Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is
anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
--Philippians 4:8 NRSV
The stories we tell matter.
Recent studies in neurology, psychology and other fields demonstrate that we are wired to respond to stories over facts and figures. Have you ever noticed that in their marketing charities and nonprofits will often tell the story of a single person, child or animal in need? Studies show that statistics about how big a need exists in society actually decrease giving. Our brains see numbers of people who are homeless, children who are hungry, and animals without shelter and we make an unconscious calculation that the need exceeds our ability to do anything about it. If they tell the story of one person, child or animal however, giving increases, because our brains see a need we can meet. Furthermore, a story of an individual is something we can identify with and empathize with, while numbers remain an abstraction. A good story has power.
After the January 6 Capitol riot, many people (myself included) are bewildered by the news of people motivated by QAnon conspiracy theories. Despite the lack of evidence to support such ideas and much evidence to the contrary, people really believe there is a Satanic pedophile ring run by government officials, Bill Gates is injecting tracking chips via COVID vaccines and more. Although some adherents of these ideas may be mentally ill, most are not. Despite the facts, they are caught up in a story of good vs. evil which places them in the role of heroes conquering evildoers. As crazy as the stories may seem to people who don’t believe them, the stories make sense to their adherents and provide a cohesive narrative in a confusing world.
The stories told by QAnon may be bonkers, but the desire of humans to use stories to find meaning, establish a worldview and establish values is as old as our species. I was fascinated by an article by Wiliam J. Bernstein, neurologist, historian and financial theorist, titled “What if the Stories We Tell Happen to Be Conspiracy Theories?” I’m not a neurologist or a historian, so I have to take Bernstein’s research at his word but his points make sense to me. He says that mass delusions of the QAnon kind are not new, not limited to our culture and apparently have always been a part of human experience. He writes “we are condemned to navigate the Space Age world with Stone Age minds; because of this inherent biological anachronism, [humanity] is the ape that imitates, tells stories, and morally condemns others.”
Humans imitate one another, and imitation enabled our species to thrive and spread. Some human in the past was the first to make a spear, blowgun or kayak and other humans imitated that one. Rather than each ancient human having to make a new discovery on their own, they merely imitated one another and the spread of tools, traditions and knowledge enabled our survival. We are wired to imitate one another, and that pull is often stronger than reason. It turns out your parents were right to worry about which friends you hung out with as a teenager.
Humans tell stories to make sense of the world, teach behaviors that ensure survival and ensure cohesion of the group. Our ancient forebears were not using geometry to hunt bison, molecular biology to discern which plants were poisonous or statistical analysis to grasp the spread of a contagion. Instead they told stories and the stories helped them to survive.
Finally, humans made moral judgments. They imitated one another and told stories about their own tribe, but when they encountered different tribes they judged as wrong, immoral or ungodly, traditions and stories which were not their own. This ensured their tribe survived when they encountered other tribes which could be competition or a threat. Demonizing the other tribe also made it easy to destroy them.
We evolved to be storytelling creatures, so the kind of stories and the messages we take from stories matter greatly. From the parables of Jesus to the fables of Aesop to the stories of George Washington’s childhood (“I shall not tell a lie. . .”) help us to know who we are. The stories we tell and the ones we do not tell (the stories of native Americans, African Americans, women, etc.) shape us. When school children are taught the Civil War was about states’ rights rather than about slavery and other misleading stories of “the Lost Cause” mythology of the South, their understanding of racism, history and politics is shaped by them. When the story of the United States’ westward expansion is one only of cowboys, gold miners and wagon trains, while the stories of Native Americans, broken treaties and ethnic cleansing is omitted, identity culture and politics are molded.
Yet stories can also be a powerful force for social reform and liberation. The writer and social critic Rebecca Solnit cites the #MeToo movement as an example of the positive power of storytelling.
“Silence and shame are contagious; so are courage and speech. Even now, when women begin to speak of their experience, others step forward to bolster the earlier speaker and to share their own experience. A brick is knocked loose, another one; a dam breaks, the waters rush forth.”
She goes on to describe how our stories contain the power to do ourselves and others great harm or to offer help and healing.
“We are our stories, stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison; we make stories to save ourselves or to trap ourselves or others, stories that lift us up or smash us against the stone wall of our own limits and fears. Liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.”
People of faith know the power of stories. Each religious tradition has its own stories. As Christians, we experience the power of the stories we tell of God creating order out of chaos, Jesus being born in Bethlehem, Jesus hanging around with tax collectors and prostitutes, and Christ rising from the dead. We may have different interpretations of what these stories mean and even whether they actually happened the way the Bible depicts them, but those stories shape who we are, who we imitate and our judgments about others different from us. How those stories are told, who tells them and what lessons we learn from them matter greatly.
Christian stories about the End Times became enmeshed in QAnon conspiracies to motivate the rioters at the Capitol last week. As we honor the life of Martin Luther King Jr. this coming week, we remember the stories of Christianity inspired him and other Civil Rights leaders to risk death for the cause of racial justice. The stories are in the same book, but who tells them and for what purpose make all the difference in the world.
As we move through 2021, may we commit ourselves to telling stories that liberate, that value diversity, acknowledge the inherent worth of every person, that reveal the truth about people whose voices have been silenced and cherish the natural world and its resources.
The stories we tell matter.
Grace and Peace,
Before you read my thoughts, you need to hear the thoughts of PHCC Board Chair Jill Watson that she shared during worship this past Sunday. If you haven’t done so already, go to the church web site and watch the service from this past Sunday and hear Jill share as presiding elder her thoughts of the good shape the church is in as we start 2021. Things at PHCC are probably better than you may realize. There’s a lot to be thankful for!
