20 January 2008

On the State of the Church

1 Corinthians 1:1-9
2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time/20th January 2008

In his book The Heart of Christianity (2003), Marcus Borg of Oregon State University describes how his university students have a uniformly negative image of Christianity. "When I ask them to write a short essay on their impression of Christianity," says Borg, "they consistently use five adjectives: Christians are literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted."

We might object by saying these are sweeping generalizations, but in a world where image and impressions mean more than the truth, we should be concerned. However, a new book called unChristian by David Kinnaman, of the highly-respected Barna Research Group, presents objective research that supports Borg's classroom experience. Kinnaman's three-year study documents how an overwhelming percentage of sixteen to twenty-nine year olds view Christians with hostility, resentment and disdain. He’s not working with stereotypes. Nor are these critics people who've had no contact with churches or Christians. These perceptions are based on real experiences with today's Christians. According to Kinnaman's Barna study, here are the percentages of people outside the church who think that the following words describe present-day Christianity: anti-gay 91%; judgmental 87%; hypocritical 85%; old-fashioned 78%; too political 75%; out of touch with reality 72%; insensitive to others 70%; and boring – 68%.
Just think of standing up in Starbuck’s or Panera Bread, announcing you’re a Christian, knowing that a sizable number drinking their lattes probably think of you in one of these ways.
Soon President Bush will offer his On the State of the Union speech before Congress, his perspective on the state of the nation. I thought this morning that I would offer my perspective on the state of the church, both nationally and locally.

The church exists in a less-than-friendly environment these days. It’s not surprising that so many churches are in trouble and so many ministers burning-out or leaving ministry altogether. The church is in time of significant, cultural challenge. I don’t necessarily view the culture as hostile toward the church, it’s more an attitude of bland indifference. These are tough times for the church but also times of opportunity. The church thrives best when it is under persecution, when we face cultural dislocation and alienation. For most of its history, the church has existed in times of difficulty and challenge.

The church in Corinth was no Disneyland. Throughout Paul’s epistles to this major metropolis of the Roman Empire, he’s trying to deal with sectarian divisions, rampant immorality, lawsuits, pseudo-preachers preaching a false gospel – all of this was in the church (!), not the culture of Corinth. One of the greatest challenges for a Christian in the Roman world, where everyone was religious, worshipping all kind of deities, including Caesar, was that you couldn’t be Christian on the side.[2] You couldn’t worship both Jupiter and Jesus. You had to decide. Christian discipleship required commitment, devotion to one God and not an assortment of gods. This sounds very similar to what we face in our own age where people worship all kinds of gods, but are reluctant to make a commitment to the God of Jesus Christ.

And yet, despite their considerable dysfunction, Paul still thanks God for them, for the grace that is nevertheless at work in them! In every way they are being enriched for the work God called them to do. They’re really screwed up and haven’t a clue what it means to be and do church, and yet they’re not lacking any spiritual gift; they have the gifts of speech and knowledge, which allows them to give testimony to the good news of Jesus Christ.

All of this bodes well for the church today, despite its many challenges and problems. The Presbyterian Church (USA) continues to lose members and the cost of per capita continues to rise. There are more Muslims than Presbyterians in the United States. We have internal divisions and strive to remain together. And we are holding together post-PUP, that is in light of the Peace, Unity, and Purity Task Force Report that was approved by the last General Assembly. A few churches have left, but they were on their way out for a while. Most churches that threatened to leave are learning to living peaceably within the Presbyterian family and finding a way to find unity in diversity, instead of preferring uniformity – which is always exclusive and often very destructive for both the church and its people. After spending this past week in Bradenton Beach, Florida, with fourteen very gifted, committed, Presbyterian pastors, studying scripture together, talking about how we seek to be faithful in such a time as this, I’m optimistic about the future of the church. God is equipping the church with every gift necessary for its life – committed pastors and lay people who love the Lord and who not only want to see the church survive but, more importantly, thrive. We are not called to just survive, but to thrive.

