12-31-17 Sermon - “On Years Ending & Beginning”
Christmas is a season filled with tradition.
Whether it’s where we go at Christmas, what we eat, when we eat, who we’re with, who opens the first gift, the order in which we open gifts, Christmas is largely tied to tradition at many levels.
But when we say “tradition,” just what exactly do we mean? Merriam-Webster defines tradition first as, “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom.)” And when we think about it that way, it makes sense. The church is full of tradition, the liturgical calendar that guides us through the church year, unlike the solar calendar we use on a day-to-day basis, is one largely built on tradition as opposed to the movement or timing of celestial bodies or events. For example, Christmas is always December 25th, Epiphany is always January 6th, but Lent and Easter move from year to year. Some major liturgical dates or events are date specific while others fall in relationship to something else. And over the centuries, we in the church at least, have grown accustomed to what appears to others as a random ordering or dating of events.
A second meaning that Merriam-Webster ascribes to “tradition” is “a belief or story or a body of beliefs or stories relating to the past that are commonly accepted as historical though not verifiable.” From American history we might think of the oft-referenced story of the boy George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and then when asked about it tells his father, “I cannot tell a lie, I chopped down the cherry tree.” It’s a great story that supports the legend and image of George Washington as a person of honesty and integrity, but there is no historical verification that this event actually too place. It’s tradition.
Our story today of the visit of the magi is one that is also bathed in tradition. The writer of Matthew - another bit of tradition, since we really don’t know who wrote each of the gospel accounts - is the only one of the four gospels to include this story. And while the gospel refers to them, in most all translations as magi or wisemen, understood to be astrologers or something similar, the King James Version refers to them as kings, based on one of the Psalms that says “all the kings of the world will bow down to the messiah.” So when we sing, we sing “We three kings,” even though the scripture never says how many magi there were, only that there three gifts. Some eastern Christian tradition holds that there were up to twelve magi present.
But tradition doesn’t stop there - Western Christian tradition even supplies names for these three travelers: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. In contrast, many Syrian Christians name the magi Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. In the tradition of Ethiopian Christianity, the names are Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater, while Armenian Catholic tradition names them Kagpha, Badadakharida, and Badadilma. And so it is that we come to understand that tradition is also contextual, and that even people who share a faith tradition, have traditions within that tradition that are, well, non-traditional compared to others of that same faith.
Many of us, as part of our Christmas tradition, place a nativity scene in our home depicting the birth of Jesus and all of those whom scripture describes as being present. So we have Jesus and Mary and Joseph at the center, and then there are Luke’s shepherds with some animals, and Matthew’s wise men with some camels, even though no passage of scripture includes all of them together, right? In fact, some believe that the magi didn’t appear on the scene for up to two year after the birth of Jesus for two reasons: one, the scripture says the magi entered “the house” to see Jesus, not a stable or anything like it, and two, because Herod, in order to try to kill Jesus, ordered all the young boys up to the age of two to be slaughtered. Still, it is our tradition to put the shepherds and magi side by side in the nativity.
And that’s okay, because tradition is not intended to be a history lesson, tradition is a way of remembering what’s important about a time, or a place, or an event. Tradition reminds us of who we are, and how we are, and sometimes even why we are what we are. And there are at least two particular aspects of this story and the tradition that has developed around it that are of importance to us today. First, tradition tied to this passage suggests that the three magi were from Arabia, India, and Persia - what would literally have been the ends of the earth to a middle-eastern people of that time. That suggests to us that these sojourners from the east recognized, even from the vantage point of their own religious traditions, that God was doing something special in this child, and they wanted to honor that.
Nowhere does it say that they changed religions or denounced their traditions, it says they came to honor this child, this king.
And the second aspect that we would be good to understand is in how the passage concludes, saying that having been warned in a dream about Herod, the magi returned to their country by another route. They went home another way. That is, they changed things up. They took the road less traveled, we might say. We might also understand it to mean that, having experienced this God-Christ event, THEY were changed. Other translations say they went home another way, not by another route. Maybe the writer of Matthew is saying that this experience changed them, transformed or enlightened them in some way. Maybe this journey somehow gave them permission to do things differently, to try something new, to look at the world in a different way than “the way they’ve always done it.”
The calendar gives us permission to start over each year, to do things differently. We might formalize those desires in resolutions but we don’t have to do that. Just turning the calendar from December to January, from 2017 to 2018, is permission-giving enough to say, I’m going to be different this year, I’m going to do something different this year, I’m going to try a new way of being, of acting, of whatever. I’m going to open myself up to new things, create new traditions even within my old traditions. This tradition-filled season of the year, where within one single week we celebrate the birth of the Savior who changed the world and then seven days later - God’s perfect number representing wholeness and completeness - seven days later we celebrate a new beginning in a new year where we can turn away from whatever we need to leave behind from the old year and do something new in a new year. It’s an annual repentance - a turning away from our old way of being and embracing a new way of being.
A Methodist pastor I know in Denver, Colorado found a new way of following an old Methodist tradition of taking the gospel to the people. Instead of offering new things or programs and expecting people to come to a church building, he took the church out to where they were. He started a worship service in a bar. In several bars, as a matter of fact. After Hours Denver is a worship community that rotates from week to week to different bars in and around Denver where people hear the word, sing together, and drink adult beverages while they worship. Their motto is “Love more, laugh more, judge less.” And while some would respond by poo-pooing that idea as sacrilege, or heresy, or cite the old Methodist attachment to the 19th and early 20th century anti-drinking temperance movement in order to denounce it, they forget, or never knew, that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism often preached in bars and on street corners, and that many of our traditional Methodist hymns were in fact drinking songs before Charles Wesley got his hands on them and put new words to those familiar tunes so that people could remember them. Think: religious words to “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
“A hundred bottles of beer on the wall,
a hundred bottles of beer,
take one down, pass it around,
ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall.”
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost, but now I’m found,
was blind but now I see.”
After Hours Denver took the Methodist tradition of small groups out into the places where people who weren’t going to connect to a church otherwise were located, and introduced the gospel in a new way, becoming more like a church in how people acted and served. It evolved next into these groups, performing “service” within their worship service, making sack lunches that folks then took out into the city parks to give to the homeless community, along with sharing communion in the park as well.
Taking communion and lunches to the park led to providing long underwear and coats for homeless people and others who needed them. All of this grew and evolved, one year at a time, until it got to the point that this year this ministry, begun in a handful of Denver area bars by people who didn’t go to church, at their now annual tradition of Christmas in the Park, distributed over 500 coats, over 700 sleeping bags, cared for the needs of over 700 people, and served over 1200 fresh grilled hamburgers to those who gathered, all this by the over 600 After Hours Servants who gathered to be the hands and feet of Christ in Denver. It may be different, it may not be traditional in the most traditional sense, but that is certainly what it means to be church, and what Jesus said it meant to be his follower and not a Christian in name only.
Brian McLaren, a writer, theologian, and former pastor that I know some of you have read, offers this about what he calls the “Great Migration” happening in the church,
“I’ve come to see that what matters most is not our status but our trajectory, not where we are but where we’re going, not where we stand but where we’re headed. . . . [Religion] is at its best when it leads us forward, when it guides us on our spiritual growth as individuals and in our cultural evolution as a species.
Unfortunately, religion often becomes more of a cage than a guide, holding us back rather than summoning us onward, a buffer to constructive change rather than a catalyst for it. In times of rapid and ambiguous change, such a regressive turn in religion may be understandable, but it is even more tragic: when a culture needs wise spiritual guidance the most, all it gets from religious leaders is anxious condemnation and critique, along with a big dose of nostalgia for the lost golden age of the good old days.”
And I would offer that when we think about it in that way, we begin to understand why so many people are moving away from traditional religion entirely, into secularism or into experimental forms of spirituality unattached to traditional religion.
And Fr. Richard Rohr says about this movement,
“But at this pivotal moment, something else is happening. Within each tradition, unsettling but needed voices are arising—prophetic voices, we might call them, voices of change, hope, imagination, and new beginnings. They say there’s an alternative to static or rigid religion on the one hand and religion-free secularism on the other. They claim that the Spirit is calling us, not to dig in our heels, but rather to pack up our tents and get moving again.”
In all of the tradition that we embrace in our practice of the Christian faith, we sometimes forget that the one we follow, Jesus the carpenter of Nazareth, was a leader in breaking with tradition when its effect was to separate or exclude people from God’s love and from worship. Jesus surrounded himself with, served, healed, preached to, and loved people who, if they walked in the door of most churches, would never be welcomed and would certainly never be accepted. Jesus broke with tradition in how he taught and people understood his teachings as having authority. Jesus broke the sabbath traditions and the religious authorities cried out “blasphemy” while the homeless, helpless, and hungry cried out “Hosanna!”
The world needs the church to return to being more like Jesus in how it deals with the issues and the people in the world. The world needs the church to repent of trying to be like General Motors or IBM and to become more like the church described in the Book of Acts. Our scripture today calls us to come see Christ - to meet Christ - to know Christ - to follow Christ - and then to go home a different way, a new way. Jesus Christ calls us, from the manger and the cross, to leave behind the traditions that imprison us to old ways of thinking about and of being the church, that we might embrace the new thing Christ wants to do, needs us to do, in the world today.
So in the new year we’ll be trying some new things, doing some new things, starting some new things. And some of them will be easy and others will be harder. And some of them you’ll like and others you might not. Some of them you’ve probably tried before and they didn’t work, but we’ll try them again because the first time just might not have been the right time. Remember, it took Thomas Edison 10,000 tries to get the light bulb right and this could be only our 2nd or 3rd attempt at something. But we’re going to try because that’s what we’re called to do. We grow in our faith by trying new things. All the traditions that we have come to love came about by somebody trying some new thing, by going in a new way. New music has become favorite music over the centuries because somebody tried it the first time - every traditional hymn in our hymnal was new at one time or another, and what will eventually be seen as some of the greatest songs of the Christian faith… haven’t even been written yet.
And as we go these new ways, and as we try these news things, reaching out to and welcoming new people in new places, we remember that scripture tells us in Revelation 21, “You, O God, make all things new.”
Happy New Year, Happy New You! Amen.