1 Corinthians 13:1–13
How long do you have to live somewhere before you can say you’re from there? When I lived in New York City the standard advice was that you had to have lived there for ten years before you could call yourself a “New Yorker.” You might live like a New Yorker, walk, eat, dress, even talk like a New Yorker, but don’t you dare say that you’re from New York unless you’ve put in your ten years’ time. In small towns I hear it can be even worse than in the big cities. I’ve heard stories from friends about living somewhere 30, 40 years—most of their lives—and still being seen as an outsider because they weren’t born there.
You’ll remember from last week that Jesus is in his hometown, Nazareth, preaching at the synagogue he grew up in. In the Gospels, Jesus is often referred to as “Jesus of Nazareth,” so all that would seem to settle it. Jesus may have been born in Bethlehem, he may have spent his earliest years as a refugee, but Jesus is from Nazareth. We’re eager, of course, to claim Jesus as our very own, but at times like this, when Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown,” we’re happy to assume that his words only apply to Nazareth and not to New Jersey: He was talking about the synagogue, not the Church. He was talking about the Jews, not the Christians.
This is what I call reading the Bible on the first floor. When you take an overly literalistic view of scripture, because the events in scripture take place thousands of years ago, it’s easy to sidestep a lot of Jesus’ most pointed criticism. And this is the source of a good deal of the Christian Church’s antisemitism—trying to heap Jesus’ critiques on somebody other than ourselves, so that we don’t have to wrestle with the ways God is speaking to us here and now. So, when the Bible tells us that Jesus’ own people rejected him, that his own people crucified him, that his own people demanded in one moment that he heal them and in the next moment they tried to toss him off a cliff for suggesting that God’s promises and God’s love were bigger than their parochial vision, we can assure ourselves that that’s what those people did then, and it’s not what we do now.
But how long do you have to live somewhere before you’re from there? Jesus has been with the Christian Church for almost 2,000 years. He may have been born in Bethlehem, may have been raised in Nazareth, but by now he must be from here. We’re the hometown crowd now. The words of scripture are both historical and present; they had an original context and that they a deeply personal dimension. Counterintuitively, as we leave the first floor of Bible reading behind and climb higher to see the bigger picture, scripture becomes more accessible, more immediate, more uncomfortable. The question, “How and why did the people of Nazareth reject Jesus?” is interesting to scholars and historians. The question, “How and why are we rejecting Jesus?” is essential to all of us. What is it that causes the people who are closest to Jesus to reject him?
I’m going to call it “ego,” but let me go a little deeper on what I mean here. I don’t mean that only the most stereotypically egotistical narcissists reject Jesus. I mean that the thing that causes all of us who are closest to Jesus to reject him and his mission of love and justice for everybody is ego. Ego is the idea that my identity as myself is more important and more real than my identity in God. Ego is the idea that my individuality is more important and more real than my relationships. Ego is a fortress that I’ve built out of my desires, my fears, my hopes, my dreams, my ambitions, my selfishness, my greed, my grudges, my comfort, myself. I’ve built this fortress brick by brick to protect me from a dangerous, unpredictable world. But the fortress of ego, unfortunately, is much better at keeping God out than it is at keeping out pain or misfortune. It’s better at turning away intimacy and community than it is at offering us any sense of actual fulfillment in this life.
Jesus’ mission is to knock down the fortresses of sin—the fortresses of separation between us and God, between us and other people. But we want it both ways. We want individual salvation from a personal savior who will let us hide out behind the comfort of our walls. But that ain’t the way it works. When we experience God in those mountaintop spiritual moments of life, we feel it then—this dizzying sense of connection and intimacy that suggests to us that when I was created in the Image of God, I was made to be more than an “I.”
And when we peek out over the edge of that nest and look out into that wide open sky, ego is the one who pulls us back from ledge. And ego will do whatever it takes to make us think we can’t live without him. And ego uses whatever is at hand to make us hate, to make us ignore, to make us reject the one who came to make us believe we could be free. And that, I believe, is how and why the people who are closest to Jesus reject Jesus. Because Jesus is love. And love, properly understood, is the great ego dissolver. And attached to our egos as we are we fear more than anything what the poet Eliot called, “A condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything).”
And with all of this in mind we’re ready to turn to the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, a chapter that has become so obligatory at wedding ceremonies that we hardly catch the flavor of just how radical and transformative Paul’s vision of love truly is. We hear Paul saying, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious; it does not insist on its own way; love never ends,” and we can hardly believe him. Because we’ve seen the ways that love can go bad and go sideways. But that’s when love is controlled by our egos, when love is just another brick in the wall. And that’s not love properly understood. That’s desire, that’s dependence, that’s manipulation, that’s a psychological bind, but it’s not the view of love from the top floor.
