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That Other Ribbon… (On Annual Conference and Inclusivity) #BWCUMC17

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At this year’s Annual Conference of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, I was blessed (cursed 🙂 ) with serving as the co-chair of the Worship Team.  In our division of responsibilities, my role was determined to be not only a creative engine, but also the “stage manager” during the worship proceedings.  This included, among other things, being on stage and telling people when to sit, stand, and kneel…including the Bishop…which, as a provisional elder, was not exactly the most anxiety-free position to be in (shout out to Bishop Easterling for just being awesome!).

As mentioned earlier, the heavy task of fostering a creative and memorable worship experience that left room for the Holy Spirit to spread wings and shine fell partially on me.  This year, we decided to begin worship using the song, “We Are One,” (by Pitbull and J-Lo, nonetheless!) and pass out multi-colored streamers (representing the eight districts of the BWCUMC) for people to wave and praise as we entered into the theme for the year – “We Are One: Connected in Covenant.”  Much to my joy and delight, opening worship was a pure celebration of unity, love, and commitment to our collective calling from Jesus Christ, and our connection to one another through the United Methodist Church.

Then, just a few weeks out from conference, it was made clear to my co-chair and I that there was a desire to have a separate Closing Worship service immediately following the intending final service of the conference, the Service of Appointments. The hope was to wrap everything together and send us out in the unity we had been proclaiming throughout the conference.  So, I decided we would bring those same streamers back, the streamers that represented the eight districts of the BWC, and we would tie them together as an outward and visible symbol of our inward and invisible unity through Jesus Christ.  What happened next was one of the most organic and authentic worship experiences I have ever been a part of, as the entire conference, from end to end, over a thousand people, begin stringing their streamers together to create a cord of love and unity that stretched way further than the duration of the incredibly powerful rendition of “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms” that our music team was playing.  It was everything we had hoped for, it was a moment saturated with the Holy Spirit, it was a grace-filled display of hope that I pray stands as a representation of this conference for years to come.

And then, as we carried the ribbons to the stage to lay them before the altar, I realized, there were extra ribbons.  I would know, after all, I placed the order for over 75 yards of eight specific colors of ribbon and then spent and evening cutting 1300 one foot streamers (I even learned what pinking shears were!).  But no…amidst the chain of blues, greens, purples, and oranges – there was an extra shade of green present in the bonds that were carried and placed before the altar.  And I could tell it was different because it wasn’t the grosgrain pattern that I had purchased!

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So I thought to myself…how appropriate.  For a conference that is still wrestling with the definition of who should and who should not be included; how appropriate!  For a conference that, year after year, hears the arguments from positions of legality and tradition and exclusion against traditions of love and grace and inclusion, how appropriate!

I had a plan for closing worship.  It included eight specific colors and ribbons that had already been selected, chosen, and approved.  We had a specific outline for how that service would look.  We had specific criteria for which ribbon would and would not be included…

But somebody had the audacity to include a different ribbon!  Somebody had the prophetic voice to proclaim that we can’t say “We Are One,” unless this other ribbon is included too.  Somebody had the bold courage to use their mind and their fingers to knit this ribbon into the fabric that created the unity of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, even if, according to all of our planning, our organization, and our intentions, that ribbon wasn’t supposed to be included.  It looked different, it felt different, it made the chain aesthetically lopsided in color…but…it was still ribbon!  And not only that, it made for a longer chain, it made for a more authentic worship experience, it helped multiple people in that ballroom experience the presence of the Holy Spirit opening hearts and minds to the desires of our loving, gracious, and merciful savior, Jesus Christ, and most of all, it may have been the truest, and most overlooked, testament made throughout all of Annual Conference.

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And so, my final reflection on Annual Conference, a conference that, for me, was stressful beyond belief and spirit-filled beyond imagination, is this prayer: may we always allow room for the other ribbons to be a part of our chain – a chain of love, a chain of mercy, and a chain of grace – a chain that connects us in covenant with ties that will bind us together, all of us together, now and forever.  Until we ARE one, this is my prayer.  Amen.

-Kyle D

EDITORIAL NOTE: It has been brought to my attention that the ribbons were created out of necessity from a spare pillow cover available and shared in the ballroom (the Holy Spirit works in amazing ways!) – those who created them would like to be clear that there was no theological intention to the use of the additional ribbons – in fairness to those involved, please be advised of this editorial comment, and may God bless us all.

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My Problem With “I’ve Never Been In That Locker Room…”

It’s refreshing to see so many men publicly declare that they consider Donald Trump’s recent comments about “grabbing women by the [genetalia],” to be deplorable and completely unacceptable, insisting that they, themselves, have never experienced a “locker room” conversation as offensive as the exchange between Trump and Billy Bush. I, too, would never engage in a dialogue with another person, publicly or privately, that borders on suggesting that I would sexually assault a woman, the way that Donald Trump did. As a matter of fact, to be honest, in a good world, no man should even have to feel that they need to defend their integrity by clarifying their innocence when it comes to this sort of behavior.

But something isn’t sitting well with me in the midst of this latest scandal during the election circus of 2016. You see, the only reason that Donald Trump keeps referring to his conversation as “locker room talk” is because he is confident that the majority of men in our country, at some point in their lives, have made inappropriate remarks about women when in the private company of friends and confidants. So while dozens of great men of high moral character are stepping up and denouncing the type of attitude espoused in Trump’s recorded conversation, we are, in fact, sweeping under the table, the fact that there is a culture in our country that does, quite legitimately, excuse this type of language as somehow acceptable. After all, “boys will be boys,” am I right?

