Abortions, Children & Covid – Why the Rhetoric is Going to Get Worse

One of the genius moves of the anti-abortion movement is that they have framed themselves as baby savers and the other side as baby killers.  Because who can argue with not wanting to kill babies? I don’t actually think this is a good nor helpful way to frame reproductive rights, but it is remarkably simple and effective.

And framing the abortion debate in terms of “Do I support the hurting of children?” also does another thing:  It creates a pedestal for one side, and is used to justify all sorts of other harmful behaviours or worldviews.  My political party tortures foreign soldiers, but at least we don’t kill babies.  The person I voted for is a racist, but at least we don’t harm children.  We may use drone warfare overseas, or not fund homeless initiatives, or cut public education or health care, but at least we’re keeping those babies alive! 

The side that claims it’s protecting children tends to claim the moral high ground and then do whatever they want.  It’s brilliant.

But here is where it gets a bit more complicated (and scarier):

If one side gets to claim the moral high ground because they protect children, then they get to paint the other side as claiming the immoral low ground because they aren’t protecting children.  And if the other side isn’t protecting children, well then, what’s wrong with them? And of course we justify calling them names and treating them poorly, because what kind of peson doesn’t want to protect children?

And here we are today, 18 months into this pandemic-that-never-ends.  And we have two big things going on: 

  1. Because of a remarkably successful campaign to vaccinate as many people as possible in Manitoba, we’re left in a situation where the largest group of unvaccinated people is those who can’t be:  Children under 12
  2. And, the ultra-contagious delta variant has replaced all other previous versions of covid, leading to parents sending their kids to school and then going home to frantically google hospitalization rates of kids as we read about full pediatric wards in the USA.

And since the best way to keep Delta at bay is to get vaccinated, and the best way to make sure that our kids don’t get Delta is to surround them with vaccinated adults (some people call it a Delta Wall), what’s happened is that the pro-vaccination side rhetoric has changed to “protect the children.”

I am very much okay with this shift, because I have 3 kids in school who are too young to be vaccinated, and which parents are going to sign their kids up to get Delta, risk long-covid symptoms, or worse, have their children be the exception to the “kids are fine” narrative?  To paraphrase one pediatrician: Childhood mortality is a remarkably cruel measuring stick for our pandemic response.

So those of us who are encouraging a high vaccine uptake have legitimately positioned ourselves as the protectors of children, and thus claiming the moral high ground.  Because who doesn’t want to protect children?

But then what does that do to those of us who aren’t getting vaccinated?  We risk assigning them the immoral low ground, and then we get to call them selfish and ignorant and threaten to not give them a hospital bed when they get covid.  And we justify it because they aren’t protecting the children.

HOWEVER, those not getting vaccinated are also digging deep into the internet and claiming that the vaccines and masks are unsafe for teenagers and children, and thus, they too wholeheartedly believe that they are protecting children. 

So now we have two “sides” both claiming the moral high ground of wanting to protect the children, but both trying to do so by doing completely opposite things.

It’s a bit of a quagmire, isn’t it? 

People doing stuff I don't like not thinking of children, say apartment  building neighbours | The Manatee

So for the next several months, I predict everybody is going to start acting like mama bears protecting their cubs, or Helen Lovejoy exclaiming “Won’t somebody please think of the children?”, and thus justify all sorts of boorish behaviour, from protesting hospitals to advocating for the unvaccinated to not get care in a hospital.  And we’re all going to claim that our actions are right and just maybe even holy because… We’re trying to protect the children.

So, if the ramped up rhetoric is really unavoidable, I’m really not sure what the best way forward is.  Is it as simple as just to keep encouraging vaccinations as best we can, while also committing to not being horrible to each other?  Is it that simple?  Maybe.  I have my doubts.

But with the stakes being the safety of our children, honestly, I’m preparing for and expecting frantic and irrational behaviour in all of us (including me). 

Why?  Because who can argue about keeping kids safe?

How vaccines made Christians quote Satan.

“Where is your faith in God?” 

“Jesus is my doctor.”

“I’m going to trust God with my health instead of a vaccine.”

These were some of the statements sent to me in June when my #ProtectMB ad, encouraging vaccinations so we can safely return to church, made the rounds on social media.

The premise was that they were going to trust God and not vaccines to keep them safe.

Besides the obvious questions (is Dr. Jesus really going to heal your broken leg?), I really do understand a worldview that places a higher value on things other than self-preservation and pleasure. There’s a reason the province didn’t film a commercial of someone at a swim up bar in Mexico doing tequila shots telling people that in order to take these shots, we need you to take this shot. (Wait a minute… Maybe this commercial WOULD work for some people. But I digress).

I really do understand a worldview that knows that we are human and that part of being human means we can’t avoid suffering and pain.

Now, this doesn’t hold up really well when we are contagious balls of virus infecting people around us and ADDING to the suffering of OTHERS, but I at least am sympathetic to the idea that suffering is part of life so avoiding the vaccine and risking covid is a sign of my faithfulness to God.

Except for one problem.

Satan said it first.

The idea of trusting God to keep us safe regardless of the risk is exactly what Satan told Jesus when Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness.

The Temptation of Christ by the Devil. By Felix Joseph Barrais. 1860.

For the second temptation, Satan took Jesus to the highest point of the temple and told Jesus to jump (Matthew 4, Luke 4).  Satan even quoted Scripture and said “It says in Psalm 91 that God’s angels will protect you and you won’t even strike your foot against a stone.”  Do it, Jesus.  Jump.  Come on. God will keep you safe. You trust God, right?

Spoiler alert:  Jesus didn’t jump.  He didn’t take the risk.  He didn’t fling himself off a building as a sign of how much he trusted God with his life.  Rather, Jesus responded, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

I have to admit, I’ve been surprised by quite a few things over the past 18 months of this pandemic.  But Christians echoing the words of Satan when he was goading Jesus to take risks with his health to prove his faith, was one I didn’t see coming.

PS – Heads up.  In the few conversations I’ve told Christians that they’re actually quoting Satan, it’s been a bit jarring for them.  I don’t think they quite realize what they’re saying.  Sure, you can bash them over the head and say they’re actually quoting Satan and you can walk away smug because you “won” the vaccine argument, but maybe this is a good opportunity to practice patience and empathy. From my experience, maybe a better way is to simply ask “Do you remember the second temptation of Jesus in the wilderness?”  You won’t “win” the argument right then, but you’re for sure going to live rent free in their heads for quite some time.  

When the Anti-Vax Internet Mob Found Me.

I think I underestimated this one.

When the MB government asked me to part of their “Take a Seat” ad campaign encouraging vaccination so we can get back to gathering safely as a church, I said “Sure!”  We haven’t been able to gather with more than 30% capacity for the past 16 months (and have been closed on 3 separate occasions for months at a time!), I miss gathering with my faith community, and I’m quite sure that most people don’t want their church to be a covid super-spreader event.

But based on the dumpster fire that is my email inbox and voicemail this week, both filled with angry messages, apparently more than a few people would have made a different decision than me.

I’ve been trying to figure out what’s going on behind the visceral reactions, and here are my best answers:

1. Some people are seeing the ad as an ultimatum, like “If you don’t get vaccinated you can’t come to church,” as opposed to what Alberta and Saskatchewan did by saying “Once we collectively hit these vaccination targets we’ll lift restrictions.”

Some people also don’t want the government to determine who gets turned away from church at the door.  I get that.  But I think it’s also worth mentioning that we’ve already been turning people away from church for the past 16 months, just based on different criteria.

2. If you’ve hung your hat on “covid isn’t real” or “covid is just the flu” or “lockdowns don’t work” or “vaccines don’t work” or “vax cards are discriminatory”, it’s been a rough few weeks for you.  Full ICUs in MB show how bad covid can get, lower case numbers show how lockdowns and vaccines work, and vax cards are being implemented to safely increase capacity at restaurants and events. There’s some massive cognitive dissonance going on for a lot of people, very few of us ever change our minds about anything, and a simple lie is always easier to believe than a complex truth.

3. Some of the emails have been filled with dismay and despair that these vaccines are going to kill us all in 3-5 years.  I guess if one thinks that all of humanity is running towards a cliff of doom and destruction while taking smiling vaccine selfies of ourselves the entire way, an angry email or two can be justified.  I mean, it’s for our everyone’s safety, right?

Related, this is not that dissimilar from the angry emails/tweets people send to churches who have not followed the public health restrictions.  “Their gathering is putting lives at risk and might fill up our hospitals, so of course my angry email is justified.   I’m trying to save lives!”  I’ve been pondering this a lot this week, and don’t have many good answers.

4. They’re viewing getting the vaccine as not trusting God. If not getting the vaccine is the litmus test of faithfulness, oh boy, that’s a hill people are going to die on (hopefully metaphorically).  But this is now entering religious zealot territory, and we all know how religious zealotry turns out, right?  If not, just imagine what Montreal Canadiens fans are going to do to their city if they win (or lose) the Stanley Cup <smile>

But I find this litmus test rather… wrong.  The litmus test of being a Christian should be about loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves (even our enemies), just like Jesus did.  So the first person who disagrees with me and sends me a Tim Horton’s gift card instead of an angry email is clearly the most Christian of us all.  And let me tell you, that would probably put me to shame.  

5. Social media companies in general knows that anger and rage = engagement and clicks, so I have no doubt that besides the government’s social media managers targeting Christians in Southern Manitoba, Facebook itself also ensured that ads went straight to the people who are least likely to get the vaccine and most likely to make an angry phone call about it.  It’s kind of a perfect storm, I guess.  

I’ve also since found out that screenshots of the ad are circulating around various freedom and liberty Facebook groups, and we all know how calm, measured and reasonable those Facebook groups can be.  I’ve often wondered how an angry mob could have turned on Jesus so quickly 2000 years ago.  I wonder that less often now.

6. And finally, the greatest irony is that just a few weeks ago I got real angry at “people” who weren’t getting the vaccine and started yelling at my friend about this and how “those people” were selfish and dumb and didn’t care about the immunocompromised in our church or the ICU doctors and just followed Facebook memes.  And my friend kindly sat there and listened. The next day when we had a chance to debrief, I apologized and thanked him for holding a mirror up to how angry and stupid I sounded and that I would try to do better in the future.  This week I think I’m getting to practice what he modelled for me, and for that, I am grateful.

Prayer Labyrinth at Grace Mennonite Church – Photo by Erin Koop Unger

So, once I understand a bit where the angry messages are coming from, it helps me to listen a bit better, practice a bit more patience and compassion, and try to hold them a bit in prayer as I walk the prayer labyrinth at church (which I hope is a different prayer posture than the people who call me and say they’re praying for me and then hang up).

Knowing what I what I now, if the province asked me to shoot a similar ad, would I do it again? Absolutely. Because vaccines save lives, and every life saved is worth it. And also, I miss singing in church, and the sooner we hit those vaccination targets, the sooner we can safely sing together again.

__________

PS – In order to stop the barrage of messages, I’ve already changed my name on Facebook for 60 days and made all my posts private.  The angry email senders haven’t found my Twitter account yet (yay!), but I’m assuming it’s only a matter of time, so I’ll be making my Twitter account private shortly. And then Monday I’m on vacation, and I usually unplug for my vacation, so the emails and voicemails sent to my office will only have to be read/deleted in August!  Yay!

PPS – Related, how you journalists and politicians deal with this is beyond me.  I know that what I’m getting this week pales in comparison to what you get all the time.  You must have thicker skin than me.

PPPS – Jaron Lanier’s book about deleting your social media accounts seems remarkably apt these days.

Donald Trump, Toothbrushes, the Church of God Restoration

Based on Luke 7:1-10

This story of Jesus healing the Roman Centurion’s slave has me absolutely captivated because, looking at it through our 2021 eyes, it is an absolutely bonkers story.

This Roman soldier was part of the world’s largest superpower of that time that went around conquering foreign lands and had NO problem taking people it deemed a threat and crucifying them on a cross.  They were violent and wiped entire cities off the face of the Earth.  And they loved slaves. At the end of the first century, up to 40% of the population in Italy were slaves… that’s 2-3 million people.  The average age when a Roman slave died?  Age 17.

And, if you turn just one page of the Bible back to Luke chapter 6, we read Jesus’ giving the Sermon on the Plain, and we again, here read about Jesus teaching people to love their enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who mistreat you, and turn the other cheek if you get slapped.

Sparticus and the Slave Rebellion

I highly doubt Roman soldiers were turning the other cheek with dealing with Sparticus and the slave rebellion, or Hannibal and his elephants coming to sack Rome.

This guy in our story is a slave owning Roman solider, trained to kill his enemies and is oppressing the local Jewish population.   

And the local Jewish leaders love him because he built them a synagogue? 

And he loves the nation that he is currently occupying?

And he loves his slave?

And his faith, amazed Jesus?

There’s a lot going of seemingly contradictory things going on here, which is precisely why I am so captivated by this story.

And, I think the reason why is because I want to put the Roman centurion in an easily identifiable category – slave owning bad guy – but, I can’t.  It’s more complicated than that. More nuanced.  In this story, he becomes more human.  More like us.

***  

Which brings me to a recent Brene Brown podcast about shame and accountability and the January 6th riot in Washington DC and how we’re at home watching some people storm the Capitol to commit violence, and others storm the Capitol and act like they’re in Disney World taking selfies.  And we ask “How can they do this?  Have they no shame?” but Brene Brown says shame never actually changes people, but really, it’s not a big secret as to how we humans can justify doing horrible things.  It’s all in the language we use.

