Sunday, January 5, 2020

Epiphany, 2020-A: Wild, untamable love

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

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En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

The story of the Epiphany is a fascinating and challenging one for us. A group of Persians, probably Zoroastrian priests who study and observe stars and celestial bodies, and who believe each person has a star associated with them, see a star which they believe belongs to a newborn king of the Jews. Amazingly, they quote Jewish scripture as their source of that knowledge. Later church tradition made these Persians “kings” and the Western church gave them names, but there is another tradition that suggests there were 12 Persians, not 3 (which is the number of gifts mentioned in the Scripture, not the number of persons who came).

By making them kings, the church tradition emphasized their wealth and power which contrasted with the baby’s poverty and powerlessness. Making them kings also addressed the church’s discomfort with “magic.” Only in the gospel of Matthew are they called “magi.”

I call this the taming of the wildness of God from supernatural to sensible, and we do it all the time, shrinking God and God’s work in the world to manageable, reasonable bits we can deal with and accept.

But this story is wild and cannot be tamed. God, the creator of the universe, the I AM WHO AM, came to live as one of us, taking on our mortal, vulnerable nature. God, the Almighty, Omnipotent one, became a helpless baby, born to a poor unwed, teenage mother.

If that isn’t wild enough, this story makes clear to us how God does this - a pattern that repeats over and over in the experience of the world to those who will notice and respond as the magi did. When God acts in the world, God lets us know. It isn’t a secret, it’s a manifest invitation to be partners with God in the work of redemption.

Using what humans can recognize, the star, a noticeable celestial event to those who notice such things, was an invitation to include the unlikely, the unexpected, the typically unwelcomed in God’s activity. The Persian magi were, obviously, Gentiles who believed differently, dressed differently and lived differently. Yet they, like the lowly and despised shepherds in the fields, were invited by God into this transforming moment.

Notice who wasn’t invited: Herod, who is the archetype of earthly power. Herod, like earthly kings before and since, would do anything to maintain his wealth and p0wer, including killing all male babies in order to ensure no prophesied king could one day take his power. We remember this reality on Dec 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, an event noted in the annals of history as well as on our liturgical calendar.

Not only was Herod not invited, he was actively UN-invited by God who spoke to the magi in a dream, apparently a group dream (and not the first of those in the Bible) telling them not to return to Herod.

We often listen to this story as if it were a great tale, like “Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.” But this isn’t fiction. It may have been sanitized and subdued over time, but the wildness of it remains for those who notice such things.

The birth of Jesus to Mary is the revelation of the pattern of God’s redemption. God comes to us and dwells among us transforming chaos into peace, division into unity, enemies into friends.

This is reflected in the words of Isaiah who prophesies that though darkness covers the earth, “… the Lord will arise upon you, and [God’s] glory will appear over you.” Isaiah says that nations of all kinds will come to this light bringing their gifts and praising God. The letter from Paul, an advocate for the Gentiles, affirms the same pattern: the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promises of Christ Jesus.

While an earthly perspective would count the Gentiles as enemies of the people of God in Israel, our Scripture, and this story of the magi in particular, clarifies who is and isn’t an enemy. Gentiles are not the enemy. People who believe, dress, and live differently are not the enemy. The poor, suffering, and pitiable are not the enemy.

Even the Herods of the world are not our enemy, though they may seem like they are. I’m reading the book, “A Wind in the Door” by Madeleine L’Engle. I love how she illustrates this point. L’Engle uses the term “echthroi” a Greek word for enemy, to describe anyone or any force that destroys life. People who seem like enemies, people who are hard to love, are held up as people we MUST love in order to thwart the true enemy - those forces that destroy life and sometimes enlist the help of people who are vulnerable to their influence.

Aren’t we all vulnerable? Isn’t that the point of the Incarnation? We are, by our nature, as vulnerable as Herod to become destroyers of life. But through Jesus, who now dwells in us, we are, as our Baptism says, delivered from the way of sin and death into the way of grace and truth.

We remain vulnerable, but we are also on a life-long journey of learning to notice the redeeming way of God in us and in the world around us. One of my favorite examples of this is something that has made its way back into our cultural consciousness by way of a meme. It’s a statement of wisdom from Mr. Rogers who said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

When we find the people who are helping we remember to trust that our reality is bigger than the current moment and includes a loving God who came to us as a vulnerable baby and inaugurated a whole new reality into being: a reality where love overcomes hate, light overcomes darkness, and the echthroi are transformed into friends.

This doesn’t mean we pretend that echthroi don’t exist. They do, and so does the destruction they wreak. Ignoring or turning away from that is not only irresponsible, it violates our Baptismal vows to serve Christ in all persons, to guard their dignity as created of God, and to strive for justice and peace among all people. (BCP, 304-5)

There are Herods among us even now, as is plain to anyone paying attention. The thing is, their power is illusory and we can interrupt it by focusing on the light that has risen upon us: the light revealed in Jesus, who is the Christ. Our faith in him leads us into the presence of God who is the only true power; and that power is love which is wild, untamable, and life-giving.

I share with you some wisdom from the poem: “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

That is how it feels when we are led into the presence of God. So what will we do with our one wild and precious life?

I pray we rejoice together knowing that God is still leading us in ways we can recognize when we pay attention. I pray we act together, being the helpers that give hope to anyone overwhelmed by the darkness of chaos. I pray we stay together, building our ranks with the unlikely, the unexpected and the unwelcomed in friendship born of divine love…

because every single thing from the concerns of our church to the current issues of global war, poverty and suffering, is already being redeemed by the wild, untamable love of God who dwells among us still and forever.


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