Monthly Archives: January 2016

Sermon: The Epiphany

The following sermon was preached on January 10, 2016 at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Cumberland RI.  As this parish does not yet (as the rector was clear to emphasize) keep the The Feast of the Epiphany, they transferred it to the following Sunday.  The lessons can be found here.  The text of the sermon is copied below and a recording can be found over on SoundCloud.  Head over to YouTube to watch the action unfold.   

When I was an undergraduate at Rhode Island College, I studied History Milk.pngand Political Science. In this time I discovered a person who has become one of my all time favorite characters from American Political History. In 1977, Harvey Milk was elected as a member of the board of supervisors for San Francisco, California. One of Milk’s most famous speeches is what has become known as the “Hope Speech.” In it he encourages those around him, to use their prophetic voice to stand up for those who are oppressed by hatred and violence: to be beacons of light in an otherwise dark world. At the end of the speech Milk says:

The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great . . . And you and you and you, you have to give people hope.

That is what today is all about. Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany: the day that ends the season of the incarnation. It is a feast that has captivated our hearts and imaginations, and not only our hearts, but those of the world around us. Even the United States Postal Service has a stamp commemorating the journey of the wise men. This feast – one of the most important feasts in the life of the Church – is all about hope. It is about the light of the world becoming flesh and rooting out all places of violence, terror, fear, and oppression. It is about that message being delivered to the entire world.

In preparing for this sermon, I was struck that in almost every commentary I read, there was some scholar – some theologian – writing about the historical and scientific problems of this text. Some debate the scientific nature and historical fact of the star. Was it Halley’s Comet? Was it a star exploding and fading into the universe? Was it just a literary device used by Matthew? Other scholars debate the facts around the wise men themselves. Who are these people? Where do they come from? Why do we name them Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar? If you look at Matthew’s text, the answers to these questions are not revealed. We do not even know how many of them there were. Interpreters of the text have only assumed there are three of them because they bring three gifts – and no one wants to be that guy at the party who shows up empty handed.

With all due respect to those scholars and theologians, they are missing the point. It seems to me that the focus should not be on the historical and scientific fact, but on truth.

Here is the truth of this text: A group of men from a far off place embarked on a hard and difficult journey, they met with a terrified and horrifically violent ruler, and continued their journey until they came to the place that was revealed to them. And when they reached that place they were overjoyed, and they knelt down and worshipped the King of the Jews, the Messiah, the Christ Child – they bowed themselves in the most sincere and self-emptying way and prayed to Jesus.

epiphanyThree unknown men left everything behind in search of that which would not only change their lives, but would change the entire course of human history.

Instead of turning to the Star and to the Wise Men for historical and scientific fact we turn to them for truth. For in their truth something about God, and something about us is revealed.

The Star plays a prominent role in the text we have just heard. The star is what tips off the wise men that the king of the Jews has been born. It is by the star that Herod learns the exact time of Jesus’ birth (this is really important for the story that immediate follows today’s passage). It is the star that guides the wise men on their journey to Bethlehem, and it is only when the start stops that they know they have arrived at their destination. Whatever the scientific reality of the star is, what matters for us is that the star is a symbol of our need for divine revelation to see the Messiah and king. Without this divine revelation, without the star, we would miss the Messiah. We cannot find God on our own. God must be revealed to us. In order to find the real meaning of Christmas – in order to find the real meaning of the incarnation – we must follow the star. But the need for the star only goes so far.

Our passage from Matthew ends: “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” No star is mentioned. On the way to Bethlehem, on their way to discover the newborn Messiah, the wise men had no idea where they were going and so they needed to be led. But once they saw the light of the world made flesh they no longer needed that bright star in the sky. Once they saw the child, they had an enflamed heart because of this divine revelation and manifestation and their memory was illumined because they would never – they could never – forget what they saw.

This motif of light is a powerful and profound one throughout much of Scripture, and is particularly prominent through Christmastide and the Epiphany. One the first Sunday after Christmas Day we hear in the prologue of John Gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And today, we hear the great prophet Isaiah proclaim, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.”

