All is Vanity?

Scripture: Ecclesiastes 1:1-2, 12-18

I’m pretty sure Ecclesiastes is one of the most underappreciated books of the Bible.  If we were to follow the lectionary, the three-year cycle of scripture readings that many churches use, we would only come across Ecclesiastes once.  We do actually get some well-known sayings from it – “There’s nothing new under the sun,” for example, though probably not that many of us could have actually said that that came from Ecclesiastes; as well as at least one pop song, “Turn, Turn, Turn” by the Byrds.  Still, it’s not a book from which we get the kind of memorable stories we might have learned in Sunday School, and while it does contain some Proverbs-style nuggets of wisdom, they are not the kind you’d be likely to find cross-stitched on a pillow.  “A good name is better than precious ointment,” begins chapter 7, optimistically, and then the verse continues, “and the day of death than the day of birth.”  Womp womp.

But I love Ecclesiastes.  I really believe that it is one of the most modern, relevant books in the Bible, and that’s because this is a book about a person on a search for meaning and purpose in his life, who happens to find that meaning somewhat elusive and scoffs at easy answers.

We’ve all been there, right?  We graduate and move out only to realize we’re not really sure who we are or what direction we’re going.  We get entrenched in a career or place or relationship and wonder if the path we’re on is really the right path for us, whether it’s too late to try something different and whether it would be a mistake if we did.  We reach middle age and wonder if this is all there is.  Our kids move out and we wonder who we are when we’re no longer a parent first.  We retire and wonder how to fill our days if not with work.  We face the end of our lives and we wonder if we’ve gotten it right, if it’s all been enough.

You may not experience a crisis of meaning at all these levels, but at some point, we’ve all been there, right?  And maybe some of us are there now.  If that’s the case, Ecclesiastes is your book.

One thing you may know or think you know about Ecclesiastes is that it was written by King Solomon.  It is attributed to “the son of David, the king in Jerusalem,” though the Hebrew is too late for Solomon to actually have written it.  He does make a useful persona for the writer, though, as the quintessential man who has everything.

So who is this writer on a search for the meaning of life?  He’s called the “Teacher,” or sometimes “Preacher,” which in Hebrew is Qoheleth and in Latin, Ecclesiastes. Though I refer to the book as Ecclesiastes, I like to refer to the author and main character as Qoheleth, which kind of helps separate them, even though they mean the same thing.

As Qoheleth embarks on his search for meaning, he first decides that he is going to set out to become the wisest person in the world.  And you might think the problem is he fails at it, but he doesn’t fail at it.  He succeeds.  “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me,” he says.  It’s just that…in the end, as it turns out, what good is wisdom, really?

It’s just vanity, he says, and chasing after wind.  We’ll come back to this word, vanity.

So he decides to try something completely different, and instead live for pure pleasure.  So he drinks only the best wine, and surrounds himself with beautiful women, and he amasses great wealth, more than anyone ever before him. But it’s not just about himself, it’s also about the legacy he leaves behind, and so he builds gardens and parks and pools and vineyards, things he’s sure to be remembered for.

Again – he doesn’t fail at what he tries to do; he “surpasse[s] all who were before [him] in Jerusalem.”  Then he he looks around and he said, “So what?”

“I considered all that my hands had done, Qoheleth writes, “and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

Let’s come back to this word, vanity.  It doesn’t mean the “you’re so vain” kind of vanity.  Instead it’s more like doing something in vain.  There’s no one perfect translation for the Hebrew word, hebel, but it means something like pointless, meaningless; a puff of air; that thing that we keep chasing after that always just eludes us; it’s trying to hold water in our hands; it’s a cat chasing a laser, it’s trying to grasp something un-graspable.  It’s vanity, hebel.

Do you know the feeling?

Do you ever find yourself getting up when it’s dark, working until it’s dark, going home, maybe going out, getting paid, feeling like you’re chasing something you never quite seem to catch up to?

Do you ever wonder what it’s really all about?

We might say that Qoheleth’s problem is that he was looking for meaning in the wrong places.  It’s not hard for those of us who are inclined to come to church to say that ultimate meaning probably isn’t found in alcohol and concubines or wealth.  We are familiar enough with stories of people who got everything they wanted – fame, money, success –only to discover they wanted the wrong things.

But what about wisdom?  That sounds like a pretty good pursuit.

Then again, I remember a morning a few years ago when Divine and I walked into the church and found that a pipe had burst and part of the church had flooded.  Maybe you remember that too.  I spent that morning rescuing books from my office and taking them upstairs, all those books that I had collected, that contained and symbolized the knowledge I had acquired over the course of two degrees, all those books that were almost lost in an instant.  But mostly what I thought as I walked up and down those stairs, was – how many of those books would I really have missed, anyway?  Hebel, all of it.

But what if Qoheleth devoted himself to something else, something like service to others?  A cause greater than himself? What if he devoted himself to working for justice?  Maybe then he would have found what he was looking for.

I do happen to believe there’s a lot of meaning to be found in a life that is lived for others, in seeking the Kingdom of God here on earth, and I happen to think that Jesus would agree with me.  That, after all, is why we open the doors of the church to our homeless neighbors during the week, and why we make sandwiches for the Homeless Services Center, and why we’re talking about what our just and faithful response should be to the conflict in Israel-Palestine.

But still – what if the work we do never really seems to make a difference?  What if nothing seems to change the world?  What if the hours we spend volunteering start to just seem like one more part of the daily grind?  What if sometimes, all of that starts to seem like hebel too?