I wish I could send out a tweet or post a Facebook message like all of these men who are so quick to condemn Trump’s statements, but the truth of the matter is, I can’t – I’ve been in that locker room, heck, I was the quarterback of that locker room! And no, I’m not speaking athletically, I was in rock and roll bands growing up; we had “dressing rooms.” But at the end of the day, I have participated in conversations that included a sentiment that was as bad, if not worse, than the conversation I heard between Donald Trump and Billy Bush. College me was very different than the person I am today. There were times in my life where my sole focus included throwing the next party or playing the next gig so that I could find the next girl to “hook up” with. And all of my guy friends were right there with me. We talked about it. We laughed about it. We joked about it. Heck, we not only broadcasted our exploits, we competed over them. But the truth of the matter is, for every man who has come out and said they’ve never experienced the type of conversation Trump was caught having, there are countless numbers of men who have done just that. I don’t care if it was a locker room, a car, an office, a bathroom, a club, or a street corner – there are plenty of men who no longer have the privilege of saying, “not me.”

But we won’t talk about that. We don’t want to admit that Trump’s behavior is simply a shadow form of the worst in so many of us. We don’t want to acknowledge that there is a dominant culture in our society that, at the least, brushes off this type of attitude, and at worst, accepts it as normal and understandable. And I know far too many men who have participated, even relished, in this culture of objectifying women to the point where they regarded as little more than objects, trophies, or pieces of flesh to be conquered and exploited.

To be clear, I’m not defending or excusing Donald Trump’s comments in any way, shape, or form. The words he said should be condemned outright. But I also feel it is necessary to insist that Trump is the symptom of a much bigger disease plaguing our society. The level of defense I have witnessed for Donald Trump’s words, whether it’s referring to his conversation as “locker room talk,” or pointing our that Bill Clinton has said or done worse, or considering his language as typical male behavior, or blaming Hillary Clinton for the way she has treated other women, is damning evidence that our society has yet to mature to a point of decency wherein, at best, women are regarded and treated as equals, and at worst, women are regarded and treated as little more than sexual objects; foreign territory to be abused, conquered, and exploited. I don’t care if Donald Trump can do better. I do care if our society can do better, and for the sake of the future of our country, we must do better.

This is not the culture I want my son to accept or my daughter to grow up in, a society that accepts that one in six women will be raped or experience an attempted rape in their lifetime, a society where a different woman is sexually assaulted every two minutes, a society where 99% of women have experienced sexual harassment simply by walking down the street. We have to do better. And it doesn’t start by saying this type of “locker room” talk doesn’t happen. It starts by saying this type of “locker room talk” is inexcusable, unacceptable, and it needs to stop immediately. And maybe you are a decent guy who’s never talked about women this way, but for every Donald Trump making crude, disgusting comments, there is a Billy Bush standing by, chuckling, and egging him on. It’s time to introduce a different kind of man to the narrative. A kind of man that has the courage to say, “no.” A kind of man that looks at women as equal human beings created in the divine image of a God who is both beautiful and powerful,

In Acts 3:19, Peter echoes the word of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ when he says, “Change your hearts and lives! Turn back to God so that your sins may be wiped away,” (CEB). As a society, there is no doubt, we have sinned. As a society, there is no doubt, we are in need of repentance. My life changed years ago, when I realized God had a higher calling for my life. My life changed further still, when I met my wife, a woman who I respect more than any other person I have ever met, a person I would never disrespect, a person I regard as equal in our home and in our family, and while I am attracted to her beyond any description possible, she is so much more to me than the sexual trophy so many men are still seeking. And my life changed two years ago, when I held my baby girl in my arms for the first time, a girl who, at two years old, has more character and personality and strength and resilience than anyone I have ever met, a girl who I would defend with my dying breath, if anyone ever treated her the way Donald Trump described in his exposed conversation. But it shouldn’t take being married, or having a daughter, or even some idiotic millionaire celebrity bragging about his sexual intentions, for us to recognize and affirm the dignity and worth of every female in this world. So please, if you’re a man, don’t tell me, “you’ve never been in a locker room like that.” For the sake of my wife, for the sake of my daughter, for the sake of every woman you know, even every woman that breathes the same air as you and I, and for the sake of our society and our great nation, instead, please, walk straight into that locker room, and tell every single man saying those things to shut the hell up.

“Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” by Alan Jackson
40 Days of Country – Day #34 – Lent 2016

September 11th, 2001, is not only one of the most tragic days in the history of America, it is, quite literally, a day that changed the world, so much so that the term, “pre-9/11” is regularly used to describe a way of life and a national experience that was quite different prior to the vulnerabilities of our country being exposed by terrorist attacks. On November 26th, 2001, less than two months after the event, Alan Jackson released a song he had penned that sought to capture the personal and national emotions of that fateful September morning. Billboard commented, “A multitude of songs have been written and recorded in the wake of September 11, but none captures the myriad emotions unleashed by the terrorist attacks on an unsuspecting nation more perfectly than Jackson’s eloquent ballad.” To date, “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” is, perhaps, Jackson’s greatest piece of work in a career filled with success.