Every human rights atrocity starts with language of dehumanization, that the people over there, those people, are somehow less than human, and when our language starts to project their less-than-humanness, bad things start to happen.

Let’s go into history, start big, and then work to our current world.

What the German Nazis call Jews leading up to the Holocaust?   Rats.

In the Rwandan genocide, what did the Hutus call the Tutsi?  Cockroaches.

What did European colonizers call indigenous people around the world?  Uncivilized savages.

In the Bosnian genocide, how did Serbs refer to Bosnians? Aliens. 

The US Constitution itself, for purposes of census taking and taxes, slaves were considered to be 60% human.

Our natural inclination as humans is actually not to directly harm other people, but when we start to use language than dehumanizes, others, well, then we start to justify it, don’t we? 

It doesn’t happen overnight, but over time, over years, it does. 

Especially, when that kind of language isn’t challenged, and nobody says stop.  And it’s even worse when this kind of language is actually encouraged by our leaders.  

***

So, let’s take a trip down south for a moment.  Here are some of the dehumanizing things Donald Trump has said.  And I have no qualms referencing them.  He said them.

  • He mocked a disabled person.
  • He bragged about sexually assaulting women, objectifies them, and when they disagree with him, he mocks their appearances and calls them nasty.

On immigration, his language was also terrible.  

  • About African and other Black majority countries he asked “Why are we having all these people from blank-hole countries come here?” 
  • Right from the beginning he said that immigrants from Mexico are rapists.
  • He used the word “Infestation” in immigration debates.  He used the word “invasion.”

He also said “These aren’t people. These are animals and we’re taking them out of the country at a level at a rate that’s never happened before. And because of the weak laws, they come in fast. We get ’em. We release ’em. We get ’em again. We bring them out. It’s crazy.”

And what’s the end result when we dehumanize each other?

Well, we’ll storm the capitol to keep the president in power who will keep us safe from the invading animals, right?    

And you know what else we do? 

We justify separating children from their parents at the border, putting kids in cages, and lawyers actually arguing in court that migrant children don’t need toothbrushes or soap.  And yes, they are on record… Sarah Fabian argued that “safe and sanitary” shouldn’t require the federal government to provide migrant children in detention facilities with basic sanitary products.  Like soap and toothbrushes.

Goodness no, dehumanizing language for immigrants did not start with Donald Trump, we know that.  But this is where it ends up.  Or worse.

My criticism of Donald Trump’s narcissism, vindictiveness, bullying and childish behaviour, and my criticism of Evangelical Christianity’s unwavering support for him, is public.  And I’m not the only one.

But my side, oh my side loves referring to his voters as deplorables, yahoos, and uneducated boors. And we love the memes that have been shared calling him an orange faced sprayed-tanned Cheeto with small fingers, mocking his ability to walk and drink water. I mean, who doesn’t love a good late night comedy takedown? And we even have vile ablest jokes about him wearing adult diapers while golfing. Those, are also dehumanizing.

Can we say that some things others are doing are not okay, without dehumanizing each other?

***

Let’s come to Canada, shall we?

Think about all the Indian jokes you heard growing up.  What are they but efforts to dehumanize others, justify horrible living conditions, and make ourselves feel better?

Or, the other day, Arianna and I passed a car with the hashtag #JusticeForEisha on it, and I had the task of explaining to my 10 year old daughter about what happened when an unarmed 16 year old indigenous teenager steals a car, robs a liquor store, gets in a police chase, crashes the car, and then is shot dead by the police, and the police officer was recently cleared of all charges.

“Criminal.  Thug.  She deserved it.  Insert racial slur here.”

“All pigs are police.  Piggies.  Oink oink. The only good cop is a dead cop.”

Is accountability without dehumanizing language even possible?

Think about how people refer to Brian Pallister, or Justin Trudeau?  Think about all the photoshopped memes laced with malice and hatred and half truth smears.

Or think back to a few years ago when we had irregular border crossers walking into Canada near Emerson in winter.  Think about what the language of “illegal alien” does to one’s humanity.  And if they’re an illegal alien, we can treat them differently than us, can’t we?

Think about all the demeaning words we’ve come up for lgbtq folk over the years. 

Think about what happens when politicians advocate for prisoners to get in the back of the covid vaccine line.  You people are less important than everybody else.

Is there a way to talk about Qanon conspiracy theorists without calling them whack-a-doodles? 

Which reminds me of something I read on SteinbachOnline one month ago.

***

On Jan 9, SteinbachOnline interviewed Tobias Tiessen, the pastor from the Church of God

Restoration, the church near Pansy that keeps getting fined for breaking public health orders.  The headline was “Now With $21,480 In Pending COVID-19 Fines, The Church Of God Pastor Shares His Perspective”.

When I first saw the article, I was like, oh great, we’re giving this guy more attention, which is what he wants, and we’re also giving the guy a platform to spread his… questionable viewpoints.

But then, part of me was okay with him expressing his opinion, and believes that each of our ideas and communities should be able to withstand some level of public scrutiny, and that letting him talk will shine a light upon some of his… Questionable viewpoints that I do not share. 

And, this part was verified when he was asked if his church was a cult, and he said “No, but you’d better talk to my overseer about that,” which doesn’t really give a lot of confidence in his answer that his church is not a cult.

I was talking to a friend later that day about this article, and the pros and cons of it, and in the end, my friend said something to me that has stuck:  He said that after reading the interview, he felt that it kind of humanized Tobias Tiessen, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that.  Like, my friend wanted to roll his eyes and blow the guy off, but the more this guy was humanized, the harder that was.

He became human.

But do you know the comments on that Steinbach Online article were?

“Covidiot.”

“When they get covid, they should be denied healthcare.”

Weasel. 

Brainwashed Simpleton.

Monkey brain.

Moron.

Sociopath. 

Goof. 

Low life.

We know where dehumanizing language leads, right?  It leads to us treating them as less than human.  

CBC did an article on that church getting together for worship in person last week, and the comments on their Facebook page are a great example of where it can lead.

They have no caring or concern for anyone else.

Fine every single person. Child and adult.

CFS needs to charge each parent with child endangerment.

Throw them all in jail until their court dates.  Children will have to go into foster care with responsible adults.

They should not be allowed to aparticipate within society at all.

No health care for you.

***

Brene Brown asks:

 When we hear people referred to as animals or aliens, we should immediately wonder, “Is this an attempt to reduce someone’s humanity so we can get away with hurting them or denying them basic human rights?”

When those monkey brained weasels get covid, they should be denied a hospital bed. 

And when we’re done fining the children, taking their children away, and indefinitely locking them up in jail, do you think we should give them toothbrushes? 

