What’s Behind that White/Black Hat?

One of the richest stories in all of Genesis is the Joseph story. Unfortunately, not much of it makes it into the lectionary. We basically get the beginning and the end. In between there are stories of imprisonment, interpreting dreams, false accusations of sexual impropriety, famines, desperation, more sexual impropriety, family drama, and the list goes on. This week, we just get the beginning.

 

Joseph himself ends up being an incredibly interesting character because he is not altogether good. In fact, at the beginning, it is pretty easy to see that he is basically a snotty little brat who probably deserves what’s coming to him. That being said though, he is also a character who clearly learns a lot and develops a lot before the end of the story. By the end he is able to utter some of the most graceful words in all of scripture (that is for next week).

 

What I think is so very important about recognizing Joseph for who he is (the good and the bad), is that it shows us a lot about true humanity. Unfortunately, we too often live in boiled down views of the world where, like the Lone Ranger, there are black hats and white hats with no in between. Yet, it is clear in scripture that none of the ‘heroes’ of our faith are actually all good. Noah=drunk, Joseph=snotty brat, Moses=murderer, David=philanderer and murderer, Paul=zealot, Solomon=womanizer, Abraham=attempted infanticide, and the list goes on and on and on. Heroes in scripture are not without their faults.

 

It also happens to be the case that most of the villains are not necessarily flat characters either. Last week we dealt with Esau, who had every right to hate his brother, yet extended forgiveness. In Joseph’s story, several of his brothers actually try to find a way to help him live while others wanted blood. Pilate at times seems to even be a somewhat sympathetic character while putting Jesus on trial (he attempts to let Jesus off the hook, but the people instead choose Barabas.

 

The Bible does not come with too many flat characters. There is depth to all of them, and that is one of the reasons it is one of the finest literary works in history. Unfortunately, the complexity that belongs to each of the Biblical figures is not often offered to anyone in our own day and age. Our politics are a prime example of this—if you don’t agree with me you must be a baby killing, racist, fascist, communist, uneducated, easily manipulated, foolish, idiotic, evil person. Why is it we are unwilling to offer each other the same kind of grace that abounds in scripture?

 

I imagine that if we had the same kind of access to each other’s stories as we do to the characters of scripture, we might be more likely to be open to the possibility that the other might actually have a reason for believing what they do. Of course, we also often think that even hearing out the “enemy’s” story would be tantamount to treason to our side of the political divide. Perhaps that is the place to start though. If we could come to understand that baggage that each of us carry, perhaps we will be more likely to at least understand that they are not necessarily evil because of the views that they espouse.

 

This is part of the reason why I have become so caught up in story lately. I have been truly stymied by some of the things that others believe, but I have often found that understanding their story helps to understand their beliefs. Joseph is a good example of this. He clearly has a gift from God for understanding what is to come, but that gift nearly gets him killed at the hands of his brothers. Is it any wonder that story eventually leads to someone who can understand that perhaps God worked through the evil in his brother’s hearts to bring about unbounded mercy?

 

I suppose my encouragement to you this week is that you don’t flatten out any characters—be they Hillary or Trump; be they Putin or Kim Jong; be they Joseph or Judah. Try to get to the complexity that lies beneath. After all, we all have a story. Once we begin to understand those stories, I think we won’t have quite as hard a time understanding one another; even if we still disagree at the end of the day.

Tradition Can Be Wrong

So, I have spent the better part of a week debating what scripture we would be doing this Sunday. I originally planned to go with the lectionary (Hagar and Ishmael), but I noticed there is this problem that the lectionary skips a story that has been foundational in some of our cultural arguments—Sodom and Gomorrah. You all know that I rarely shy away from a controversial passage like that, but one of the problems becomes the vast amount of territory that would need to be covered in a 15 minute sermon (ask the Wednesday night Bible study – we looked at it for an hour and didn’t get through all the material). So where does that leave us? I think we are going to look at Abraham’s conversation with God about Sodom, but not all the rest.

