Liberation in Theory and Practice

Liberation in Theory and Practice

Sermon for Jan. 27, 2019, Epiphany +3C Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Isaiah, 61:1-4

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners; 
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn; 
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

Luke 4:14-21

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
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.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

I took the risk of possibly making you bored by reading two nearly identical texts.  I thought for a while about it.  I don’t want you to be bored, in fact just the opposite.  I hope you are interested.  But I wanted you to have the opportunity to experience the same “ah-ha” lightbulb turning on moment that I had back in seminary.  We were all familiar with the fact that when Jesus stood up to read the scroll that day in the synagogue, he was reading from Isaiah 61.  The surprise came not from what he read, or even from his assertion that Isaiah’s prophecy was being fulfilled right then and there; the surprise came in what he did not read.  

Isaiah said, 

    “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

because the Lord has anointed me; (for several purposes including)…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;”

Jesus said, 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me…
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he stopped, in the middle of Isaiah’s sentence, purposefully omitting the phrase “and the day of vengeance of our God;”

My jaw dropped when that was first shown to me.  It is significant on many levels at once.  Most obviously it shows that Jesus’ vision was non-violent.  Vengeance was off the table as an option.  He made this clear over and over, saying, “blessed are the meek…blessed are the peacemakers…turn the other cheek, go the second mile, those who live by the sword die by the sword, If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over”.  

So right from the start of Jesus’ ministry, he made it clear that the kingdom he was announcing was committed to non-violence.   

Jesus and Scripture

There is another level of significance here.  Jesus both revered the ancient text of scripture, but also felt free to go beyond it.  He did this many times.  Famously in Matthew, in the collection of Jesus’ sayings that Matthew organized into one long teaching that we now call the Sermon on the Mount, there is a string of sayings that start, “you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times”  and then he quotes scripture, primarily the ten commandments, and then he says, “But I say to you…” (Matt. 5).  Jesus had this sense of confidence in his own moral compass to the degree that he felt free to bend and shape the tradition he had received in scripture in profoundly new ways.  

There are many directions we could go with all of this, but today we only have time for two.  But these two are amazing and, I hope, anything but boring.  Both of them involve Jesus shaping the tradition in new and deeply profound ways.  First, we will look at the Jubilee tradition, then the Exodus tradition.

A New Jubilee

Most of you are probably aware that in the Law of Moses there were laws about Israel’s religious life, and moral life, and also laws about their social life: how they should be organized as a community. In the social area, they had laws that stipulated that every fifty years all debts were forgiven, all land was returned to its original owner, indentured slaves were set free. It was called the year of Jubilee.  It was also called the year of the Lord’s favor. (Lev. 25) That’s what it is called by Isaiah and that is what Jesus read that day in the synagogue.  Let’s hear it again:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
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.

Jesus was proclaiming that the year of Jubilee had come.  That’s why it was good news to the poor and those oppressed by debt slavery.  Now, Jesus had no authority to compel anyone to return land to its original owner or to cancel indebtedness.  So what was he doing?  He was re-imagining a deeper meaning to Jubilee.  How?  We will see in just a minute.

New Exodus

This is going to coincide with the second way in which Jesus re-shaped the tradition from the Hebrew Bible, namely the exodus tradition.

The central story of the Israelites, the one narrative that defines them, the one that they repeatedly referred to as the basis for their whole life as a people was that they had been slaves under Pharaoh, but were liberated by God.   Liberation is their central story.  Gratitude for that liberation orients their whole spirituality.  The Psalms of praise are filled with thanks to God for liberating them, sometimes they say, redeeming them, saving them from slavery.  For Jewish people, salvation, redemption, and liberation are all synonyms.

That story of liberation became the template for their second story: the one about returning from exile in Babylon.  That liberation from Babylonian captivity is what the prophet Isaiah was singing about when he spoke of “release to the captives.”  

