Growing Up, Building UP

Growing Up, Building Up

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Sixth Sunday After Epiphany/A • February 12, 2017

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

© 2017 All Rights Reserved

Click below to hear the sermon preached

Where is your mind right now? Are you thinking about something that happened earlier this morning or during the week? Are you in the past? Are you in the future: thinking about what will happen next, what your day will hold? Are you here?—or somewhere else? I think the greatest change in our time has been the way our minds are asked to focus on so many different places at once. Have you seen people out together, perhaps at dinner or a coffee shop, clearly together and yet both engaged with others because they are busy texting on mobile phones or taking photos for Instagram or doing something else that calls their mind to another place, another person? Where is your mind right now? Buddhists especially raise the issue of mindfulness: simply, consciously, disciplining your mind to be right here, right now. The question of your mind, my mind, is one we heard Paul raise last week when he spoke about the mind of Christ.

Division in the Church and the Mind of Christ

Remember that Paul is dealing here with the problems of human division, especially within the church at Corinth. The congregation has divided into factions, some looking to Paul as their leader, some to a man named Apollos, perhaps others to Cephas. The issues are not clear, but we don’t have to go far to imagine the result. We know what division looks like and many have experienced it, if not in church, then perhaps somewhere else. We are hearing this season a connected series of readings so it’s important to remember this background. Last week, we heard Paul deal with division in a general way. He advanced this principle: Christ crucified as an emblem of the mind of Christ. That is, the emblem of ultimate compassion animated, lit, by the love of God, like a lamp flaring up and burning brightly. The mind of Christ always cares, always fills with compassion, always sacrifices like a parent giving up something for a child.

Getting Personal

Now Paul is applying this principle to the people in the church, that is to say: to us. Now, I’ve always found this is where things get sticky. It’s one thing to announce a great principle; it’s another to make it personal. Every week I try to share a reflection on the great principles in the Bible. I know my own life doesn’t always reflect these. I know that Jesus says that the commandment not to murder really means not to be angry with someone but I do get angry. I know that Jesus says that we are required to forgive those who hurt us but I have been hurt and I have had a hard time forgiving. Do you find this? Do you struggle to live with the mind of Christ in your mind? Then this is for you—and me.

The first thing Paul says is that these people are babies. I remember ‘baby’ as an insult. I grew up with two younger brothers. Allan was four years younger and I don’t remember a time before him. But my brother David is ten years younger than me so I do remember him as a baby. He always wanted to join in with Allan and I but of course he was too little for some things. We would climb up to a treehouse and leave him behind, we would get on the top bunk of the bed and leave him behind and he would cry. And we would say: “Don’t be such a baby”. Paul says to the Corinthian Christians: you were being babies. 

What are babies like? Well, of course they are wonderful and inspiring and the make us smile and we track each advance in their lives. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for Rosie to be big enough to come to children’s time. But if we are honest, we can admit there is another side to babies. Babies are selfish. They don’t care how tired you are when they want to eat; they don’t care that your’e doing something when they want to be changed. They don’t care that you just need a quiet moment when they feel like being rocked. Babies are totally self-centered. In the same way, Paul says the Corinthian Christians are acting like babies, self-centered, and that leads them to be jealous and quarreling.

Dealing With Babies

Now notice something about the way Paul responds to these baby Christians: he doesn’t throw them out, he doesn’t work to overcome them, he doesn’t maneuver to make his faction winners. What Paul does is to simply assess where they are, who they are, when they are in the process of development. They’re babies; fair enough ,give them baby food. “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready,” he says. This is the piece we miss about being church members: we never ask where people are in their spiritual development. I wonder what it would be like if when our Deacons met with new members, we had a conversation about where that person is in their development as a Christian. Even more important, we need to have this conversation within ourselves. Where are you in your own development? Are you a baby? Are you able to walk but need a little help? Are you grown up but needing some guidance? How much better we could nurture each other as Christians if we asked and answered these questions personally.

So Paul is dealing with babies. How do you grow babies up? You feed them appropriate food, cuddle them and teach them. Some of the teaching is formal but the most important teaching any of us get is what happens around us, what people show us is the right way to do things. I learned to take care of myself at school; but my mother taught me to make my bed. I learned to read from a teacher; my family provided a whole library and an example of people who read. 
When Paul wants to teach, he does it by contrasting the smallness of their leaders with the greatness of God. 

