Sunday 1 January 2017
Epiphany of the Lord
Every year at this time, the festival of Epiphany, we hear the story of the three kings or three wise men. And every year in the sermon, we hear a little different twist on the story. Maybe we hear something about the significance of their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Maybe we hear that they weren’t really kings at all, they were Iranian astrologers. Maybe we hear that there probably weren’t three of them, they just happened to bring three gifts. Maybe we hear something about how they defied King Herod and returned by another road.
But this Sunday, we’re going to focus on something completely different. We’re going to focus not on the magi, the heroes of the story, but on King Herod, the villain. And after all, the bad guys are usually much more interesting than the good guys anyway. In particular, we’re going to focus on just one line of Matthew’s account. After the magi come to Herod and ask him where they can find the newborn King of the Jews, Matthew tells us, “Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Why was Herod frightened by the news the magi brought, and even more important, why would all of Jerusalem be frightened along with him?
Herod was born at a time when the whole area of Palestine was still an independent Jewish Kingdom, ruled by the Hasmoneans, who were heirs of the famous Maccabees from the Hanukkah story. Herod’s father was one of the officials in the royal court and worked for the king. But the Jewish kingdom during Herod’s childhood was very unstable. Judea was in a near-constant state of civil war as various members of the royal family fought over which of them was rightfully king.
At about the same time, the Roman Republic was expanding its borders, and Pompey the Great swept in to clean up the mess, formally establishing Roman rule in 63 BCE. The Romans kept a Jewish king on the throne, but they were never far away, in case more violence were to break out. Herod’s father gained influence in the royal court, and was able to get Herod appointed as governor of Galilee when he was only 25 years old.
During the next decade, the political situation got crazy. When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, everything started to slip into chaos. Rome slipped into civil war, then went to war with the Parthians. Herod’s father was murdered. Members of the Judean royal family were at it again, trying to fight their way onto the throne in Jerusalem.
In the midst of all the upheaval, Herod convinced Mark Anthony that he would be an ideal choice to be king. In 40 BCE, the Roman Senate declared Herod to be the King of the Jews. Within three years, Herod had managed to take back Judea for Rome. He ruled in Jerusalem for the next thirty years. He kept a tight rein on the Jewish people and wiped out any potential rebels and rivals to the throne. But he also led Judea into a time of great prosperity, rebuilding the Temple and turning Jerusalem into one of the great cities of the Roman Empire. Herod had to walk a fine line, keeping both his Jewish subjects and his Roman overseers happy at the same time. But by all accounts, he excelled at his task and kept Jerusalem at peace.
So toward the end of his reign, when a group of Iranian astrologers showed up at his door saying that they were looking for the newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been marked by the rising of a star, Herod knew he had a problem. There was some baby out there who was a potential rival for his throne. It’s not just that Herod was jealous. It’s not just that he wanted to keep the title “King of the Jews” for himself. No, there were much larger issues at stake. Having someone else out there claiming to be the King of the Jews was not just a problem for Herod, it was a problem for the whole Jewish people.
You see, if Herod’s power were to slip, if someone else challenged him as King of the Jews, then Judea would certainly slip into civil war. Herod could remember what that had been like, and so could the people of Jerusalem. No one wanted to go through another round of upheaval and bloodshed.
But now the problem was even bigger. Because as soon as it looked like Herod might be losing control, the Romans would march down from their base in Damascus and take direct control of Judea. And if that happened, things could get really bloody. The Romans would not hesitate to punish the whole Jewish people for any act of rebellion against the Empire. There would certainly be mass crucifixions. And the Romans, once they were in Jerusalem, would probably violate the Temple, God’s dwelling place on earth. No one wanted that to happen. Herod had to keep control or they would end up with an even harsher Roman governor. Best to wrap this problem up quickly, find this so-called newborn king and get rid of him before anything dangerous happened.
That’s why Herod is frightened and all Jerusalem with him. They don’t need anyone proclaiming themselves king or Messiah. Jews might have some concept of a spiritual Messiah, but as soon as the Romans hear the word Messiah, they’ll think of a king, a threat to Roman authority, and they will come in and tear everything apart. The people of Jerusalem are afraid that some pretender will bring the Roman legions down on their necks.
And that’s precisely what ended up happening. When Jesus was proclaimed Messiah, the Romans were able to solve the problem quickly by executing him under the charge, “King of the Jews.” But when other Messiahs arose in CE 66, 115, and 132, it led to all-out war with the Romans, huge casualties, the destruction of the Temple, the expulsion of every Jew from Jerusalem, the complete transformation of the holy city into a pagan stronghold, legal persecution of Jews across the Empire, and the beginning of anti-Semitism in Western culture, that echoes still today. Herod and the people of Jerusalem were right to be afraid, not so much of what Jesus might do, but of what the Romans would do if they were to find out about this newborn King of the Jews.
But somehow, even though all of Herod’s worst fears were eventually realized, God was still able to bring something good out of chaos. No one knew it at the time, but that little boy the magi sought would grow up to be the savior of the world, the one whom two billion people today claim as their lord.
In our world today, there are still things that scare and trouble us. There are still things that frighten our President and all America with him. Actually, part of our fear these days is that we have both an outgoing and an incoming President, and they seem to be frightened by very different things. Foreign meddling in our elections. The threat of radical, Islamic terrorism. The increasing power of China and Russia in world affairs. New threats to civil liberties and worries about equality and inclusion. Growing national debt and consumer debt. A seemingly intractable conflict in Syria that involves so many different factions, it’s nearly impossible to figure out who is fighting with whom and for what; but no matter which faction is winning, the people always seem to be losing. 400,000 dead, 4.8 million refugees, and 6.6 million displaced Syria. There are reasons to be afraid. There are real threats in our world.
But in the midst of our fears, I wonder where God is working right now, unbeknownst to us, bringing about something good out of chaos. When our history is written, where will future generations see the hand of God at work to bring grace and peace where we, caught in the midst of it, can see only threat, trouble, and tragedy? And when God’s work becomes clear, will we have been a part of it? Will we have been working along with God, even in the face of danger, even in the face of anxiety, to bring about a greater good? Or will we have been with those who feared the worst and only made things more terrible? I pray that we will find ourselves working against the common wisdom, in the places where God’s most exciting work is being done; searching for light in darkness, searching for hope in uncertainty, searching for the movement of God’s Spirit in our world.
Sunday 25 December 2016
Of all the familiar stories in the bible, the passage we read this morning from the Gospel of Luke is perhaps the most familiar of all. In fact, it would be entirely possible for someone to have this passage memorized, even if they had never set foot in a church and had never cracked open a bible. Because if you know that Lucy pulls the football out from under Charlie Brown whenever he is about to kick it, you know that when Charlie Brown wants to know the meaning of Christmas, Linus gets out on the stage, dims the lights, and begins reciting from the King James: “And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.” All you have to do to be familiar with this passage is to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. And since it has shown on network TV at least twice every year for the last fifty-one years, that is something nearly every person alive in the US has done at least once.
And when a story is as familiar as this one is, it is easy for us to forget just how strange it is. This is a very strange story. For one thing, most of us have it rattling around in our heads in the antiquated words of the King James version. What are swaddling clothes, anyway? What is a heavenly host? What does it mean to be sore afraid? But even if clear up some of the confusion by updating our language, it is still a very strange story, even by the standards of the bible. So let’s take the time to walk through it again, a little more slowly, and to notice some of the details that we usually let slip past us in the poetry of it all.
Even in the original Greek, this story is written in an antiquated style. Luke writes it to sound like one of the ancient tales from the Old Testament. He wants it to sound old-timey, to sound like scripture. So maybe reading it in the King James isn’t so far off, after all, at least in terms of style.
The story begins not with Mary or Joseph or the shepherds, but with the emperor, Caesar Augustus. He was the first Roman emperor, who rose to power through a series of political machinations and civil wars to become the undisputed most powerful man in the world. Western Europe had become accustomed to living under a republic, a republic which despised kings and tyrants. And yet, now the entire Mediterranean world was ruled by one man. When he was born, he was named Gaius Octavius, but by the time of our story, his name had legally been changed to: Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus—that is, Conqueror Caesar, Son of a God, Worthy of Religious Veneration. That’s where Luke starts the story of Jesus’s birth: with the most powerful ruler in the world, a man was considered to be the Son of God in his own lifetime, a man who was worshipped by his people in temples across the empire.
Augustus enters the story in order to do one thing: order a census. A census is not just a mundane, administrative affair. Even today it has tremendous political consequences. It determines the makeup of the House of Representatives and state legislatures, it helps determine how funds are allocated for roads, schools, public health, job training, community improvements, and services to the elderly. And you can certainly find groups in America who are outraged by the census and how it is a government conspiracy to limit liberty. In the ancient world, a census was definitely about domination. Most importantly, it was about taxes, assigning how much in taxes would be levied from each group of conquered peoples. Interestingly, the Hebrew Bible actually forbids any earthly ruler from calling for a census. According to the bible, God is the only one who is allowed to order a census.