For Paul, love is the agent of God’s transformation and the final determinator of all meaning and purpose in human affairs. Has there ever been a more radical statement in all of theology and philosophy than, “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing”? That’s an astounding statement, and one often skipped over at weddings because it’s a statement about the ultimate meaninglessness of these achieving, separating egos we walk around inside of all day. Write those words down and hang them up somewhere where you’ll see them every day. Because until we believe those words, we don’t know God and we don’t know ourselves.
When you read scripture from the first floor, you can get lost in the maze of it all. But when you climb high enough to see the patterns, you begin to find your way, and you can begin to shout directions down to other people. When you read your Bible, look for the big picture, for this message that weaves through the whole narrative over and over from beginning to end—that without love every victory is a defeat, every gain is a loss, every mission is dead, and every one of us is cut off from our true identity. When you read your Bible from the upper floors you can see that the story happened out there in history so that the story can happen in here in me. And love is the story.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love is the opposite of our egos, but love is not the opposite of us. Love is our true identity.
2 Corinthians 12:12–31
In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey tells a story about people working in a jungle. There are some people down in the undergrowth of the jungle, and they’re just hacking away at the vegetation with machetes. They’re making clearings and they’re blazing paths. And there’s another bunch of people, just behind them, who are working to make sure those machete swingers are working as efficiently as possible—they’re creating programs to teach the cutters the best machete techniques, they’re organizing blade-sharpening schedules, and they’re making sure if anyone gets injured that they get bandaged up.
Together these two groups of people have lots to do (it’s a huge jungle) and they’re working at maximum efficiency—it’s really a marvel to behold. And then, last but not least, there’s a person who decides to climb way up in a tall tree to survey the landscape. And after looking all around, she shouts down to the groups on the ground, “HEY! WRONG JUNGLE!” And from down below comes the reply, “Shut up! We’re making great progress down here!”
Productivity and efficiency only tell us that we’re good at what we’re doing. They don’t provide any indication that we’re doing the right things. Sometimes, the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. And when that happens an individual or an organization needs to pivot away from busyness and efficiency, away from managing all the old expectations, and pivot toward leadership. True leadership, Covey tells us, requires climbing a tall tree for a big-picture vision. Leadership is that part of the individual or the organization that begins with the end in mind. Leaders are people who have a specific vision—for themselves and others—of a destination. And seeing that goal, they’re able to evaluate if we’re actually doing the right things, going in the right direction, working in the right jungle. They see where we need to go, they know how to get there, and they want to bring everyone along.
What happens when Jesus returns to Nazareth after his baptism and after his time away from home? What happens when he goes to his childhood synagogue, where he grew up, and reads from the Isaiah scroll? When he left home, he was just Jesus, the carpenter’s son, the son of Mary. But he returns home changed. He returns home a leader. And why is he a leader? Not because he’s up there reading. Not because he’s giving a sermon. Not even because he’s making bold statements. He’s a leader because he’s climbed to the top of the tall tree of the prophecies of Isaiah, and he’s beginning his ministry with the end in mind.
And what is that end? Good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, the oppressed set free, the arrival of the Jubilee year. He uses it—this scripture reading from Isaiah—almost like a mission and a vision statement. Jesus is saying, These are God’s core values, and this is what my ministry is going to work to achieve.
How many of us down here on the ground, working on the ministries of our church, or working out the purposes and goals of our individual lives, hear this like Jesus is yelling down to us, “HEY! WRONG JUNGLE!” And we want to yell back, “Shut up! We’re busy! We got enough to worry about! Don’t you pile on!” Why is that our response?
I mean, it’s right there on the scroll—this is good news! But we hear it as bad news, somehow, because it seems too hard, too idealistic, too impossible, too not-what-we’re-already-doing. Jesus is the head of the Church. And many of us declare in our lives, “Jesus is Lord!” But sometimes it’s really hard to really listen to real leadership—to the people (or to the parts of ourselves) with the audacity to wonder if we’re toiling away for the right reasons or for the right goals—leaders with the audacity to suggest that God’s ends should be our beginning.
And we should note that Jesus ran into some real resistance here right away. We only heard half the story of Jesus’ first sermon this morning. Of course, you all remember how it ends. The home-town crowd starts saying, “This guy isn’t a leader, he’s just Joseph’s son. Shut up!” And Jesus, pot-stirrer that he is, pushes his luck. He doubles down. He says not only is this the message of good news for us, it’s for everybody else too—the whole world. We’re not going to leave anybody out. Well, that was just too much for the good people of Nazareth. They pull Jesus down from that tall tree of his and they try to throw him off a cliff!
