Saturday, January 6, 2018

Year B, Epiphany, Matthew 2.1-12, Psalm 72.10-14, Beggars

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen

May all kings bow down before him, and all the nations do him service.
For the king delivers the poor who cry out in distress, the oppressed, and those who have no helper.
He has compassion on the lowly and poor, and preserves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their lives, and precious is their blood in his sight.

In the Gospel of John it is written:
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.  .  .

Epiphany is the day we remember the Wisemen coming from afar to pay homage to the Christ child, born in Bethlehem.
It’s remarkable in its contrasts.
Foreigners sought out the one born to be King of the Jews so that they might pay him homage.
While Herod, the King of the Jews, also sought him, that he might kill him.
“He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

One of the reasons that the story of the Wisemen was so important to the early church was that it anticipated what happened to Jesus and who was to follow him.
At the manger were the shepherds, the poor, and the Wisemen, foreigners.
Following Jesus’ resurrection the Gospel spread, but not among his own people.
The Church in Jerusalem, by all historical counts, quickly faded from the scene.
It was Paul’s mission to the Gentiles that resulted in the growth of the Church.
Jesus, born King of the Jews, the Messiah, and yet of all the people, the Jews did not accept him.  That is a simple historical fact.
Our Psalm points to another factor, that the poor and oppressed have a favored status in God’s sight, and for that reason, it is often those outcast by society that have embraced the message of Jesus more than others.
This message of Jesus, as Good News to the poor, is reflected in Mary’s song, the Magnificat:
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,and sent the rich away empty.
The rich and the powerful have often had trouble with Jesus.  And if they don’t, it’s probably that they are not listening.

And now, fast forward to today.
Pope Francis is an interesting leader.
One of the most intriguing dimensions of his leadership is that he is the first Pope from Latin America and his perspective shows it.
He charged right into the fray of the Presidential elections last year with his admonition to build bridges, not walls.  His words were far more popular, I imagine, in Mexico that in the USA.
Pope Francis is adored by the world’s poor and oppressed.  Not so much by the rich and powerful.
Some would say that Pope Francis has been too political, and that his politics are too closely aligned with Latin American perspectives, which of course is his background.
There is another possibility.
It could be that he is in tune with a dimension of Jesus’ message that simply is not as popular with the rich and powerful, nations such as our own.
This is the thing though, it’s not just that Pope Francis is a renegade Christian from a third world country, whose message should be tamed by the Christians in the more established part of the Church.
Pope Francis represents a global trend in that the center of Christianity is no longer in Europe and North America, where it historically has been, but rather south of the Equator.
There are over twice as many Christians in Africa as there are in the United States.
The same can be said of Latin America.
Meanwhile in Europe and North America the Church is in a major decline. 
Jesus said something that should make us uncomfortable.
"Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
When I consider these words of Jesus, and think about how it is in Africa and Latin America that Christianity is flourishing, I wonder if he’s speaking directly to us as a nation.
Can we be both rich and Christian?
Or will our wealth as a nation lead us away from Christianity?
And if so, why?

One reason maybe that we have simply become so distracted by our own lives. 
Our prosperity has allowed us to fill our lives with so many things, so much activity, that there is less and less time for Jesus.
I’ve noticed this in a very specific way over the course of my ministry.
Confirmation classes.
When do you schedule confirmation classes?
There was a time when Wednesday nights were set apart by the school districts across the nation as “church night”, and that’s when we’d have confirmation classes.
That has largely fallen by the wayside.
Now, today, it is a challenge to find an opening in the schedule for youth activities.
Even Sunday mornings are filled with soccer games, or swimming meets, and other such activities.
In my first parish I was humored by one of our parents who asked me in all seriousness why we didn’t have our kids in the swim team.  Now the swim team involved traveling all over the state to meets, every weekend throughout the summer.  It didn’t even occur to them that I, as a pastor, couldn’t do that.
Have we in our society, simply become too busy for Jesus?
Life has become a distraction from things spiritual.
Of that I am quite convinced.
Even devout Christians have a difficult time making regular worship a priority.
In contrast to this, I remember a story told by Dr. David Preus regarding the Church in Africa.  People would journey, most often by foot, from miles around to attend church on Sundays.  And having made that journey, their expectation was that they would spend the whole day worshipping.
He even related the story of one man, born without legs, who walked on his hands to church. 
I think about that.  In contrast to that, there is the “wisdom” that has been shared with us regarding our evangelism efforts.
In evaluating our congregation, one of the conclusions as to why we are not growing is that all of the growth in our area is in Liberty Lake, and people will simply not cross over the freeway and the river to go to church. 
Africans walk ten miles or so to go to church.  We’re concerned about driving across the freeway.

But there is another reason, more important, which explains why the Gospel is so important to the poor and the oppressed, and not so much to the rich and powerful.
I believe Martin Luther said it best in his last words spoken before he died.
“We are beggars, it is true.”
Beggars are not popular in our country.
I have to admit my own prejudice against them.
I don’t stop to give a hand out to those who are almost always present at the freeway off ramps in downtown Spokane.
They're drug addicts.  Drunks.  And all sorts of other derogatory thoughts come across my mind.
I felt a bit different when I encountered beggars in Russia. 
But even then, I’d been told that they were pimped out, meaning that because of their disability they had been put their to collect donations which were then turned over to their “protector”, their pimp, who profited from their misfortune.
So I didn’t give.
WE are beggars, this is true.
This is the essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, according to Martin Luther.
We have nothing.  We are totally dependent on the grace of God shown us in Christ Jesus. 
It’s a handout to the unworthy.
And this is probably why, it is so hard for the wealthy to fully embrace the Gospel.  We are too self reliant.  We can take care of ourselves.
How many Americans are capable of truly believing that “We are beggars, this is true”?
And yet, before God, we have nothing.
We stand, side by side, with the poorest of the poor in the world, dependent on the riches of God’s grace, not our own.
It may be easier, for the poor and oppressed to accept the grace of God for they recognize they need it. 
It is hard for us to accept a gift because we don’t often have the experience of really needing it.
I know for myself that the hardest thing I have ever had to do is admit that I needed help, that I couldn’t do it myself.
It’s hard to accept Jesus as your savior if you do not recognize your own need for saving. 
Maybe this is why Africa has embraced Christianity.
After all, isn’t that a continent that has been continually dependent on aid and assistance from others?  I mean, think of all the famines and strife that continent has experienced.
They have learned to accept a gift in the process.
And perhaps, more than anything else, that’s what we can learn from them.
“We are beggars, this is true.”
May all kings bow down before him, and all the nations do him service.
For the king delivers the poor who cry out in distress, the oppressed, and those who have no helper.
He has compassion on the lowly and poor, and preserves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their lives, and precious is their blood in his sight.


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