I believe God has and is equipping this church with every gift necessary for our life together. We lack nothing. We have everything we need to be faithful to what God is calling us to be and to do; it’s all within us – we have the personal, spiritual, and financial resources to do amazing things. And the greatest resource of this church is YOU – the people, your faith, your commitment, your life-experience, your faith experience. I’m grateful that we don’t have the factions and the internal squabbling that goes on in so many congregations these days. We have a healthy sense of conflict, we don’t all agree on things – nor should we – but we listen to one another and make space for difference. We do more than just tolerate each another; we try to work together, to exercise what the Book of Order aptly calls “mutual forbearance.”[3]

A church exists to serve Christ. We don’t exist for ourselves. Christ calls his people to suffer with those who suffer (1 Corinthians 12:26), weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15). To share the burden and pain and joy of God’s people. This is the work of all God’s people, not just religious professionals. I’m grateful for the way this church does walk with those who are in pain and can celebrate with those who celebrate. I see it all the time, the way people reach out in a ministry of prayer and presence. Our deacons are amazing. Yet, inevitably, there are people who suffer silently, whose pain is too deep for words. There are people who fall through the cracks or just silently move out of the orbit of the church and then they feel hurt because they aren’t missed. This is always my fear. I’ve seen it happen here. This is everyone’s responsibility, not just your pastors or the elders or deacons. If you haven’t seen someone here for a while, pick up the phone and call them or drop them a note. I know that you pretty much sit in the same seat each week. If you haven’t seen your pew buddy in a couple of weeks, take responsibility for them. Seek them out. Do you know the names of the people who sit beside you, before and behind you? They’re your sisters; they’re your brothers. They’re part of the family. Care for them.

Reach out. Perhaps that’s one of the greatest challenges facing us: reaching out. How can we be better evangelists? It’s been said the church is always one generation away from extinction. We often think of individuals being evangelists – like pastors or Billy Graham-types. But it’s really the church as a whole that preaches and shares the good news.[4] Session is investing some dollars in outreach, trying to advertise more in different publications, such as The Urbanite. However the best advertisement for this church is you. Most people join a church not because of the pastor or the preaching or the music, worship style, education programs or mission programs, but because someone cared enough to invite them to attend worship or join an event. It’s through word of mouth that the church grows, through testimony, when we share what we see taking place here. Imagine if every person – or just one family working together – invited one person to join us, not once, but cultivated that relationship so that he/she became part of this family. Imagine the impact. I also think we should be praying that God send us people and that we be prepared to welcome them when they arrive.

Truth be told, most pastors become easily frustrated (including your own) when they see all the wonderful ministry going on in a church, but people don’t respond: growth is stagnant, commitment is low (even among members), that people just don’t seem to care. Truth is, there are so many other things, activities – other gods – competing for our time, attention, commitment, and money, which causes the church to suffer. I would love to see this church grow in numbers, for the pews to be filled every week. In addition to infant baptisms, I would love to see more adult baptisms – adults becoming Christian, seeking to be disciples, which is probably an even stronger sign of the future health of the church.

Yet, a long time ago I learned to check at the door of the sanctuary my American sensibility that numbers equals success, that a growth in numbers is a sign that either I’m doing something right or that we are doing something right. That’s a deadly formula for the church – it’s not biblical, it’s theologically abhorrent, and ultimately it’s unfaithful. We are not called to grow, but to be faithful. We are called to be a faithful church – which means Christ-centered. This church does not belong to me or to you its members (even if you pledge), it’s not ours, it doesn’t belong to anyone, except Christ. We have been invited in grace to be a part it. No one is part of this community because he or she deserves to be here or earned the right to be here. We are here by grace to be Christ’s disciples, to serve him with joy, to grow in our faith and commitment to him and to one another. We are here by grace because God wants to do something through us, together, that we couldn’t do on our own.

Growing in numbers is less important than growing in faith. What matters most is that ours is a faithful church; and a faithful fellowship implies being a healthy church. I would rather service a healthy church any day than a large, dysfunctional church.

What is a healthy church?
· A healthy church puts Christ first – which is another way of saying, puts love first.
· Trusts God to do the impossible through us.
· Looks to the future with confidence instead of pining for the past.
· Takes healthy risks.
· It’s a church that studies scripture in order to know God, with people who want to grow in their knowledge of scripture, grow in faith and commitment, people who engage their minds and their hearts as disciples of Christ; but also people who don’t have all the answers, that are still growing; a church where you don’t have to have all the answers first and your faith completely intact before joining.

