In Christ There is No "Them" and "Us”
Acts 11:1-18; John 13:31-35
Rev. Peter Faass
The book of Acts is a history of the early Church and offers some of the Bible’s most vivid stories. In Acts, Peter’s vision of a four-cornered sheet coming down from heaven (filled with “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air”) is the among the most fascinating. We might wonder what overly spicy meal Peter dined on prior to his dream.
While we may view this story as a tad bizarre, within it is the Gospel’s essential core message: A heavenly voice tells Peter to eat what he sees on the sheet. The revelation is so profound for Peter that it causes a radical paradigm shift in the theology of the early Church proclaiming God’s love – a love that Jesus proclaimed through his words and actions during his earthly ministry.
Peter was at Simon the Tanner’s home in the city of Joppa, just south of modern day Tel Aviv, when he had his vision. “ ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat,’” the voice told Peter. Peter calls the voice “Lord,” indicating that it is Jesus speaking.
“But I replied, `By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' But a second time the voice answered from heaven, `What God has made clean, you must not call profane.'”
As we read about this exchange, remember that the early Church was comprised almost exclusively of Jews who recognized that Jesus as Messiah was a fulfillment to their Judaism. These Jewish Christians observed the Law of Moses, which included kosher laws about food, and male circumcision, an outward symbol of the Abrahamic Covenant. Early Church leaders felt that it was also necessary for Gentile converts to adhere to the Mosaic Law. The early Church essentially considered itself a Jewish sect. Keeping kosher law that was not a terribly difficult task. Sure, no more pork roast or cheeseburgers, but hey, the brisket and the noodle kugel were nice compensation. But when it came to adult males being circumcised, that posed a significantly more challenging obstacle.
We know this was a significant obstacle because of a group of people called God-fearers who are frequently mentioned in the Christian Testament. God-fearers were Gentiles who honored the monotheistic God of the Hebrews, attended synagogue services, and even financially supported Jewish life. Ultimately, they couldn’t bring themselves to fully convert to Judaism because of the circumcision requirement.
It is the home of the God-fearer and Roman Centurion named Cornelius that the Spirit compels Peter to go to after his vision of the critter-filled sheet. In Acts (chapter 10, verse 22), Cornelius is “an up-right and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation.” So while he was a Gentile and Roman solider, he was also seen as a mensch – a person of integrity and honor - in the Jewish community.
Peter goes to Cornelius’ house to baptize the Roman and have a meal with his family. This is big news, as it doesn’t say Cornelius was also to be circumcised. By dining with and baptizing Cornelius, Peter has violated the two major tenants of the early Jewish Christian church:
Peter is roundly criticized for these behaviors by “the circumcised.” These are the core members of the Church, who by their circumcision are Jews before being Christian. Under fire, Peter uses his vision of the descending, critter-filled sheet to explain the circumcision-less baptism of Cornelius and to justify his table sharing with Gentiles.
Does baptism erase those distinctions between Jew and Gentile? Does it replace the adherence to the Law? The answer is clearly no.
In the vision, God annuls those distinctions prior to baptism. Even though the Lord/Jesus told Peter to eat the food before him, Peter responded that he could not since the Law prohibited such cuisine. Based on God’s original creative authority and acts, God trumps tradition and Torah instruction: The voice reminds Peter that we cannot make profane or unclean what God has created clean. This refers to the Genesis Creation story where at the end of each day we are told, “And God saw that it was good.” Therefore, it was all good before the law and institutional religion made it bad.
Peter understands God’s disruption of his sleep and his biased thinking as the Spirit teaching him not to make distinctions “between us and them.” As he explains to those infuriated by his behaviors at Cornelius’ home, “The Spirit told me to go . . . and not to make a distinction between them and us.”
With this phrase, we understand this vision goes beyond dietary laws; it is about human relationships. In this vision, God is correcting our faulty theological anthropology; our pernicious human tendency of putting our “them and us” bias, behaviors, stereotypes, and rhetoric above God and His will for Creation.
This is why this story contains the core message of the Gospel. It distills the message of Jesus in John’s Gospel “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
As we sing in that wonderful hymn, “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no north or south” there is also no more “them and us.” In him there is just us, all together. We are children created in the image of a loving God and bound together into one body; the body of One God sent into the world so that we might live and live abundantly.
Of course there is reality. When it comes to our “them and us” bias, behaviors, stereotypes, and rhetoric today. I think Charles Dickens captures our era well:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
We have made significant progress in our efforts to eradicate “them and us” in our society: an African-American president, marriage equality, women justices on the Supreme Court. But we also find that with each step we take toward erasing those distinctions, the more others in opposition rise to resist and reinforce those distinctions. That is why it is the best and the worst of times. Evil is so bewildered and terrified by the message of the Gospel coming to fruition that it is fighting back with all it has in its power – and it’s pretty ugly stuff.
Witness the current controversy over transgendered access to public restrooms in North Carolina. Legislators who passed this pernicious law requiring people to use restrooms based on their birth gender are people who see the “thems” of the world as “unclean” based on perceived differences. It also signifies a belief in their own superiority. They are passionate that if the “us” and “them” get too close, live too close, or interact too much, they risk becoming contaminated and “unclean.” Their belief is constructed upon differentiating themselves from others, instead of upon who we are in God.
Witness a fear of “them” so insidious in segments of our society that Southwest Airlines saw fit to eject a man from a flight a few weeks ago because he was speaking Arabic!
These are only two examples in a society rife with them. Notice the tenor of our current political campaign and the racism, misogyny, Islamaphobia and homophobia oozing from many segments. Sisters and brothers, the Gospel calls us to a different standard.
An “us and them” mentality should haunt our human sensibilities if we want to experience and benefit from our common humanity. We need to always be on alert to check our biases and stereotypes. God says it is imperative that we engage with others different from ourselves at a deeper level. This will not happen when “us” compels we keep our distance from “them.”
The only way we end making distinctions between “them” and “us” is by learning to recognize and admit our biases and their impact on human relationships. Racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, white privilege and other biased behaviors and thinking are not Godly; they are motivated by fear of the other – not love. God shows no favoritism for one human being other another.
Let us never forget: We are all good in God’s eyes despite the fact that laws and institutional religion have made so many of us in “thems” who are unclean, and therefore bad.
Hearing the Spirit’s voice, let us passionately “make no distinction between them and us” and recognize the goodness of every person from every family, language, race and nation.
Encountering the Risen Jesus
Rev. Peter Faass
On the first Easter morning, a number of Jesus’ devoted female followers went to his tomb to properly prepare his body for burial. When they arrived, they were perplexed when they found it empty. Two men in dazzling clothes (whom we assume are angels) appeared and said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen.”
The women rushed back to Jerusalem and told the apostles this astonishing news. According to Luke, when they relayed the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the apostles, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
Imagine the apostles sitting around the living room watching the basketball finals on a widescreen TV. The women rush in, breathless, and relay the events of the empty tomb and the angels. The apostles, barely paying attention, say, “Yeah, yeah, right. Say, while you’re up, would you mind grabbing another cold one from the fridge for me?”
An idle tale. The tomb is empty but the apostles do not believe the women’s report. How then would they believe the resurrection?
How many people throughout the centuries have considered the story Jesus’ resurrection an “idle tale?” How many of us do? How can we ever receive the gift of new life God offers us if we see the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection as:
If we’re too wise, too rational, too scientific, too savvy, too sophisticated and too enlightened to believe in the resurrection as anything more than an idle tale, how are we can going to truly live the new life that God gave us in that first Easter?
United Church of Christ minister and theologian Walter Bruggemann writes, “The force of the Easter drama cannot be accommodated to Enlightenment rationality. No use in even trying to make such an accommodation.”
He’s right, of course. It’s pointless to try and explain the empty tomb rationally as proof of the resurrection. It’s not persuasive evidence. After all, Jesus’ companions didn’t believe the empty tomb was evidence of his rising all that persuasive either, and they – unlike us - were not victims of the Enlightenment.
If we focus on the empty tomb, we’re focusing on the wrong place for evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. The two angels, perplexed on the women’s focus on the tomb, infer this when they tell the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?... He is not here, but has risen.”
The tomb is a place for the dead, not the living. To dwell there is to become dead yourself, or at least one of the living dead – a zombie – but nonetheless dead to receiving the gift of real life, which is the Resurrection’s ultimate gift. To believe in the resurrection, you need to get out of the tomb. The empty tomb alone never leads to Easter faith.
If the empty tomb doesn’t lead us to believe, what exactly does lead to Easter faith? Scripture is clear: Easter faith comes through personal encounters with the Risen Jesus.
“The Road to Emmaus” follows today’s encounter between the women and the angels. In this story about the first Easter, two of Jesus’ disciples talked about recent events as they walked toward the village of Emmaus. Jesus approached them and asked what they were discussing. Unable to recognize him, the disciples told Jesus about the events that recently occurred in Jerusalem.
As they walked, Jesus interpreted all the events of his passion, death and resurrection. When the group arrived at a village, the disciples invited Jesus to eat supper with them. As Jesus blessed the bread, the disciples suddenly recognized their rabbi:
“They said to each other, 'Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?'” (Luke 24:32) They were so excited that they leaped from the table and ran back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples about their encounter with the Risen Savior. This personal encounter with Jesus convinces the disciples he is alive.
All four Gospels report personal encounters that provide evidence of the resurrection:
The resurrection is made real when we meet people who embody the loving ways of Jesus. It occurs when we are those people who embody his ways. When we preach good news to the poor, welcome the outcast, offer kindness to the lonely, embrace the marginalized and forgive the penitent, we proclaim, “He is risen!”
By raising Jesus from the dead, God is responding to his son’s hideous death and the powers that caused it. God’s vindication of Jesus is the resurrection. God validates Jesus’ preaching the fundamental qualities of His reign to all those outside the margins of society. By raising Jesus, God denies the power of those behaviors, attitudes and beliefs in the world that create broken people… that divide and separate us… that establish one group of people as being better than another. God’s response of resurrection to those who killed Jesus for proclaiming the message of God’s reign is no less profound for us today.
Let’s consider this concept in current events. The resurrection is the ultimate power that leads us to reject those hateful behaviors and beliefs embodied in the vitriolic political climate we are experiencing in government and the presidential campaign.
Ask yourself this:
How are we going to encounter the risen Christ if we:
How will we proclaim the risen Christ and the salvation he brings the world, when we live in such fear, bigotry and hatred? How will we proclaim the risen Christ if we don’t live with compassion, dignity and love?
Some people may think that kindness, compassion, respect for others, dignity and love are – like the empty tomb – not very convincing evidence of the risen Christ. I would argue the exact opposite. Look at the decline in civil discourse in our society. Look at the deplorable tenor in politics! Read the anonymous comments to articles posted on Cleveland.com. You only have to look at Syria, Brussels, Istanbul, Ferguson, the Ivory Coast, Hough and North Carolina. To say that there is a dearth – if not downright absence – of kindness, compassion, respect for others, dignity and love is to engage in gross understatement. These foundational qualities of God’s reign that Jesus proclaims are so disparaged by so many people, that when we do encounter them, it is nothing less than miraculous! Like the biblical encounters with Jesus, when we encounter these qualities, they are proof positive that Christ is risen.
Welcoming the stranger, loving the outcast, healing the broken and loving the unlovable all attest to the truth that God’s power for life is on the loose among us. They are proof that Jesus lives. When we encounter them in others and embody them ourselves, they get us out of the empty tombs, those places of death, and they give us life. Life like we never imagined. Life that is eternal.
The Fragrance of Love
John 12: 1-8
Rev. Peter Faass
We are a week away from Holy Week, the most sacred time of the liturgical year, when we will once again “walk” with Jesus through those last days of his life and celebrate his triumph over the power of death on Resurrection Sunday.
Holy Week is multi-layered in the richness of its theology, offering parallels to our own lives on how to deal with every possible human experience:
Holy Week is a gift from God through Jesus to us, his followers. But Holy Week has a component that makes me a little anxious – the Maundy Thursday foot-washing ceremony. Holy Week is somewhat “foot-centric,” and truth be told, I don’t like having my feet touched. I have some pretty big feet, providing more surface area for touching (not a good thing!).
Today’s Gospel story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair reminds me that foot washing season is right around the bend. So, I am steeling myself in anticipation of whomever will wash and dry my feet that night. Clearly, Jesus had much more resilient feet than I do.
Mary’s anointing Jesus’ feet parallels the Maundy Thursday/Last Supper foot washing event, which (based on this event occurring “six days before the Passover”) is only a week away. At the Last Supper, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet as an expression of humble love. “As I have done for you,” he tells them, “you should do for others.”
He then gives them the new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
“Love one another…” became a hallmark of the church and discipleship, which is why we re-enact foot washing yearly despite the squeamishness we have surrounding our feet. By anointing Jesus’ feet, Mary fulfills this love commandment before Jesus even asks it. She boldly gives herself in this radically humble act of service and love. It is an eschatological moment, when God’s reign is made palpable.
While Mary’s humble loving act foreshadows the commandment to love one another and is an inbreaking moment of God’s reign, it is because of who performed this act as much as it was done. We must not underestimate that who did the foot washing matters.
To state the obvious, but Mary was a woman. Now that may not be so earth-shattering to 21st century Americans, but in first century Palestine? Oy! It was scandalous for a woman to engage in what she did! In that culture Jewish woman did not under any circumstances touch men in public. Additionally, women’s loose hair was perceived as being sensual by men in Galilean culture, which is still true in some segments of Orthodox Judaism or conservative Islam today.
Also recall this is the same Mary who sat at Jesus feet to study, learn, and be educated… LIKE A MAN! This was also taboo. Women were not considered worthy of learning in that culture.
Remember the movie Yentl, with Barbra Streisand and Mandy Patinkin? Set in 19th century Poland, Jewish women were forbidden to study religious scripture. But Streisand’s character yearned to study the Talmud like males did. She is so passionate to learn that she disguises herself as a man so she can attend shul. Although this is now almost two centuries ago, 19th century Poland was chronologically much closer to us than it was to the 1st century. Old attitudes die hard.
Jesus’ interactions with Mary remind me of a story in Luke: When seeing Jesus, a woman in a crowd exclaimed “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” Highly complimentary words, right? Mary the mother of Jesus must have felt good about them.
Jesus was bold in his response to her: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Luke 11:27-28). In other words, yes, child bearing and rearing are a good thing, but relationship with God is better. Being in right relationship with God is better than everything, because everything good in human life springs out of that relationship.
These stories convey that for Jesus, women are more than sexual objects and child-rearing machines. That’s why Jesus did not have a problem with being touched by women; seeing them with their hair down; with women talking to men; or being active with their bodies and alive in their senses. He did not see women as chattel or second class. Jesus believed women to be equal at the intellectual level, salary level… and at all levels. There are no glass ceilings in God’s reign.
Jesus’ empowerment of and high regard for women is underlined yet again when Mary anointed him with the costly fragrant nard. “Messiah” is the Hebrew word translated as “anointed.” Jesus as Messiah is the “Anointed One.” With this understanding, Mary “anointed the Anointed” as king. In this singular act, John’s Gospel offered a radical view of the power that women hold in God’s reign.
In biblical times and much of Western history, women did not anoint anyone. Men anointed men. The prophet Samuel anointed David as King. The pope (a man) crowned kings, (also men) throughout much of European history, and vice versa. The Archbishop of Canterbury still crowns the monarch in Great Britain. We Anglicans have a bit better history with anointing women as monarchs, if not as Archbishops. Heaven knows, we would not be here as a Church were it not for the brilliance of Elizabeth I!
