One of my favorite things during the Christmas season is seeing the creative ways that people decorate their homes for the season. Growing up we would put ice sickle lights along the roofline and wreaths on the doors, but this year we didn’t get a ladder in time to put up lights. But many other people did decorate—and there are some really good ones. And one piece that’s nice to see is the nativity scene. I’ve seen quite a few in yards, in front of churches, and even the one that’s out in East End Park in Ellsworth.
And these nativity scenes are just one of the ways that we put the story of Jesus’ birth into art. We condense the Christmas story into a scene of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and their sheep, the wise men, oxen, donkeys, and of course the baby Jesus all huddled under a makeshift stable. Paintings of the birth follow the pattern, and everyone always looks so serene and holy and, well, clean.
Friends, it is the last week before everything becomes Christmas everywhere. This Thursday we’ll gather around family and friends to eat turkey and cranberry sauce and stuffing and whatever other Thanksgiving delights you enjoy, and Friday it’ll be lights and holly and carols until December 25. Which, really, is a little exciting for me, because we get to celebrate our first Christmas season with Hazel! We get to put up lights on the house, and decorate the tree, and do all the things that make the season exciting and wonderful.
So with all that to look forward to, what is up with this text? Today is Christ the King Sunday, where we finish off the church year by honoring Jesus as king, and we read about Jesus on the cross. Honestly, there are a lot of other texts I think would be appropriate for naming Jesus as King. The Wise Men bringing gifts from far away. The transfiguration. The triumphal procession into Jerusalem on a donkey maybe. Something more…kingly. But instead, we get this Good Friday text just as we’re about to enter Advent.
I have a pretty bad habit of trying really hard to keep up with the news. It’s hard, because so often what comes across in the news is bad—or at the very least, makes me anxious. Whether it’s all the ruckus around the impeachment inquiry, or the next stage in the war in Syria as Turkey has broken the ceasefire, or the coup that ousted the Bolivian president last week, the news presents the world in a very terrifying light.
But it’s not just these big worldwide things that cause anxiety. We all have seen over the past few recent years the way the weather has been affecting our farming community. So many parents are under the pressure of multiple extracurricular activities so these kids can get a leg up in college applications or whatever next step they’ll have. The community itself has changed drastically, as our elders have noticed. And unfortunately, Jesus’ words of warning from today’s text had me end up really focusing in on those anxious things this week.
Five hundred years ago, when Martin Luther nailed the ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg, there was a reason he picked October 31 to do so. In Luther’s day, the next morning would have seen the church absolutely packed with notable people coming in for All Saints Day mass. See, while today the big Christian days are Christmas and Easter, in Luther’s day it was Easter and All Saints Day. The world revolved around the annual celebration of the saints of the church.
Now, All Saints Day is still celebrated widely around the world with lots of various traditions attached to it. In Mexico it comes during the season of Dia de Muertos, and in French-speaking countries it’s celebrated as Toussaint. But the big thing that countries that celebrate All Saints Day have in common is that they are all largely Catholic countries. Protestants like us, we tend to shy away from talking about saints, because for a long time, that was seen as “too Catholic” to do.
One of the most satisfying parts of any movie is when the bad guy gets what’s coming to him in the end. When Hans Gruber gets paid back for his crimes against innocent people in Die Hard, or when Thanos is put in his place by the heroes in The Avengers; or even when Gaston gets paid back in full for terrorizing Belle and trying to kill the innocent Beast in Beauty and the Beast. The trope of “bad guy gets what’s coming to him” is satisfying because, on some level, we all agree that bad behavior deserves to be punished.
And on the flip side, we also agree that good behavior deserves to be rewarded. When people work hard and do good, we expect and celebrate when good things happen to them. When you study for the test, you get the good grades. When you work hard and smart, you get the promotion. When you help others, somehow that good makes its way back to you.
Which is why this parable Jesus tells today should feel so wrong to us.