And that experience, I think, teaches Jesus an important lesson on leadership. When leadership is invested in just one person, it’s fragile. What if Jesus hadn’t managed to slip away from the crowd that day? What if they had pitched him off that cliff? Just imagine everything we would have lost. I think Jesus feels that too. And after escaping that crowd, the very next thing he does is he calls his disciples. This movement needs to be bigger than one leader. This mission is bigger than any one person, even if that one person is the Messiah, the Son of God. I need disciples, I need apostles, I need leaders because this vision properly belongs to the whole world.
After his Civil Rights victories, Martin Luther King, Jr. turned his attention to the Poor People’s Campaign—a diverse movement of the nation’s poor people: white, black, Latino, and Native American. When he was assassinated, the campaign limped on for a little while, but ultimately it fell apart because too much of the leadership was invested in King himself, and the leaders left behind to pick up the pieces after him couldn’t agree on a direction for the campaign.
Now, 50 years later, in popular movements for justice you don’t see individual leaders lifted up anymore in the way that King was. Instead, leadership is more likely to be distributed throughout the movement, so that the loss of any one leader will not be fatal to progress or to the mission. Leadership is fragile when it’s invested in just one person.
The Apostle Paul gets this, I think. He gives us another metaphor—not a jungle metaphor, but the metaphor of Jesus’ body. We are the Body of Christ, he says. And like any body, the Body of Christ is made up of many diverse parts all working together. Some people are hands, some are feet, some are eyes, some are spleens, but whatever part we are, whatever skills we possess, whatever functions we perform, the vision of Jesus’ good news and God’s Kingdom belongs to us all, united in the one Body of Christ. We’re not three kinds of people in a jungle. We’re many different parts in one united body.
Christ’s continuing mission does not belong to any one dictator, any one leader, any one minister. It belongs to all of us in the Body. Now, sure, there’s gonna be some people who will be lifted up for specific functions in leadership—like me, like Tom Mustachio, like Dorothy Waldt, our council president, like our other staff and officers and ministry chairs, but the mission has to belong to us all. The passion has to belong to us all. The vision has to be shared and curated by the whole community, by the whole Body. And that is because vision and mission and leadership, without love, is empty. A vision in one person is just an act of will. A shared vision, held collectively by all of us, is an act of love.
At the end of our reading this morning, Paul says, “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” That “still more excellent way” is the beginning of Paul’s famous chapter on love which you all know and you’ve all heard many times at many weddings, and which we’ll get to next week. But just as a preview, when I say that everybody needs to hold the vision together because vision and mission and leadership without love are empty, I don’t just mean that everybody has to love the vision like Jesus loved the vision.
I also mean—and this is the more important part—that just like Jesus loved us we have to love ourselves for who we are and where we are right now. Jesus didn’t love the hope or the dream or the mission or the future more than he loved the actual imperfect world that he came for just as it was. And we shouldn’t either. We shouldn’t love some goal or some vision, no matter how noble or right, more than we love who we are right now. I love each of you for who you are right now. And I hope you love each other the same way. I love Glen Ridge Congregational Church exactly as it is today—knowing that there things we could be doing better. I love the world, in all of its brokenness and trouble, exactly for what it is.
It’s like being a parent. We love our kids for who they are right now, even when their behavior and decisions are less than impressive. And by loving our kids for who they are now, we empower them to grow, to take risks, and to a live a more selfless life of good news for other people. When we love ourselves and one another for who we are—right here, right now—we begin to discover in that love, the strength and creativity and commitment to climb a tall tree and look around.
So, let me recap what I hear our scripture readings saying to us this morning:
Step 1. Love one another.
Step 2. Listen to what Jesus says about the vision for our lives, our ministry, and our church.
Step 3. love one another.
Step 4. Send some part of the Body up a tree to take a look around to make sure that we’re in the right jungle and that we’re working with the right end in mind.
Step 5. Love one another.
Step 6. While loving on one another, listen to the report from the treetop.
Step 7. Love one another.
Step 8. Using love, Jesus’ teachings, and the treetop report, work together as a whole Body to discover a mission and a vision big enough, bold enough, and bright enough for the church and the savior that we love so much.
Step 9. Love one another.
Step 10. And love the whole rest of the world too.
1 Corinthians 12:1–11
My topic this morning, on this Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, is unity and diversity. Martin Luther King was one of our greatest Christian leaders and he was one of our greatest national leaders, and I’m trying to think about unity and diversity from his perspective, as if he were living through the events of these last few years with us. And as I begin this morning I find my mind drifting back to those words I learned as a schoolboy, the words I had to stand up and address to the flag with my hand on my heart every day at the start of class: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
And right there, in that single sentence, is an illustration of the problem we face today and have always faced as a nation. As a nation, we uplift unity. We are after all, the United States of America, one nation, under one God, indivisible. And yet, when have we ever truly been unified? There have always been differences of opinion. There have always been political battles. There have always been class, and economic, and racial, and gendered divisions and inequalities in our national life. And when has there ever been liberty and justice for all?
As the prophet Isaiah said: after God had blessed the house of Israel with every blessing, God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed.” And there has always been violence in America. We’ve spilled blood over and over again—Native Americans, Black Americans, immigrants, women, organized labor, children, LGBTQ people. We spill blood out of greed, out of fear, out of hate, exploiting, subjugating, terrorizing. We spill blood trying to get rid of the people who we don’t think belong inside our unity, we spill blood trying to maintain control over people we don’t want to let out of our unity. There’s something about the United States that needs unity, but when have we ever been truly unified? Liberty and justice have always been valued in America, diversity has always been a part of America, but when has there ever been liberty and justice for all?
Now, as Christians and Americans, I think many of you who are listening to me right now, sense that we have some responsibility for unity, and some responsibility to diversity, and to liberty and justice for all. But, if you’re anything like me, a lot of the time you probably don’t know what to do about it. Can there be unity at a time like this? Is it even advisable? There are a lot of toxic and dangerous people out there! How can we allow ourselves to get on the same page with people who seem to have devoted themselves to disinformation, hatred, and anger? How do you work with that, while staying true to your ideals? How can you be unified with people who are working to undermine the very democracy that we’re supposed to be unified in?
And yet in a previous decade, a decade that resembled ours in many ways with its polarization, hatred, violence, and systemic disenfranchisement, Martin Luther King, Jr. chose a message of unity. He chose a message of unity to build a diverse movement to drive Jim Crow out of the South, to gain the right to vote for Black Americans, and to end the dehumanizing, violent lie of separate but equal. King never preached a message of us versus them. Instead, he preached the American dream: He preached the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution and liberty and justice for all. He almost never backed down from a fight but engaged his detractors and his enemies with love, with compassion, and with an unfailing belief that a nation that had never been just or free for his people could come together and do better.
Where did that unfailing belief come from? Where did that hope come from? Well, if we go back even further in history, we come to our scripture reading for this morning, somewhere around the year 50. Paul is writing to the Corinthian church about spiritual gifts. And the second half of the reading more or less makes sense to us, but the opening here is a little confusing. “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.”
It's a little hard to parse. But I think it would help to give a little context. Apparently, most of the Corinthian church was composed of folks who had converted from the Greek, Roman, or Egyptian religions (aka pagans). They had been worshipers of Jupiter, Aphrodite, Athena, Isis, Osiris, Bacchus. A little of this, a little of that, probably. And, of course, they all would have recognized that the Roman emperor was divine, and they probably would have worshiped him too here and there. The Roman Empire was barreling rapidly toward the jumping-the-shark phase of its decadent downfall, and in an attempt to unify its citizenry, the emperor was declared a god about a century before Paul was writing, and temples and images were erected to him throughout the empire.
Worshiping the emperor would eventually become a sort of loyalty test to the state—one which, of course, no Christian could ever pass. Because when Caesar became a god, the empire declared of him, “Caesar kurios,” Caesar is Lord. And not only could Christians not say that, they chose to differentiate themselves from the spiritual and political values of the Roman Empire by declaring, in a statement of faith equal parts spiritual and political, as Paul does in our reading, “Jesus kurios,” Jesus is Lord. And in time, Christians would be persecuted by the empire for that defiance and that declaration.
And 1,900 years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. also put his faith in and dedicated his life to not the power and the goodness of the empire, but to the power and goodness of God—God who, by creating all human beings in the image of God, made them all to be free and equal. King’s unfailing faith that a nation could come together in defiance of its true history to better live out its ideals was essentially a faith handed down to him from the earliest Christians who eked out a spiritual existence of hope and truth at the margins of an oppressive empire that was devouring the world and had declared itself God. The Civil Rights movement unified us not in a deified, idealized vision of US history, but in the promised vision of God’s future that will one day redeem all of history.