It’s the census that causes Joseph to have to leave his home in Nazareth in order to be registered in his ancestral homeland, Bethlehem. Why exactly Mary has to come along with him is unclear. But the fact that they can find no room once they are in Bethlehem is telling. Most of us have been taught that there was no room in the inn. But that’s not actually very accurate. There wouldn’t have been an inn or hotel in the sense that we think of them. Instead, houses would have had a guestroom for visitors and travelers, especially in a town as small as Bethlehem: only a few hundred people. And if Joseph’s family was from Bethlehem, then he could have reasonably expected to be put up for free by one of the villagers, whether they were direct family or not. That would have been the cultural expectation of hospitality. The fact that Mary and Joseph cannot find a room indicates that they are being snubbed. Either there are more important guests already there, or they are being shut out for other reasons, perhaps because of the shame of Mary’s unexplained pregnancy. In any case, it leaves Mary to give birth to Jesus in the room where the animals are and to make a bed for him in the feed trough.
That right there is quite a contrast. We have already been introduced to Augustus, the king of kings, the lord of lords, the son of god, who lives in luxury, commands legions of soldiers, and rules over myriads of peoples. Then we have Jesus. He is homeless. His parents are too unimportant or too shameful to warrant a guestroom, even on the night Mary is going to give birth. He spends his first night in a room full of animals. What kind of a life is that for the Messiah? What kind of life is that for the Son of God? How could it be that there was no place for the Son of God?
The scene changes, and we move from the little town of Bethlehem to a group of shepherds out in the fields. Sometimes shepherds were romanticized. King David was. The 23rd Psalm imagines God as a good shepherd. But generally speaking, shepherds were part of the underclass. In this period, they only rarely owned their own flocks. They were usually hired hands. It was dirty work. And because it kept them out at night, it was dishonorable work. They weren’t home at night to protect their families. No one would have aspired to be a shepherd. It was the kind of work that polite, reputable people didn’t want to do. Like many of the jobs today in the agricultural industry, shepherding was vitally necessary work, but it was not the work that stable people wanted to do.
But on this one particular night, as this particular group of shepherds is out in the fields with the sheep, something happens. One of God’s messengers shows up. That’s what angel means: messenger. The emperor had angels too, messengers who would go from town to town proclaiming the good news of the empire. We aren’t told what God’s angel looked like, except that he was was shining with God’s glory, and something about him made the shepherds feel terrified.
The angel tells the shepherds not to be afraid. Just like one of the emperor’s messengers, he has good news to share. The emperor’s good news, the emperor’s gospel, would be stories like Rome’s military victories, or the birth or wedding of someone in the imperial family, or the proclamation of some kind of festival or games. Imperial good news was supposed to impress the people, to make them feel grateful for being a part of the empire, or at least to make them feel like the empire was too strong to be resisted.
So what kind of good news does God’s messenger bring? Well, it’s surprisingly similar to the emperor’s gospel. A new ruler has been born. He will be a savior of the people. He is the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed king. This is good news for all the people. And the sign that this message is true is that you will find this new savior, messiah, king lying in a feed trough.
And then what happens? The great multitude of the heavenly host. And when we talk about a heavenly host, we’re not talking about someone who welcomes you at the door and leads you to your table. We’re talking about a much older meaning of the English word host. In this passage, host means army. What appears before the shepherds is a heavenly army. And not a small one either. It is a great multitude of God’s heavenly army, decked out for war. That’s actually how the bible pictures angels. Not cute cherubs with harps and wings. That’s medieval imagery. In the bible, angels are otherworldly soldiers. No wonder the shepherds were terrified.
God’s army delivers its message: Glory to God and peace on earth. Then they go back to heaven. And the shepherds hurry into town. And they find Jesus there in the manger, and they tell the story of what they have seen. And everyone is amazed.
It is a very strange story with striking contrasts. On the one hand the most powerful man in the world, the Son of God, the savior, the conquerer, the bringer of peace, of the Pax Romana, Caesar Augustus. On the other hand, a newborn baby boy, homeless, lying in a feed trough because his parents don’t warrant a room, because there was no place for them, Jesus. On the one hand legions of powerful angel-soldiers, lighting up the night’s sky with the light of the glory of God. On the other hand, poor, dirty shepherds living on the margins of society, with no honor or power to speak of. How could it be that the homeless baby in the feed trough is of more significance than the emperor ruling over the world? How could it be that legions of angels take their message not to the Senate, not to the Sanhedrin, not to the temple, not even to the city forum or to the village square? How could it be that legions of angels take their good news to ragged, poor shepherds living in the fields? What could that possibly mean?
