Epiphany 6C Sermon Notes (2019)

SERMON NOTES — February 17, 2019
Epiphany 6C

When we were raising our older boys, we enjoyed movies about Santa Claus but we didn’t teach them to believe in Santa Claus. Why? Story about Matthew misbehaving in store at Christmas time and stranger warning him to behave in order to get gifts; but gifts are not based on nice behavior. Then, with our adopted sons, it became even more important. Hilton came home from school saying everyone at school believes in Santa Claus. But if that’s true, why did Santa never come to Liberia and give them presents?

Santa Clause can be a fun tradition, part of the lore that goes with enjoying the holidays — again, our family enjoys the movies. But there’s some serious baggage, too, with a theology connected to it. Put simply: how much do you and I believe in a Santa-Claus-God who rewards the good and punishes the bad? Do Americans teach Santa Claus because that’s our main kind of god? One who blesses the rich and powerful and curses the poor and weak? Think about it. Santa Claus is a god of tribalism, a god who presides over our divisions based on naughty and nice.

This is the god of the “American Dream” — anyone is free to be good in certain ways that wins them fortune and power, as much as we can get. There is no built-in justice of making sure others have enough, since ‘justice’ is on the basis of merit — naughty or nice. Truth be told, it’s not even based on being naughty or nice, it’s based on certain skills of making money, of garnering profit. Is Howard Schultz (the founder of Starbuck’s who’s currently making noise about running for President) nicer than, say, your child’s First Grade teacher who pours her heart and sole into nurturing your child and her classmates? Could any elementary school teacher ever be ‘nice’ enough to become a billionaire? Truth be told our God is more like the Caesar-god than the Santa-Claus-god. Those who have wealth and power often assume that god blessed them with such power to use as they see best. They reason: ‘After all, if we are not the best people to use and enjoy this power, then why did God give it to us?’

Jesus came to reveal to us a very different God, and the followers of Jesus were seen in the Roman Empire as out to destroy their gods. They were taught not to worship them. Larry Hurtado, a Christian teacher whose recent book is Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, wrote in his blog (titled “When Christians Were Atheists”),

Early Christians were atheists! At least, that’s how some people of the time viewed them in the earliest centuries, and it’s not difficult to see why. Most importantly, they refused to worship the traditional gods. But also, judged by Roman-era criteria, they didn’t even seem to practice a recognizable form of religion. . . . “atheist” was probably the accusation that most directly reflected the sharply distinctive, even troublesome, nature of Christianity in the earliest centuries.

Unlike the emphasis today, however, in the Roman world atheism wasn’t primarily a matter of belief or unbelief. Instead, what counted then as “piety” or being religious was mainly participation in worshiping the gods. In that setting, to refuse to do so was atheism. Also, Christian teachings ridiculed the gods as unworthy beings, and what most people thought of as “piety” — participation in the traditional rites to the gods — was designated in Christian teaching as “idolatry.”

To appreciate what this rejection of the traditional gods meant, we also have to understand that gods and reverencing them were woven through every aspect of life. Families had household deities. Cities had their guardian gods. The Roman Empire at large rested upon the gods, such as the goddess Roma. Practically any social occasion, such as a dinner, included an expression of reverence for a given deity. Meetings of guilds, such as fishers, bakers, or others, all included acknowledging their appropriate god. So, to refuse to join in worshiping any of these deities in a thorough-going manner was a very radical move, and a risky one too, with wide-ranging social costs. People understandably took offense, and Christians could be in for a good deal of anger and hostility that might include verbal and physical abuse.

Do we American Christians realize how different is the God that Jesus came to reveal to us? Consider today’s Gospel Reading. Jesus once again turns things completely upside-down and inside-out. It’s not the rich and powerful who are blessed by his God, but those who are normally seen as cursed. And even in this upside-down world of Jesus’ God, the rich and powerful are not ‘cursed,’ they are simply pitied as those who already have experienced consolation — under false pretenses, since God actually is to be found with the poor and persecuted.

And do we American Christians, if we follow this different God of Jesus, how does it show in our every day lives? Can those around us ‘see’ that we follow and worship a different god? Can people see in our choices that we follow a different justice? The justice of the Santa-Claus or Caesar-like god has a justice of blessing the wealthy and powerful. The God of Jesus turns that justice upside-down to a favoring of the poor and oppressed. What would it mean to challenge the traditional gods of human power and follow the God of Jesus? Would it go beyond charity to a different sense of justice? Would we be uncomfortable, even defamed and persecuted? How much is our situation the same as that of early Christians living in the Roman Empire? Should we be seen as ‘destroyer of the gods’?

Let’s bring it back to our proclamation of the Good News as God healing our tribalism. Human culture has been deeply embedded with a sense of good and bad — of the good people, our tribe, being over against the bad people, the other tribe or the cursed people in our tribe. It creates expectations around divisions like rich and poor. We are kidding ourselves if we think that America is not a culture in this same sense that continues tribalism and its traditional gods. We are graciously living in a time of New Reformation, a time to unlearn the part of faith that continues to worship the traditional gods, and a time to learn new practices that bring us into deeper relationship with the God of Jesus. What kind of practices? Where do we find the God of Jesus? With the poor and oppressed, just like he constantly told us.

Paul Nuechterlein
Lutheran Church of the Savior
Kalamazoo, MI

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