Coloring Outside the Lines

As the pages of our calendars turn over to 2019, we come once again to that season of enthusiasm and idealism, when people in this culture customarily make resolutions for the coming year. We resolve to improve our lives in some major or minor way: to quit smoking or lose weight, to seek out a new job or new place to live, to develop our spiritual lives by prayer and study, or to attend church more regularly. All of these are helpful ideas and positive ambitions for making the most of the life God has given us.

There inevitably comes a moment, however, usually by the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday (March 6 this year), when we discover that our resolve has failed us: that gym membership, though paid for in advance, goes unused; the prayer book and Bible continue to gather dust on the bookshelf; we discover, much to our surprise, that the treadmill makes for a wonderful sweater dryer and that we are now on a first-name basis with the drive-thru workers at Dunkin Donuts. We can hear Jesus saying to us what he said to his apostles in Matthew 26:41: “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Additionally, we encounter circumstances beyond our control that interfere with our best-laid plans: an old knee injury flares up, preventing us from running that marathon; the expected promotion or transfer is not forthcoming; a child or spouse floors us with a stunning announcement: “I have cancer,” “I’m pregnant,” or “I’m gay.” In these moments, we feel more keenly the message of Proverbs 16:9: “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.”

We can take some comfort in knowing that we are not the first drivers on life’s road to encounter detours, speed bumps, and U-turns. No epic novel has ever centered on characters who always make right decisions or events that always go according to plan. Conflicts and mishaps are not distractions from the plot, but the very elements that make these stories worth reading. So it is in the story of life. It was the late, great John Lennon who sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

The good news for us, when we find ourselves in circumstances that are less than ideal, is that the God we believe in is not far away, sitting up on some cloud in heaven, waiting for you to figure it out or get your act together. The God of the Christian faith gets the divine hands dirty by taking on human flesh and dwelling among us in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ is born in a stable, meaning that God is intimately present and actively involved with your life in this world, with all its messes, smells, unexpected plot-twists, and failures.

The gospel for today’s Feast of the Epiphany gives us a tangible image of the infant Jesus “scribbling outside the lines” in the coloring book of our lives. There are many misconceptions of the famous “wise men from the East” we heard about in today’s reading. With all due respect to the Epiphany hymn, “We three kings of orient are,” the only true words in that sentence are “we,” “of,” and “are.” The biblical text does not say that there were three of them, but only that they brought three different kinds of gifts: “gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” The term “orient” refers accurately to the direction of East, but not necessarily to the regions of China or India. The label of “kings” comes not from St. Matthew’s gospel, but from the prophecy in Isaiah 60, our first reading, which says, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Isaiah tells us further that “the wealth of the nations shall come to you… They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” The identifying phrase from Matthew’s gospel, “wise men from the East,” most likely refers to Zoroastrian astrologers from the region of present-day Iran or Iraq.

The presence of Zoroastrian sages in today’s gospel signifies the reality that God’s work in the world is not limited to one particular time, place, or people. “Truth,” according to St. Augustine of Hippo, “belongs to [the] Lord, wherever it is found.” For Christians, the realization that all truth is God’s truth does not invalidate or relativize our faith, but frees us to approach other religions with openness and curiosity, rather than criticism and judgment.

The astrologers’ following of the star is not a tacit endorsement of horoscopes, but yet another example of God leading people to Christ via paths that are unconventional and surprising. The path of the astrologer draws meaning from careful observation of the universe. Speaking in contemporary terms, one could suggest that this passage opens to Christians the study of science and philosophy as avenues through which the divine glory can be more fully understood by the world.

The wise men from the East represent for us all the ways that God colors outside the lines. Their presence in this story shakes us out of our narrow conceit to consider the possibility that unexpected or inconvenient events might be the very ways in which God is presently at work in our lives. Such twists and turns might not be distractions from the plot, but the main arc of the story itself.

There is a wise man within each of us. If our hearts and minds are open, we can join their caravan and follow the star to the horizon where heaven and earth meet. There is also something of King Herod within each of us. If we so choose, we can remain behind with him: barricaded inside a palace of our own making, plotting and scheming to neutralize all challenges to our ego as if they were threats to existence itself.