Alan Jackson was intentional about trying to write a song that captured the variety of reactions to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 without making an overtly political statement. It was this genuine and honest approach that led him to write a string of questions as opposed to making bold declarations as other artists (i.e. Toby Keith) were doing at the time. Questions such as, “Did you go to a church and hold hands with some strangers? Did you stand in line and give your own blood?” ultimately give way to the concluding reflection of the song, “I know Jesus and I talk to God and I remember this from when I was young. Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us, and the greatest is love.”

September 11th spurred both a sudden wave of patriotism as well as an increased reliance on the Christian faith immediately following the terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, the country also experienced a terrible backlash against devoted Muslims living in America. One of the most truthful elements of “Where Were You,” is the inclusion of these vengeful desires, but Jackson doesn’t stay there. instead, he ends with a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13, acknowledging the importance of love above all other emotions and actions. I can’t help but believe Jesus would have responded in similar fashion. Perhaps this is why, in his famous “Sermon on the Mount,” in Matthew 5:43-44, he tells his followers, “ “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” As Christians, while we ought to recognize and honor the tragedy and sacrifices made on that historic day, we have a responsibility, and we continue to have the opportunity, to show that “the greatest is love,” and that no matter our circumstances, no matter the evils inflicted against us, we will always respond with the love of Christ, not hate, to friends and enemies alike, and that by faith, we have an everlasting hope that “love will never fail.”

Loving Savior, we thank you for the brave and tragic sacrifices made by so many innocent men and women on that tragic September day. Strengthen our hearts so that no matter what evils we face in this world, we cling to love above all else, and offer a witness of faith and hope to this broken world as long as we live. Amen.

“King Of The Road” by Roger Miller – 40 Days of Country – Day #35 – Lent 2016

“King Of The Road” by Roger Miller
40 Days of Country – Day #35 – Lent 2016

Country music “Hall of Famer” Roger Miller began his career in the late 1950’s writing songs for other popular recording artists such as Jim Reeves and Ray Price. Then, in the 1960’s, Miller began making a name for himself embracing the Nashville sound and writing honky-tonk style novelties. It was, of course, one of these hits, 1964’s “King of the Road,” with its iconic opening line, “Trailer for sale or rent,” for which Miller is best known.

The song, which has been covered by as many artists as the number of years the song has been in existence, tells the tale of a homeless vagabond who wonders from town to town with barely a penny to his name. Still, as the narrator is free to live his life how he chooses and make his own decisions, he feels more like a king than a pauper, singing “I know every engineer on every train, ll of their children, and all of their names…I’m a man of means by no means, king of the road.”

Jesus was no stranger to the road. As a matter of fact, according to Luke’s Gospel, just after Jesus begins his ministry in his hometown of Nazareth, the people are so upset with his words that they try to have him executed, leaving Jesus to remark, “I assure you that no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s hometown.” From that point on, Jesus ministry is one long journey from one town to the next, criss-crossing the Sea of Galilee as he meets all sorts of different people along the way, very much like Miller’s “King of the Road.” Similarly, as Christians, we have a responsibility to get out of the comforts of our own homes and communities and share the good news of Jesus Christ, especially with the strangers we encounter, sometimes with our words, but always with our actions.

Loving Savior, you are the true King of the road. Guide our feet as we strive to follow you on the road that leads to life, abundant and everlasting, and encourage us to invite others to join us on the journey. Amen.

“I Swear” by John Michael Montgomery – 40 Days Of Country – Day #36 – Lent 2016

“I Swear” by John Michael Montgomery
40 Days Of Country – Day #36 – Lent 2016

John Michael Montgomery was no stranger to the country hit charts in the 1990’s, writing and recording the year-end number one song in both 1994 and 1995. The latter of the two, “Sold (The Grundy County Auction)” nearly made this list, but it was Montgomery’s 1994 “I Swear” that cemented his place in musical history, with the song being covered by the R&B group, All-4-One and reaching similar, if not greater, success on the pop charts during the very same year.

Truthfully, the song is the stuff romantic, high-school dreams are made of, with solemn vows of eternal allegiance to the one and only true love. With lyrics like, “for better or worse, till death do us part, I’ll love you with every beat of my heart,” I would venture to guess that there were quite a few 90’s weddings that featured a first dance to this particular ballad.

The Bible is filled with similar vows, and while this blog could easily go in the romantic direction, there are far more important, “I Swear” moments found in the scriptures. In Genesis, God makes a “covenant” with God’s people, promising to be with us always, “like the shadow that’s by your side.” While JMM sings, “I swear, by the moon and the stars in the sky, I’ll be there,” God tells Abraham in Genesis 15:5, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them…this is how many children you will have.” This covenant is continued through Isaac and Jacob, ratified on Mt. Sinai through Moses with the Ten Commandments and the Law, promised to be made new through the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and made complete through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who told his disciples in Matthew 28:20, “remember, I will be with you always…” More than any sappy (though beautiful) love song could ever describe, we serve a God who has promised to never leave us, and is ever faithful in that promise.

Faithful God, there are times when you feel so close we could touch you, and other times you feel so far away we think you couldn’t even hear our voice. Gently remind us, by your love, that you will never leave us, and that no matter what we are going through, in life and death, you will always be with us. Amen.