But, the new exodus story was complicated and vexed.  They had come back to the land, but it was a province of the Persian empire.  After that, it was a territory of the Greek (Seleucid) empire, and after an intermission of independence, by the time of Jesus, the Jewish homeland was in the Roman empire.  Yes, they were living on their land, but many would say they were still in a kind of exile.   They were still captives.  

But Jesus said that Isaiah’s words were being fulfilled, including “release to the captives;” liberation.  Clearly, Jesus was thinking of liberation in a different way than political independence.  Just like his re-framing of the meaning of Jubilee, Jesus also re-framed liberation. 

Jesus’ vision of Jubilee, the year of restoration, and his vision of liberation both are inward and spiritual, with enormous outward, real-world implications.

Liberating God

For Jesus, the release that people needed even more than getting their land back was spiritual liberation.  It starts with Jesus’ beautiful vision of God.  For Jesus, the creator God was not a God of wrath and vengeance, but a God of love.  Liberation means release from captivity to guilt, to shame and to fear.  Liberation means embracing God as Abba, Father, with his arms outstretched to welcome the prodigal home, or as a mother, like a mother hen with her wings outstretched to shelter her chicks.  

If you do not know that God is for you, that God is with you, that you are God’s beloved child, you are living in a captivity of your own making.  The God Jesus taught us about knows that we can get ourselves lost, like the sheep, but when we do, God is the good shepherd who goes looking for us, and then rejoices when he finds us.  Liberation begins with this new understanding of God.

Inward Implications

Liberation goes deeper.   The kind of liberation Jesus taught was freedom from our small, false ego selves.  To be trapped in the prison of thinking that our identity is to be found in wealth, or power, or status, or reputation or attractiveness or even skillfulness or intelligence is to be in an ego-prison that keeps people perpetually on the defensive and anxious.  All of that can come and go — and we all know it.  And all of it is in competition with everyone else.  All of it is unnecessary.  For Jesus, identity is found in being beloved daughters and sons of a loving God.  Redemption means realizing that.  

Outward Implications

Well, we could go on and on about all the ways in which Jesus’ vision liberates us inwardly, but let us consider a couple of the many outward implications.  When we have been set free from the ego-obsessed life, we become people of compassion.  We wake up to the reality of suffering all around us, and we look for ways to bring healing and relief, just as Jesus did.  And when we are liberated from the view of an exclusionary angry God, we wake up to the knowledge that God loves all of God’s children, without exception.  

That is why we too become inclusive and open-hearted to everyone.  We don’t let race stand in the way of relationships.  In fact, we are humble enough to look squarely into the eyes of our own privilege and other people’s lack of racial privilege.  

We are also conscious of the role race has played and continues to play in law enforcement, sentencing, and incarceration rates.  Our liberation leads to the liberation of others. It is no longer “us and them,” and especially not “us vs. them,” but all of us in the same boat together, different, but equally loved.

We welcome people regardless of the gender they identify with or their sexual orientation.  We love their gifts of diversity and we work to dismantle all forms of discrimination and exclusion.  Having been liberated from our own false identity, we have a new way of looking at every single person on the planet.  

Which means we also care about the planet that sustains us all.  We care about the damage humans can do to our environment.  So we take personal responsibility to lower our carbon footprint, and we look for solutions on a national and even global scale.  On a personal level, we carry cloth bags into the store and try to avoid buying single-use plastic.  On a larger scale, we support renewable energy sources like solar and wind sources of energy.  

Celebrating Jesus

There are a million ways we could talk about how inner and outward liberation come to us from Jesus’ radical, beautiful vision but time does not permit.   But let us just pause here to consider what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  This is an amazing, awesome, transformative way of being.  It is a path to freedom at the deepest inner level, and on an outward level, it is all about compassion and kindness.  Who would not want this kind of liberated living?  

So, as you leave here, and go out into your normal life, go out rejoicing that you are deeply free to be all that God made you to be.  And don’t be afraid to talk about Jesus.  We need to reclaim him from all the distorted ways he has been presented to the world.  Buddhists say “we take refuge in the Buddha.”  We can say, “we take refuge in Jesus”  — the Jesus who has liberated us to live as beloved children of God in a beloved community. 