It can mean nothing else except that God makes a place for those who have no place. God makes a home among those who have no home. God looks over emperors and empresses, kings and queens, princes and princesses, and chooses a young, poor, homeless couple huddled among the animals. God looks over senators, governors, generals, town councillors, priests, scribes, and soldiers, and chooses marginalized agricultural workers living in the fields.
And God continues to make a home among those who have no place. Among the homeless looking for shelter from the cold. Among the orphan looking for a family. Among the unemployed looking for the stability and dignity of a job. Among the sick and diseased looking for healing. Among the disabled looking accommodation and respect. Among the victimized looking for justice. Among the marginalized looking for a place. Among the despised looking for acceptance. Among the scapegoat looking for fairness. Among the immigrant looking for a home. Among the refugee looking for peace. Among the brokenhearted looking for restoration. Among the depressed looking for hope. Among the anxious looking for confidence. Among the dying looking for comfort. Among the grieving looking for assurance.
This is where God lives. God appears not in places of greatest strength, but in the places of greatest weakness. God find a place among those who have no place. Among an unwed mother like Mary. Among dirty, poor shepherds. Among all those who by their very need of God are able to be a home for Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Pastor David’s Weekly Reflection: John 8:3-9 When has God led you from judgment to mercy? How?
++ Wed 21st 6:00pm Advent Study with soup supper. Holden Evening Prayer Service follows.
++ Christmas Eve Services 7:00pm Traditional Candlelight Service with Carols; 9:00pm Contemplative Service. Special Giving is for the Warming Shelter of Hood River.
++ Christmas Day 10:00am One Service. Fellowship with coffee only. Bring food for Food on the 4th!
++ January 1st 10:00am One Service.
++ January 8th Annual Meeting after 10:00am one service.
Due to winter weather conditions, worship services are cancelled Sunday, December 11th. Stay safe, everyone!
- 9:00 am Traditional Worship
- 10:00 am Fellowship
- 10:30 Celebration Worship
Christmas Eve: December 24
- 7:00 pm Lessons and Carols Service
- 9:00 pm Contemplative Service
Christmas Day: December 25
- 10:00 am Worship, one service only
- 11:00 am Fellowship
New Year’s Day: January 1
- 10:00 am Worship, one service only
- 11:00 am Fellowship
January 8: Annual Meeting
- 10:00 am Worship, one service only
- 11:00 am Anual Meeting
January 15: Return to normal worship schedule
- 9:00 am Traditional Worship
- 10:00 am Fellowship
- 10:30 Celebration Worship
United Methodist Communications
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
November 22, 2016
Washington, D.C.: In a pre-holiday, post-election letter to the people of The United Methodist Church, Bishop Bruce R. Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, called upon all Christians to “remember who we are” in this time of tension and anxiety and work to overcome hatred and discrimination.
The letter follows:
To the People Called United Methodist:
Grace and peace in the name of Jesus Christ!
On the eve of Advent and in the post-election climate in the United States, I write as President of the Council of Bishops to call for a renewed commitment to the vision of the Beloved Community of Christ.
Isaiah prophesized that a child would be born to re-establish the beloved community – a time of endless peace, a time of justice and righteousness, a time of reconciliation and unity.
For a child has been born to us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
And he is named
Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He shall establish and uphold it with justice and righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
Isaiah 9:6-7 NRSV
In a post-election article, Bishop Gregory Palmer eloquently stated the reality of a divided United States. “Everywhere we turn we are reminded of the profound fissures along the lines of gender, race and class, just to name a few. The truth is these fissures and divisions are not new and not directly attributable to the long campaign season just ended. For many years, there has been a growing trust deficit in public leadership and institutions. These are trying times, and the fabric of who we are and who we aspire to be has been stretched beyond anything we desire to look upon. But look upon it squarely we must.”
This state of division and discord is global, fueled by the racist, sexist and xenophobic rhetoric of the recent U.S. election cycle. Recently, Pope Francis warned against the “virus of polarization” and hostility in the world targeting people of different nationalities, races and beliefs. He was blunt and warned against animosity creeping into the church, as well, noting “we are not immune from this.” Pope Francis reminded us of “our pitiful hearts that tend to judge, divide, oppose and condemn” and cautioned somberly against those who “raise walls, build barriers and label people.”
As followers of the Christ, we are harbingers, models and guardians of the Beloved Community. As those baptized into the Body of Christ, we “accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves” and to renounce the spiritual forces of evil in the world, our respective nations and the church. As disciples of Jesus, we stand against all expressions of hatred, discrimination, oppression and exclusion. As those who serve Christ, we love whom Christ loves. As stewards of Jesus’ Good News, we are peacemakers, pray for our enemies and seek reconciliation with those from whom we have become estranged.
At the November 2010 meeting of the Council of Bishops in Panama, the Council issued a pastoral letter calling for United Methodists to be bearers of the beloved community across the globe. The letter is eerily contemporary and relevant to our current context. It points to the opportunity that is uniquely ours to bind up the wounds and to proclaim the Advent prophecy of a time of justice and righteousness. I include the full text as a reminder of the kingdom reality we are call to incarnate:
“We, the bishops of The United Methodist Church, feel compelled to renew our commitment to work to become the beloved community of Christ. We, as a Council, desire to deal with the crucial issues of racism and the sacredness of every human being. Therefore, as the spiritual and administrative leaders of the church, we issue an urgent call to the whole people of God, lay and clergy: to speak the truth in love in public and private discourse, to act with compassion, and to work for peace with justice in the world.
In order to transform the world, in faithfulness to Christ’s command, we must model respect and kindness and extinguish the fires of animosity. And thus, we call on all churches to engage in genuinely honest dialogue and respectful conversation, such that others who observe the action in our lives might declare, ‘See how they love each other!’
As people of faith, we are charged to build the beloved community because Christ has broken down the dividing walls and ended the hostilities between us. Yet, we continue to build walls in the church and the world which separate us and cause our hearts to grieve.
On the continent of Africa and in many parts of Asia, including the Middle East, the Philippines and India, the historical and contemporary impact of colonialism, racism, tribalism, hostility and religious persecution continue to affect human relationships. The challenge in the Philippines is to break down the barriers between mainline society and tribal peoples. Meeting this challenge will accord equal rights such as land possession and free education for all.
By nature, colonialism in Africa thrives on hostile, violent and demeaning human relationships. Racism and tribalism cut deep wounds, not in one’s flesh and blood, but also on the soul and the spirit. These gaping wounds leave permanent scars.
In Europe racism is a growing issue, with political parties openly working against minority, ethnic and religious communities. Prejudice is overly articulated in the media, in politics and even in churches.
Throughout the United States, there has been a rapid escalation of violence related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religious preference. This escalation includes personal attacks, bullying and vicious and criminal acts of violence to the mind, body and spirit of persons. These actions diminish life for victims and their families, as well as for the perpetrators and the whole community. They are the ultimate, insidious and irreverent attacks on the sacredness of God-given life.
Across the world, terrorism – as demonstrated by wanton acts of violence against innocent persons – leaves a trail of loss of life, limb, home and community. Discriminatory treatment is widely practiced against immigrants and refugees everywhere around the world. All of this creates a universal atmosphere of suspicion, mistrust and fear. Often this is the result of religious persecution of various faith communities, including Christians, which threatens the capacity or hope for reconciliation and peace. The church is called to decisively and directly counter these acts and engender and empower a ‘perfect love that casts out all fear.’ (I John 4:18, NVSV) Through intentional action we can ‘overcome evil with good.’ (Romans 12:21, NRSV)
It is incumbent upon the bearers of this vision of a beloved community to do whatever we can today to hasten the day of a just world with peace. This is our hope, our prayer and our commitment.”
Friends in Christ, this is not an invitation to naiveté. People’s lives, livelihoods, security and well-being are at stake. Immigrants are scrambling for the shadows. Indigenous peoples are disrespected and forgotten. Children of color are being bullied and threatened. Muslims are being labeled and listed. Women are ridiculed and objectified. The LGBTQ community is filled with fear. Racism is being legitimized. Hundreds of millions remain impoverished without access to educational opportunities, economic resources, or equal justice.
We must stand against the meanness and hatred that is upon us. We must stand for what is best in us as People of God. We must not address the anger, fear, confusion and insecurity of the prevailing culture with more blame, attack and criticism. As Richard Rohr recently noted, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” We must stand against bigotry, hate and discrimination in all forms and settings. We must proclaim from our pulpits the Good News that overcomes hatred and fear. We must be quick to confess our own sin and places of complicity and vigilant against all that diminishes the worth of any individual.
So, I urge all who follow the Christ to remember who we are in this time. We are the People of God called to proclaim the mighty acts of Christ who calls us out of darkness into his marvelous light. We are the People of God called to create the Beloved Community of Christ. We are People of God commanded to love as Jesus loved. We are People of God created to be the kingdom of God envisioned in the Advent prophecy and fulfilled by Jesus. This is our vision, our hope, our prayer, our opportunity, our commitment. May it be so!
Bishop Bruce R. Ough, President
Council of Bishops, The United Methodist Church