Saturday, January 26, 2019

“Canada: The Gift of Unity” - January 27, 2019




John 17:1-11


            For better or worse, the Christian Church is a family, with God as our universal Parent, with attributes we see in earthly parents – both mothers and fathers; with Jesus as the older brother into whose care God has placed us; and with the rest of us as a huge number of brothers and sisters that he sometimes has to help and sometimes has to manage and sometimes has to keep in line, but whom he always loves.  He loves us for the sake of his Father and for our own sake. 

            You can hear that love in the prayer that John says Jesus offered on the night that he was betrayed.  Jesus knew that he had needed divine help to fulfill his purpose, and that it was his unity with the Father that had sustained him and would see him through his suffering.  He prayed for them, for us:

“I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”  [John 17:9-11]

Jesus knew that the disciples would face terrible trials, and although they, like him, would be brought to know God’s full glory through their troubles, they did not know that, at least not yet.  To get to that point, they needed to be in clear solidarity with God and with one another. 

Mind you, he was praying for a group that was not unified around everything.  Matthew had been a tax collector, with a record of working with the Romans.  Simon the Zealot had been part of a group dedicated to driving the Romans out of Judea by any means necessary.  There are stories in the gospels about how James and John alienated the others by bragging.  I won’t go into how people looked on some of the women that Jesus allowed or invited to hang out with them.  What held them together wasn’t ultimately their close ties of friendship, but their focus on and love for Jesus.  He was at the center of things, and as long as he stayed there, they would hold together. 

            We haven’t always done a great job of keeping our eyes on Jesus, though.  We’ve let a lot of things divide us up into our separate groups.  I say that as someone who, like any clergyperson of any stripe, has a vested interest in maintaining that certain beliefs and certain ways of doing things are the right beliefs and the right practices.  I am not Eastern Orthodox: I think it is downright harmful when people are expected to worship in a language that they do not understand.  I am not Roman Catholic: I do not think the clergy have an exclusive right to pronounce absolution of sins, but that all Christians are obligated to announce that pardon and forgiveness are the free gift of Christ to all who simply and sincerely turn to him.  I am not a Baptist: I believe that God’s grace is given without respect to our ability to understand what’s going on.  I am not a Calvinist: I do not believe Jesus’ atonement for our sins is limited to those whom God knew ahead of time would take the offer, and I do believe that God’s grace is out there waiting for us, preparing us to respond freely when we do take him up on a new life.

            I am not, however, prepared to say that anyone who loves Jesus is outside his embrace, and pray not to be separated from anyone whom Jesus calls his own.  That has been, in fact, one of those identifiers of the Methodist movements from the early days when John Wesley, a priest of the Church of England to the end of his life, was learning about faith from the Moravians and translating the hymns of German Lutherans into English and studying the Greek Fathers.[1]  You do not have to give up the particulars of your own belief and practice to honor the profound faith that is in other traditions.  So Wesley wrote of one whose spirit is open to the catholic, that is the “universal”, presence of Jesus:

“while he is steadily fixed in his religious principles in what he believes to be the truth as it is in Jesus; while he firmly adheres to that worship of God which he judges to be most acceptable in his sight; and while he is united by the tenderest and closest ties to one particular congregation, --his heart is enlarged toward all mankind, those he knows and those he does not; he embraces with strong and cordial affection neighbours and strangers, friends and enemies. This is catholic or universal love. And he that has this is of a catholic spirit. For love alone gives the title to this character: catholic love is a catholic spirit.”[2]

Despite all of our divisions, the Church at its best has always held onto this sense of unity that is not necessarily external and administrative, but a unity of heart centered on Jesus and his love.

