"Whose Party is This?"

EPHIPHANY
Grant Lowe

What is this about?
The Gospel is for all: Gentile magi, the inclusive Gospel.
God’s acts are available for all who are able to discern them
Reconciliation.
Hope.

IDENTITY DISRUPTED
As we sit here in our comfortable pews this morning I want to ask you to go in your mind’s eye with me back in time and think about the situation of those early Christians, those people who were part of the church before there really was a “church”. The very first ones, the apostles, were all Jews, they had lived out their lives following Jewish laws and customs, repeating the prayers, going up to the temple, making the required sacrifices, looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. These Jews had followed this Jesus from Nazareth, believed him to be the one they had looked for over the centuries, and their hopes were dashed at the crucifixion and then beyond imagination by the resurrection. In their excitement their enthusiasm spread to others, their circle of believers grew their fellow Jews and even the Romans who occupied their land made fun of them, ridiculed them, and derisively called them “christianoi” as an epithet. But the followers of Jesus were excited by the resurrection and the awesome experience of Pentecost, so nothing would slow them down, and so they grew rapidly in numbers. That rapid growth of the followers of Jesus the Christ was followed by new persecutions of Jews and Christians, and many fled the persecution but they spread of the news about Jesus wherever they went, beyond Israel into the provinces with their dominant Greek culture. So now people who had not been part of the Jewish community were responding to the Gospel. The Jewish didn’t work for these new folks. They were accepting Jesus as Lord and savior but they weren’t Jewish and hadn’t been circumcised and didn’t abide by all the rules. Now imagine yourself a new member in the congregation at Antioch and reading Matthew’s manuscript as a new members manual and you read there the very first people to worship Jesus were not even Jewish, but were foreigners, outsiders to the faith, like you maybe. What does that tell you?

Matthew is written to Jewish Christians and draws much connection between Jesus and their Scriptures, especially the prophets. However, Matthew also continuously makes the point that God’s revelation in Jesus is intended for all people, beginning with the story of the magi. The Jewish faithful, taught to keep certain customs and rules to maintain their identity when that identity was being threatened in their exile experience in Babylon but Jesus didn’t recognize those boundaries, so he told the story of the good Samaritan and commented that the Roman military officer exhibited faith greater than any he had seen in all Israel. The dividing walls are being destroyed. Mathew conveys this in dramatic terms in his gospel beginning with the story of the magi, goyim, ethnos, non-Jews who came and paid homage to the Christ, therefore God intended the Gospel for all. Jesus would actually have dinner with people proper folks would have nothing to do with. “We are God’s special people, Abraham is our father” they said and John the Baptist says, I paraphrase “Don’t give me that! God can raise up children out of the stones of the ground as children of Abraham.”

Jesus says “I tell you many will come from the east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of heaven”.

The magi came in reverence, with gifts fit for a king, they were submissive. Matthew makes this point up front in our face with the story of the magi, astrologers, outsiders to the faith, not children of Abraham, foreigners.

RECONCILIATION ON A PERSONAL LEVEL
Jack Rogers, former moderator of the GAS tells the story of being in Puerto Rico in a beautiful sanctuary of a good size church in an urban area. The pastor of the church was showing him around and told the story that one of his elders was the head of a labor union which was on strike against a corporation the VP of which was a member of the congregation. The feelings were running high. The corporate VP came to the pastor and asked him to bring communion to her mother who was very ill. Presbyterian practice is to have an elder accompany the pastor in celebrating the sacrament in the home. The session there had a rotation of the elders for serving communion to shut ins and it was the labor union leader’s turn. The pastor said if you want to avoid this service I will find someone to take your place. The labor leader replied “If I cannot do this I do not deserve to be an elder”. The pastor and elder arrived at the home at the appointed hour and when the corporate VP opened the door she was at first shocked by whom she saw. Then both she and the labor union leader wept and embraced. Being able to put animosities aside because of our common loyalty to Christ; that is reconciliation.

What is the significance of Jesus Christ in a religiously pluralistic world?

