Grand Theft Jesus
Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, January 17th, 2021
Two phrases from these texts stick in my mind. The first is from I Samuel, when we are told that it was a time when “visions were rare.” The second are three words from John’s Gospel: “Come and see.”
In the horror of the storming the Capitol on January 6, I almost lost sight that January 6 was the feast of the Epiphany, the beginning of the season of Epiphany. Maybe I lost sight of Epiphany because of all the Covid and political turmoil in the land. Maybe I didn’t think anyone would really notice if we neglected Epiphany, no one would really care.
Maybe, though, on this weekend that we remember the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and celebrate his vision for an America where the content of a person’s character is not judged by the color of their skin, then it is high time to highlight the season of Epiphany. In fact, maybe the most opportune time to celebrate Epiphany is precisely in the words from I Samuel, in times like today, when “visions are rare.”
The word “Epiphany” literally means to “shine light upon” and it insists that just when it is getting the darkest, God shows up in the person of Jesus, shining light in shadowy places and inviting us to follow after him to places we have never had an urge to go. Or as Presbyterian elder, Anne Lamott, says about following Jesus: “In dark times, give off light” (Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace).
The traditional story that is read for the Feast of the Epiphany is from Matthew, about that supernova star guiding magi, traveling Gentiles, on a journey through political intrigue to the cradle of Jesus. They bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In an amazing Epiphany insight, T.S. Eliot imagines what the magi thought and felt after they returned home from Bethlehem: “We returned to our places . . . but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods” (“Journey of the Magi,” Collected Poems, 100).
James Howell, Pastor of the Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, reflects on Eliot and Epiphany, and writes, “Jesus does not make my life more comfortable; Jesus doesn’t help me fit in and succeed . . . Nothing is the same; nothing comes easy. A strange, unfamiliar road is now our path – but the road is going somewhere” (Feasting on the Word, Vol. 1, 216).
Philip and Nathaniel must have sensed what Howell says about following Jesus that – “the road is going somewhere.” Unlike the magi who were searching for the light by a star leading them to the east, Philip and Nathaniel lived in a closed religious world convinced that the light of God’s promised Messiah had not yet shined. It is into that shadowy world that Jesus calls Philip to follow him and Philip does. Jesus offers him no benefit plan. He extends him no explanation of the road ahead. Jesus calls and Philip follows.
That is not all Philip does. He gives off a little light to Nathaniel. Philip says to Nathaniel: “We’ve found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets, wrote, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” Something about being called by Jesus makes you come out of the shadows and releases the “mute” button in you. After all, what good is good news if we cannot share it? So, Philip casts a little light on Jesus, seemingly without worrying: “What will people think?” In The Gospel of Solentiname, Nicaraguan peasants say that anyone who does what Philip does becomes “the star of Bethlehem.” Or, in the words of Anne Lamott, anyone who does what Philip does especially in dark times, gives off light.
While I appreciate Philip’s enthusiasm, I relate better to Nathaniel. He does what most people do when they hear good news that seems too good to be true, he questions its veracity. He asks what any believer of his day would ask, knowing that the promised Messiah of God would arise from Jerusalem, Zion, the city of David, not the Podunk district of Nazareth. Nathaniel asks Philip the rhetorical question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” To his credit, Philip does not get into a religious debate with Nathaniel. He does not criticize Nathaniel or give up on him as a hopeless cynic. Philip does what any follower of Jesus, then or today, is wise to do; he invites Nathaniel to come and see for himself. No self-righteous pressure. No “believe in Jesus or you’re headed to Hell” talk. Just an insistent, invitation: “Come and see.”
And, before Nathaniel can find Jesus, Jesus finds him. Jesus tells Nathaniel a truth about himself that even Nathaniel cannot deny and without another word needing to be said, Nathaniel is on the Jesus trail. In one transformative moment, Nathaniel goes from skeptic to trailblazer, believing Jesus to be more than a fine teacher, an outstanding moralist, an amazing healer, but believing Jesus to be the promised light to Israel, the very Son of God.