A good friend of mine serves as pastor to a church which has the best Epiphany tradition I know. As they celebrate Epiphany, the story of the Magi following the star of Bethlehem, they hang cardboard stars all around their sanctuary. On each star is written a word, such as peace, love, grace, etc. Those present are invited to take a star and consider the word on it a message from God as they start the new year. They mail stars with their words from God to those who cannot be present for worship, and this year their church continues to meet online, so they are mailing them out to everyone.
When I saw my friend’s Facebook post about this year’s Epiphany stars, I commented about how meaningful of a practice I thought it was, so he sent me my very own star. It turns out my star had the word “laughter” on it. What a strange word to get after a year like 2020 and a new year begun with violence and chaos! In a way, laughter hardly seems appropriate for such a time. Yet, I found myself feeling the word “laughter” was entirely appropriate, because in the midst of troubled times laughter reminds us what makes life worth living.
Recently I talked with a church member about the state of PHCC. With this person, as with so many others, there is anxiety about PHCC’s future. They confessed to having less ability and less interest in doing many of the church things they did when they were younger. I wondered aloud if that might be a good thing. So many of the structures of churches like PHCC were made in a different time for a different culture, and many of those things just do not work anymore. We exhaust ourselves keeping them going and then feel like we have failed when they inevitably die. Instead of feeling shame and guilt, maybe a good way to think about what is necessary for a church to do is by asking, “What makes us laugh?”
At church, so much of our language is about sacrifice and service—necessarily so!—but many of us, myself included, translate those concepts into drudgery and obligation. Of course, there is always grunt work to be done at church, but when done in a spirit of joy with other folks who also do it joyously, then even grunt work can become enjoyable. Many of us who approach church as something we “should” do feel uncomfortable laughing about church. In our desire to do things right and good, we end up taking church so seriously we forget to have fun. We end up turning church into something nobody wants to do. I don’t mean church should become mere entertainment, but church should be a source of joy in our lives. I know of no better way to turn rigorous obligation into joyous experience than laughing at it.
Laughter is a way for us to be humble about our beliefs and practices. Pity the Christian who can’t laugh at themselves and their attempts to relate to a God who is so close to us but also so mysterious. Minister and writer Matt Fitzgerald writes, “Laughing in church is a way of saying, ‘Let's be honest. We don't really know what we're talking about.’ Laughter undercuts religion's clammy sanctimoniousness. And its murderous certitude. We better laugh.” What would have happened if the rioters at the Capitol last week had beforehand taken a moment to take themselves less seriously? Perhaps that riot could have been avoided if they bothered to laugh at themselves. Similarly, how many awful things done by Christian’s in God’s name could have been avoided if the perpetrators knew how to laugh at themselves? How much joy is the average church missing out on, because its people don’t know how to have a little fun and laugh at their foibles, mistakes, goof ups and quirks?
During worship the Sunday before last I finished the opening prayer and simply walked off the chancel completely forgetting our practice of saying the Lord’s Prayer at that point in the service. I sat down in the pew wondering what the awkward silence was about. Thankfully, our music leader RaJean began the prayer on my behalf. I mentioned later that if you wanted proof that we don’t have to be perfect at church, just look at the imperfect minister who makes mistakes up at the front of the church each week.
I’ve been in churches that operated their services with ruthless automatic efficiency. Any deacon who didn’t pass the offering plate as precisely as a Swiss watchmaker was shamed. Heaven forbid a baby might cry or someone might trip walking to the lectern to read scripture. In such places, I felt the pomposity bordered on blasphemy. I could only imagine God and the angels lovingly laughing at all the self-serious church folk.
We live in a world where seriously unfunny things happen. Currently as many as 4,000 people are dying each day in our country during COVID. The very fabric of our democracy seems to be on the brink of unraveling. The future of our church and most churches is potentially dire, to say the least. Yet, if the lives we live for the short time we get to live them are worth living at all, there must be time and space for happiness, for fun, for joy and for laughter. Laughter is a holy resistance to the pain and suffering in our world. Yes, there are moments of grief and times for tears, but if there is not also time for laughter than all we have is misery. Life isn’t supposed to be miserable, and neither is church.
As PHCC looks to a new year, ponders what kind of life together it wants when the COVID pandemic ends, and discerns what kind of pastor it seeks to call, put at the top of your list whatever it is that makes you laugh. I don’t mean the coarse or cruel laughter that comes at someone’s expense, but rather the surprising laughter that bubbles up from the gut which is medicine for the soul. Consider when you have laughed together as a church. Remember when you were able to laugh at yourself, not as a put down or self-abuse but rather in the life-giving way of loosening up and enjoying the present moment. I promise you that as you consider what you want the future of PHCC to be, if you start with what brings laughter then you will find God’s purpose for this church.
Grace and Peace,
Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many
antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour.
--1 John 2:18 NRSV
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the QAnon conspiracies that apparently motivated many of the rioters who attacked the Capitol building a week ago. These conspiracy theories include ideas that Democrats are running a pedophile ring and imprisoning children out of a local pizza restaurant in Washington D.C., the COVID-19 vaccine is a way for the government to implant tracking microchips into the American population and other outlandish ideas running the gambit from JFK still being alive to 5G cell phone service being mind control. The rioters included many who identify as evangelical Christians and reporters quoted many who believed Donald Trump was predicted in the Bible. The talk of spiritual warfare, including ideas of fighting against a secret cabal of Satanists, bring back a lot of memories for me. I grew up hearing similar kinds of conspiracy theories long before QAnon showed up. I heard them all the time in Bible studies about the apocalyptic writings in the Bible, such as Revelation, Daniel and other passages.