“The Devil Went Down To Georgia” by Charlie Daniels Band – 40 Days Of Country – Day #37 – Lent 2016

“The Devil Went Down To Georgia” by Charlie Daniels Band
40 Days Of Country – Day #37 – Lent 2016

Born in 1936, Charlie Daniels and his band, with a career that spans 60 years, have written and performed alongside musical greats such as Elvis Presley, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan, just to name a few. However, it was their 1979 breakout hit, “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” for which they are best known, that landed them their greatest success and lasting fame.

The song is offers a modern twist on the classic “deal with the devil” tale, this time centering on a fiddle duel between “Satan” and a young man named “Johnny.” At stake include “a fiddle of gold,” if Johnny wins, and of course, as is typical in these stories, Johnny’s “soul” if the Devil out duels him, clearly a calculated risk on Johnny’s part. And while I don’t believe any “shiny fiddle made of gold” is worth risking one’s eternal salvation or damnation, Johnny is confident that the devil doesn’t stand a chance. Despite “a band of demons joinin’ in” with Satan, Johnny’s “Fire on the Mountain, run boy run,” was too much for the prince of hell, and Lucifer left, defeated, embarrassed, and short one fiddle.

Perhaps the best known story of Satan challenging someone on earth to a duel (of sorts) is found in the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Matthew 4:3, while Jesus is fasting in the wilderness, the devil tells Jesus, “Since you are God’s sons, command these stones to become bread,” in order to satisfy his hunger, thus violating his spiritual discipline and using his power for selfish gain. This temptation is followed by two more tests, but Jesus is able to respond to each trial with scripture and assurance of God’s providence. Likewise, there will be times when we feel like we are being challenged or tested by the Satan, but like Johnny, the Christ who lives in us gives us all the strength we need to stand our grand and send the devil packing. It may not earn us a “fiddle of gold,” but last time I checked, the grace of Christ and an eternity in God’s presence is way better than that anyways!

God of grace and forgiveness, teach us to turn to you when challenges come our way and we face temptations we feel are beyond our control. May the Christ who lives in us do great works through us, and if the devil is ever down in Georgia, remind us that we have a home waiting for us up in heaven. Amen.

“Boot Scootin’ Boogie” by Brooks & Dunn – 40 Days Of Country – Day #38 – Lent 2016

“Boot Scootin’ Boogie” by Brooks & Dunn
40 Days Of Country – Day #38 – Lent 2016

There was a period in the early 1990’s when the CMA awards went hand in hand with Brooks & Dunn taking home the prize for “Best Group or Duo.” This was, in part, thanks to their fourth hit single, 1991’s “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” which also became their first cross-over success, landing at #50 on the Billboard Top 100 and #1 on the country charts. The song also reignited a national interest in country line dancing, an experience I lived through thanks to my mom teaching lessons at my dad’s sports bar when I was a child!

The song introduced classic dance steps like, “heel, toe, do-si-do,” and “get down, turn around,” as steps in the infamous “boot scootin’ boogie.” At the core, the song is a simple celebration of freeing yourself from stress and cares and enjoying some social festivities with friends after a long day of work. Kid Brooks and Ronnie Dunn explain lyrically, “I’ve got a good job I work hard for my money, when it’s quittin time I hit the door runnin’.” As a matter of fact, the whole town heads to the local stomping grounds for a good-ole dance party, singing, “I see outlaws, inlaws crooks & straights all out makin’ it shake, doin’ the boot scootin’ boogie.”

Now, while the Bible doesn’t advocate senseless debauchery and revelry, there are plenty of times in the scriptures where a dance-filled celebration is just what God has in mind for God’s people. As a matter of fact, when the Ark of the Covenant was returned to Israel, this was just how King David responded, as 2 Samuel 6: 14-15 describe, “David, dressed in a linen priestly vest, danced with all his strength before the Lord. 15 This is how David and the entire house of Israel brought up the Lord’s chest with shouts and trumpet blasts.” So when’s the last time you danced with joy before God? Not everyone was happy with the way David danced. Not everyone loves country line dancing. But when we dance to celebrate the great things the Lord has done for us, the Bible affirms that God is pleased.

Lord of the Dance, remind us how to celebrate. Fill our hearts with songs and music and exhalation, and let that joy erupt in our bodies with rhythm and beat and melody. Let us never be ashamed to praise you with every ounce of our being. Amen.

“Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford – 40 Days Of Country – Lent 2016 – Day 39

Written by Merle Travis a decade earlier and already a gold record, it was Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 1955 rendition of “Sixteen Tons” that took the song to number one on the Billboard charts. With his classic bass vocals, Ford describes the life of a coal miner in Kentucky in the only song on this countdown that I’ve performed on stage in a musical.

The song laments the hardships of the poor, working class, singing, “You load sixteen tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” As a matter a fact, according to the song, the vocalist can’t even afford to go to heaven when they die, exclaiming, “Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store.” Though these lyrics were a direct reference to the process in which coal miners were paid with currency only accept at “The Company Store,” and so, while they earned barely enough to purchase the necessary goods for their family, their economic worth was considerably less outside of the coal-mining community.

Jesus had a lot to say about debts in the Gospel. As a matter of fact, it is his most famous prayer from Matthew 6:12 where he teaches his disciples, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who are indebted to us.” As Christians living in the world, there very well may be times where we find ourselves indebted financially, but our “soul” can never belong to anyone or anything other than God. More importantly, Christ calls for a way of living free from financial debt and graceful practices who those who may find themselves in difficult financial positions. Best of all, Christ promises a “kingdom on earth as it already is in heaven,” where no person suffers under the pain of debt, and all are free to serve only our true master, our lord and savior, Jesus Christ.

