John 1:1-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
Matthew 2:1-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
May God add a blessing to our understanding of these words.
A New Year – a time to look back as well as forward – the old and new. One in review and the other in heart’s desire. Our scripture dovetail nicely at this time of year. One is the reading of the coming of the Wise Ones seeking to find where the star leads. The other is from the theologically different and gifted gospel writer who wrote: “In the beginning was the Word”. The Word who was and is with God – from the beginning. Of course, this writer also knew the creation story in Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth …” we are told that in the beginning was the Word – the Logos. And God spoke and it came to be.
The story we heard of the Wise Ones this morning omits the dark and dangerous aspect as Herod, the ruler, is truly not wanting to pay homage to this child who he’s heard about and who he feels threatens his royal stance. His real intent and desire is to end this child’s life before this child can do Herod and the system of the day great harm. The Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod to report their findings of this babe. They wisely listen to their dreams and in so doing they spare this infant’s life. It is recorded, unfortunately, that hundreds of male children, 2 years old and under in Bethlehem were slaughtered in the hopes that one of them would be this child, and if successful, the danger to Herod would be eliminated.
This is a dark and appalling story and reflects the lengths some people go to maintain their position of power in the world. This is, unfortunately, a story that repeats itself in various ways across the centuries into our own sad times today.
Looking back and looking forward. In the times of King Herod. In the beginning was the Word. Light vs dark. Good vs bad. Old vs new. Holy vs Evil. Saint vs Sinner. Each of these groupings has the potential for harm or good and each of these can be found within each of us; which do we give the most energy to – the good or the bad.
Past acts may haunt us and shame us but that doesn’t need to be the way into the future or forever. Our words today and actions today, and our intentions today reshape us and allow us to know there is hope for the future. Even though we may have said and done some things in our own lives that we may regret, we can redeem the past. Author, Parker Palmer shared the following recently on a Facebook posting (12/28/19)
“It’s the rare person who doesn’t look back with at least a few regrets. But here’s the deal – the past isn’t fixed and frozen the way we think it is. Its meaning can change as time unfolds, if we pay attention.”
Parker then goes on to share this story: “Once upon a time, I was fired from a job. For months I burned with shame – it felt as if I had torched my life. But a few years later, I realized how that miserable moment had guided me toward my true life-work. Being fired turned out to be a blessing, not a curse.
Why look back with regret when I can look at all of my mess-ups as humus, compost for the growing I needed to do. I love the fact that the word ‘humus’ is related to ‘humility.’ The good I do today may well have its roots in something not-so-good I did in the past. Knowing that takes me beyond both the sinkhole of regret and the ego-inflation of pride. Regret shuts life down. Humility opens it up.” Parker ends by writing: “So Robert frost got it right: we CAN have hope for the past as well as the future.”
Parker refers to a poem by David Ray entitled Thanks, Robert Frost. Eileen Kohan sets up our understanding of this poem, by noting that David Ray “poses a contemporary question to a legend of twentieth century American poetry, Robert Frost. ‘Do you have hope for the future?’ Kohan believes Ray’s poem competes with the ceaseless, uncivil discourse of politicians, as we revisit the wisdom of the previous century’s rural sage.
Thanks, Robert Frost
Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
That it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
not able to be, perhaps, what we wished,
or what looking back half the time it seems
we could so easily have been, or ought . . .
The future, yes, and even for the past,
that it will become something we can bear.
And I too, and my children, so I hope,
will recall as not too heavy the tug
of those albatrosses I sadly placed
upon their tender necks. Hope for the past,
yes, old Frost, your words provide that courage,
and it brings strange peace that itself passes
into past, easier to bear because
you said it, rather casually, as snow
went on falling in Vermont years ago.
And the prophet of old, Jeremiah (31:17) also reminds us that there is hope for the future. Yes, even in the midst of hard days and hard times, there is hope for the future. There is hope for the future in our own lives and there is hope for the future for Christianity today, as well. As we can evolve and grow as individuals in our lives and in our faith, what has grown into the institution of Christianity can also evolve and grow and need not be rooted as it has been as a rigid relic of what is considered holy.
I receive Richard Rohr’s daily devotions and I feel that two daily devotions this past week speak to us of this same topic – that the past can be redeemed. These particular devotions are focused on Brian McLaren’s work as an author, speaker, activist and public theologian who has spent the last two decades passionately advocating for “a new kind of Christianity.” I would also describe him as a prophet of this time.
McLaren writes: “More and more of us are hoping, praying, and dedicating ourselves to a [new] form of Christianity. This new kind of Christianity can only emerge as a trans-denominational movement of contemplative spiritual activism… It will be radically collaborative, working with, across, and when necessary, outside of and in spite of existing institutions to seek the common good. It will not be anti-institutional because instituions are necessary for human survival, but neither will it be institutional, in the sense that it is preoccupied with its own survival or bringing benefits only to its members. Rather, it will be trans-institutional, working across institutions, both religious and non-religious, seeking the common good of those inside and outside the movement and the institutions it involves.
This emerging or emergence Christianity . . . will be decentralized and diverse rather than centralized and uniform. In other words, it will have the shape of a movement rather than an institution. It will be drawn together . . . by internal unity of way of life, mission, practices, and vision for the common good . . . .
Instead of hoarding and centralizing resources like expertise, education, mentoring, and authority, we need to multiply them and democratize them.
This, of course, was Jesus’ original approach.” McLaren reminds us: Jesus “never announced to his disciples: ‘Hey folks, we’re going to start a new, centralized, institutional religion and name it after me.’ Instead, he played the role of a nonviolent leader and launched his movement with the classic words of movement,[simply] ‘Follow me’.
He used his power to empower others. He did great things to inspire his followers to do even greater things. Rather than demand uniformity, he reminded his disciples that he had ‘sheep of other folds’ …. He recruited diverse disciples who learned – by heart – his core vision and way of life then he sent these disciples out as apostles to teach and multiply his vision and way of life among ‘all the nations’.
As [Jesus] repeatedly explained, the dangerous, turbulent, uncertain times, together with the failure of existing institutions, made this strategy essential: ‘The time is ripe,’ he said, ‘and we need more laborers.’”
McLaren continues: “In dangerous times like these, . . . we have to produce generations of dedicated, courageous, and creative contemplative activists who will join God to bring radical healing and change to this damaged world, before it’s too late. We need this movement – not someday, maybe, but right now, definitely.’ The most important aspect of this [new] form of Christianity in the future is simple, obvious, and yet radical: it is about love, as Jesus taught and embodied. For Jesus,God’s love extends to the wildflower, the meadow grass, the sparrow, and the raven. Jesus saw all of God’s creatures as part of one heavenly realm. It is a movement of revolutionary love.”
(adapted from Brian D. McLaren, “Three Christianities,” “the Future of Christianity,” Oneing, vol. 7, no. 2 (Center for Actional and Contemplation: 2019).
Redeeming the past is not always easy. It’s not so much a matter of letting go, but having an awareness and desire for change and of working with a deep sense of intentionality and hard work. And prayer. Always prayer. There is always hope for the future as we strive to be who God calls us to be. Amen.
Copyright DMC, 2020