My Southern Baptist minister father and my preacher’s wife mother didn’t believe in stuff like the Rapture, the Antichrist, and the Mark of the Beast, but my father served in churches full of people who did. Whether it was at youth camp, revival services or Bible studies, I heard a steady stream of conspiracies about the government, communists, the United Nations, barcodes on groceries and more. The Antichrist could be anyone from the latest Soviet leader to Ronald Reagan (each of his names has 6 letters which equals 666!). George Bush Sr.’s statement about a “New World Order” after the fall of the Berlin Wall inspired countless books about the United Nations imposing a one-world government like the Babylon mentioned in Revelation. I remember when ATM machines first became popular hearing people seriously ask if their PIN numbers were the Mark of the Beast.
In the 1980’s, the so called “Satanic panic” occurred when all across the nation people who saw Christian counselors “recovered” what they thought were repressed memories of being sexually abused by rings of Satanists. In Christian bookstores and on TV shows like Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club, people spoke of “recovered” memories of rings of Satanists sacrificing babies. I recall reading a book called Satan’s Underground written by a woman who claimed to have been a victim of what became known as “Satanic Ritual Abuse.” I can also remember reading The Satan Seller by a leading Christian speaker named Mike Warnke who claimed to be a reformed Satanist. (The authors of both books were exposed as frauds in the early 1990’s.) An immensely popular fiction book in evangelical circles was called This Present Darkness. It told the tale of a literal battle between angels and demons in a small town where ordinary Christians were how God’s forces defeated their fellow townspeople who were possessed by evil spirits. I recall feeling like demons were behind every bush after reading it. Once the “Satanic panic” was proved to be untrue, experts label it an event of “mass hysteria” or “moral panic.’
By the time I went to a Baptist college where most of the student body believed similar stuff like this, I began to see that my parents’ cautions about buying into such beliefs were valid. Through more grounded Christian mentors and caring religion professors, I let go of all such preoccupations with Christian apocalyptic conspiracy theories. So, I missed a whole new round of apocalyptic fads which reached mainstream popularity.
In the 1990’s, the first Gulf War prompted a new round of speculation, best-selling books and videos claiming Saddam Hussein was the Antichrist. They looked an awful lot like claims about the Ayatollah Khomeini a decade earlier. Later on, the same claims would be made about Osama bin Laden. Sexual puritan turned apocalyptic expert Tim LaHaye and the fiction writer Jerry Jenkins published the Left Behind series of New York Times best-selling books which recycled the same conspiracies about a one world government, an Antichrist who made use of the United Nations, the Rapture, etc. but capitalized on anxieties regarding the year 2000.
Speaking of the year 2000, fears about the so called “millennium bug” folded neatly into evangelical fears about societal collapse and what now are called “preppers” held trade shows full of survival goods at evangelical churches as the 20th century counted down to zero. 9-11 and the events afterward led to yet another round of the same evangelical conspiracy theories. I have friends who bought gold to prepare for the coming economic collapse and End Times. For all I know, they made a good bet given the 2008 financial crisis.
The rise of the internet and social media just seems to have kicked these evangelical apocalyptic conspiracies into overdrive. Sociologists are calling QAnon a ‘digital cult” because of its hold on people. Yet, much of the language used—spiritual warfare, combating rings of Satanists who abduct and sexually assault children, fighting against globalists, etc. all sounds familiar to me. The roots of this stuff, of course, go back deep in American history back through McCarthyism, Henry Ford spreading the fraudulent The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and the apocalyptic imagery used by the Ku Klux Klan and more. There is a deep fascination within White Protestant American Christianity for apocalyptic conspiracies.
Psychiatrists and sociologists point out motives for believing in conspiracy theories. Motives include everything from Dissociative Identity Disorder, cultural anxiety, and simple low self-esteem. Experts note that conspiracy theories are prevalent on the fringes of both the political left and the political right, but the political right seems to be enjoying a flurry of such thinking in recent years.
To me, it seems the seeds planted by the Religious Right in the late 1970’s have finally sprouted. The toxic mix of evangelical Christianity and conservative politics that has been a part of political life since then has always included a steady stream of apocalyptic beliefs which reduce the complexities of the modern world to dualistic good and evil. The problem with this thinking, of course, is that when your political adversary becomes an agent of Satan there is no room for compromise. The basic humanity of someone is lost if they are in league with the embodiment of evil. One cannot do anything other than destroy someone who seeks to destroy the world as you know it.
We saw some of the inevitable consequences of such thinking last week at the Capitol building. Even a willing purveyor of such apocalyptic evangelical Christianity like Mike Pence can find himself instantly put on the list of Satanic enemies to be destroyed. When one plays with the fire of this kind of religious fervor, they will inevitably get burned.
What I came to see on my own religious journey is that if one holds to a belief system that includes evangelical apocalyptic conspiracies, it becomes difficult to do much of anything Jesus taught. One cannot pray for and love one’s enemies if one is fighting a spiritual war to destroy the enemies of God. One cannot turn the other cheek or walk the extra mile when the Antichrist is the one hitting you or asking you to carry their rucksack. One cannot forgive someone if they are a part of Satan’s army. This is why conspiracy theories wrapped in the mantle of Christianity, whether it’s anti-communism or QAnon, always end up being something antithetical to Christianity. A belief system devoid of love can never be called Christian.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless
void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the
face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.
