For the next few months, our time together at Roots Revival will be framed by one word: RADICAL.
Now, when I think of the word “radical,” I think of tie-dyed t-shirt and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—“Rad!” Then I think of Che Guevara and revolutionaries and even terrorists around the world. Then, last of all, I think of those “find the square root” problems in my high school math class that always gave me heartburn.
Unless we’re thinking about mathematics, the word “radical” probably conjures up images of the extreme. Being radical means being far from the norm. It means revolution and anarchy and strange clothing and tattoos and piercings and loud music and violence.
But this year, we will be thinking about the word “radical” a little differently. Another meaning of “radical” is this: “of or pertaining to the root of something.”
“Radical” means “root.” Used this way, we’re usually referring again to math or to a plant or to linguistic etymology.
But here at Roots Revival in 2014, I want us to think of it metaphorically. The root of something is its source. Roots are where trees and plant get nourishment. They are hidden, underground, dark, slow, life-giving, and basic. They require us to dig deeper.
And so we start our radical journey into a new year by celebrating Epiphany. In the church, Epiphany is the day when we remember God coming into the world as a human child, and in particular the wise men’s journey to meet that child.
For the month of January, we are talking about radical love. As we think about the story of Epiphany and Psalm 72, I’m going to give you three J’s to frame this discussion: Jesus, Justice, and Joy. Jesus, Justice, and Joy.
First, Jesus. In being born at Christmas, God did something truly radical. In Advent, we sang, “O come, thou root of Jesse’s tree.” The incarnation is on some level very basic—God, who is love, became one of us, those creatures whom God loves. And yet it is also extreme—the all-powerful God of the universe confined himself not just to a person, but to a baby.
God coming to us as a baby was radical—it was basic, and it was extreme. But here, that sense of radical meaning revolutionary—that comes into play, too.
Both Psalm 72 and the Epiphany story are deeply political. Now before you say, “Stop! Politics don’t belong in the pulpit!”, let me offer an alternative. Partisanship does not belong in the pulpit. Politics absolutely do. More on that later.
When the wise men came looking for Jesus, they first went to Jerusalem. There, they asked King Herod: “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?” And what does the Gospel of Matthew tells us? “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.”
Herod was frightened. Of a baby! But why?
Jesus’ birth is political because it calls into question the order of things. Jesus is born King of the Jews. The Jews aren’t supposed to have a king—they are ruled by the Romans. Jesus’ birth is threatening to Herod on a political level.
But Jesus isn’t in direct competition with Herod as two candidates for president compete with one another on a ballot. Jesus doesn’t come to be the new king in the present order. Jesus comes to introduce a new order, a new kingdom.
Herod and the Romans are familiar with the politics of conquest, the politics of empire, and the politics of colonization. Jesus comes and embodies the politics of vulnerability, the politics of incarnation, the politics of love.
Are there any Harry Potter fans out there? In this series, a young boy named Harry is born with magical powers, but some believe there is something even more special about it. Voldemort, the evil wizard, is threatened by this, and so he goes to kill Harry as a baby. However, he is unable to do so, and his attempt on Harry’s life ends up nearly killing him.
What we learn later is that Harry was protected by a deeper magic than any spell a wizard or witch could cast. Harry was protected by his parents’ love. Voldemort, who had stooped so low in his quest for power and domination, could not even touch this baby without being physically harmed. Voldemort did not understand the magic of a parent’s love, and so he was defeated by it.
Just so, Herod was threatened by this helpless child, Jesus—not because he was a contender for Herod’s place in the political order, but because he came announcing a new political order.
Psalm 72 answers a political question: what makes a good king? This is where we come to our second J: Justice.
Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.
The word “justice,” much like the word “radical,” has many different meanings. Different people apply it in totally opposite ways. For example, to some, the death penalty is an example of justice, while to others, it is an instance of deep injustice. Some believe that the law and its enforcement are always just, while others say with Saint Augustine, “An unjust law is no law at all.”
On a very basic level—a radical level, we might say—justice simply refers to the administration of the law. The question, of course, is—how? What does the administration of the law look like? More importantly, what should it look like?
Psalm 72 joins in a theme that is echoed throughout Scripture: the justice of a king or a government is measured by how well the poor are treated in that society. If you want to know whether justice is being done, you simply have to look at how a community does or doesn’t care for the vulnerable.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people [and] give deliverance to the needy.
Pope Francis has been causing a stir lately with his talk about the poor. Christians and non-Christians alike are thrilled to hear the pontiff speaking up for the oppressed and encouraging more just economic and social systems.
Of course, not everyone is thrilled. Last week, the billionaire founder of Home Depot said he felt like the Pope’s comments could be exclusionary to the wealthy and might make them less willing to give to charity. The title of the article that told the story sounded like something out of The Onion rather than an actual news source: “Billionaire threatens charity donations if Pope continues support for the poor.”
What is going on here? It seems to be that the issue is our understanding of justice. In Hebrew, there are several different words for justice. One, mishpat, is more about the law. But another, tzedakah, has a connotation that doesn’t quite come across in English. In English, the words “justice” and “charity” are often understood as separate concepts. But the idea of tzedakah includes both.
Tzedakah is about righteousness and right relationship with God and with one another. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that tzedakah might be better translated as “distributive justice.” It’s related to the Biblical idea of the Jubilee, the regular cancellation of debts. Justice is not about me getting and keeping what I have earned, but about everyone working together for the whole community’s welfare. This is a very different order indeed from the one in which we live today.
The rich forget about their gold
The meek and mild are strangely bold
Justice, in one sense, is very basic. But if we have strayed so far from God’s vision of justice that we are personally offended by a call to relationship with brothers and sisters of a different economic status, then to get back to basics will require an extreme change indeed. If we cannot love our neighbors because we are in competition with them, then we need basic, grounded, rooted, extreme, abnormal, far out, radical love to get back to the place God intended us to be.
If we can get there, we will find our final J—Joy.
I think that joy is profoundly lacking in our world today. This is odd, because especially in our society, we have so much. Our technology, our possessions, our social networks, everything is supposed to contribute to our happiness. And yet, so often it doesn’t work out this way.
Pope Paul VI said, “technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy.” My iPhone brings me plenty of pleasure as I check Facebook and text friends and play Fruit Ninja. (I don’t play Fruit Ninja.) But it does not bring me joy.
Think for a moment. When was the last time you felt true joy? Did it have anything to do with material possessions, or was it connected to a relationship, to nature, to a spiritual experience?
I somehow doubt that billionaire who was defensive toward Pope Francis finds much joy in his wealth. Perhaps only the justice of Jesus can bring us true joy.
For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.
In its general sense, the word “epiphany” means a vision or revelation. In the birth of Jesus, we are offered a vision not of what is but of what could be, what should be. God’s radical love calls us back to our roots, where as in Romans 11 we are reminded that we are a wild olive shoot grafted onto the tree. We draw life from the ground in which we are planted through the roots we have by grace alone.
Jesus comes to give us a radical new vision of justice.
His final aim to fill with joy
The earth that we all but destroyed
May your joy in God’s love be radical—both basic and extreme. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell