1 January 2012
Today we are celebrating Epiphany because it is the first Sunday in January. Others will celebrate Epiphany as the Twelfth Night after Christmas or Three Kings Day on January 6. No matter when it is celebrated, Epiphany celebrates Jesus as the Christ beyond his Jewish origins. In other words, the wise men with their gifts represent the Gentile world in the Christmas story. It’s where most of us arrive at the manger.
As Matthew tells it, the wise men were neither kings from the Orient nor were there just three of them, and furthermore, they found the child in a house instead of a manger. Like Matthew’s First Century audience, we tend to interpret the coming of the wise men through the lens of Isaiah 60 which we heard this morning.
Epiphany celebrates a clash of kingdoms. The primary figure in this story is not the baby Jesus or the holy family in a stable. It is King Herod, representative of earthly empire, and his fear of the baby which the wise men are seeking. A star unlocks the meaning for us.
Follow the Star
First, a mysterious star guides the wise men to Jerusalem, to Herod’s throne. Their itinerant journey moves quietly and persistently against the static grandeur of Herod’s palace. When they ask about a child born to be “king of the Jews,” Herod is frightened. He clearly recognizes that this must be the Messiah, the long-awaited savior of Israel, because that is the question he asks of his advisors: “Where is the Messiah to be born?”
Birth of the “promised one” means a spiritual challenge to Herod’s authoritarian rule — and he knows it. Matthew tightens the emotional contrast when the chief priests quote Isaiah, telling Herod that the promised one will be born in Bethlehem, which puts him directly into David’s line. In secret, Herod sends them off, asking them to return with news of his location so that he might go and worship the child himself. As readers and listeners, we can smell the deceit in Herod’s directive.
The wise men set off again, led by the star to the very place where Jesus lay. They kneel down and pay him homage – an act that signifies their fealty to another realm. The wise men bow before a higher power, a Presence more real than all of Herod’s legions. They bring symbolic gifts. Not useful things, like a warm blanket, food for the parents and money for rent, but gold, frankincense and myrrh — gifts for sacred ceremony and for burial. Their posture and gifts reveal their loyalty to something far greater than Herod.
Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan call this Epiphany story a “parabolic overture”. As a parable, it undermines the conventional ways of seeing life and God. Like a musical overture, the story introduces the narrative threads that Matthew develops more fully throughout his gospel. Borg and Crossan suggest that the Gospel of Matthew recapitulates the story of Moses and Pharoah, promising deliverance from empire and expanding the vision of God’s covenant beyond the Jewish world.
Epiphany provides the opening chords of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry, the melody and harmonies of dominant systems and the counter-theme of prophetic imagination. This is not about heaven after death. It’s a struggle between the powers and principalities of this world and the subversive reality of love and justice for all, a message we can recognize in the bread and cup on the table before us.
In this parabolic overture, the wise men are able to thread their way through the palace intrigue of Herod and then leave “by another way.” For those of us who grew up thinking about salvation as a ticket to eternal bliss, the wise men offer us another way to understand these biblical stories — as encouragement to pay attention to dreams and intuitions, to let love be our guide, to see the sacred in small and homely moments of grace.
My friend, Eileen, suffers from constant pain and vertigo to the point that she cannot live independently. When I asked how she had spent Christmas, she said “I was feeling a little sorry for myself, so I got dressed up and went down to the hospice unit here at The Villa, and spent some time with the residents there. She described one woman who seems completely blank with dementia most of the time, as hanging in her wheelchair when one of the nurses came in. All of a sudden, this woman absolutely lit up and reached out her arms for a hug. Eileen said “I felt tears running down my face as the nurse knelt down and gave her a long hug. It really made my Christmas.”
I felt my own throat tighten as I realized the effort it had taken my friend to get there herself, to be a witness for this small act of lovingkindness, and to savor the scene again as she told me the story. And her story shifted me out of my own distractions into the presence of Love at the most primal level.
Matthew clearly anchors Epiphany in the physical world of here and now. It’s not about right doctrine or even right belief. It’s not about the clash of titans or who will be in charge of the government. The wise men pay attention to dreams, are willing to leave security behind and follow an inner star that takes them first to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. They recognize a sacred birth but do not stay to build a church around it.
We might say they had a call and took it seriously.
Their story may strike a chord in your life or mine. We too have gifts to bring and a star to follow. We too will face intransigent institutions and rulers ready to blot out signs of holy wonder. Like the wise men, we will have to say NO to some things in order to say YES to the star.