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The Community of the Common Waters

The Community of the Common Waters

Sermon for Jan. 13, 2019, Baptism of Jesus Sunday, Year C. An audio of this can be found for several weeks here.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”


Scholars who study the historical Jesus are aware that very soon, stories were told about him that were completely unhistorical.  For example, there are stories of the little boy Jesus, making bird shapes out of mud, then miraculously giving them life, and they fly away.  We call a body of stories a “tradition”.  So scholars speak of how the Jesus tradition went through a period of development and expansion, as probably all traditions do. 

So how do you distinguish the historical from the fictional in the Jesus tradition?  Well, scholars developed some criteria, like, for example, the criterion of embarrassment.  If there was a story in which Jesus said or did something that would have been potentially embarrassing to the early Christian communities, then the fact that they remembered and recorded it must have been because it actually happened.  

The Embarrassing Story

The baptism of Jesus is just such an embarrassing story.  As a leading New Testament scholar put it,

Early Christians indeed were rather embarrassed by John’s baptism of Jesus, both because of the possible implication of Jesus’ sinfulness and because of his apparent subordination to John the baptist.”  –

Joel Marcus, Anchor Bible, Mark 1-8, p. 164

People could take Jesus’ baptism by John to mean that Jesus was as sinful as everyone else and needed a baptism of forgiveness of sins, which is how John’s baptism is described.  And they could take it that Jesus was subordinate to John.   As the tradition developed, layers were added to the story of his baptism that dealt with those issues.  

Here’s what I mean.  Mark, which came first, simply says that John baptized Jesus in the Jordan.  Luke, which we read today, rushes past the baptism and focuses on Jesus’ prayer and the mystical experience he had of the spirit and the voice from heaven.  

Matthew adds a conversation in which John protests to Jesus that Jesus should baptize him.  So you can see the tradition develop.  

The gospel of John, which came last, does not even mention the baptism at all.  Embarrassment indeed. 

Nevertheless, scholars are not in doubt that the historical Jesus started out as a member of John’s group and was baptized by John.  

This is one reason why the early church continued to practice baptism as a sign of the New Covenant, replacing circumcision, the sign of the Covenant with Abraham and his descendants.  Jesus was baptized, and we follow his example. 

That brings up an important point about how we read the stories of Jesus.  It is evident to me that one of the goals the gospel writers had, as they wrote their versions of the Jesus story, was that we should see Jesus as a model for us.   Jesus called people to follow him, and we should follow him.  

This means that we should see ourselves represented by Jesus, as he is baptized, as he is tempted, as he prays, as he hears God.  So we will talk more about this today. 

But first, I want us to reflect for a moment on baptism itself, and then we will look at this story and what it means to us.  Baptism, is, for Christians the sign of the covenant.  Jews practiced circumcision as a sign of the covenant with Abraham, but Christians replaced circumcision with baptism.  

Baptism has several advantages over circumcision: baptism is available for both men and women.  In addition, people who grew up with Greek ways of looking at the world considered body mutilation disgusting.  But baptism was readily embraced in the Hellenistic world.  One more advantage is that baptism is not limited to the descendants of Abraham, but is for everyone.

Baptism’s Meanings

So what does baptism mean, and what does it do?  Baptism is a richly symbolic act.  Originally, people went to places where there was water enough to stand in, and probably were either submerged or had water poured over them, symbolically submerging them.  

So the symbolism is both of a bath, a washing, cleansing, purifying act, and an act symbolizing a death and rebirth, going down under the water, and coming up again, or perhaps re-entering a womb to be born again.  

We baptize children, following the  Jewish community’s practice of circumcising infants.  We become children of the covenant in baptism, born of water and the Spirit, as the New Testament says; sons and daughters of God, members of the body of Christ.  

Now, when we say what we believe baptism signifies and accomplishes (seals) for us as Christians, we need to be careful to say that we do not believe in exclusivism.  We believe that God’s Spirit is at work all over the world in many faith communities.  We just want to talk about the meaning we understand by our practice of baptism.

The Story of Jesus’ Baptism

So now to the story itself.  Jesus joins all the other people who have gone out to the Jordan river to be baptized by John.  Luke does not focus on the act of baptism itself, but moves on to focus on Jesus’ mystical experience that followed.  But we should notice that going into and under the same waters as all the other people was a hugely important statement.  

Jesus put himself right there with everyone else, in all their brokenness and humanness.  He does not stay on the shoreline at a safe distance, he gets into the waters that washed them, without making judgments, without superiority.  

What does this mean for us?  He identifies with us, in our brokenness and humanness, with all our shortcomings and failures, and is there with us.  

In the same way, that sets the pattern for us.  We seek to live without judgments, without superiority, accepting other people without discrimination, but with radical hospitality and inclusiveness.  We are all in the same waters together.  

Jesus’ Mystical Experience

After Jesus’ baptism, then came the spiritual experience.  The experience Jesus had come in the context of his prayer.  Luke says,

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened…”

I have known people who are reluctant to accept profound religious or mystical experiences as legitimate.  But right here, we see that Jesus himself had them.  Both prayer and mystical experiences are part of a normal, healthy spirituality.   

Mystical experiences are rare, it seems, and it is not something we go out looking for, but if and when we have them, we accept them as wonderful gifts.  Some of you have told me of your own experiences, and I thank God for them.  

Whether or not we have these experiences, all of us follow Jesus’ practice of prayer.  No words are recorded here of Jesus’ prayer.  Whether this was a word-prayer or a silent meditation, we do not know.  But Jesus practiced both, and both are part of healthy spirituality.   Christians are people who intentionally connect with God, who, we believe, is always present to us spiritually, through frequent prayer.

So, what happened next?  Luke says, 

“the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

So two things happened: the Spirit and the voice.  First the Spirit.  Luke says that the Spirit came like a dove.  Why?  We are not told why, but it could well be to make a contrast with the way the Spirit was described as coming on people in the Hebrew Bible.  In some of the stories, the Spirit comes on people and makes them prophesy, even fall down involuntarily and behave almost hysterically (1 Sam. 10).  

But here, we see the Spirit descending gently, like a dove.  We believe that as baptized Christians, the Spirit indwells us.  To what effect?  What is the Spirit doing?   The Spirit is gently luring us, quietly coaxing us, offering us the possibility of cooperating with the good that God wants for the next moment.   

The Spirit is present in each moment, each breath,  inspiring us to live into our true selves, instead of our ego, false selves.  We can, in each moment, respond to the tug of the Spirit, or resist.  The Spirit, like a gentle dove, wants to persuade us to the good, but will never control or coerces us.  

The Voice 

So after Jesus becomes aware that the Spirit of God has come to him, he hears the voice from heaven saying, 

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It is easy for us to understand that Jesus was God’s beloved child and that God was pleased with him; do we know this about ourselves?

A lot of us grew up with the teaching that we are “sinners in the hands of an angry God” in danger of being cursed in life and in danger of hell after death.  I believe that is horrible and tragic theology.  

That view is an ancient Christian belief, but it was not the only one.  Early in the developing church, many believed that we were created in God’s image, created good, beloved by God, as God’s children, and that God is well pleased to call us his children. 

Now, of course, we are humans, with egos, with pride, with anger, with selfish impulses and brains hard-wired to fight off threats to our sense of wellbeing or security.  So, yes we are sinful.  We readily admit that.  But God is with us, even in our brokenness and lostness, ready to forgive us if we come to our senses and reorient ourselves to the Spirit’s good purposes.  

In other words, it is right to put ourselves in this story, to stand where Jesus was standing, and to hear the voice from heaven saying to us, 

“You are my Son, You are my daughter, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Believing it, Feeling it

My spiritual director wanted me to get to a place where I felt God’s love profoundly, so she asked me what my earliest memory of being loved was.  I told her about being quite small, maybe 3 or 4, sitting on my mother’s lap, and seeing her beautiful hands holding a book with glossy pages and colorful pictures in front of me, and reading the children’s poems to me.   I felt secure and loved, without having done anything to earn it.   My director said, “Now picture God loving you just like that.”