It is earth-shattering that Jesus was anointed and given power by a woman. It is no coincidence that when he enters Jerusalem the next day, crowds hailed him with palm fronds, shouts of “Hosanna” and acclamations of “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!” A woman anoints him king!
March 8 was International Women’s Day. This annual event was founded in 1908 to celebrate the economic, political, and social achievements of women and to continue the fight for equal rights in all aspects of life. This year’s theme, the “Pledge for Parity,” recognizes that while we are better than we used to be in giving women their equal status in all of human life, we also have a long way to go.
International Women’s Day finds its authentic genesis in Mary and the foundational principles of God’s reign as expressed through Jesus’ love. Mary was a first century Jewish woman who:
Mary, for all intents and purposes, founded International Women’s Day. Because of that, it is in God’s reign International Women’s Day finds its fulfillment.
The scripture prior to today’s story centers on raising Lazarus from the dead. When Jesus arrives at Lazarus’ tomb, Lazarus has been dead for four days. This is in a time period before embalming was used, and Palestine is a pretty warm climate, so dead things get stinky pretty fast. When Jesus ordered the stone taken away from the tomb, Martha said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.”
Now parallel that stench of death at Lazarus’ tomb with Mary’s act of anointing Jesus with nard. The text tells us, “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” The story conveys that the stench of death has been replaced by the fragrance of love.
That’s what Jesus does; he replaces the stench of death in our lives with the fragrance of love. It is what we mean when we say in the third Eucharistic Prayer in Enriching Our Worship that, “he proclaimed the coming of God’s holy reign by giving himself for us, a fragrant offering.”
That’s what happens when we love others as he loved us. The stench of deathly human behaviors and attitudes is replaced by the fragrance of God’s love and inclusivity for women, the marginalized, refugees, the poor, the sick, the lonely, the bereaved, and for all of us – today and forever.
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Rev. Peter Faass
The Prodigal Son is one of the two best known parables of Jesus in the scriptures; the other is The Good Samaritan.
The Prodigal Son is also one of the two least liked parables in scripture; the other the The Parable of the Workers in the Field, the story where all the workers are paid the same wage regardless of the amount of time they spent laboring in the field. The Prodigal Son may be so disliked because we don’t like God’s economic system, justice – or radical forgiveness.
Most people who hear these parables immediately identify with a particular character. In The Prodigal Son, the elder son is the good and faithful one who never did anything to disobey his father (yeah right, at least in his own mind!) In Workers in the Field, people identify with those who were hired at dawn and worked hard all day in the fields under grueling conditions.
We seldom see ourselves as the prodigal son – that greedy, reckless party boy who squandered away the family money. None of us has ever been a spendthrift, greedy or reckless, right? Nor do we tend to see ourselves as not applying ourselves fully to doing a day’s labor, because none of us spend time at work on Facebook or Instagram, texting, chatting on the phone or just hanging out at the water cooler, right?
We are hypocrites when we think like this, pretending to be something we are not. The reality is, we’ve all had our moments of dissolute living to some degree. We all have received more compensation for what we have done… or maybe better stated, left undone.
In Henri Nouwen’s famous book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, the author asks the reader to examine each character in the story. According to Nouwen, we are, at various points in our lives, the father, the prodigal, and the elder son. I think that’s right. I would also postulate that of the two sons, the prodigal ends up being spiritually healthier at the end of the story, while the elder son remains spiritually sick.
Father Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic priest, writer, and lecturer, states “if there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own.” This is one of the key lessons about The Prodigal Son: recognizing how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own. That is why I believe the prodigal son was more spiritually healthy at the end of the parable and the elder son was not. The prodigal had finally come to terms with his own imperfections. The elder son, well, not so much.
Christian author and speaker Brian McLaren writes,
“The fact is, we are all hypocrites to some degree. None of us wants to be known for our worst moments… Sometimes we find that the best way to keep guilt at bay over our own inconsistencies is to pour guilt on others. As we do so, our souls go dark and dangerous.”
McLaren labels people who do this as “pretenders.”
(They are) “false prophets projecting an image by which (they) hope to rack in profits-financial, social, relational, spiritual… We all need to come out of the closet (from being pretenders). We don’t have to hide the real us – the sexual us, the insecure us, the doubtful us, the angry us, the complex, different, tempted, actual us.”
McLaren’s point is that when we hide in the closet, we deny our essential selves, working hard to project a pretense of whom we are rather than being our authentic selves. As a result, we are not spiritually well. The cure for this is self-examination, confession and repentance is closing the gap between the artificial pretender we project and our authentic actual selves.
“Through confession we say, ‘God, I will not hide anything from you. You know already. Pretending in your presence is pure and pathetic insanity. I want to be who I am in your presence.’”
This is the scenario we have in the parable of The Prodigal Son: We have two pretenders working hard to project false images of who they are before God. They are both in the closet about their true identities – and as a result, their souls are dark and dangerous. They are lost souls.
The prodigal son projects a cocky, confident, arrogant and self-reliant image. He says to his father, “I can be the best tender of my own life and resources. Give them to me because I don’t trust you any longer.”
Meanwhile, the elder son projects a small-minded, moralistic image of arrogant superiority derived from his perceived selfless, sacrificial life of service. Both sons believe they are perfect and beyond reproach. They have so artfully constructed their false selves that they end up deluding themselves.
They are pretenders.
How much of these two sons’ personalities do we see in some of the current presidential candidates? How much of this delusional pretending they exhibit is also in their supporters? Like the two sons, the candidates and their followers are truly lost in their relationship with God... They are pretenders.
In the parable, the father desires his sons to authentically be who they are, which is why the father, before he dies, gives the prodigal son his portion of the estate. The father allows his son to go on this Amish Rumspringa adventure with the hope that he will find his authentic self. In the father’s mind that alone is worth the money and all he has.
The prodigal son has to experience a major crisis before he can engage in the self-examination required to get to his real self. He eventually loses all the resources he clearly was unable to manage on his own, finally hitting rock bottom when he has to slop hogs. To understand this, for a nice Jewish boy from a good family, slopping hogs is as low as he could go.
The prodigal son returns to his father humbled. He expresses sorrow for his misdeeds, for not being himself, and for causing so much pain and anxiety. His words are a confession for having projected a false image of who he was – a pretender.
“'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.”
“For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
What the father actually meant was, “this son of mine was a pretender, but he has found his authentic self. In so doing, he has discovered his perfection, his humanity and his holiness.”
Who wouldn’t celebrate?
This is why the prodigal son is spiritually healthier at the end of the parable. He has engaged in the critical process of self-examination. Through his confession, he has bridged the tragic gap between his phony appearance and his actual self. Because he has done so, he is forgiven and restored to fullness of life with God. He is given a life that he never thought was possible.
The elder son is still pretending, his anger inflamed by how easily this miscreant younger brother is forgiven and feted. The elder son whines, judges and condemns, drawing comparisons between his own righteousness and his brother’s sinfulness. Instead of seeing the abundant grace in his brother’s transformation, the elder brother becomes more entrenched in projecting the world as he wants it to be:
The father is anguished by his elder son’s response, pleading his son to relent and join the celebration for his younger brother. The father then states the core truth of our life with God:
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
Son, everything I have is yours: the forgiveness, the restorative justice, the abundance, the love. All you have to do is take it. I give it freely to you. The only condition is, you must stop being someone you are not and be authentic… just like your brother has.
I can’t think of a more critical message at this time of our national aloofness, our national pretending. We all desperately authenticity to save ourselves from ourselves. I mean all of us because we are, all of us – Democrats, Republicans, Independents, voters, non-voters, conservatives, liberals, Tea Party, progressives, religious, non-religious - complicit in getting to where we are today. This is a pretty low place; as low as slopping those hogs.
I can’t think of a more critical message at this time of our national aloofness, our national pretending. We all desperately authenticity to save ourselves from ourselves. I mean all of us because we are, all of us – Democrats, Republicans, Independents, voters, non-voters, conservatives, liberals, Tea Party, progressives, religious, non-religious - complicit in getting to where we are today. This is a pretty low place; as low as slopping those hogs.
