Radical Preaching

Can preaching again have something to say?
This blog marks the attempt to bring the theological vision of Radical Orthodoxy into the worship and preaching of the local church.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

New Years Day Sermon

Radical Preaching - My 63 year old Sr. Pastor is still a pretty sharp preacher -
Matthew 2:1-12
FUMC Gainesville, FL – January 1, 2006
Rev. Earl Parker
It’s too bad that videos were not being made when this story of the astrologers, or the wise men, if you will, first found its way into Matthew’s Gospel. The material is all there: adventure, intrigue, courage, and even “good guys” who outfox the “bad guy”.
But all these ingredients make up only the backdrop or the framework for the real story; the kind of story that lies beyond the scope of most videos. In fact, this story is too good for video. It doesn’t belong on a tape or disc. It belongs in our hearts.
Why? Because it’s a story concerning something quite marvelous about our God and about the marvel this God has put within us. It’s a story that holds the key to many of the relational problems we face on the international scene, in the groups of which we are a part, and in our own personal lives. We can’t afford to relegate such a story to a video that is used for entertainment and put on a shelf to be taken off in a year or so, or even taped over with another story.
If this isn’t a story about three nice astrologers and a bad king, what is it about? For starters, it’s a story about the God of Jesus. This isn’t just any old God, but a very unique God in the history of religions.
Some years ago, Vincent Donovan, an American missionary, was working with the Masai people in East Africa. In a subsequent book entitled Christianity Rediscovered, Donovan recounts an initial discussion he had with some of the Masai people. He had begun by inviting them to tell him about their god. They described a god they knew as Engai. This was a god who loved some people, but not others.
Engai loved rich people but not poor people. This was a god who loved good people but not bad people. It was a god who loved the healthy but not the sick. The god of the Masai was a god who sided with their tribe against all other tribes. Indeed, theirs was a god who drew lines as to who mattered and who didn’t matter.
Father Donovan listened and then he began to tell the Masai about a most high God who loved everybody. This was the God of Abraham. The Masai, in turn, asked Donovan if this God of Abraham, a God who loves everybody, had spoken to Donovan’s tribe, meaning us, you and me.
The missionary was both embarrassed and saddened because he realized that the answer to their question was “no”. He thought about the so-called Christian God who is called upon for victory by both sides in a typical war. In the 1940’s, Christians in Berlin prayed for Hitler and the cause of Nazism while the Christians in the United States prayed with equal fervor for the destruction of that same cause. Each thought that God was on their side.
As it is, we have the Black people’s god and the white people’s god. In the minds of some, god is all for straight people and totally non-accepting of gay people. Indeed, our God is all too often no less tribal, no less discriminating, as Donovan puts it, than the god Diana of the Ephesians or the god Engai of the Masai.
None of this has anything to do with the God of Jesus, the God implied in today’s familiar Bible story. Here is a God who invited everyone into the brotherhood of Jesus. When we reflect on this story, it may be well to place it in the larger landscape of the other stories we have reflected upon in the Advent/Christmas Season.
What begins to emerge is an all-inclusive God who doesn’t fit the image projected by so many of the tribes of history, including our own. Indeed, would this God be welcome in many of the very churches that celebrate this epiphany? Inclusiveness seldom sits well among people who worship a tribal god.
Listen to where it all began. The announcement of the coming was made to a young woman. That God would approach a woman wasn’t in keeping with the thought of the times. You may have seen the movie “YENTL” in which the lead character, played by Barbara Streisand, had to masquerade as a young man in order to be allowed to study the Torah.
And who was the forerunner of Jesus? He was a cousin who hardly fit the mold of the socially acceptable. And then the Son of God becomes incarnate! God enters the realm of the human and where does he choose to do so but in the unrespected town of Bethlehem, a place for the uncouth. A stable that was hardly the Mariott Inn of its day becomes both the birthing room and the nursery.
Even the invitees tell the story of God’s inclusiveness: unschooled shepherds from the fields, and, as we hear today, the very well schooled from the Middle East. These astrologers were certainly outside the tribe of accepted religionists.
Might God be trying to tell us something by having three astrologers, considered to be infidels by the local tribe, as special guests at the centerpiece of God’s involvement in the human condition? Who else other than the God of Jesus would have made sure that three infidels would be at the birth scene of his Son?
How about today? If we were to make up the guest list, whom would we invite? Who would be scratch off the list and whom would we simply not think about inviting? Would the people who don’t believe our way be on the list? What about the Muslim people? What about the Buddhists and the Hindus? What of the agnostics or even the professed atheists? Would any of those people come to mind, and if so, would it be as equals of in some condescending way?
What of the socio-economic status? Would we think to invite the have-nots, the homeless, or the people we call “bums”, on the same level as the corporate CEO’s or the religious leaders? In fact, would we put any one group ahead of the other?
Would life style make a difference? Would the young couple living together be invited in without accusing eyes? Would those who are homosexual be as welcome as those who are heterosexual? Would race make a difference, at least in regard to whom we want to sit next to us?
Unless we can become inclusive ourselves, it’s difficult to conceive of a God who is inclusive. The marvel, of course, is that this God even includes those who ARE NOT themselves inclusive!
These kings have a lot to teach us. Their wisdom wasn’t the result of having found the Christ Child. Rather it was their wisdom that prompted them to search for him in the first place. A truly wise person knows that God is far too encompassing and far too wonderful to be fully understood or appreciated at any given moment in one’s life.
Many of us learned of God early in life. We learned Bible stories, perhaps even memorized a verse or two. We were told things about God and became familiar with the rituals, precepts, and traditions of our religion. But all too often this became equated with an adequate understanding of God. It’s as if we had captured God on video and there was nothing else to learn.
Think about that! If any one culture or religion, let alone any one person, could capture an understanding of God, what would that say about God? It would seem that such a God isn’t at all limitless. Such a God would, by definition, be rather narrow. Certainly, an all wise, all marvelous, all loving God is beyond the limited wisdom, the limited goodness, and the limited love that any of us can muster at any one time in our lives.
This is precisely why God gives us more time. If we are still alive, at this moment in time, there is something else our God wants us to learn. Life, in fact, is a learning assignment given by a Creator about whom there is always something else to discover.
Which of us can say that we have a truly life-giving relationship with a person about whom we stopped learning more a year or many years ago? People are simply too complex to be totally understood by another at any one point in time.
Anyone who has been married for any length of time knows that. Any parent who has watched the growth of a child knows that. If our human relationships can’t survive only on the knowledge we had of each other from some moment in the past, then what of our relationship with God?
If our friends, our spouses, and our children area constantly offering something else for us to discover about them, that we might grow in that relationship, then what of God? “How incomprehensible are His ways?”
Do we, perhaps, have a tendency to make our God too small by pretending that we have already learned all there is for us to know about that God, or are we wise in the way of the there travelers in the Gospel story today who were wise enough to search for more? To believe that there is nothing else of benefit to discover, when indeed there is, is to have missed wisdom altogether.
The God of today’s story is a God who is not only big enough to accept everyone, even the people we reject or look down our noses at, but this God is also big enough that only those who are willing to leave where they are and search where they have not yet looked can truly be called wise.
The star that led the three wise men to Bethlehem can still lead anyone who is open enough to look for it.


Blogger Scott said...

Great sermon. Thanks for sharing it Nathan.

I think that element of journeying faithfully into the unknown is present in the lectionary readings for Epiphany.


January 14, 2006 5:48 AM  

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