Let me conclude by saying that the changes taking place in our world, the anxiety of war and bloodshed, the continuing economic slowdown, the cults of extremism that arise in times of change and instability, these changes may shape the style of our mission. They will not of themselves diminish our zeal to continue to offer Good News to a spiritually hungry and hurting world. The strength and effectiveness of our ministry together will only be determined by our own hearts and how we respond to Christ's call in our time.

New times teach new duties, and the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung gives us some clues about how the church can be faithful in a changing world.

The church of the future is NOT a church

that is indifferent in its faith, shallow in its thinking, or timid in its action;

or that is captive to its history, always putting on its brakes,

or suspiciously defensive when called to act boldly;

or that is closed to change or blind to problems;

or that is quarrelsome, impatient, or unfair in its internal dialogue;

or that is closed to what is happening in God's world.

In short, the church that bears faithful witness to Christ in the future will not be the church that is dishonest.

The church of the future IS the church

that relies upon God's Grace and Wisdom;

that proclaims a God it does not fully know;

that knows the power of God and is in touch with its own weaknesses;

that is strong in faith, joyous,

and able to be thankful even with uncertainties about everything save God alone;

that is filled with intellectual desire beyond its ability to know;

that has spontaneity and animation, and shows fruitfulness in its worship;

that has courage to take risks.

In short, the church that will bear faithful witness in the future is
the church that is honest.

Let me take a moment to comment on our last hymn, which is unusual in several respects. The word for God in this hymn in Gitche Manitou, in the Anishinaabe languages of the Algonquin, Ojibwa and others


Manitou is a common Algonquian (Anishinaabe) term for spirit, mystery, or deity.

Gitche Manitou means "Great Spirit" in several Algonquian (Anishinaabe) languages. The term was also utilized to signify God by Christian missionaries, when translating scriptures and prayers, etc. into the Algonquian languages.

Gichi-manidoo, Great Spirit, is the Creator of all things and the Giver of Life, and is sometimes translated as the "Great Mystery." Historically, Anishinaabe people believed in a variety of spirits, whose images were placed near doorways for protection.

According to Anishinaabe-Ojibwa tradition, what became known as Mackinac Island in Michigan was the home of Gitchie Manitou. The people would make pilgrimages there for rituals devoted to the spirit.

This is the same term found in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha,

The term manitou refers to the concept of one aspect of the interconnection and balance of nature/life. Everything has its own manitou— every plant, every stone and, since their invention, even machines. These manitous do not exist in a hierarchy like European gods/goddesses, but are more akin to one part of the body interacting with another and the spirit of everything; Historically, Anishinaabe people believed in a variety of spirits, whose images were placed near doorways for protection..With the coming of Christian missionaries and their need to translate the idea of monotheism, "Gitche Manitou" meaning "Great Spirit" was coined. Gitche Manitou has been seen as those cultures' analogue to the
Christian God

The "Huron Carol", found in our Presbyterian Hymnal, is a hymn written in 1643 by Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary at Sainte-Marie among the Herons’ in Canada. Brébeuf wrote the lyrics in the native language of the Huron/Wendat people; the song's original Huron title is "Jesous Ahatonhia" ("Jesus, he is born"). The song's melody is based on a traditional French folk song, "Une Jeune Pucelle" ("A Young Maid"). The English lyrics were written in 1926 by Jesse Edgar Middleton.

The hymn uses imagery familiar to the Herons’ in place of the traditional Nativity story. Jesus is born in a "lodge of broken bark", and wrapped in a "robe of rabbit skin". He is surrounded by hunters instead of shepherds, and the Magi are portrayed as "chiefs from afar" that bring him "fox and beaver pelts" instead of the more familiar gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Just as Paul took an Athenian god to proclaim the Gospel, so the Jesuit missionaries took the Huron word for Great Spirit, and used it to show how God communicates with us through the Christ.

In the United States, the song was included as "Jesous Ahatonia" on Burl Ives's 1952 album Christmas Day in the Morning and was later released as a Burl Ives single under the title "Indian Christmas Carol."

God has given us a mission, if we are willing to accept it. I don't believe we are called to a narrowly "religious" enterprise, but to bear witness to the lord who calls us to carry glad tidings to a tired and hurting world; and to live out in our lives our understanding of the profound unity of the peoples of the earth and God's continuing creativity in the world.
Amen.