Do you remember the old merry-go-rounds that used to have brass rings you could touch with each rotation? If you reached out from your horse just far enough, you could grab that brass ring and win a prize. The expression of “grabbing the brass ring” entered the lexicon, and now means striving for the highest prize, or living life to the fullest.
The brass ring is a great metaphor for our life with God, representing the fullness of an authentic life with God, a life that is holy, allowing us to stop pretending and be who we really are. It is the highest prize.
Each day as we ride the merry-go-round of life, we can grab the brass ring. We have to make an effort and lean out with our hands if we are going to grab it. That means we must let go of the superficial images we have of ourselves. We have to stop pretending.
The Prodigal Son is that brass ring for us.
The only thing we can do to redeem our country from the depraved, vile and virulent hatred and demagoguery we are currently witnessing is to lean away from our complacency. If we grasp the symbolic brass ring to be our authentic selves, we can face down this beastly ugliness infecting our nation.
We CAN and we MUST grab that brass ring as both faithful Christians and as proud citizens of the United States of America. When we do, believe me, we’ll roast the fatted calf, the band will play, and we’ll roll the carpets up so we can dance. There will be eating, merriment and great celebration, and God will proclaim, “Once these children of mine were dead and now they are alive again; once they were lost and now they are found!”
Who wouldn’t celebrate?
Luke 13: 1-9
Rev. Peter Faass
“Extra, extra, read all about it! Pilate brutally murders Galileans. Jerusalemites tragically killed by collapsing tower!”
This headline from Jesus’ time could easily apply to the current Israel-Palestine tragedy. The more things change, the more they stay the same. What is it with this strange interpolation of these two tragic stories of human death and suffering in the Gospel text? Let’s review them a bit.
“At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’”
Other than Luke’s Gospel, there are no extant writings that record these two awful events in Jerusalem – and yet, they were clearly well known to the people of that time, who wanted to know why these events occurred. Since they didn’t have a copy of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s wildly popular book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” people sought answers from Rabbi Jesus.
In biblical times, people believed bad things happened to those who had been bad and displeased God. And so, the God of their minds (a record-keeping, picayune, unforgiving, mean-spirited and punitive deity) was going to exact retribution for whatever bad things those people had done. This common belief about God’s punitive nature occurs several times in scripture.
In the Gospel of John (9:2), Jesus is about to heal a blind man when the disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The disciples assume that either the man or his parents must have done something sinful, displeasing God into pressing a “make this man blind” button on his keyboard. Presto, the man is born blind and God gets his retribution!
This belief that God punishes sinners for bad behavior originates in the Torah. In the book of Exodus (34:7), God tells Moses that while He [God] is compassionate and merciful, “He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”
Although God has a tendency to be nice, he also has a dark side that displays an overriding desire to ensure that sins are punished against the perpetrator and their heirs. Think about that for a moment. If we know God primarily as love, how do we reconcile such behavior on God’s part? Is it a loving or just act to make innocent generations suffer for some sin our ancestors committed? Of course not!
Two of the great prophets, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, both saw the faulty theology of this belief and they challenged it. Jeremiah (31: 29-30) writes, “In those days they will not say again, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But everyone will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge.”
In other words, every person who engages in sinful behavior will be personably accountable for it – not their descendants. We are all personably accountable for what we do. Actions have consequences, but those consequences impact us, not our children – a message we need to hear in 21st Century America!
But old beliefs die hard. People hung on to the concept of a punitive God for centuries, as we see in those questioning Jesus about the Galileans and Jerusalemites. Jesus disabuses that belief.
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Jesus’ questions to his inquirers about those who died “guilty of sin” assumed the popular notion that sin caused the calamity. “Do you believe that they were worse sinners, worse offenders?” he asks. While the text does not record their response, we might assume they were thinking, “Yes, they were. That’s how things work. Otherwise why did these bad things happen to them?”
In these passages, Jesus emphatically affirms that calamities are not God’s doing. Life is serendipitous and calamities do happen to the bad and good. These folks who died – regardless of how - were not any worse than any other person and God did not single them out for a special kind of suffering and grisly death. That’s not how God works, Jesus asserts. That’s not who God is.
Just like the people of Jesus’ time, these beliefs are still deeply embedded in the minds of many people. Have you ever heard someone say any of the following:
There certainly have been no shortage of preachers who have undergirded this belief, pointing to events like Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, the AIDS epidemic, or a slew of other tragedies that have caused suffering and taken human life. They tell congregations that these (events) are God’s punishments for (fill in the blank) sins committed by bad people in our culture. They and we are wrong to think this, because according to Jesus, this belief is wrong.
God is not punitive. God is redeeming. God’s grace is not directed to some and not others. It flows freely and abundantly in all of us.
Here’s my advice for today. Put your cursor on these beliefs in the laptop of your mind and drag them to the trash can of really bad theology.
There, have you done that? Now empty your laptop’s trash can into the shredder and be done with those ideas for good. Don’t you feel better already?
God does not cause calamity in our lives because we have done something bad. In our Ash Wednesday liturgy we pray, “Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live.” This is God’s deepest desire for us. That is what Jesus conveys when he states, “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
God’s greatest desire is to love and make us whole. That requires we be in right relationship with God, which means we need to repent, or turn, from those wicked ways that prevent that right relationship from occurring. When we don’t do that that, the perishing that results in our lives occurs in the form of our loveless, sin-filled existence and not literal death. Our “perishing” is self-inflicted, the result of our own doing, not God’s.
Some of you will cite scripture passages pointing to God’s wrath and judgment for sinful behavior, like the Exodus passage. It is undeniable that they exist. But I will claim that this is what Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan postulates is the assertion/subversion process at work in scripture.
This is a process where original assertions of the non-violent, distributive justice, loving character of God are so objectionable to the powers that be in a particular culture that verses or passages are added to subvert that nature of God.
The overarching message throughout the Bible clearly indicates God calling us to radical distributive justice and love and compassion for all people… indeed for all of creation. But human civilization, especially those controlling institutional power, become so discomforted or inconvenienced by that assertion of God that they subvert the message by adding text to scripture to replace God’s divine dream for humanity with a human nightmare of control, hoarding resources, and inflicting violence on those who dare challenge their power. We see this clearly in the Exodus passage where God seems schizophrenic, even psychotic, as if He’s saying “I’m compassionate and merciful but I will make you and your progeny suffer unmercifully if you get on my bad side.”
Really? That’s not compassion and mercy, that’s sadism.
Crossan writes, “The delusion of divine punishments still prevails inside and outside religion over the clear evidence of human consequences, random accidents, and natural disasters. This does not simply distort theology; it defames the very character of God.” 
Let’s stop defaming God’s character. God’s character is love, pure love. Period. If there is any message of our faith that we can bring to a broken world it is this: God is love. And we who believe in God in Jesus are called to emulate that love so that God’s reign may come.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
Christ's love has gathered us into one.
Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him.
 John Dominic Crossan, “How to Read the Bible & Still be a Christian.” (Harper One: New York, NY, 2015. P.98.
The Devil Laughs!
Luke 14: 1-13
Rev. Peter Faass
After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. (Luke 4:1-2)
When we 21st Century Christians hear the story of the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness, it most likely evokes one of two responses:
Both thoughts are folly, and both are evidence of just how wily and seductive the power of evil truly is in the world.
Evil (which Satan and the devil represent in the scripture) is an insidious, seductive and relentless force in our lives that will stop at nothing to gain entry into all our hearts and minds in any way it can muster. Even Jesus’ success in resisting the devil’s temptations in the wilderness did not deter the devil. Our passage today closes with these ominous words, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.”
The devil may have failed this first attempt, but he will go back to the drawing board and devise another plan, until he finds the one that works to break us down and make us his.