--Genesis 1:1-3 NRSV
It has been difficult for me to read the news since last week's attack on the Capitol Building. As more videos of the riot are distributed by the media, more disturbing images are revealed, such as a rioter beating a capitol police officer with an American flag even though many of the rioters claimed to be pro-police, a display honoring the great Civil Rights hero and congressman John Lewis destroyed, and rioters chanting "Hang Pence!" The most disturbing images are the people who declare they are breaking into the Capitol building as a part of their Christian duty. What is this madness which has overtaken these people?
This morning in the midst of my feelings of outrage, denial and sadness, I have felt like God has been trying to tell me something. I encountered three things which together have offered me hope. I'm passing them on to you in hopes they do the same for you.
1. A quotation from Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood is no stranger to contemplating dystopian societies sprouting up in the United States. After all, she wrote The Handmaid's Tale and its sequel The Testaments. I tried reading her ecological disaster Oryx and Crake trilogy and made it all the way to halfway through the third book, but I had to stop reading just because it was such a miserable view of the future that it sent my existing anxiety over climate change skyrocketing.
This morning, I came across a quotation from the author which seemed to speak about our current political crisis: "Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, 'It can't happen here.' Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances." Many declared upon seeing the riot in the Capitol Building that it seemed like something that only happened in developing countries and they never thought it would happen here. Well, it
has happened here, and it will continue to happen here unless our culture can reject violent extremists who operate out of a mixture of white supremacy, absolutist religion and delusional conspiracy theories. Simply shrugging and ignoring the potential danger of our times is not enough, but how do we find hope to do more than that in the face of such destructive insanity?
2. A Sermon from Rev. Holly McKissick
Even though I am serving at Park Hill Christina Church, I am a member of Peace Christian Church in Kansas City. I don't get to worship with them, but I watch their services each week. In Sunday's sermon, Holly preached from Genesis 1 and spoke about what God did at Creation according to the original Hebrew text. The English NRSV translation says before God created the heavens and the earth, "the earth was a formless void." The words "formless void" are better translated to mean "wild and wasteful" or perhaps "chaos and waste." God isn't pictured as creating from nothing but rather as creating order from chaos. God continues to create-to bring order from chaos, and this is good news indeed as we wrestle with the images of chaos we have witnessed since last Wednesday.
3. A quotation from Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Just before I heard Holly McKissick's sermon, I happened to read a quotation from Archbishop Desmond Tutu who heroically worked to overturn the racist apartheid government in South Africa. In his book God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, he writes the following:
"Dear Child of God, I write these words because we all experience sadness, we all come at times to despair, and we all lose hope that the suffering in our lives and in the world will ever end. I want to share with you my faith and my understanding that this suffering can be transformed and redeemed. There is no such thing as a totally hopeless case. Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos, and God can do so always, can do so now-in our personal lives and in our lives as nations, globally... Indeed, God is transforming the world now-through us-because God loves us."
Perhaps you can see why I felt God was trying to offer me some hope when you connect the words of Desmond Tutu with Holly McKisseck's sermon. Together they form a positive response to Margaret Atwood's warning.
These are fearful times that ask a greater response from us than apathetic shrugs or merely posting angry comments on social media. We must mend the torn fabric of our culture and to renew a vision of the common good that includes people of all races, religions, political views, sexual orientations, gender identities, nationalities and economic classes. We have to work for a civic culture that embraces the inherent worth of each person rather than the few who manipulate our political and economic systems to advance their own hubris. But how do we do it?
The answer, for Christians at least, should be trusting that God is still creating out of chaos. Creation was not a one-time event but an ongoing process. We join in that process wherever we find it in our lives. A clue for where to look lies in searching for people who humbly go about bringing order out of chaos.
In her sermon Sunday, Holly McKissick concluded by saying she wanted to know the names of people in the videos of the Capital Building last Wednesday-not the names of the rioters, but the names of the janitors and other staff at the Capitol who cleaned up the mess left behind. (Perhaps you saw the pictures and video of Rep. Andrew Kim, the son of immigrants to the U.S., who stayed late into the night to clean up the Capitol along with the custodial staff.) These humble and unknown workers went about cleaning up the awful mess left behind by the rioters. Many of them who picked up racist banners and emblems are African American-I can't imagine what they must have thought. I can't think of a better image of God's creation-work than these unsung workers.
Margaret Atwood is correct; chaos can erupt anywhere under the right circumstances. When it does, we must respond by becoming a part of God's ongoing creation -work.
Grace and Peace,
“And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up
from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12The
night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put
on the armor of light.”
Romans 13:11 – 12
What a mess the nation and world are in. What a broken, twisted and scary place we find ourselves in. It is easy to become discouraged and to wonder if things will ever change. But change is already here!
Jesus Christ ushered in a new way. His life, death and resurrection have brought forth the change that will rock the world as we continue to grow in it.
Paul says, “understanding the present time….”, This present time seems full of horror, but he adds, “The hour has already come…”, it is here, the kingdom of God is present, and we need to “wake up” and begin building. We have the salvation of Jesus Christ. We have the forgiveness of sins and through the Holy Spirit, we have the grace to make a difference in this tortured world.
It “is nearer now than when we first believed.” The Kingdom of God is at hand and we have an active role to play in this very moment. It is easy to be discourage and to despair that anything we might offer will fall short. But the promise of Christ is that He is with us through it all. As we build the kingdom, through love, compassion and spiritual works, we have no time for doubt or fear.