            That reality is experienced from within the family of faith.  There are glimpses of it wherever Christians of different persuasions work and worship together.  It’s present when we hold our community Lenten services or serve meals together at St. Peter’s.  It’s there when the weather becomes dangerously cold and a Code Blue is called, so that volunteers from many churches head over to Sacred Heart to open the doors to the homeless.  It’s there when the Clinic offers medical care, or when Meals on Wheels delivers a lunch.  It’s what happens when I go away for a day or two and I call Doug Hagler from First Presbyterian and say, “Could you be on call if there are any emergencies?” or when David Bryant asks Jillian Miller to play because he’s sick.  It’s there when our youth and the confirmation class from St. John’s Lutheran pray together about gun violence, or when Sister St. Joseph speaks about Francis of Assisi at the blessing of the animals.  It’s beautiful to behold.

            Unfortunately, it’s not always what the world sees.  And that is why, as we celebrate during Epiphany the gifts offered by the Christians of different nations, today we give thanks for a gift from Canada.  In 1925, almost a century ago, Canadian Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists came together to form the United Church of Canada (and, for the record, when the United Methodist Church formed south of the border in 1968, the Evangelical United Brethren who were in Canada joined them at that point).  They did it out of conviction that the world needed to see their internal unity in an external fashion.  They put the motto on their new seal: “Ut omnes unum sint”, Latin for “that they may all be one”, which was Jesus’ prayer for the disciples:

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” [John 17:11]
In their foundational documents, they express their purpose in joining together as being a declaration of unity to the world at large.  They said:

“We acknowledge one Holy Catholic Church, the innumerable company of saints of every age and nation, who being united by the Holy Spirit to Christ their Head are one body in Him and have communion with their Lord and with one another. Further, we receive it as the will of Christ that His Church on earth should exist as a visible and sacred brotherhood, consisting of those who profess faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to Him, together with their children and other baptized children, and organized for the confession of His name, for the public worship of God, for the administration of the sacraments, for the upbuilding of the saints, and for the universal propagation of the Gospel; and we acknowledge as a part, more or less pure, of this universal brotherhood, every particular church throughout the world which professes this faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to Him as divine Lord and Saviour.”[3]
It was a way of bringing to the external sight of the world the internal vision that Jesus set forth for them, and for us.

            So it is that, for the occasion of their union, William Merrill wrote a hymn that we also sing sometimes, and that we will sing in a moment.  It says,

“Not alone for mighty empire,
Stretching far o’er land and sea,
Not alone for bounteous harvests,
Lift we up our hearts to thee:             
Standing in the living present,
Memory and hope between,
Lord, we would with deep thanksgiving
Praise thee most for things unseen.”



[1] See Ted Campbell, “Wesley’s Use of the Church Fathers” at https://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://search.yahoo.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1364&context=asburyjournal
[2] John Wesley, Sermon 39: “Catholic Spirit” at https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-39-Catholic-Spirit
[3] “Doctrine: Article 15 ‘Of the Church’” in The Manual, 35th Edition (United Church of Canada Publishing House, 2010). Found at  https://commons.united-church.ca/Documents/Governance/General%20Council/40th%20General%20Council%20(2009)/The%20Manual%202010.pdf

Saturday, January 19, 2019

“South Africa: The Gift of Truth and Reconciliation” - January 20, 2019



Matthew 18:15-22


            Forgiveness can be hard on everybody.  I’m talking about real forgiveness, not only the simple type, like when you bump into someone and say, “Excuse me,” and they say, “Sure.”  I’m talking about the kind where someone has either intentionally or unthinkingly done something that has harmed another person, maybe even a whole community, in a way that leaves a scar and cannot simply be undone.

            Jesus outlined a way to do that, and it begins with an act of courage by the person who was hurt.  It doesn’t start with somebody offering an apology.  It starts with someone saying, “I think you owe me an apology.”  Jesus said,

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” [Matthew 18:15]

That takes guts.  It is an act of vulnerability that exposes one of your weak points to someone who has hurt you, which means that if there is anything malicious there, you’re telling them exactly how they could hurt you again.  “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  You’ve heard that?  Jesus’ teaching tells you to take that risk.  He expects us to expect the best of others, looking for us to approach the one who has hurt us with a presumption of trust and a desire to remain in relationship.

