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"What Next?"

Winter Term:  Faith and Citizenship

“What Next?” by Kurt Nelson

January 10, 2008 at Rollins Chapel

Matthew 2: 1-12

 

Howard Thurman, the great African-American theologian and mystic,  wrote:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

 

Joanna and I didn’t put up a Christmas Tree this year in our apartment.

Due to lack of space

and the fact that we would be elsewhere for much of the holiday.

we didn’t think it prudent.

But as we were helping our friends select their perfect tree,

we scoured the ground for leftover branches,

and tree scraps.

And we managed to pull together a quite lovely Christmas branch.

Which we decorated with lights and candy canes,

and the few ornaments we’ve collected thus far.

We hung stocking in the windows,

and set out the Christmas cards

and all of the kitschy Christmas gifts,

that Joanna has received from her students.

And I must say that I was quite satisfied with the Christmasy-nature of our home.

But it’s all gone now.

And I can tell you first-hand,

that taking down a Christmas branch,

is as sad as taking down a Christmas tree.

Despite its non-traditional nature,

I miss those green needles reminding me that the whole world is not ice and snow (and mud).

I miss the piney smell,

And tiny lights twinkling away during those long, northern winter nights.

Taking down the Christmas tree (or branch) is always one of my least favorite winter traditions.

And when combined with hectic travel

and the inevitably slow return to the working order,

I am left with something of a holiday hangover.

which often overpowers my sense that its time for the real work to be done.

 

Welcome to Epiphany.

That liturgical season where we turn,

we reflect on the birth and incarnation of Christ,

no longer as a historical event,

but as a charge and call to work in the real world of today.

Where we must constantly ask the question, “what next?”

 

Biblically, what’s next for epiphany is the visit from the Magi,

who travel afar to bring the baby Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh

(Which I learned during my many holiday flights, you can now purchase from Skymall in gift box form for all those special children in your life).

And then go home another way.

And Epiphany then takes us to Jesus’ baptism by John,

and then the collecting of the disciples

and  the start of his ministry.

That wonderful narrative we know so well.

 

Strangely, the common lectionary flipped the story of the Magi coming to Jesus

that we read today,

and the story of Herod’s great anger when they return home,

leading Herod to call for the deaths of all the new-born males.

And the holy family’s midnight flight to Egypt.

Swept under the liturgical rug,

on the Sunday after Christmas,

with its abysmal church attendance,

is that great reminder that Jesus did not grow up in a peaceful political vacuum,

but was born into a time of great distress.

By moving this refugee Jesus story back a week,

Epiphany can move smoothly and peacefully into Jesus’ adult life

Without any notion of the controversial Jesus,

who stirred up trouble even before he began preaching his message,

healing the sick, and speaking about a new and different reign,

and we are left instead with a white-washed,

oversimplified Jesus narrative.

And while its perhaps not the worst thing that’s ever been done to the Jesus narrative,

it still bothers me.

Because we see so much of this simple and easy Jesus,

stripped of his political significance

And it again leads me to wonder.

“What next?”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the Christmas Branch is taken down,

When the lights are packed away.
The work of Christmas begins:

When the great Christmas tree is removed from the Green

and we return slowly to our normal lives,

the work of Christmas begins.

When the new year brings a slow return to the working order.

and God seems more like Santa Claus than the true God,

the work of Christmas begins

 

When politicians invoke the easy and whitewashed Jesus

and the simple God in political ads, and stump speeches at every turn

the work of Christmas begins.

 

And so I have chosen for our chapel topic for this term,

the theme of “Faith and Citizenship.”

Because I am one who believes that God matters.

And it is quite clear from our political process,

that God does indeed matter.

Perhaps I ought to be glad…

But I am not.

For this political God is too simple and too easy.

God is not to simple as to endorse a single candidate against others,

because of particular views on hot-button issues.

And God is not so easy as to be forgotten

when I make daily decisions on how to live my life in community.

And those of us, myself included, who are tired of the media’s limited portrayal of faith and politics

We would do well to remember that the term political is rooted in the greek POLIS,

which means the city, the community.

Politics, broadly speaking, is about our collective lives.

 

As such the political Kurt does not wait outside when I’m in church,

and the faithful Kurt does not turn a blind eye when I enter the voting booth,

attend a rally,

or write my local representative.

Rather, I am one complex Kurt.

Pushed and pulled by my various jobs and commitments,

perhaps the two most important of which being the life of faith,

and our lives together.

Theologian Serene Jones writes:

“God is the God of the whole of our existence”

Not relegated to the pew,

Not even politically relegated to the stance on war or same-sex marriage or abortion.

Shockingly, what seems to be lacking most,

amongst this God-charged political climate and season,

is real theological conversation.

Instead of asking the narrow question,

how does my faith speak to my political views?

What happens when we begin our discussion of faith and politics,

or faith and citizenship with two basic questions:

Again drawing from Serene Jones,

How does faith dispose us to the collective life?

And How to the actual contours of our public lives shape the character of our piety?

What happens when I begin to examine how,

my disposition to support and participate in the democratic process,

is born out of my Christian faith.

That my work is done out of my sense for God.

That my faith makes a difference on an everyday level.

And the collective life together makes a difference in how I live that faith.

 What then?

And this is what I hope we can explore on Thursdays this term,

in worship and in conversation.

Not the surface squabbles between right and left over particular issues,

though we may butt up against them from time to time.

But rather questions about the nature of God,

and the person of Jesus,

who desire for us to live a full and whole life

in community.

A life of faith and of citizenship.

 

What next?

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,

When the politicians have evoked their faith.

When Jesus the refugee is back from Egypt and ready for business

When we begin to examine our soul-deep selves,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild nations,
To bring peace among brothers and sisters,
To make music in the heart.

Last Updated: 8/7/11