Today is the day that we bring light into the world. “Let us put aside the deeds of darkness”; stop grumbling, worrying and fighting amongst ourselves and put Jesus first. The darkness we encounter is not just of the “rules” of being a good Christian. They are the disappointment, the discouragement and the dismay that seeps in when we see the world around us falling apart. Stop living in those moments and begin to live in Christ.
In this season of “Light” that we celebrate, pull that light into yourselves and let it shine out into the world. Our works are not in vain. Our love is not hidden. Our compassion is not soon forgotten. These are the building blocks of the growth of the Kingdom of God. As we pray, let it be in earnest reflection of the role we are to play in the planting of the fields.
As we serve, let it be selfless and consuming of our whole body so that we truly become vessels of Christ’s power.
As we sacrifice, let it be complete surrender of our will unto the will of the Creator and let us consider it nothing, but devotion to the King of kings.
We are called to “put on the full armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11) so that we can stand. And here in Romans, Paul calls it the “armor of light”. We are not only to gird ourselves for the battles of this world, but to bring in the light of the Holy One so that all can see the kingdom of God growing here and now.
We are a light unto the world. Let us fully dress ourselves in that light and become repairers of the broken world. Let us become gateways to understanding the peace and passion of Christ. We can no longer rest, waiting for someday, the message is clear, today is the day of the Lord!
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious,
and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who
were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned
from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was
"A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more."
--Matthew 2:16-18 NIV
In 2014, I went to Israel and Palestine on a Holy Land tour with a good
friend and fellow minister. It was an amazing trip and a joy to visit places
I had read about in the Bible all of my life. The town where Jesus was born
was near the top of my list of must-see sites. I was excited to see in
person what I had always heard about on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately,
Bethlehem ended up being one of the least enjoyable experiences on the trip.
On the day we traveled to the Church of the Nativity and St. Catherine's
Church (the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches built side by side over the
site where tradition says Christ was born), it was packed with tourists. The
holy site was filled with hundreds of Russian pilgrims whom our guide
explained came down on cheap day trips to Bethlehem. The crowd jostled with
one another to get down into the caves below the churches which contained
chapels built centuries ago. I recall being crammed into the small space
with dozens of pilgrims each trying to touch a silver star inlaid on the
ground marking where Jesus was said to have been born. It did not in any way
feel like the calm and peaceful manger depicted in Christmas carols.
Apparently in the scrum of Russian pilgrims, I had walked right past without
noticing an altar set up to honor "the Holy Innocents," the boys of
Bethlehem who were two years old and younger killed by King Herod as
depicted in Matthew 2. The murdered children of Bethlehem are a part of the
Christmas story that does not get read at Christmas Eve services. Just as I
hurried on past the commemoration of these killed children on my trip to
Bethlehem without seeing it, so also do we usually hurry through the
Christmas stories in the Gospels without realizing all was not heavenly
light and angelic choruses around Jesus' birth. The shadow of a violent
ruler lingers over the events of the nativity. A reason I like the tradition
of celebrating Epiphany a couple of weeks after Christmas is it allows time
to reflect upon this horrible part of the Christmas story.
Historians generally tend to doubt that Herod's slaughter of Bethlehem's
children really happened, because there is no mention of it outside of
Matthew's Gospel. Even so, from what we know of Herod he was ruthless in
dealing with threats to his power and carried out similar bloody killings
which are well-documented. The killing of children to eliminate a rival
claimant to the throne fits what we know of Herod from sources outside the
Bible scholars argue that one of Matthew's intentions with his Gospel is to
present Jesus as a new Moses who reinterprets the Law in his Sermon on the
Mount just as Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai in Exodus. They see the
slaughter of the children of Bethlehem and the holy family's flight to Egypt
as a deliberate parallel of Pharaoh killing Hebrew infants in the Exodus
story and Moses' later flight into the wilderness. Whether one chooses to
believe the massacre depicted in Matthew 2 actually happened or not,
countless innocents have been killed not only in the times of the Bible but
also in every time down through history until the present. We live in a
This story of terror is an important part of the Christmas story, because it
acknowledges that Christ entered into a world of pain and violence. From
Jesus' birth through his bloody execution on a cross on to the violent
persecutions faced by the early church, the story of Jesus does not ignore
the violence of our world. The light of Christ, the promise of Emanuel that
God is with us, shines into a world of shadow filled with forces opposed to
God's reign of love. The Gospel presents the scandalous idea that God's
power made present in the weakness of a newborn child was greater than the
power of the despots and dictators of Jesus' day and every day.
This week many of us are shaken by the images of a violent mob overtaking
our nation's Capitol Building. Only this morning did I read a message from a
woman in one of the former churches I served who fled Nazi Germany as a
child. She expressed terror at this week's events which paralleled what she
remembered from her youth. It is a time to be concerned for our country and
to empathize with the many people around the world for whom similar events
are commonplace in their countries. We have much work to do as a nation to
repair our shared pursuit of the common good.
For Christians looking for hope in anxious times, the story of Matthew 2 and
the epiphany of God's presence in Christ remind us that Christianity is not
a fantastical escape from reality but a means of existing inside a reality
which is sometimes terror-filled. Herod died and remains a relatively minor
figure in history, but Jesus Christ endured. So also, every despot and
dictator throughout history has also died and their empires which seemed
eternal also crumbled in time. So also will those who practice violence and
terror in our day pass away. Their actions may cause terrible consequences
in our present, but they will not endure. We remember that as important as a
responsible and just government may be, our ultimate security is found in
the God who created us and who does not abandon us. The light of Epiphany
shining in the murderous shadows of Jesus' day still shines in our day. The
God we trust goes with us even when our paths take us into the shadow of
Grace and Peace.
