Sunday, January 27, 2013

Slandering Jesus

When he was a young man,
         Mohandas Gandhi read the Gospels.
He studied the life and teachings of Jesus,
         and he said “Sign me up.”
Gandhi found everything about Jesus compelling.
But he rejected Christianity, he said,
         because of Christians.
The humility, the compassion, and the beauty
         he read about in Jesus, he did not see in Christians.

Instead of leading people to Jesus,
         Christians blocked his path.
Like the disciples telling the parents
to keep their children away,
Christians discredited Christ in Gandhi’s eyes.

The business of Christians is simple.
We show Jesus to people
     not just tell people about Jesus.
We show people Jesus.
If we show them a true picture of Jesus and they say
         “count me out” – then that’s on them.
But if we don’t show them Jesus – or worse yet –
         if we show them a false picture of Jesus,
                  then we have a lot to answer for.

The vast majority of people in Nevada have no ties to any faith community.
Christians make up a small minority.
Episcopalians are less than a fifth of 1% of the population.
Nationally the number of Christians is decreasing
         while the number of people with no religious convictions,
         not even atheism, is on the rise.

The Jesus we are showing people isn’t getting much traction.
And that’s ok. If people say “no” to Jesus, that’s ok.
But only if we have told the truth about Jesus.

St. Paul says that we as the Church
         are the Body of Christ on earth.
We are the continuing incarnation.
500 years ago in Spain, St. Theresa of Avila said,
         “Christ has no body now but yours,
                  no hands, no feet on earth but yours.
          Yours are the eyes through which he looks
                  compassion on this world.”

The saying goes:
“You may be the only gospel someone ever reads.”
 When people see St. Paul’s, Elko,
         what each of you does in daily life,
         and especially what all of you do as a group in this community,
                  that’s the picture of Jesus you are painting.
The picture of Jesus most of us are painting isn’t popular
and that’s ok -- so long as it’s true. 
But if we have misrepresented Christ to the world,
         that’s a big problem.

So who is this Christ we are to represent?
The more I study about the historical Jesus,
         and the more I study the Gospels,
         the clearer it gets that Jesus really and truly meant
                  what he said in today’s lesson.
After this Baptism, as he began his mission,
         he told us straight out what he was doing.
It isn’t subtle or vague. He said:    
“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.”

We are the Church because the same Spirit
that filled Jesus at his baptism filled the Church on Pentecost,
enters our hearts at our Baptism,
and is renewed in our lives
every time we receive Holy Communion.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us
                  because he has anointed us
                  to bring good news to the poor.
         He has sent us 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.”

That’s what it means to be the Body of Christ on earth.
That’s our mission in the world.
If we are not doing that mission in the world
and in our local communities,
         if we are not helping and speaking out
         for the poor and hurting, the outcast and lost,
                  then we are not telling the truth about Jesus.

Recent surveys asked16 to 29 year olds the top words
         they would use to describe Christians.
         91% said ant-homosexual,
         87% said judgmental,
         85% said hypocritical,
         76% said old fashioned.

Does that sound like the Jesus in today’s lesson?
Does it sound like the Sermon on the Mount?
Does it sound like the Jesus who fed the hungry,
         healed the sick, forgave the guilty,
                  and stood up to the rich and the powerful?

After my mission trip last year,
I met a young man at the luggage repair shop.
He asked me what I had been doing in Kenya.
I told him about our church’s work to save young women
         from genital mutilation and forced marriages.
He said, “Where is your church? That’s a church I’d go to.”

When I went to help clean up a community center in Las Vegas,
         several young people said, “Where is your church?
                  If you’re here, we want to be there.”

I went to community organizing training in Texas this year.
All of us trainees who were over 50 were church folks.
The ones under 30 were not.

But two of them said, each in their own way,
 “if I’d known Christians like the ones here
         I’d still be in the Church.
         In fact, I’m going to give it another try.”

Last year, I struck up a conversation with a young sales rep
for Cox Communications.
I told her about our work with Nevadans for the Common Good
         to combat child sex trafficking.
She said, “I’d like to get involved.”
So I sent her to one of our churches to help.
I told them she was coming.
I asked them to help her get involved.

They ran her out of there in no time flat.
They thought she was trying to take their money from fellowship dinners
and use it to rescue children from modern slavery.
So they ran her out.
Is that telling the truth about Jesus?

On the other hand, last Monday,
         St. Catherine’s congregation visited a homeless shelter
         to teach people how to use crock pots.
The homeless people saw that. But they weren’t the only ones.
The next day, it was in the Reno Gazette-Journal,
         because when Jesus shows up, that’s news.
If we show people the Jesus we see in today’s Gospel
         and they reject him, that’s on them.
But if the Jesus we show unchurched people
 just goes to meeting on Sunday morning
         for feel good worship and fellowship,
         and they say “I’ve got better things to do”
                  then, brothers and sisters, that’s on us.

Today we are baptizing and confirming.
We are making Christians.
They are taking vows and we are taking vows with them.
We are making a serious life commitment.
We are undertaking to be the Body of Christ on earth.
We give our hands to be his hands,
         our feet to be his feet,
         our eyes to be the eyes with which he looks
                  compassion on this world.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Cold Time We Had Of It

The Pope created a stir this year by pointing out the Gospels
don’t say anything about the traditional animals and angels
being at the stable for Jesus’ birth.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams
         sparked a similar controversy five years ago
         with some things he said about the 3 Wise Men.
The papers sounded as if he were attacking the story.

