It is our human tendency to reconfigure facts where needed to match what we have already decided to believe. Take, for example, the case of the Tel Dan Stele. Tel means “hill,” Dan is place in modern Israel, and a stele is an ancient inscribed stone, a monument or marker.
What is important about the particular stele found at Tel Dan during a dig 23 years ago was that it contained a reference to the “House of David,” which was a problem for the large number of scholars, many Jewish, who argued that King David was wholly fabricated, a national founding myth akin to that of Gilgamesh, or maybe Romulus and Remus. But here was this stone authenticated to the 9th century BCE in which an unnamed king thought to be Hazael boasts of his victory over Omri, King of Israel, and his ally, the King of the House of David. Hard, as in stone hard, evidence from only a century or so after David’s reign, the oldest evidence we have of that early Iron Age king central to the Hebrew story and so central to the story of those who would follow Jesus.
So those skeptical scholars decided, in the words of the great Inigo Montoya, “I don’t think that means what you think that means.” They claim that because there is a space missing in the inscription, maybe the letters that form “House of David” really mean “uncle” or “kettle,” which I guess means that Hazael defeated Omri and either his uncle or his kettle in a case of truly weak tea. Their argument is about as logical as the sexist church leaders who still argue that Junia, a prominent apostle mentioned in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, must be a man, despite the feminine ending. David was real, if not somewhat exaggerated in the story, and Junia could rightly shout down the centuries “Ain’t I a woman?” She was a leading apostle of Jesus. And for the record, Russian hackers are real, and male rapists in dresses lurking in ladies bathrooms are not real, not in Blue Hill, not in North Carolina, not in Texas.
The historical critical lens we use to help us see what is real in ancient stories is a little sharper when examining a figure from a thousand years later, when we get to Jesus. We know about the context of his ministry, can be certain about many locations, even if the gospel authors don’t know the geography. Even if his story is read through the lens of later theology and includes a certain amount of exaggeration and myth, few would try to argue that Jesus never existed.
Another thousand years or so on we come to a follower of Jesus, a veteran who suffered the effects of war and imprisonment, certainly with moral injury and maybe PTSD, named Francis, a man who unintentionally founded a spiritual movement that continues to this day.
Scholars have turned that same historical-critical lens on Francis of Assisi, and find that despite the fact that Francis existed two thousand years after David and more than a thousand after Jesus, the very same thing happened with the saint, the exaggerations and myths. I don’t see this as a problem, for if you are like me, you find these men more remarkable as men, in all their complexity, with their moments of triumph and heroism and every wart and flaw: David the tragic hero who put out a hit on Uriah and became a paranoid old man; Jesus who gets it wrong about the end of the world, who is called out for racism; Francis who was, too put it politely, a little prickly.
One of the sayings of Francis heard frequently among Progressive Christians is “Preach the gospel always. Use words when necessary.” Alas, not only is this not authentically Francis, but there isn’t even a published form of this saying before the early 1990’s, and then appears in a book by a Fundamentalist Texas preacher named Chuck Swindoll.
Yet, this manufactured quote does resonate with other statements in the Franciscan Rule of 1221, and more importantly, it resonates with us. We are allergic to telling people what we believe, after all, we have seen the abuses of the past, have ourselves received tracts and door knocks aplenty, have been told that those who do not believe a particular way are going to burn in the fires of hell.
And after all, it isn’t polite to speak about politics and religion in public. That is the old trope, which seems to only apply when the conversation isn’t to our liking. Near the end of his life my father scolded me for speaking in a public setting about religion. I gently reminded him that it is what I do for a living.
People should be drawn to Christianity by our actions and our way of living. As scripture says, you shall know them by their fruit, and that fruit should be joy, compassion, hope, resilience, courage, justice, all of those things we speak about week after week. Our faith should be revealed by our lives, which brings us to the e-word, Epiphany, which we belatedly celebrate today, tied to the Twelfth Day of Christmas and the Magi from the East and meaning, in the original Greek, to reveal or make known, epiphanos. It is tied to the star which made known, to the dove descending at the moment of baptism, making known, to the Transfiguration, a revelation of the divine that makes known, and our job is to reveal, to make known to the world that the Kingdom of God is here and that we can opt-in at any time. It might not make you rich as some promise, might not turn malignant cells benign, but it does offer faith, hope and love. It is living water, an unending source.
Even Francis, a terribly broken man, was able to reveal Christ. We can be appropriately skeptical about the stigmata, the crucifixion wounds that appeared as if by magic on the body of the saint, but it was not the wounds that attracted people to him, it was the deep deep spirituality, the simplicity, the hard work. In a world where the leaders of the church were literally called “princes,” he was anything but. Not showy, but grounded in prayer and sacrament.
How often do we say “That couple is building a huge new house,” or “He sure has lost weight,” and how seldom do we say “She sure looks happy,” or “They give so much to this community”? We say people look at peace when they are dead. Would that we said it when they were alive.
If we are growing in faith, people will notice. If the Spirit in our church is growing, and I believe it is, then people will notice. It is not that we can’t learn from the programs and techniques of other churches that have come back to life, have been revitalized, for we certainly can. It is not that this community can’t learn from what has worked for other communities, learn from best practices and sound research like Peter Block’s book “Community: The Structure of Belonging,” the January book for my Pastor’s Reading Group, for we can, but in the end, it is the heart that matters, it is the Spirit.
Christians with extraordinary love do exist, compassionate Christians, those on the Way of Jesus that bring the world not judgment but care, creativity, and a lot of holy imagination.
If we are healthy, if we are revealing the light of Christ in our personal lives and in our life together as a gathered church, then we will indeed be preaching the gospel without words. We will not only be the epiphany e-word, we will be practicing evangelism, that other e-word that we disclaim. We will grow as a community because people will want what we have. Our Christianity is not magic, it is not dogma, it is a way of seeing the world and interacting with the world inspired by Jesus and our own encounters with the divine. We experience and encounter and we epiphanous or reveal and so we are evangelists of the good news.
Madison Avenue wants you to find your happy place at an all-inclusive resort on an island, at the bottom of a bottle or in an auto showroom. I want you to find your happy place where you are and in these people gathered around you. May they carve it in stone, not the defeat of the people of God, but the victory of the people of God, a Tel Blue Stele that says “Here there was a community that was joyful and loving and compassionate and resilient and they revealed Christ to others,”
They won’t tell the story of a building or a constitution and by-laws, they will tell the story of a living people who bore the marks of Christ, the marks of laughter and love.
May it be revealed.