Epiphany, Year A, 2008

Epiphany: it is a word that evokes inspiration! Lightbulb moments! Big breakthroughs!

Why then, was this Epiphany sermon so hard to write?  This should be an easy sermon-I could write something really poetic about how our encounters with Jesus parallel the encounters of the Magi.  I could write something about how we each bring gifts to Jesus.  I could write something about how life is a journey, but ultimately we find and are found by Jesus. 

Instead, this year, when I read the Epiphany story, the story of the wise men really bothered me.

After all, the wise men were not kings.  There were not three of them.  The wise men do not go to a stable or see Jesus in a manger. They didn’t even bring camels with them! Is nothing sacred?

Like many stories in the Bible, the Sunday School image we have of the Epiphany story does not match up with the actual text.  The story is different, and much darker, than the one we re-enact in Christmas pageants and carols.

So who were these wise men that visited Jesus? 

The Greek word for these wise men is magos, which is where we get the word Magi.  Magi were political and also religious advisors to the kings of Persia.  They were probably nothing like what would happen if Karl Rove and Billy Graham merged into one person, but that can be a starting point for us to understand their function.  In their culture and time, kings wanted to read the religious landscape as well as the political landscape and Magi were their translators.  Magi were not part of the Jewish tradition, and part of their religious practice was to read the stars for meaning and wisdom.  When we think of astrology today, we think of newspaper columns and batty old ladies, but for the magi, astrology was a way to understand the universe.

So, when the Magi read the stars and see something unusual-about a new King of the Jews in Bethlehem–they are intrigued and go on a journey to meet this new king.  They get to Jerusalem and start gabbing about this king, and soon enough word gets to Herod.  Herod was the official King of the Jews, but Herod’s appointment was purely political.  He was a Jew yes, but by all accounts a Jew in name only.  He was appointed by the Roman government and was their puppet.  In addition, Herod was not a stable person.  Herod was the kind of person who loves power, but is fundamentally insecure, so must undermine everyone around him.  You may have worked for a mini-Herod at someone point in your life.  The more power people like Herod get, the more damage they can do.  Herod considers this baby a huge threat to him, and so orders the Magi to go and search for the baby and report back to him.

Remember, the Magi aren’t even his employees.  They are just wise men, from hundreds of miles away, but since they were going to go on this journey anyway, they acquiesce and make the journey to Bethlehem. 

They see the star, just as they predicted, and find Jesus in a house, not a stable. 

And here is where the story really starts to get upsetting.  After the Magi worship Jesus, they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so then the wise men go on their merry way, back to their riches, back to their safe life.

Have you ever wondered what happens after the Magi leave Bethlehem?  Well, in the latter part of the second chapter of Matthew, Joseph also has a dream that tells him to get out of dodge, so he, Mary and baby Jesus become refugees in Egypt.  And if that is not bad enough, Herod orders all the baby boys of Bethlehem, age two years and under to be executed.  And they are.

I don’t believe the massacre of the infants is ever mentioned in the New Testament again, but I wonder how it affected Jesus.  Did he know it happened?  Did he feel guilty?  Was that part of the reason he was so kind and welcoming to children?  Was the massacre why he was so critical of those in power?  Did he have any memories of Joseph and Mary terrified, sheltering him in Egypt, wanting desperately to go home?

Happy Epiphany, indeed.

This Epiphany, I want the Magi to be more heroic.  I want their faith and excitement about the birth of Jesus to motivate them to stop Herod’s madness.  I want them to do something about the impending massacre.  I don’t want them to run away to safety.  I want them to stand up and fight.  I want them to use their wealth and intelligence to trick Herod or have him deposed.  The Christmas story is all about people of little influence-shepherds, a carpenter, a young woman-whom God uses to bring about the salvation of the world.  The only set of characters in the story who have any power or wealth are the Magi.  And the Magi run away. 

God did not ask the Magi to stand up to Herod, so maybe hero was not their role, or maybe they understood that this Christmas story was not all shiny stars and gifts of gold. Maybe they understood that the birth of Christ has a dark side.  After all, one of the gifts they brought Jesus was myrrh-a fluid used in embalming.  Maybe their visit was both worship and a warning.  Maybe the Magi are in the story to warn Jesus and his parents that his journey will not be an easy one.  Maybe they are in the story to remind us that Christmas is followed by Good Friday.  And in this year, with only six weeks between Christmas and Lent, we will barely have put away the Christmas ornaments, before it is time to cloak ourselves in the memory of Christ’s death. 

But maybe we, as Christ’s followers–who have seen the horrors of Herod’s massacre, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, genocide in Rwanda and Sudan or this week in Kenya-maybe we who have the benefit of history-Maybe we can stand up to the Herods of this world even if the Magi were not in the position to do so.  We have the wealth. We have the power.  Heck, we even have the internet!  Maybe it is up to us, through our votes, through our charitable donations, through our advocacy to help stop future massacres, future despots.  Or, maybe we start smaller, and just deal with the mini-Herods in our workplaces or families.  Maybe we finally stand up to them knowing that we have the power of Christ-he who was born, died and rose again-behind us.  Maybe that is our gift to the Christ Child this Epiphany-that we will do all in our power to protect families like his family, and children like those who were slaughtered by a ruthless leader so many years ago.

For the power of the Herods of the world isn’t real power-it is just thuggery.  We have the real power-the power of a loving, creative, holy God who works in us and through us for good. 

And maybe that is our epiphany this Epiphany-that despite the dark underbelly of the Christian story-the Herods of the world do not win. The powerless, and those who love justice and those who practice mercy are all vindicated and redeemed by Christ’s resurrection, while the Herods of the world are left to the judgment of God. 

And that’s the good news that compelled three Magi from Persia to travel hundreds of miles to a no-count town in Israel to worship a tiny baby-A tiny baby that would change everything. 

Amen.

Advertisement

Proper 8, Year C, 2007

What a year of transitions!

Perhaps over time I will learn that every year is full of change, that we don’t really stand on solid ground, but on sediment that is constantly shifting.  However, this year has seemed particularly full of transition.  We elected, and then greeted, a new bishop.  The presidential race is in full swing, with dozens of men and at least one woman gunning for the most powerful office in America. 

And personally, for us at Emmanuel, we have lost many of the Saints that led this church for the last fifty years:  Kate LaRue, Peggy Flannagan, Ned Morris, Mildred Lapsley, Zan McGuire, Kitty Shirley, David Smith, Louise Ellinger, and Theo Earp.  I have listened to one interview conducted by the Heritage committee for their oral history project, and I was so moved to hear stories of the men and women who served this place twenty to thirty years ago on the vestry, through altar guild, singing in the choir, teaching.  Their service was a continuation of the service of those before them, and we carry their work on now. 

The work of the church is never ending, and though we don’t often take time to reflect on it, the work we do is always a direct result of someone else’s hard work.  Our Sunday School and nursery would not be functional if not for the years of service of the Christian Education committee before I came.  Chuck would not be here if Mr. Marston and Mr. LaRue had not poured their hearts into this place. 

In the Christian story, generations are always passing the torch, one to another.  Sometimes that goes smoothly. . . and sometimes there are some bumps in the road!

Today, we’ll look at three such stories-the transition of leadership from King Saul to King David, the transition of leadership from Elijah to Elisha, and finally the transition of leadership from Jesus to the Church.

The transition of leadership from Saul to David is a worst-case scenario.  If you’ll remember from reading the 1st and 2nd books of Samuel, Saul was the first king of Israel.  God did not want the people of Israel to have a king, but they whined because they wanted to be like all the other countries around them.  The whining finally got to God, and he granted them a king.  Saul was a great king.  He was tall and handsome, very smart and had innate leadership skills.  The problem was, he was such a good king, he forgot to rely on God.  He ignored the prophet Nathan’s instructions once and that was IT.  God wanted him out.  For God’s second try as king, he chose David.  David was not anyone’s first choice for king.  He was scrawny, a shepherd, and. . .a musician.  But God knew that David loved God with all his heart. God wanted him as king..

But you know, it’s hard to let go of power.  History books tell us it took years for Nixon to fully understand that he was no longer president.  For a long time, he would sit in his office at home and command his staff as if he were still the leader of the free world.  While some find it easy to retire, others, especially if forced out, have a really difficult time letting someone else take over.  Saul was one of these guys.  He knew David was next in line to be king, but he was not going to go down without a fight.  He fought the transition so hard, it ended up killing him-he died on the battlefield.  Saul did not need to die that way.  He and David did not start out as enemies-in fact, Saul’s son Jonathan, was David’s best friend.  Saul could have resigned his post and then acted as an advisor to David, or taken up gardening, or some form of ancient golf.  Instead, he gripped on to his power, his authority, and it ruined him.

Do we ever cling to power?  Letting go of a position of authority can be very painful.  My father retired two summers ago after being principal of a particular school for five years.  Watching his successor undo much of the good foundation he had laid at the school, was terribly frustrating to my dad.  He had to consciously let go and distance himself so he wouldn’t go crazy worrying about the students and teachers under this new administration.  We cling to power, not just for power’s sake, but because we think we can do a good job, a better job than the next guy, but sometimes God is calling us to let go and to move forward in our own lives. 

The transition of power from Elijah to Elisha is a very different story.  If the story of Saul and David is on the very human and very sad end of the spectrum, the story of Elijah and Elisha is over here on the over the top, almost ridiculously spiritual side of the spectrum.  Elijah was a stormy old prophet.  He ushered in a drought to punish the nation for idolatry.  And he was constantly shouting prophecies of dooooooom.  Nevertheless, Elisha thought Elijah was the bees knees.  In our story today, he is following Elijah around like Elijah’s biggest fan.  Even when Elijah tells him to get lost, that he’s going to be taken up into heaven, Elisha won’t leave.  He admires Elijah so much, that he wants to inherit a doubleshare of his spirit-he wants to be able to carry on Elijah’s prophetic ministry with the same energy and vigor as his mentor.  When Elijah is finally taken up into heaven, Elisha tore his clothes into two pieces and placed Elijah’s fallen mantle on himself-symbolizing the transition of leadership.

Taking over leadership from a successful leader is scary stuff.  It can be tempting to hero worship our predecessor and lose ourselves in their style. And while we can certainly learn from other leaders, it is important to retain a sense of our own identity.  While Elisha did inherit Elijah’s spirit, Elisha was a very different kind of prophet.  Instead of heralding doom, Elisha showed people God’s power by being a wonder worker.  He worked miracles for his nation and for individuals.  (He also killed two kids who made fun of him for being bald-but that is a whole other story.)   Elisha was able to inherit Elijah’s spirit, while remaining true to himself and the gifts God had given him.

Finally, the transition of leadership between Jesus and the church is most like what we experience today in the Church.  Jesus had spent three years leading and teaching his disciples.  He knew his death was going to come, and come soon.  He had changed Simon’s name from Simon to Peter because Jesus knew that Peter-which means rock-would become the rock of the new church.  You and I know how that transition went.  Before Peter could become Peter of the book of Acts, in which he is a wise leader and administrator, he first had to be Peter the impetuous screw up.  Before he could become the Peter who would guide the church, he had to be Peter who would betray Jesus three times.

Peter, James, Paul and the other leaders of the early church had to deal with all sorts of problems as people figured out what it meant to follow Jesus, and they did not handle every situation perfectly.  Like us, sometimes they fought, or hurt each others feelings, or spoke without thinking.  Also like us, they knew they could solve these problems by remembering how Jesus handled situations and by asking the Holy Spirit for guidance. 

I know it is hard to believe, but I have made some SPECTACULARLY stupid decisions as I have ministered here.  You are not so lucky as to get to hear these stories in this sermon, but it is sufficient to say I can relate to Peter’s moment of “Ooooh.  I’ve really screwed up.”  Like Peter, I have had to take a deep breath, ask for forgiveness, and then move on, hoping I have learned something!  I’m sure none of you can relate! 

When we are baptized, we each become a leader in the church.  We each become a minister.  We all will face times in our life when we have to let go of our power to let someone else step up.  We will also face times when we realize that WE are who God wants to step up, no matter how underqualified we think we are!  We will also all make mistakes as we attempt to lead and need to be forgiven.

The good news, is that God will also bless our leadership.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit we will be able to accomplish more than we ever would on our own steam.  The trick is to remember Saul and not be tempted to do everything on our own!

Our great leaders at Emmanuel whom we have lost this year had their leadership blessed by God and all of here in this room enjoy the benefits of their hard work.  As we take over their responsibilities, their areas of leadership, may be also be blessed.

Amen.