            An assumption – maybe it would be better to say, “a hope” – built into the process is that a believer (since he’s speaking here of what can happen within the family of faith) will be open to the idea that he or she can go wrong and that the reproof of another believer is to be taken seriously.  Not every time someone points out a fault or a failing is a personal attack.  It could be an opportunity that someone is offering you or me to become a better person.

            That’s why it’s best to talk over anything serious face-to-face or privately and one-on-one.  If you hear how hard it is for someone to tell you something, you know that it is something important, not done lightly.  The sound of a voice conveys things that other forms of communication do not always get across.  Sometimes, but not always, it can be useful to write a note instead, if you feel a need to choose your words, and that can help someone who might have a knee-jerk reaction of defensiveness (confession time: I’m thinking of myself here) to react right away and then to come back to it with a clearer head in five minutes or five days.  Again, it’s a risk, but

“If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” [Matthew 18:15]

 Jesus even goes as far as to say to keep on trying if that doesn’t work, but to take back-up. 

“But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”  [Matthew 18:16]

You can sort of sense a situation that is becoming more tightly wound, where you need people to help do the listening, because there is often a point where people are so busy planning out a rebuttal in their heads that they miss an apology when it happens.  It helps to have someone else there who is able to say, “I heard what you did,” but maybe also, “I think you missed the explanation.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” [Matthew 5:9]

            In one of his old Prarie Home Companion monologues, Garrison Keilor told a story about a theological split that had taken place among the believers with whom he grew up, the Sanctified Brethren.  His grandfather was leader of one party, and held that the leader of the other side had reached the point where the next step needed to be invoked:

“if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector,” [Matthew 18:17]

which was just fine with the other man.  The day came, though, when theological diplomacy brought them together to the supper table, which was a major achievement.  Only, who would say grace?  There was a danger that prayer might turn into preaching, and that could bring it all down.  So they decided to share in silent prayer.  Everyone bowed their heads and prayed.  And prayed.  And prayed.  Who was more pious?  Surely the one who spent longest with the Lord.   The fervor and zeal of the silence grew.  Then came the voice of Keilor’s grandmother: “Lord, we thank you, but the chicken is getting cold.  Amen.”  And in the laughter, the healing began.

            Yet not every situation is simple, and some involve so many people, patterns of injustice so deeply engrained, wrongs committed over such stretches of time, that they seem immune to Jesus’ cure.  What then? 

            One of the great gifts that comes to the world from the Christians of South Africa is an example of an entire nation at least trying – and often succeeding – to have that kind of honest assessment of the damage done by apartheid (their word; ours are slavery and segregation) and to set up a framework of one-on-one sharing where the oppressed could be heard and others could realize their own involvement in ways that could lead to true repentance and responsibility.  It consciously sought to adapt Jesus’ own way on a huge scale.  This overall “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” divided its work to both identify human rights violations and to determine where to go from there. 

            According to the South African government’s mandate,
“The task of the [Human Rights Violations] Committee was to investigate human rights abuses that took place between 1960 and 1994, based on statements made to the TRC. The Committee established the identity of the victims, their fate or present whereabouts, and the nature and extent of the harm they have suffered; and whether the violations were the result of deliberate planning by the state or any other organisation, group or individual. Once victims of gross human rights violations are identified, they are referred to the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee. … 

The enabling act empowered the [Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee] to provide victim support to ensure that the Truth Commission process restores victims' dignity; and to formulate policy proposals and recommendations on rehabilitation and healing of survivors, their families and communities at large. The envisaged overall function of all recommendations is to ensure non repetition, healing and healthy co-existence.”[1]


In our setting, that kind of process needs to take a different shape, but it is still the work of Christ.