The coming of this light into the world is an amazing and remarkable thing. This light is the only thing that can scatter the darkness from the world – it is the only thing that can scatter the darkness and shadows from our own lives. But we have to be willing to let that light in and we have to be willing to let that light shine through us. We have to, as Eugene Peterson in The Message writes for this morning’s Isaiah passage, “Get out bed, Jerusalem! Wake up. Put your face in the sunlight.” The wise men understood this. They got up, left everything behind, and followed the star to Bethlehem.

If we read deeper into Matthew’s text, another layer is added that amplifies the importance and significance of the devotion of the wise men. When these men saw the star they knew to interpret it as a sign of the birth of Jesus, so they got up and went. What is remarkable about this, is that the wise men – those that find the king of the Jews – are not themselves Jewish. They did not have the Scriptures, the words of the Prophets to direct them, but still they saw something and were aware enough, awake enough, paying attention enough to see that something amazing had taken place. The Gospel passage tells us that when Herod calls all the chief priest and scribes, they use the words of the Prophets – they use the words of Scripture – and tell him where the Messiah has been born. All along they had the texts in front of them yet they were too blind to see. This is an important detail for Matthew. Not only does this foreshadow the rejection Jesus will face from his own people, it also points to the fact that the Messiah has come not just for one particular group – the Messiah has come for all people. The God we hear described throughout the Old Testament as untouchable and unknowable has taken on human flesh so that all people – so that you and me might be able to know, experience, and hold God in our very midst. The wise men, these foreigners, these unknown people are the ones that point us to the realities of this new relationship between God and humanity.

In fact, the entirety of the incarnation narrative is revealed by the unexpected. Elizabeth, old and barren, conceives a child; the forerunner, the one who will prepare the way. Mary, a young, teenage, unwed woman was greeted by an Angel, “Hail Favored One” and by the power of the Holy Spirit He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man. The Shepherds – those living both literally and figuratively on the outskirts of society – were the first of hear the news of great joy. The wise men traveled from a foreign land to offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It was not Herod, it was not the chief priests and scribes who first heard the Good News – it was the women, the shepherds, and the foreigners.

This is something really important to pay attention to, it is crucial not only for the Gospel narrative, but for our relationship with God as well. Because, when Elizabeth conceives; when the Shepherds are filled with joy; when the wise men bow down in adoration; when Mary says “yes;” we loose our ability to say “no,” we loose our ability to deny the light that has come into the world to come into our lives. If we dare to be as crazy as the wise men we too can be beacons of light and hope in the seeming unending darkness of the world around us.

That is what’s next. That is what happens now that the wise men have gone home, now that the Christmas trees have been undecorated, now that we have finished our annual celebration of Christmas. What we do now, our work, is clear.

Howard Thurman, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader captures exactly what our work is:

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 their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among the people,
To make music in the heart.

The wise men left, they journeyed home, forever changed by what they saw and experienced in Bethlehem. We too have been to the manager, we have seen the Christ Child, we have beheld the very glory of God in our midst. Now it is our turn to return home, to return to work, to return school and show that the brightness of the star, the brightness of the light of Christ, dwells in us richly. It is our work to be beacons of light and hope in the world that the power of Christ may continue to root out darkness, fear, pain, and anxiety: That the light and hope of Christ may prevail.

We must be brave enough and crazy enough to take on and continue this journey. There are no more excuses. We can only say yes. Because the only thing this world has to look forward to is hope. And we have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come when the pressures of the world are too great. Christ is the only hope for the world. And you, and you, and us – we have to give them this hope.

AMEN.

 

 

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Sermon Christmas 2C : The Flight Into Egypt

The following sermon was preached on January 3, 2016 at The Church of the Redeemer, Providence RI.  The lessons can be found here (we used the first Gospel option: Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23).  The text of the sermon is copied below and a recording of the sermon can be found on SoundCloud or on the Redeemer’s website.  

 

Every day we are bombarded with terrifying and horrific images: images of the streets of this nation being torn apart by gang violence, police brutality, and acts of terror great and small. Images from around the world of men, women, and children being oppressed, starved, and rejected as they are subject to brutal regimes and seek places of safety outside the boarders of their home countries. We watch as our bothers and sisters in Europe and the Middle East, our brothers and sisters around the world fall victim to unimaginable acts of terror. The world is a dark and scary place, and at times it seems like there is no escape – that there is nothing that will change this vicious and violent cycle.

As the world burns around us, we are in the midst of celebrating the 12 days of Christmas. For the last 10 days we have surrounded ourselves with beloved carols, we have been captivated by images of angels and shepherd, shared in delicious meals with family and friends, and have proclaimed with great joy that Jesus – the Christ child – has come among us.

I don’t know about you, but in the midst of all this celebration, it has been far too easy for me to forget, to block out, to all together ignore the problems of the world.

Yet, in the midst of blocking out the pain of the world, in the midst of focusing on the celebratory experience of these 12 days, we come this morning to one of the biblical texts of terror and are snapped back into reality.

Flight into egyptThe Gospel passage we hear from Matthew this morning is commonly referred to as “The Flight into Egypt.” It is the tale of Mary and Joseph leaving Bethlehem and going to Egypt because Herod is out to destroy Jesus. Then, when Herod is dead, they begin their journey back only to be told that their home country is not yet safe, and so they go to Nazareth. The way the lectionary gives us this Gospel, the way this story is often taught in Sunday School, is as a very matter-of-fact itinerary that forces us to focus on the seeming heroic nature of Mary and Joseph. Taking this passage on its own, it seems that we hear this for the sole purpose of proving that Jesus is the promised Messiah. In these eight verses we hear twice that what is happening to the Holy Family, is happening so that what was spoken by and through the prophets might be fulfilled. With this understanding, we can simply check the boxes that prove the messianic nature of Jesus, in light of Jewish tradition and move on. But that is not the whole story.

For reasons beyond my understanding, the lectionary cuts out three incredibly important verses of this morning’s Gospel passage. These three verses drastically change the tone and experience of this passage and give to us a very different image of the life and time of Jesus. In these omitted verses, Matthew writes:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
Wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
She refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

In what the lectionary gives us, we hear in passing that Herod was out to destroy Jesus, but in these verses we hear the true horrific and violent nature of Herod’s actions. We hear the work of an insecure and terrified ruler who desperately wants to retain his power – so much so that he will go to any length necessary to destroy any possible threat against him. When we put these three verses back into the passage we heard this morning, a fuller experience of reality is revealed. No longer is this pericope simply a fulfillment quotation, no longer is it used to prove that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophet’s message, no longer is it just explaining how the Holy Family ends up in Nazareth, it is now a text of terror in which the saving nature of God is revealed.

Jesus was born into a very difficult and dangerous world. It is a world torn apart by violence and strife, where violence rules the day, and rulers do whatever they want no matter the cost to human life. In a devastating way, the world into which Jesus is born is not unlike our own. Like Herod, dictators and rulers around the world use violence and fear to maintain their power. Just as the Holy Family fled, so do unknown numbers of families flee today in hope that they might find a safe place to hide – that they might find a safe place to live out their lives in peace. As a result of the violence and oppression the world is experiencing today, we are witnessing the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. As millions of people are fleeing around the world shrouded in terror we are witnessing the darkness of humanity.

This is why these omitted verses are so important: they speak to those whom Jesus came to serve: the lost, the poor, and the oppressed. Matthew does not present a sentimental infancy narrative. There are no shepherds, no angels singing, there is no manger scene with a babe wrapped in bands of cloth. Matthew presents the birth of the savior in the midst of the turbulence and terror of a very violent history. But, Matthew also dares to see things as they are and still affirm that God is working, even in the worst that humanity can do.

In the omitted verses, Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15, “A voice was heard in Ramah, Wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” In quoting Jeremiah, Matthew is recalling the great matriarch Rachel and her reaction to the Babylonians overtaking Jerusalem and marching families off into exile. Rachel’s weeping, Rachel’s lament, signifies a key turning point in Jeremiah when the prophet shifts form declaring God’s judgment to God’s promise of hope and redemption. This shift is what we heard this morning in our lesson from Jeremiah. We hear the prophet Jeremiah proclaim God’s promise that, “with weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back,” and we hear, “Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.” From the lamentation of Rachel, from the darkest days of Israel’s history, God promises to redeem them. Matthew, by using these words from Jeremiah is clear; this redemption of God has come in the person of Jesus.

Through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of this new born baby weeping will be turned into shouts of joy, sorrow will be turned to gladness, and darkness will be turned to light. Through Jesus the world will be turned upside down, or as Presiding Bishop Curry likes to say, right side up. No wonder why Herod was so afraid.

We celebrate these 12 days of Christmas because through the birth of the Messiah, through the birth of Jesus, the end to the violent and vicious cycle of our world has been made flesh. It is through the promises of God in Christ that we know light will over come darkness. It is through the incarnation that God takes on human flesh so that human flesh, the whole of humanity, might be redeemed.   The world is a dark and scary place, but the light than enlightens everything has come.

This passage from Matthew’s Gospel not only shows a truer reflection of the reality of God, it also demonstrates a broader expression of the capabilities of humanity. In the actions of Joseph we see the potential for humanity to be compassionate, trusting, and obedient to the word of God. In the actions of Herod we see the ability to be oblivious to grace and we see the power that fear yields both in individuals and in systems of military and political power. In addition, each and every action in this Gospel passage is predicated by a command. Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt because an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and commanded him to go. The slaughter of the innocent happens because Herod commands it out of fear. The Holy Family comes out of Egypt and settles in Nazareth because the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. These images of humanity combined with the commands to action have a very important message for us today. When we allow fear, anger, and hatred to shut out God’s grace from our lives, when we follow not the commands of God, but the commands of systems of violence and oppression, then we inhabit the worst of humanity. But if we are courageous enough to follow the commands of God, if we are strong enough to live lives that proclaim the Good News, then we become beacons of the best that humanity can be. We become reflections of how humanity was created and intended to be. It is in those moments that we share in the building up of God’s kingdom – that we share in the glories of the incarnation.

Thomas Troeger, recently retired homiletics professor at Yale Divinity School, reflects on today’s Gospel passage through the lens of a crèche. He writes:

It is the custom in most homes and churches that set up manger scenes to take them down after Christmas and store them until the season returns the next year. Matthew’s account of the Holy Family’s trials suggests that this is wrong. Perhaps we should put away the shepherds (Luke) because they returned to their fields, and put away the magi because they returned to their distant home, but we should keep out Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Just the three of them, all alone, facing the terrors of a brutal despot. No visitors. No sheltering barn. No cuddly looking sheep. No friendly oxen. Then we should move the Holy Family to another location in our church or our home. Perhaps to a window looking out on the larger world, the world where there is still violence and repression and terror, and where there are refugees fleeing, needing protection, human beings in whom the Christ is crying to us for protection.

In this reflection, Troeger captures our call in this Gospel passage. We, like Joseph, are to listen to the commands of God and protect those in greatest need. We are to reach out and care for those whom Jesus came to serve: the lost, the poor, the oppressed, the scared, the hungry, and the refugee.

We live in a dark and scary world, but the light than ends all darkness – the life that ends all pain, suffering, and death – has come into the world.

In a few days our celebration of Christmas will come to an end. Christmas lights will be taken down, trees will be undecorated, and carols will go unsung until next year. But we have the opportunity to keep the Holy Family present in our midst as a beacon of hope and light.

God asks us, implores us, begs us, God commands us – as followers of Jesus – to make that hope – to make that light known.

AMEN.

 

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