Gracious Lord, teach us financial practices that enable us to be responsible stewards of the resources you have given. Train us to be forgiving and graceful with others, as you always are with us, and keep us ever mindful that we serve you, and you alone. Amen.

On Magi, Christianity, Islam, and why ALL really are welcome at the manger…

Preached on 1/3/15
by Kyle Durbin
apologies for format…

As many of you know, I worked full-time through college and a portion of seminary as a retail manager at a chain of watch and clock stores in Maryland, DC, and Virginia. It was during this formational time in my life that I learned the nuances of retailer-customer relationships, and how to gently correct simple statements about popular watch companies, such as: “Bulova” is a type of watch. “Bolivia” is a country. “Seiko” is a type of watch. “Psycho” is a person who probably has no need for a watch. And wearing a “Citizen,” watch does not actually make you a United States citizen, as a matter of fact, that company is based out of Japan.
By my senior year in college, I had moved up the retail ranks of the company and was managing multiple locations. In September of 2006, I was asked if I’d feel comfortable taking on an additional store, in Columbia, that would be closing soon. As a result, I got to learn some of the tricks of the trade when it comes to a “Store Closing Sale.” For example if I had difficulty selling items from popular companies at 30% off on a regular day, I could attach a big “Store Closing Sale” sign, and sell ten times as many of the same watches at only 20% off, thus substantially increasing the stores profit with little to no effort whatsoever. Also, if discontinued product has been sitting in a warehouse for five years because it’s been impossible to move them, if you ship them to a location that has giant, “Store Closing Sale” signs, they will sell like hot cakes. You didn’t actually think you were getting a good deal on Black Friday, did you?
As the store was nearing its final days in December, I was simultaneously helping out with my local youth group. We had our annual holiday gift exchange coming up, much like the gift exchange our youth group will be participating in tonight, and I had made quite a bit of extra money in commission based on the store closing sale, so I asked the owner, Jake, one evening while we were closing up the store what deal he could give me if I bought about 15-20 of our clearance watches as gifts for my youth group. He responded with one incredible act of generosity. “Take as many as you want,” he said, “consider them my Christmas gift to you, your church, and your youth group.”
This morning, we celebrate a different act of generosity, as we recognize the Epiphany of the Lord with the arrival of the wise men bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In truth, while these fabled figures may have indeed been “wise men,” they probably were not kings, and despite what the song says, we don’t know if there were three of them, only that three gifts were presented. The actual word used in the Bible was not “kings” or “wise men,” but was the greek word for “magi,” the same word where we get the term, “magic.” So why “magi?” Well, interestingly enough, that term, “magi,” is found consistently throughout both the Old Testament and the New Testament of the Bible, except in every other location, it is translated as either “magician,” or “sorcerer.” However, once the first European translators got word that “magicians” and “sorcerers” may have been present at the birth of Jesus, (the same guys whose professions are forbidden by Torah and the same guys who are consistently the bad guys in the Old Testament stories of Israel, the four Gospel accounts, and the book of Acts) the translators decided they knew better than Matthew, and so, they went with the word, “wise men,” instead of “magi,” – the only time this choice was made in the entire Bible.
So what is a “magi?” It turns out that word, a when used as Matthew does in his Gospel, almost unanimously refers to followers of the ancient middle-eastern religion known as “Zoroastrianism,” that is, followers of the philosopher, “Zoroaster.” Zoroastrianism was a type of mystic, philosophical religion and its leaders, known as “magi,” were practitioners of astrology and alchemy. I did a little more reading, and found that “magi,” is actually a Persian word for Zoroastrologers, and as it turns out, Zoroastrianism was a leading world religion for over 1000 years. Cyrus the Great of Babylonia, the same empire that forced the Israelites into exile in the Old Testament? He was a follower of Zoroastrianism. The Persian Empire that conquered Israel during the age of the prophets, and their King Nebudchanezzer who threw Daniel into the Lion’s Den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into a furnace of fire? They were all Zoroastrians. These are literally the bad boys of the Hebrew Bible, so it’s understandable why early translators may have been hesitant to include them in our beloved nativity story.
But it gets better. History tells us that from roughly 600 BC to 650 AD, Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the…wait for it…the Iranian empires! What happened in Iran and throughout the Middle East during the 7th century that would have spelled the demise of any other dominant religion? Well, this middle-eastern prophet known as Muhammed, influenced by the judo-christian texts, the stories of Abraham, the teachings of Jesus, and Zoroastrianism, and writing during a time of immense tribal warfare, released a book known as the Quran and this new religion, known as Islam, literally took the Middle East by storm and spread like wildfire. What does this mean? Well, I won’t go as far as to say that former Iranian president Ahmadinejad, or current Iranian president Hassan Rouhani are modern day magi, and I certainly won’t suggest that these individuals represent a modern form of Islam that would have been comfortable bringing gifts to the Christ child who would grow to become the symbol of Christianity, but I will say this. If the Nativity story took place today, and “magi” or “religious leaders” from the (middle) east came to pay homage to the new born savior (just as they did in the Gospel account of Matthew read this morning), odds are they would not be zoroastrians, they would be Muslims. And just like last week’s sermon, here is where things get tricky.