And besides, it’s not just his own life that Qoheleth sees as hebel: it’s the whole world around him.  The sun rises, and the sun sets, and nothing really changes.  Around him people work too hard and stress themselves out about the future and hoard their wealth and then they die.  People with power treat those without unfairly, and nothing seems to make sense, and again the sun rises and the sun sets, and all is hebel.  Even if you don’t quite believe that that is true, surely you at least know the feeling.

So.  Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you…

(This is why we don’t cross-stitch verses from Ecclesiastes, because at this point, while it may resonate with a certain aspect of the human experience, it also sounds pretty bleak.  This is what you come to church for, right – some good old nihilism to start your week?)

The question becomes, how do we find meaning in a world full of hebel?

As Christians I’m sure we suspect the answer has something to do with Jesus, but Qoheleth is several hundred years too early to explicitly find the meaning of life in Jesus.

So what do you think, after all this, his conclusion is?

What if I asked you to fill in the last part of another famous saying from the book of Ecclesiastes: Eat, drink, and…

It’s not quite “Be merry.” Instead, what Qoheleth concludes, after failing to find meaning in all these other things, is this: “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.”

One the one hand, there’s nothing especially holy sounding about that, and I think it’s important to say that there are many other possible answers to this question of meaning that we might find in our Bibles.  We don’t read Ecclesiastes alone!  In Acts, Luke writes about apostles who felt the fire of the Holy Spirit driving them forward in mission; when you know what God has created you to do, there’s no time to stop and worry about the meaning of life.  Paul might remind us that even if we have everything in the world, all wealth and all wisdom, or even if we pursue holy poverty, but don’t have love, we really have nothing.  And Jesus himself tells us that “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” and he reminds us that the sum of everything he is teaching is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he says, “for they will be called the children of God.”

If we’re looking for meaning in our lives, these are all good places to start.  Love.  Service.  Peacemaking.  Sharing the Gospel.  Living the abundant life that Jesus both embodies and invites us into.

But the truth is I do find something beautiful and holy in Qoheleth’s answer too, especially when we read it in conversation with the rest of the Bible: that if life is hebel, or even if it just feels that way sometimes, then what you should do is eat, drink, and find enjoyment in your work.  It’s thanking God for our daily bread – which is not too much, and not too little.  It’s gratitude for the people we eat and drink with, the people we have and love today, even if we don’t know what tomorrow might bring.  It’s finding something to appreciate in whatever work we do, which for most of us is not work that will ultimately change the world.  Still, we can do what God has given us to do – whether it’s the work we get paid for or the work we do as volunteers or the work we do as part of a church community or simply the work we do as we go about our daily lives – and we can do those things as if unto God and not unto people, and maybe we can at least make the world a little better for those around us – and that is a good, faithful, meaningful life.

There’s a freedom in that, I think – freedom from the burden of thinking that my life has to be outwardly significant for it to have meaning; freedom from the treadmill of trying to figure out how significant is significant enough: how much money, how much wisdom, how much service, how much fame, how much do I have to accomplish for it all to mean something?

Nothing. None of it.

And that’s why, as much as his words sometimes seem to be full of gloom and doom, some have also called Qoheleth the Preacher of Joy.  There is something joyful about this idea of leaving ultimate meaning to God, and simply faithfully doing our work for God’s Kingdom and giving thanks to God while we’re here.

I’ve told you all before that one of my favorite movies ever is As Good As It Gets, which if you don’t remember from the 90s is about a man named Melvin Udall who struggles with OCD and other mental illness as well as general crotchetiness, and there’s a scene where he marches into his psychiatrist’s office unannounced and demands to be seen after a rough week and some drama with his dubious love interest Carol.  The psychiatrist refuses to see him without an appointment, and as Melvin leaves, infuriated, he turns to the crowd of people sitting in the waiting room and says, “What if this is as good as it gets?”

There’s an audible gasp and then silence, because of course every single person in that waiting room is there with the hope that life can be more than it is right now.

But this is also kind of a turning point for Melvin, because from here on he seems to gradually realize that if this is as good as it gets, maybe he can work with that.  No more hiding from other people behind a shield of rudeness and bigotry.  Instead he will take his medicine, and he’ll take a chance on a real relationship with Carol, and he will help his newly homeless neighbor with a place to stay, and nothing is perfect or ideal or different all at once, but some joy begins to emerge in both accepting what life is not, and appreciating what it can be.

And just maybe, there is something in accepting the ultimate vanity of this life that opens us up to that which is eternal.  Maybe there’s something in dying to ourselves and our never-ending striving for something more – that allows us to rise again into life lived in the abundant grace of God.

Have you ever felt like Qoheleth?  Have you ever wondered what the meaning of it all is?  Maybe it’s only to be found in giving up our constant search for it – and, instead, in eating and drinking and sharing our abundance together, and faithfully doing our work for God’s Kingdom, and trusting God with the rest.

There may we find grace, and freedom, and beauty, and joy – all those things we didn’t know we were looking for all along.

 

 

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Faith of the Dog People

Guest Preacher: Rev. Alex Joyner, author of A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel and Palestine

Scripture: Matthew 15:21-28

I took a trip to Israel and Palestine in September.  It was my third time in the region and each time I go I’m convinced that there’s nothing to see there.

That sounds wrong.  There’s plenty to see there.  This time I saw the date farms of the Jericho River valley and got to eat some wonderful dates right off the tree at a packaging plant.  We went to a school in Bethlehem where Palestinian students are learning English and excelling.  We saw a new Palestinian city rising up from a mountainside near Ramallah.  We met Syrian refugees recuperating from the war in an Israeli hospital.