· It’s a church that worships together and prays together; where we rejoice with those who rejoice and suffer with those who suffer; a place where people can bring their pain.
· A place where we practice what we preach.
· A place that’s unreasonably generous, that welcomes the joy and the responsibility of faithful stewardship of God’s gifts.
· It’s a place where egos are set aside and we seek the welfare of the whole church, caring less for “my needs” or what “I want,” thinking more about what God wants, what Christ demands, what the Spirit desires.
· It’s a place that is known for its mercy and kindness, that makes a space for all people to be fellow-disciples.
· It’s a place that cares for its children even as it cares for its elderly, indeed, as it cares for anyone who is vulnerable or weak or fragile or alone.
· It’s a fellowship where the presence of Christ is known – when guests walk into this sanctuary, attend a concert or meeting, they know and feel that there’s something different about us, that in us they somehow see the face of God.
· It’s a church where everyone knows that he or she has a calling because of one’s baptism, thus called to do something unique and needed to give a blessing to the world.
· It’s a church that’s not bent on surviving (which is really more about ego than faith) but on thriving and reaching out to a community, a world in need.

It’s a church where we prove to be an exception to the statistics.

Wishful-thinking? Not if you believe that God’s Spirit is within us and among us, equipping us with every gift needed to be an effective, faithful, fellowship of Christ. The church in Corinth prospered despite its many limitations. It wasn’t about them, but what God was doing through them. It’s not about us, but about what God is doing through us. This isn’t wishful-thinking, but faithful-thinking. And when the church lives this way, it will get peoples’ attention, it will cause a stir, it will cause people to wake up and notice. They might even meet Christ – the true Christ, the loving Christ, the grace-filled, welcoming Christ – through you, through us. That’s my prayer.

[1] See Dan Clendenin’s lectionary blog site for 20th January 2008, “The Outrage of Outsiders: Why So Many People Dislike Christians:” http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20080114JJ.shtml

[2] A. D. Nock, Conversion: The Old and the New Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998 [1933]).
[3] “…we …believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” (G-1.0305) Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part II.
[4] Anthony B. Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 120.
[5] Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin: “The church is not the fellowship of those who have been fully and completely changed or saved and who require nothing more. In other words, the church is not the saved who are then to save others. The church is a fellowship, a gathering of those who are in the process of being changed, of those who are being saved and made new, and who invite others to join them in this adventure and this life.” Robinson, 37.

13 January 2008

Called for Freedom

Isaiah 42:1-9 & Matthew 3:13-17

Baptism of the Lord/13th January 2008

Richard Rodriquez went searching for the God of the desert. In a fascinating, recent article in Harper’s, Rodriquez wants to understand the connection between space and faith, the “ecology of monotheism,” as he calls it. Why is it that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have their roots in the desert, wilderness places of the Holy Land? Why is it that God revealed Himself in the desert? What is it about open spaces, wild, apparently empty spaces that speak to the presence of God or become the place where we hear God speak most clearly? Rodriquez went on a pilgrimage to the holy, empty spaces of all three faiths, primarily in Jerusalem – the churches, the shrines, the open space of the Temple Mount at the top of the city. He ventured out into the desert that sits right on the edge of Jerusalem, as if waiting to devour the city. He explored Qumran and the ancient ruins along the Dead Sea. A guide took him out into the wilderness, explained how to survive there.


He found in the desert wilderness of Judea is what he calls “the concentration of God’s intention on this landscape.” Experiencing that landscape tells us something about who God is. That God chooses to reveal Himself in wild, open places tells us something about the God of Jesus Christ; Yahweh, the Wild-God Israel came to know intimately in the wilderness of the Negev, the God of Jesus Christ who was tested in the wilderness and baptized in the wilderness. The wilderness, the desert, wild, open spaces are the settings for birth, renewal, and freedom.

That’s why there’s something odd about the site where Christians remember Jesus’ baptism today. The traditionally venerated site is near Jericho. After the Six Day War in 1967 that location was declared off-limits to tourists. It’s still dangerous. Today pilgrims go to Yardenit, in Galilee, along the Jordan – a place with no historical or religious significance – where you can worship, have your baptism videotaped, and bottle murky Jordan River “holy” water (empty plastic bottles are available at $1 a piece for you to collect your own). There’s nothing wild about the place. The sandy wilderness was the place of baptism, the place of encounter, the place where the holy ruach or Spirit of God rested upon Jesus and he discovered the call and purpose of his life, where he discovered who he really was.

There’s something about vastness – think of any broad, space, the vastness of the universe, the plains of Kansas or Nebraska, the expanse of the Chesapeake from atop the Bay Bridge – that openness, expansiveness that tells us something about God or maybe it’s the openness that resonates something of what we know about God: that God makes space for us and in that space there is freedom, new life, and a future. I remember how I felt God’s presence looking upon the Sea of Galilee or the deserts along the Dead Sea, or in the wild, open spaces of Scotland, or standing on the Serengeti Plain in Kenya. Space gives birth to life.

