Epiphany and listening beyond the obvious...

NOTE: Here are my worship/sermon notes for Sunday, January 2, 2011 for the Feast of Epiphany. I am still basking in the fullness of the 12 Days of Christmas and hope you will revel in it, too. The children just left, there are a few tasks at church to attend to before the New Year, but mostly this is a time for quiet reflection and joy. If you happen to be in town for Sunday worship, please join us at 10:30 am.

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany: it is the culmination of the 12 Days of Christmas, the beginning of a new spiritual season dedicated to discerning God’s presence within and among us and it is a time when we’re asked to try to listen to those outside the faith about what is most important in their lives.

• Did you know that? Part of the spirituality of Epiphany, of course, applies to our own spiritual maturation and growth; but another part has to do with learning what is important to people outside of the church and then searching for common ground together.

• That’s the really interesting and challenging part of the story of the Magi or Three Kings, right? The story tells us that they were strangers to Israel yet drawn from their homes by a mysterious light; what’s more they were pagan scholars and magicians from Iran and Iraq – people from Jerusalem’s nemesis in Babylon – who now find themselves seeking hospitality and hope in a strange and often hostile land.

Kate Huey of the United Church of Christ gives this insight shape and form when she observes that:

These “strangers” come from "the East" – the same direction from which most of Israel's conquerors approached (the Promised Land) including Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. What’s more, these travelers evoked everything in Israel’s past that was East of Judea: the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers…. the Garden of Eden… Ur of the Chaldees to say nothing of Babylon, where Jews lived in Exile after the destruction of the first Temple.

And that truth is what I want to give some attention to this morning because American Christianity desperately needs to deepen our sense that religion is bigger than just personal salvation. How did someone put it: too often Jesus-talk in the United States sounds like an individualized insurance policy for the next life with no meaning for the here and now?

• That’s the Glen Beck heresy that spiritualizes Christianity while demonizing everything that challenges the status quo.

• It’s the same old, worn out mistake that is so heavenly minded that it’s no earthly good at all. It is very popular in the United States today: the hipsters call it the “Jesus is my girlfriend” approach to religion because all it talks about is how much I personally love Jesus and how much he means to me. We might also call this a spirituality of narcissism, right? (Me, me, me, me!)

So remember: just because a lot of people do it, doesn’t mean it rings true with way of Jesus. The way of Jesus always makes our love bigger not more selfish; it always enriches and breaks our heart rather than makes us safer; and the way of Jesus pushes us beyond our comfort zones into the upside world of kingdom living. Howard Thurman perhaps said it best:

When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with the flocks, then the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal those broken in spirit, to feed the hungry, to release the oppressed, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among all peoples, to make a little music with the heart… And to radiate the Light of Christ, every day, in every way, in all that we do and in all that we say. Then the work of Christmas begins.

Heresies, my friends, are usually beloved and attractive and always misdirected – from the left or the right – which brings me back to Epiphany and the strangers who arrived asking questions of the faithful and searching for the great light.

• So who are these people and what do they want?

• How we answer this question will help us embrace the wisdom of Epiphany for our generation or blow it on lies and sentimentality.

Sometimes scholars speak of the travelling strangers as Magi – sometimes as kings or wise men – and sometimes as gentile astrologers who were drawn to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ before even Israel. What this diversity of description tells us, however, is that nobody really knows who these people were.

In the world of Jesus, Persian magi were known as magicians – not scholars - but slippery, un-respected horoscope fanatics who were more like those working at a “psychic hotline” than model spiritual seekers. (Stoffregen) They might have been revered in their own tradition – and probably were gifted people of spiritual depth in their own world – but in first century Palestine they were heretics and con artists.

So all we really know from this story is that there are always people in every time and place that are searching for truth and meaning in life – often outside of traditional religion. And those of us who have found grace and healing in Christ Jesus have been given a special calling by God to listen to their questions and critiques because together we might actually discover the new born king.

• Now don’t be confused: I’m not saying Jesus wants us to become door-to-door evangelists who must shove the Lord down peoples’ throat; those ugly and mean-spirited days need to be buried forever.

• No, I am suggesting that part of the truth of Epiphany is that rather than try to protect our holiness from all the questions and challenges of the world – rather than try to build a wall around ourselves and dwell within it to remain safe and spiritually sanitized – perhaps we have been invited by the Lord to carefully listen to the heresies and critiques and questions of others to see if together we might find something of Christ’s new light for our generation.

When I hear Glen Beck rant – and fill the airwaves with heresies about personalized salvation and what a communist the President really is for paying attention to the pain of this world – I hear a man articulating the fears of millions of Americans. They are terrified of economic chaos. They are bewildered about what it means to share power and integrity with people of color here and abroad. And they are clueless about how to live in a new world with shifting sands and changing rules and information that moves at the speed of light.

• No wonder they want clear lines of authority. No wonder they find solace in that “old time religion” of personalized salvation and empire. I get it when I hear this heresy recycled…

• And I also remember what happens when this heresy is ignored or excused for Hitler used this same heresy to manipulate and organize the fears of another confused and economically chaotic nation just two generations past. Just last week our friends at Temple Anshe Amunim had their walls desecrated again with a swastika. The fear is alive – and we can’t ignore it.

Epiphany urges us to wake up and take to heart what is being said and done all around us. There are people who are lost – and wounded. There are souls being discarded and violated with abandon. And there are others who are “craning their necks for a sign of hope, ready to follow whatever appears, make whatever journey is necessary for them to find redemption” even from the most unlikely source.

That’s one thing the kings – or magi – or strangers from the East are telling us if we have ears to hear. First, we, as Christ’s people, have something to hear and learn from those who don’t come to church – or even think of themselves as spiritual.

Second, if the light of Christ isn’t hidden by our fears or habits or prejudices, then it can not only expose our wounds but also call our out need for grace. You see, St. Matthew’s story of the Magi following the sacred star to the hidden and overlooked stable of the infant king isn’t about piety. It’s about longing – and God’s amazing grace. Not only do the objectionable outsiders like the heretical Magi sense their need and get it, but in time so do:

Samaritan adulterers, immoral prostitutes, greasy tax collectors on the take, despised Roman soldiers and ostracized lepers… Matthew writes his Gospel in light of the Jewish texts familiar to his audience… and recalls that the prophet Isaiah described "the wealth of the nations" (read, Gentiles) will come to "you," and bring "gold and frankincense," as together they proclaim the praise of the Lord. (Huey)

Are you with me? Like the old gospel song says: first listen – then let it shine – and then go home by another way. That’s how the Epiphany story ends: the Magi returned home by another road. Another way. They were changed – they responded to the Light of Christ in a new and creative way – “they no longer acted or believed the same way they had before.” (Stoffregen) And so they went home by another way.

• You may recall that the earliest believers who embraced the grace of God in Jesus Christ were called what…? People of the way – people who walked through life in a new and creative manner – people, who recognized strangers, shared compassion, loved their enemies, didn’t think of themselves as the center of the universe yes?

• The Magi learned to trust God’s grace by following – their assumptions and habits weren’t enough – nor were their fears. Only as they trusted and followed was God revealed. And here’s the thing: once grace has been revealed – experienced – encountered – you really can’t go back to the old ways. They don’t fit – they don’t work – they don’t reveal the light of God. So you start to live in a new and graceful way.

Our friends the Sufis in Turkey put it like this in a story about the poet Rumi – and maybe it is good to hear spiritual truth told from the perspective of the outsider today – after all, it is Epiphany, yes?

It seems that one day Rumi asked one of his young, snotty disciples to give him an enormous amount of rich and delicious food. Now, this young soul was alarmed and offended because how could the saintly Rumi live in abundance while others starved? Didn’t Rumi pray all night and hardly eat anything at all? “Damn” he thought, “I’m going to bust him now!”

So, he prepared a feast and gave it to the master and secretly planned to follow the holy man through the streets of Konya – which he did. Through the city streets and into the fields he went; even further through the forest he went until Rumi came to an ancient ruined tomb. “Now I’m finally going to expose his pretensions” thought the young disciple. But what he saw when he went inside was Rumi bending over an totally exhausted bitch with six puppies – and Rumi was feeding the dog with his own hand so that she could survive to feed her babies.

After a time, Rumi turned his head and spoke to the young disciple who had followed him saying with a smile, “See?” With tears the young one said, “How on earth did you know that she was here?” How did you know that she was hungry so many miles away from where you live?” To which Rumi laughed and said, “When you become awake, your ears are so alive that they can hear the cries of a sparrow ten thousand miles away.”

Such is the challenge and blessing of Epiphany, beloved, for those who have ears to hear…

1) Epiphany @
2) Magi @
3) Christmas tree
4) Van Gogh: Starry Night
5) Searching for Truth @ www.wendyleamartin.blogspot.com/span


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