People—Jews, Muslims, Christians—spend a lot of their religious lives dreaming about the Holy Land and Jerusalem—imagining what it must look like.  They go on pilgrimages to see these places and touch these places and just to be there where Mohammed rose to the heavens on his night ride, where Abraham raised a knife over his son Isaac, where Jesus fed the multitudes.

So, yes, there’s a lot for pilgrims to see.  But the most important thing for Christians to see is nothing.  Emptiness.  Openness.  That’s what’s in the tomb.

We’re not even sure exactly where the tomb was.  The likeliest spot, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is covered over with an ornate shrine so that it doesn’t look anything like your Sunday School picture books.  The Garden Tomb looks more the part and it was a 1st century tomb, but we’re really not sure.

What is important is that, wherever it was, it was empty on Easter morning and this changes everything.  Old narratives about the truth of our lives and the world are overturned.  Old dreams and promises were vindicated.  God had crossed the yawning gap between God’s own self and the world and vanquished the hold that sin and death had on humanity.  In the resurrected Christ we see the new humanity.  He is the substance of our faith as Christians.

And what does this mean for the world that we hold on to this empty space?  What does it mean for Israelis and Palestinians who seem no closer now than 70 years ago to coming to some resolution of their conflict?  What does it mean for American Christians who want to do something about it?

“The relation of Christians to others,” the great theologian Karl Barth said, “is that they can hope for them.”

That seems pretty simple.  And very inadequate.  Because for us, who are practical people, hoping sounds a lot like wishing which sounds a lot like whistling in the dark which sounds a lot like why bother?  We want to see some action.  We want a solution.  One-state, two-state.  Or else some other thing.  Settlements dismantled.  Security barriers torn down.  Borders drawn.  Exiles returned. Boots on the ground.  Something.  But if the relation of Christians to others is that they can hope for them, what does that even look like?

It looks like…an interaction in Lebanon.  Or what became Lebanon in later years—the region of Tyre and Sidon.  Jesus has withdrawn here—withdrawn from Israel to this land of Gentiles.  Where he is confronted by a Gentile woman—a Canaanite—who comes to him and says a most extraordinary thing: “Have mercy on me, Lord, son of David.  My daughter is severely tormented by a demon.”

What’s extraordinary is not that her daughter has a demon.  Jews had told stories for years about the Gentiles and how prone they were to getting demon-possessed.  It’s like finding out that that North Korean defector was riddled with parasites.  You weren’t all that surprised, were you?  It just confirmed your suspicions about how horrible things are for the people there.

No, what’s surprising is that this woman recognizes Jesus, a Jew, and calls him by a Jewish Messianic title: Lord, son of David.  Israelites may be having trouble recognizing who he is, but this Canaanite woman doesn’t.

So Jesus…doesn’t say a word to her.  His disciples come up and say, “Just send her away.  She’s bugging us with her persistence.”

Jesus turns and talks to them—not the woman.  But she surely overhears and should have gotten the message when he said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

“Now, wait a minute,” you might ask.  “Where did this Jesus come from?”

If you didn’t know how Jesus was going to respond to the disciples would you have expected this?

They want to send the people away to get food when they’re out in the wilderness

and Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.”

They want to keep children away

and Jesus says, “Let the little children come unto me and forbid them not.”

They want to bring down fire on unbelieving villages

and Jesus says, “No.”

They want to shut this woman up

and Jesus says, “You’re right.  I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

Wait…what?

So the woman slunk away in silence, shamed by this encounter with Jesus.

O no, she didn’t!  She came up and knelt at his feet.  Actually the Greek says something more like she worshipped him.  Now she’s not the first one to do this in the gospel of Matthew.  The first people to kneel and worship at Jesus’ feet are…anybody?…the Magi, who also have the distinction of being foreigners.  You know…not Jews.  And yet they also recognize that if Jesus is good news and hope for Israel, he must also be good news and hope for the world.

This woman is not going to be distracted or ignored.  She sees that this man who says he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel is not in Israel.  That must mean something.

Besides she has a problem and the disciples can push her away.  They can all pretend she isn’t there.  But her daughter is sick and this is the Lord.  She kneels there at Jesus’s feet and says, “Lord, help me!”

To which Jesus replies, “It is not good to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

“There it is,” she could have thought.  “That ugly prejudice of the Israelites.  Just below the surface they believe all of us Gentiles are dogs.”

Let’s not be shocked by this.  We could be.  We could try to justify Jesus’s words by saying that he was testing her.  That he was being playful with her.  That he was playacting the part of the ugly Israelite.

But let’s see this with the eyes of the woman.  She knows who he is.  She’s not put off by the words.  She knows that he is good news even for dogs.  So even when she is confronted by the ugly reality of the gulf between Gentiles and Jews—the divides that were tearing the whole region apart—she is not going to let go of where the hope can be found.

She says, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat from the crumbs that fall from the table of their master.”

She has called forth the Lord who is Lord.  She has been audacious in her belief.  Jesus recognizes it and says, “O woman, great is your faith.  Let it be done as you wish.”  And her daughter was healed from that moment.

What a turnaround.  What is this faith that the woman has?  It is something she has done?  Is Jesus somehow saying that she is responsible for this miracle?  If so, how do I get that superpower?  What do I have to do?  How hard to do I have to believe?