The Hebrew word for spirit or breath – ruach – which moved over the primordial chaos before creation is an aspirant, a word filled with breath or air. The word is related to another Hebrew word, rewah, which means breadth, so that in the Hebrew experience breath and breadth are related. In the Hebrew experience ruach creates breadth or space. The ruach of God leads us out of narrow places into wide vistas, thus conferring life. Ruach can refer to a divine person and a force, but Jürgen Moltmann suggests that it is also a spatial quality, “the space of freedom in which the living being can unfold.” The vastness of open spaces reminds us that this is what God’s Spirit does. Psalm 31:8 affirms, “Thou has set my feet in a broad place.” And Job could say, “You also he allured out of distress into a broad place where there is no cramping” (Job 36:16). In the Kabbalistic Jewish tradition, a mystical form of Judaism, one of God’s secret names is MAKOM, which means the wide space. God is known as a broad, open space for living – and brings us to those vast, broad, open spaces.

You can almost feel it in Isaiah’s vision of what Yahweh’s servant will do, which Christians have come to see as a foreshadowing of Christ. Empowered by the ruach of God, this servant will bring forth justice – justice is the Bible’s word for making all things right, the healing of relationships, releasing the captive, and the restoration of all things; it allows people to live and to thrive. This servant will not further break that which is already bruised by life. This servant will not quench the dim flicker of light left burning within us. This servant will care for the bruised and wounded; create a safe place for them. He will not allow the light to go out, will not allow darkness to win over us, but will gently, carefully provide for the wick to burn bright. God’s justice allows people to live.

And then God provides a space for these vulnerable people. “Thus says God, Yahweh, who created the heavens and stretched them out” – see the spatial dimension of God’s creative love? “Who spread out the earth and what comes from it” – see the earth as the space for God’s people to live in? “Who gives breath to the people upon [the earth] and spirit to those who walk in it. I am Yahweh, I have called you in righteousness” – that is because God desires to be in relationship with us – “I have taken you by the hand and kept you.” Noted Old Testament theologian, Walter Brueggemann, sees in this text some of the most mature testimony in the Old Testament, asserting that Yahweh creates in such a way that brings about new outcomes for God’s people, that provides hopes. “In this testimony, the world is characterized, according to Yahweh’s intention and action, as a hospitable, viable place for life, because of Yahweh’s will and capacity to evoke and sustain life.”

And the expansiveness of God’s creative Spirit continues through the servant. This is what he will do, “Open the eyes that are blind, …bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD, that is my name… See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; …” What’s all the more remarkable about this vision is that Isaiah wrote this text to Israel during its exile and captivity in Babylon. But God will allow a space. The dungeon is neither definite nor defining. Something new will emerge.

Jean Vanier tells a prison story. Vanier is the founder of l’Arche, a network of communities that provide safe, comfortable places (like Noah’s Ark) for people who are severely disabled, abused, and abandoned by society. As a Christian, Vanier believes that to care for the least of these is to actually minister to Christ. He tells the story of preaching to prisoners in a high security prison in Kingston, Ontario. He told the prisoners about the type of people l’Arche welcomes, men and women who have witnessed so much pain, failure, dejection, so much suffering, of their broken childhoods. As he shared his story, he knew he was talking about their story. At the end of his talk, one of the inmates got up and screamed at him: “You, …you’ve had an easy life!” Then starting at age four he offered a long litany of the things he witnessed or were done to him – which I can’t recount in this context. Brutal. All leading to his first arrest at age thirteen. “If anyone else comes into this prison to talk about love I will kick his bloody head in.”

Vanier didn’t know what to say, so he prayed silently as this man verbally attacked him. And then he said, “It’s true what you say. I have had an easy life! It’s true, I do not know what you have lived. But what I do know is that everything you have just said is important. People outside this prison often judge you without knowing your pain, your story, your childhood experiences. Will you allow me to tell people outside what you have just told me today?” “Yes,” he replied. “You may have things to tell us, but one day you will be getting out of prison and perhaps you will need to know and hear things about life outside the prison.” When the question time was over, Vanier went up to this man and shook his hand. He asked for his name and where he was from. He was surprised to learn that the inmate was married. Vanier asked, “Tell me about your wife.” Then this man, who had been so violent, who had seemed to have such hatred in him, broke down in tears.” He has a wife in Montreal, in a wheelchair, whom he hadn’t seen in two years. Vanier says, “I was in front of a wounded, vulnerable little child, weeping, crying out for love and tenderness.”
[4] “A bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Such is the love of Christ at work in the world that continues to make space for people, even in the places of our confinement.