This is the final week of our Advent and Christmas sermon series, “The Gospel of the Outcasts,” and if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past several weeks, it’s that God chose some decidedly unexpected people to make some decidedly specific theological statements throughout the nativity story. First, there was Elizabeth and Zechariah, moral and social outcasts according to the standards of their time, gave birth to prophet John the Baptist, and the Son of God, Jesus Christ, himself. Then, the shepherds, poor economic outcasts relegated below the social ladder were invited to be the first to witness the birth of the newborn king. Next, Joseph, stepfather to the Christ child, was forced to become an immigrant and a refugee, embracing a brand new form of outcast status for the sake of his family and the gospel. And as we recognized on Christmas eve, Jesus Christ was the biggest outcast of all, which makes you think…it’s almost as if every actor in the nativity story was included for a reason! And just when you think God has all the bases covered, Matthew throws a curveball with what has come to be known as the “adoration of the magi.”
If Mary and Elizabeth showed us social outcasts being included in the story, he shepherds showed us economical outcasts being included, and Joseph showed the inclusion of national outcasts, then by having magi from the east arrive from the east, bearing gifts, Matthew completed the phrase the angels proclaimed in Luke’s second chapter, “Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people.” For Matthew, if the gospel is supposed to be “good news” for “all people,” it actually has to include, “all people,” and that includes people of different religions as well, even the religions our culture has identified as “the bad guys.”
And yet, just as the earliest translators refused to included “magi” in the original nativity accounts, all across the world today, and especially in America, self-identifying Christians refuse to accept that our Muslim sisters and brothers might possibly be included in this good news, or that the Gospel we proclaim may just mean that the grace of Jesus Christ truly has been poured out for all people, whether they call God Yahweh or Allah. No, just like the original translators of the Bible, who went with the term, “wise men,” so many of us simply substitute “terrorist” for “Muslim,” because, after all, they’re the bad guys, they couldn’t possibly be loved by God!
There are currently over 1.57 billion muslims in the world, comprising over 23% of the global population and making Islam the second largest religion in the world today, behind Christianity, and the fastest growing religion on the planet. In the United States alone, there are already 7 million Muslims, so good luck to all those politicians that think they can somehow keep Islam out of America. Now, many of these politicians are making the declarations as statements of national security, proclaiming that Islamic strength in any way, shape, or form, is an imminent threat to the United States of American. Statistics, meanwhile, tell us that of the almost 2 billion Muslims in the world, anywhere from 50,000 to 250,000 may be affiliated with the terrorist organization ISIS, with at least 90% operating only inside of Iraq and Syria. To put that in perspective, that means that of the total Muslim population in the world, 0.0125% are affiliated with ISIS. Throw in ALL terrorist Islamic organizations, and the number barely even scratches 1%. And yet, somehow, through fear and propaganda and insecurity and a whole lot of hate speech from a whole lot of powerful individuals in our country (many of them Christian) many well-intended Americans can’t help but equate Islam with terrorism. Meanwhile, Christianity, a religion founded on the love of God through Jesus Christ for all people, has been responsible for terrorist organizations such as the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, the National Liberation Front in India, and the Ku Klux Klan right here in the United States, right here in Shady Side. Many of the same people who claim the Quran is a book of violence based on specific passages, while claiming the Bible is a book of peace, ignoring the fact that the entire book of Joshua (among others) is essentially just one big jihad in order to claim a promised peace of land where people were already living, are the same people who claim it’s their God-given duty to spread Christ’s love through bombing abortion clinics, vandalizing black churches, and assaulting Muslim taxi drivers. But somehow, we’re the good guys and because of 0.0125% of Muslims associated with terrorism, Islam is entirely a religion of bad guys.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you run out and join a mosque or convert to Islam, as your pastor, I wholly profess my belief that Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and that following our Lord offers the best avenue to abundant and everlasting life. But part of my belief in Christ includes following the very words that Christ taught us, words like the ones made famous in his Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5:43-48, “43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” If our “heavenly Father” loves “everyone,” shouldn’t we be doing same? “Hate” is not compatible with “Christianity,” and you can not love your enemy while simultaneously discriminating against them, no matter how politically motivated your intent may be.
One thing I forgot to mention about my old boss, Jake, who gave 20 watches as Christmas gifts to my Christian youth group. His last name is Z-. He is a devout muslim, who respects central the teachings of Jesus Christ, and strictly adheres to the five pillars of Islam: faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca. He is actively engaged in interfaith dialogue and social care programs assisting the poor and outcasts of our society, regardless of their religion. Last month, in December 2015, after the shootings in San Bernardino, his mosque in Manassas, VA received the following phone call, “We are checking…[who]…was killed in California. You all will be sorry. You all will be killed.” I can’t say that caller was a Christian, but I can say there are a lot of Christians living in our country today that share that rhetoric, and that’s not only sad, that’s scary. That is not what “good news…to all people,” looks like.
This is a glass from a set my former boss, Jake Z-, gave me one Christmas as a gift from one of our higher watch lines; 100% fine Austrian crystal. On Thursday this past week, Christians and Muslims alike throughout our country anxiously awaited the ball dropping in Times Square to officially bring in the New Year. Many throughout the world raised champagne glasses as toasts were made. Today, using United Methodist sparkling cider, I make a toast in honor of my friend Jake, a muslim who helped bring Epiphany and the adoration of the magi to life for me, and a man I believe is truly loved by Christ, regardless of his religious persuasion, because he is a man that truly knows how to love as Christ loved us. This New Year, as we embrace the “Gospel of the Outcasts,” may the “good news” we proclaim truly be “good news for all people,” and may we honestly and unabashedly be the love of Christ for all the world to see. Oh, and if you need a watch battery, might I recommend you support the Fashion Time kiosk, still located in the Annapolis Mall, they’ve got a great owner. Amen.