Except the faith the woman has is not so much within her as it is in front of her.  In Jesus she has been confronted with the reality of how the universe operates.  In Jesus she has seen how it all comes together—not just the healing of her daughter but the healing of the whole world.

What does Christian hope look like?  As Barth put it, Christian hope is the “coming alive of the promise incorporated in the world.”  It’s a promise that was there in the beginning.  It’s the promise of Eden and the covenant.  It’s the promise of Israel that always makes room for unlikely aliens—Rahab the Canaanite prostitute, Ruth the Moabite widow—-and now an unnamed mother with a sick daughter.  It’s the promise that finds flesh in Jesus as the goal and future of the world.

What does Christian hope look like?  What does the faith of the Canaanite woman look like?  It’s the same.  It’s Christ.

Now this is an unreasonable to thing to take into a battle.  It’s an unreasonable thing to take into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  To say that the relation of Christians to other is to hope for them and that hope is a future becoming alive even now in the advent of Jesus—what does that say about what we should do?

Shouldn’t there be some more clear direction?  There are some Christians who believe that because modern Israel shares continuity with the biblical nation of Israel that we should be supporting an expansive Jewish state that stretches from the river to the sea.  There are others who look at the suffering of the Palestinian people and hear echoes of Jesus’s identification with the poor, the outcast, and the alien and therefore believe that we ought to be opposing the occupation of the Palestinian territories with economic sanctions and boycotts.

I’m going to be discussing some of these realities and particulars in the Sunday study following the service, so stick around.  But what it means that Jesus is the hope of the world is that Christ is good news—for every human person.  So we hold the narratives and realities of Israel and Palestine before Christ for healing and redemption.  And if we fail to see the humanity and promise in either side—if we see one side as blessed and the other as dogs—-then we fall into the horror that haunts the edges of this story of the Canaanite woman.  The Jesus who would not be hope for her cannot be hope for Israel.

Which brings us back to the tomb.  The tomb is not just empty; it’s open.  It’s got space for a new reality and a new possibility.  It’s a place where peace already reigns and we are just trying to live into it.  It’s a place where the narratives of conflict and division are rewritten.

And if conflict and division are the rule of the day in Israel and Palestine, and in red state and blue state, then perhaps the role of Christian hope is to stay close to Jesus, close to the story that defines all stories for us, and to stand with those who long for peace, hoping for them and with them.

On one of my trips to Jerusalem, I interviewed a young woman named Haneen.  We met at a restaurant overlooking East Jerusalem.  It was December and the restaurant had Christmas music playing.

Haneen was a graduate student at Hebrew University and she comes from a Sufi Muslim family.  Over the speakers “Ave Maria” started to play.  “I love this song,” Haneen said and she paused to listen, looking out the window at the city.

East Jerusalem is a difficult place to be these days, especially if you are a Palestinian resident.  After Israel annexed East Jerusalem following the 1967 War, Palestinians were given the option to become citizens or permanent residents of Israel.  Most chose not to become citizens.  They were given rights and benefits, but many of them aren’t aware of that or have difficulty accessing them.

Haneen, in her early 20s, had decided to start a social non-profit to help them.  Attaa helps Palestinian residents get the services they are entitled to.  At Attaa they help Arab-speakers interpret letters they have received, connect them to health care, and advocate for them when they receive unjustified bills.

But it’s still not enough for Haneen.  Beyond Attaa, she brings together Jewish and Palestinian students at Hebrew University for conversation groups.  She tutors Christian children, who are often the poorest of East Jerusalem children.  She works with a nutrition program for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim women.

She’s not naive.  She knows some people think she’s normalizing the situation by trying to help.  Giving cover for the greater injustice.  Others think it’s a drop in the bucket.  Pointless.  “I picked my way to deal with it,” Haneen told me.  “My philosophy is ‘Come.  Talk.  Let’s see where we will get…I consider myself a proud Palestinian, but before all of that, I’m a human being.”

Haneen continued to listen to “Ave Maria,” looking out at the homes and businesses and the walls of the Old City.  I was winding up the interview and I wanted to make sure I got the spelling of her name right.  “Haneen—do you know what it means?” she asked.  “It means ‘longing’ or ‘desire.’”

“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen,” the biblical book of Hebrews says.  Except it has been seen.  In the space where a new story has already been written.  In the faith of the Canaanite woman.  In the longing and desire—-I’m waiting with Haneen.  Along with all the dog people, I’m waiting in hope.

Thanks be to God.

More Than

Scripture: Mark 1:4-11

We’ve just been through the season of the year that is all Baby Jesus:  Advent, when Jesus’ birth was announced and anticipated; Jesus’ birth and then his presentation in the Temple at 40 days old during the 12-day season of Christmas; and last week, the visit of the wise men at Epiphany.  Matthew and Luke tell us these stories, and they are some of our most cherished.

Mark, however, doesn’t recount any stories about the miracle of Jesus’ birth or the reaction of nearby astrologers.  In Mark, the story begins with Jesus’ baptism.

In Mark the curtains open on John the Baptist.  Not baby John the Baptist leaping for joy in his mother Elizabeth’s womb, but grown-up John the Baptist, wearing his camel hair tunic and eating his locusts and baptizing the repentant masses and proclaiming that someone greater than him is coming.  When Jesus appears on the scene just a few verses later, he is likewise an adult, on the verge of beginning his own career in earthly ministry.

Mark is the kind of Gospel writer who likes to cut straight to the chase.

The baptism of Jesus is hardly the major holiday that Christmas is, but the liturgical calendar does bring us back here year after year, to this story which serves as the launching point for everything that is to come.   Jesus shows up as John is going about his business baptizing people, and all of a sudden he’s there to be baptized too.  Matthew tells us about the cognitive dissonance John had in this situation: he’s supposed to cleanse the one whose sandals he’s not worthy to untie?  The one who is greater than him needs something from him?  But as Mark tells it, John the Baptist doesn’t ask questions.  He just does what he is there to do.  It’s not really about him, anyway.

As Jesus comes up out of that water, he sees the heavens splitting open, and he sees a dove descending on him, and he hears these words: “You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased.”

I’ve read this story, in its various Gospel forms, a lot: like I said, the liturgical calendar brings us back to it year after year; but what I think I’ve always missed is just how personal that proclamation is.  I think I always pictured that moment as a proclamation and revelation for everyone gathered there at the Jordan River – and in fact, Luke does depict it more that way.  But as Mark tells it, these words, this vision are for Jesus alone.

Of course as Mark writes his gospel, this story functions to let us know who Jesus is from the outset.  But in the events themselves, these words, “You are my beloved Son,” are for Jesus himself.

Why does Jesus need to hear them?  Doesn’t he already know?

But then – he’s on the verge of beginning to live out his ultimate calling and purpose in this world, on the verge of beginning a life that is going to be wonderful and hard and lonely; a life that can really only end one way – and even if he knows those words are true, that he is the Son of God, that he is beloved, that his Father is pleased and delighted with who he is – it probably doesn’t hurt to be reminded.

After all, in the three or so years that followed, Jesus would be told a lot of things about who he was and what he was worth.  He would be called a glutton and a drunkard for attending too many dinner parties.  He would be called satanic for battling demons.  He would be looked askance at for the people he welcomed into his circle.  He would be labeled as a heretic and a traitor for the truths he told about his relationship with God and about God’s kingdom.   As John told it, he would even be looked down and doubted simply for coming from a place like Nazareth.

And maybe at those times he could hold on to those words that opened his story, because of course he was more than any of those things that people might have called or thought about him: he was God’s beloved Son, in whom God was well pleased.

And though we are not Jesus, Jesus’ followers have throughout the years heard those words as meant for us, too.

I like the fact that the liturgical calendar brings us back to this place right around the new year each year.  I say that knowing that  for a lot of us it probably doesn’t even feel like a new year anymore.  We’ve already had two weeks to fail at our resolutions, 14 days to get back into the grind and forget the hopefulness we had on January 1, half a month for that blank page to start looking kind of dogeared, and maybe those old doubts about who we are and what we are capable of are starting to creep back in.  But our Christian year reminds us that we are, in fact, still at the beginning of the story, still on the verge of something new.  And maybe we also need to be hear this truth again:

You are more than a number on a scale.

You are more than the money in your bank account.

You more than your relationship status.

You are so much more than any of those things.  You are a beloved child of God.

Henri Nouwen, the well-known late scholar and chaplain, wrote a whole book based on this premise when one day a journalist named Fred Bratman walked into his office at Yale for an interview.  At the end of a rather flat-feeling interview they got to talking, and eventually, over a number of years, the two men became close friends.

Henri Nouwen came to know in Fred Bratman a man who was searching for meaning and purpose.  In those years that followed that first interview, Fred got divorced, remarried, had a child; he tried different jobs, looking for the right fit.  Though he was a secular Jew, he was interested in the kind of spirituality that Henri Nouwen seemed to embody, though he felt no real connection to it, and one day he said, “Why don’t you write something for people like me?  Something about the spiritual life for secular people?”

Henri Nouwen, in response, wrote his book Life of the Beloved, and he began by recounting the story of Jesus’ baptism and writing these words: “Fred, all I want to say to you is ‘You are the Beloved,’ and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold.  My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being – ‘You are the Beloved.’”

He admits: “It is certainly not easy to hear that voice in a world filled with voices that shout: ‘You are no good, you are ugly; you are worthless; you are despicable, you are nobody – unless you can demonstrate the opposite.”[1]

I think of the time a few years ago when someone from the neighborhood here walked into my own office, someone who needed to talk.  Things weren’t going well in his job and he wasn’t sure how long he would still be there and he felt useless there in the meantime, though for various reasons he couldn’t just pick up and find something new.  So I said to him, “Well, maybe this is a time to remember that your primary identity isn’t your job.”

And he said, “Then what is it?”

If you’ve ever asked a question like that, then hear these words, let them “reverberate in every corner of your being”:

You are more than your job.

You are more than a paycheck, or the size of your debt.

You are more than your degree, or the letters after your name.

You are more than the successes or failures you have had in your life.

You are more than the mistakes you may have made.

You are the Beloved.

As we go deeper into the story of who Jesus was and is, in his life and death and resurrection and continuing presence in and with the church, we learn something of what it means for us to join him in baptism; for us to die as the people we once were and be reborn into new life as new people.  In Galatians, as Paul writes to a community ravaged by identity conflict – did you have to first convert to Judaism to be a Christian – that in baptism, all of those old markers of identity are left behind: “In Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female.”

Of course, none of those things about us cease to exist just because we’ve been baptized.  Baptism doesn’t change our ethnicity, or our gender, or, on its own, our socioeconomic status, and of course all of those things have the power to shape us and our experiences in this world.  But it does mean that in the Body of Christ, none of those things define us.  None of those things have the power to tell us who we are or what we’re worth to God or each other.

Today it might be different labels than the ones Paul wrote about that define us and try to tell us who we are and what we’re worth.  Or, sometimes, it might not be.  Regardless, hear this: In baptism, in the Body of Christ:

You are more than your gender.

You are more than the color of your skin.

You are more than where you come from.

You are more than your sexual orientation.

You are more than your diagnosis.

Those things all shape who you are, but they do not define you, and they do not define your worth.  You are God’s beloved child.

Maybe there are those of you who have not been baptized, and I believe those words are no less true for you: you are, first and foremost, God’s beloved child.  I hope you might think of baptism as a chance to hear those words Jesus heard for himself; and a response to God’s call to live into this new reality, one in we are more than all those things that try to sneak in and define and label and quantify us.  You don’t have to live in that old reality.  You are not beholden to it.  God invites you into something different.  For those of us who have been baptized: will you keep letting those things around and within you tell you who you are – or will you claim that first, primary, core identity you have been given?

My campus minister, David, used to remind us of once in a while when exam time rolled around: “You are more than your score on a test.”

To be honest, I was surprised to realize that, in the midst of the stress around exams and finals and what my GPA would look like at the end of it all, that those were words I needed to hear.  After all, I knew that – right?

Or did I?

There is a part of me that actually wanted to hold on to the idea of quantifying myself in that way, because, honestly, I was good at it.  Those numbers that came back on the top of that exam or paper, more often than not, gave me something to validate myself.  I wanted those letters and numbers to mean something fundamental about me, because in some ways, they were the one thing I ever felt good at.  I wanted them to define me, because if they did, then that would surely mean I was worth something.

But they still didn’t, not ultimately, even if I wanted them to.

And maybe that’s the flip side of all this, because sometimes, the scale or the resume or the bank account or the diploma on the wall or popular consensus tells us what we want to hear.  But this is the beauty and the danger of claiming the identity affirmed for me in my baptism: that not only do I get the comfort of knowing I am more than all those things I don’t want to define me – but I also receive the challenge of realizing that all those ways I try to define myself and justify myself over against other people – they don’t matter either.  And my work is to let go of them so that I can live into the one identity that truly matters: my identity as a beloved child of God.

When I graduated from seminary and no longer had a GPA to worry about, I have to admit I felt a little bit lost for a while, because how would I know if I was succeeding?  How would I know what I was worth?

What if the stock market crashed tomorrow, or you lost your job, or you got divorced, or you failed a test, or you gained back the weight, or got the dreaded diagnosis, or something prevented you from continuing to do that one thing you were good at?

Even if all of those things happened, this one truth would hold: that you are more than any of those things, because you are God’s beloved.

Jesus’ ministry began that day at the Jordan River, and the life of God’s beloved children still starts here.  It is a life of gratitude, and extravagant welcome, and self-giving service, and relentless love, all rooted in the identity-defining, barrier-breaking truth of first being loved by God.

Today, if you are are baptized, I invite you to remember your baptism and be thankful; and if not, to experience this water as God’s prevenient grace, the grace that is there before we know it, poured out on you.  For all of you, the invitation stands: to die to all the things the world around you tells you you are, and rise again, made new, claiming your identity as a beloved child of God.  Remember your baptism and be thankful.

 

[1]              Henri J.M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, p. 26

Epiphany Then and Now

Preacher: Barbara Schweitzer

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12

It’s Epiphany Sunday. When I talked to my husband about giving a sermon today, he admitted that he didn’t know anything about Epiphany Sunday, other than that it occurred after Christmas. I have to be honest that what I had known about epiphany I learned for the song “We Three Kings.” When I was a little girl, my mother would play “We Three Kings” on the piano every Christmas Eve and every Christmas Day, and I would stand next to her singing the song at the top of my lungs. While singing, I imagined three Asian kings, riding on camels over fields, mountains, and moors following a bright star in the sky all the way to Bethlehem, hoping to find a newborn—baby Jesus—who was destined to save the world. This Three Kings song and the images it created in my mind captivated me so much, that without realizing it, every-time I’ve read the story in Matthew’s gospel, the words “wise men” never registered in my brain. What does register, are the words “three kings,” despite the words on the page. But, when I sat down three weeks ago, to study this Epiphany story in Matthew, in preparation for writing this sermon, I experienced an epiphany of my own. I discovered that Matthew’s story says absolutely nothing about three oriental kings coming to Bethlehem, nor does Matthew say that the three Kings visited a baby Jesus lying in a manger. In Matthew, depending on what Bible version you read, wise men or magi come from the East searching for the prophesied new born King of the Jews; and when they find Jesus, they find a child—not a baby. And, they find the Jesus and Mary in a house, not a manger. Can you imagine my surprise at this epiphany. After I got over the shock, I was able to read Matthew with fresh eyes, and attend to the text in a way that I never had before.

So why does the church call this Sunday, Epiphany Sunday and what is there to celebrate? Well, Epiphany is a Greek word meaning an event or action that reveals the otherwise hidden presence of God. But that still doesn’t answer the question of why this Sunday is called Epiphany Sunday. The supreme revelation God to the world was given to the wise men in Matthew’s Epiphany Story. The early Church took over 200 years to decide that this story was the quintessential story of Epiphany, it represents the revelation of God in the infant Jesus to non-Jewish wise men; in other words, this story represented God’s outreach to the non-Jewish or Gentile world with the God’s message of salvation. This story of epiphany, reveals the truth that the presence of God in Christ came to us. This is THE revelation that gave birth to Our Christian faith.

