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 The Kingly Gift

Sermon - 1/06/13
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 72: 1-14

So we all know, from the song that popularized the concept, that there are 12 days of Christmas, right? So if you're counting, Dec 25th to Jan 5th is the 12th day. So we are now on the day after the 12th day of Christmas, and that is Epiphany, January 6th.

The epiphany story that you have heard already, is of course the story of the wise men traveling, led by that star to Bethlehem. And so that marks the Epiphany season. And it symbolizes the coming of the light, in that star. So don't be surprised when we take all of our decorations down, we might leave our stars up a little longer, to remind us we are in the epiphany season.

And so this is the season, liturgically, when we sing that song "We Three Kings" and the like. And we tell that story as a way of showing that Jesus is the true King and Savior of the world. But how does Jesus save the world? The standard answer, of course, is that he saves us from our sin. And of course that answer only works if you consider sin to be the fundamental problem of the world. I love the way Marcus Borg puts it in one of his books, inviting us to imagine Moses, speaking to the Hebrew slaves in Egypt: "I have good news! Your sins are forgiven!" And then they respond: "Uh, Moses, our problem is not sin, our problem is slavery!".

Or imagine Abraham Lincoln announcing the Emancipation Proclamation: "Good news, slaves! Your sin has been forgiven!" And all the slave owners shout "Amen, preach it brother Abe! Give glory to God! Now go back to work, slaves", right? By the way, I just have to say, if you want to understand what Lincoln really did to end slavery (because it was not the Emancipation Proclamation, but rather it was the 13th amendment), and to understand the extreme moral price that Lincoln paid to get that amendment passed, go see the movie. If Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't win the Oscar, I'll eat my hat. Just an incredible movie.

Sin, of course, encompasses all kinds of evil, from personal to societal. Not just adultery and theft and murder (those things covered by the 10 Commandments) but also exploitation of workers, abuse of the environment, racial discrimination, homophobia, coaching the Cleveland Browns :) And even though I know Jesus really wants us to save us from such a terrible sin (pray for Chip :), along with all the other things that we do that are contrary to the will of God, my proposal this morning is simply that the epiphany story is concerned with something entirely different. The light of this star is about a different darkness.

And we get a glimpse of that darkness, and the light that overcomes it, when we un-biblically put the Magi of Matthew in the manger of Luke to present the rich gifts of the Kings to a baby born in an emergency shelter. Biblically improper, but theologically correct. That image of the Magi in the manger is a picture worth a thousand words. It says it all. Never mind that there are no Magi in Luke's story, and no manger in Matthew's story, the point is that divine reversal, of which Mary so magnificently sings: "God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty". Sounds a lot like President Obama's tax proposals :)

Matthew is not reporting on an amazing journey of Kings bearing gifts to a Jewish peasant boy, he is interpreting the amazing birth of God's gift to humanity. And the reason why the Kings come from distant lands bearing gifts to this child has nothing to do with astrological phenomena, and everything to do with scriptural understanding. So if you want to know what the story of the Magi is all about, read the scriptures that Matthew read when he was writing his gospel. And in this case, that would most likely be the 72nd Psalm.

So here it is, Psalm 72, you can follow along in your own Bibles:

1 Give the king your justice, O God,
   and your righteousness to a king’s son. 
2 May he judge your people with righteousness,
   and your poor with justice. 
3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
   and the hills, in righteousness. 
4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
   give deliverance to the needy,
   and crush the oppressor. 

5 May he live while the sun endures,
   and as long as the moon, throughout all generations. 
6 May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
   like showers that water the earth. 
7 In his days may righteousness flourish
   and peace abound, until the moon is no more. 

8 May he have dominion from sea to sea,
   and from the River to the ends of the earth. 
9 May his foes bow down before him,
   and his enemies lick the dust. 
10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
   render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
   bring gifts. 
11 May all kings fall down before him,
   all nations give him service. 