I’m thinking there’s a lesson here for us today. We don’t want to add to the polarization and hatred of our times. And we cannot compromise with conspiracy. We can’t give white nationalism a free pass. We can’t ignore the active and concentrated attack on the integrity of our election system, which is itself an attack on the very best of what America represents—an attack on truth, fairness, and unity. So, what can we do? Well, we’ve got to be clear about who we are. We can’t be so namby-pamby in the middle trying so hard to never offend anyone that we never say out loud what we actually believe and what we fundamentally refuse to believe. And standing on the rock of our faith, we’ve got to work with God and our neighbors for a better future. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Now, unity feels impossible. And it is. Perfect unity, as we’ve discussed, has never been a part of our history. But we’ve got to be clear about what’s fueling the disunity. The disunity that we’re disintegrating into is being fueled by chaos, conspiracy theories, lies, political extremism, selfish opportunism, pessimism, and despair. Facing all that, we may feel like unity is impossible. But what we have to see is that the drain of disunity that we’re circling is actively destructive. And so we have a choice: the sure path to destruction or the hard path to a better unity.
And what does a better unity look like? Is it a compromise with evil like we fear it might be? Or is it a unity, as Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us, that clings to the very best of our traditions, that not only upholds our greatest achievements but makes them available to more people more reliably, and that moves closer and closer to liberty and justice for all. It’s a unity that is inclusive, not exclusive. It’s a unity that is selfless not selfish. It’s a unity that is fueled by love and not by hate. And that is the only future that is worthy of a people who are all siblings by virtue of being created in all their diversity in the Image of the Most High God.
And this is where our spiritual gifts have got to come in. And it’s so beautiful because Paul starts talking about these spiritual gifts, and what is he talking about? Well, he’s talking about diversity. There are a variety of gifts! There are a variety of services! There are a variety of activities! Diversity! Strength! Beauty! And there is One Spirit behind them all, bringing them together, activating them all in the body of Christ for the common good of all. Diversity and Unity!
The diversity of humanity and the unity of humanity come from the same source. They come from God. And it is well and good to look back to that source, to seek it out, to feel God’s love. And the spiritual maturity that will begin in such reflection, the manifestation of the spiritual gifts that come from God demand at some point that the questions change from “Why am I here?” and “Where did I come from?” to “Where are we going? And what shall we do?”
With that in mind, I’m going to be working with our ministries to put together a Spiritual Gifts Inventory. The Spiritual Gifts Inventory will be a fun, relatively short form that you can fill out that will tell your church a little bit more about your gifts, your skills, your traits, your passions. And we will be using those inventories to figure out a way to get you involved in furthering the mission of our church, in ways that are fulfilling to you as an individual and that will draw you into the unity of our diverse community. I predict it’s going to come out in February sometime. I hope when it does that you’ll fill it out as a way of connecting your diversity to God’s unity and raising your hand as someone who is interested in working with God for a better unity and a brighter future.
If we value both unity and diversity, we can’t—we won’t—give our allegiance to anything less the Whole. Don't give your allegiance to anything less than God. Don't let your future be determined by anything less than the Spirit of God activating your unique gifts. Don't let your future be determined by fear, by hate, by selfishness or despair. Give yourself to God, not in showy piety, not in private spirituality, not by lashing out at the world, give yourself to God by manifesting the gifts of the Spirit, and using them to further God’s Kingdom. Don’t you want to be a part of that sacred diversity? Don’t you want to be a part of that holy unity?
Overwhelmed with joy! Will you say that with me? Overwhelmed with joy! Our reading this morning says that the Magi were what? They were “overwhelmed with joy” when they saw that the star had finally brought them to the end. I love that turn of phrase, “overwhelmed with joy.”
I love maybe even more the more literal translation of the King James Bible. It says, “They rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” Say that with me: they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. It feels good just to say it, right? Joy in the mouth.
Slightly different emphases in those two translations. “Overwhelmed with joy” sounds like a flood of joy has risen up around you and swept you away. You were taken captive. You lost control. Joy is active, we are rushing down its river. “Rejoiced with exceeding great joy” puts us back in control. We decide that we’re going to glow in the dark, and our light will be joy. We sing, we shout, we high five, we unlock the bands around our hearts and let them free, let then run around in the yard and jump up on the company. It’s a party and we’re letting joy hang loose.
So, that’s an interesting question right there that God offers us just by reading two different translations: What is the nature of joy? Is joy a choice we make, an action of our hearts? Or is joy way bigger than our will—an ocean we’re floating on that can lie flat and still or that can toss us about ecstatically, depending on the weather? Or is it a little of both?
When was the last time you were overwhelmed by joy? When was the last time you rejoiced with exceeding great joy? When have you felt that in your life?