There have been many epiphanies that have formed our Christian tradition, and epiphanies continue to be received today in the lives of people all over the world. Throughout our Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany seasons, we hear of the many early epiphanies of our Christian tradition, which surround Jesus birth, baptism, and first miracle performed by Jesus. Epiphanies like Mary learning she will have a child, name him Jesus, and that Jesus would be the savior of our world. Elizabeth and Zechariah have epiphanies that they would give birth to John the Baptist, who would prepare the way for the Lord. Simeon and Anna prophesy about Jesus, when Jesus is presented at the Temple according to Jewish Custom. And next week, Allie will tell one of the most famous epiphanies in the New Testament, when she talks of the baptism of Jesus and the epiphany and theophany that accompanies the epiphany, when a dove alights on Jesus as he comes up out of the water and God’s voice is heard identifying Jesus as God’s son and that God is well pleased with Jesus.

An epiphany is an event or action that reveals the otherwise hidden presence of God. Epiphanies are the same thing as manifestations or revelations of God. Sometimes they are big manifestations, and usually are accompanied by theophanies. In the Bible, theophanies are visible or audible manifestations to human kind of God. In the Old Testament, perhaps the most widely known theophany and epiphany is the Burning Bush that Moses sees when God reveals God’s identity to Moses—I am who I am. The Burning bush is a visible manifestation of God’s presence and Moses received an epiphany of God’s identity while hearing a theophany. Another epiphany or theophany was given to the people of Israel when they escaped from Egypt. The Bible says that a pillar by day and the fire by night that led the Hebrew people and Moses out of Egypt, through the wilderness, to Mt Sinai and then to the Promised Land. Abraham has an epiphany, accompanied by an audible theophany, when God, through an Angel’s voice, stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac on the Altar. There are many more epiphanies or manifestations of God that are strewn throughout both the Old and New Testaments that we could name. So, you can see that epiphanies have formed our Christian faith and tradition.

In our Epiphany Sunday story from Matthew, I can name four Epiphanies that the wise men have.

In Matthew verses 1 and 2, Matthew writes: Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men[a] from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose[b] and have come to worship him.”

The first epiphany is that the wise men perceived that God’s truth was present in an ancient Jewish prophecy given in Micah, chapter 5, verse 2. This prophecy says that a great ruler of Israel would come out of Bethlehem. We also know, from their mere presence in Jerusalem, that the wise men, who are not Jewish, believed enough in the truth of this prophecy, that they were willing to travel over 500 miles, to see for themselves, if this prophecy had been fulfilled.

A second epiphany that these wise men had, came to them when they were doing the mundane activities of their daily jobs. These wise men were in-part, astrologers, probably from ancient Persia or Mesopotamia. Astrologers in those days, read the skies looking for signs that would help them understand their world. Priests and scribes read the regularities of the sky to set calendars and to predict the future concerning societies, cities, and royalty. There were no horoscopes for individuals apart from royalty. Specifically, comets always portended or signaled political turmoil. So, when Herod and Jerusalem heard of the rising star or comet, foretelling of a new born king, it was natural for them to be troubled.1 So, we can conclude that the wise men, while doing their daily job of reading the skies, when they saw a rising star, possibly a comet, which was in-line with the horoscope that told of a royal birth which recently occurred in Bethlehem. This second epiphany, connected the wise men’s knowledge of the old prophecy in Micah with their knowledge of astrology. Why were these wise men willing to act this epiphany? Could it be that they were curious to see if the ancient prophecy was being fulfilled? They spared no expense seeking to confirm their predictions. They invested their time, energy, and fortunes and risked their jobs, their professional reputations, their physical safety and their social influence when they ventured out. Are we willing to do the same, when we perceive God to be doing something new?

The third epiphany came to the wise men when they arrived outside Jesus’ house and after they entered it. For Christians, this epiphany, the epiphany of God incarnate in Jesus is the quintessential epiphany of our Christian faith tradition. Matthew’s text says, in verses 9 through 11:  9 After listening to king Herod, the wise men went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose— went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh.

With this third epiphany, we want to recognize the spontaneous and extreme joy erupting from the wise men and how they spontaneously fall down and worship Jesus as a result of their epiphany. These responses speak to an experience of God that would be hard to deny and would function to transform a person’s doubt into faith, if one was open. Bearing gifts fit for a king, these wise men brought frankincense and myrrh, showing that they had a hunch that this king would be no earthly king. These aromatic plant resins were frequently used in religious rituals.

The fourth epiphany that the wise men have is reported in verse 12. It says: “being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the wise men departed to their own country by another way.” Because the wise men heeded this warning in this epiphany, and evaded Herod, they gave Jesus’ parents the time to escape to Egypt before Herod could kill Jesus. Thus, the impact of this last epiphany changed the world for all time. However, the wise men probably never realized the impact that their obedience had.

This story of the wise men and the epiphanies they received from God is teaches us about how God interacts with us to grow our faith. This story teaches us that epiphanies rise-up from our daily activities as we walk through life. This story teaches us that epiphanies can help us grow in our faith and trust in God’s care for us. This story teaches us that epiphanies can help us grow in our ability to discern God’s presence and God’s guidance. And, this story teaches us that epiphanies can help us grow in our ability and willingness to take the risks that faith demands, so that we can live the lives God has planned for us.

You might be thinking that it would be nice to have a good example of a person living in more recent times that has routinely experienced epiphanies that transformed their life and the world.