Rev. Chase Peeples
I am still in shock from seeing the images of rioters, inspired by our nation’s president, storming the U.S. Capitol Building yesterday. The sight of people dishonoring a symbol of American democracy shatters my understanding of where we are as a country. As your Interim Minister, I feel it is important to denounce yesterday’s events but also to attempt to answer the question “How do we be church together in times like these?” Here are my thoughts submitted to you in humility.
We commit to diversity of thought and belief
At a time where everything is reduced to partisan worldviews, our culture has few spaces where people of different political ideologies can exist together in community. Churches should be spaces where love of neighbor allows for free exchange of ideas and respectful disagreement, but sadly large swaths of Christianity are merely extensions of political parties. As a church we can honor our obligations as Christians to participate in the public sphere without demonizing people with whom we disagree. As we engage in politics, we must commit to making sure our foremost allegiance is to Christ who taught us to love even our enemies. Church should be a place where Democrats, Republicans and Independents can find enough common ground to worship God and serve our communities together.
We commit to humility in our search for truth
In an age of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” Christians have an obligation to not only seek out truth but also to remain humble enough to remember we may always be wrong. We must commit ourselves to taking in media perspectives from more than one political point of view while acknowledging the biases of those who claim to be objective but are merely partisan mouthpieces. We must refuse to spread on social media and email lies, half-truths, misrepresentations, and misleading images. We must reject conspiracy theories that claim to offer secret truth for an enlightened few. We must remember that God calls us to be people of integrity and of humility in all our relationships.
We commit to accountability
God calls us to be a part of a church, because of the human tendency towards self-delusion. A faith community enables us to hear the wisdom of others with different perspectives and to consider the consequences of our beliefs and actions. We lovingly hold one another accountable when our conceptions of God end up hurting other people and when our sense of what is right causes more harm than good. As a faith community, we also have a role in expecting accountability in our community, state and nation. Setting aside partisanship, Christians have a role in calling leaders of all parties to work for the common good rather than their own political or financial gain.
We commit to reject idolatry
Perhaps the most disturbing picture I saw yesterday showed that amidst the Confederate flags and signs bearing slogans of QAnon there was a sign declaring “Jesus Saves.” How can such a declaration exist amidst violent extremists? A reporter from The Atlantic, walked with the mob headed to the capital yesterday and heard members of the group equating faith in Trump with faith in God. How can this be? As Christians, we are commanded to love God above all other loves and taught that equating anyone or anything with God is idolatry. As a church, we must guard ourselves against any attempt by politicians of any party to usurp the majesty and honor due only to God.
We commit to confronting the sin of White supremacy
The original sin of America is slavery and the resulting sins of white supremacy and white nationalism. Some in the mob who stormed the capitol building wore Nazi insignias and anti-Semitic slogans. They are the natural outgrowth of ideologies that view White people as the sole heirs of American freedom. Not only must we as Christians condemn extremists in the public eye but we must do the hard work of educating ourselves about and repenting from behaviors and beliefs that are the products of White supremacy rather than the inclusive Gospel of Christ. We do so not out of mere political correctness but out of devotion to God who demands justice for all.
We commit to love
As Christians we are called to love God and neighbor. So, whatever our political and religious beliefs, as Christians we must always view our thoughts, words and actions through the lens of love. Do our thoughts, words and actions align with the sacrificial love demonstrated by Jesus Christ? Do we listen to and respect others different from ourselves in the same way we expect to be listened to and respected? If Christ is present even inside of people with whom we disagree or consider our enemies—which is what the Gospel teaches—then the love we offer to or withhold from others is the same as the love offered to or withheld from Christ.
We commit to being a movement for wholeness
In our time, it is much easier to “unfriend,” “unfollow,” and disconnect from others we disagree with than it is to remain in relationship with them. The Christian Church, Disciples of Christ claims to be “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” As a church, we can commit to the hard work of making our bonds of fellowship stronger rather than mirroring a culture that promotes isolation and division. Our connections in Christ are countercultural behaviors that our culture will not reward, but our God honors our efforts at healing and wholeness.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east
came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw
his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
--Matthew 2:1-2 NIV
In yesterday’s email, I explained the liturgical (or worship) calendar and its seasons. In my opinion, the seasons of the church year provide a way for us to emphasize the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ throughout the year. One of my favorite seasons is the season of Epiphany which begins on the Day of Epiphany (today, January 6) and runs until Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent.
Unfortunately, I have found that Epiphany gets short shrift, because it comes so soon after Christmas and the celebration of New Year’s Eve and Day. I know from my perspective as a minister I’m usually worn out after the busyness of Advent and Christmas. Similarly, church leaders understandably don’t think much about planning for Epiphany during the holiday season stretching from Thanksgiving until the end of the year. It’s a shame Epiphany gets so little attention.
Why are We Talking About the Wise Men Almost Two Weeks After Christmas?
In most nativity sets, angels, shepherds and wise men appear in addition to the holy family. At most Christmas Eve services, scripture passages are read from the Gospel of Luke which tells about the shepherds, the angels and the Christ child born in a manger, as well as the Gospel of Matthew which tells about the visit of the Magi who follow the star to find the Christ child. It’s no wonder that in most folks’ minds the Wise Men belong with the shepherds at the manger, but when we read the stories in Matthew and Luke, we find two very different accounts.