This is not a plea for unity, or for us to “agree to disagree”, or to justify actions, thoughts, or policies that actively harm people.  Oh gosh no. The road to hell is paved with denying children toothbrushes. And the road to hell is also paved with “agreeing to disagree” about whether or not kids get toothbrushes. 

Rather, this is a plea to use language that does not dehumanize each other.  To not reduce other people’s lives to a singular trait or event. To try to remember that even our staunchest ideological opponents are human, and beloved children of God.

It’s a plea to remember that Jesus modeled what loving our enemies can look like, and how we can return good to evil, and how we can bless those who curse us. 

It’s a plea to remember the story of Jesus who met a slave owning soldier from a foreign army that conquered his people and would eventually crucify him, and be amazed at his faith. 

Somehow, Jesus saw the humanity of that Roman centurion.

Can we see the humanity in our enemies too?  (It’s really an impossible task, isn’t it?)

Maybe we need Jesus more than we know.

That church breaking the pandemic rules? They’re playing us like fiddles.

There is a church 16 km south of me that, in the middle of a pandemic, is breaking public health guidelines and continuing to meet.

It’s frustrating. I get it.

But here’s the thing. I’m a pastor of a pacifist church that loves the idea of non-violent movements changing the world, and let me tell you, that church is playing us all like fiddles. Our reactions to their rule breaking is exactly what they want.

Are we spreading their message? Yes. Every time we share one of their unorthodox videos, every time we comment on their social media posts, every time we print what their leaders are saying, we are giving them air time and an audience. Even our hate-posting increases the number of people who are aware of them.

Are we giving them fines? Yes. And considering that they believe the government is over reaching its power and infringing on their rights to gather, the fines actually serve as a reinforcement of this belief rather than a deterrent. Further, non-violent movements want documented conflict with perpetrators and upholders of perceived unjust systems (think civil rights restaurant sit-ins, or the Wet’suwet’en protests), so the RCMP showing up to their church service giving out fines is exactly what they want.

Should we give them more fines? I’m pretty sure they’ll consider themselves martyrs and gladly keep paying them. Or just move their meetings to undisclosed locations.

Besides fines, what else is there? And what if they don’t pay the fines? Are we going to arrest them? Again, this proves their point about government overreach. And are we going to arrest all of them? We don’t have enough room in our jails. And arresting parents in front of their children isn’t exactly a good look.

And now we’re starting to see why non-violent movements are so effective. Without resorting to state sanctioned violence, our options to force behavioural change for a small group of dedicated radicals are actually quite limited.

Are there other options? Well, we could try reasoning, but they’ve already been interviewed by the Winnipeg Free Press and two leaders referenced conspiracy theories about Bill Gates. We’re not exactly on the same plane of reality here, so I’m quite sure that reasoning with them has its limitations.

Can neighbouring faith communities reach out across the divide? This assumes that they’re part of ecumenical conversations, which they’re not, and if you’re unaware, churches like this place a rather high value on their independence.

Can we do a deep dive and expose their teachings as ridiculous? Sure. But again, it reinforces their persecution complex, and really, how many of us change our minds over a stranger dunking on us via Twitter?

Can we quote Bible verses, and use their sacred scriptures against them? I wouldn’t bother. I’m an lgbtq+ affirming pastor, and let me tell you, the chances of me changing my mind over a well placed verse from 1 Corinthians are nil.

So what do we do, besides fine them into oblivion and hope they stop getting together?

Maybe, just maybe, we can ignore them.

Look, I know we’re in a pandemic and their behaviour threatens us all, but besides giving them fines every week, I’m not sure we have many other choices here.

The province knows they’re breaking the rules and has asked them to stop meeting.

The RCMP know they’re breaking the rules, and has asked them to stop meeting.

The RM of Hanover knows they’re breaking the rules, and has asked them to stop meeting.

Other local churches, including the other one in their village, are doing their part and staying closed.

So maybe our move here is to just ignore them and stop giving them the attention they crave. (Interestingly, this same group are the ones who showed up for the Black Lives Matter rallies in Winnipeg and around North America, and the only way I can connect those public appearances with anti-mask rallies is either a loose connection to justice, or probably just that they clearly crave attention).

But what about the public health risk? Manitoba is adding hundreds of positive covid cases a day, province-wide, so I think we need to be realistic about the possible negative health outcomes for group of 100 inward looking people meeting for a potential super spreader event in rural Manitoba. And besides a few public places where they interact with others (grocery stores, banks, and hospitals (where covid is already rampant)), their contact with the rest of society is limited. Let’s be honest. Pre-pandemic, most of us weren’t having these folk over for coffee to chat up the latest Bill Gates conspiracy theories.

But if we ignore this church, what if other churches start to meet? Do we ignore them too? Believe it or not, most churches aren’t death cults, so this probably isn’t going to be a problem. Plus, this one specific church has zero influence on other area churches.

But what if suddenly, and miraculously, they do have influence on other churches?

Well, welcome to the world of non-violent change, my friends. You’ve just seen how effective, and sometimes pernicious, a bunch of non-violent radicals can be.

But in this case, I think our best bet is to ignore them.

Steinbach: The COVID Capital of Canada.

We are dying here.

So please, get off the sanctimonious high horse and lead with compassion first, and smugness second.   Or even better, leave the smugness out entirely.  Same with the eye-roll emojis.  And the “My hometown is ridiculous…” tweets too. 

Steinbach is basically the COVID capital of Canada, and your first response is mockery?  Disdain?  Arrogance?   “I’m so glad I’m not like them and their backwards ways.”  “I read the comments for my entertainment.” “Steinbach never disappoints.” Seriously.  Take a moment and mediate on the “Be Kind” bracelet you bought at Third and Bird.

Send compassion and care kits and heart emojis and prayers and support.

Because we are dying here.

Some of us might think “Well, they didn’t follow the rules” so they deserve it.  Is that how we feel about HIV/AIDS as well?  Or alcohol addiction?  I didn’t think so.  This way of thinking about public health leads to shaming and stigma and human suffering.

And we are dying here.

Do we realize that we’re moving like a mob to lay blame for a global pandemic?  China, truckers, Hutterites, schools, meat packing plants, long term care facilities, bars, churches, hockey teams, parties, weddings, anti-maskers, funerals, conspiracy theories, restaurants, family gatherings, and government? We want blood, don’t we?  It must be somebody’s fault.  Somebody is responsible for this COVID mess-up, and we will keep throwing people overboard until we find the cause of our problems.  

And while point fingers on social media about who to blame, we are dying here.

(Although I will add here that the criticism of the provincial government here is warranted.)  

Do we realize that even though we’ve watched the John Oliver episode on cyberbullying, we still might be doing it?  That there are real people on the other end of our online pile-on? That while trashing a community of 16,000 people for the actions of a few might feel good, maybe it isn’t the most productive?