While I was researching materials about this Sunday’s readings, I ended up going down a rabbit hole of what leprosy is. See, it gets mentioned several times in the Bible, notably in this week’s readings from Luke and from 2 Kings, but also in several other books of the Bible. I looked it up, and leprosy, which is called Hansen’s disease in medical terminology, is a bacterial disease that deadens nerve endings and deforms your fingers and toes by eating away the cartilage. Throughout history and across cultures, leprosy has been treated essentially the same way: by outcasting and isolating people with it.
Up until the late nineteenth century, there was even a leper colony in Hawaii established by the American government where otherwise healthy people were sent to live in isolation together. People in developing nations with the disease are regularly shunned and avoided. And in the Bible, the prescription from the book of Leviticus for the disease—and pretty much any skin disease resembling it—was ritual isolation, wearing your hair long and messy and your clothes tattered and ragged, and shouting “unclean” anywhere you went so people knew to avoid you.
All of this is made even more tragic by the fact that leprosy isn’t contagious 98% of the time. But these are the kind of people who encountered Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and asked him to have mercy on them.
There was an extraordinary thing that happened earlier this week. Amber Guyger, who has been convicted of murdering Botham Jean after she mistakenly entered his apartment, heard words of forgiveness from Botham’s brother, Brandt. If you haven’t had a chance to see the video or read the transcript, it was incredibly moving. Brandt spoke of how he had no ill-will toward her, wishing her the best in her life, calling her to turn to Jesus, and even asking the judge if he could give her a hug.
It’s a scene I can only recall happening two other times. Once, by some family members after the Mother Emmanuel massacre who forgave the murderer for what he did; and once after a gunman killed five schoolgirls in Amish country in Pennsylvania. These stories of incredible acts of forgiveness are inspiring and also intimidating, because what kind of superhuman could forgive such an awful act? It puts the onus on the rest of us to somehow live up to that kind of selflessness of letting go, of forgetting the sin committed, of passing over punishment.
I saw a picture just recently of the city of Mumbai in India, and it struck me because on the right side of the image was what looked like a modern, wealthy city with skyscrapers and hi-rise apartments; and on the other side was a sea of squalid slums filled with shanties. And the only thing separating these two parts of the city was a tree-covered hill.
It reminded me of how, in seminary, the school was in the neighborhood of Eau Claire. Now, Eau Claire used to be a well-to-do kind of area, but in the last few decades has experienced a lot of economic depression, crime, and neglect. But if you got in your car and drove eight minutes, you could get to a part of town called The Vista. The Vista was the trendy part of town, with lots of shiny new shops and restaurants, a park by the river side, and expensive homes. That eight minute drive was all that separated the two.
I can sympathize with the characters in these parables Jesus tells us today. Losing things is something I have a knack for doing. Usually it’s pretty trivial stuff, though. I lost my earbuds for my phone some time ago—not sure where they went. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of losing a pair of scissors or nail clippers, and the only way to find them is to buy a new pair. I’ve managed to misplace more pairs of sunglasses than I’d care to count. But there was one time when I lost something really, really important: my car keys.
It was last month when Annie and I were in Milwaukee for the Churchwide Assembly. We drove, but we had no plans (or time, really) to drive anywhere during the week. So, knowing how prone I am to losing things, I put the keys on the nightstand and swore to leave them there so we’d know where they were when we got ready to go at the end of the week. Only, when I was packing up the last day, the keys were nowhere to be found.
There is a road, a pretty famous road at least regionally, going through the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina, called “the road to nowhere.” It was meant to replace NC Highway 288 that was flooded when the Fontana Lake Dam was built, but shortly after it got started it hit a few snags. First, WWII was going on. Then, the rock under a significant part of the route was found to be unstable and rerouting it would lead to all kinds of cost overruns. Then, to top it all off, funds were never appropriated to finish it.
So now there’s a road that goes a few miles before abruptly ending in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Someone probably should’ve looked at what Jesus said about counting the costs before they got to work on that road to nowhere.