The Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Sunday, January 6, 2019
Isaiah 60:1-6, 9; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3:1-12; and Matthew 2:2-12
The Reverend Chris Harris
One of the questions I’ve been asked most recently since moving out here from San Diego is how we are fairing in these seasons. And I was telling Bill, Father Bill just the other day, you know, if this is as cold as it gets, we got this, we got this. Yeah, he kind of laughed too. But I’ve actually always been a fan of the seasons. Even growing up on the West Coast, where they’re very muted, I somehow managed to develop an appreciation for those that we did get.
In the wintertime, we’d have our rain. Maybe more of a drizzle. But it did get cold enough to put me in that nesting spirit. You know, those days where you roll up on the couch with a blanket and a good book. You turn on that fireplace app on the TV. I love all the new year stuff, you know, I do the resolutions, I make goals. I want to lose all that weight that we gain over the Christmas time. In the spring, I go into cleaning mode. Tackle one or two of the junk drawers that inevitably spruce up over the year.
For me, the seasons, I think help me to develop a kind of rhythm to my life. Whether consciously or not. They interrupt my routines. They force me to try new practices and go places, I normally might not. They have an amazing ability to remind me I’m not in control. That’s really the idea behind the seasons of the church, is it not? Pentecost, Easter, Advent, Lent and so on. Like the weather, these liturgical seasons can steer us to new rhythms, and invite us to try on new practices which not only deepen our faith but if we let them can transform us as well.
Each of these seasons has their own themes, their own colors, their own hymns, special prayers. But it’s the practices they inspire in us outside of church that gives them their true meaning and purpose. Lent for example, right? We join Jesus in the desert for 40 days. Forty days of self-reflection and self-denial. Wildly counter cultural. In Advent, which we just got finished, we aspire at least to push back against the busy season and consumer culture and practice quiet waiting in the hope that is to come.
So, what about Epiphany? What is that season all about? I actually think, it tends to get lost in Christmas. Most of us by this point are pretty exhausted by gifts, the nativity scenes are coming down, our trees are gone. After all, weren’t the wise men already here like a month ago, at the festival of gifts? The donkey sure was.
So, what’s it all about? And more importantly, what are the practices that Epiphany call us into? I’ve heard it described this way. If Christmas celebrates God’s coming into the world as a human, the Epiphany celebrates the other side of that great mystery. That the child of homeless refugees born in a roadside barn might actually be the creator of creation itself. And brings with Him a light that will reach every corner of the world and every people. As symbolized by our wise men.
Over the next nine weeks of the Epiphanytide, we will hear gospel stories about Jesus’s miracles, healings, all the various manifestations of His divinity. And so, for me, the epiphany season is an invitation for all of us to practice with greater purpose and intentionality how we might manifest Christ’s light in the world. But let’s remind ourselves. The light of Christ is not a safe, domesticated light.
Like the most severe seasons, it’s life disrupting. It will upend old ways and old assumptions. But it’s also life-giving and world-changing. It’s a light that cuts through the darkness and reminds us of our fundamental identity as precious, beloved children of God. And that we are created to be each other’s keeper. And when we begin to really believe that and we start to really act toward each other as if that were true, the world begins to be reshaped as the reign of God breaks in. And for those who prefer the dark, it is terrifying. For those whose power and privilege rests on the reverse narrative, that’s at the core of all the unjust social systems of the world, even today, that some people really do count more than others, the gospel is terrible news.
Herod would be just the first in a long line of imperial and religious authorities who would conspire to not just kill Jesus but his followers as well in order to keep that light from spreading any further. But no matter how brutal the persecutions were, their efforts would fail over and over until the very empire that sought to stamp out the gospel would be converted as well. And it was a conversion that would happen not because of charismatic preaching, not because of glorious worship services as wonderful as those things are. But because the light of Christ when lived out causes us to stand out.
As the evangelist Michael Frost likes to say, when we manifest God’s love, we live questionably because it causes people to stop, to take notice, to want to ask questions, what caused you to do that? What’s behind all that work? And that’s exactly what the early Christians did in that cruel dog-eat-dog world of the Roman Empire where women were chattel, widows were invisible, orphans disposable and the poor were ignored. Christians stepped up to offer the very justice that the king lacked. What is being cried out for in our psalm today.
We fed the hungry, we healed the sick, we took in the stranger, and we welcomed the other. And we didn’t just do it for Christians, we did it for Pagans and for Jews and everyone else. And that got people’s attention. They wanted to know more. They wanted to know more about this God whose love knew no limits. And they converted by the thousands. And then the millions. So, buckle up because the kingdom we are called to build is nowhere near complete. And the light of Christ we are called to manifest is going to threaten our status quo as well. It will challenge the way things have always been done and if you let it, you may find yourself leaving by a different road as well.
I saw such a light several years ago. Frustrated by the persistent homelessness in San Diego and a chronically inadequate shelter program, an elderly lady named Emily decided she needed to do something more. So, she turned her study in her modest home into a bedroom and offered it to a couple she had met in the park. When we later found out what she had been doing, I have to admit our reaction was not admiration for her courage. No, it went something more like this. You did what? She had always been a little eccentric but did she have any idea what she was really getting into? Didn’t she know that you can’t just let strangers into your house? Especially people who don’t have one of their own. That irony as I looked back made me realize the real fear that we had for her wasn’t about her, it was about us. It was about how her radical act of compassion had completely upended ours.
The church had just finished organizing a blanket drive. So people on the streets living under bridges and behind dumpsters could have a blanket. We even found a sale at Target so people didn’t have to spend very much, 20 bucks. By inviting people into her home, Emily in one simple crazy act shattered all of that. She broke down this wall that homeless ministry and programs in San Diego had always unofficially maintained. It was no longer going to be about us and them. She was starting to make it about we.
They were no longer, at her house at least, being warehoused in cots, in the shelter, they were sleeping in her son’s old bedroom. That couple was no longer standing in a line at a soup kitchen, they were cooking with her, in her kitchen. And then they gathered at her dining room table as if they were long lost visiting relatives. Sharing stories, sharing their life. If you ever wanted to see a real life Eucharist, that was it.
Now, if I were to be completely honest, the fear we felt for what she was doing had much more in common with the fear Herod is feeling in today’s gospel. Because with this crazy, naïve, act of love, she had upended the paradigm in which told us that homelessness was a social problem to be managed by professionals and by the way in someone else’s neighborhood, yeah. And she invited us to see them as the people they were. As someone’s mother, someone’s son, someone’s grandchild.
You see, she wasn’t just giving them shelter, she was returning some of their humanity. And not only for that couple, she was doing it for us as well because we had been asleep. We had been unwitting participants in a system that had supremely dehumanizing. I felt it particularly hard because as someone who had worked on homeless issues for years, who served on the board of San Diego’s largest outreach agency, it was nothing short of an epiphany.
And it forever changed the way I see this issue and the ways that I start to imagine its solution. I found myself dreaming. I did some research. There are some three million Episcopalians in this country. And there are 500,000 homeless men, women and children on the streets this very day. What if we were to follow in her lead? What if we were to organize a network of empty guest rooms and unused home offices, of basements. And I we’re Episcopalians, so we’d be smart. We would partner with social workers and case managers and all that. But you can see where this is going.
We, the Episcopal Church, if we really put our mind to this we could end homelessness in our lifetime. God’s already given us everything we need. And so just like that early church, do you think we might get someone’s attention? Do you think that might turn some heads? Do you suppose some of my spiritual but not religious friends might suddenly find a new appreciation for organized religion? And most importantly, if we were to glorify God with such a questionable if not crazy idea, would we not recover some of our humanity along the way? That’s the light of Christ we celebrate today. That’s the light of Christ we are called to manifest.
And if that sounds way too big, if that sounds like something way out there, don’t worry. It works just as well when you start small. That’s what Emily did. For her that act was just the next right thing in her life. But that’s all that’s ever called of any of us. So, what might you do over these next nine weeks or so? Here is a suggestion. If you don’t already do this, see if you can try on this practice of beginning each morning with prayer.
Maybe not ask God for all the things that you need and want, but let’s ask God over these next nine weeks to open our eyes to those in need, to wake us up to the suffering that we are asleep to. Ask God to help us to notice what are our passions? What gets my heart going? Who are the people I am drawn to serve? Notice has the Holy Spirit perhaps already put someone on your heart and we’ve been so busy that we haven’t had a chance to take any action.
Ask God to remind you how you’ve been gifted. Not just in our skills, in our abilities but in our resources, our money, our homes. How might God be calling us to put that stuff back into the flow of the kingdom? Maybe you’re already serving somewhere. Maybe it’s time to listen for a call to perhaps take it to a new level. If you want to talk more about that, I know myself and any of the clergy would be happy to. We have small groups forming who are doing that very work of discerning God’s call in community. Today’s newsletter and our outreach page on the website has more than a dozen opportunities in the community as well.
So, I will end with this invitation. If we do nothing else over these next nine weeks, let us stay open. So when the Holy Spirit suddenly pops an idea into our heart, and she will, when she pops that idea into our heart, you know the one I’m talking about, the one that our mind says, ho ho, wait a minute, not that, that’s crazy. That’s the one. That’s the star we need to follow. That’s the kingdom of God breaking in. That is the light of Christ whose flames we are called to fan. And may we each be ready to leave by a different road when we do.
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