So that means the epistle reflection this week will be the rest of it. Let’s talk about the 800 pound gorilla in the room. When we think Sodom and Gomorrah, we think of another related word—sodomy. We think this story is about homosexuality because our culture has told us it is. However, as Jay Michaelson put it, “Reading the story of Sodom as being about homosexuality is like reading the story of an ax murderer as being about an ax.” Or for you proponents of the second amendment, it is like thinking shootings are only about guns and not the people holding the gun. The truth is that the historic Christian Church tradition behind the interpretation of this passage has often made it about homosexuality—there is no arguing that. I know most of us grew up with that being the interpretation of this story. However, tradition can be wrong. What is it my father always said? “Just because all your friends are jumping off a cliff doesn’t mean you should too!” I don’t think that is really what this passage is about, and I know that there are many others that agree.

For one thing, look at the stories that surround it. Last week we read the story of Abraham’s extraordinary hospitality to three strangers (one of whom turned out to be the LORD). Lot then receives the two messengers from God in the same way. That ought to be a big clue. Another point worth raising is that if this is about sexual morality, you might want to read the end of the story, where the hero and supposed righteous man (Lot) participates in incest.

The other place that is incredibly important to help us understand this story is the Jewish Talmud. The Talmud are the teachings of renowned Rabbi’s on each passage of the Hebrew Bible. One such Talmudic reading, called the Sefer Ha-Aggadah, delves deeply into the history of Sodom and Gomorrah. It has several passages explaining the evils of the cities, and some of them are quite comical. One Rabbi suggests that Sodom had such backward laws that if someone injured you, you owed that person money for having injured you. Another is that if someone were to accidentally cut off your donkey’s ear, you would have to give the perpetrator the donkey until its ear grew back (apparently cutting off donkey ears was an issue they grappled with). The Talmud goes into great detail about the evils of Sodom and Gomorrah, but guess what it never mentions? Homosexuality.

Then there is another important Biblical principle to consider. The Bible interprets itself—that means we should look to the other parts of scripture to help us understand what is happening here. Most references to Sodom and Gomorrah are simply warnings—don’t do bad things or you will end up like Sodom and Gomorrah. These references happen throughout the prophets, in Deuteronomy, in the epistles of Peter and a few other smatterings. In these cases, the focus is on the punishment and not really the specific crime.

Finally, there are three passages of scripture that do seem to suggest specific interpretations. The first that needs to be laid out is Jude 1:7 which does suggest that sex played a role in the destruction, “In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah and neighboring towns practiced immoral sexual relations and pursued other sexual urges. By undergoing the punishment of eternal fire, they serve as a warning.” Keep in mind, however, that the idea of gang rape also fits this description, regardless of the gender of the perpetrators.

The other two important pieces of scripture on this seem to suggest that this is about something different. Ezekiel 16 says this, “This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy. They became haughty and did detestable things in front of me, and I turned away from them as soon as I saw it.” Of course, those who want to read this passage as being about sexuality think that detestable things refers to homosexuality. Perhaps…but if you look at the entirety of the passage, it is pretty clear that it is about not helping the poor and the needy. It should be noted here that this is the traditional Jewish interpretation, and by and large, this is what the Talmudic sayings reference—a nation that has refused to care for the poor and the stranger and insisted on acting unjustly. Perhaps that should come as a warning to us?

Finally, the last piece of scripture that has the most bearing on how we read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah would be what Jesus said about the story himself, in Luke 10 and Matthew 10. Both passages refer to the disciples going out to cities around Israel preaching the good news. Jesus tells them to take nothing with them when they go, but to depend upon the hospitality of those in the cities they visit. Jesus than says, “If anyone refuses to welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet as you leave that house or city. I assure you that it will be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on Judgment Day than it will be for that city.” Now if you are really determined to stretch the Bible to continue to make this about homosexuality, then I suppose there is very little that could be said  to change your mind. However, this passage is fairly clear that Jesus is referring to how disciples are welcomed. This is a passage that is about hospitality.

If you are one of those that wants to continue to read this passage as a condemnation of homosexuality, than there is nothing to be done to change your mind. If you feel that is what you still believe, perhaps it is time to ask where that belief is actually coming from, because scripture CAN be contorted to support such a belief, but I think the origin of said belief is somewhere other than scripture.

Perhaps what this is really a lesson about is how WE ALL use scripture. I am sure there are some of you reading this who will insist I am the one guilty of contorting the scripture—that is your right to believe such a thing. The point being, any time that we go to the scripture as a means of proving someone else wrong, we are doing violence. As scholar Diana Eck points out, this is using scripture as bullets—not just bullet points. When we pull out verses here or there to make our own positions seem correct and others wrong, we are kind of missing the point of scripture. Scripture is supposed to serve to bring us together and to bring us closer to God. Are any of us really growing closer to God with fights over these kinds of issues? Lastly, I would encourage you again to look to scripture for guidance on how to understand and use scripture. Paul, in several of his writings, encourages us to understand the law by looking for the fruits of the Spirit. By the results of our actions, we will know whether we have truly been following the law of Love and the scriptures. Are any of us getting any closer to God or each other by having these fights? I don’t think so.

We must all be aware of our universal human tendency to simply use scripture to prove ourselves right, regardless of the damage we inflict on others in the process. I would encourage all of us to ask the question, “how will these understandings of scripture bring me closer to my neighbor or God?” If the answer is that they won’t, perhaps it is time to change our thoughts on what a given scripture means to us.

My guess is, that there are still some of you out there that are unconvinced or may be outraged that your pastor has written this. If that is the case, give me a call, let me take you out to coffee (after my vacation), and let’s have an honest and open conversation. Like I said, scripture should be bringing us closer together.

Meaningful Tension

One of my favorite Sundays of the church year is Palm/Passion Sunday. I tend to like it because there is a delicious tension that tends to connect well with the ways in which most of us live our lives.

Most of you probably remember that as kids, this was just “Palm” Sunday. The shift happened some time ago, and whether it was for liturgical reasons, or because people were less likely to attend Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services, a change happened that led to Palm/Passion Sunday. For more on that, check out the article I linked in the meditation below. Now there is an emphasis not only on the palm parade and the children shouting Hosana, but also the march to Calvary and Christ’s suffering and death.

Let’s talk about why this is so important and why it is a good change. I know, many of you don’t like facing the dark and nasty stuff. I have heard the complaints before, “We go to church to escape from the dark nasty stuff. The world has enough of it and this is our safe haven.” I hear you. I understand where you are coming from. However, it is because church is your safe haven that we do need to talk about the dark stuff. I have always liked Mark Scandrette’s comparison of the church being like a dojo. It is the place where we go to practice our faith, so that when we face situations in the real world, our faith muscles are humming in tune ready to take on whatever comes our way. This is why we need to talk about the dark stuff too! We need the practice. We need to talk about darkness because the only way we really learn how to find hope is to journey into darkness and learn to find the light. That is why this strange dichotomy of Palm and Passion works so well. It is the strange tension that we live between the darkness we are so often surrounded by, and yet, the overwhelming hope that our faith instills in us.

I have been reading up on all of this a lot this week, and one interesting piece plays out. Take a second and go read Matthew’s version of the palm parade (Matthew 21:1-11).  Notice anything strange there? Like the fact that Jesus is riding not one, but two animals? How does that work? Zorro style? Many commentators chalk this up to Matthew taking the prophecies of Zechariah to literally. I disagree. I think Matthew knew exactly what he was doing, and he liked the symbolism too much to miss the opportunity.
I highly doubt Jesus rode into Jerusalem Zorro style, but I think that the point Matthew was making was about what the two different animals symbolized. The Donkey was the animal of royalty for the Israelites. It goes back to Solomon electing to ride in on a donkey and not a warhorse to show his humility before God. It became a tradition, and Zechariah picks up on it to talk about the way in which the messiah will enter Jerusalem. Zechariah also mentions a colt. The Hebrew in Zechariah would seem to suggest that colt was also referring to the same donkey, but Matthew uses this as an opportunity. What do we know about colts—they are young and strong. They are work horses. They are beasts of burden. Matthew uses both to symbolize the complex dual nature of what is about to happen. Christ the King. Christ the servant unto death. Matthew is using this opportunity for some foreshadowing. Matthew is using these symbols to heighten the tension of what is happening at this moment in the life of Christ. The crowds shouting hosana were welcoming the victor. Little did they know what lay ahead in the days to come. It must have been a bittersweet moment for Jesus, enjoying the welcome of the crowds during the celebration, knowing that the parade route would end at Golgotha.

There is something to this kind of tension. I don’t know about you, but too often I find myself in places of tension not unlike this. Maybe it is as simple as that tv show you have been binge watching—so excited to see what happens, but don’t really want that final episode to come. Maybe it is as complex as the emotions that accompany this coming season of graduations—excited to see where our kids are headed, but knowing that all the options mean further away from us. Maybe it is as overwhelming as the emotions that accompany watching a loved one face a long illness—knowing that the last thing that you want is death, but also knowing the need for an end to suffering. Palm/Passion Sunday may be the best way we capture this kind of meaningful tension in the liturgical calendar.

So, if you are one of those that insists that church should just be about the warm fuzzies, let me convince you to spend some time practicing tension this week. Let this moment trouble you. See this moment for the rich complexity that it offers. Practice this time, so that the next time you face those bittersweet moments in life, your faith muscles are stretched and ready to go.

Breathing Underwater

This week, our Lenten focus is the Gift of Difficult People, or as Yaconelli entitled his chapter “Idiots.” Our symbol to go along with this week is one of the great symbols of grace (to deal with said idiots): the dove.

 

About two months ago, as we were planning out the chapters, the symbols and the weeks of Lent, for some reason, when thinking about difficult people and which scriptures would work, the story of Nicodemus came to mind. Many people like to make Nicodemus into this heroic Pharisee who bucks the trend and comes to follow Jesus. Call me cynical, but I just don’t see him in that kind of positive light. A few clues give this away: First, he comes to Jesus in the middle of the night—not exactly a heroic kind of move to hide in the dark; second, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus’ opening pleasantries is to basically tell him that he is blind to the presence of the kingdom of God. Finally, there is an exchange where Jesus seems to suggest that Nicodemus may be a teacher of Israel, but he doesn’t know the first thing about God. Not exactly heroic material if you ask me, and exactly the kind of person we want to focus on for a week about dealing with difficult people.

 

What may be even more amazing about this passage though is how the Holy Spirit has been at work in the choosing of this passage. At first, Nicodemus just seemed to fit the bill for talking about “Idiots.” What I have come to find this week, though, is that there is so much richness and depth that are coming together because of this passage that just could not have been planned.

 

First of all, as you may know, I have been gone for the last two weeks for continuing education and some vacation. I spent the last two weeks in Belize diving in some of the world’s most beautiful waters. For the last several years, my pastor cohort group has been studying Ruach Elohim, the Breath of God. We have done this by embracing the uncontrolled nature of the breath of God in learning improve acting and comedy. We have done this by climbing to the top of Mt. Elbert in Colorado and breathing in the thin air. We have done this in a retreat to Taos focused on breathing meditation, breath in the Taos Pueblo tradition, and using breathing patterns in acting to elicit emotional response. Most recently, we have done this by learning a new way of breathing underwater through being trained and certified for scuba diving.

 

One of the most profound lessons of the last two weeks for me is how breathing helps us navigate the world around us. When scuba diving, your breath quite literally determines your place in the world. By breathing in a big lungful of air, you rise in the water. To descend in the water, you breath out fully and completely. By breathing slowly, deeply and fully, you are able to control where you are in the water, and even your movement. After 16 dives over the course of the last two weeks, I found myself becoming so proficient at it that I rarely used my body to move through the water, but used my breath to keep myself positioned in currents to move me through the water. It is a remarkable feeling that I would imagine is akin to flying.

 

It is also something that speaks volumes about this week’s scripture with Nicodemus. When Nicodemus wants to understand the kingdom of God, Jesus’ response is that he must be born anew of Spirit and Water to understand the kingdom of God. Jesus then tells Nicodemus that “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It is the same with everyone born of the Spirit.”

 

In the first dive two weeks ago, I found myself fighting the water around me, pushing hard and kicking with all my might trying to go where I wanted to go. That first dive lasted for 27 minutes because I used up all my air trying to determine where I was going. By the last dive, I had become so used to letting my air do the work, and letting the water take me where it would that I was down for 68 minutes and still had plenty of air left over.

 

I think part of Jesus’ teaching to our idiot friend Nicodemus is stopping trying to control everything and have power over everything. Let the Breath of God, the Spirit, lead you where it will and you will find yourself smack dab in the middle of the Kingdom of God. There have been so many times in my own life where I have tried to direct the flow and determine how things had to be done, but these past two weeks have reminded me that we find the presence of God in those places where we breathe deeply and allow the Spirit to blow us in whatever direction it will.

 

Amazingly, that is kind of how this scripture is working out this week. Not only did it seem to fit well with my own experiences, but it just so happens that we will be celebrating the Baptisms of Matthew and Cayla McNiece on Sunday, and there are few passages so fitting for baptism as this one. Like I said, we couldn’t have planned it better!

 

So, my encouragement to you this week is breath deeply the Breath of God, and allow the Spirit to guide you on your way. Don’t fight the current, but let the Breath of God carry you where it may.

Fish Vomit

So this week we are talking about Darkness and we are talking about the symbols of the wheel and the fish (if you are unfamiliar with the wheel symbol, you will just have to come to worship on Sunday to find out what I am talking about). When Sarah Kotchian and I were planning this, and were thinking about what Scriptures speak to darkness, the idea of Jonah being stuck in the belly of the fish was somehow where our minds wandered.

 

Needless to say, it didn’t take much convincing for me to get on board because Jonah is my favorite book of the bible. I love the message in Jonah, and more importantly, I love the way that the message is conveyed. Jonah uses humor and satire to poke fun at us religious folk, who far too often take ourselves too seriously.

 

Let’s start with a quick discussion on a very important key to understanding Jonah—the fish! Have you ever heard people arguing over whether it is a fish or a whale? The answer is…durm roll please…it wasn’t really either, because Jonah was not actually swallowed by anything in real life. Yep, that is your pastor telling you, this story is not a historical event. And if you think it is, let me tell you about a bridge that I am selling in Brooklyn…

 

Jonah is not an historical account, plain and simple. Jonah is satire. Jonah makes fun of religious people who spend way too much time arguing over things like whether it was a fish or a whale that ate Jonah. You can tell this by how it is written. You can tell this from the original Hebrew. You can tell this because it is a story about a person being eaten by a fish. Unfortunately, we have made ourselves into the butt of the joke by being the very thing that Jonah makes fun of—religious elites.

 

What is important to learn from this is that scripture has genres. Some scripture is meant to be read seriously with an eye toward historical accuracy (though their definition of history and ours differ widely). Some is poetry and is meant to be read as figurative. Some is philosophical argument, and is meant to force us to ask big questions. Unfortunately, we often approach scripture as though it were just one thing—serious history. Incidentally, this is exactly why I have big problems with Ken Ham and his creationist museum (If you don’t know about that, Google it).

Jonah is satire. Jonah is humor. Jonah is meant to be read like you would read the Sunday morning comics, or like you would watch Jimmy Fallon or Stephen Colbert. It is supposed to be fun and outlandish, and if you don’t read it that way, you are signing up to be the butt of the joke. You are the over-serious Jonah who is just waiting to be chewed up and spit out!

 

The story features only a few characters—Jonah, God, a handful of Sailors, a few Ninevites, a worm and a fish. Guess who does God’s bidding on the first try in this story—the non-Hebrew sailors and the non-Hebrew Ninevites. The guy called by God fights every step of the way. This points fun at religious people that think they are better than everyone else, but often miss the point. The conversation about Jonah being thrown overboard is funny stuff. Tarshish is quite literally the exact opposite direction from Ninevah. The man of God is quite literally FISH VOMIT. And if that wasn’t enough, the very last sentence of the book is God making a potty-humor joke that is worthy of an 8th grade boy (hint: people in that culture at that time used their right hand to eat and their left hand to wipe themselves).

 

All of this teaches us something that is extremely important—FAITH NEEDS HUMOR! If humor plays no role in our life of faith then we are not doing it right. We need to be able to laugh—especially at ourselves! We need to be ready to see that God doesn’t just work through prose and boredom—God engages us through any means necessary—even potty humor! That is why this book doesn’t need to be about historical fact at all. Trying to engage the question of historicity with Jonah is a total waste of time. I mean, the book is literally about prophetic fish vomit! It also teaches us that “Truth” with a capital “T” isn’t about historical fact, it is bigger than that. Truth is about how we find meaning in our lives.

 

If you want to find meaning in your life; if you want to find Truth; take a lesson from Jonah and have a little more fun with your faith. Embrace the absurd and the hilarious and look for God’s hand when you find yourself the butt of a joke.

Holy Troublemakers

It is hard to imagine, that I have been writing this blog for three years now. This Sunday I happen to be preaching on the beatitudes, and being that they were the inspiration for the name of this blog and the image off to the left, it seemed fitting to revive the original post (with a few updates) to remind the readers what this is all about. Enjoy!

It all started about 6 years ago. [cue flashback sequence]. Since the Presbytery youth retreat happened to fall on Dr. Seuss’ birthday, it seemed only logical at the time to run with Dr. Seuss books as our theme. We looked at the Beatitudes through the different lenses of Seuss’ writings and discovered some wonderful meaning. What was especially helpful was The Message version of the Beatitudes and its wonderful ending, “…my prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.” Seemed to be the perfect fit, especially given Seussian characters like the Cat in the Hat. In so many ways there is a wonderful connection to the long-standing prophetic tradition in the biblical witness and the idea of being a troublemaker. Who better fits this image than Christ himself, the one who refused to play by the rules of the religious elites, the power brokers and the pol class of his day. A mashed potato of Jesus and the Cat in the Hat seemed to be a good way of summing up this idea. Thus was born the image of the Holy Troublemaker:
This was made into a t-shirt for the retreat to remind the kids to be holy troublemakers in their own day-to-day lives, it became the image on the Covenant Presbyterian bumper stickers, and it has since become the logo for my blog.
Unfortunately, one problem for an institution like the church is that we often are more caught up in maintaining the status quo (since it has long benefited our institution), rather than maintaining a prophetic voice. Needless to say, in this day and age when the status quo is no longer our best buddy, perhaps it is time to re-embrace the prophetic troublemaking voice.
That calling is what I take seriously in my blog, what I take seriously in my role as pastor, and  what you often hear from the pulpit. It should also be mentioned that in no way is the thinking that somehow Covenant or myself are above that kind of critique, but indeed are much in need of such a critical voice to remind us to humbly follow the lead Troublemaker–Jesus. Coming out of the Reformed tradition there is a natural kind of self critique built in to our theology as we remind ourselves of the need for God’s grace. It is always a struggle, but my hope is that my blogging and my preaching continually drive us to a mindset of being reformed, but always in need of more reforming.
Lastly, this world needs our help–all of us. Continuing with the way things are at the moment, just isn’t an option. Again and again, scripture calls us to be involved in this world, and to seek to be a part of God’s transformative and reconciling  kingdom in the midst of this world. Thus the plural in the title of my blog and the Holy Troublemaker image. Though I am doing the writing and preaching, it is my sincere hope it will be more than me causing trouble out there!

Happy Holidays!

This week our story dwells on the Magi. Now, I know that the tradition of the church has the Magi show up after the birth, but let’s face it, I am always on vacation the week after Christmas and never get to spend time on the Magi. So here we are.

I think the tale of the Magi is really important, and has something surprising to teach us. Notice, that I don’t use the name wisemen or kings. In this case, Magi is the word. Magi is the word that is used in the scripture in Greek. Our tradition has been muddied with kings and wisemen and astronomers, and it seems there are two or three possible reasons for this. First, it could simply be a lack of understanding of what a Magi was, and an attempt to explain it using characters from western culture that we understand. We know what a king is, or what a wiseman is, or what an astronomer is, and that can be a simple explanation. Most people don’t actually know what a Magi was.

And that brings us to a second possibility. It could be that Christian tradition has been uncomfortable with the implications of what a Magi was, and so tried to subtly dismiss the title by replacing it with other options. You see, Magi were particular people from a particular place and from a particular religion. The Magi were religious leaders of the Zoroastrian tradition coming out of Persia. Since most of us have been raised in the western educational tradition, we don’t realize that at the time of Jesus, Zoroastrianism was the most dominant religion on the face of the earth. It’s influence had spread everywhere—even Israel.

Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions on the planet. Ahura Mazda is the deity in Zoroastrianism, and there is an ongoing battle between the good Ahura Mazda and the evil Angra Mainyu—images of whom look an awful lot like later Christian depictions of the devil. Traditionally, these two have been represented by light and dark. In fact, ideas about eternal flames probably came out of Zoroastrianism, as there was often a flame at the center of worship spaces. The flame symbolizes Ahura Mazda, and at times, Zoroastrians were thought to simply worship fire because outsiders didn’t realize the flame was a symbol of Ahura Mazda. As you can imagine, light of any kind becomes representative of Ahura Mazda—God—even starlight.

This is where the emphasis on Magi becomes important and potentially challenging. Magi following the light of the star would have been following the lead of Ahura Mazda. This would have been understood as the most powerful religion in the world recognizing Jesus as an important leader, prophet, and potentially even divine. This is why the Magi piece is important—the divine light points to who Jesus is. However, this is also potentially challenging in Christian tradition, because it indicates that there is religious wisdom beyond our own tradition. One reason that we may have moved away from Magi to talk about kings and wisemen was because we weren’t comfortable with the notion that another religion had wisdom about the person of Jesus Christ. The implication would be that there is something to learn from people of other faiths. This has not always been a welcome idea in our tradition.

Of course, the third possibility for why we moved away from Magi is that it doesn’t flow in Christmas carols in quite the same way—“We Three Magi of Orient are…” may not have the same ring to it!

I suppose that what I am suggesting is that the reason the word Magi is important is because it suggests to us that other people and other faiths do have wisdom that we can learn from. That does come as a challenge to us. We must be ready to listen and engage with others who are different from us. After all, they may understand something of the light that we don’t. So as we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ child, be mindful of the fact that there are others out there from different traditions that celebrate different holidays this season. Matthew teaches us that we have been the beneficiaries of the wisdom of other traditions in the past. Perhaps it means that we would all benefit from a less contentious relationship between people of different faiths. I suppose that is why I tend to wish people, “Happy Holidays,” instead of “Merry Christmas.” It is an acknowledgement of the great breadth of wisdom that God has granted to all of God’s Children. It is an acknowledgment of the respect that people of other faiths deserve. So Happy Holidays!

In the same spirit of my reflection today, check out this wonderful commercial from Amazon. Yeah, I know, I usually rail against commercialism, but in this case, I will make an exception. Enjoy!

A Cup of Tea