I remember being three-years old and walking with my aunt and cousins down the street. I’d been staying with them a few days, and it had been kinda stressful, and I asked, “Where are we going?” You know how when you’re three, you never really have any idea of what’s going on. And my aunt said to me, “We’re going to your house. Your baby sister is here!” The next thing I remember, my aunt was hollering my name from way behind me, “JEFFREY MANSFIELD come back here this instant and hold my hand, don’t you run in the street!” “But I’m excited to see the baby!” I said. Obviously! You know how when you’re three-years old and grownups don’t ever seem to really understand anything. I was so overwhelmed with joy, I just started running for home, to see the baby I’d been hearing about since I was two and a half. And there was nothing inside of me that could understand why such a joy should walk calmly down the street holding auntie’s hand.
Twenty-three years later, I was hiking up Mt Katahdin in Maine. It was the end of my through-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I had dreamed about hiking the trail since college, I began planning in earnest more than a year before, and I started hiking five months earlier on Springer Mountain in Georgia. After hiking 2,200 miles up and down every hill and mountain along the way, I was climbing the final peak—Katahdin in Maine.
And this hadn’t just been a physical journey for me, it had been something like a Magi journey, a spiritual journey. I had planned the trip as a way to prepare myself for going to seminary which was starting the following month. In a way, my arrival at Katahdin marked the arrival into my whole future and my calling. I was stepping from one world into another—and that’s a very holy thing. So, as I was racing up this incredibly steep and high mountain, I was already beginning to anticipate what it would feel like to stand on the marker at the top.
And when I got there—after hiking more than 2,000 miles through the woods by myself—there was a line. A bunch of day hikers who had woken up at 6 a.m. had gotten there ahead of me. And they were lined up, waiting for a turn to get their picture taken at the sign at the top of the mountain. So, I had to wait. It was a group with a lot of middle school kids in it, so they took their sweet time. This was not the way I had pictured it climbing up the mountain! But when my turn finally came, my aggravation blew away in a big gust of mountain wind, and the joy showed up. It was worth waiting in line for.
My guess is that’s there’s more joy in the world than we let ourselves feel. My guess is that there’s more joy in the world than we really have the time or the attention for. My guess is that we could make more room for joy. Joy ain’t easy. It’s easy to feel annoyed. It’s easy to feel frustrated. It’s easy to feel outraged. For me anyway. Maybe for you too? But joy? That’s a harder emotion to come by. But once it gets going, it floods the whole house—from cellar to rafters! But sometimes you turn the tap, and the pipes just bang and grunt, and nothing comes out.
Maybe the Magi’s story is a pathway for finding the source of our great joy, for opening the right door. First, these wise ones were astronomers and astrologers. They look up into the sky—they look up into heaven—with a mix of the left brain and the right brain, a mix of conscious rationality and unconscious mystery, a mix of science and magic. They aren’t only one kind of thing. They aren’t extremists. They’re balanced. They’re wise. I think this is about a way of seeing the world—not all good or all bad, not all material or all spiritual. They are faithful, and that means they’ve got their heads up. And they’re looking for anything that moves or blinks or shines up there.
They have open minds about the heavens. Maybe you could say they have an open mind about God. And that allows them to see something that nobody else saw. It allows them to see a star rising, and it allows them to understand that it’s a star about a baby, and a people, and a religion hundreds or thousands of miles away. It wasn’t their baby, it wasn’t their people, it wasn’t their country, it wasn’t their religion. It was different than they were, but they allowed it to come through the door anyway. They let it into the house, even though it was a stranger. They said to it, “Make yourself at home,” and they must have meant it.
Now there are times in life when joy can seem really far away. Tragedy strikes, the floodwaters rise, and they don’t stop at the sandbags. They come right into house. The wind blows the grassland fire into your town, and when you finally come back to what was your home, there’s nothing left but smoke and rubble. The tornado touches down, the earthquake shatters, the volcano melts, the tumor spreads, the freezing refugee is turned away, the bruised child is ignored, the poor are forgotten, neighbor rises against neighbor, truth is silenced by the noise of lies, and the great powers gather and instead of finding solutions, they declare war. There are times when joy seems really far away.
But let’s not confuse happiness and joy. Happiness is a feeling—a very good feeling! But in no life is happiness always on top. In every life there comes sadness and mourning and tragedy and injustice. But joy is different. Joy is a perspective on life that when practiced faithfully can endure that greatest of tragedies. Joy does not need to faint in the face of terrible sadness. In fact, joy knows that the purpose for its existence is to sustain us in the hardest of times. Joy is the choice we make to endure. It’s the choice we make keep going. It’s the choice we make not to give up the journey.