It would be folly to dismiss the devil and his relentless efforts to gain entry into our souls. It is equally foolish to write him off as a quaint Halloween caricature. When we do so in both instances, he laughs!
As for the argument that “Jesus is God’s Son and I’m not,” I would argue that the Jesus we get at this point in his life and ministry is the all-too-human one. In the Incarnation, Jesus takes on our humanity, where he is tempted and tested like us all. He does this for the sake of knowing, deeply and intimately, that this is what it means to be human.
Jesus did not have a divine shield that went up (like the shields of the Starship Enterprise when enemies approach) to protect him from the temptations being proffered. In the Letter to the Philippians, we are told that Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death.” (Phil. 2:6-8)
In other words, Jesus was God, but by becoming human he emptied himself of his divinity so that he was fully human. Therefore, like any one of us, Jesus is vulnerable to the world’s temptations and the devil.
The text tells us that the key difference between us and Christ comes right after his baptism, when he was “full of the Holy Spirit.” God’s Holy Spirit in Jesus allowed him to resist the devil’s temptations. But being filled with the Holy Spirit is not unique to Jesus – it’s not a holy inoculation. Just as the Holy Spirit filled him at his baptism, so it also fills every one of us at our baptism. It isn’t just Jesus who gets the divine advantage with the fullness of the Spirit – we all do.
Our problem is we forget… or ignore it. In either event, when we do forget or ignore the presence of the Spirit already in us, we lose our ability to resist and be protected from the “deceits of the world, flesh and the devil,” as we prayed in (today’s) Great Litany.
This past week, I read a great blog post by the Rev. John Pavlovitz. His writing offers a profound example of how when we are dismissive of the reality of evil and forget we have the divine presence of the Spirit in us, Satan gains hold and is able to wreak great havoc in our lives. The title of the Blog piece is “Christian, the Reason So Many People are Losing Faith — May Be You.”
In this article, Pavlovitz argues that the growing millions of people who have given up on the Christian faith and have become part of those legions of folks who call themselves spiritual- but-not-religious or Nones (people with no specific religious identity) have done so because we, who call ourselves Christians, have stolen their religion from them. Pavlovitz writes,
“They’ve looked at our body of work and found it far less than convincing. For all our loud, flowery talk of a God who is Love, we’ve repeatedly proven ourselves incapable of a worthy demonstration in close proximity—and so away they walk.
“Far too often, people are abandoning Christianity because they are looking closely at believers like you and me and finding very little light worth moving toward. They are rubbing up against our specific, individual lives, and instead of coming away with the sense that God is real and worth seeking, they are determining that God must be dead or at best irrelevant—and we probably shouldn’t be the least bit surprised.
“We haven’t arrived here overnight and there are lots of reasons for it, but in America especially, I think we’ve gradually evolved into a nearly Jesus-free Christianity; one that allows us to claim Christ while not being saddled with the annoying burden of living like him in any meaningful way. We get God’s cachet and we get our way, which is how we like it: cheap religion without the costly personal transformation.
“If we’re honest, in the course of a given day out there most of us are usually far more interested and invested in winning arguments, proving points, garnering Retweets, and throwing shade than we are reflecting the compassion and humility and dignity of Christ to people in our path. We have so strayed from the plot and so made God in our own nasty image, that we’ve convinced ourselves the best answer to the question, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’—is be a jackass.”
What delight evil must take in seeing the decline of the Christian faith being caused by those very people who claim to be Christian, as they create a Jesus-free faith! This is because we have caved in to Satan’s temptations. The devil must laugh when we are more interested in the egoistic, self-serving, mean-spirited endeavors of winning arguments, proving points, garnering retweets and throwing shade. That’s when we ignore the Spirit within us, and forget to emulate Jesus’ humility and compassion. How much fuel do we throw on hell’s fires that desire to consume us, when the best answer we can give to “What would Jesus do?” – is to be a jackass?
"We have so strayed from the plot and so made God in our own nasty image, that we’ve convinced ourselves the best answer to the question, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’—is be a jackass.” (John Pavlovitz)
It is very easy to point at any politician who invokes God and then preaches hate to make this point. But the reality is, it’s not just the high profile media hounds who engage in this behavior – to some degree, it’s in all of us. We are:
With the devil having such power over us, people look at us and say, “If this is Christianity, then I don’t want it.” – and Satan laughs.
Pavlovitz states, “I’ve always contended that the best evangelism is simply to tell people that you’re a Christian and then not be a complete jerk. I believe in faith-sharing through the sermon of a life resembling Jesus.”
It is Lent, a time of self-reflection and repentance; a time to make a right beginning of renewel in our lives to follow Jesus. I invite you in this Holy season to meditate and pray on these questions:
This Lent, let’s take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror and ask these questions. Where we are wanting – and we are, all of us - may we pray for God’s guidance that leads to an amendment of life, so that the testimonies of our lives may give witness to the salvation and love of Jesus, to all people.
Only then will Satan be beaten down under our feet. Only then will this Christian faith of ours become the Jesus Movement that will redeem us… and the world.
I Think We’re Really, Really Good Here
Rev. Peter Faass
Here we are on the third Sunday of Epiphany, in a very short Epiphany season. After having heard the big epiphany stories of The Adoration of the Magi, The Baptism of Jesus and The Wedding Feast at Cana, we now hear this story of Jesus at the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown. This story, though, seems out of sync with the seasonal theme of the epiphanies of Jesus being revealed as the Messiah and Son of God. After hearing about those enormous stone jars filled with water being turned into fine Bordeaux wine; after the drama of the heavens opening and a dove descending on the newly baptized Jesus with God’s booming voice proclaiming him “my Son;” and after the exotic visit by those three Persian kings presenting opulent gifts at the manger, why do we now get this rather unassuming story? Why is it important to hear about Jesus worshipping at his home synagogue, the one where he probably had his Bar Mitzvah?
Part of this bafflement was created when the lectionary’s editors decided to split one story into two. Yet the integrity of keeping them as one story is essential to understand the scripture’s profound message and to understand it as another big epiphany story.
So, what are the full story and backstory?
The newly-baptized Jesus is recently back from his 40-day wilderness experience (and those three temptations by the devil to deny God and honor him). He’s begun his ministry, preaching and teaching and to great acclaim in synagogues throughout Galilee. He’s come home – to show the hometown folks just how much he’s grown into a successful prophet.
He goes to the local synagogue to worship. Recognizing him as “the local boy made good,” the verger gives him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus unrolls the scroll, intent to find a specific passage – because it will reveal something important about him (an epiphany) to the gathered congregation. Finding the passage he reads,
18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
19 He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Everyone who had known Jesus since he was knee-high to a grasshopper (and working with Joseph in the local carpentry shop) had their eyes riveted on him, waiting for the words of wisdom that this “local boy made good” would preach about this sacred text. “Boy, the reviews about Jesus have been good all over Galilee,” they are thinking, “…surely he has saved his best message for us, his local kith and kin.”
Jesus sits down to deliver what has to be the shortest sermon ever. "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Amen.” Its brevity is the envy of every Episcopalian who ever sat in a pew. “Oh, that my priest would be so pithy when they preach,” they think.
But the Nazareth congregation’s response to his sermon is not so positive, because Jesus proclaimed that Isaiah’s prophecy about the long-awaited Messiah had now been fulfilled in him. He claimed title to that sacred position.
… Say what?!?
To the people, this is a preposterous claim. Looking around at each other, some are initially amazed – but others start to question him.
What did he just say?
He’s the Messiah?
Isn’t this Joseph’s son – that little kid who used to play with our kids and run around the village?
Now look at him, he’s calling himself the Messiah. Oy, can you believe it! What a little Lord Fauntleroy he’s become.
Sensing their growing doubt, Jesus looks at them and says, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum. Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown.”
Jesus resists the temptation to perform some miracle, despite the crowd’s demands for a sign. His powers of healing are for those truly in need, and to witness God’s glory. They are not for entertainment or to be done on demand as proof that he is the Messiah.