But, like the Pope, he was just distinguishing the parts of it

found in Scripture from those that are not.

Anglicans base our beliefs on three sources

– Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.

We spell all three with capital letters.
Some of what we know about the Wise Men is in Matthew.
Other parts come from sacred tradition

         along with the Creeds, the saints,

six Stations of the Cross, and most of our theology.

The Bible doesn’t tell us how many Wise Men there were,
         where they came from, or their names.

If we had nothing more than Matthew,

        it would be hard to interpret the significance of this visit,
and we might not be celebrating the Epiphany as a High Holy Day.

But Christian Tradition is long, deep, wide, and rich.

Three of the world’s greatest paintings

         – one by Fra Angelico, one by Esteban Murillo,

and one by Leonardo DaVinci –

         all portray The Adoration of the Magi.

Anyone who sees these paintings knows they too are divinely inspired.

When we sing We Three Kings, the symbolic meaning of each gift
         set out in the verses goes back to a Spanish poem

written by Prudentius in the 4th Century.

That’s as old as parts of the Nicene Creed.

Around 500 A.D., an anonymous artist in Ravenna, Italy
         crafted a beautiful mosaic of the wise men’s journey,

         and 1,400 years later, T. S. Eliot gave that mosaic words

in his poem The Journey of the Magi.

 The Wise Men’s Epiphany visit is a lovely old story.

We have been telling it in sermons, songs, paintings, and poems
         for centuries because it is true in the deepest sense of truth.

We have cherished this story

--  not because we are certain of the historical details --

         but because it teaches us the way to peace and holiness.

Three Wise Men came from the East.

Different traditions give them different names

but we know them as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.

We know they came a great distance.

and that  they were astrologers.

One of them would have been from Persia.

There is a tradition that one came from Africa.

And there is actually some evidence to support

         the idea that one came from China.

Remember, these pilgrims were not Christians.

They did not subscribe to our Creed or our religious practices.

They were not Jews.

St. Matthew says that they were astrologers.

And astrology was strictly forbidden in Jewish law

         and condemned by Jewish prophets.

The Persian was a Zoroastrian worshiper of Ahura Mazda.

The one from China lived by the analects of Confucius.

The African may have followed a traditional African religion,

         or perhaps one of the new mystery cults like Mithraism.

But none of them were Christians.

None of them were Jews.

And they were not the same religion as each other.

They would not have agreed about much of anything.

They could not have even agreed on the significance

of what it was they were looking for.

But they were all looking for something, all seeking something.

When the search finally brought them to the humble stable,

         they knew they had found it.

So Matthew tells us, they fell down before the child Jesus

         and they worshiped him.

The modern translator has weakened the language

         to say they “paid him homage.”

But “worshiped him” is a perfectly good translation.

To fall down and do prostrations or to kneel is an act of worship.

In the 5th Century, St. John Chrysostom noted

that the Wise Men did not give Jesus
                  the customary gifts for a great man.

Their gifts were traditional sacrifices offered to God.

The original Greek text says they worshiped him.

Therein lies the sacred beauty

of this moment so loved by artists through the ages.

These wise men who were so utterly and completely different

         from each other – different in race, religion, and nationality –

         forgot their differences and knelt together

         in awestruck reverence before a mystery

they could not begin to understand.

Brothers and sisters, the Epiphany, the Adoration of the Magi,

         this Holy Day is not window dressing on the faith.

It  is not a quaint tale we can take or leave.

It is essential because it teaches us what we are here to do.

We are here to kneel in awestruck reverence

      before the holiness of Christ.

The stable where the wise men knelt

was not a debating hall

                  and neither is the church.

Like the Wise Men, we have our differences.

Human beings are entitled to their opinions.

The fact we have so many of them is part
         of what keeps life interesting.

But the church is not a town meeting

         or  a popular news program

with a point and counterpoint

                  exchange of verbal barbs.

The Church is not a talk show
         for controversial celebrities to rant at each other.

The church exists to kneel before the holiness of Christ,

a mystery we cannot begin to understand.

Like the Wise Men,

         we are different from each other as we can be.

Some are liberal. Some are conservative.

Some like incense and Sanctus bells.

Others prefer their Sunday morning casual and simple.

Some like one kind of music.

Some prefer a different style.

Others don’t want any music at all.

Some like a priest. Others can’t stand that priest.

And that’s all fine.

It’s human to have opinions and preferences.

The thing that holds us together isn’t agreeing

         about any of those things.

It is our shared willingness

to lay aside our opinions, tastes, and preferences
                  to kneel before the holiness of God.

The point of the Wise Men’s journey is that,

despite their differences, they traveled together.

 And that probably wasn’t always easy.

T. S. Eliot attributes these words to one of them,

         “A cold time we had of it

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey . . .”

The cold may not have been just the weather

and the length may not have been just the miles.

The Wise Men probably exchanged an opinion or two

         along the road.
Their differences must have made the trip even colder

and even longer.

But they stayed on the road and they stayed together,

         until at last, together, they worshiped the Lord

                  in the beauty of holiness.

They came to that point without coming to an agreement.

They did not adopt a common creed or moral code or political ideology.

But they knelt and prayed as one.

They followed the light as best they saw the light,

         and when they met the Christ,

         they fell silent and worshiped him.

God grant us the grace this Epiphany to do likewise.