Today many Christians observe Epiphany, commemorating the coming of wise men to see the infant Jesus, following the star until they found him in Bethlehem. Epiphany concludes the traditional twelve days of Christmas, and what it adds to our Christmas celebration is the Good News that God’s presence is a Gospel meant for all the world. The star shines for the redemption of all of humanity. The wise men who sought out the infant Christ came from beyond the family lineage of Israel, and together they symbolize the longing for life and love, hope and peace, that every member of the human community shares. As the Gospel of John’s opening lines declare, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” On Epiphany we celebrate that the imperative of the prophet Isaiah is an invitation for the whole world: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Epiphany may be a specifically Christian holy day, but in our celebration we the Church are simply what theologian Karl Barth once called the “provisional representation of all humanity.” In our Epiphany celebration, we foreshadow a hope for all people, the light of life, Emmanuel, God with us!
Grace and truth. Neither is in great supply these days. Grace and truth can be scarce in the church or at family holiday gatherings, but they are virtually unicorns in American politics, rumored to be real but never actually seen. In our post-fact era, there is no such thing as truth, for reality is whatever my favorite cable channel or internet site says it is. And in our hyper-partisan political culture, where political opponents are no longer fellow citizens but enemies of the people, grace gives way to demonization. In the eyes of Democrats, Republicans are racist, cowardly, and enslaved to the wealthy elite. In the standard rhetoric of Republicans, Democrats are anti-religious intellectuals bent on undermining American security with open borders, while redistributing wealth to eliminate the need to work. The absence of grace and truth in our politics increasingly bleeds into how we relate to our neighbors, family members, and church kin.
This past week I was blessed to spend a couple of days hanging out with friends in Greenville, South Carolina. I have known Susan, Ken, and Leeann for only three years or so, when I joined a committee for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that they were already serving. In a short period of time, they have become some of my closest friends. When we are working together, we are writing theology exams for our denomination’s ordination process, and it is wonderful to bond with them in our common love of theological tradition and the church. But what has pulled us together runs deeper than theology. These friends understand (and to varying degrees share) my extreme introversion. They endorse and encourage my love of bourbon and gin. Perhaps most important of all, they match my school-bus sense of humor with disgusting antics of their own. (Well, Susan and Leeann are happy to meet me in the gutter with inappropriate jokes and innuendos, while Ken futilely tries to model humor that is a little less adolescent.) They care about me, not because I do something for them, but simply because I am. Two days with this Fun Bunch yielded more laughs and spiritual restoration than I have enjoyed in a long, long time. It was holy time.
In the most racially divisive moment in the United States since the Civil Rights Movement, we are discovering that we are not “one nation under God,” but two Americas, living in the same national space. One America recognizes that we are becoming increasingly diverse as a nation, with experts projecting that people of color will outnumber white citizens in less than a generation. This America welcomes diversity and celebrates how rich and interesting our country becomes with the embrace of racial, ethnic, cultural, and sex/gender difference. This America accepts the truth that to live up to our moniker as the “city on a hill,” we must embrace our tradition as a nation of immigrants and establish border policies that are both disciplined and gracious. This America acknowledges that our national history is built on injuries to people of different races, cultures, and countries, but it seeks to remedy that legacy by the confession of sins and commitment to a future of fairness and mutual respect.
But there also is a second America, gripped by fear and simmering with resentment, inhabited by groups used to occupying the majority and serving as the measure of what is normal, but who now are in danger of losing their country to an element that feels foreign and alien.
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What happens when we approach disagreement not as a problem to solve, but as an opportunity to practice Christian virtue?
In this book, James Calvin Davis reclaims the biblical concept of forbearance to develop a theological ethic for faithful disagreement. Pointing to Ephesians and Colossians, in which Paul challenged his readers to “bear with each other” in spite of differences, Davis draws out a theologically grounded practice in which Christians work hard to maintain unity while still taking seriously matters on which they disagree.