Where are your dungeons? What are your prisons?

God desires and ultimately sent his Servant in the form of a Son to release everyone from those tight,
confining places in our lives where we cannot see,
from all that constrains and constricts us,
from those places or circumstances
where we cannot breathe or that suck the life out of us,
in order to set us down in a vast, broad place where there is no cramping, places where we sense the expansiveness of God’s love for us,
places where we can breathe
and stretch our limbs
and feel our hearts expand,
places where we know the infinite freedom of God,
a God who seeks to plant us in places where we can be born
and born again
and again
and live
and be vital
and be a blessing to the world.

Perhaps we can think of baptism in Christ as our entrée into the space of God’s liberation and release – God’s hospitality makes sacred space for us to live as one of His children, and in love we make space for others to live and thrive.

That’s what a church is – a sacred space of belonging,
a place for the bruised and wounded and vulnerable,
a safe place,
a place of peace and kindness,
where people can live and thrive,
which extends the freedom of God,
to all who wish to share in its life.

We become more and more the spacious church of God when we remember
the same ruach of God that rested on Jesus
is now,
because of our baptism,
resting upon us – upon us, in us.

[1] Richard Rodriquez, “The God of the Desert: Jerusalem and the Ecology of Monotheism,” Harper’s, January/2008: 35.
[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 43.
[3] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 145-146.
[4] Jean Vanier, Befriending the Stranger (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 10-11.
[5] Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin: “When the heart expands and we can stretch our limbs, and feel the new vitality everywhere, then life unfolds in us. But it needs a living space in which it can develop. Life in the Spirit is life in the ‘broad place where there is no cramping’ (Job 36:16). So in the new life we experience the Spirit as a ‘broad place’ - as the free space for our freedom, as the living space for our lives, as the horizon inviting us to discover life.” Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 178-179.

06 January 2008

Characters at the Crèche: The Magi

Matthew 2:1-12
Epiphany of the Lord/6th January 2008

In Dickens’ (1812-1870) A Christmas Carol (1843), old Jacob Marley says to Scrooge on the night of his visitation, “At this time of the rolling year, I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!” The sight of Jacob Marley is a fitting image when approaching this text, for it is burdened by a “ponderous chain” which we have forged “link by link, and yard by yard;”
[1] it’s the ponderous chain of tradition linked to tradition that encumbers this text, making it almost impossible to bear. Buried somewhere at the bottom is the real story of the star and the identity of these foreigners with gifts and why Matthew includes it as integral to the good news of Jesus.

So let’s unlink the chain, perhaps releasing the story from the tradition. Who are these guys? Let’s just call them guests for the moment. As we know, the text doesn’t say there were three. Some Eastern traditions claim there were twelve or thirteen. By the fifth century the number is fixed at three and they’re given names – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. By the sixth century they took on symbolic meaning, representing three ages – youth, middle age, and old age. Around the same time, through a reading of Isaiah 60, “the wealth of the nations shall come to you,” (Is. 60:5), the three came to represent the races of the known world: Europe, Africa, and Asia.

In the 4th century, the Spanish poet Prudentius (348-405/413) identified the three as “kings,” although Matthew never gives them that title. His poem would evolve through the Middle Ages and eventually become our carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” In a text from the twelfth century, the biography of the bishop of Milan, St. Eustorgius, who died in 350 AD, tells how Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helen (c.250 – c.330), discovered the tombs of the three guests in the East.
[2] She had their bodies transferred to the Church of St. Sofia in Constantinople. When Eustorgius became bishop of Milan, the Emperor authorized the remains to be transferred there. And there they remained until their journey continued – these guys are always on the move, they can’t seem to rest anywhere (!) – when Frederick Barbarossa (1122-1190), the Holy Roman Emperor, moved them to Cologne, Germany, in 1164. Today their remains are in a golden shrine in the massive cathedral in Cologne. Well, at least someone’s remains have been moved all over the place for centuries.