            Buried in a very long newsletter that appears weekly in my inbox was a notice about how United Methodists in our part of the world are going about it, and I’ll leave you with an invitation to be part of that.  The announcement says:

“A South District Initiative is pulling together a diverse group of laity and clergy across the district for discussions about race and racism. In response to the 2016 Call to Action, this dinner discussion group was formed during the South District’s Tools for Ministry Training in 2017. Now, on average, ten guests share a meal and accounts of unchecked racism, white privilege, and internalized oppression in intimate home settings.

I enjoy the dinners. What’s most unique is that the dinners are house gatherings. We’ve been able to connect inside the privacy and comfort of someone’s home without feeling obligated to the formalities of a church meeting. It’s a healing experience- we can be open and honest. Also, we can express concern and even applaud growth. The unique set up allows for us to hear one another more clearly and love each other better. – Krystl Johnson, St. Daniel’s UMC

Dinners have been hosted in West Chester, Oxford, and Schwenksville. Within the next few months, group dinners will be expanding to new locations as most guests have committed to hosting their own private dinners throughout the district. With the mission statement being Supper and Sharing: Fostering Intercultural Competence and Authentic Community One Meal at a Time and with the initiative reaching a 2-year milestone, the Dinner Discussion Group hopes to make more room at the table for all of you in the South District. So, stay tuned for further updates and announcements.”

I have the phone number for the coordinator and can get you connected, if this is on your heart.  Truth and reconciliation are big topics, and deep thinkers have brought their wisdom to it, all of them saying that it has to begin with people simply doing what they can and what they must.

            Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, delivered as the Civil War was winding up and his own assassination was weeks away, had reflected on the cost of setting great wrongs right.  He knew it would be work as difficult as the war had been, but that it was part of the work of reconciliation among people that he saw as the divine call.  Lincoln said,

“Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether’.

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”[2]



[1] http://www.justice.gov.za/trc/trccom.html
[2] http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/inaug2.htm

Friday, January 11, 2019

“Ethiopia: The Gift of Broken Borders” - January 13, 2018



Acts 8:26-40


            With all the talk and debate about immigration and borders that goes on in this country recently, it might make sense to look at an odd situation that Israel faced in the late 1970’s, one that had nothing to do with the Palestinians or anything like that.  It was about Ethiopians.

             The Israelis have a law that any Jew who sets foot on Israeli soil has the right to claim citizenship.  They call this “the right of return”.  Its origin in offering a country that could serve as a safe haven in the wake of the Nazi atrocities is clear.  Anyone of Jewish ancestry or faith could have at least one place in the world where they would be protected.  It drew survivors of the holocaust from Europe and from the Soviet Union, and others from Muslim countries like Morocco and Algeria.

            But then, in the late 1970’s, war broke out in Ethiopia that would eventually lead to famine as well, and suddenly the world became aware of something like 500 villages in northwestern Ethiopia that were occupied by a group that called itself “Beta Israel”, meaning “the House of Israel”.  It isn’t that they had come from nowhere; their existence is well documented back into the mists of time.  There are all sorts of traditions about where they come from.  Some say that they descended from the tribe of Dan and migrated there when Israel and Judah split apart a generation after Solomon.  Some say they originated with refugees from Judah following invasions by the Assyrians or Babylonians.  An Israeli historian wrote in 1987:

“Although we don't have a single fine ethnographic research on Beta Israel, and the recent history of this tribe has received almost no attention by researchers, everyone who writes about the Jews of Ethiopia feels obliged to contribute his share to the ongoing debate about their origin. Politicians and journalists, Rabbis and political activists, not a single one of them withstood the temptation to play the role of the historian and invent a solution for this riddle.”[1]

What is certain is that they were in trouble in the 1970’s and 1980’s and so the Israelis, with American help, began an airlift to get them out.  Today there are about 121,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, including some who have been born there.