The way of Herod leads nowhere, as it never requires us to set foot outside our comfort zones. The way of the wise men, on the other hand, leads us to that deepest place within us, where Christ is being born today. The way of the wise men is not easily discerned or followed, for it requires of us that we embrace those parts of ourselves or our lives that feel most strange or foreign. When our internal resolve and external circumstances fail us, the wise men show us how to go “home by another way.” They lead us, by all sorts of twists and turns, to that inner house where we plop down on the floor next to the Christ child, who teaches us how to scribble outside the lines in the coloring book of our life.

The divine Word who “became flesh and lived among us” is not interested in defending our possessions, positions, or plans, but works tirelessly for the recovery of our true essence as God’s beloved children.

Brothers and sisters, my prayer for all of us this morning is not that we would have the strength or know-how to overcome life’s obstacles by force of will, but that God would bless us with enough weakness and foolishness to walk the winding way of wisdom until it leads us to that place within us where Jesus lives.

Outsmarted by Babies and Dreams

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I was leading a Bible study earlier this week where one of the participants asked why God doesn’t just part the heavens and come down, saying, “Hey everybody, I’m here! This is absolute proof, so you’d better believe in me!”

I thought this was a great question. Why doesn’t God do that? It would certainly make some things easier. We wouldn’t have to wrestle so much with our faith. When refuted, we could simply point back to the absolute proof and blow our opponents’ arguments out of the water. Everything would become totally clear.

But I also wonder: What would be the cost of such certainty? We already know we live in a world where the strong dominate the weak, where history is written by the winners, and where winners often win by violence and manipulation. We lament this sad state of affairs, but fail to imagine any viable alternative.

Could things ever be any different?

At least one person has imagined so.

The poet in our psalm this morning spends his/her time imagining a different kind of ruler from the ones who tend to seize power on the global scene. The psalmist dreams instead of a ruler who governs by the power of gentleness and divine justice, rooted in the natural ebb and flow of creation itself. This dream is voiced as a prayer for the king:

“May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.”

That is a very gentle, life-giving image. It makes me think of sitting on my back porch in the spring time, watching the rain fall and the flowers beginning to sprout up after a long winter. Could that be a model for sound government?

The psalmist thinks so:

“May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.

He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.

From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.”

That might sound like a utopian pipe-dream, bound to end in disappointment, but the psalmist sees a different kind of outcome:

“May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.”

In a world governed by the power of violence, this dream might seem unattainable, but we Christians, who accept these words as sacred Scripture, are duty-bound to take them seriously as part of God’s Word. In God’s universe, it is right that makes might, not the other way around. If we really believed otherwise, why would we bother coming to church on Sunday?

This is no utopian pipe-dream or abstract principle for us Christians. We believe that this idea took on flesh and came to fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. St. Paul refers to this as “the mystery of Christ” in today’s epistle:

“In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel… so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”

In Paul’s vision, God wins the victory, not by dominating or destroying Gentile enemies, but by including them as friends in the redemption that Christ won for the world. This, in Paul’s mind, subverts the dominant paradigm of the powers-that-be.

The way of God’s kingdom stands in stark contrast to the powers of the world, like King Herod, who we read about in today’s gospel.

Herod vies for power, using all the means at his disposal. When he perceives a threat to his power, he gathers the scholars and clergy as part of his military and political intelligence program. He manipulates people with lies and fake displays of piety. When, at last, he is outsmarted by babies and dreams, he unleashes the full force of the military in a campaign deliberately designed to destroy innocent lives in the interest of maintaining his position.

The good news is that his plan fails miserably. God intervenes through unorthodox means, using pagan philosophers to subvert the diabolical schemes of this tyrant. Jesus, the one child Herod sought to kill, escapes unharmed and grows up to become the greatest personality in human history, not to mention the central figure in God’s plan to redeem the world.

The good news for us in this is that the ancient dreams of poets and prophets are coming true. There is a deeper justice in the universe that trumps the demonic schemes of powerful people. “Survival of the fittest” and “might makes right” do not have the last word in the order of life. By contrast, God seems to be saying to us in these texts that history is written by the losers, the weak ones, and the vulnerable, because history’s last word is written by the God who chose to become vulnerable in the infant Christ.