Recently, I came across the biography of John Newton, who is best known for writing the hymn, Amazing Grace. John Newton also worked in the late 1700’s alongside Wilbur Wilberforce and others to abolish slavery in the British Empire. Newton was influenced by John Wesley and Charles Whitfield, and became one of the founding fathers of the great revivals of 18th and 19th centuries, contributing to the worldwide growth of evangelical churches in our contemporary society.

What is important for us is to see, however, is John Newton as the normal person that he was, and how God progressively transformed his life and our world through epiphanies. I’d like to tell you briefly, just a little bit of Newton’s story.

Newton’s early years were filled with anger and rebellion. He was raised up as a Christian by his devout mother, but she died when Newton was six. His father was a ship captain who was very strict and distant, but he also gave Newton a good knowledge of seamanship. Newton, however, was an impulsive trouble-maker as an adolescent. Newton recalled two incidents in which he saw God at work in his life. These incidents, were epiphanies. Jonathan Aitken, his biographer, writes that one of ‘these episodes occurred at the age of twelve, when Newton had a fall from his horse . . . As he got to his feet, Newton saw that he had narrowly missed being thrown on top of a sharp spike protruding from a hedge. The realization that he had been only inches away from being impaled on this spike made him give thanks to God. Newton praised the mercy of divine providence for his narrow escape from death, and he recognized that he was in no fit state to meet his Maker on judgement day; so, for a while, Newton repented and mended his ways. However, he soon fell back into what he called “profane practices” and “greater depths of wickedness.”

A second epiphany occurred when Newton was late for an appointment. He and his friend were supposed to meet a ship anchored off-shore in the Thames River. But because he was running a few minutes late, he missed the longboat. As he watched his friend in the longboat going out to the ship, it capsized, and all the passengers, including his friend drowned. Newton was devastated by the loss, but he attributed missing the boat and not drowning to God, looking out for him. In other words, Newton had another epiphany which led him to renounce his sins and take-up a contemplative life. This time, Newton’s repentance lasted two full years. However, this holy and devout life turned-out to be an unfulfilling and meaningless existence that he deemed poor religion, making him gloomy, unsociable, and useless. Newton vacillated between “feeding his appetite for sensual sin and satisfying his hunger for religious reading—which produced instability. His life went on like this for several years.

Newton had a third epiphany happened when Newton was on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic. Aitkin writes that Newton “was bored, and the only available book on ship was The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis. As he read it, Newton began to worry that its words might be true. So, he slammed the book shut and went to sleep until awakened in the middle of a terrifying storm by the cry, [that] ‘the ship [was] sinking!’… As the ship seemed to be going down, Newton, to his own great astonishment, began to pray for God to have mercy on them . . . and after many hours of extreme peril, the storm subsided, and Newton felt at peace.” This incident brought an epiphany to Newton, who said that it was “at that time that he began to know that there was a God who answered prayer.” “Almost immediately,” Aitkin writes, “Newton stopped swearing, changed his licentious lifestyle, and started to pray and read the Bible. And from that day, March 21, 1748, until his death in 1807, Newton never let a year go by without recognizing in prayerful thanksgiving, what he called his ‘great turning day’ of conversion.”

Newton had a variety of things happen to him during his life at sea and admits that it took him a long time after his conversion experience before becoming a steadfast Christian. In the words of the Hymn, Amazing Grace gives evidence of the depth of his spiritual transformation, of how wretched he was in his sin and of God’s amazing grace that saved him. His epiphanies, over a lifetime, helped him to not only build a strong faith, but to experience a transformed life. He eventually became a priest, worked tirelessly towards abolishing the slave trade across the British Empire alongside Wilbur Wilberforce, lead revivals, and worked to reform the church.

This is only a summary of three of the earliest epiphanies of Newton’s life, but it illustrates that God does gives people epiphanies outside of ancient biblical times. And it illustrates that over a lifetime, epiphanies can have a great impact on a person’s spirituality and on the world, just like the epiphanies that our ancient wise men had in Matthew’s Gospel had.

Francis Shaeffer wrote an article about Why Theophanies Matter, which I think sums up, much better than I can, why God continues to give us theophanies or epiphanies today.

First, Shaeffer writes that “theophanies [epiphanies] remind us that God is there and is not silent. God has not and will not leave his people to suffer in isolation. God is with us.”

Second, “God is holy, awesome, and majestic.” Shaeffer writes that “Theophanies should humble us. Our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). All the various pictures of Yahweh in the Old Testament highlight this truth. Theophanies, . . . convey a sense of the awesome majesty and power of God who is to be approached only with reverence and humility according to divinely prescribed procedures.”

Finally, Shaeffer writes that “God condescends to us. Theophanies point to God’s gracious condescension to our weakness. Theophanies are visual—-they give tangible and physical proof of God. In a sense, they are God ‘writing it in the sky’ for us. Though God wants us to trust him even when we can’t see him (‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,’ John 20:29), theophanies offer a glimpse into the heart of our God who graciously condescends to help and comfort those who join Thomas in unbelief.”

It is my hope and prayer, that on this Epiphany Sunday, that we go out from this place, not only challenging ourselves to be on the look-out for God’s presence in our daily lives, but that we open ourselves up to the possibility of receiving epiphanies from God during our daily activities. I believe that by looking for God and remaining open to the possibility of epiphany, we will experience little epiphanies from God that will grow our faith, our ability to discern God’s presence, and our willingness to act on the insights that we receive along the way. Over our lifetimes, these epiphanies will help to transform us and help us to live the lives God calls us to live. Ultimately, these epiphanies will help us transform our world.

 

 

 

1 New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, 338-339.