Here's my sermon for today. Day after tomorrow I celebrate 13 years as a priest. Amazing. It feels like forever; it feels like no time since I stood before the Bishop at Calvary Episcopal Church in Williamsville, NY, and felt his hands on my head, and those of my colleagues, as well. The hands felt very heavy; I remember that.
Many days I tie my cincture (the rope "sash" that goes around the waist of my alb, the white liturgical garment I wear), and remember Jesus saying to Peter, "...when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished, But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." Lots of times I feel I'm being told where I must and must not go, and what I must and must not do. I'm about ready to start fastening my own belt again. It feels like another great adventure.
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Today, Epiphany, we celebrate the manifestation, the appearance (Epiphany comes from the Greek root for “manifestation”) of Christ to the Gentiles, represented by those wise men, those Magi from the East – who were Gentile, not Jewish. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you….Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice….” The Psalm tells us more specifically what the rule of the King’s Son will bring: righteous and just rule, prosperity, defense of the needy, rescue and deliverance for the poor and oppressed, abundance of peace. Read it – it’s all right there; we just chanted it. Since we’re all aware that the fullness of those things are not present here in our world, we know the fullness of the kingdom is not what we’re living – not yet.
In the Epistle, Paul describes his commission, his ministry, his call by God to bring good news to the Gentiles. This Jesus, who was considered a heretic by the Jews, a dangerous revolutionary by the Romans, is the Messiah, the bearer of God’s “mystery,” a Messiah who intended his message for the Jews, who then rejected it. But the hungry-hearted Gentiles – they were the ones, the ready harvest that Paul found, and to whom he brought the good news, “…the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God….” Very good news, indeed, the news and promise that we are adopted as full members of God’s family, heir to all the mysteries and promises contained in scripture, co-heirs with this Messiah, Jesus Christ.
And the Magi, those wise men from the East – they brought good news, too. All of their calculations, all their figuring and pondering, probably over months and years, culminated in this news of a king born in Israel. Did Herod know where he might be? Of course they expected this new king to be born into the house of the current ruling king. But no, Herod knew nothing of this newborn king. The Jewish priests and scribes studied their own texts and found that Bethlehem was where the child would be born – and Herod, on receiving this good news, heard it as a threat, as very bad news, and sent the wise men to find the child, the threat to his rule, whom he, Herod, would then eliminate.
Of course, we know the end of this little story of Matthew's: the dream that sent the wise men home by another road, the dream that sent Joseph and his little family into Egypt until Herod died, and the dream that brought them back home. We know that despite the slaughter of the innocents, that child, that newborn king, survived and thrived and became the anointed of God, the Messiah, Emmanuel, God With Us.
But the whole point of this sermon is this: Herod heard the good news, but he couldn’t receive it. It sounded like bad news to him. He couldn’t imagine that he might also be heir to mysteries and promises, and to a kingdom greater than any he would ever rule, and that this newborn king had no intention of displacing him, but only saving him, rewarding him, Herod, with riches greater than he could conceive.
And now, of course, we are the heirs, the recipients of the good news. And just like Paul, it is our commission, our ministry, our call from God to take that good news out to a world that is hungry to hear it – that part is no different than it was in the First Century. Unfortunately, we don’t all know just what that good news is. We can’t hear it as something so truly good that it can transform our lives. It’s only that kind of good news that’s good enough to share. And of course, when we do share it, there’s no guarantee that the world can receive it. Unlike the First Century, there are many, many more distractions to prevent us from knowing just how hungry our hearts are for these mysteries, this good news. Like Herod, there are those to whom the very good news of God With Us and our inheritance of the mysteries, the wisdom, the kingdom of God sound improbable at best, and like very bad news, at worst. Yep, there are lots of people out there for whom Christianity’s good news sounds very much like bad news.
And that may be because of who they are, as it was for Herod. It may be because they are damaged in some way, as Herod was – and unfortunately, sometimes today they are damaged by Christianity itself. There are some brands of Christianity that can do some serious damage to the minds and hearts of people who get in the way. There are kinds of Christianity that judge and accuse and exclude, and that actually are very bad news. There are Christians that judge and accuse and exclude, and who bring bad news wherever they go. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard brain scientist who had a massive, disabling stroke, and recovered to write about it, says that we must take responsibility for what we bring into the world. That people perceive who we are and how we are at some level that is below words, below consciousness. And we are responsible for how people perceive us. Do we bring good news or bad? What do people perceive, on that subconscious level, about us?
So we all need to think about ourselves. Have we received the good news? Have we been able to hear and understand just how good the news we’ve been given really is, just how great the gift we possess really is? Do we feel the commission from God that we’ve been given (and oh, yes, we have been given it, by our baptism, by our membership in God’s family), to carry this good news to the hungry world, to share the gift, the promises, the inheritance we’ve been given? Have we given serious thought and prayer to how we might do that, to how we might be while we’re doing that, whether we’re aware of it or not? And the news we bring into the world – is it good, or not? The things we say, the things we do, the ways we give or not give, are kind or not – these are all what we bring to the world – and is that good news, or not?
At the start of every single day it would behoove us to spend a little time meditating on what we’ve been given through Jesus Christ. And to think and pray on how we personify, embody, incarnate that news in the world. It wouldn’t hurt to spend just a little time centering and preparing ourselves each morning, and then at the end of the day, praying and reflecting on how we’ve done – for good and for ill. That’s something, just those few little minutes, twice a day, that can transform our lives. We invite God in to work with us and work on us, and God With Us will come in. That’s a promise. And it’s really good news. It’s light in what can sometimes be a pretty dark world. Amen.