And while we post, we are dying here.

Do we realize that we certainly wouldn’t scoff at a Syrian Muslim praying to Allah to heal them? (We might even have helped sponsor them to come to Canada as a refugee.) Do we realize that we wouldn’t mock an Indigenous grandparent offering prayers of healing to Creator, or sending cedar tea as a COVID cure (even though science hasn’t proved it’s effective?)  But when an immigrant to Canada expressed hope in God’s healing to a CBC reporter, we click share like a pack of wolves circling for the kill.  No wonder conservative Christians feel persecuted.  Maybe we should all take a moment to reflect on what our COEXIST bumper stickers actually mean.  

And while we mock someone’s faith that is not our own, we are dying here.

My sacred scriptures have a story about a self-righteous person who went to the temple and prayed “Thank God I’m not like those sinners over there.” 

And while you thank God for not being like us Cov-idiots here in the COVID capital of Canada, we are dying. 

So I hope God is ignoring those prayers, and instead healing all of us so we can be filled with empathy and compassion. Let’s lead with those first.

PS – And please wear a mask.  

Mini-Golf, Blizzards, and a Cacophony

When I was working as a summer camp counselor 20 years ago, one of the things that I loved to do was tell Bible stories to the kids. I loved making the stories come alive.

And 1 King chapter 18 was one of those stories. It’s a story of God’s power, God’s faithfulness, of God answering prayer. Plus there was a little bit of smack talk in there from Elijah, which the young teenage boys appreciated. Keep shouting. Maybe your loser God is sleeping.

Elijah pouring water on the altar and it lighting on fire is like when somebody is mini-golfing, takes their eyes off the ball, looks at you and smiles, and says “Watch this.” Hole-in-one. (On a related note, Ashley and I have not gone mini-golfing since.)

The kids at summer camp loved it! They gobbled it up. God rules! ­

However, I don’t remember ever reading to them verse 40, the part where all the prophets of Baal were slaughtered.

And now that I’m a bit older and wiser than I was when I was 17, I look at this story with a different lens. This story feels like a fight at recess between two grade 5 students, circling each other, fists raised. “You know I can beat you up, you know.” “Yeah, but my Dad can beat up your Dad.” “Well, my Mom can beat up your Mom!” But instead of them getting sent the principal’s office and their parents getting a phone call, it ends with the slaughter of hundreds of people.

What is going on?

Okay. Let’s go.

here’s an expression: History is written by the victors. History is written by the winners. Have you heard that before?

Great. Here’s the thing that we CAN NEVER FORGET when we’re reading our Bibles. If we had remembered this thing, the history of the world would be quite different, and I’m not even exaggerating.

Most of the Bible was written by losers. Most of the stories we read to our children were written by the losers, not the winners. They were gathered and edited and written down not by the victors, but by people who were conquered and oppressed and marginalized and in jail.

To summarize in a ridiculously simple format, Israel was one kingdom under King David, quickly it split into two, a Northern Kingdom and a Southern Kingdom, and after a few centuries the Northern Kingdom was attacked by the Assyrians, and they left almost nobody alive. And the Southern Kingdom had a few more years before they were attacked by the Babylonians. The difference here was that the Southern Kingdom was taken as prisoners into exile into Babylon for 80 years. They were captives, prisoners, strangers, foreigners, migrants, displaced, aliens, victims of human trafficking, forced labourers. They were not winners.

And it’s here, in Babylon, where the children asked their parents, “Why they we captives in a foreign land and not at home in Israel?” It was here, in Babylon, that the Israelites REALLY started to pull together much of their story.

“Tell me about the good old days, grandpa.”

“Well, little Johnny, back in the day we walked uphill to school both ways in blizzards in July!”

Well, not quite like that. But they told their stories to explain who they were as Israelites, how they were different than the Babylonians, and part of their story was how Yahweh, their God, was the true God, not these other Gods around them.

“But Grandpa! How we do know that Yahweh answers prayer and is faithful and hears us and is on our side and is powerful?” “Oh, gather round the fire, children, because I am going to tell you a story about how Yahweh beat Baal, and how one prophet named Elijah, all by himself, bested 450 of his prophets.”

This story was written partly to help the captive Israelites to not despair. This was their Rocky Balboa moment where the coach Mickey is shouting in his ear. You got this. You’re strong. You can beat him. Remember your training! Remember who you are! (That’s also Mufasa from the Lion King.) Remember that it’s always darkest before dawn, remember the God who rescued our people from slavery in Egypt, and remember that time that God came down and showed those Caananites who the real God was!

This is a story of competing loyalties. What are we loyal to? Who are we loyal to? Why? Whom do we trust?

I don’t think we should be reading this story as one of Christianity vs Islam vs. Judaism vs. Atheists vs the Pastafarians. I think that that’s kind of ridiculous. I think we’re beyond the “My God can beat up your God and I’m okay if you get slaughtered” part of the conversation. It probably wasn’t that ridiculous 3000 years ago, when the lives of the Israelites were at stake, and ancient people probably understood that if your God can’t beat up the other Gods, what kind of loser God is that? If your God can’t win, then that God probably isn’t real. But for us, no. I don’t think we’re in a divine shouting match with other religions. Or if we are, we shouldn’t be.

For us, though, the question of competing loyalties, the question of whom do we trust, is a little harder to discern.

I’m in a group chat with a few other pastors, and I bounced this story off of them, and one of them suggested this:

To some degree, something similar might still hold up. You treat money as your god. You treat your own intellect or capacity as your god. You idolize power or status. Fine. How far will those things get you when life is really, really hard – the death of a loved one, the divorce of your kids, the car accident that cripples your spouse? Which god will you pray to in those scenarios?

Kind of direct, isn’t it?  Well, yes, that was the point of this story, after all. Choose whom you will be loyal to. And when the rubber hits the road, who will be there for you? Will you trust in God’s way, or not? Choosing God or choosing something else IS what this story is about.

But what about the violence? Can we just ignore it? We can get the competing loyalties thing, but our idols of money and security and power and control don’t usually end with the slaughter of hundreds of people.

So why, in 2019, do we even bother telling these Old Testament stories that end with so much violence?

For me, it’s about the MOVEMENT that we see. It’s about telling a story that doesn’t end with the slaughter of the other side. This chapter ends in slaughter. But there are other chapters. There are other stories.

The very next chapter, after his great victory, we read about Elijah being so afraid for his own life that he wanted to die, but an angel visited him. And then we read about how we was to wait on mountain for the Lord to pass by, and as he was waiting, there was wind, there was an earthquake, there was fire, but God wasn’t found there. God was found in the silence.

There’s movement in this story. From violence to despair to silence and peace.