Sure, God could have parted the heavens and come down with irrefutable evidence to demand faith and obedience from the human race, but this would have been at odds with God’s actual plan for the world. In point of fact, God did come to earth, not as a ruler, but as a baby. God does not force the divine will upon us from without, like any other human tyrant, but influences us from within, respecting our freedom and inviting us to cooperate with the way of gentleness and vulnerability.

St. Teresa of Calcutta famously taught us that “Not everyone can do great things, but everyone can do small things with great love.” This is the way of God’s will in the world. It is the way that Christ invites us to follow.

The power of Jesus resides, not in inflicting pain, but in offering healing; not in pronouncing judgment, but in forgiveness; not in threatening deprivation, but in feeding hungry people with abundance; not in dealing death, but by rising to new life from the grave.

King Herod was not the last ruler who felt his power being threatened by Jesus. At the end of his life, Jesus stood before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who seemed to succeed where Herod had failed. He handed Jesus over to be tortured and crucified for crimes he did not commit.

They thought Jesus was a terrorist, plotting to overthrow the Roman government. Little did they know, Jesus’ real goal was far more dangerous: he was (and still is) plotting the overthrow of the entire world system of power based on endless cycles of violence.

Jesus brought those cycles to an end in himself by absorbing the violence of this world without retaliating. He allowed himself to bear the weight of our sin and be dragged into hell. But then, on the third day, he demonstrated the gentle power of God by tearing open the gates of hell and emerging victorious from the tomb. He undid the power of violence by showing it to be futile in the end.

We Christians are invited to share in this victory by walking in this world as Jesus walked. St. Paul tells us, “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). We are the members of Christ’s body, his hands and feet on earth today.

In times such as these, the greatest temptation is for Christians to give in to the demonic spirits of despair and cynicism. We think that violence of word or sword is the only way to guarantee peace and justice in life. We “study war” in our political and personal lives. We mistakenly come to believe that the only way to get ahead is by stepping on the backs of our neighbors and enemies.

Friends, I would humbly suggest to you today that there is another way. It is the way of gentleness and forgiveness, the way Jesus and the cross. While it is true that this way is likely to lead to crucifixion and death, it is also true that it leads even further into resurrection and the eternal life abundant that Christ promises for all who trust in him and walk in his ways.

The Adoration of the Outsiders

Ethiopian Biblical Manuscript. Public Domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

A few years ago, there was a big to-do about this book (and subsequent movie), The Da Vinci Code. I won’t get into the particulars of the plot, suffice to say that it provoked a lot of big, emotional reactions from people everywhere.

On the one hand, a lot of church-folks were offended by the ideas it presented, which didn’t exactly mesh with what we had learned as kids in Sunday School. On the other hand, a lot of folks from outside the church were really excited about the book because they thought it revealed a picture of Jesus that was bigger than the one presented by traditional Christianity.

I even had one friend who said, “I knew it! The Vatican has known about this stuff all along, they’ve just kept it hidden and locked up in some secret vault so that the rest of us won’t find out about it.”

Well, I don’t think I’d put much stock in that particular theory… or in the book’s ideas about the historical Jesus (The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction after all), but I do find the whole phenomenon extremely fascinating from a sociological point of view.

During the peak of the book’s popularity, Jesus Christ was once again on the cover of popular, secular magazines. Books were being written (and read) about him. For a brief cultural moment (and not for the first or the last time), everyone was talking about who Jesus is and what he means to the world. It was a really interesting thing to behold.

And here’s what stood out to me in that conversation:

People feel drawn to Jesus. They want to be connected to him somehow, even if they never darken the door of a church or call themselves Christians. Jesus means a lot to people. There are few, even in the non-religious world, who speak negatively about Jesus or the things he said and did. Most secular criticism is directed, not at Jesus himself, but at us Christians (and what we have done in his name).

In this morning’s gospel reading, we read about a group of people, the wise men, who also felt drawn to Jesus. Like the readers of The Da Vinci Code, these people came to encounter him from outside the bounds of conventional, orthodox, institutional religion.

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?”

To begin with, these wise men were not Jewish. The text of Matthew’s gospel simply says they were “from the east”, which probably means they came from Persia (the part of the world we now know as Iraq and Iran). They wouldn’t have known anything about the Bible or Jewish customs. They had probably never been to a synagogue service in their life.

So then, how did they come to be aware of this miraculous birth?