            Despite the group having official recognition as Jews, however, they continue to face unofficial exclusion on a lot of fronts.  I’m quoting here from Wikipedia, which can be a little iffy sometimes, but the citations look pretty sound, so take it for what it’s worth, but it says:

A 2011 study showed that only 13% of high school students of Ethiopian origin felt ‘fully Israeli’’ and that “In 1996 an event called the “blood bank affair” took place that demonstrated the discrimination and racism against Ethiopians in Israeli society. Blood banks would not use Ethiopian blood out of the fear of HIV being generated from their blood.  Discrimination and racism against Israeli Ethiopians is still perpetuated. In May 2015 Israeli Ethiopians demonstrated in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem against racism, after a video was released, showing an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian descent that was brutally beaten up by the Israeli police. Interviewed students of Ethiopian origin affirm that they do not feel accepted in Israeli society, due to a very strong discrimination towards them.”[2]

All of that sounds very familiar to Americans, doesn’t it?  But let’s get back to the Bible, to the book of Acts, and think about our own faith as it began to spread out from Jerusalem.

            We read:

“Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.”  [Acts 8:26-31]

Given these ancient settlements of the Beta Israel, maybe it should not be so surprising that an Ethiopian had gone to Jerusalem to worship.  Maybe what should surprise us is that a high government official would invite a stranger on the road to teach him about the scriptures.

            And yet, I assume, and so do many other people, that there is some sort of automatic cultural blockade that has to be overcome in order to share the faith.  A lot of the Acts of the Apostles is about breaking through to the Gentiles, or convincing the Jews that the Spirit has already broken through and they need to get with the program.  So here the conversion of the Ethiopian serves as a case study, saying that it can happen when someone is on that odd borderline between being an insider and being an outsider and that, as one commentator says,

“the presence of the gospel out here in the desert of Gaza with this Ethiopian of somewhat murky physical, religious, and ethnic status can only be attributed to the constant prodding of the Spirit.  If the good news is being preached out there, it is the work of God, not the people.”[3]

The borders, the boundaries, the blockades are not as much out there as they are in here, within our minds and hearts.  We set up and foolishly accept the notion that the gospel can be contained.

            It cannot.

            I, in my own, contemporary way, put the idea back onto the Bible that – of course – there would be a disconnection between the Jews and the Ethiopians.  History suggests I may be wrong.  On the other hand, looking at what has gone on between Israelis of European cultural background and Israelis (now) of Ethiopian background, tells me that other people have made the same mistake and when it happens, there is trouble.

            Faith is not about our differences, but about our common humanity.  There are some things that are utterly basic to all human life, wherever and whenever and however we live, and those are what matter above all else.  There are our physical and emotional and social characteristics, to be sure.  We all need food and shelter, love and companionship.  But there are also spiritual commonalities.

“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  [Romans 3:22-24]
That in and of itself has the power, not so much to break through the walls of nationality and language and class and all of that, as to make those things irrelevant.  When the angel told Joseph,

“you are to name him Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins,” [Matthew 1:21]
it did not mean that he would save first-century, Aramaic-speaking, Palestinian Jews from Nazareth from their sins.  His people are all of us.  We all need that salvation, and that offer is open to all.

            So some of the people who take him up on that offer are, by the standards of one place or another, outlandish – or at least partly so.  Yet the Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip,

“What is to prevent me from being baptized?” [Acts 8:36]
What was there to come between this man and the joyful response of faith to the good news that Jesus has brought the kingdom of God near to us?  Philip couldn’t come up with anything, not one thing.  So they stopped right where they were, and the kingdom grew wider.

“When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.” [Acts 8:39]
Philip found himself back on familiar territory right away, but he kept doing what he had done,

“and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.”  [Acts 8:40]
Go, thou, and do likewise.


[1]  Steven Kaplan"The Origins of the Beta Israel: Five Methodological Cautions" Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine., Pe'amim 33 (1987), pp. 33–49.  Cited at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beta_Israel#cite_note-83
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beta_Israel#cite_ref-:1_119-1
[3] Will Willimon, Acts (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 72.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

“Strangers Bringing Gifts” - January 6, 2019




Matthew 2:1-12


            “Epiphany”, the season after Christmas, gets its name from a Greek word that means “appearance” or “manifestation”.  It has the sense of something suddenly becoming clear.  If someone has an epiphany, they have one of those light-bulb moments of sudden recognition or insight.  At one church I served, there was a pair of identical twins who were in their forties and still looked and sounded identical.  They didn’t dress alike or go out of their way to match – it was just natural.  Then one day I saw them standing beside each other and – just like that! – I could tell them apart.  (One combed his hair in one direction and the other in the other direction.  How could I not have seen that?) 