Jesus is disappointed by their disbelief. To call them up short, he cites two stories involving Elijah and Elisha, two of Israel’s greatest prophets, to prove a point about himself. In other words, he uses good Biblical scholarship to make the point.
The first example refers to a time when a great famine struck the land during a drought. Jesus notes that God did not send the prophet Elijah to the Hebrews to deal with the hunger that arose from the drought because they dishonored and disbelieved God. He instead sent Elijah to the widow of Zarapeth in Sidon, who shared her meager rations with Elijah. Her reward for believing God would help her was that her food store would not run out until the rains returned and crops were harvested.
The second example involved Elisha and the Syrian general Namaan, who was afflicted with leprosy. Jesus said that God sent Elisha not to Hebrews who were suffering with leprosy to cure them, because they had not believed and obeyed God, but rather he sent Elisha to Namaan, to cure him and make him whole, because Namaan believed that Elisha was a man of God and had the power to make him whole.
When Jesus told these two stories about whom God favored when they believed in him (to prove his own claim of being God’s Son), “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” They are steaming!
Why? Well, the widow at Zarapeth in Sidon and Namaan the Syrian general were Gentiles. To the Jewish congregation, these stories to are an outrage, because they believe that the Messiah is to come to liberate them, and them only. They believe (scripture not withstanding) that God’s salvation is exclusive to the Jewish people, and not to other nations. In their rage they rise (a riotous crowd) and drive Jesus out of town, pushing him toward the brow of a hill, in order to hurl him off a cliff and kill him for his perceived blasphemy.
Since Jesus was of God, he had a message of hope to deliver to all people. At this most dire moment, the text notes that Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
A commentary I read on this passage states: “the basis of [the congregation’s] hostility toward Jesus was a difference in the way they read the Scriptures. The people of his hometown read them as a promise of God’s exclusive covenant with them, a covenant that involved promises of deliverance from their oppressors. Jesus came announcing deliverance, but it was not a national deliverance but God’s promise of liberation for all the poor and oppressed regardless of nationality, gender, or race. When the radical inclusiveness of Jesus’ announcement became clear to those gathered in the synagogue in Nazareth, their commitment to their own community boundaries took precedence over their joy that God had sent a prophet among them. In the end, because they were not open to the prospect of others’ sharing in the bounty of God’s deliverance, they themselves were unable to receive it.” 
Two weeks ago, the primates leading the national churches of the Anglican Communion met at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury at Canterbury Cathedral. These meetings occur every three years and are one of the so-called “instruments of unity” that loosely hold together the national churches of the Anglican Communion (who each find common roots in the mother Church of England). The primates discuss numerous topics concerning our faith at these triennial meetings, but this year’s had a pressing agenda item that many of the Archbishops wanted to see addressed. That item was last year’s approval by the Episcopal Church at our General Convention of a resolution allowing clergy to perform and bless marriages between same-sex couples.
Because of our perceived blasphemy and lack of adherence to Biblical orthodoxy, the primates wanted some punitive action to be taken by them against the Episcopal Church: They wanted to teach us a lesson about our proclamation that all God’s children are included in God’s act of salvation in Jesus Christ and are worthy of the Church’s blessing on their marriages. Many of the primates feel this understanding deviates from Christian teaching – or at least their interpretation of it. Actually, some of those gathered wanted to throw us off a cliff entirely at this recent meeting by removing us from the Communion altogether, and make the schismatic, conservative Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) the official representative church for the geographic area the Episcopal Church now represents.
In the end that did not happen, but it was held out as the stick that would beat us if in three years’ time we did not repent and repeal that resolution allowing same-sex marriage. In the meantime, we the Episcopal Church have been disciplined. We have not been suspended as much of the popular media reported, but rather disciplined. We have been given a slap on the fanny and told to go have a time out in our room, with no supper until we see the error of our ways and repent.
This discipline states we can no longer participate in the main Anglican Communion instruments of unity, which are:
I will not get into the details of how the Communion is organized (or what Canon law says about all this), other than to say that the primates have no authority to engage in such a discipline, never mind remove a national church from participation in any of these bodies and replace it with some schismatic group. That is not how we are organized. We are not an Anglican version of the Roman Catholic model of how ecclesial authority operates, despite some of our primates’ clear desires to become so.
I want to point out the parallels between what has happened with the primates’ action in disciplining our Church, and the story of Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.
The Episcopal Church, echoing Isaiah and Jesus, proclaims to the Anglican Communion in the marriage resolution, a universal salvation for all people: For all the poor, the poor in spirit, the disenfranchised and all who are oppressed. It does so based on the witness of a great prophet of God and more importantly, on the witness of God’s Son, who, I would remind all of us, is our Savior.
The majority of the gathered Anglican primates gathered as a congregation, react adversely to hearing this interpretation of scripture – because like the Jews of first century Palestine, the radical inclusivity of the Episcopal Church’s actions flies in the face of their interpretation of the scripture. Their commitment to their own community boundaries have taken precedence over what should be joy that God had sent a prophet to proclaim the good news of the Gospel among them.
In the end, because they are not open to the prospect of others’ sharing in the bounty of God’s deliverance, they themselves are unable to receive it. This is very sad. I know that there are numerous factors that play into why the primates voted as they did, and this is a situation with many complexities and a whole lot of behind-the-scenes politics. But nonetheless, it is very sad.
As the hymn proclaims, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.” The message of the story of Jesus at the synagogue in Nazareth holds out the light of hope – of God’s truth – for us Episcopalians during these times. It also reminds us that when we strive to be authentic followers of Jesus, God is with us in all we do – but maybe, most especially – when we are compelled to make difficult decisions that are often not popular with others.
Deciding to follow Jesus isn’t easy. But when we commit to doing so with all our heart, mind, soul and strength to be members of the Jesus movement, God allows us to pass safely through the murderous crowd so we may continue to bring good news to the poor and let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of God’s favor. For followers of Jesus, there is no more Godly work than that. And you know what? I think we are really, really good here.
 The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume IX, Luke, John. Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, 1995, p.108.
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Rev. Peter Faass
Are you ever just a little curious about scripture readings that omit some verses? I mean, what is that about? Are the redactors of the lectionary trying to hide something and engaging in some selective editing? Conventional wisdom offers a few reasons why verses are omitted.
Sometimes, the editors simplify the story line to clarify the theme. Other times, they edit it because they are discomforted by the verse. For instance, our lectionary does not use some of the writings from the pseudo Pauline epistles where women are admonished to be subservient to men, or the Levitical passages about condemning homosexual behavior, or the passage from Deuteronomy requiring that parents take a rebellious teenager to the town square to be stoned to death.
The editors may play the overbearing parent, assuming that the verses are too challenging for people to understand – or for the clergy to interpret. I think this last reason is insulting to the intelligence of the people in the pews and the clergy, as well.
I believe it is a combination of the first and final reason that is at play in the omission of verses 18-20 in the heart of Luke’s story of the Baptism of Jesus today. These missing verses record the account of the arrest of John the Baptist:
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Tucked in where they are between the description of John’s ministry in the wilderness and Jesus’ baptism may be curious chronologically, but they are critical theologically.
In the other gospel accounts, John's arrest comes after Jesus' baptism, which makes sense – if John was in prison, how could he baptize Jesus? By arranging the story this way (and not mentioning John specifically in the verses about Jesus' baptism), Luke turns this passage into a hinge in the story’s plot. These three verses are a theological hinge that undergirds the message of Luke’s entire understanding about the Good News of Jesus.
John’s arrest signifies the end of the era of how God's promise to the people of Israel was understood – that the Hebrew people were the exclusive chosen people, beloved by God over and above all others. This doesn’t mean God loved the Hebrews any less after this hinge swung open – it means that God’s embrace grew wider to include all people when Jesus’ ministry commenced.