For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. [1 Cor 3:4-7]

What Matters?

What matters? Does Paul? Does Apollos? Casablanca is a movie from the moment when people were asked to choose sides between fighting fascism and cooperating with it. Humphrey Bogart plays a man named Rick who says over and over, “I stick my head out for no one”. But Rick has a past, a past that includes a love affair with Ilse that ended bitterly in Paris when she failed to join him in escaping the advancing Nazis. When Ilse shows up at his cafe, he learns she is married to the leader of the Resistance. Rick has two passes to get people out of Casablanca, where fascism is increasingly becoming more violent. At first it appears Ilse and her husband will be trapped: Rick refuses when she begs for his help. But finally, at the end of the movie, Rick, gives the coveted exit visas to Ilse and her husband so they can continue their Resistance works. He says, 

 …it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.
[http://thoughtcatalog.com/oliver-miller/2013/05/50-quotes-from-casablanca-in-order-of-awesomeness/]

He summons her to a greater vision, a bigger vision.

We’ve all seen this process at work. We grow up in a place, maybe move a few times, travel some and see a few places. Isn’t it always surprising how different customs can be? When I moved to Boston after college, I remember going into a little diner and asking for a cup of coffee. The counter guy said, “Regular?” This was before the age of espresso and Starbucks, I’d never heard of anything but regular coffee, so I said “yes”. Now I’ve always drunk my coffee black but what he put in front of me was light brown; it had cream in it and when I tasted it, sugar. So I said, “hey, I wanted my coffee black”. He looked at me like I was out of my head and said, “You said regular”. So we encounter other customs.
 

Seeing the Greater Vision

Every once in a while, something really shakes us though, something makes us see a much larger picture. For me, one of those moments was when the astronauts broadcast the first picture of the whole earth. Do you remember seeing that for the first time? One thing that was clear: none of the boundary lines on the atlas at school were on the earth. So as we move to a larger view, what we thought was important becomes less so.

Now Paul is asking the Corinthian Christians—and us!—to see this fundamental huge principle: that we are not here for ourselves, on our own, but part of a larger weaving. We are God’s field he says. And what is a field? It isn’t just a piece of ground; it’s a place where things are grown, a place that bears fruit. We are God’s field and God is growing a harvest here, we are meant to produce that harvest. We are God’s building, Paul says. What is the building? Isn’t it a meeting house where God’s people can come to praise God and embrace in imitation of the God who embraces us?

Growing Up

We do these things by growing up spiritually. We do them be growing from babies into servants, who can cultivate and care for the field, who can maintain and share the building. Where is your mind right now? Is it open to the mind of Christ. It was the mind of Christ that prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking God, as any human might, to ease a time of trouble, but then moving on to say, “Not my will be done Lord but yours—to embrace the purpose and providence of God even in that moment of darkness. How often do we pray that prayer? how would it change us if we did? How would making it our center change our church?

Amen
 

What Happens?


A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Transfiguration Sunday/C • February 7, 2016

“You are my beloved”. Twice, the gospels tell us, heaven opened and Jesus heard in his deepest soul God speaking these words. Once at his baptism; again, late in his ministry, when he took his closest friends up a mountain and they saw how like the great prophets Moses and Elijah he was. Because we aren’t reading these stories in order, we miss some of the context. Before this, he has healed and offered hope; before this he has taught his friends his path will lead to a cross. They have argued with him, feared for him, followed him. Now he shines with the vision of this mission, now he is transfigured, altered, like the wick of a candle, as the love of God burns and sheds light in the world. What happens on the mountain? How many have asked this? Yet if we truly look, we will know what happen because we see it ourselves at times. We have been thinking about how to live together in the covenant community of Christ and last week we heard the most important principle of all: to live from the permanent love of God. What happens on the mountain? What happens when we live in the love of God?

Let me tell you a story. There was once an old stone monastery tucked away in the middle of a picturesque forest. For many years people would make the significant detour required to seek out this monastery. The peaceful spirit of the place was healing for the soul.
In recent years, however, fewer and fewer people were making their way to the monastery. The monks had grown jealous and petty in their relationships with one another, and the animosity was felt by those who visited. The Abbot of the monastery was distressed by what was happening, and poured out his heart to his good friend Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a wise old Jewish rabbi. Having heard the Abbot’s tale of woe he asked if he could offer a suggestion. “Please do” responded the Abbot. “Anything you can offer.”

Jeremiah said that he had received a vision, and the vision was this: the messiah was among the ranks of the monks. The Abbot was flabbergasted. One among his own was the Messiah! Who could it be? He knew it wasn’t himself, but who? He raced back to the monastery and shared his exciting news with his fellow monks. The monks grew silent as they looked into each other’s faces. Was this one the Messiah?

From that day on the mood in the monastery changed. Joseph and Ivan started talking again, neither wanting to be guilty of slighting the Messiah. Pierre and Naibu left behind their frosty anger and sought out each other’s forgiveness. The monks began serving each other, looking out for opportunities to assist, seeking healing and forgiveness where offense had been given.

As one traveler, then another, found their way to the monastery word soon spread about the remarkable spirit of the place. People once again took the journey to the monastery and found themselves renewed and transformed. All because those monks knew the Messiah was among them.

Let me tell you another story. Almost 16 years ago, I stood in the chancel of another church, a church where I had been the pastor for five years, a place I knew well. But on that day, another minister was at the center, directing our worship, a man who is like a father to me. And as I stood there and looked out at the congregation, Jacquelyn appeared in a white dress at the back and there was a light around her. In moments she was next to me, a few moments later we were married. We were changed, changed by love, and that has made all the difference.

One more story. Two years ago, I was still healing from a wound from which I thought I’d never recover. I was only just beginning to believe the astonishing sense I’d received from God that I wasn’t finished, that God had more for me to do. I read the information about this church and set it aside; Jacquelyn insisted I read it again, contact the committee and I did. A few months later I came here for the first time, stood in this pulpit and addressed you and, just like the day with Jacquelyn, we made a new covenant. We were changed, changed by love, and that has made all the difference.

What happened on the mountain?. In those moments, those disciples saw Jesus in a new way and a new covenant began. We often live in the past. We use it to draw lessons, we use it to guide us, to help us avoid hurts. But the gospel wants us to see ahead, not just behind. Transfiguration is a glimpse of the future, of where we are going, of a moment when we can see that God has been doing the same thing all along, in Moses, in Elijah, now in Jesus: reaching out to embrace us, inviting us to embrace each other.

I tell these stories this morning because transfiguration doesn’t just happen on a mountain far away, it happens in our lives, it happens when we open ourselves to God’s love, when we take a moment to look up from our wounds and let God’s love embrace us. John Sumwalt tells of a friend who had a powerful experience of the holy. She wasn’t sure who she could tell. She couldn’t think of anyone in the church and ended up sharing it with a Buddhist priest. He told her “not to try to dissect it for meaning, pick away at it or anything else – but just to let it sit. His words were “Hold it in your heart. It may be years before you even catch a glimmer of understanding.” Whenever heaven opens and God’s love is so evidently, clearly, showered down, a difference is made; all the difference is made.

What happens on the mountain is that the disciples see Jesus in a new way. They see him as the child of God, embraced, loved. What happens when we see each other that way? We gather in the name of Jesus who was transfigured on the mountain and as the continuing expression of that covenant community of disciples. Like them, I think we often misunderstand him; like them, we aren’t always ready to follow immediately where he’s going. But when we do, when we ourselves hope in that love, have faith in that love, practice that love, what happens? Christ comes; God blesses. And the kingdom is here, right here, among us. Today I want to close with a poem from Malcom Guide.

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.

What happens on the mountain can happen, does happen.
May it happen in your life this week.
Amen.

Your turn!

The Importance of ReGifting

The Importance of ReGifting
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday After Epiphany/C• January 17, 2016

“Tradition!” — that’s how the wonderful musical, Fiddler on the Roof, begins, a story of life in a shtetl, a close knit Russian Jewish village, challenged as the larger world with all its diversity seeps in and seeks change. I couldn’t help thinking of that song this week as I read Paul’s words to the Corinthian Christians. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a description of how to live together as a church. Now, for the last two Sundays, we’ve been hearing about how the light of God’s opening heaven has come into the world. Today and for the next two Sundays, I’d like to think with you about Paul’s description of how to take that light and make it shine in a way that lights up the world. Jesus said, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lamp stand so that those who enter may see the light.” [Luke 11:33] How do we take the light of God’s love in Jesus and light up the world?
Paul is trying to keep the flickering light of the Corinthian Church shining. It’s about 20 years after Jesus and the church is about ten years old. It’s old enough that the initial exuberance of just being a church is gone and they’re starting to argue among themselves. Who are these people? Some are life long Jews who got kicked out of Italy; they grew up with Passover and candles and hymns and stories about Abraham. Now they’re putting these things in a new context, understanding them in new ways. Some of them are pagans, people who grew up worshipping different gods. We don’t really have anything like that in our culture. In ancient Corinth, you went to a different god depending on what you needed: one for prosperity, one for wisdom, one for healing and so on. They didn’t grow up with the Jewish stories, but they’re learning them. They do know what feels spiritual, though, that’s a current that runs through all religions. And of course there are all the usual human differences: some are older, some younger, some married, some single, some are richer or poorer.
All those things are making them separate out in the church. Paul’s whole letter is about finding unity in the light of God’s love. So far he’s talked about several topics and now he’s turning to one of the most important: gifts.  We’ve just come through a season of gift giving, so when I say that word, you might think immediately of something in a box wrapped with pretty paper and maybe a bow. Put that gift back; the gifts we’re talking about here are something inside, something we all have already. Let me start with someone you’ve never heard of: Bill Benish. Bill was a classmate of mine in high school. We were part of the geeky bunch; for me it was word, for Bill it was math. In Algebra, he would get up at the blackboard and something just took over. He had a gift; he saw how the numbers and the variables and all of it went together, I guess. I didn’t particularly, but I could see him and it was like seeing a beautiful dance. He got me through Algebra; I helped get him through English. I lost track of him over the years. But I still remember that sense of the gift.
Do you have a gift? Is there something that gives you an amazing joy to do and always has? There are a wide variety of places online that will let you answer a bunch of questions and then suggest what your gift is. Maybe sometime, somewhere, someone did what used to be called vocational testing and said here you go, this is what you should be. Often someone simply recognizes our gift. When I was in ninth grade, our English teacher gave us an assignment to take a simple story and re-write it in some way. I wrote it as a play. I spent hours at my mother’s typewriter and after I turned it in, she called me up to her desk. Now that was a scary thing; it usually didn’t mean something good. She had my paper and she looked at me and said, “I’ve been trying to figure out who you are here and now I see: you’re a writer.” I don’t know that at the time what she said fully registered; I was just grateful I wasn’t in trouble. But her comment did make a difference and the truth is, I’ve earned my living my whole adult life writing and speaking.
Now the Corinthian church is like any church, like this church. There are people who do things, people who say things, some lead worship, some are better singers, some are good cooks, some are seen as spiritual leaders. One thing they have that we don’t is people who speak in tongues. What are tongues? In all religions, there have been people who experienced a kind of ecstasy that makes them move or speak in ways that are passionate and often hard to understand. It’s not unique to Christian churches; there are Hindu ecstatics, Muslim ecstatics, Jewish, Buddhist, all kinds. In Corinth, there are some people who have this gift and they are acting as if it means they are more spiritual, more in contact with Christ, better in some Godly way than others. And that, of course, is leading to division.
So Paul is speaking to this issue. He starts with a breath taking statement of inclusion: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Wow: think of the meaning of this—doesn’t matter if you’re straight, gay, male, female, rich, poor, Jewish, Gentile, whatever, if you are saying “Jesus is Lord” we have to acknowledge you, include you, as part of the family of Christians. That’s likely to be uncomfortable because there are people who affirm this that I don’t agree with about other things.
Once Paul announces this threshold, this equality, he goes on to talk about the places where we aren’t equal: the matter of gifts. He acknowledges there are a variety of gifts, of activities, of ways of being.

To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

Then announces a fundamental equality in them: all are given by God and all are given for one reason: the common good.
Most of us have some sense of having gifts, but do you know the purpose of your gift? 
Eric Liddell was a Scottish runner in the early 20th century but also a committed Christian leader. Born at a mission station in China, he returned to Scotland to study and run. His emphasis on running didn’t always sit well with the strict Scottish Presbyterians. The move Chariots of Fire is in part his biography and he says, defending his desire to compete as a runner,

I believe that God made me for a purpose, for China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure. To give it up would be to hold him in contempt. You were right, it’s not just fun. To win is to honor him…

To use our gift is to honor the giver. Nowhere is there more joy, more energy, than in fully realizing God’s gifts for then we indeed become what God hoped. Paul lists off various gifts and affirms this, sees them each as something come from God, with a purpose. 
For every gift contains a purpose. The first part is recognizing that it is a gift. There is something in us, a kind of pride, that often whispers we are our own, that what we are is solely because of our own accomplishment. When we recognize who we are is not simply ours but a result of the gift of God, the door opens to gratitude. When have you thanked God for your gifts? When have you simply quietly said to God in prayer, thank you for the exuberance of this spirit? When we know ourselves as the result of God’s gifts, we come to know ourselves as well as the vehicles of God’s gift. The second part of that process unfolds when we take up the purpose of the gift. Paul says: for the common good. Our gifts are not meant simply for us, they are part of God’s provision, God’s plan. One of the fundamental beliefs of Congregationalists is that each church is completely empowered by Christ to do the work Christ intends. The means of that empowerment, that energy, are the gifts of its members. So when we use our gifts knowing them as gifts, in gratitude, for God’s purpose, we build up the energy and mission of Christ. Giving our gifts gives God pleasure and fulfills God’s plan.
This is what I call regifting. Have you done this? Someone gives you something for Christmas and it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t work for you, you don’t need it or want it. But you know someone who might like it. So you wrap it up, you give the gift to them. I used to go to a party after Christmas every year where people brought something to regift. What Paul seems to be saying is that your gift is meant to be regifted, that is shared, with the larger world, and in particular the whole church. That’s why you were given the gift; that’s it’s purpose and when gifts are regifted, they expand, they grow.
Every person here, each one of us, has a gift to give. Every visitor, everyone who walks in our doors is full of gifts waiting to be discovered, used, expressed. Today we’ve read several pieces of scripture. I’ve chosen to speak principally about the reading from First Corinthians. But I want to remind you finally of the Gospel reading. In that reading, according to John, Jesus performs the first sign that he is indeed the Christ. The sign is turning water into wine at a wedding. I want to close with this thought for you to carry home. There must have been many, many guests at the wedding at Cana. Yet of all of them, all the invited guests, perhaps dignitaries, the bride’s parents, the grooms, the bridal couple themselves—all of them!—only the servants see the miracle, know the miracle, experience the power and presence of Christ. When we ourselves give our gifts, knowing Jesus as Lord, then we too are servants and then indeed, we shall, we do, experience the power and presence of Christ and the exuberant joy of regifting what the Spirit has given us.
Amen.
© James Eaton 2016

Wonder Wonders – Epiphany Sunday – Jan 3, 2016

You can hear this sermon preached by clicking here

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved
Epiphany Sunday/C • January 3, 2016

Among the figures that populated my grandmother’s nativity scene, none were more impressive than the Three Kings. Made of carved wood and painted in bright colors, the Kings sat on camels linked together by gold colored chains and they had little treasure boxes that fitted behind them, boxes which opened and could be made to contain real treasures: bits of gold from the chocolate coins my grandfather gave us or some other thing that became a treasure just by being secret. I never cared much about the cattle or the sheep or the fat little shepherd boys but my brother and I played with the Kings until their chains broke and one of the camels lost a leg. Even broken, their gold almost rubbed off, the Three Kings seemed to contain the real wonder of the nativity just as they contained our treasures. Obviously we weren’t alone in our fascination. The fascination and emphasis we put on Christmas is unique to our culture; Eastern Christianity, most European Christians and the rest of the world spend far more time on the celebration of Epiphany than on Christmas. It is their moment for gift giving and reflecting on God’s gifts. Too often for us, Epiphany comes as an after thought to Christmas: a time to finish vacuuming the pine needles and get back to normal. Today I want to call you out from the normal to a story that promises to let your heart swell with joy and invites us to wonder.
Perhaps it’s best to begin by putting the creche figures back, letting go of the stories that people have made up, and seeing what Matthew tells us about the Magi. Magi means “Wise Ones”—and that’s what they are; only later did a legend grow up that named them and called them kings. The Magi were astrologers: watchers of the sky who look for meaning in the stars, relating patterns in the planets to prophecies. Suddenly one night they see some conjunction, some stellar event in a region of the sky called the House of the Hebrews and their prophetic books tell them that there is a special king expected in the land of Judah. So they go: packing up, joining a caravan, just as settlers once crossed this continent by waiting in St. Louis for a wagon train. They take the ancient caravan route, the route that Abraham would have traveled, the route traveled by merchants and slaves and conquerors for thousands of years and about a year or so later they come to Jerusalem.
What does it feel like when you get somewhere after a long trip? Maybe you were in the car for days and the wrappers from old hamburgers and drink cups litter the back seat. Maybe your airplane finally lands and you impatiently wait for the aisle to clear, grab your stuff and hurry into the airport only to realize you’re not sure which way to go. Once arrived in Jerusalem, surely the Magi would have found rooms in some tavern, cleaned up, hired a translator, made an appointment to see King Herod. This is a small country they’re visiting, after all; they themselves are from a richer, older capital. Stil,l visiting a King is serious business. They are there, but not all the way there yet. Last October, Jacquelyn and I went to Spain. We flew for what seemed an endless time until we landed in Barcelona. But Barcelona wasn’t where we were really going; that was a little town somewhere up the coast. We just assumed we could get directions but the directions were in Spanish. Thank God for the kind woman who spoke Spanish and told us how to find the train station!
The Magi need directions for the birth place and they just assume that since this is such an important event, the King will know all about it, will know how to get there. I imagine them putting on their best robes, their finest first century version of a power tie and business suit, eager to get the final directions to complete their long trip. Now they wind through the narrow streets of the city, fending off beggars and peddlers; now they come to the palace and various staff pass them from one to another until finally they are part of a line to see King Herod. Finally they are there, called forward. There must have been some ritual greetings, like the President and a foreign leader doing a photo op. Finally, they ask: “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.”Silence. Herod looks at his advisors, who turn away. Some meaningless greeting, some vague words, must have been said to put them off. “Please enjoy our hospitality while I consider this question.” All we have is Matthew’s comment that Herd was frightened and called his smartest advisors together to ask the same question: where is this child? They read the prophets and tell him Bethlehem’s the place. So Herod calls the Magi back in, this time secretly. He tells them Bethlehem, tells them to find the child and come back and report.
The story offers two reactions to the birth of Jesus. The Magi come to pay homage. They don’t know Jesus, they don’t know anything about him. They just know that something about him makes heaven shine in a new way. Something about him lights up life. They want to see more of this light; they want to give thanks for it. They’re come in wonder; they come with gratitude symbolized by gifts. The most important detail about them isn’t the robes or the crowns or even the gifts. Matthew’s readers would have passed right by those things that grab us and seized on something we miss: they are gentiles. They are outsiders, people from outside the covenant of Moses, people who don’t eat kosher or observe any of the customs of good Jews. They’re outsiders and yet they come in wonder, simply seeking the light God’s shining on this moment.
Herod can think only of securing his own position. He wants to know where Jesus is so he can pursue his own plan, his own goals. The conflict that will bring Jesus to the cross is already in motion right here, right from the beginning: cross and crown are at war right from the start.Just outside the boundary of this story, Herod will do what the powerful always do: use violence to prevent change. Power always seeks to remain powerful. Herod is the ultimate insider, just as the Magi are outsiders. So right from the beginning, God is using outsiders, visitors, to shake the foundations of God’s people, to change them, to open them so God’s purpose of spreading the light of love can move on, move forward, move outward.
This story asks us the same question the old spiritual asks: Which side are you on? Put another way, What light lights your life? The word Epiphany means manifestation or showing forth, as a light shines. The light in which we walk, the light that lights our lives, does show and it does make a difference. We know this about color and light: sit in a red room, psychologists tells us, and you somehow become more aggressive. The same is true of your life: the light in which you see things is a matter of decision. One camp song says, “I have decided to follow Jesus”. What have you decided? What purpose drives your journey? The Magi and Herod both go to Bethlehem but only the Magi come in wonder, seeking God’s wonder; only the Magi see Jesus. Herod comes with soldiers, power, violence but Jesus is gone by then, escaped by God’s hand. Now today lots of people show Jesus’ name around for their own purposes. Like Herod, they have their own agenda and only see how he might fit their needs. But still, now as then, there are people, often excluded, who come in wonder, who see the light of God’s love. And God wonders: where are we going? where will we go? Amen.