A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont, on April 14, 2019
There is a movement within Christian worship in the last couple of decades to observe this day of the Christian year as Passion Sunday, or Palm/Passion Sunday, instead of just Palm Sunday. In other words, on this Sunday we observe in worship the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, but in the deliberate context of the rest of Holy Week. That often means including Scripture not only about the entry but also about the Passion of Christ, and to have the movement of our hymns go from “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” at the beginning of the hour to “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” at the end. This tendency toward observing Passion Sunday has historical connections, but the main concern that motivates it is to ensure that churchgoers get the whole picture. The reality is that most Protestants don’t come to church between Sundays, so if we observe only the triumphal entry today, most churchgoers will go from happy day (Palm Sunday) to happy day (Easter) with no opportunity to reflect on the all-important moment of Christ on the cross. And without the cross, however we interpret it, we do not understand the significance of Christ.
I think there’s a lot of wisdom in the move toward Passion Sunday and the concerns that motivate it. And yet there is cost. The cost is that in our movement toward the cross we do only a quick run past the spectacle of Palm Sunday. In our effort to encapsulate the full meaning of Holy Week in a Sunday service, we risk spending very little time on the beginning. The triumphal entry disappears in the shadow of the cross, and we leave church wondering, “Why did we pass out those palms?”
Like many of you, I have been struggling with the news coming out of New Zealand a week or so ago. Fifty people were killed in an act of terror on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The victims’ only crime was gathering as Muslims for prayer. The attack was perpetrated by a man who identifies as a white nationalist, a resister to the alleged global effort to exterminate white people. His manifesto, meant to inspire others in the cause, was itself inspired by (among other influences) white nationalist rhetoric, efforts, and validations here in the United States. For a week the entire nation of New Zealand has been mourning fifty people killed in the name of hate.
I’ve been preoccupied with this news this week, and with the unimpeded rise in dangerous racist sentiment here and around the world. As a Christian, I also am underwhelmed by the response of the Church to moments like these. To be sure, many Christian denominations came out immediately with thoughtful and earnest denunciations of the violence and expressions of genuine sympathy and concern for the victims of this tragedy, and for New Zealand as a national community. But many of those statements strike my ear as somewhat innocuous, expressing genuine sorrow but not quite capturing the anger I have in moments like these. Our hearts go out to our Muslim sisters and brothers.… We must put an end to the violence…. Is this all that Christians can say?
This week many Methodists in the United States are struggling with their denomination’s latest reaffirmation of opposition to same-sex marriage and openly gay clergy. For many this will feel like the last straw, the final push to leave the Methodist fold. Whether to stay and fight the good fight or seek a church community that more closely shares our convictions is a complicated and difficult decision. But the decision to stay and persist in the struggle for inclusion and equality can be seen as a virtuous one, consistent with both Christian forbearance and the righteous struggle for justice. In Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church, I wrote this about persistence as an expression of Christian patience:
A sermon preached the third Sunday in Advent 2018
I’m going out on a limb here, I know, but I bet John the Baptist didn’t have many friends. I mean, c’mon, the guy doesn’t sound like a fun person to hang around with. Let’s start with the way that he greets the throngs of people who come out to see him: “You brood of vipers!” Now the term “brood of vipers” will be my first choice if ever I make good on my dream of forming a motorcycle club, but it’s not a very pleasant greeting for a crowd of people who have come to the outskirts of town seeking the Messiah, a Deliverer from God. And it doesn’t get any better from there. The theme of John’s proclamation is divine judgment and repentance, not hope and salvation. He sounds like he’s basically threatening them, with all the wielding axes and impaling forks and the burning of unquenchable fire. He tells the people that they’re basically replaceable—“I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise children to Abraham.” And he’s not much more flattering to himself, telling the crowd, who thinks he may be the chosen one of God, “I’m nothing. I’m doing magic tricks here. The guy coming down the pike is so good, I couldn’t even take off his shoes.”