Jesus’ baptism signifies a new era of who God loves and saves. This theology is clarified immediately after this passage, when Luke launches into Jesus’ genealogy. Unlike Matthew’s genealogy, which only goes back to Abraham and David (a distinctly Jewish genealogy), Luke traces Jesus’ lineage back to Adam, the first human.
Luke was a Gentile and his is the "Gospel to the Gentiles." The fact that his genealogy goes to the beginning puts what God is doing in Jesus in a universal – and not just a Jewish – context. His gospel’s laser-focused intent demonstrates that God has become human in Jesus to bring the good news of salvation to all people. As the angel proclaimed to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, the night Jesus was born, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
When Luke places John’s arrest smack in the middle of Jesus’ baptism, he is saying something critical: Our baptism literally takes us from an old way of life to a new one. Jesus’ baptism ended one way of thinking and inaugurated a new one to understand that God’s love is all embracing: Jew and Gentile, free and slave, male and female. That’s why omitting those three seemingly incongruous verses in this passage is a mistake – it undermines Luke’s message, which is as vital to us today as it was at the time of Jesus.
Today's reading opens with “the people were filled with expectation.” Expectation means they were looking for a new way of life. Under the brutal heel of Rome, the decadent yoke of Herod and the hypocritical behavior of their religious leaders, people were sick and tired of the way the institutions of government and religion treated them as either second-class citizens or chattel. They were tired of being abused and misused. They expected and longed for God to send the long-awaited Messiah who would lead them to a better way of life.
People were so eager that they thought John the Baptist was the Messiah. But he abjured, saying no, that someone even more worthy than he was coming. John is the hinge; Jesus is the door, leading people into God’s realm, where all God’s beloved are equitably treated with dignity and respect.
We currently need the message of who God’s salvation is for. The world is a broken place, fractured by the belief that one tribe is better than another. That belief invariably leads to bigotry, violence, deprivation and genocide. As Christians, we need to own the fact that we have fallen short of apprehending and living the good news of Jesus in Luke. Our Baptismal Covenant commits us to proclaim to the world towards values and practices that reflect the characteristics of God’s realm, which are justice, compassion, inclusion, respecting the dignity of every human being and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. In those words, we repent to complicity with evil that lures us to the broken belief that one faith or people is superior to another. In that repentance, we follow Jesus and join in harmonious community with one another – Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist and all others – to build a better world with God.
No religious leader in our time has expressed this deep wisdom of building a harmonious interconnected community better than His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. In his New York Times article, “The Last Dalai Lama,” Pankaj Mishrac revealed the Dalai Lama’s profound understanding of how the current exclusivist religious beliefs need to change to restore the harmony of humanity that God desires.
The article is premised on the growing realization that while the leader in exile is an international icon, the future of his office and the Tibetan people are in serious jeopardy. Communist China has been dismantling traditionalist Tibetan culture in many ways, and has specifically sought to marginalize the Dalai’s Lama’s spiritual and political role in the world.
Sensing that the Dalai Lama may never return to Tibet, Mishrac writes that the Dalai Lama “speaks beyond religion and embrac[es] ‘secular ethics’ which he defines as ‘principles of selflessness and compassion rooted in the fundamental Buddhist notion of interconnectedness.’”
“Increasingly the Dalai Lama addresses himself to a non-denominational audience and seems . . . determined to undermine the authority of his own tradition . . . he has asserted that certain Buddhist scriptures disproved by science should be abandoned. He has suggested that the institution of the Dalai Lama has outlived its purpose . . . he chuckled when [the interviewer] told him his younger brother thought his office was past its sell-by date. Then quickly becoming serious, he added that all religious institutions . . . [were] developed in feudal circumstances. Corrupted by hierarchical systems, they began to discriminate between men and women; they came to be compromised by such cultural spinoffs as Sharia law and the caste system. But he said, ‘time[s] change: they have to change.’”
The world picture as he saw it was bleak. People all over the world were killing in the name of religions. Even Buddhists in Burma were tormenting Rohingya Muslims. This is why . . . he has started to emphasis the . . . values of compassion. It is no longer feasible, he said, to construct an ethical existence on the basis of traditional religion in multi-cultural societies.” 
The Dalai Lama recognizes that an old way of life needs to end – a way of life based on the entitlement of one people at the expense of another. He understands that a new way of life is imperative, one that emphasizes selflessness, compassion and our interconnectedness in order for us to harmoniously coexist as the beloved of God, regardless of who we are, or which faith we adhere to.
The Dalai Lama is a hinge, transitioning us from one way of life to another. He is also a door, as he incarnates the reality of truth and a holy way of life.
Epiphany season has begun. An epiphany is a revelation of God’s truth in unexpected and life-changing ways. Jesus’ life was one of many epiphanies, as is the life of the Dalai Lama. We can heal this broken world by going through the door to the way of life they both espouse. This Epiphany, let’s be alert to seeing this revelation of God’s truth in the one we don’t think is beloved by God. Doing so will be to give good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free.
We’ll realize that God’s favor is for all, especially those whom we reject, overlook, regard as undeserving of justice, or worthy of God’s love. Because in God’s realm there is no such person.
Let’s walk through that door.
 “The Last Dalai Lama?” Pankaj Mishra, The New York Times Magazine, December 6, 2015, pages 43, 82
Incarnation: God Values Us
Rev. Peter Faass
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.
A recent meme on Facebook showed a picture of two older women having coffee. One looks at the other and states, “A virgin birth I can believe in. But three wise men? Not so much!”
The Gospel of Matthew, where this passage comes from, has no birth story per se. Instead, it gives us the story of the world’s response to Jesus’ birth. First, we have the three Magi: Zoroastrian, astrology-believing wise men from Persia who traveled almost two years to see and pay homage to the newborn Jesus. Enter King Herod, who in fear, envy and great malice orders the slaughter of every male child under the age of two when the Magi do not return to give him the exact GPS location of this newborn king and perceived threat to his throne.
Despite his being born in remote place quite unlike Jerusalem, Jesus' birth does not happen under the radar. In fact, from the moment it occurs, it has seismic repercussions that reach the pinnacles of power and beyond the nation’s boundaries. To Herod, a pretty insecure leader, the newborn Jesus is immediately perceived as a threat to his power. Even before Jesus can speak, people are jockeying to get close and destroy him.
Even though the wise men mistakenly look for Jesus in Jerusalem, Jesus' eventual entry into Jerusalem is presaged with "the powers of death doing their worst" in the slaughter of the innocents that follows later in the story. But God has a plan for this unstoppable Messiah: a message of salvation to deliver humankind in word and deed that will change the world forever. Matthew is clear; there is a new power on earth to be reckoned with in all the cosmos and heralded by a star. Nothing will ever be the same again.
We are about to wrap up another Christmas season. The secular Christmas started right after Halloween and ended once all the presents were opened on Christmas Day. The sacred one will conclude January 6 (Epiphany), when we commemorate the wise men’s arrival at the stable in Bethlehem, delivering their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Every Christmas season, we hear of some new battlefront in the alleged “War on Christmas.” This year, that battle took the form of the accusation that Starbucks’ holiday coffee cups were threatening the sacredness of Christmas by not having bells and evergreen trees on them. Mind you, the cups were bright Christmas red and had the deep green and white Starbucks’ logo on them, making them look pretty “Christmasy” to me. Starbucks also carried Christmas tree Advent calendars and sold their usual special blend Christmas coffee beans, so it’s not as if Starbucks had somehow pressed the delete button on all things Christmas.
A more familiar battlefront in this “War on Christmas” frequently takes place in city halls, where city leaders debate the relevancy of nativity scenes in public squares. These battle lines are generally drawn around traditional Constitutional separation of church and state concerns. This then leads those who advocate for nativity scenes on public property to assert that we are a “Christian nation,” arguing that an overt Christian religious symbol is in fact appropriate on public property.