Can you do the same?  Think of your earliest memory of being loved.  Remember how it felt.  Now think of God loving you that way, now.  Feel how it feels.  

That is the truth that sets us free; free from needing our ego defenses, free from fearing God — remember, “there is no fear in love.”  Free to live without guilt and shame; free to respond to the lure of the Spirit; free to be grateful for being a part of the community of the common waters of the baptized, and free to know that all people are beloved children of God too.  

A Jesus for the World

Sermon for Jan. 6, 2019, Epiphany, Year C, click here for audio (available for several weeks)

Matthew 2:1-12 

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.” 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. 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.'”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 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.” 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

 

I have a couple of really good jokes that I learned in Romania and Croatia.  I was just up in the Boston area visiting my brother and his wife over the holidays, and we went out to dinner with another couple, so I had a chance to tell them again.  They got great laughs.  But I always have to provide a bit of historical and cultural context before telling them, otherwise, the punch line would be missed.  Like the one about people waiting in line in Romania.  It comes from the Communist period of shortages, which all Romanians experienced, but we Americans, of this generation, did not.  

The Time of King Herod

So, similarly, Matthew tells a story to people who know things that we don’t, so to get the story we have to fill in some knowledge gaps.  The story starts “In the time of King Herod”. 

So, in other words, in the time of a power-hungry, brutal man, capable of having members of his own family, including a wife and a son killed because they threatened his power.  His background was Idumean, which the Bible calls Edomite (which will be important).  The Edomites embraced Judaism but were not ethnically Jewish. 

So his claim to be King of the Jews, even though it was conferred on him by the Roman Senate, was dubious in many people’s minds.  It took him 3 years of bloodshed to secure that title, leaving many other aristocrats dead on the battlefield, and leaving their estates in Herod’s hands.  You get the idea.  

He loved architecture.  He built palaces, a harbor complex, and was undertaking a massive renovation of the temple in Jerusalem.  These were all hugely expensive, but no problem, there was no anti-tax Freedom Caucus to stop him from bleeding the peasants dry.  So the story starts, “In the time of King Herod.”  

The story continues, telling us that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”  Jewish readers know that this is where King David came from, which is also significant for this story.

The Wise Men

After Jesus, who a descendant of David, was born in David’s hometown, Matthew says, 

“wise men from the East came to Jerusalem”.  

Wise men, or literally “Maggi” – from which the word magic comes, were probably Persian astrologers, with dubious reputations.  They were also, dream interpreters who don’t do well when tested, as when Nebuchadnezzar asked them to interpret his dream after telling what he had dreamt.  Only Daniel could manage that feat.  

These “wise” men ask the current king of the Jews where the new king of the Jews is,  who was born king, unlike Herod.  They asked as if they did not know that a rival to the throne from a different family would not be good news to Herod. 

The Star prophecy

At this point, the story starts to get other-worldly.  These gentile Persian people reveal that they have been on a quest, a journey.  They are seekers.  They explain that they are looking for this new king because, 

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

Jewish people hearing Matthew tell this story would think immediately of that ancient prophecy by that strange character named Balaam (the one with the talking donkey) who was promised money to curse the ancient Israelites, but instead blessed them and offered a prophecy.  He said 

“a star shall come out of Jacob,” (meaning Israel)
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”; the two parallel phrases say the same thing: the star is a scepter –  the symbol of a king. Then he says, “…Edom will become a possession, … One out of Jacob shall rule,” (Herod was Edomite).  (Numbers 24)

So, the prediction of a rising star indicating a new king is an immediate threat to King Herod.  Herod gets it.  

We cannot help but notice that the story of Jesus is both a story of promise and of threat.  Jesus, a powerless peasant child, born to marginalized people, is a threat to Herod, and Herod a threat to Jesus.  Nevertheless, gentiles of dubious reputation have been on a journey, and have found themselves lured, drawn to Jesus, and finding him, find themselves star-struck.  

