Sunday, January 6, 2019

Home Another Way: Sermon for Epiphany C

We’ve heard the story a thousand times before. We’ve seen in our mind the swaying gait of the camels, the precious gifts strapped to the saddle, smelled the faint scent of exotic spices from faraway lands clinging to their clothes. Even their names are exotic—even by Biblical standards: Caspar, Melchior, Balthasazar.

And so they head to the main town in this dusty little country. Surely, they assume, the people in this big town would know what the signs mean, what the star means. And that’s how they encounter Herod. They stop off in Jerusalem assuming that of course everyone would both also know about this miracle in their own midst. They also assume that everyone, including Herod, would be just as welcoming to this development as they are. But of course, Herod is not in any way devout—understatement of the year, there—and sees this development only as a threat to his worldly power. 

Herod was, by all accounts, a ruthless, calculating wanna-be despot. He listened to the foreigners’ descriptions of Jewish prophecies about this baby, and I bet he felt something snap in the back of his head. Jesus as a baby is recognized as someone worthy of worship by these foreigners, and as a half-Jewish pretend prince, a quisling sell-out who rules only with the backing of a mighty empire, Herod sees only a rival to his frail grip on power, and deposed kings all too often are dead kings. Herod feels the cold breath of danger whistling down the back of his neck.

Yet even though not Jews, the Magi school Herod in Jewish prophecy and scripture. They come to pay homage to a child born, according to prophecy, as king of the Jews, and even more, as the Prince of Peace. And so Herod, wily as the serpent in Eden, rearranges his face in what he though looked like an innocent expression of joy. “Once you find the baby, please come back and tell me where he is, so that I may worship him too,” he lisps, and the Magi bow their way out. On to following that star again.

They find the baby in a house and are allowed in to see the mother and child. The child awakens just as they walk in. As each one took that baby into his arms, he looked into those beautiful brown eyes, and saw the swirling of constellations and supernovae. They see the beauty of the ages before time began. After handing the baby back to his mother, they offer their gifts with trembling hands. And the baby settled against his mother’s neck, sighed, and returned to dreaming with his dimpled, star-shaped hands spread wide.

Yet what they had just seen still swirled before them. Overcome by the wisdom in those newborn eyes, the Magi worshiped the baby. And, in fact, it’s one of the few times in the Gospels that Jesus is worshipped. As an adult, Jesus always stopped people from worshiping him. Worship is easy. Following the Way of Jesus is much harder.

As Episcopal theologian Verna Dozier notes in her book, The Dream of God, in every instance of Jesus’s adult life, when someone attempted to worship Jesus, he stopped them, asking them instead to do the harder thing and FOLLOW him: 
Worship is setting Jesus on a pedestal, distancing him, enshrining (enshrouding) him in liturgies, stained glass windows, Biblical translations, medallions, pilgrimage to places where he walked—the whole nine yards. Following him is doing what he did, weeping over situation that was so far removed from the dream of God and spending his life to make it different. Following is discipleship…. Following Jesus is having that clear eyed vision of whom we serve.” (Dozier, 1148)

So of course the Magi worshiped. But I am convinced they emerged from that worship and that encounter changed. I like to think that at some point Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar came back to hear the young rabbi preach, and that they moved from worship to discipleship. As we are all called to do.

And so it is for us today. I am convinced that sometimes people worship a frozen statue of Jesus, one who lives only in the pages of a holy book, rather than the living breathing savior who is active in the world today. Lots of people may scoff at that claim. But the best way we can all see and hear and walk with Jesus is by being his disciples in the world. By welcoming the stranger and the destitute to our table. By seeing his face in the face of the hungry, the homeless, the foreigner. Too many people use the name of Christ to advance their own agendas, to justify their own actions.

It’s easy for us to gather around an altar and worship. But the best altar Jesus stakes a claim on, the one that will change the world the most, is not made of wood or steel or stone but of human flesh. Jesus calls us to follow him, to make an altar in our hearts and minds and acclaim him as our great high priest standing before it to lead us into true discipleship after we leave the doors of this place. 

Many of us wish for a star to show us the way. Instead, too often we find ourselves groping about in the dark, lost, lonely, afraid. Yet, sometimes, if we take a deep breath or several, we can open ourselves to the in-breaking of God into our lives, and hear that call to follow our own star of hope that seeks to lead us home by another way.

The way of hope. 

 The way of justice.

The way of integrity. 

 The way of wisdom.

And I think the Magi show us a lot about how to do that. They used both their reason and their intuition to find the Christ-child. They not only used their eyes, but their imaginations. They knew, as we have forgotten, that dreams are not foolishness, but sometimes the only things that allow us to make great leaps of faith.

In the post-Enlightenment world, reason has sought to overcome all that is sacred, all that is mysterious. The aim and outcome has been to control the unknown. We are told too often that dreams are foolish, that they lead to frivolously frittering our lives away. But it is only through having a dream, of being willing to be guided by that dream, that change ever happens. A dream of the kind I am talking about leads us into redirecting what is toward a better what will be. A dream that shines like the light of a star to guide us. A dream filled with the holy light of justice and freedom in our own time, like that famous dream of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

What those Wise men looked at was Love Incarnate—God’s yearning, passion, and com-passion for us in a frail human shape. God’s son came and dwelled among us to make absolutely manifest how we were made to live—for God—and for each other. As our Presiding Bishop says, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.

And we want God to love us, but real love shakes you up and spins you around, and we aren’t too sure we want that. We often like to think we can manage relationships. The miracle is that God’s love is not manageable. It’s not reasonable—and that’s what the coming of the Christ-child teaches us. And yet love is the signal marker of the way spent walking in the footsteps of Jesus. Love that binds us together, both here around this rail at the Eucharist, and as we are then strengthened and sent out into the world as beloved disciples of Jesus.

The love of God doesn’t just settle over us, but calls us to action—God calls us to partnership, not passivity; God calls us to be fertile ground for God’s ongoing work in the world. Through God’s love, we are called to be healers, reconcilers, restorers, witnesses. In short: disciples. God knows us—and calls us to be partners in the restoration of creation. That’s a miracle, too.

It’s also a challenge. Every day we get met with a new crisis, a new outrage, a new attempt to separate and divide, and we all know that the object of division is to conquer, and let the spreading gloom steal away our hope. Yet it is in that moment that the real work can begin. It is when we fear we have lost our path that the need for a new one can guide us home. In the words of the poet Wendell Berry:
It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

The gift of God’s grace, healing, and love comes to us in times of both joy and anxiety, and we too, like those Magi, are dazzled, amazed, changed. What gifts can we offer in return? Perhaps we can renew our commitment to walk this journey of faith together, to offer God and each other the best we have to offer of ourselves.

The life of discipleship, of following Jesus, leads us like the Wise Men, those Magi, leads us on a different journey than we would have had had we just closed our eyes to that light, to the possibility of a dream of a better way home. It changes us, shapes us, reconciles us. The life of discipleship also calls us to bring forth our gifts and lay them at the feet of Christ, so that we can then embody his light ourselves and reflect it into the world that so desperately needs it. We just need to be ready and willing to follow that light wherever it leads us. And go home by another way—the way of ourselves embodying God’s love.

Preached at the 505 on January 5, and at 8:00 and 10:15 am on January 6 at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-10

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