In Luke’s account, due to a Roman census, Joseph takes a pregnant Mary from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem. There they can’t find rom in an inn, so Jesus is born in a stable and laid in a manger. Angels announce the news to shepherds who show up to worship the Christ child.
Meanwhile, in Matthew, it appears Joseph and Mary are living in Bethlehem (not Nazareth) and there is no census. Magi, probably Persian astronomers, see a star indicating a new king will be born, so they follow it to Judea. They go to the capital city Jerusalem expecting to find a new king but are informed they need to go to Bethlehem. The current occupant of the throne urges them to come back and tell him where the child is, but after they visit the holy family, they are warned in a dream to go home a different way. Similarly, Joseph is warned in a dream to flee with his family. King Herod massacres all the children in Bethlehem under the age of two. The holy family escapes to Egypt and only after Herod is dead, do they settle in Nazareth.
Even though the two stories have been combined in Christian tradition and practice, only in Luke’s Gospel is Jesus’ birth mentioned. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has already been born some time earlier. So, a separate day was set aside to commemorate the appearance of Christ to the Gentiles, represented by the Magi. The star which they follow becomes the symbol of the season and its themes of light and God’s self-revealing which occurs in Jesus Christ.
What Does the Word Epiphany Mean?
Epiphany is a Greek word meaning “a sudden manifestation or appearing.” In Greek literature it often referred to the breaking of dawn or an appearance of one or some of the gods. It occurs in the Greek New Testament (2 Timothy 1:10) to refer to Christ’s coming and was used in church tradition to refer to the light of the world coming to Gentiles, as in the story of the Magi.
Epiphany is a Bigger Deal Outside of White American Protestantism
When I served a church on Long Island, New York, I remember attending the first of many interfaith celebrations around the end of the year. I was familiar with Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but there I first heard of Three Kings Day. Three Kings Day is Epiphany, January 6, and it is a significant holiday in Latinx and Hispanic cultures. (I feel the need to clarify that Matthew does not say the Magi were kings nor does it say there were three of them, just more than one. Calling them kings came later.)
The celebration of Epiphany or Three Kings Day takes many fun forms in various cultures. Latinx and Hispanic children place their shoes outside their doors the night before and wake up to find gifts from the kings/Magi in them. The children also leave out grass or hay for the camels to eat! In western European countries, children go door to door in groups of three to receive candy or pastries from neighbors. In Ireland, Epiphany was known as “women’s Christmas” when women got the day off from their usual family duties—imagine that, one entire day off a year! In England and Wales, the night before Epiphany was the last night of Christmas or Twelfth Night, a night spent playing pranks and drinking wassail (hence the Christmas song “Here We Go A-wassailing”). In many countries in Europe and Latin America, a king cake is baked (similar to king cakes made during Mardi Gras) with a bean or an almond inside it. The child who gets the piece with the bean or almond becomes king or queen for a day!
What Does it Mean for Us?
In Protestant churches, Epiphany Sunday is celebrated the first Sunday after the Day of Epiphany. It’s a time to tell the story from Matthew 2 of the Magi visiting the Christ child. I make a point of commemorating the special Sunday, because it’s message that Christ is for all people is one that must continually be proclaimed. This isn’t just an issue of ancient divisions of Jew and Gentile or Christian and “Pagan,” but rather a reminder to all Christians who get a little too comfortable in their faith. Just as God was at work in the lives of some Persian astrologers, whom nobody really expected to show up and worship the Messiah, so also God is at work outside the church, out in the world in all kinds of ways we religious people don’t expect. Just when we think we have God all figured out, God defies our expectations and reveals God’s love for all people in some manner we would never have seen coming.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the
east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the
Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
--Matthew 2:1-2 NIV
As I have shared, I grew up Southern Baptist, a tradition that was suspicious of church tradition, especially anything that seemed “Catholic.” Churches that focused on things like liturgy, ritual and tradition were misguided and taught a salvation by works rather than by faith. Never mind that just like every other Christian denomination, they had their own rituals and traditions that never varied year to year, such as the altar call, the prayers by deacons that all sounded the same and special Sundays. Growing up Baptist meant I didn’t really know anything about the liturgical or worship calendar used by many other denominations. I didn’t know what I was missing out on.
Beginning in the 1800’s, some Protestant churches began rediscovering the long history of Christian worship and began drawing on it to promote Christian unity. Some within our own denomination, The Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, who were committed to building ties among the ever-growing list of denominations latched onto this emphasis upon common worship. The thinking goes that if churches of different kinds are emphasizing certain scriptures, songs and traditions at the same time each year, then they are more likely to find common ground together. Contemporary ecumenical gatherings such as Ash Wednesday, Easter sunrise or Thanksgiving services are the results of this common emphasis upon church seasons.