I find that many people are hesitant to speak about Jesus today, even in the church. They are hesitant to explain why they try to follow Jesus. There are many good reasons not to speak, but the reason that I hear the most and feel the deepest is because we have allowed Jesus to be highjacked as the exclusive property of the Religious Right. And, the Jesus of the Religious Right bears only a faint resemblance to the Jesus I meet in the Gospels. All too often, the Religious Right distorts Philip’s generous invitation, “come and see” into a judgmental imperative, “come and believe the way we believe.”
All too often, the Jesus of the Religious Right wants to build walls across America’s southern borders even though Jesus himself was walled off from home, forced at birth by Herod to live as an illegal immigrant in Egypt. Their Jesus wants America to do whatever is necessary to remain a white, privileged Light to the Nations, even though Jesus himself declared: “God so loved the world.” Their Jesus has no patience with complex ethical deliberations. Their Jesus says definitively: abortion is always wrong, universal health care is never right, homosexuality is always a sin.
Robert McElvaine argues that the Religious Right has perpetrated identity theft against Jesus. “These people,” he writes, “deny Jesus (that is, what he actually said), not three times before the cock crows, but three times three thousand, every day, as they crow like strutting cocks in front of television cameras and congregations the size of rock-concert audiences . . . Their crime should be listed in the indictment against them as Grand Theft Jesus” (Grand Theft Jesus, 1).
I give thanks daily that like Nathaniel, Jesus found me and found something within me worthy to lead this remarkable congregation. As those who follow Jesus, we take up not the imperative of the Religious Right to “come and believe,” but the invitation of Philip to “come and see.” We head down the road following Jesus, not dead certain about everything we believe and absolutely sure about where we are going. No, we follow Jesus, recognizing the Apostle Paul got it right when he said, now we “see in a mirror dimly.”
I am here to say, though, what I do see in my fellow travelers on the resurrection road inspires me. In a world in which “visions are rare,” I am inspired by your vision that people across color and class can learn to love each other, and I see many of you go out of your way to make that happen. I am inspired by your vision that food insecurity is inexcusable in this land of abundance, and how you take concrete actions to make sure every fellow traveler on earth can eat today and tomorrow and the next day. I am inspired by your confidence that a small congregation does not mean small-minded, but instead, you draw on your considerable resources to weave a large vision of being the beloved community of God.
I am inspired by the way that you show up for each other, even in these pandemic times when showing up takes some real creativity. I am inspired by the way you show up for others, especially for the most vulnerable who are the first to be left behind. I am inspired that while living in a society that keeps playing the national anthem of scarcity louder and louder, you live as ambassadors of God’s abundance. I am inspired that in a society that thinks it deserves everything it has, you live confidently in recognition that we deserve nothing but have all we will ever need because of the grace of God. Most of all, I am inspired by the light of Jesus that you shine in your living, the Jesus who does not condone violence and insurrection, does not bless greed, does not mock compassion as being weak, and does not call warmongers the children of God.
So, in these days when “visions are rare,” on this weekend when we celebrate the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who lived into the vision of Jesus, in this light-shedding season of Epiphany, do not let the Religious Right be the only ones to talk about Jesus. Release the mute button in you; talk of the Jesus that you know and follow, the Jesus that we follow and honor here at Cove. Invite your friends not to believe the way you do or else, but to “come and see.” Share a worship link with them. Invite them to “come and see” the Jesus who loves us enough to come to us, to suffer with us, to love us to the end, and to invite us on a journey that “is going somewhere” and who is always ahead of us awaiting our arrival.
Tell the good news about that Jesus and no matter how dark the times, the light of Epiphany will still shine, and no longer will visions of justice, mercy, forgiveness, hope, and love be rare in the land.
Talk about that Jesus. Go ahead, now, talk about that Jesus.