A Christian Response to the Refugee Crisis (A Sermon Preached On 12/27/15)

If one thing can be said about the biblical story, it’s that it rarely stands still. After a brief stint in the garden of Eden, lasting no more than a few chapters in Genesis, Adam and Even are forced from their paradise to go in search of a new home. Later, we center in on the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who are essentially a nomadic tribe traveling around Canaan, until Joseph (Amazing Technicolored Dreamboat Joseph, not husband of Mary Joseph) resettles the family in Egypt. Egypt works as a home for a while, but it was not the land God had in mind, and eventually a new King rises to power and enslaves the Hebrew people until Moses liberates them and delivers them from bondage. The promised land, of course, doesn’t come till later, much later, actually, forty years of wandering the wilderness to be exact. When they finally reach the promised land, the people demand a king, and after the first king, Saul, doesn’t work out, they get a new king after God’s own heart, David, who goes on to become the greatest king in the history of Israel, establishing the capital in Jerusalem and making plans for the construction of the great Temple, accomplished by his son, Solomon. Of course, things only go downhill from there, and soon enough, the Babylonians come and force the Jews from their homes in Israel into exile. After a while, many of the Jews are able to resettle in Israel, but it isn’t long until the Assyrians show up and do the same thing the Babylonians did, uprooting the jewish people from their homes and forcing them into exile. By the time of the New Testament, the pattern has once again been repeated, only this time, the enemy is the Roman Empire, and instead of forcing the jews into exile, the Romans simply occupy the promised land. Just when you think the Bible might slow down and settle in on one location for a little while, we are introduced to a humble, unwed couple with a baby about to be born out of wedlock, and the journeying starts all over again.
Matthew was a student of scripture. I have a dear friend and mentor who is a self-identified messianic Jew, (that is, someone who was born and raised Jewish but now also recognizes Jesus Christ as savior) who would tell me that Matthew was the most Jewish of all the Gospel stories, and as such, is the Gospel that essentially converted him to Christianity. With that in mind, it’s no wonder why Matthew takes a slightly different perspective than the one offered by Luke that we’ve been reading up to this point, this month. After all, it is Matthew, in chapter 1, who traces Jesus’ lineage all the way back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the original traveling Von Trapp family of the Bible, so it should seem fitting that Jesus and his parents are constantly on the move in Matthew’s rendition of the nativity. First, the family is forced to travel to Bethlehem, a ten day journey from Nazareth on foot, all while Mary is nine months pregnant. When they get there, they are not welcomed, in fact, time after time, they are told that there is “no room in the inn,” and so, they must resort to giving birth to their child in a smelly stable and placing him in a feeding trough for a crib. Then, as we read in the scripture this morning, no sooner is the child born than Matthew is warned in a dream to flee, apparently King Herod is out for Jesus, a reality that becomes all to legitimate in verses 16-18, or what has become known as the “slaughter of the innocents.” Meanwhile, the family becomes refugees and immigrate to Egypt, where, unlike on the night of Jesus birth, Mary and Joseph apparently find safety and are treated with hospitality. Fortunately, wicked kings don’t live forever, and soon enough, Herod dies, and Joseph is told he can return to Israel. Once again, the holy family is on the move, but instead of going back to Joseph’s town of Bethlehem, where the historically ruthless Herod Archileus is ruling, they settle in Mary’s hometown of Nazareth, where the slightly less sadistic Herod Antipas is in power.
I link this story to the Old Testament narrative because the connection to the Old Testament narrative was clearly important to Matthew and it should be for us as well. You see, God is doing some interesting things with the holy family and their flight to Egypt. First, we should be asking, why Egypt? For example, if we remember, in Exodus, Egypt was a place of danger, slavery, and oppression, where the King (Pharaoah) terrorized the Hebrew people and slaughtered the Hebrew children. Now, on the other side of the story, the Promised Land, where the people sought refuge from Pharaoh thousands of years ago, has become the place of terror, and as a result, Egypt has become the place of safety. And I say terror, because the story of the massacre of the innocents, first by Pharaoh in Exodus, and now by Herod in Matthew, are stories of terrorism, and that is exactly what Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus are fleeing. They are literally running for their lives from a community where a terrorist regime is threatening the most vulnerable members of its society in an effort to exert its power, authority, and intimidation.
Perhaps this is why “hospitality” and “welcoming the stranger” were so central to Jesus’ ministry. He was not only born an outcast, he was born a refugee, and his developmental years were spent living with refugee status relying on welcome from a foreign nation. After all, as a good jewish child, he would have been raised on the teachings of Torah that proclaimed in Leviticus 19:33-34, ““The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” This might help explain why later, in Matthew 25, in his parable of the sheep and the goats, part of the litmus test for entry into the Kingdom of Heaven is either, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” or “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.”
And here’s where things get difficult. I, for one, can not read the biblical story, which tells of a people without a home, fleeing from danger in search of the promised land, and then tells of a holy family with the Son of God in their care and protection, also fleeing their home to become refugees in a foreign land, and be apathetic to the current events taking place in the world today. Maybe it’s good that Christmas was just two days ago, so not as many people are in attendance today, because this is one of those messages that is guaranteed to upset some people, but as a Christian and as a pastor, I believe it is my responsibility and my calling from God to speak Gospel truth even when it’s difficult. You’re welcome to write me off as a delusional idealist, but my conscious will be clear because I will have spoken the words I feel strongly that Christ has laid on my heart.