“For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

They were astrologers. They studied the stars and interpreted their movements as messages from heaven. We have astrologers today who do similar work, but most of it is for entertainment via 1-900 numbers. In the ancient world, astrology was generally accepted as a form of science. Kings and generals would have depended on the predictions of astrologers for guidance.

The message these particular astrologers were discerning from the stars was that something significant was happening in the Jewish homeland. A royal baby was being born. Matthew doesn’t say why, but something in these astrologers’ hearts was stirred enough that they felt compelled to go and pay their respects to the new baby.

So, they did what any reasonable person would do: bring gifts of congratulations to the royal palace in the capital city: Jerusalem. These wise men, Persian astrologers, felt drawn to Jesus, even though they had no idea where to go or what to do when they got there.

King Herod and the Jewish leaders, on the other hand, didn’t fare much better. Even though the astrologers had gotten a little turned around, at least they were aware that something important had happened. The astrologers’ arrival woke the Jewish leaders up to what they had forgotten or neglected in the midst of their own self-important agendas.

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.”

The astrologers’ questions sent the theologians and seminary professors scrambling for answers. As it turned out, the answer they were looking for was in a tiny, little, forgotten village:

“They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

The arrival of these outsiders and their questions woke the Jewish religious scholars up to those parts of their own country and their own faith that they had neglected for too long. At this point, Herod and the religious leaders have an opportunity before them. Their eyes have been opened to the Messiah’s birth. They now have the chance to step outside their own selfish, little worlds and become part of what God is doing on earth. Is that what they do?

“Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.”

Instead, there is a reactionary pushback against this news of the Messiah’s birth. The powerful ones are secretly plotting and scheming, not so that they can be part of what God is doing in the world, but so that they can keep their power and maintain their privileged positions in Israel. Those who have power want to keep it, even if that means going against the very essence of what defines them as a people. They would do anything, even kill the Messiah, to maintain their illusion of power and control.

Herod is so delusional, so drunk with power, that he even starts ordering these foreign wise men around like they were his own subjects or property:

“Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.””

The irony here is that he is the one who is dependent on them. He would have no knowledge of this situation if it wasn’t for their pagan, foreign practice of astrology. Yet the wise men are the ones who respond with open hearts and minds. They came to pay their respects because they felt drawn by the heavens. All these secret, back-door deals combined with biblical hermeneutics and seminary professors probably seemed pretty strange to them. In the end, it seems like they (rightfully) disregarded everything Herod and the religious scholars had just taught them:

“When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.”

Does the text say that the wise men set out to follow the biblical scholars theologically correct directions? Or does it say that they went back to following what they already knew?

The answer is the latter, of course. The wise men basically took the Bible and theological training and threw it out the window. They didn’t know about all that Jewish stuff, nor did they want to. They knew about stars. So, when they set out again (probably more confused than when they arrived), they went back to working with what they knew.

One might think that such pagan backsliding would lead the wise men down the path of sin and deception. Surely, they would be lost forever in the desert, never to find the newborn king.

But that’s not what happened. The text tells us that the star “stopped over the place where the child was.” Get this: by following what they knew, they ended up exactly where they were supposed to be.

They set out on this journey in search of Jesus, and lo and behold: they found him (in spite of the so-called ‘advice’ given by powerful figures and religious leaders). And what was their reaction when they found him?

“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”

Their hearts were more open than the hearts of those who had spent their lives studying this stuff.

“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.”

Despite their unorthodox methods and status as religious outsiders, the wise men ended up exactly where they were supposed to be: with Jesus. Their faith did not look anything like conventional Jewish faith, but it proved to be more real and more authentic than the faith of those people who were supposed to have all the answers.

I wonder whether the same thing might be true in the world today?

It seems to me, based on what I saw during The Da Vinci Code’s popularity, that there are a lot of people in this world who feel drawn to Jesus, but want nothing to do with the church or institutional Christianity. To be honest, I can’t blame them. We Christians have a lot to repent for when it comes to representing Jesus to the world. We have often attached his name to our own projects and agendas, but rarely have we acted in a way that is consistent with his Spirit. I think that is what it really means to “Take the Lord’s name in vain”: When we talk about him, but don’t act like him.