Well, if that assertion was once true, it certainly no longer is. Our nation is a multicultural, multireligious and multiracial place. In fact, America looks more like the heterogeneous place that Jesus came to promote as a place called God’s kingdom rather than a homogeneous one. So in fact the exclusive Christian Nativity scene is not a symbol that secular government should be placing on property held in trust for all people.
In the eyes of Matthew's Gospel, these arguments about the war on Christmas must not only seem ridiculous, but an indictment of what the church – or certainly many of her adherents - has become.
Matthew tells of the incarnation of God in Jesus that moved people to radical, life-altering acts. Jesus’ birth struck terror into the heart of Herod, who responded by using his power to seek out and destroy this babe’s power, God made man. This birth also inspired three foreigners to risk arduous and dangerous travel to come and pay him homage, presenting the child with the world’s most precious gifts at his feet.
Whether or not the Nativity scene is allowed on the town green, or Starbucks uses images of bells, evergreens or its own logo on its cups, Christmas hardly strikes us with fear or acts of true homage anymore – except those folks waiting for their January credit card statements. In fact, just the opposite has occurred with Christmas. We have, by and large, made its meaning benign, if not downright insipid.
There are some recent examples of the Church striking fear or great awe in the hearts of the world’s Herod. Archbishop Romero, Archbishop Tutu and Pope Francis have certainly stirred things up and given people pause to think about the power of Jesus. For the most part, Christianity has lost the power that the Incarnation of God brings to earth.
In his Christmas Day New York Times op-ed piece, “The Christmas Revolution,” writer Paul Wehner states:
“The incarnation . . . reveals that the divine principle governing the universe is a radical commitment to the dignity and worth of every person, since we are created in the divine image.
But just as basic is the notion that we have value because God values us. Steve Hayner, a theologian who died earlier this year, illustrated this point to me when he observed that gold is valuable not because there is something about gold that is intrinsically of great worth but because someone values it. Similarly, human beings have worth because we are valued by God, who took on flesh, entered our world, and shared our experiences — love, joy, compassion and intimate friendships; anger, sorrow, suffering and tears. For Christians, God is not distant or detached; he is a God of wounds. All of this elevated the human experience and laid the groundwork for the ideas of individual dignity and inalienable rights.”
It is this radical and life-transforming understanding of Christmas that each and every human being has intrinsic value. The gift God has given us in Jesus is that God valued us so much he became one of us, and that reality strikes true fear in the world’s Herods, because if we are all equal, we no longer need them.
Jesus' threat to the powers of his day (and the present) brought an alternative to those powers – the Realm of God. It’s a place where all humans are intrinsically valuable because God loves us all.
Think about this truth in light of some of the issues we face today. If all human beings are intrinsically valued, how can we not love our Muslim neighbors as ourselves?
If all human beings are valued by God and we are all made in God’s image, how can we not honor and support the Black Lives Matter movement? Not because Black lives are worth more than other lives, but because so many people do not see them as being of much value at all. That inequality results in injustice and hatred and death for many.
The Realm of God plays by different rules and does not recognize the powers of this world. The Realm of God invites us to participate in it by inviting the powers of the world to take even our own lives from us as a way of showing that the world has no power over us.
Our churches are supposed to be alternative communities to the world’s ways. We are supposed to do things differently; we are supposed to be different. God’s incarnation proclaims it. We should proclaim and witness this as faith communities. Only in so doing will we will grasp the true meaning of Christmas. When we do so, Jesus is born once again.
 “The Christmas Revolution,” Peter Wehner, The New York Times, December 25, 2015
Rev. Peter Faass
I wander as I wonder out under the sky.
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor (Isaiah 9:6)
When what to my wondrous eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.
What wondrous love is this, O my soul.
O Star of wonder, Star of night.
Walking in a winter, wonder land.
All who heard it wondered at the things which were spoken to them by the shepherds. (Luke 2:18)
The theme of wonder is richly woven throughout Christmas hymns, songs and sacred scripture. Wonder permeates Christmas in both secular and sacred celebrations. What is more wondrous than a flying reindeer and a jolly fat elf that comes down chimneys and leaves good folks gifts? What is more wondrous than the virgin birth of God incarnate, in a backwater town 2,000 years ago with angelic choirs singing Gloria?
At Christmas we revel in the wonder of children as they experience twinkling lights, festively wrapped gifts, the taste of delicious sweets, Santa Claus and Nativity figurines. Christmas is full of wonder in all its iterations.
And yet, here we are on the morning of December 25 after yet another arduous, over-wrought “holiday season,” and our reserves of Christmas wonder may be in short supply or exhausted. We certainly are!
Christmas can leave us feeling quite depleted of our wonder from all the planning, baking and cooking, the partying, shopping and wrapping, the preparations at home and church, or dealing with difficult family members. We may even feel jaded and cynical, thankful that, well, it’s finally over. If we think this way, it’s antithetical to the whole point of Christmas. Jesus was born so that we, who sit in great darkness, can see his great light – wondrous light that has the power to banish cynicism, jadedness, and exhaustion in our life.
R.S. Thomas was a Welsh poet and Anglican priest who lived from 1913 to 2000. Among Thomas’s works is a poem titled “Blind Noel” that addresses how we lose our sense of wonder at Christmas:
Christmas; the themes are exhausted.
Yet there is always room
on the heart for another
snowflake to reveal the pattern.
Love knocks with such frosted fingers.
I look out. In the shadow
of so vast a God I shiver, unable
to detect the child for the whiteness.
Christmas: Even when the themes are exhausted, “there is always room on the heart for a snowflake to reveal the pattern.”
I think this is one of the loveliest theological phrases about Christmas I have ever encountered.
I think Thomas is saying that even when all of the stuff of how we have come to observe Christmas sucks the wonder out of us leaving us exhausted, God makes enough room on our hearts to place one more snowflake to reveal the wondrous meaning of Christmas. In the shadow of so vast a God who desires to do this, we shiver as our wonder of this awe-filled season is restored.
This theology-wrought poem goes to the heart of the Christmas story and the doctrine of the Incarnation. God became human in Jesus to lift us out of all those life-sucking behaviors and attitudes that plague the human condition. In his life, Jesus role-modeled a way of life for us to emulate; a way of life that would bring us out of darkness to light, out of cynicism to wonder, out of fear into love. That is our salvation.
While we recall and celebrate this wondrous gift at Christmas, we are called to this way of life all the time.
When I prepare adults for baptism, (or the parents and godparents of infants), I always dwell on a particular section of the concluding prayer in the service. It is one of my favorite phrases in the Book of Common Prayer.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon this your servant the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen. (BCP p. 308)
I ask people being prepared for Baptism to think of a baby, growing into a toddler and then a child. I then ask them to think about what they recall as they observe that little one growing in awareness and discover the world around them. Think of the first time they encountered a flower, a puppy or a kitten, a bug, dirt, a tasty new food? What was that child’s response? It was an “aha moment,” right?
Each first encounter with something new and delightful becomes a moment of delight, awe and wonder. Each of those wondrous moments in the child’s life are moments when God placed a new snowflake on their hearts, revealing the patterns of God’s love for them. The child delights in each new snowflake because children have not grown cynical, jaded and exhausted. They know – at some intuitive, primal level - that God’s Creation (all of it) is filled with wonder. That wonder fills them with joy, and that joy always calls us to gratitude.
In the Baptismal prayer, we are reminded to recapture that sense of wonder for ourselves that children have. We want to let go of our exhaustion and grasp the promise of wondrous love that radiates from Bethlehem’s manger.
This Christmas morning, is there still room in our hearts for another snowflake to reveal its pattern of God’s vastness and abundant love to us? Of course there is, because that is God’s way and desire for us.
There may not have been room at the inn for Mary and Joseph, but ultimately there was room in the stable for the birth of our Saviour. If there was room for his birth when everything appeared full, there is room on your heart to accept the snowflake of the Christ child, so that he may reveal the pattern of Christmas and fill you with his love.
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
 No Truce with the Furies (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1995), p. 84.