And, the benefit of us being here in 2019, and the benefit of us being Jesus followers, is that we are able to keep the movement going from Elijah to Jesus.  The Bible moves is in that direction. And as Anabaptists, looking to Jesus is a legit move. We don’t worship our Bibles, or the stories in them. We worship God and follow Jesus.

And for Jesus to show up when he did and say the things that he did: Love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you, blessed are the poor in spirit, those who live by the sword die by the sword, or “I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”

Victory for us, now, does not look like the slaughter of our enemies but rather it looks like our Lord and Saviour hanging on a cross, forgiving those who nailed him to it.

There’s movement here. The Bible corrects the Bible.

Cynthia Bourgeoult says this: Like most other critically thinking Christians, I see the Bible as a symphony (sometimes a cacophony!) of divinely inspired human voices bearing witness to an astonishing evolutionary development in our human understanding of God.

There’s movement here. And if we forget that the Bible is moving somewhere, we are more likely to forget that we are moving somewhere too. And if we forget the stories of our past, of where we were, of the mistakes we made, then we miss out on seeing that movement and how revolutionary it actually is.

Elijah on Mount Carmel is a story is about people in captivity writing down their origin stories, trying to give hope and inspiration to each other.  

It’s a story about competing loyalties, and invitation to ask “In whom do we put our trust?”

And it’s a story about movement, how God is never done with any of us, but rather is moving us as individuals and as a community to something that is more loving than we’ve been in the past.

And that is why we tell this story today.

You’re driving to a climate strike? You hypocrite.

The local news company is running a story about the climate strike in Winnipeg tomorrow, and how some of us from Grace Mennonite are going to participate.  I made a funny sign about climate change and Mennonites that’s received a mind blowing 51 likes on Twitter, so I guess that’s enough to make the local news.  Gotta love small towns.

First, Dirk Willems saves the prison guard he is fleeing, only to be rearrested and eventually killed.
Then, 500 years later, Dirk saves a polar bear from climate change, but the polar bear eats him because the bear can’t hunt seals on the receding sea ice.
Poor Dirk. Always trying to help, yet always getting killed.

I weigh the pros and cons of saying yes to these interviews.  The cons are usually that people who say yes to these things might be a tad narcissistic (Look everyone! I’m in the news!). Plus I will be inevitably subjecting myself to the “comments” section on Facebook, and sadly I am addicted to reading them. 

But the pros in this case are highlighting the climate strike, talking about Greta Thunberg’s advocacy, and you know, trying to do something about our fossil fuel addiction that’s heating up the entire planet and leaving behind a hot and polluted world for our kids.

I guess the pros of trying to address climate change is worth more than the cons of a few Facebook trolls. So I said yes to being on the local news. 

But as soon as the article goes live, I’m anticipating about 3 minutes to pass before somebody posts:  “They drove to a protest telling people to not use fossil fuels?  Hypocrites.”  And then probably some enlightening gif or meme that will prove how smart and witty they are.

So I’m writing this in advance, maybe as one big justification, or maybe as an explanation that these decisions are more nuanced than we sometimes make them be.

So here’s why I drove to a climate strike.

  1. There are no student climate strikes in Steinbach.  If there was, I’d be there.
  2. I’ve already contacted my politicians about climate change. I think I know which folder my emails end up in.
  3. I’m carpooling, so that helps.
  4. The students organizing this strike asked the adults to show up.
  5. We want the Mennonite students at the protest know that the church has their back. We also want them to know that sometimes the church prays in our sanctuaries, and other times the church spills out into the streets .
  6. There is an ecumenical prayer meeting before the strike that I’m attending. With human history filled with stories of religious violence, any and all inter-religious gatherings where we pray and work for the common good of humanity are worth attending.
  7. This is a transition off of fossil fuels, not an immediate switch.  Our society was built on burning fossil fuels, and we can’t reasonably expect everyone to transition immediately.  We have to transition as fast as possible, but it’ll take some time. That’s okay. Just not too much time  (However, my hunch is that if the Canadian government stopped subsidizing the fossil fuel industry and started subsidizing electric cars, there’s be some pretty quick movement, though).
  8. The pros of showing up big numbers for one day to send a message far outweighs the cost of saving a few litres of fuel.
  9. Plus, I’ll be donating my day’s salary to MCC’s reforestation program in Haiti, which will help to offset the carbon I burn. You can do this too.
  10. Plus, I’m one big hypocrite.  And if calling me that is what it takes for us all to admit that we’re addicted to fossil fuels but we can to work together to leave the planet in better shape for our children and grandchildren, so be it. If one imperfect first step is needed to take another less imperfect step, I will take that first imperfect step every day of the week.

So march for the planet, everyone! See you there!

Kyle

PS – The pacifist in me is LOVING this.  We all know that we humans will kill for oil.  We’ll start wars for oil.  But these kids are like, “Nah.  You will hear us.  You will see us.  We will mobilize. But we will not kill people.”  We have much to learn from these young prophets.

Angle double raise takeouts, (Un)Coupling,& Toasters

Every Monday night in winter, I grab my shoes and my broom and head to the Steinbach Curling Club to curl with my dad.  The old man plays skip, and I play third.

I not only love to actually curl, but I also love simply watching curling on TV.  During the Scotties Tournament of Hearts and Brier, I’ll often pull up curling on my phone and go to bed watching the roaring game.  When I asked Ashley to marry me, I’m not sure she would have said yes if she knew this was a thing.

I love the strategy behind it.  And the technicality behind it.  But I also love how down to earth it is, where on most Monday nights, win or lose, both teams head upstairs to the bar and can sit together at a table and laugh at all the shots we missed.

My curling team, this year, had a bit of a rough start.  We lost our first 7 games in a row. I’d rather go to the dentist 7 weeks in a row to get my teeth cleaned than lose 7 games in a row.

The good news, though, is that since losing 7 in a row, we have now won 8 in a row.  Yes, we are in the B division and not the A division, but still, we have won 8 in a row, and that is better than losing 8 in a row. I like to think that we’re peaking at the right time.

But, the real highlight for me, is that I have gone from missing most of my shots, to making more of my shots.  And I think that my improved shot making is having a direct impact on our overall record.

Now, obviously, the better you play the more likely you are to win… That’s in any sport. But in curling, how well you play directly affects the person after you.  So, in our case, me making my shots means that my dad has relatively easy shots to make, like an open draw, or an open hit.  But, if I miss my shots, oh my, then the old skipper has to get in the hack and make an angle raise double take-out every end. Which he usually misses. And then we lose.

Most curling games cannot be won by the skip alone.  In order to win, most curling games require the whole team to play well.  You cannot win by yourself.

In today’s Scripture reading, Jesus got baptized. But, he did not baptize himself.

He asked John the Baptist to do it.  And, every time I preach about John the Baptist, I simply have to use this picture.  Every time.