The Prophecy and the Plot

Back to the story.  Herod and the whole aristocracy is frightened by their report.  They go to the priests who know the prophecies of Micah and of Nathan, and put two and two together and say that when Messiah comes, he will be born in Bethlehem.

So Herod hatches a plot to use the wise seekers as his spies.  The threat-level goes to red.  They set out, and again, the mysterious star guides them.  Jesus who will turn the lights on in so many ways is found, we could say,  by unlikely strangers who are on a journey, seeking enlightenment.

The Gifts Given and Received

They find the baby Jesus with Mary.  Matthew says,

They knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” 

Jewish people would hear echoes of Isaiah who imagined a future for Israel, after their devastation and exile, saying there would be a reversal of fortunes, so:

      

  Lift up your eyes and look around;     
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.  (Isa. 60:4-6)

I like how one scholar explained the gifts:

“There are royal gold and priestly frankincense to be shared. In addition and in a nod to [Matthew’s] literary vision that culminates in crucifixion, there is also among the three treasure gifts an odd gift of myrrh, a burial spice that prepares the child for cruciform [cross-shaped]  kingship.” 

— Jarvis, Cynthia A.. Feasting on the Gospels–Matthew, Volume 1 (Kindle Locations 732-733). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition. 

The threat and the promise come together.  

Home by Another Road

The newly enlightened gentiles have just given gifts to the baby Jesus, and this time, get a dream interpretation correct, and shirking Herod’s decree, go home by “another road.

So what do we do with this story?  What do we get out of telling it?  We get to see how Matthew wants us to understand Jesus, who came proclaiming the alternative kingdom of God, or we could call it, the reign of God.   

We understand that from the start, the reign of God may threaten the interests of empire.  The blessings of God’s reign come, not to the Herod’s, the cut-throats in power, but to the “poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice,” and to “the pure in heart.”   In this kingdom, the bottom line that guides decision making is compassion, not consumption.  

We get from this story that the door into the kingdom is wide open.  Gentiles of shady character who are on an honest journey find themselves lured and drawn to Jesus, just as we have been.  Jesus is for the world.

But notice that it is not just that they are welcomed to come, what is even more amazing is that they come bringing gifts, and the gifts are received.  We are continually receiving gifts from outsiders, from those who are “other”, from strangers to our tradition.  We do not claim to have an exclusive grasp of the Divine.  So we can learn from the gifts that other traditions bring to us and receive them with joy.  

From Muslims, we can receive the gift of their example of disciplined lives, of answering multiple calls to prayer every day, and their humble shoes-off, head-to-the-floor submission to God. 

From the Buddhists, we have received the gift of the language of mindfulness and the way meditation has been let out of the confines of the monastery where now, everyone can participate. 

From the Hindu tradition, we receive the gift of humility, acknowledging that though the Divine is One, that humans have an endless variety of ways of conceiving of God’s characteristics and express them in multiple colorful ways.  

All of this changes us.  We could say that the star of Jesus enlightens us.  It leads us to go home by a different road.  The journey continues, and on that journey we are transformed.  We do not follow the dictates of culture or the powers that be.  We are open to dreaming a different dream.  

We dream of a world made right, made whole, made just, made inclusive, where God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”  In our dream, we keep seeking Jesus on this different road, and as Matthew will later recount, we keep finding him.  We find him in marginalized people, the “least of these,”  the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoners of conscience.  And as we find them, and offer our gifts of compassion and mercy to them, Jesus takes it personally.  

Our journey, our different road, our dream, our star has led us here, to this moment.  We will soon come to the table to share the bread and cup together, remembering the sacrifice that the gift of myrrh foreshadowed, of the one who would rather die than kill, who spoke truth to power, and who forgave his enemies.  We remember his death, but we celebrate his life in each of us, which still shines as brightly as it did, back “in the time of King Herod.”