Meanwhile, those wise souls who are diligently searching for truth and love in Jesus are driven to look elsewhere because the church has done such a poor job of pointing the way to him. In those circumstances, I am not at all surprised that God is willing to reach out take hold of people’s hearts using things like astrology, science, philosophy, or other religions. I have met atheists who have a closer relationship with God than some Christians (even though the atheists would never use that name: God).

The good news in this is that God is willing to reach out to us human beings using any means necessary. As my seminary roommate was fond of saying, “God will broadcast on any antenna you put up.” Only God knows those hearts that truly seek after God. And, as Jesus himself promised: “Those who seek will find”… he never says they have to seek God in a particular way.

The challenge given to us then is this:

Are we open to what God is doing in the world? Are we open to the fact that God might show up in the least expected way, or in the least expected place? When we encounter others who might be seeking God in ways that seem foreign or unorthodox to us, do we have the faith to trust that God is working in their lives (as well as ours) to bring us all to that place where we can worship Jesus together?

Just like the wise men, these outsiders have precious gifts to bring to the table. Will we work with them and help them to open their treasure chests so that these gifts can be offered to Jesus and shared with the world?

God is inviting us Christians to open our hearts, minds, arms, and doors to those outsiders to the faith who bring unconventional gifts to the table and seek God in unorthodox ways. The question that God sets before us is not “Do we approve of them (or their strange methods)?” or even “Do we welcome/accept/tolerate them in our midst?”

The question is: “Will we travel to Bethlehem with them?”

Will we seek Jesus together as companions in life’s journey? Someone else’s journey might not look exactly like yours and that’s okay. Will we be open to the gifts that others bring to the table? Will we let those gifts challenge our structures of privilege and power? Will we let them change the way we think about church and “the way it’s always been” or the way we think it should be done?

These outsiders come to us, not because we have something they need, but because God has led them to us and called all of us to seek Christ together.

So then: Let’s get going.

It’s a Small World After All…

Image by Michael Derr. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Image by Michael Derr. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

I had a funny thing happen to me the other day.  I read a Facebook status update by a friend of mine on a business trip to Delaware.  She said that her hotel was being renovated, so she had to switch rooms.  A little while later, I read another status update by one of our congregants at this church: Melissa Roy.  Melissa, who is also on a business trip to Delaware, likewise mentioned that her hotel was being renovated, so she had to switch rooms.  In a moment of déjà vu, I put two and two together and realized that Melissa and my friend Michelle must be part of the same trip.  I had no idea they worked together!  We all had a good laugh about it and then Melissa threatened to sing It’s a Small World, After All.  For the sake of all that is good and holy in this world, I begged her not to.

We’ve all had experiences like this: little moments when separate points in our lives meet together unexpectedly.  People tend to laugh or smile when this happens.  I think this is because something deep inside of us leaps for joy at the discovery that we are not alone in this universe.  We instinctively rejoice to learn that our lives are connected as parts of a great, unfathomable whole.

Connection is a pretty cool thing.  It happens every day at all levels of existence: in the way we do business, in biological ecosystems, and even in the laws of physics.  There’s a scientific phenomenon I first learned about a few years ago called quantum entanglement.  Quantum entanglement has to do with photons (tiny particles of light).  I’m not a physicist, so I’ll explain it in the words of Theodore Roszak, which I found in another book by Diarmuid O’Murchu called Quantum Theology (p.32):

Entanglement is a relationship that allows physicists to make twins of photons, and then link them in a sort of quantum web that permits instantaneous communication across light years of distance.  At least thus far, entanglement stands as a relational state so strange that it eludes any causal explanation.  The very antithesis of isolation and autonomy, it suggests that scientists who approach nature with a sensitivity for interaction, reciprocity, and rich interrelationship will find endless wonders.

Here again we see the miracle of connection taking place.  Connection is everywhere.  You’ve heard me say this before (and you’ll hear me say it again): the word religion comes from the Latin word for connection.  So, it’s no wonder that the very deepest parts of ourselves jump for joy whenever little momentary connections happen in our lives, like those times when we discover that two friends from different parts of our lives also know each other.  We say, “Hey!  Look at that!  We’re all connected!”  Moments like that are religious moments, on the most basic level.  For an instant, our spiritual eyes are open to the great mystery of the universe and we realize that we are not alone.

