The Rev. Peter Faass
As we see 2018 fade behind us in the rearview mirror, we find ourselves in the midst of the season of resolutions.
Resolutions are commitments to make an amendment of life, turning from bad toward good behaviors. Resolution is the secular sister term for the theological word, repentance.
We tend to view resolutions as being an individual effort. People think, “I’ll give up smoking and be healthier,” or “I’ll lose fifteen pounds by a change in my diet and exercise.” And most resolutions have as their end goal a healthier state of being, either physically, mentally, relationally, emotionally or spiritually.
But resolutions can be taken on by groups and institutions as well. And actually, they should be because we all – individually and corporately - need to have our goal be a healthier state of being.
I read an article this week written by Mark Wingfield, an American Baptist minister, where he stated his hope for the church in 2019 is that our resolution will be saying three simple words: “we were wrong.”
We were wrong.
That’s a serious challenge to the church, and may be the most difficult thing we, as an institution, will ever be asked to do! After-all we are the institution that always gets it right, no? And admitting error about anything we have said or done will not fall easily from the lips of people who expect others to confess their sins, not themselves.
But Wingfield says, the church in fact has had gotten it wrong, still gets it wrong, and persists in doing wrong in many ways:
We were wrong on race, trying to prove a Biblical warrant for making Blacks inferior. We were wrong, and continue to get it grotesquely wrong, on protecting sexual predators. We were wrong about women not being co-equally made in the image of God. We were wrong on excluding people from the Eucharist and ordination due to their sexual identity. We were wrong to demand right belief for participation in the life of the church, forgoing the actual call of Jesus to engage in right practice.
So much of the church’s being wrong is rooted in its desire for control and power. Being wrong is often actually nurtured by the church, which stokes human fear and insecurity, thereby allowing the institution to engage in absolutism and certainty, versus encouraging people to live into Divine mystery. All too often the church trains us to worship the Bible as it has been interpreted through the lens of those who have an agenda based on control and power and of institutional preservation, rather than reading the scripture through the overarching narrative of love embodied in the gospel of Jesus. Through this lens the Bible becomes the inerrant word of God - albeit cherry picked words to meet the needs of the institutional – but to the detriment of Jesus being the Word made flesh.
Jesus was highly critical of this approach to the scriptures. In Matthew he tells the religious authorities, “So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’” (Matthew 15:6-9)
Today is Epiphany; the day we celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings at the manger in Bethlehem to pay homage to the Messiah. This story is all about how the institutional religion at the time of Jesus’ birth got it wrong. And like us, they got it really wrong.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, it was the belief of institutional Judaism that salvation was for Jews – faithful Jews – only. That as the chosen people they alone were entitled to the salvation of God. Now this belief , while based on cherry-picked scripture passages - contravened what had been proclaimed by many of the prophets, which was God’s plan was for universal salvation. Isaiah particularly undergirds the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan. Note that whenever the words nation or nations are used in scripture it is a reference to the Gentiles. Here are a few examples of Isaiah’s inclusivity of the nations:
“In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it. (Is 2:2)
“I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Is. 49:6)
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. (Is. 25:6)
In these passages it is unambiguous that God’s plan is for all peoples to receive the light of God’s saving grace.
Yet the institutional religion of the time chose to ignore that message, rather proclaiming a more exclusivist access to God. And in so doing they got it wrong.
And then along comes Jesus, the Messiah – the Word of God incarnate. And who are among the first people who come to witness to his Messiahship and pay him homage? Three Gentiles from Persia!
“When they [the Wise men] saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
The Wise Men were over-whelmed with joy! I can imagine as they peered into the face of this child who came down from heaven for us – for all of us – and for our salvation, that this profound good news is what caused their joy. And all of a sudden – in that moment - what had been very wrong was made oh, so very right. Because God will not let wrongs persist. Because God will always right every wrong. And in Jesus we have the revelation of God at work doing just that.
Paul expounds on this truth in his letter to the Ephesians.
“This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles,” he writes. [Through Jesus] “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
Paul of course was the apostle to the Gentiles, and he relentlessly battled with the early church in Jerusalem who had defaulted to the old ways of exclusivism, and were getting it wrong when it came to living into the wide embrace of Jesus’ love for all God’s people. But Paul’s persistence made the institutional church in Jerusalem see the error of its wrongness and he compelled them to make those wrongs right. His most well- known summation of this effort is captured in his letter to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)
Wingfield writes, “There is a day of reckoning coming – hopefully soon – when the church will have to give account not only for its hypocrisy” [in ignoring the Gospel] “but also for its silence” [in the face of the wrongs that have been perpetrated.]
“If the church of Jesus Christ is to be relevant in our mission, if we are to be agents of God’s reconciling love, we’ve got to take a hard look in the mirror . . . It’s time to say we were wrong.
And that’s just the beginning.”
It is Epiphany, a season when we lift up God’s revelations of new things that are intended to change us in some way for the better. In this season of revelations and resolutions my prayer is that the entire church universal look in the mirror and admit we were wrong. And more pointedly that we – you and I -as followers of Jesus, and as a community of faith here in the heart of the Van Aken district, we will take a hard look in the mirrors of our lives as well. And that in so doing we will have the integrity to say that we have been wrong. Those will be epiphany moments: moments revealing the radical, inclusive love of God in Jesus for all people. May the joy of that moment be the same joy of the Magi as they peered into Jesus’ face. And may that joy propel us to be agents of God’s reconciling love to all we encounter. That will be the beginning of a better way of life for all of us . . . but it will not be the end. Amen.