Although this year, a random person on the internet sent me a picture of John the Baptist in the Red River in winter, which is just delightful.

red_river_john_batist

Jesus INSISTED that John baptize him.  The son of God, the prince of Peace, the Messiah, was adamant that a regular human preacher baptize him.

Jesus allowed this to happen to him.  He surrendered.  He gave his consent.  He trusted the people around him.  Jesus did not consider himself strong or independent or superior.  He actually did the opposite.  He took a position of inferiority and vulnerability and dependence.

And only then was he ready to be baptized.

His baptism was not a sign of him being ready, that he had reached some magical level of faith maturity, or having all the answers. No! It happened at the beginning of his ministry.  It was a sign of him being open.

Open to God’s way of living.


Well, I like to think of baptism being about both coupling and uncoupling .

We couple ourselves, we link ourselves, we ally ourselves, we choose to place ourselves in the Kingdom of God… We couple ourselves to God’s rule, both in our hearts and in our world.  We open ourselves up to walking together as a community, to care for each other, to be the body, to both give and receive grace and peace, to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves, and to orient our lives around being a disciple of Jesus.

Also, we uncouple ourselves, we break up, we dissociate, we disconnect ourselves from that which is the opposite of God.  Selfishness, racism, the desire for vengeance and revenge, sexism, hatred, nationalism, rage, envy, and more

Now I know that these lists are pretty intense.  And none of us are really good at doing or not doing all these things all the time.  But again, the story of Jesus’ baptism isn’t about him arriving, or having it all together.  It’s about the intent.  The openness.  The allowing of God to change our lives.  The aligning of our lives with God’s purposes.  And the community of people that commits itself to walk together, and invites others to join them on that path.

Not because we’re good at it.   But because we want to.

Well, I’ve already talked about my parents today, so now I’ll talk about my marriage.

Ash and I got married young.  Now that I’m old and wise I say that we got married too young to not know that we didn’t know anything.  But we have no regrets.  I’ve rather enjoyed getting old and wise with Ashley, and becoming a couple that wants to go to sleep at 9pm every night.

But we didn’t wait to get married until we had all the answers.  Or knew how to be a great husband and wife.  We learned along the way.  There have been moments where I have been an above average husband, like this year for Ashley’s birthday, when I arranged that the staff and students at her school would give her a special present from me every hour she was at work. And moments where I’ve been a below average husband, like that winter when our toaster broke so her Christmas present was a new toaster that was on sale for fifteen bucks.

You don’t think about all these things on your wedding day. How can you? Life is hard sometimes.  And you don’t know when those toasters are going to be on sale.  But you can think about why you’re getting married, how you intend to treat each other, and how you’ll figure out the details as they come, but you know it’ll be okay because no matter what you, you’ll face them together.

But postures of openness, intent, vulnerability and commitment are pretty important to healthy relationships.

And when we do adopt these postures in our spiritual lives, we join others along the way.  Because none of us can baptize ourselves.  We are part of a 58 year old Grace Mennonite Church tradition, a 494 year old Anabaptist tradition, and a 2000 year old Jesus tradition, all of which have been filled with saints holding the Christ light for us.  And we are invited to do the same for the next 58 years, the next 494 years, and the next 2000 years.

Because none of us can baptize ourselves.


But, my favourite part of this story is at the end, where a dove comes down and we hear God speaking.

This is the first time we hear God speak in the New Testament, so we should probably pay attention to what she is saying.

 “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”

See, these are two lines from Old Testament Scriptures:

Psalm 2:7, invoking images of being a king.

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have become your father.

And Isaiah 42:1 , showing what kind of King he will be… A different kind of king: one that serves, and one that will bring justice to the nations.

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”

A king who serves, and works for justice

“This is my beloved son; I am well pleased.”

I like to think that these words, spoken by God, apply to us today.

That of all the voices in our world that tell us that we’re not good enough, that we need to be better and try harder, that we need to look a certain way or do a certain thing.  A voice can penetrate them all with the words:  You are my beloved child, and with you, I am well pleased.

God has chosen us.  All we can do is to allow that love into our lives and let it rule.  We just have to receive it.   We just have to say yes to it.  We just to give God permission.

 

Fruit Cake, Street Cred, & Throwing Food at King Herod

Today is Epiphany Sunday.

My first year as a pastor, a solid thirteen and a half years ago, I was given the task of preaching on Epiphany Sunday.

And the week before I was supposed to preach, I distinctly remember asking my co-workers:  “What in the world is Epiphany Sunday?”

My co-workers stared at 22 year old Kyle and probably thought “Who in the world did we hire?”

I now like to think of it as them having an opportunity to take a young naïve pastor and introduce him to the church calendar.

See, for most of us, after we’ve gone Boxing Day shopping and the Christmas tree is put away and the calendar turns to 2019, we promptly move on from little baby Jesus being born.

But if we follow the church calendar, oh no, we are still in the depths of Christmas.  Because little baby Jesus was 12 days ago, and we need to keep celebrating.

And Epiphany Sunday is when we tell the story of the three wisemen showing up on the scene, bringing gifts to little baby Jesus.

Except that… The three wisemen actually showed up about two years after Jesus was born.  So little baby Jesus is actually little toddler Jesus, in the middle of his terrible twos and probably saying NO to everything his parents say.

far side

And our Bibles don’t even record how many of wisemen there were.  We just think there were three because of the three gifts.

Gary Larson, with his Far Side Cartoon, thinks there may have been a 4th wiseman, but he wasn’t allowed in the door because he brought fruit cake.

And the Bible doesn’t even say that they were men, or wise.

If they were really wise they would’ve brought better gifts that frankinscense, gold and myrhh… like diapers, soothers, and a potty training book.

And because they had to stop to ask for directions, surely there must have been a woman amongst the lot of them, as we all know the stereotype that most men would rather be lost for days than stop and ask for directions.

Okay.  Enough lame jokes.

Epiphany is another word for “Aha!”  “Eurkea!”  It’s a light bulb moment, where one says “Oh! Now I see what’s going on here!”  It’s like when you finally understand what a derivative is in calculus.

Epiphany is where we remember the magi meeting toddler Jesus, and it’s called Epiphany Sunday because it’s a Sunday were some pretty big things are revealed.

Revealed.

It’s a word I use often when I preach.

Jesus reveals to us the nature of God.  The cross and resurrection reveal what God’s love and victory look like.  The parables of Jesus and The apocalyptic texts reveal the inner hearts of his listeners.

Reveal.  Something is there, and it’s always been there, and it’s just that now we have the eyes to see it.

And for the next few months, we’re reading and preaching about Jesus as found in the gospel of Matthew, so there’s going to be a lot of revealing of who Jesus us.

The story of the magi reveals four things to me.  There are probably more, so if I miss some, please do tell me, and then I’ll be sure to put you on the preaching schedule for Epiphany next year.

Epiphany #1 –  The magi stopped to ask directions to toddler Jesus from King Herod.  I’ll spare you the long history lesson with a short synopsis:  King Herod was a Jewish puppet king set up by the Romans to rule the area.  And he was a homicidal maniac.  So much so, that when the magi didn’t return to tell him where toddler Jesus was, King Herod ordered the killing of all the baby boys age two and under.  He figured that if he couldn’t the one little boy king to kill, he’d just kill all the little boys.  Homicidal maniac.

And so the magi set up the scene where Joseph and Mary and Jesus flee to Egypt. They left their home for a different home, fleeing violence in one country for safety in another.

In today’s world, we call that a migrant.   Or a refugee.  Or an asylum seeker.

Jesus was a refugee. 

Jesus was a migrant. 

Jesus was an asylum seeker.

I’ve preached on this before here at church, so I won’t belabour the point, but to posture oneself as against refugees or against migrants coming to our country, you are literally setting yourself up to be against Jesus.

In a world where there are 68 million displaced people (the most we’ve ever had on the plantet), and in a world where borders are being more and more closed to refugees, Mary and Joseph fleeing with toddler Jesus to a new country is a pretty big deal.   And the story still speaks to us today.

Jesus was a refugee.  Jesus was a migrant. And we will keep telling this story every year on Epiphany Sunday.

And the good news?  It is really, really easy to help refugee toddler Jesus.  When you put money in the offering plate that we stick in front of you every Sunday, 7.5% of that is designated towards sponsoring a Syrian refugee family that we are currently waiting for.  Our church, and our refugee committee, has made it really, really, really easy to help.   That’s good news.

Moving on.

_______

From now til Easter, we will be preaching through the gospel of Matthew.  Matthew was the gospel written primarily to the Jewish community, and some of the stories, or quirky details he includes, make a bit more sense when we remember this.

For example, someone over Christmas asked me, “Kyle, why do we keep calling Jesus the Key of David, or the Son of David.”  Well, Matthew was intentional about showing that Jesus was in the lineage of King David in an effort to “up the street cred” of Jesus.  To modernize it, this is literally like people in Steinbach playing the Mennonite game of who’s grandparents or great-grandparents were mayor back in the day. “You should listen to me, because do you know who my grandpa was?!?”  While we may roll our eyes a bit now about this, Jesus being in the lineage of King David was a really big deal to the Jewish community.

So, I’ll give you the next two epiphanies at once, because they’re related.

Epiphany #2 and #3Insiders can be outsiders, and outsiders can be insiders.

Insiders can actually be outsiders:  King Herod was Jewish.  A homicidal maniac, but Jewish nonetheless.   And he missed it.  He totally missed it.  He knew the religion, he knew the stories, he knew his texts, he had access to priests and religious scholars, but he still missed Jesus.  Herod belonging to his religious community did not stop him from missing God entirely.

And related, outsiders are now insiders:  The magi were scholars from a different country, and a different religion, and a different economic class. They should have been among the last ones to come and pay homage to a toddler born in the lineage of King David.  And yet, here they were.    The outsiders are now insiders.

This is the beginning of the gospel writer of Matthew speaking about God’s love and God’s community being for everybody, not just the chosen, not just the select, not just the holy ones blessed by God.  The good news of Jesus is for EVERYBODY.

And, if we put on our bible nerd hats on,  (and I know a bunch of you got bible nerd hats for Christmas), we know that the gospel of Matthew was written in 80-90 CE, about 20-30 years after the Apostle Paul wrote his letters.  And we know that the Apostle Paul spent a lot of time claiming that GOD’S LOVE WAS UNIVERSAL, how it’s for everyone.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  (Galatians 3:28)

So in the middle of the early church debating questions about who’s out and who’s in and how that all works, Matthew shows up on the scene and drops this story on them.

You want to know who’s in?  Foreigners from a different religion. And you want to know who’s out?  Jewish king Herod.

I think these epiphanies are good news because

  1. It should cause us to be quite humble, and far less judgy. Because simply participating in a religion, in a church community, showing up and sitting in the same pew every Sunday, doesn’t mean that we won’t miss God either.
  2. And it’s also good news because it’s reminder that we should keep our eyes and hearts open to where God shows up, because God can show up in a whole variety of places, and to a whole variety of people. None of us have a monopoly on God.  And that is good news indeed.

_______

And finally, Epiphany #4 –   Little toddler Jesus is NOT running around the halls of power.

Little toddler Jesus is not throwing his food at King Herod.  Little toddler Jesus isn’t being raised to be Emperor.  Little toddler Jesus is born OUTSIDE any sort of power structure or authority or government.

It’s almost as if God says, “I don’t trust that any king, queen, president, prime minster, or emperor would know what to do with Jesus.  So we’re just going to bypass that entire system.”

Toddler Jesus bypassing the halls of power, the decision makers, the ones with power, the ones with access to wealth and armies and the ability to write legislation… Genius move there by God.  Genius.

It’s genius because can you imagine if Jesus were born a Republican?  Or a Democrat?  Or a New Democrat?  Or a Conservative?  Or a Liberal?  Or a Green?  Or a Bloc Quebecois?  Or whatever party Maxime Bernier is starting?   Or if Jesus was born as a leader of the Romans, the Persians, or the British or the French or the Russians or God forbid our best friends the Americans?  Or gasp… What is Jesus was born a Canadians?   We wouldn’t use that for our own gain, would we?

I mean, like, can you imagine what kings and queens and presidents and prime ministers would do in the name of God is they thought God was on their side, and they had Jesus in their back pocket?

Can you imagine?

Oh, right.  We can.  Because we’ve been living with rulers claiming God’s on their side only since… forever.

And you know… If God’s on your side, you can’t really disagree with that, can you?  You should need to get in line and follow.

This is actually one the reasons why, as a pastor, I have never directly said “God told me to say this.”  Because then, shoot, if God told me, then none of you can disagree with me, and that’s not how we role both here at Grace, or as Anabaptists either.  God’s will is discerned in community, but we’ll be hearing about that in February.

So Jesus avoiding the halls of earthly power is this great new idea that we should maybe keep reminding ourselves of.

Nobody has a monopoly on God.  God will not be confined by our earthly structures and systems and government.  God might even choose to work around them entirely.  If we pay attention, God is present on all sides.  And this is good news for all of us.

So, those are my 4 epiphanies.

My 4 ahas!  Four of the things revealed by the story of magi.

Jesus was a refugee.

Insiders can be outsiders.

Outsiders can be insiders.

And God chose to avoid the halls of power.   

And I would suggest that these 4 things are all good news for us today. And, I’m kind of looking forward to seeing what other good new will be revealed as we keep learning  about and worshipping Jesus.

 

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