In this morning’s reading from the letter to the Ephesians, the author talks at length about this mystery of connectedness.  The author of this passage is writing in the name of the apostle Paul, although most biblical scholars agree that it probably wasn’t Paul himself who wrote this.  It was probably one of his students, writing in his name a generation or so after his death.  This wasn’t at all uncommon in the ancient world.  In that culture, it was considered a great honor for a student to write in the name of a beloved former teacher.  However, it poses a problem for us modern readers because we like to look for concrete facts that we can take at face-value.

This author, writing honorifically in Paul’s name, talks about a mystery that was revealed to Paul during his lifetime.  Most of us have probably heard the story before: Paul (then called Saul) was a devout and educated Jew who made a name for himself by hunting and imprisoning the followers of Jesus.  Then, one day, while Paul was on the road to the city of Damascus in modern-day Syria, he was struck by a blinding light and a voice from heaven that identified itself as Jesus.  From then on, Paul’s life was different.  He became a leader in the very movement he had previously sought to eradicate.  He still considered himself to be a faithful Jew, but his interpretation of Judaism was now being filtered through his newfound faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

This interpretive change had all sorts of consequences for Paul and his faith.  One of the most significant changes for Paul was that he now believed that Gentiles (non-Jewish people) could be included in the fellowship of the chosen people.  For Paul, it was a person’s faith, not his or her ethnicity or religious background, that qualified him or her for membership in the chosen people.  Paul himself wrote 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.”  The author of Ephesians expresses a similar idea in today’s passage, saying, “the Gentiles (non-Jews) have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

This new idea did not go over very well with the religious leaders of Judaism in Paul’s day.  From their point of view, Paul and these so-called “Christians” were a bunch of liberal hippies, frolicking around and claiming that anybody who wanted to could be part of the chosen people.  These more traditional believers were scared that Paul and his Christian friends were undermining the very beliefs, morals, and values that their ancestors had fought and died for.  Blood had been shed to preserve Jewish tradition, Jewish culture, and Jewish religion, but now this Paul guy and his students were saying that it didn’t matter anymore.  This was a problem for them.  It was disrespectful.  It was offensive.  It put Paul and the Christians at odds with the Jewish community from then on.  Paul never stopped thinking of himself as a Jew, but the rest of the Jewish community saw him as a heretic and a traitor.  They did everything they could to ensure that he and his students were unwelcome in their synagogues.

But Paul and his Christian students never blinked.  They had discovered something so powerful in their lives that rejection from the powers-that-be didn’t even phase them.  Their faith was no private devotion that secured their individual souls for an afterlife in heaven.  Theirs was a faith of connectedness.  Just like my recent encounter with mutual acquaintances, they found that strangers could be family.  Just like entangled photons, they found that connectedness itself is woven into the very fabric of the universe.  Through their faith in Christ, the early Christians discovered that the umbrella of God’s grace is big enough to include all people, all beings.  The author of Ephesians talks about celebrating “the boundless riches of Christ” and “the wisdom of God in its rich variety.”  Within the mystery of grace, there is abundance without boundaries.

The joy they found in this ever-expanding family of faith trumped the persecution they faced from religious and political authorities on every side.  No less than their ancestors who had suffered and died to preserve the traditions of the Jewish people, these early Christians were just as willing to suffer and die for their faith in the God who’s “got the whole world in his hands.”  What they had discovered was news so good that it had to be shared, no matter what the consequences might be.

You and I, as Christians in the 21st century, are the heirs of this subversive legacy.  We live in a culture where people see themselves as isolated and divided.  They fight for the survival and superiority of their own little groups.  Consumerism tells them that “greed is good” and “selfishness is a virtue.”  Economic collapse, political corruption, and religious violence are simply the fruits that grow from the seeds of self-centered hearts, minds, and societies.

The gospel of grace stands in stark contrast to this selfishness.  In Christ, we learn that we are all connected.  As Paul himself wrote: “The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”  This connection is no trivial thing, either.  It’s not some feel-good philosophy that warms our hearts once in a while.  No, we depend on each other.  We need each other.  Once again, I refer to Paul’s writing:

…just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’… If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

We are connected, interdependent, and members of the same body.  If we understood the truth of this, one would no more be able to demean, degrade, or dehumanize another person than to poke out one’s own eye or cut off a hand.  We need each other.  We belong to one another because we all belong to God.  That’s what it means to be connected and to live as connected beings.

That’s the message the people of this world need to hear.  They’re longing to belong so badly that they’ll jump on the band wagon of any agenda or ideology that comes their way, promising peace and prosperity.  What they don’t realize is that they already do belong.  There is a place for them in this house, this community, this church.  The whole world desperately needs to hear this good news, but they won’t hear it unless we tell them.

The church is meant to be a microcosm of that inter-connected community in the universe.  We are called to love and to care for each other as brothers and sisters of Christ.  We are also called to love and care for outsiders as if they were our own.  That’s how the world will come to see and know that they too are loved and connected to the universe in God.

This good news is no sales pitch for conversions, neither is it a “turn or burn” warning of hellfire and damnation.  It seems to me that we’ve done a good enough job of making hell on earth already.  No, the gospel we preach is food for hungry hearts and medicine for sick souls.  We preach it with our lives more than our words.  If we live lives of compassion and integrity, recognizing and honoring our own sacred connections to the universe, people will naturally be attracted to us, just like they were drawn to Jesus.

Like Jesus, each of us can become agents of healing and enlightenment for the world.  This is our destiny: to remind the world of its destiny and to take this message of faith, hope, and love to very ends of earth.

We are all messengers.  Whether we speak up in words or not, the world will receive some kind of message from our lives.

May the message that your life sends to the world be the same as my message to you at the end of each Sunday sermon:

“I love you.  God loves you.  And there is nothing you can do about it.”

Be blessed and be a blessing.

Why Be Normal?

This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian.

The text is Matthew 2:1-12.

Click here to listen to this sermon at

What is ‘Normal’?

People use this word all the time, as if they knew exactly what it meant.  Picky eaters at the dinner table whine, “Mom, why can’t we have normal food for dinner?”  Angst-ridden teenagers roll their eyes and moan, “Why can’t I have normal parents?”  Meanwhile, their parents are pulling their hair out and screaming, “Why can’t I just have normal children?”

For me, this question of ‘normalcy’ is a vocational one.  After college, many of my peers spent their twenties getting established in their respective careers.  They worked as real-estate agents, pastors, teachers, reporters, etc.  Meanwhile, I went to graduate school for 3 years and then got a job doing laundry for homeless and drug addicted people.  Since then, I’ve been a stay-at-home Dad, a philosophy professor, a chaplain in the inner-city, and the pastor of a country church.  Through it all, I often ask myself, “Why can’t I be happy in a normal job?”

So I ask again: what is ‘normal’?

Honestly, I’m beginning to think there’s no such thing as ‘normal’.    It’s an illusion people create, based on what they think other people’s lives are like.  But the truth is that most of your neighbors probably feel just as ‘abnormal’ as you do.

There are lots of ways in which a person can be made to feel abnormal.  I already mentioned family and work as two big ones.  We might feel abnormal because of our mannerisms or our relationships.

We might also be made to feel abnormal because of our spirituality.  I find this one especially interesting.  I think there are many people who have a very deep and abiding spirituality, but don’t feel comfortable in church.  Their relationship with God finds its expression in their enjoyment of the natural world, their study of the sciences, their pursuit of social justice, or their artistic endeavors.  I think the sad fact is that too many of these people don’t recognize their own activities as genuine expressions of faith.

For these people, and for anyone else who feels ‘not normal’ in any way, I have good news this morning: you are one of the Magi.

The Magi were an interesting group of people.  Church tradition has attached all sorts of ideas to them that aren’t necessarily true.  “We Three Kings of Orient Are” is an especially misleading hymn.  First, there weren’t necessarily three of them.  Next, they weren’t kings.  Finally, they weren’t from the so-called “Orient”.

In reality, the Magi were astrologers (like the ones you see on TV) who probably came from somewhere in the vicinity of present-day Iraq.  Their job was to study the movement of the stars and make predictions for the future based on the stars’ movement.  These Magi weren’t Jewish, so they wouldn’t have known about the Torah or the Hebrew prophets, and they certainly weren’t waiting for a Jewish Messiah to come and deliver them.  Nevertheless, God spoke to the Magi in the language they were most likely to understand: astrology. God didn’t send a rabbi along to teach them the Bible or take them to a synagogue.  Instead, God was willing to connect with these Magi through pagan rituals of divination!  Talk about ‘not normal’!

