Free To Think…Bound to Serve
Christianity is more Doing than Doctrine: Half of every relationship with God is the individual. God, who is timeless and constant, is known “as in a mirror dimly” while we live. We, who change and die, find our knowledge of God change throughout our lives. And we not only differ from our younger selves or who we shall become. We differ from each other. Temperament, experience, inclination give our approach to life different emphases. We each have our own perspective. Some Christian traditions address this fact by establishing doctrine as definitive. Individuals subscribe to set teachings, by an act of will, and forgive themselves privately for being puzzled or unpersuaded by some of the formulations. Personal conviction is in the authority of the church which has decreed dogma. Our tradition takes a different approach. We urge that for religion to be real, it must be based on a person’s honest beliefs. This means that each individual trusts himself or herself as a reader of scripture and a thinker about what is revealed there about God. We know we shall each understand God a bit differently from each other, and that the inevitable limitation of our understanding will carry through all the concepts which are part of our religious life. We trust God’s grace and the Spirit’s work to keep us in community, and to keep us ministering to the world. We are required, as followers of Jesus Christ, to love others. Feeding, healing, forgiving, clothing, and paying attention to those with needs is the way Jesus embodied God’s approach to life. We must do the same. The twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel states that it is caring for other people, and not profession of religious views, which counts with God. The church long has aimed to make its Christianity a matter of active service, and long has accepted open, earnest inquiry as part of its character. For twenty years we’ve summed up this approach to discipleship with the credo “Free to Think, Bound to Serve.”
THIS MONTH’S ESSAY FROM THE PASTOR
Christmas pageants and crèches cluster a little community around the manger. Just like Christmas tide, traditionally beginning the evening of December 24 and extending to the evening of January 5–the night before the holiday of Epiphany celebrating the arrival of the Magi–the young Jesus’ callers are collapsed into a one-day event.
There are poetic possibilities in the tableaux of them all together. The shepherds on their side and the Magi on theirs–always also kings to acknowledge Isaiah 60: 3– reveal that the Incarnation is for the spectrum of nationalities and classes. The lowing cattle and the crowded sheep show Creation’s homage to the source of its renewal. Emissaries from God to the locals and what would be forbidden arts for Jews inviting the foreigners even suggest a universal meaning to the Christ event effacing old scruples about religious difference.
There is also, at the manger, something of the village it takes to raise a child. Joseph might be relatively successful–an artisan in a world of unskilled labor–but he is displaced. His social standing is equivocal, with a pregnant fiancée his partner. They suffer with the rest of a captive population while the empire numbers them all, in order to reckon the riches it can extract from their toil. The stable is shelter, and warmed by its beasts, but it is temporary–and the menace of a murderous state will soon make them refugees. Even a little human attention is supportive, and though we’re not told that the shepherds shared their rations, the gifts received were helpful and kind.
Joseph had a better living than the shepherds, doing work which kept him cleaner, and so he would have had a higher social status. Whether he ever gave that a thought we don’t know, but the gospels tell us he was a righteous man, so he probably never considered himself another person’s “better.” If he had peers who were insecure enough to look down on those humbler than themselves, they might have wondered at how welcome the shepherds were at the Bethlehem birthplace.
The shepherds were welcome. They had a good word from God about what that night meant, and who could object to that? They had ears, and they had legs, and that’s all the angels required to get them to the manger. Human beings are capable of wonder and of faith, of curiosity and hope, and the least important are, as the grown-up Jesus later would teach, the equivalent of The Lord.
Too, the shepherds took the place of the neighbors Mary and Joseph had left behind. Had the birth happened at home, friends and familiar people would have shown up to offer congratulations and gestures of assistance. They shepherds were fellow Jews, whose language would have seemed relatively unaccented to Joseph, whatever regional traits it had. For a couple soon to be visited by strangers from abroad, it must have been comforting also to have more ordinary visitors,.
The Magi were learned enough to communicate–they had already spoken at the court–but their being foreign must have been striking. If we retain the Medieval thinking that they also were kings, then there is a sense in which they represented whole lands of strangers. The gold was to be important in exile in Egypt, and the frankincense for any rituals enhanced by it. If Mary “kept all these things” which took place and were said “in her heart,” she may also have kept the myrrh for the future’s inevitable burial uses.
The language of stars was exotic to the Holy Family. The astonishment of the shepherds’ encounter still would have sounded like their God’s methods, but what could they make of these astrologers? The gifts brought were tangible benefits, a tribute from the wider world–and the way they made their way a hint that God’s purposes could be served by other means than they would have expected.
Social divides make us anxious. The Christmas story doesn’t merely herald the arrival of a “Prince of Peace,” but in the huddled witnesses among the livestock shows us that we live among those of humbler station than we are, and people of higher; the less learned and the more; members “of our own kind” and those different in almost every way. It is the will of God to bring us to the same place, trusting the promise of a new kind of Power directing life, One offering generosity instead of selfishness, humility instead of pride, compassion instead of contempt, an example in place of mere exhortation, and instead of fear and violence, love and