The gospel account of the transfiguration of Jesus comes at a time when we desperately need its powerful message of encouragement. Our nation is in the midst of an epidemic of what I call “a degenerative discouragement syndrome”. The news cycle enumerates a list of issues and concerns which seem to resist remediation or repair.
There is so much arguing over boundaries. Should we welcome refugees from Syria, a nation torn by civil war and terrorism? How should our society respond to others who have immigrated here without government approval? Although immigration from our southern border has declined over the past decade, some public leaders applaud the contributions of undocumented Americans while others spell out the risks they bring. Do we consider immigrants likely contributors or potential criminals? When activists proclaim “Black Lives Matter,” the counter-point “All Lives Matter” looks like an attempt to hush a legitimate complaint about policing and criminal justice. I catch myself needing some of those noise-canceling headphones.
On Dec. 28, just before New Year’s Day, a Cleveland grand jury declined to indict the officers who killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who had been playing with a toy gun in a park near his home. For many, the news resounded as yet one more tragic refrain in the long litany of our nation’s utter disregard for Black lives. Extinguished in the innocence of childhood, without even a second thought.
The activities of the Christian community should be no less vigorous as we enter the mid-month point in January 2016 and the energy of the Christmas season has passed. In fact, it is on this second Sunday after Epiphany (the Christian feast day and season known as “manifestation”) that an honest evaluation of our situation locally, regionally, and abroad should be made.
You’ll always find what you’re looking for. Unless, of course, you’re Mary and Joseph, looking for your preteen son on your road trip home from the Passover festival in Jerusalem.
This is the scene found in Luke 2:41-52, the Gospel reading for the final Sunday of 2015. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus joined other travelers on their annual pilgrimage. At the end of the festival they begin their trek home. Mary and Joseph assume Jesus is behaving like a typical preteen, avoiding his parents and traveling with other friends and relatives. But after three days of searching for their twelve-year-old son, Mary and Joseph find him back in Jerusalem, talking with the teachers at the temple.
This is a story about searching for Jesus. This is a story about finding what you’re looking for.
National Geographic magazine recently named Mary, the mother of Jesus, “the most powerful woman in the world” as an appraisal of her ongoing influence and popularity. But do Mary’s words and example have a prayer of being heard and effecting change in this time of war?
Indeed, this is war. America has effectively been engaged in continuous warfare since the weeks after September 11, 2001. In a few decades we’ll learn what happens when whole generations of people grow up and take charge of a society that has waged war their entire lives.
Attempts to tone down the descriptions we use for warfare or the way we conceptualize the present conflict don’t change anything. No end is in sight. Others turn up the rhetoric: after the San Bernardino shooting, at least one presidential candidate insisted the USA now finds itself in “the next world war.” Another one puffed up his chest and boasted of his resolve to “carpet bomb” people. We hear this stuff so often, we’ve become numb to its magnitude.
Perhaps here is where we need John the Baptist most. He might turn to us and call us to ordinary acts of grace. He might call us to give what we have. He might call us to stay at our jobs and do them well. He might call us to the radical idea that seemingly ordinary lives can be imbued with the extraordinary spirit of God to transform the world.
During this Christmas season, we expect to enjoy times of family and conviviality and joy. Such expectations have been shattered this year. We could throw our hands up in despair. We could lament over a shattered world. We could grieve those we have lost, the dreams that have been shattered. We could pray fervently for courage and hope. We could worship together and so resist the encroachments of death upon our lives. We could protest and march and demand change. We could call our representatives and demand action.
We should do all these things.
And as we do all these things, we should also live ordinary lives infused by the extraordinary call to love God and love neighbor.
John the Baptist is an irritant in the midst of Advent.
In the Gospel reading for this week in Luke 3:7-18, he is in the wilderness excoriating the crowds who came seeking baptism and repentance and deliverance.
“Who warned you…?,” John wants to know. Who told you to come out here? What did you think you would find? Who the crowds find is a fiery prophet of God, preaching judgment upon the injustice that permeates this world.
“All flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:1-6). Well, that depends.
It depends on where you are from. It depends on your country of origin. It depends on your religion. It depends on with whom you are associated. It depends on your race, your ethnicity, your gender, your sexual orientation. The list of criteria for salvation, contrived predominantly from our many fears, is long according to the world as we know it today, but not according to the Gospel of Luke. And since Luke is providing a particular portrait of Jesus, not according to Jesus either.
This passage from Luke for the Second Sunday of Advent points to competing worldviews. The opening verses are deceptively subversive. Into the religious reigns and imperial kingdoms of the first century C.E., the word of God comes. Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Annas, and Caiaphas will have to tend with the rule of the word of God, a rule that insists on salvation for all.
Black Friday sales have been advertised for weeks now it seems. Doorstoppers, insane discounts, buy 1-get 1 free, and other mega sales are coming at us whether we want them to or not. Some stores are opening before the crack of dawn on Friday morning and others are not even closing from Thursday morning to Friday evening. The pressure to shop and spend is pretty intense. My social media feeds are equally filled with people excited about shopping and those who are pledging not to shop at any stores that have chosen to open on Thanksgiving Day. The debate is pretty intense at times. There are major opinions on both sides.
I have both shoppers and non-shoppers in my family. My mother and my brother-in-law are two of the shoppers. They love to shop and I mean that they LOVE to shop. They are professional level shoppers. They relish racking up major deals on Christmas gifts. So on more than one occasion I have watched them spend Thanksgiving evening planning their shopping run for Black Friday. They get out maps and sale flyers to plan their early morning excursion to make the most of the sales and the most of their time.
When I was eighteen years old I knew that I knew everything there was to know, especially in regards to the “us” and the “them” of the world. Eighteen-year-old me knew that being gay was a sin and that LGBTQ people were not called to leadership in the church (and my conservative Christian college did nothing but reinforce these beliefs). But four short years later I found myself on a hill across from my alma mater, standing in solidarity with dozens of LGBTQ young adults and allies, advocating for change in Christian universities with policies that discriminated against LGBTQ people.
How did I get from “there” to “here”? How did my view of “us” and “them” shift so radically?