The liturgical or worship calendar operates separately from our secular calendar which runs January through December. Instead, the liturgical calendar begins on the First Sunday of Advent which takes place four Sundays prior to Christmas and runs until roughly mid- to late November. Here are the seasons:
When--the four Sundays prior to Christmas
Color--purple symbolizing royalty or blue symbolizing the night sky in which the angels appeared
Emphasis-- preparation for Christmas, preparation for Christ’s second coming
When--like the song says, it lasts for twelve days beginning on Christmas Day
Color--white symbolizing Christ as the light of the world
Emphasis--the Christmas story (Nativity) and Jesus Christ as the Incarnation of God
When--beginning on January 6 it lasts until Ash Wednesday
Color--white symbolizing Christ as the light of the world
Emphasis--the Magi visiting the child Jesus, the Baptism of Jesus, stories of Christ appearing in sudden ways, ending with Christ’s Transfiguration
When--begins on Ash Wednesday and runs for 40 days (not counting Sundays)
Color--purple emphasizing Christ’s royalty
Emphasis-- Holy Week (seven days prior to Easter including Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday), repentance and preparation for Easter
When--50 day period beginning with Easter Sunday running until Pentecost Sunday
Color--white emphasizing the resurrected Christ
Emphasis--celebrating the resurrection of Christ and Christ’s presence in the world
When--50 days after Easter
Color--red symbolizing the tongues of fire that came upon the apostles
Emphasis--commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit as described in Acts 2 and the establishment of the church
Season After Pentecost (ordinary time)
When--runs from Pentecost Sunday until the beginning of Advent (usually late May or early June until mid to late November)
Color--green symbolizing the world and God’s presence in it
Emphasis--how God works in our world today especially through the church
For me, observing the church year has been a way of thinking about the story of Christ all year long. One begins thinking about the expectation of a messiah in Advent, celebrates Emanuel or “God with us” at Christmas, remember Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry during Epiphany, commemorate Jesus’ suffering and death during Lent and Holy Week, rejoice at Christ’s resurrection during Easter and emphasize the presence of Christ made known in the Holy Spirit and in the church at Pentecost and the Sundays afterward. There is no commandment in scripture that we focus upon these seasons, but as we observe them in our worship we are focusing upon the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ as taught to us in scripture.
I grew up with every Sunday more or less being the same. Except for Christmas and Easter Sundays, there wasn’t much different week to week. What I didn’t know I was missing was a rich tradition shared by Christians around the world involving the different seasons of the church year. Some of the most beautiful music, art, poetry and drama ever made was created to go along with these different seasons. More than anything, what I’ve learned is that my experience of God has grown deeper by observing each season.
In a time, where our work weeks have become 24-7 thanks to technology, where more of us focus our attention on screens than the changing of the seasons out our windows, when most people in the US don’t even take their allotted vacation days, the calendar of the church offers us a break in our non-stop intake of electronic stimulation. We can focus on a different story, a story deeper and more true than other stories, a story of God’s love as made known in Jesus Christ.
This Sunday we will celebrate Epiphany by focusing on the Magi visiting the child Jesus as told in Matthew chapter 2. I’ll share more about this special Sunday in tomorrow’s email, but feel free to get a jump start by reading Matthew 2 on your own.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as
well.” Matthew 6:33
‘So, if you seek the kingdom of God and do it the way that we tell you, you will have everything you want.’
At least that is how the prosperity gospel goes. Like so many similar scriptures, this scripture in Matthew has been tortured and twisted to make it sound as if by following a particular dogma or teacher/preacher and giving to their cause all your troubles will be taken care of. Your success in this world is guaranteed. But, that’s not what Jesus was saying. Not by a long shot.
First, we must seek the kingdom of God. And is not found in the writing or teaching of the prosperity gospel leaders. It is found in the person Jesus Christ. Seeking the kingdom of God is looking continually to Jesus. Trusting in the Word of God and living in the way that Jesus lived. As Paul writes it is ‘putting on the clothes of Jesus’ (Romans 13:14). We are not commanded to give money to a teacher/preacher or ministry in expectation of reward.
Just as important we are not commanded to follow a dogma or discipline of a particular denomination; we are to look to Jesus. Always, looking to His works and His commandment to love God above all else and like wise to love one another (Matt. 22:37 – 39). We are to live as Jesus lived. Caring for the outcast, the poor and the sick. It is not about our reward; it is about loving one another and honoring God the Father with our love.
The kingdom of God is not some far off place, above or below us. It is not a destination yet to come. As N. T. Wright, author and former Bishop of Durham writes about the present tense of the Lord’s prayer, he says:
“Jesus's resurrection is the beginning of God's new project not to snatch people away from
earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord's
Prayer is about.”
― N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the
Seeking the kingdom, is seeing what we can do in this world today for our fellow travelers. It is using each moment we have to reach out to the homeless, the poor, the hungry and those seeking spiritual guidance. It is the ministry of Christ that we read of in the gospels. That is seeking the kingdom of God.
As for the things that will be given to you, it is not a new vehicle, riches and homes. No, the things are defined in the verses just before Matt. 6:33.
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we
wear?’ 32For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you
need them.” Matthew 6:31 – 32
The things we need are the things given to us.
What we need in order to do the work of God is what we receive when we look to Jesus continually.
Jesus says, “Do not worry”. Yet worry seems to be in our very nature. It is difficult not to be concerned with what you do not have when it comes to basic care. But the Lord of All Things tells us not to worry. He will provide for us, we must only trust in Him.
Too often our worries take our eyes from Jesus and put them on the world. As Jesus says, “pagans run after all these things”. That does not mean that we are chasing frivolous things, but when we trust in our God our needs will be met. We may not see how. We may not feel it possible, but with God all things are possible. If we take our eyes off this world and trust fully in the loving Father, we will have our needs met.
If we are to pursue or seek the kingdom first, then we must be assured that God will meet our every need. Our part is to keep Jesus first. To love God above all else and to love our neighbor the same. This is what Jesus was telling His disciples and what He is telling us today. ‘Seek me first and I will give you the peace that all will be given to you’. The peace of Jesus will wash away the worry and we will have, in abundance, the things that we need to follow God’s will for our lives.
We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.