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Ephesians 1:3-14 & Matthew 2:1-12
This morning the Gospel comes to us in a familiar tale of Jesus and family post-birth, dealing with the anxieties of their own world. It’s a tale of magi – a word that is a specific reference in the ancient world to Zoroastrian priests, practitioners of astrology and/or astronomy, perhaps, but certainly purveyors of esoteric knowledge. They come to visit Jesus, led by a star, and to pay homage to the “King of the Jews,” which seems to be part of some ancient legend within and beyond Judaism that Matthew employs for his gospel. By telling the story this way, Matthew allows us to read that our heads and our hearts are part of the Jesus story – that the science of astronomy and the faith of spirituality need not be polarized things at all. Matthew allows us to see the global impact of Christ through the Magi, their awareness of nature and the Holy giving us insight into how we might better see our own world today, and pay attention to the signs it is giving us now. And Matthew also allows us again to see God’s action in things that would be labeled “queer,” as these foreign visitors with strange insights and sensibilities are in this story. God specializes in the queer, and I say and use that word intentionally, knowing that there is a lesson in that for the Church right now as well.
The other passage is an introduction to a letter by Paul to the church in Ephesus – not the content of the letter, mind you, but just the greeting. And, most scholars agree, this isn’t even a letter from Paul, it’s one written much later in his name with some different language than he used, and even some different theology. But my point isn’t the language or the theology. It is that this author, following in the model that Paul set in his own letters, thought it was important, before tackling the problems that this church was having, to remind everyone of the basics – “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.” They may not be basics that I would affirm, or language that I would use, but it is a reminder that when faced with problems and turmoil, it’s wise to remind ourselves of the basics, the foundations on which we live.
Following Jesus begins with this night – a celebration that really begins tomorrow, at the end of the 12 days of Christmas – yes, it’s still Christmas – in a day we call Epiphany. It’s not an altogether pleasant story. It is full of struggle, violence, and pain…the plight of the innocent and and the abuse of power, an all-too familiar refrain. In the sentences after we stopped, Herod will go on his murderous rampage, causing the Magi to flee home via another road and the Holy Family to become refugees in Egypt, seeking shelter in a home that is not theirs, fleeing danger and oppression as an act of desperation, as another part of this Epiphany story that ought to shape our hearts right now. When we sentimentalize this scripture, we lose all of it’s power to transform us, just as when we forget the basics, we begin to think that church is a club, that faith is a transaction, that our baptism is about joining something instead of transforming our hearts…then we can much more easily forget the incredible, incriminating, illuminating power that comes when we say that Jesus is Lord…because it means that Caesar, or the Emperor, or the King, or the President, is NOT. The glory of the Magi and the Epiphany story comes in knowing that there is another message – a message of warning to those who are trying to stop the flow of God’s gracious and liberating work in the world; you can do whatever you want, pull any strings you want, commit any atrocity you want, but you will not win. Love wins.
That’s a message that both inspires and indicts us even today – 2000 and 20 years later. It’s a message that comes after the “yes.” As Mary and Joseph, like all parents, realize slowly that this baby will take everything they have. The kid cries all the time. Mary still feels beat up, breastfeeding’s harder to figure out than she expected, and there’s so much laundry….so much laundry. And oh, lord, if only those long nights were silent. All of this is tempered with the slow realization that it’s only going to get harder. Yet somehow the smile on that baby’s face inspires parents of all kinds to keep going, even as the mistakes we inevitably make indict us on our own incapacity to live or learn or love perfectly.
Our reminder this morning – our basics – come in the form of a baby, whose fragility reminds us that our power is found in vulnerability, whose birthplace reminds us that God is the God of the downtrodden and exposed, whose initial worshippers remind us that God is the God of the queer, and the left-out and those on the margins. It will soon be his love that reminds us how we are meant to be in the world…love that prays not only for neighbors, but also for enemies…love that cares for the sick and the prisoner…love that supplants judgment and lives instead by grace and forgiveness.
These are the basics – to be love in the world, and to make peace and seek joy wherever we can. It’s the most simple and most complicated thing to do, equal parts possible and impossible, both inspiring and indicting, for truly living our lives rooted in love as our guiding principle would mean changing everything – social structures, educational systems, our politics, our economics, the very foundations of everything around us.
And if that’s right, then in order for the systems we use to govern ourselves and each other to be loving…they have to be just. And if they are not, we must be courageous and willing enough to change them.
My “for instance” starts right here in the sanctuary where you may (or may not) have noticed that we have changed the paraments – the fabric that adorns the pulpit and lectern and communion table. They were advent blue for awhile, and what we’re supposed to change them to for Epiphany is white, a color reserved for the holiest days, for the holidays that are most “pure.” Now maybe you don’t even think about that, but I’ll ask us to go back to our foundations, and our claims against racism and discrimination. Do we need to ask ourselves why white and purity have been so long associated? And is that the message that we wish to send in 2020, that “white” equals holy, or the “best?” My answer is no, and, for my part, I’ll no longer participate in that characterization, because symbolism matters, which is why the paraments are red today as we discuss a different color to use for our holiest days.
That’s just a small way of asking a question that is more provocative than ever – what does it mean to be a Christian? So many of us have dealt with being “Christian buts’ – I’m a Christian BUT, I don’t believe in that way, because what it means to be Christian has been defined in ways that we’re uncomfortable with at best. Our foundations lie in some different choices, some questions we ought to consider.
- Do you think the point of being Christian, the major issues that one ought to be concerned with are LGBTQ people and controlling women’s reproductive choices, or do you think that poverty and oppression are bigger agenda items for a Christian life?
- Are we to be pro-war, heading off to various parts of the world “with God on our side,” waving our flag as if it were holiness itself, or are we to be peacemakers, seeing war as a failure, dedicating our allegiance not to shallow patriotism but to the depth and sacrifice it takes to follow the Prince of Peace?
- Are we to nurture and make decisions from our fear, or are we to resist the fear present in us all – fear of “the other,” fear of difference, fear of change?
- Are we to consume any and all resources there are because God made them for us, or to be the stewards of this great gift of planet earth?
- Are we to use the Bible as a hammer to smash other people with, or use it most sharply as a tool for our own self-illumination?
- Are we to mistrust those whose skin color is different from our own, whose life seems lived in ways contrary to the way we live ours, or are we to seek God’s presence in diversity, rooting out the evils of racism, sexism and bigotry of all kinds that has so plagued us and the systems we have built?
- Finally, can we see today that the most stark example of what it means to be Christian, the most clear illustration of the choice we might make, the “type” of Christian we will be, is found in how we would seek to respond to people seeking refuge on our border…it is found in what we would do to a child in desperate need, particularly at the time of year we proclaim the birth of the child we claim to worship, born poor and oppressed to a woman with some atypical reproductive choices, at a time of war, seeking refuge with his family, fleeing tyranny and the abuse of power.
This is the Sunday of Epiphany – a word that means the perception of essential meaning. What a good time God has set for us to take stock, to open our eyes, to have that light go off over our heads and to find great clarity of vision. A time to re-assess and count our blessings, for there are many. And then a time to resolve for the year to come that we are indeed Christians – little Christs – and we will act accordingly.
May God’s Grace and Love guide us all.