Journeys aren’t always happy. You don’t always want to go, but you realize, at some point, that you’ve got to go. Or that you want to go. Or that you don’t want to go, but something’s got to change, and it won’t change unless you risk the travel yourself. That’s what the Magi did. They said, “Well, this changes everything. It’s far away and risky. But we’re going.” Why’d they do it? I think it’s because before they ever started, they knew what joy was. It doesn’t always make sense why we decide to finally move. Joy is a power greater than reason. And joy, when we live it, keeps us moving. Aggravation and depression and fear and worry will come get you, and tell you, come hide with me under the bed. But joy’s up on the roof of the house somewhere. It’s down the road a ways, calling uis. It’s a tiger in the grass at the edge of the forest outside town—its stalking you, but it’s not going to pounce, until you get real close. So you gotta keep going.
Maybe most importantly of all, toward the end of their journey, these three Magi, these learnéd ones, allowed everything they had ever known about stars up until that point to be thrown out the window. I mean tell me, really, how do you follow a star? How does a star stop over one specific house? That’s not how stars work! It doesn’t make any sense. And who better to know it than three astronomers? It was impossible. It shouldn’t have worked. They had certainly never seen anything like it before. It didn’t make any sense. They let it lead them anyway.
Does joy always make sense? Do you want it to? Or do you want to feel joy even when the world is too ordinary for it to be expected? Do you want to feel joy when you win the lottery? Only when you win the lottery? Or do you want to feel joy when you win the lottery of waking up? Of eating breakfast? Of washing your dishes? Why should joy make sense? Joy is bigger than reason and sense.
And, so, the Magi were overwhelmed with joy. They rejoiced with exceeding great joy. They had earned it, sure. They earned it by paying attention, by opening the door, by accepting the quest. But when joy fell down on them like a star that makes no sense, like a poem leaping with images, like a three-year-old running down the middle of the street, like a baby born in a barn, I think that joy must have felt bigger than anything they could have planned, bigger than any choice they had ever made. It must have felt like grace. It must have felt like all at once coming alive and then disappearing into joy.
When I was about twelve years old, my family took a vacation to Canada. We were going to Prince Edward Island or Nova Scotia or somewhere and the way we got there was by taking a long ferry ride on a BIG boat that we drove onto. It was a stormy day, and the seas were rough and everyone on this boat was feeling a little grey and lackluster.
I don’t really understand how this worked, but somehow once this ferry was far enough out in the water, it also transformed into a casino. So, let’s recap: long trip, big boat, adults distracted by seasickness, 12-year-old boy, casino.
Now, despite being in international waters or wherever we were, there was still some draconian measure in place that prevented 12-year-olds from gambling with the adults. So, a staff member directed me to the children’s gambling section filled with a bunch of no-guts, no-glory slot machines deemed harmless enough for the grammar-school crowd. No thanks. As of that moment, the only gamble that interested me was the one where I snuck into the real casino and pulled the arm of a real slot machine. In a crowded commotion of queasy adults, I snuck past the defenses and into a dark, smoky corner of slot-machine heaven--where no one would ever find me.
If you’ve ever become separated from your child or from a child you were close to, I’m sure you can sympathize with how my poor mother and father were feeling at that particular moment, in high seas, with their child nowhere to be found. It must have been something like what Mary and Joseph were feeling when their slightly more wholesome 12-year-old snuck off to the Temple rather than the casino. The only difference was that I ran out of money long before Jesus ran out of questions.
And when I saw my mother’s tears and my father’s scowl, I decided strategically that this was not the right moment to ask for more quarters, as I had planned to do. My dad went off to let the captain know that I had not, in fact, fallen overboard. And my mom just held onto me and cried. Moms, right? She told me that she was afraid that a gust of wind might have blown me into the ocean, and I rolled my eyes, and I still do, but I also felt for the first time that this whole growing up thing was really taking a toll on my poor mom. So, when she made me promise that I would never do anything like that again, I said OK, even though I felt myself starting to be called out from the security of my little family into that bright, neon, flashy, risky gamble called the World.
And these parental instincts never disappear. In my early thirties, my mom and dad came to visit me in the city where I was well established. And after I dropped my parents off at their hotel in Midtown, Mom suggested that she and my dad should walk me the three blocks back to the subway to make sure I got on OK. These instincts, this tension will always be with us.
And as Christians, cherishing the baby Jesus who has just been born to us again, we can have similar instincts and reactions. Being among the first shepherds to kneel down at the manger, or wandering with the Wise Ones following a star and a hope, or feeling Jesus conceived and born within us anew is a profoundly powerful, emotional, and intimate experience—one which our instincts and our faith seem to say we should hold onto, guard, protect—don’t let him out of your sight! So, sometimes, Jesus, the Light of the World feels like MY light—and it’s just a little infant light, so precious and so precarious in the darkness which threatens to overcome it that I must protect it from the world. And after all, if Jesus is my personal savior, shouldn’t he be sticking close by me? When I was saved, wasn’t there a non-compete clause of some kind in there? Isn’t Jesus mine, all mine?