Let’s see what happens next:

The Magi head to Jerusalem and meet with the established religious and political authorities in order to find this newborn “King of the Jews”.  So the royal officials and scholars get together, have a Bible study, and figure out that the Messiah is supposed to be born in Bethlehem.  So the Magi set out again, but once they’re on the road, do they follow the instructions laid out by the religious scholars?  No!  Matthew’s gospel explicitly tells us that they follow the star again.

Think about how mind-boggling this is!  Even after going to Jerusalem and learning the Bible from the best scholars of the day, these Magi go right back to relying on their pagan practices; and instead of astrology leading the Magi astray, it brings them to the exact place where they were supposed to be: in the presence of Jesus.  From beginning to end, there is nothing ‘normal’ about this story!

This is good news for all of us who feel ‘not normal’ in some way (especially those of us who feel out-of-place in church).  This is good news because it means that the God we encounter in the person of Jesus Christ is a creative and inclusive deity.  It means that this God reaches out to all people in whatever way they are most likely to hear.  One of my roommates in seminary liked to say, “God will broadcast on any antenna you put up.”  The question of whether someone’s spiritual journey is ‘normal’ or ‘not normal’ by our standards is irrelevant in the eyes of God.

I am slowly coming to have an appreciation for the ‘not normal’ ways that God is at work in my life.  I told you before about the wandering path that my career has taken during these past few years.  I can see now that my dead-end job doing laundry with a Master’s degree was really a two-year extension of seminary.  I learned to apply the theological and pastoral skills I had learned in the classroom to real-life situations.  Likewise, I formed personal relationships with homeless and drug-addicted people that helped me in my future ministry.

In 2009, I started offering spiritual care to people in the inner-city through St. James Mission, an ecumenical outreach ministry in Utica.  We call it our Community Chaplaincy program.  While many people refer to me as a street preacher, the truth is that I don’t do much preaching at all.  I’m more of a street listener.  The job of a Community Chaplain is to help people listen for the ways in which God is already present and active in their lives.

I am constantly being taken by surprise in the course of this ministry.  The people I work with, who exist in the very margins of our society, live lives that can in no way be understood as ‘normal’.  I know one gentleman who is constantly struggling with addiction and mental illness.  He has been on and off the streets several times in the past few years.  The central point in his spiritual life is the image of planting seeds, which Jesus makes use of in several of his parables.  Planting seeds, for this man, meant doing small deeds of kindness for others.  So, in spite of his own struggles, he volunteered in several local organizations.  For a long time, he was an active participant in our Bible studies on Thursday nights.  He had dream of one day providing forums, called Feedback Seminars, where clients of social service agencies can offer insight and advice to service providers for making their organizations more effective.  “Just like a doctor puts on a white coat to go help people,” he said, “Jesus puts us on and uses us to heal others.”

This man’s faith looks very different from what we would call ‘normal’ Christianity, but it is nonetheless genuine.  He is one of the Magi, following the star God has set before him.  Likewise, without my ‘not normal’ experiences of feeling lost in my career, these pieces would never have come together to form the ministry that God has called me to be a part of on the streets of Utica, in college classrooms, and here in Boonville.  Even though my call to ministry looks very different from most other pastors, I believe this is the star that God has called me to follow right now.

I would like to invite you to examine those ‘not normal’ parts of your life, whatever they may be.  Are they just odd quirks in your circumstance or personality?  Are you just a misfit or a freak who doesn’t belong?  Or is God calling you to follow a star?  Could it be that God is calling you to embark on a wild and wonderful journey of faith and discovery?  I want to encourage you to follow that star and see where it leads you!

For those who may not feel this sense of ‘not normality’ that I’ve been talking about today, I want to encourage you to pay special attention to those unusual people in your family, your neighborhood, or your church.  Those people are Magi who have been specially chosen by God to teach us about the inclusive creativity of God and God’s work in the world.  Don’t write them off as freaks and misfits, but trust that God is leading them along a special path to the same place where God is leading you: to worship Christ, the newborn king who was born in a stable, the most ‘not normal’ king of who ever lived.