            Epiphany, as a season, concentrates on the ways that God shows himself to the nations of the world, having begun with Israel but going on to all the rest of us when he came among us in a person named Jesus.  So Epiphany begins with the first Gentiles to recognize (or at least suspect) that Jesus was no ordinary infant.

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’” [Matthew 2:1]

These are not people familiar with Judaism or the scriptures.  These people are not even coming from within the Roman Empire.  They’re from away out there in the East, someplace in the Persian Empire, Rome’s only significant counterpart or rival at that time.  We call them wise men but they seem politically na├»ve and unaware of the danger they bring upon the baby just by mentioning his existence and they are sort of bumbling in the way that they act in Herod’s jurisdiction.  Yet these are the people, along with a bunch of shepherds working the night shift and two old folks in the Temple, to whom God decides to announce his Son’s presence in the world.

            Now, it isn’t that the others did not let anyone know about the child Jesus.  Luke says that after visiting the baby in the manger,

“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” [Luke 2:20]

When Jesus was taken to the Temple for the first time, Simeon met Mary and Joseph carrying Jesus and took him into his own arms, declaring,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
            according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
            which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
            and for glory to your people Israel.”  [Luke 2:29-32]

So, too, his female counterpart Anna.

“At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” [Luke 2:38]

But when the wise men came along, they brought with them not only some awareness that this child was chosen above others, but also in what ways.

            You know the story of their visit, and even people who don’t still know about the gifts that they took him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Traditionally, interpreters have looked at those gifts as emblematic of Jesus role in the salvation of the world.  We’ve already sung about them this morning: gold, to surround a king; incense, to burn on an altar in the presence of God; myrrh, to anoint a prophet’s brow or to embalm the dead.

“Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice. …”

So at the same time that God’s Son is being shown to the world beyond Bethlehem and Nazareth and Jerusalem, people who are strangers to those places are showing God’s people something about him of which they themselves had been unaware.

            We need to be shown things that are right under our own noses sometimes.  We need epiphanies brought to us by those who see things we miss, perhaps out of sheer familiarity.  An epiphany moment might be like me pointing out that this flag to my right – one that many of you have been looking at your entire lives – has 48 stars.  Now try to un-see that.  You can’t.  Those Persians point out the complexity of Jesus’ work of salvation as king and God and sacrifice, and we look back at his life and see him acting, from childhood, in ways that overturn the kingdoms of this world and show God’s power among the people and reveal the costly and self-giving love that would find itself on a cross. 

We cannot talk about Jesus without all of those purposes being there all at once and combined.  We cannot only say that he was a good man, even the best person ever.  He was and is more than that.  We cannot only say that he was God, because his is also human and subject to our weaknesses, which is why it matters to see him tempted but not falling into sin.  It’s why we can say he really and truly suffered and died.  We cannot only say that he sacrificed his life for our sin, without recognizing that he was also God and his mere presence in this world involved infinite sacrifice from the very start, trading heaven for all that we face on earth, even death.

Throughout the coming weeks we will look at and give thanks for the many things we learn of God’s grace and Jesus’ love through people from cultures and societies that are not our own (always remembering that Jesus and the disciples were not twenty-first century Americans).  We’ll consider what we can learn from believers in China and South Africa and Italy and even Canada.  But first of all we stop and remember the profound revelation brought to God’s people by these strangers and their gifts, and then look at the long line of strangers and offerings that they hold in their hands to lay down also before the Christ Child.  Perhaps they see gifts in our own hands that we don’t even realize yet that we are carrying.