus offered his peace to his followers, he wasn’t talking about the absence of conflict. In fact, he predicted that his coming would inevitably cause conflict between citizens of the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. It did, and it still does, because the two realms are incompatible. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Citizens of the Kingdom of God have pledged allegiance to God, not to Caesar.  Citizens of the kingdoms of the world place their trust primarily in Mammon (money; capitalism unrestrained by ethics) or Ares (war; power achieved through force or coercion) 

Citizens of the Kingdom of God know that it is God alone who saves, and that salvation is not always a physical thing. As Victor Frankl expressed it in Man’s Search for Meaning. “Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life.” Jesus put it this way, “For what does it benefit someone to gain the whole world and yet lose his soul?One can be a billionaire and lead an empty, meaningless life. I think that’s one reason behind the substance addiction that seems so widespread in the families of celebrities, who are often very rich. And Alexander the Great reportedly wept after learning there were no more worlds for him to conquer. 

The Pax Romana eventually failed, as did the Pax Britannica centuries later, and as will the Pax Americana sooner or later. Many people have very different ideas about what causes the enforced peace of empires to crumble, but I think it’s because the idea that peace can be accomplished by force is innately wrong. That isn’t how God designed the moral universe to work. Lasting peace will come only through the Pax Christus, the peace of Christ.

So what is “the peace of Christ”? I think a clue can be found in the context of the Johannine passage, which promises the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the presence of God within in us, and it doesn’t depend on external circumstances. It can’t be bought with money, or taken away by external force. As Paul expressed it,Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The peace of Christ is available to all who follow Jesus. When a person begins to do that...not just “believe”, but behave accordingly…they will begin to experience this kind of peace. This peace is not necessarily an absence of trouble or even anxiety, but an assurance that you are in good hands and on the right side of history. If enough people would begin to emulate Jesus in everything they say and do, how different…how peaceful….our world would be!

And that’s good news to me.