I say “someone’s” because Marco Polo (1254-1324) tells us in his journey across modern-day Iran in 1270s, he was shown three tombs, one for each of the guests
[3] – who were not kings, according to Matthew, and not really wise men either (as most Bibles tell us), but magoi, plural of magos, a Greek derivative of a very old Persian word Magupati, which refers to one thing: the priestly caste within Zoroastrianism – one of the oldest religions of the ancient world, influencing both Greek and Roman philosophy, bridging the religions of the East and West, and still practiced today in Iran and India.[4] They paid close attention to the stars; they were early astronomers. The Magi were the scientists of their day, even advancing the field of mathematics. They were also astrologers, which explains why the term magi has been applied to the occult in general and, in English, the root of our word magic. Think: Harry Potter. In order to avoid any reference to magic, the King James Version called them “wise men.”

And what about those gifts? So many different theories. Gold, frankincense, myrrh – gifts fit for a king, a prophet, and a priest? Were they tools of the Magoi trade that the Magi now give up because they have found the knowledge of the universe in the face of Jesus? But what would a poor craftsman family do with these exotic gifts any way? The English deist, Thomas Woolston (1668-1733) once quipped, “If they had brought sugar, soap, and candles they would have acted like wise men.” The gifts were probably pawned in order to afford the exorbitantly expensive trip to Egypt. There’s no mention of them anywhere else in scripture. Although, there are monks in the monastery of St. Paul on Mount Athos in Greece who have a gold case they claim contains all three of the gifts.

In Matthew’s version the Magi were not present on the night Jesus was born. They arrived at a house (not a manger), to see a child (not an infant). But when they do see him, Matthew tells us, “They knelt down and paid him homage.” It’s easy to overlook this description – of course that’s what they would do. The Greek here means to kneel, but also to fall prostrate, with your face to the ground in deference. In the Persian world, this was a gesture of utmost respect and honor. But in the Roman and Jewish world, kneeling and prostration were considered undignified. However, it was reserved in the Jewish tradition for only one thing, for epiphanies – for revelation, a manifestation of the Holy, for the appearance of God: an epiphany so incredible, so amazing that the wisest of the world, the scientists of his age, knelt before the knowledge of God revealed in his birth. Matthew tells us that this was an epiphany so astonishing, so astounding for Matthew that even Gentiles, foreigners, people unlike him, could recognize in Jesus’ birth the dawning of a new day for all the nations of the world. A new light breaks forth, not from a star, but from his luminous face – so that in his light we see light and in his truth find freedom. His light leads us through a threshold into a new day, a new way to live and to die, a new way to embrace God and be embraced by God, a new way that prevents us from going back to the old ways, a new way that never quite leaves us feeling, thinking, or believing the same way. Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) once said, “Having come to know Jesus we are forbidden to return by the way we came.”

When the Magi knelt before Jesus one journey came to an end. But they didn’t stay there. When they got up on their feet a new journey began, going home by another road. Jesus’ birth attracts us, calls us to journey toward him; but there’s also a journey from him, that he sends us on, into new possibilities, new adventures, through new thresholds of faithful risk and service that we would probably never venture toward except for having encountered him. That’s what epiphanies do – they change everything and send us through new thresholds, down different roads.

There’s a custom in some European countries that on Epiphany people (sometimes children) go from door to door and write with chalk over the threshold of a house: C+M+B and then the year. They stand for: Christus mansionem benedicat. The letters are also the initials of the Magi – Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar. Christus mansionem benedicat – Christ bless this house.

As the light of Christ sends us through the threshold into a New Year – may our homes and this household of faith know in new ways the blessings of Christ in 2008. We will be embarking upon new adventures as a church this year where we will be asked to take faithful risks, go in new directions, down new roads, and asked to continue the journey of the Spirit who longs to take us where we need to go. That’s what epiphanies do.

[1] Charles Dickens, The Christmas Books: Volume I - A Christmas Carol/The Chimes (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), 61.
[2] The twelfth century text is the Vita Eustorgii.
[3] Marco Polo, The Book of the Million, Book 1. “In Persia is the city of Saba, from which the Three Magi set out and in this city they are buried, in three very large and beautiful monuments, side by side. Above them there is a square building, beautifully kept. The bodies are still entire, with hair and beard remaining.”
[4] The religion of Zoroaster emerges in the 9th/10th century BC. It enters recorded history in the mid-5th century BC, through the Greek historian Herodotus’ (c.484-c.425 BC) The Histories (completed c. 440 BC), known as “the Father of History.”