Many Seekers are getting ready to work with the young people from Bokamoso who will arrive this week and be here for worship on January 15. They have already been through a rigorous selection process and will be following a star that could lead them out of poverty and despair. Roy is the one who followed his star toward Winterfeldt and these marginalized young people many years ago. Rather than trying to change the systems there, Roy offered his gifts of song-writing and performance, letting the program develop as others were called to help.
The star is still here, quickening others to help. Now the Bokamoso Foundation has a fine website with all of their performances listed. They raise money for travel and accommodations here. Seekers continues to be the sponsoring organization because we have built some credibility with the government office which must grant them a visa to come. Leslie and Sharon have already spent a lot of time and energy organizing a large group of volunteers who will be helping each person create a resume and make a site visit to test their call to that kind of work. Linda will be organizing the meals for students and volunteers while they are here at Seekers. A dozen or so Seekers will be directly involved and many more will give money toward scholarships. Right now, more than 70 young people from Winterveldt are getting post-secondary education because of these yearly fund-raising trips. It all began with Roy’s willingness to follow his dream and others who joined him to supply the gifts he could not bring.
In this country, we live with the mantra of individualism: take care of yourself and don’t cause trouble for others. The fantasy that we don’t need government support or regulation seems rampant right now as the presidential campaign heats up. I think we here at Seekers share that individualism by doing our best to be self-sufficient and not too needy. But our biblical faith has a different message: our needs are meant to be shared. We are all imperfect. Nobody has a full deck of skills. We need each other. The question is — how do we discover those gifts?
The image of being on a journey together offers one way to discover how we might love one another. By working together, we discover both skills and needs. Some people organize well and others don’t. Some people notice what’s missing and others are willing to take charge. It’s the experience that puts us in a place of learning, of gift-giving and receiving. That’s what the wise men must have learned on their long journey together. I would call it a pilgrimage, a journey undertaken with empty hands and an open heart on which we expect to be changed in some way.
In the most recent PAVA newsletter, Annie Smith-Estrada titled her short story “A Pilgrimage, Not a Mission Trip.” I think a mission trip tends to be focused on one-way giving, but a pilgrimage speaks of mutuality, of giving and receiving. For Annie, pilgrimage bloomed on a day when she was covered with mud on the worksite.
The bus driver didn’t want to let the muddy workers onto the bus. Some of the women of Paxixil, who were preparing lunch for our group, took the time to wash and dress Annie in their finest handmade clothing so she could take her clothes home in a bag to be washed. It was just one example of what we received in the process of working with the villagers.
I’d like to close by sharing a dream that is growing in me right now. As you know, I agreed to chair the Ecumenical Council for Church of the Saviour after Kate’s death last summer. This week, I learned that the Friends of Jesus church has set down its’ call to be church, leaving us with eight member- churches on the council. Kayla McClurg is the person who led worship at the old headquarters building until it was sold and she is currently the only paid staff for Church of the Saviour. At the last council meeting, she was given authority to develop a website which would link the various churches and missions of CoS. And that brings me to a new star which seems to be stirring in me.
Since I’m not someone who reads news online, I’ve been thinking about a newsletter which might come out quarterly, not with news of what has been done (as Diaspora did so well), but with articles by different people about the unfolding visions in our midst. I’m wondering if we might title the newsletter “CALLINGS in Church of the Saviour,” or something like that. I’m thinking that we could be quite systematic about hearing from different churches and missions at first, and if there is some interest in the paper form, maybe expand it to include some of the personal callings that really are changing the world we live in. We could publish stories about the after-school art program at New Community Church or the sacred journey workshops that Jim and Cheryl are leading at Dayspring.
My dream of a simple newsletter was encouraged by the conversation that emerged across the circle of people who gathered here for our 50th wedding anniversary last Thursday. Jim Dickerson spoke of his gratitude to Seekers for staying with Manna during the renovation of this building. Fred Taylor spoke of the true birth of Seekers happening six months after they started to meet, when Muriel wept over losing the closeness of the original church and then turned her face toward the future with Seekers. Carter Echols recalled that she had urged Jim to use volunteers to ready their properties for sale back when she was working for the Episcopal Diocese here. It felt like the stories were weaving a whole tapestry of which we are just one small part. I’d like to capture that sense of the Spirit guiding us toward a creative future in and around the institutions that seem so static and stuck right now.
Epiphany celebrates the reality of God-with-us here and now. May we be faithful to the bit of light that we have. Share that with others who are called to be on pilgrimage with us. And pay attention to the dreams that may direct us to go home by another way in order to shelter those tender new beginnings.
May 2012 bring an Epiphany pilgrimage for all of us.