Epiphanic Culture Questions, Or, Frankencense 2.0

I have two questions related to epiphany I’d like to play with a little. As I’ve been preparing the texts to preach for epiphany Sunday January 4th’s (Is 60, Matt 2:1-12), I can’t escape these questions, though I’ve tried.

First, why would people (kings, nations, magi, “seekers”) come streaming to Israel/church? Both Isaiah and Matthew present outsiders as streaming, parading, running towards God’s people. Why? What do we (the church) offer that makes them want to come? These images don’t exactly line up with reality. So what were the authors thinking about? The texts point to two realities: the presence of God as light in the community (Isaiah), and Jesus as the King and lord in town (Matthew). When those become known, the people come. I think I want to suggest that even deeper than that is a certain quality of community that draws them in. Duane Friesen says “The church just first be a new society for it to contribute meaningfully to the peace of the city where it dwells…The establishment of an alternative community is what makes the Christian faith a potent force in the world, not simply the ideas or teachings of Jesus.” In other words, the church is part of the good news that brings the people streaming in.

Second, and even more fascinating for me to ponder, is the question, What gifts does the world bring that can/will bless us? Again, both our texts present outsiders coming and not just hanging out with God’s people, but giving them substantial gifts. The magi, Melchizidek, the widow of Zaraphath, the prostitute anointing Jesus feet, the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus many meals with outsiders, Rev 21:24-26, etc… are stories that remind me we must be willing to say yes (and also no) to culture. Jesus himself had a curious habit of receiving all the wrong things from all the wrong people; and doing it cheerfully! But haven’t we Mennonites been quicker to the no answer than the carefully thought out yes?

I hunger to think about what our world, and particularly the people we come into contact with, have to offer the church and God’s kingdom this year. In my head swims the tension between trying to answer this with some form of generalized theology of culture, or by looking at community assets in my own locality (Houston). Either way, Isaiah 60:7 pushes me to acknowledge that when the nations bring their many gifts, God will accept them. I wonder if we are as ready? And I suppose I wonder, too, if there is a point to accepting their gifts? What practical difference does it make for us to accept the gifts of the world?The more work I do with the green movement the more I realize that scientists by and large have become the prophets of our day. They are holding up mirrors and revealing truth to us that we have not wanted to see.”
I also see truth in the Houston Area Survey conducted by Rice University Sociologist Stephen Klineberg. Check out his work at http://www.houstonareasurvey.org/ Work such as this gives us wonderful information about our locality and how to incarnate God’s just ways for our neighbors.

Rather than just naming those things which the world offers, I am trying to narrow it down to (3, like the magi) things that do/will actually enhance our internal (fellowship) and external (mission) congregational identity at Houston Mennonite Church. Here’s one attempt at a modern gold, frankencense, and myrrh. What are your thoughts?

Gift 1: Community.
I’m thinking of the diversity of peoples in Houston as a rich resource. And of the humility/authenticity of the poor that is a powerful example of the openness and sharing desperately needed in most anglo churches (including those I’ve been a part of). I’m also reflecting on how the entertainment industry has provided so many powerful examples of grace and forgiveness and brokenness: all necessary ingredients in true community (for instance, the movies Magnolia, and Last Temptation of Christ, and Rachel Getting Married; TV shows like Cheers; songs like Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Green Day, Vertigo by U2, The Broken Road by Rascall Flats).

Gift 2: Truth.
Art reflects to us the world as it is. It allows us to see that which we are incapable or unwilling to see by ourselves. The three museums in Houston I’ve been since moving here have been utterly stunning. In unmasking reality, they have also clarified what “ministry” needs to look like in a globalized marketplace.
Media provides information without which we would have no choice but to be self-centered.
A friend of mine responded to an earlier version of this post saying, “


Gift 3: Power.
Citizenship. Respect. Freedom. All of these enhance the external dimensions of congregational identity, freeing and empowering us to fulfill our mission.
Here I am particularly interested in the beautiful irony provided us to be a critical, prophetic, holistic, subversive, progressive voice contrary to status quo politics and living. We have the power for change. Will we accept it?
As a non flag-waving Mennonite, please know I’ve never heralded citizenship or ‘Merican freedom in one of my sermons before! I’m equally aware that in post-Christendom, the church’s power is waning. This post-Christendom reality is from my persepctive, a “gift” in itself and worthy of much thought. But what I’m hoping to do by naming power (rather than waning power) as a gift is to allow us to intentionally utilize that power in conscious, fresh ways. Rather than using it to insulate us to be “The quiet in the land.”

Again, this is an epiphany message. As we celebrate stories of Gentiles streaming towards God’s people, I also want to celebrate what they bring that changes us, makes us stronger, makes us different than we were before they came. Do these three gifts do that? Are we willing to let them enhance our own congregational identity? If so, how do we see this happening?

By Marty Troyer, January 4, 2009

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