Monday, January 10, 2011

9 January 2010 Sermon - A strange and wild story

1st Sunday after Epiphany Sermon
Greenwood, VA

What did Jesus do?  Upon his birth, he welcomed strange people, animals, and heavenly beings to himself.  First, the shepherds.  The shepherds were seen as strange and even vulgar and thieving figures in the time of Jesus.  Accustomed to rough living, contending with wild beasts and wild people out in the hinterland and wilderness of Judea and Israel, the shepherds protected their sheep with passion, but learned to be tough and learned to live rough.  They were shaped by their surroundings, by the work they did, and by those with whom they interacted.  The shepherds were, in many ways, wild and unpredictable – at least for those who lived in the towns and cities.  They were feared by many, and if people of Jesus’ time were asked to do a word association test and the word was “shepherd” they might respond, “thief,” “crook,” “undesirable.”

However, it was these thieves, crooks and undesirables to whom God sent the Angel – “Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy.”  And they went to the manger (a strange and wild place to be born!) and they were welcomed there by Mary, and Joseph and Jesus.  Our image of this meeting is cleaned up in our imagination by artwork and by cute Christmas Pageants, however, it must have been quite a meeting, quite an encounter – quite an epiphany – for these thieves, crooks and undesirables as they encountered “God with us.”  From the start, Jesus, himself showed his radical hospitality and welcome to even those who might be outside the margins, who might be seen as “other,” and who were not “perfect” or “holy” or “cleaned up and ready for prime time.”  Jesus welcomed them though they were thieves, crooks and undesirables.  Jesus welcomed them not because they were good, but because he is good, and desired them to be with him.  Strangeness and wildness.

Strangeness and wildness continues in the story.  We hear that “Magi in the East” follow a star and end up visiting Jesus.  The Magi come from far off, perhaps India, perhaps present-day Pakistan, perhaps Babylon (Iraq), perhaps Assyria (Iran).  These Magi make the shepherds look normal and predictable.  The story does not tell us how many came to visit – but that they brought three gifts, but there could have been dozens of Magi.  Also, they weren’t kings – that’s a 20th century retelling (from the Hymn, actually).

Now these Magi were most likely strange and mystical figures who mostly spent their time attuning their senses to the ways of nature, to the stars, to the seasons, to animals, to whatever signs they might be able to notice.  They worked to be attuned to the workings of the Spirit.  Now, they wouldn’t have called it the Holy Spirit- the third person of the Trinity, for they were not Christian (well, no one was yet, of course, Jesus wasn’t even born); and they weren’t Jewish.  But still, they came.  These strange figures, living somewhere outside of the political structures of India, Babylon or Assyria, but who were possibly consulted from time to time, left their lands to visit this king.  They were, pretty much the definition of “other.”  They were not inside the community of Jews, they were not inside the Roman citizenry, and they were not identifiable as merchants, traders, soldiers, pilgrims, or visitors.  Strangeness and wildness.

And so, on this first Sunday of Epiphany, our story jumps over some key stories from Jesus’ childhood and moves right to his baptism.  However the story of strangeness and wildness continue.  The boy who was born outside in a barn to a mother and father who were away from home and unmarried had as his first visitors the shepherds – the thieves and crooks of their time, and the Magi – these strange mystical astronomers from other lands, lands that conjured up fear and concern in Jesus’ day, and in ours – India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq. 

You know, when I was preparing to be a father the first time, there were many many guidebooks for mothers-to-be; understandably.  There must be a minor cottage industry of publishing these books.  However, there were only a few specifically for men.  My “research” centered on two, 1) Fatherhood, by Bill Cosby – which is full of wise statements and wisecracks about parenting.  The other 2) was something about fatherhood.  But the key thing I learned from the fatherhood book was that as a father, my role early on is to be the “lion” that protects the lioness and the young lion – I could be the gatekeeper for who would be able to visit the hospital room, and once we were home, who would visit us there.  I often think about Joseph, and the way that he must have had a very generous and hospitable style of welcome – risky, perhaps – as the shepherds and magi tromped in to visit the young child.

This child who was visited by these strange and wild people decides that to initiate his ministry, he would need to participate in something strange and wild.  You see, usually to receive absolution for ones sins, a good believer would go to the Temple – where a priest would offer absolution.  However, out at the River Jordan, some wild and strange things were going on.  Instead of relying on the Temple hierarchy, which had gotten itself tied up with the corruptions of Rome, people were going to the River.  At the River, John was dunking people in the water, and proclaiming them free from Sin.  For us, this sounds great – perhaps.  However, for people then, this would be heresy, and punishable by death.  But, this is where Jesus went.  To initiate his quite strange and wild adventure of ministry, he went to his cousin John and asked to be “cleaned up”…”washed up”….

The boy who was born outside of any house or Inn, and who was visited by strange shepherds and magi grew up into a man who would continue the theme of strangeness and wildness.  He would go to the places where pain was evident.  He would go to the people who were being forgotten.  He would call his disciples to follow him, to take up their cross, and to do as he did.  He went to the Jordan where he would “fulfill all righteousness” which means he would continue the process that God had laid out for Jesus to do.  He would be baptized and then would go to the desert where he would be tempted by the devil for 40 days – and where he would be cared for by angels. 

He would return to engage a remarkable and wonderful and hopeful and powerful life and ministry – one that was equally strange and wild, and one into which he called his disciples and into which he calls us.  You see (in contrast to what I said 4 weeks ago!) it is about What Would Jesus Do.  For Jesus would walk the strange and wild roads, and would go to the places where pain and grief dominate, where prisoners are lonely in their cells, where health fails, and where wealth cannot be found. Jesus would be, and is in Arizona today, helping to bind up lives cast asunder by a terrible event of violence.  Jesus would be, and is in Sudan today while the people vote about whether to split their country, with the risks of violence and civil war.  Jesus is there, and we should be too, making a witness of prayer and hope and peace, even in the midst of violence and fear.   Jesus walked the highways and byways of his time, offering hope and love, but also challenge, and offering a life of adventure – contending with the powers of his time, and the powers of our own.  

What Would Jesus Do.  Well, this boy born in a barn welcomed thieves and crooks, and strange mystical foreigners from wild places.  This boy became a man and set out for the Jordan River where he found that God’s reign extended beyond the boundaries of his time.  And so, we too are offered the opportunity to enter the adventure.  This is not a story that exists only in someone’s imagination.  This is not an imaginative tale of JRR Tolkien or …. Rowling.  This is not a movie cooked up by George Lucas or Ian Fleming.  This is a story that existed long ago, but exists today, and it is a story that we too enter into at our own baptism – followers of Jesus and fellow companions on the way.  It is a strange and wild story, and we are given the invitation to enter it together.  Shall we?

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