Sunday, January 5, 2014

Have the wise men changed, or is it me?

I’m thinking about how I’ve grown in my understanding through the years because of the lesson for Epiphany (January 6), the story of the wise men visiting Jesus. The first sermon I ever preached was all about how the Jesus way is the only way to live in this world. It’s the sort of thing that you hear from a lot of Christians. Like I said, it’s what you would have heard from me when I was younger.

But I can’t say that now. Not since coming to Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Charlotte and taking seriously what it means to live like Jesus in the world, loving not judging. Being a part of this community has helped me see that God never excludes. God always includes. God’s grace is impartial and offered to everyone. And that includes people who may understand God differently than we do. Even if they completely reject the idea of God, it doesn’t change the fact that they are included in God’s embrace.

So, when I consider the significance of wise men from the East coming to pay homage to Jesus, I realize that they mean something completely different to me now than they did even 10 years ago. Back then, I saw them as representatives of other nations that we need to reach with the gospel message. The wise men were a call for us to go out and bring all people to Christ.

But now, when I read this story, what jumps out at me is the fact that these were absolute foreigners in every way. Completely outside the circle of Jesus’ world. The word often used for the wise men is magi is related to the word magician. These people were regarded as pagans. They were into astrology, perhaps Zoroastrian court advisors. They must have been wealthy, based upon the gifts they brought. I picture them dressed in elaborate brocade robes and jeweled turbans -- looking terribly out of place in the little town of Bethlehem. They didn’t come to be converted. They came to pay their respects to the new king and then they went home again.

We get two stories of Jesus’ birth in the gospels: one from Luke and this one from Matthew. In Luke’s story, the first people who came to visit the new-born baby were shepherds. They learned of Jesus birth through a direct revelation, angels appearing in the midnight sky. But Matthew’s visit of the wise men is a little more difficult to understand. They learned of Jesus’ birth by observing a star. The star didn’t audibly speak to them. They had to interpret this natural sign to know what it meant and where it would lead. They trusted the movements of the stars to speak to them. I don’t know many Christians who would be comfortable including people like the magi in their circle of the elect. I wonder if we would at Holy Trinity. 

Here’s a way to test that. The communion table is central to us. It’s a strong symbol of who we are as God’s people. How comfortable would we be with some astrologers from Iran who weren’t Christian showing up on a Sunday morning and taking communion with us?

The presence of the magi in Bethlehem challenges our narrow thinking about who’s in and who’s out. Often, when we say all are included, we mean, all are included, as long as they meet our standards. And the whole point of Christianity is to convert those who aren’t like us to become like us so that they’ll be included, too.

It’s all about “winning people for Christ.” I used to talk like that. Now, it makes me cringe. It comes from a theology that says God only saves those who believe the right things, which, of course, means, believing the way we believe. And, out of the goodness of our hearts, we set out to tell others about Jesus so they can be included within the circle of the elect just like we are. This way of thinking reduces God to our size.

It’s closely related to the whole idea of Christian triumphalism, which also makes me cringe.
                Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
                with the cross of Jesus going on before.
                Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
                forward into battle see his banners go!

The idea is that it’s our job to make everyone into Christians. That Christians have a responsibility to dominate the world. Because we’re right, and they’re wrong. We’re God’s people, they’re not. We’re saved, they’re going to hell. And so, we’re on God’s side and everyone else must come around to our way of thinking. This kind of theology is rampant in our culture, and it’s scary. It goes all the way back to Constantine who literally made people convert to Christianity if they wanted to live.

I think about this every year at Christmastime when I hear from someone who is all bent out of shape over the phrase “Happy Holidays.” Now, no one is saying they can’t say “Merry Christmas.” But the fact that some people say “Happy Holidays” is offensive to them. They see it as an attack on Christ, who, of course, needs us Christians to defend him.

Christianity, after all, is the only true religion, and anyone who thinks otherwise is our enemy. If you acknowledge that not everyone is a Christian and it would be good if we respected their differences without trying to dominate them by insisting that Christianity reign supreme – if you take an open approach like that, you are perceived as anti-Christian. Allowing people to say “Happy Holidays” without insisting upon “Merry Christmas” is an affront to Christ. It’s giving in to all those Jews and Muslims and atheists who are trying to take over our Christian nation.

I’ll tell you, every year this just makes me crazy. And I wonder, is this really the way Jesus would deal with the religious diversity of our world today? Would he be offended with the greeting “Happy Holidays” as a way to include everyone in this season of joy to the WORLD?

And then, into the Christmas story walk pagans from Persia. Ironic, huh?

When I was younger, I was overly concerned about who could and couldn’t take communion. I was like the altar-Nazi. “No communion for you.” But I’ve changed. And I’d like to believe the magi would be welcome at our communion table at Holy Trinity. Mainly because I could never imagine Jesus would turn them away.

The Jesus way is the way I have chosen to live my life. That’s no secret. And I share my faith story with others because it might also be the way they choose to live their lives. It’s a good way to live. But I don’t have to win people over. Everybody doesn’t need to be a Christian. The Jesus way isn’t the only way.

I never would have said that 30 years ago. But when I’m in a relationship with the God of love, every time I think I’ve figured out exactly who is in God’s circle of love, God comes along and challenges my narrow thinking. It’s happened again and again. The circle keeps expanding until I have come to the conclusion that God is a circle whose center is nowhere and whose circumference is everywhere.

We don’t have to all agree on the same theological points before we can be included in the circle of God’s beloved children. When we say all are welcome at our communion table, I hope we don’t mean all people who think like us. Or all who believe like us. I hope we just mean ALL.

On a cold morning three palm fruit farmers were warming themselves by the fireside. Soon two of them were engaged in a heated debate comparing their religions to decide which one was the true religion. 

Okoro, the oldest among them, sat quietly listening to the debate. Suddenly the two turned to him and asked, “Decide for us, Okoro. Which religion is the right one?” Okoro rubbed his white beards and said thoughtfully, “Well, you know there are three ways to get from here to the oil mill. You can go right over the hill. That is shorter but it is a steep climb. You can go around the hill on the right side. That is not too far, but the road is rough and full of potholes. Or you can go around the hill on the left side. That is the longest way, but it is also the easiest.”

He paused and then added, “But you know, when you get there, the mill man doesn’t ask you how you came. All he asks is, ‘How good is your fruit?’”

1 comment:

  1. To be honest. we already have some pretty strange looking people at our communion table. You've just gotten use to them.


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