12 For he delivers the needy when they call,
   the poor and those who have no helper. 
13 He has pity on the weak and the needy,
   and saves the lives of the needy. 
14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
   and precious is their blood in his sight.

You see, this is Matthew's message. The Kings bringing the gifts. This is the reason why these gifts are brought to the babe of Bethlehem. Jesus, Matthew is wanting to show us, is the King who has come to defend the cause of the poor and give deliverance to the needy.

So I suggest to you that when it comes to deliverance for the poor and needy, it is not their sin that is the problem. But rather it is the sin of a social system that perpetuates poverty for the benefit of the rich. That is the problem addressed by Jesus over and over again in his teachings and actions.

So what do I mean by a societal system that perpetuates poverty for the benefit of the rich? We don't do that, do we? Yeah, right.

Peter Edelman describes precisely that in his in his book published last year, "So Rich, So Poor -- Why it is Hard to End Poverty in America". Edelman is the nation's leading expert on poverty and public policy. He got his start working for Senator Robert Kennedy, eventually became a top official in the Department of Health and Human Services under President Clinton, and now he teaches law at Georgetown University. He is the spouse of the perhaps more famous Marian Wright Edelman, who is the Director of the Children's Defense Fund, was a speaker at one of our general assemblies two years ago.

Edelman is most known for his very public departure from the Clinton administration when he resigned in protest over the reform that ended welfare as we knew it then. Not because he was against reforming welfare, but because the path chosen by President Clinton, he believed, was deeply flawed and would only make poverty worse. And indeed, as we have recently seen with an increase in poverty from 11% of the population to now over 15%, I think he is proven to be very prophetic.

Bill Moyers interviewed Edelman last summer, and in the video clip we're about to see he discusses the anti-poverty programs like Social Security, Food Stamps and the rest, which have kept 40 million Americans out of poverty and why that has not been enough. So let's listen:

Video clip of Peter Edelman

So this interview took place in the middle of the primary season for the Presidential campaign, and so of course issues of that campaign came up. So I want to play the next clip not to beat a dead horse, or in this case, a failed candidate, but because the issue raised by that candidate is one that is still very much with us, and will be for a long time. Indeed, I think it is one of the most critical issues we face as a nation in deciding what it is that we seek to be and to create. Namely, what is the proper role of government in creating the good society that we all want?

So, let's listen in:

2nd video clip of Peter Edelman


So here we have Psalm 72 saying that this is the job of a righteous King. This is what government is supposed to do in the eyes of God -- to defend the cause of the poor and give deliverance to the needy.

And we have Matthew saying this is what Jesus is about, establishing the kingdom of God where God's will is done, made evident in how we care for the least of these in our midst, not just through charity, but most importantly through economic justice that adjusts for the imbalances of economic power.

And then we have someone like Peter Edelman speaking not as a biblical scholar or a preacher or a theologian, but as a career public servant telling us that something is terribly wrong in a society where all the rewards and benefits are accumulated by those who need them least.

And so we have this vision of how things can be, should be, and how things are. So how do we get from there to here?

How do we get to that vision of God for our world as expressed by the Psalmist and by Jesus and by Matthew and by Mary? And you see, that's what epiphany is about. To follow that star that leads us through the darkness of this world. To trust the way of the babe of Bethlehem. To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless. To create here, in this place, a glimpse of that vision where all are welcome, treated with dignity and respect, where the poor find justice and the needy find help.

And most importantly to be that kind of community of those who are willing, as Peter Edelman says, to stand up and be the voice for economic justice and fairness. To say that such is not just the task of churches and non-profits, it is our job as a nation and the job of the government.

It is the role of our public leaders to defend the poor as well as our borders.

To work for public health as well as public safety.

To invest in public education more than prison expansion.

To make healthcare a right for all instead of a privilege for a few, in recognition that all people are children of God and deserve to be treated as such.

Then, and only then, can we honestly say, with the Psalmist, whether you're yellow, red, black, or white, precious is their blood in his sight.

May it be.


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