There are currently 4,393,831 registered Syrian refugees in the world today. They are fleeing a civil war that broke out in their country four years ago, a country that is not divided into territories controlled by one of three parties, rebel fighters, the brutally violent military of Bashar al-Assad, and the sadistic terrorist organization known as ISIS. The Christian humanitarian organization World Vision, reports that nearly 90% of these refugees have remained in Middle Eastern countries. Of the over 4 million refugees, nearly half, or at least two million, are children. Worldvison.com warns that “Children affected by the Syrian conflict are at risk of becoming ill, malnourished, abused, or exploited. Millions have been forced to quit school.” Statistics tell us that of the 320,000 people that have been killed since the start of the civil war in Syria, 12,000 were children. Many of the children who have not been killed, have either been recruited by varying terrorist groups or are currently being used as human shields in conflict zones. It is the the very real personification of the passage from Jeremiah that Matthew quotes to describe Herod’s own massacre of the innocents, the very massacre Jesus and his family was fleeing; “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and much grieving. Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they were no more.”
In Matthew 25, when Jesus tells some people they are welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven because “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” and others that they are not welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven, because, “I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me,” the people are confused because they’ve never personally interacted with Jesus before. His response? ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’“ and ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’”
As a Christian, if I am to truly live the Gospel, and I honestly take Jesus’ words to heart, then I can only think of one possible response to the current refugee crisis in our world today. It isn’t the most popular. It isn’t the most rational. It isn’t the most politically attractive. It isn’t the one with the least risk involved. It isn’t even the one that looks out for the best interests of myself, my family, and my country. But last time I checked, those things do not define what it means to be a Christian, an American, maybe, but not a Christian. Fear can do a lot of things, even justify a lot of unChristian ethics and actions, and we may be able to rationalize these things, but there’s a reason Christ commanded “Do not be afraid,” more than any other command in the entire Gospel accounts.
On Friday, we celebrated the birth of the Christ child, the divine breaking into the course of human events, the hope of nations come to life, the light of the world shining in the darkness. But Christmas is twelve days, not one, and as we read in Matthew, there is much more to the story than that. Today, all across our world, the family of the Christ child is still standing on our doorstep, being told over and over again that there is “no room in the inn.” Today, all across our world, the family of the Christ child is fleeing the terrorism of their homeland in search of safety and refuge. Today, all across our world, as the writer of Revelations tells us, Jesus Christ “is standing at the door and knocking,” waiting to be let in. And sure, all across the world today, pastors will take this story, and make it completely spiritual, proclaiming that you can accept Christ into your heart, and therefore, rid yourself of any responsibility for actually exercising hospitality when Christ presents himself on the faces of “the least of these” in this world. That’s not the Gospel, and that’s not the message you’re going to get from this preacher.
A brilliant and talented seminary friend of mine who has recently become considerably jaded by American Christianity, flew to Greece with his fiancee on Christmas eve. In a post on Facebook, he wrote, “I spent many years in churches on Christmas preaching about a young family forced to leave their home at the whim of a violent despot and upon arriving at their destination finding a people so unwilling and unable to assist them, that they had to sleep, and ultimately give birth, among animals and shepherds. I told the story of how this family had to flee their violent despots a second time, out of the promised land and into Egypt of all places, when Herod played the part of Pharaoh and decided that murdering children was politically expedient. I preached hospitality, preferential treatment for the poor, and hope found in a family on the run.” He then described how he spent Christmas morning welcoming overflowing rubber boatloads of refugees to shore, offering food, clothing, and sleeping bags. He then wrote, “I met one Afghan refugee who greeted me warmly, asked me where I was from, told me of his journey from Taliban terrorized Afghanistan to threats of violence on him and his family as refugees in Iran to fleeing to Turkey and now a dangerous crossing to Greece. After many years, he’s finally safe. This young Muslim man thanked me and said, “I like Jesus very much. He’s very kind. Very kind.”
As a Christian, I can’t control what people do with the hospitality I show them. I understand we live in a broken world, and that means that sometimes, people will exercise their free will for evil intents. I can only pray that myself and my family are never targets of such violence. But I don’t need to strap a gun to feel safe or discriminate against a marginalized community just to feel secure. Our mission statement at Centenary UMC is “Offering Christ’s friendship, living as Christ’s friend.” There is no exception in that statement. It does not say, “Offering Christ’s friendship, living as Christ’s friend unless…” When it comes to so many people, who, like the holy family and the Christ child over two thousand years ago, are seeking refuge from violence, you are welcome to make your case based on personal or political reasoning, but when it comes to the Christian response, for me, there’s really only one option. To paraphrase Revelation 3:20, “Look! The Christ child and his family are standing at our doors and knocking.” How will we respond? Amen.