Sometimes we start telling ourselves this story. Jesus is pure and simple. The world is fallen and complicated. And so there are places that our pure and simple boy ought not to go. We’re in control, you see? If not us, then who? And if we’re God’s parents (and not the other way around), we’re going to need to pin God down. We want to be able to say with objective accuracy about Jesus or our own spiritual journey: here, but not there; this, but not that. Jesus is the Emmanuel, which means God with us. But sometimes we want to read that as Emmanuel, God with us, but not with them.
When take Jesus the Salvator Mundi, the Savior of the World, who is joined with us in the project of preparing this world for the coming Kingdom of God, and shrink him into just a personal totem who reflects me more than he redeems me, I’m going to need to post a guard around that small and vulnerable vision of God. So, we surround Jesus with Christian soldiers ready to do battle to defend him where he is and conquer the places where we have determined that he is not. But the baby Jesus wasn’t born in a fortress surrounded by legions of soldiers. He was born in a barn, laid down in a feeding trough, into a perilous world, surrounded by shepherds.
When I was a kid, I learned to draw by reading comic books. So, whenever I drew people, they were covered with these big, bulging muscles and they were shooting death rays out of their eyes and things like that. This style even made its way into my religious art. My boyhood Jesus was just this ripped and powerful superhero. It’s comforting to think of Jesus like Superman or Hercules—the kind of guy sent into the world to “clean house.” Wouldn’t it be nice if that’s what Jesus had been doing when his parents found him in the temple—kicking butt and taking names? But instead of displays of power and feats of strength, Luke says Jesus was just sitting there, hanging out. Instead of stealing the show, it says that Jesus was just listening—listening and asking questions. And Fear rises up in us and says to us, “This poor sucker doesn’t stand a chance out there.”
Jesus, Mary and Joseph have just learned, has come not to be born only into their hearts, into their family, but to be born into the whole world and to everybody. Let’s face it–it’s risky and it might be heartbreaking to be a part of a family like that. Let’s face it–we don’t like everybody! But in the Temple Jesus identifies his true parentage. He’s not God’s parent. God is his parent. And he steps beyond the traditional boundaries of family into the big, messy family of all of us–a whole world that Jesus has come not to conquer, but to make himself available to, to sit with, to listen to, to ask questions of, and to serve.
One of the most beautiful things about the Temple where Jesus snuck off to was that there was a room right in the heart of it called the Holy of Holies. The room was behind a beautiful curtain, and no one was allowed to go in there except the high priest once a year because the Holy of Holies was the room where God was. I think that’s so audacious that it’s just stunningly beautiful. This is the room where God lives. Where’s God, you ask. Right over here, behind the curtain, is the presence of the God of the universe. Wow.
Incredible. Still, our spiritual sensibilities have changed a lot in the intervening thousands of years. Imagine if we invited people into church and showed them a room or an altar or a box—anything, and told them this is where God is, God’s right here. Look no further. What would people think of us?
Don’t believe the big culture lie. The big culture lie is that we’re all becoming more secular, and people are less interested in God than ever before. That’s just not true. People nowadays just have different expectations, different language, different experiences, different opportunities, different theologies. They drive past our church and everything about the church says, “God is in here.” That was once the most audacious and attractive thing any church or temple could have ever claimed. People heard that message. It resonated. But nowadays a lot of people have stopped believing you can stick God in a box, or behind a curtain, or inside the walls of any one church.
Part of the postmodern condition is believing that God is so lost that anyone who says, “I know just where God is, I’ve got God right over here,” must be nuts, or running a scam. And so in order for people to experience the very same God that I experience, I have let that God out of my box. And what’s wrong with that? Did Jesus just sit around in one place? Did he only hang around with respectable religious sorts? Wasn’t he always moving? So, what would it look like if we believed that Jesus was more present outside these walls than inside them? How would that change the way we think about ministry? How might that change the message?
And when the hungry world shows up at our door and says, “Where’s God in all this mess? Tell me, is Jesus real? What’s the point of all your prayers? Where’s the meaning in all your beliefs? Show me the beauty, the truth, and the goodness that I’m longing for but can’t find,” we could say to them, “Follow us out the door, and down the street a little. We’ll show you where to find Jesus. He’s not lost. He’s just over here.”
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations