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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Extreme Love

The Rev. Betsy Hooper-Rosebrook
MLK propers
Exodus 3:7-12, Luke 6:27-36, Psalm 40:1-12
1/19/14

     I tend to picture myself as moderate in most things. On the whole, I'm a middle of the road, even keel sort of person. There are some areas in which I definitely underperform and others in which I probably overindulge--get to know me and you'll figure those out pretty quickly--so my moderation isn't a matter of principle, more of habit. I'm aware of my inclinations in part because of my negative reaction to things that strike me as extreme...extreme being a very relative judgment in any case. But it's just kind of who I am.
     So I was taken aback this week when I was preparing for preaching today, with readings commemorating the witness of Martin Luther King Jr., and I read Dr. King's Letter from Birmingham Jail. In this letter, penned in 1963 in response to a group of 8 clergymen who criticized Dr. King for coming to Birmingham to help organize and participate in peaceful demonstrations protesting segregation, he writes, "But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label."
     That would be me, I suspect: disappointed, probably even distressed, at being categorized as an extremist. Were others dismissing my words and actions as those of a lunatic or zealot? Had I lost my sense of decorum, or calm judgment, or perspective? I'd wonder where I had stepped over the line. So if Dr. King started with that reaction, then how did he shift to "a measure of satisfaction from the label"?
     Here's how: He continues, "Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." ...So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?"
     Well, when he puts it that way! And looking back at today's lessons, there it is, not only the quotes from Jesus's words that Dr. King used, but also the passage from Exodus; God calling Moses to go to Pharaoh and lead the people out of slavery in Egypt...extreme action. For his part, Moses was probably thinking, "Couldn't I start by just talking to one of the foremen about our getting a few Monday holidays? Isn't this out of Egypt stuff a little over the top?" But we all know how that turned out--the plagues, the Red Sea, the 10 commandments--extreme almost seems an understatement.
     I suspect that extreme may go hand in hand with scary, and probably that scariness is a big part of why I lean toward moderate so often. It comes from different places in my soul, all of them about me: What if I look foolish? What if I get hurt? What if I'm wrong? What if I don't know what I'm doing? Maybe I need to come to terms with there being times when extreme is what's called for because of others, to push myself or open myself or submit myself to a bigger vision, freed from the blinders of moderation and the bridle of fear.
     Besides fear, there's complacency; near the end of the letter, Dr. King writes of the leaders in white churches, "All too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows." That hits close to home; just last Monday I was looking at our MLK and Rosa Parks windows with our preschoolers and talking about being people who speak up for what's fair. But do I carry that out those doors? It's easy for my attention to telling the stories of the windows, which are intended to remind us of our call, to lull me into thinking I've fulfilled my responsibility. That barely even falls in the category of moderate, and it certainly isn't extreme. We all too easily can give ourselves a pat on the back for sincere words and good intentions, neglecting the part where we actually put heart and hands to work.
     I need to do better, to do more, to speak out and step forth with reckless passion for that which God is passionate about. We're the beneficiaries of God's extreme nature: in love, in grace and generosity, in the abundance of creation, in forgiveness, in the dignity granted to every person. I long for an awareness of those gifts great enough to push me beyond my fear and complacency into renewed boldness.
     The dilemma, for me and for all of us, is figuring out what extreme love and justice look like in our lives today in any given moment. There are plenty of times when a quiet word, calm negotiation, a gentle touch or restrained action beautifully reflect the abundance of God's care for each of us. My comfortable moderate style often is a good fit with my faith. However, each of us is confronted at times with blatant injustice, with cruelty and prejudice, with words or actions or the absence of actions that make another child of God feel diminished, less than. Maybe it's momentary, in the form of a joke or a slur, a sideways glance or a turned back. Or perhaps it's systemic: the continuing presence in our society of those who don't have homes, food, health care, education, or security; the persistent denial of rights to those who are deemed different by virtue of race, ethnicity, economic status, sexual orientation, or faith; or individuals who for reasons of age, gender, or disability are particularly vulnerable to abuse.
     Unfortunately, these are so numerous that any one of us would be exhausted responding in a big way to all of them, but each of us can certainly speak up and act in the little moments--not letting them pass with a shrug, which is what my moderate self wants to do--and I can pick one or two of the larger issues to address consistently and boldly, in ways that by their extreme nature might make me uncomfortable but which reflect my understanding of the extravagance of God's presence in our life and world.
     When each of us begins to do that, speaking up rather than remaining silent, acting now instead of waiting for someone else to go first, going extreme, we stand in the great tradition of answering God's call, joining with Moses, with Jesus, with Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, with generations of faithful men and women, in the confidence that, in the words of the psalmist:
I have declared your righteousness in the great congregation;
behold, I did not restrain my lips,
and that, O Lord, you know.
[Psalm 40:10]

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Reading the Signs

The Rev. Pete Berry
Christmas 2 -- Year A
Sunday Jan 5, 2014
Matthew 2:1-12

Let us pray
Lord Jesus may your light shine our way, as once it guided the steps of the magi:
that we too may be led into your presence and worship you, the Child of Mary, the Word of the Father, the King of nations,  the Savior of mankind; to whom be glory forever. Amen

I hope you all have been having a wonderful Christmas season – remember that today is still part of it – it is the 2nd Sunday of Christmas – 12th night – at least I think it is, although I’m never sure whether we count it from sundown on Christmas Eve or end at sundown on Epiphany Eve. Just to confuse things more, the lessons are definitely for Epiphany – so I guess all we can say is we stand at the cusp of the two seasons.  Please remember to come tonight to St Mark’s Epiphany Party and experience more of that seasonal transition—it promises to be great fun.

Those of you who happen to have been here on Christmas Day had the opportunity to hear Colin Brown preach on the Infancy Narratives in the only two gospels that contain them – Matthew and Luke. More precisely you heard him preach about a book by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the now retired Pope Benedict the 16th. That book was a surprisingly honest assessment of one of the most significant issues in Scriptural research – historicity versus truth with a capital T. The important question is much less whether these Biblical events happened exactly in the way Matthew gave them to us; the real question is what is the purpose of including the two stories in their gospels – what did Matthew and Luke intend by setting them almost as a Prologue to the rest of their work. If you think about it, they are not really necessary to the proclamation of Jesus – Mark didn’t include such a narrative, and John’s prologue is of a very much more philosophical and theological nature. John is concerned with the cosmic pre-existent logos not with the way in which that Word became flesh to dwell among us. So an Infancy Narrative wasn’t really needed by Matthew or Luke -- but we would be so much poorer in art and literature, and understanding of God’s “capital T truth” without them. Extending this a bit, many modern scholars find them to have likely been literary constructions of the two evangelists with little historical veracity within them – Benedict did not go quite that far but others certainly have. The issues for that school of thought -- what did the evangelists hope their communities would understand about these stories which were written in the 70’s or 80’s -- a very long time after the events described. I won’t talk about Luke, but instead I will focus on Matthew today – this is Year A of our lectionary, after all. But the issues are quite similar for both stories.


Matthew’s story was written for a mixed community at a time when the increasingly harsh debate between the Jewish faction and those who accepted Jesus as the Messiah, had them on the verge of a total split.  There is a set of prayers dating from roughly this period – the so-called “Eighteen Benedictions” which railed against Jewish heretics and prayed thusly -- “[We ask] God to destroy the malshinim ("slanderers" or "informers"), all His enemies, and to shatter the ‘kingdom of arrogance’.” At the putative Council of Jabneh or Jamnia in 90AD, these benedictions were made a mandatory part of Jewish worship. These guys didn’t mess around – with a blessing like that being thrown at you you’d better be able to duck and cover! Matthew’s over-arching purpose in the face of the growing split was to portray Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jewish prophets. The infancy story of the Magi is loaded with many references to the Hebrew Scriptures in order to hammer home that point, over and over. It’s difficult to find them all because in part there are differences between the Hebrew Scripture and the Greek Septuagint versions of them. But just a few include the following

Psalm 72: 10 – “May the kings of Sheba and Saba bring gifts”
Psalm 72: 11 -- "May all kings fall down before him"
Numbers 24:17 – this is part of the narrative about Balaam, a seer from the east who saw the Davidic star rising in Old Testament times
Isaiah 60: 1 – “Be enlightened, O Jerusalem for your light has come; and the Glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
And then when taken together Micah 5:1 and 2 Sam 5: 2 describe a Davidic king who will rule over Israel

So leaving issues like textual accuracy and Greek versus Hebrew to the scholars –and to Colin Brown, I hope you get the feel of this understanding.

 So if that was Matthew’s purpose, what has the church made of the story down the ages?

The Visitation of the Magi is one of the most-beloved events in Christian art and history. We all know it well – or think we do -- from the annual Christmas pageants we have experienced, the ones that jam Luke’s account up against Matthew’s as one long continuous story with the shepherds and sheep and the angels and the Wise Guys and the lowing cattle all crammed together in a stable. And that is not only fun, it’s perfectly acceptable and maybe the only way we fully experience the riches of the Christmas season. But we really should look at Matthew in its own terms and disentangle it from the Lucan narrative to understand what Matthew is all about. The biblical account in Matthew simply presents an event at an unspecified point after Christ's birth in which an unnumbered party of unnamed "wise men" visit him in a house, not a stable, with only "his mother" mentioned as being present.

So -- some unknown number of eastern astrologers at some unspecified time after the birth of Jesus, possibly influenced by a Zoroastrian perspective made a journey westward to see what was going on in Bethlehem – or maybe by then it was Nazareth, because Matthew tells us that having been warned in a dream the Holy Family had journeyed there by way of Egypt, thereby re-creating the Mosaic tradition,  reliving the Exodus, reprising the entry into the land of freedom, and recalling the prophecy about Jesus being called a Nazorean. Most modern scholars in fact say that this juxtaposition was quite intentional—Jesus is the new Moses – they both were born in strange circumstances – they both had to escape from hostile and dangerous political enemies who were seeking their lives – they both save their people. They both enter the promised land from Egypt.

I’m sure you all know the game of “telephone”—you stand in a line and whisper something in the ear of the person next to you, and see just how garbled it comes out at the end. Gradually as with the game of “telephone” or the artistic embellishment which is part of the so-called technique of midrash, the Magi or Wise Men were promoted to kings. The kings eventually were determined to have been exactly 3 in number – perhaps because there were 3 gifts mentioned by Matthew. Still later piety identified them with specificity as the old man Caspar of Tarsus, bringing gifts of gold; and Melchior -- the middle-aged man from Arabia bringing frankincense; and the young man Balthazaar, increasingly described as black-skinned and coming from Ethiopia or some other part of Africa, bringing myrrh. By the 5th or 6th century their ages had been exactly determined as 60, 40, and 20 respectively. Obviously not much of this is really dependent on historical accuracy but is spiritual speculation, a love story that just grows in the hearts of the churches people. The “capital T truth” is that the revelation or manifestation or epiphany to the gentiles was being treated by Matthew as the inevitable and unavoidable and undeniable fulfillment of scripture, in hopes of tying the gentile mission tightly to its prophetic Jewish roots. Maybe he was also hoping to heal the rift – or maybe it was early apologetics -- we simply don’t know.

Similarly the meaning of the gifts has been hotly debated when in fact they were ordinary offerings and gifts given to a king. There was just such a presentation of gifts to Emperor Nero by the Armenian king Tiradates in 66AD. Maybe the memory of that actual event was part of the back-story for Matthew’s Infancy Narrative. Lots of differing spiritual meanings have been assigned to the gifts – myrrh as foreshadowing the death and burial of Jesus since it was used in embalming; frankincense as symbolizing prayer or an offering of praise to a ruler; gold as a valuable gift fit for a king. Whatever analogies have been used over the centuries, the real importance is that these gentile representatives brought items from the everyday stuff of their lives – the things of Magic and astrology –and laid them at the feet of the king of peace. The gifts to Jesus became a symbol of God’s gift to us in Jesus. The story invites us all to make offerings of the stuff of OUR lives and bring them to Jesus, who is God’s great gift.

Why did I say astrology instead of magi or wise men or kings? It’s pretty clear, I think, and it is the explanation which makes the most sense out of the text – and this brings us to the Star of Bethlehem. What was it and when was it? Some suggestions that have been put forward – a comet, a supernova, a triple planetary conjunction. None of these is adequate for a whole variety of reasons but in 1999 Michael Molnar wrote a book entitled “The Star of Bethlehem” which I find quite convincing on the matter. And here I need to delve a bit into the “double conjunction” of Science and History. Some of you know that I’ve been taking a course on the fundamentals of astronomy -- 96 half hour lectures on a set of 16 DVD’s. I really enjoy stuff like this on NatGEO, and Science, and the Discovery channel and wanted more details. So far I’ve learned a lot, including about Molnar’s theory.

Planets as we now know, revolve around the sun and apparently move from east to west from the perspective of Earth. The point of their rising which crosses the horizon steadily moves westward.  But sometimes planets seem to go backwards making a strange reversal from their normal forward path through a reversal or retrograde phase and then back to the normal direction. So they seem to carve out a Looping or S-shaped pattern against the backdrop of the celestial stars and their associated zodiacal signs in the firmament beyond. It turns out that on April 17th in the year 6 BCE, Jupiter the “Regal Star” was temporarily blocked from view by the moon. That would certainly have been significant in the eyes of eastern astrologers. Jupiter then continued its forward motion until August 23rd when it began one of these crazy loop-to -loops in the constellation of Aries the Ram, which itself was a symbolic of the Jews. It remained visible in Aries on the eastern horizon just before sunrise as it then in the words of the text “went before” going through that constellation until it apparently stood still on Dec 19th before returning to normal path. Molnar figured all this out from a Roman coin that clearly shows the event was real – he even got an award from the Numismatic Society for his analysis. So his theory – and I do find it compelling -- is that these astrologers believed they had observed a sign that heralded the birth of a divine, immortal, and omnipotent person born under the sign of the Jews, the constellation Aries the Ram. Their observations sent them off to find out just what this could be all about. The story says nothing about their expectations or motives other than that. That is all subsequent enrichment.

What does all this suggest to us? Certainly it is NOT God inviting us to get hooked on horoscopes and astrology. But like these Wise Guys from the East, with the best of OUR experience and OUR clearest understanding of the world and ourselves, WE are to become increasingly aware of the signs of God at work in creation, in our lives, and in our times. And we should expect to be challenged and changed by them. Be open – be vigilant – be curious – be available - be willing to reflect to adapt and adopt and to change. Prepare to grab hold of the possible because with God nothing will be impossible.

Now...TS Eliot was one of the great writers and poets of the 20th century. Born in St Louis on September 26, 1888 he died on Jan 4, 1965 – he was still alive when I studied him in college and I really came to love his work and his psychological realism. He is probably best remembered for his play about Thomas A’Becket – “Murder in the Cathedral”, his epic poems including  “The Wasteland” and “Four Quartets” among several others, the whimsical poem “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” -- and his book and score for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats which is based upon it. He was a man of faith and his body of work includes essays on a variety of spiritual matters and Anglican Saints such as George Herbert. In 1927 he also wrote a much shorter poem called “The Journey of the Magi” as I was reminded by Zachary Abbott when I told him I would be preaching today. I think there is nothing better to illustrate that long-ago spiritual invitation and challenge and its impact on that particular group of travelers. I would invite you now to close your eyes and immerse yourselves in their experience. Just listen -- feel what they felt – see the sights, hear the sounds, smell the animals and the wet vegetation -- touch the hot dusty road – embrace their fears and frustrations. Make them your own.

Journey of the Magi (read by T.S. Eliot)

Thanks be to God – Amen.

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