Sunday, January 06, 2013

Epiphany C

They were the magi - magicians. Workers of divine mysteries. Ancient scientists who looked to the sky for wisdom.

Matthew says that they were wise men. But he doesn’t tell us how many of them they were and he certainly doesn’t say that they were kings.

But they play an important role in this story. They tell us something about Jesus that may make us a little uncomfortable. These star-gazing wanderers push our boundaries, and test our understanding of God.

And it’s not their fault.

There’s a Christian cliche that says “Wise Men Still Seek Jesus.” And I’m sure that now they would include women in that declaration. But even if wise men and women still seek Jesus, what happens when they find him?

In today’s story the answer isn’t clear.

They arrive at the manger and pay him homage like they would any other king. And they even have an intuitive understanding of how his life and ministry would unfold.

They bring him gold to recognize his kingship. Frankincense to remember his priestly ministry. And myrrh to look ahead to his death.

They seem to get the gravity of this moment. And they appear to understand who he was.

But there doesn’t seem to be any follow through after they leave. There’s no evidence that they took any further steps in faith.

They leave only questions.

Do they become followers of this baby in Bethlehem? Do they get baptized? Is there any evidence that they renounce their former lives as workers of magic and astrology in order to faithfully worship the God of Israel revealed in the child Jesus?

Matthew doesn’t say. He doesn’t seem to care. They just make their exit and we don’t hear from them again. The story just says that when they went home, they chose to by-pass Jerusalem so they wouldn’t have to tell Herod where they found the baby. Their decision was politically motivated as much as it was spiritual. They suspected that Herod had designs for this baby other than worship. And they wanted no part of it. They just went down that back road and went about their business.

But I always wonder what happened when they finally arrived home. What did they say about what and who they found? How did this encounter change them? Or did it? Was this just one more spiritual quest? One more notch on the belt, one more experience they could say they had? One more spiritual tradition they could add to their collection?

When they arrived home did they stop searching for God because they found God in the baby in Bethlehem? Did they go off on another journey looking for the divine some where else? And did they find God in that journeying?

Of course, I have no idea. And maybe I’m looking too deeply into the story, trying to find clues to better understand their motivation where there are none to be found.

But I like to think that they had more depth, more commitment to the search for God than in the on-going chase after something new and shinier they could collect for their own use, while ignoring where it came from.

But I don’t know where their spiritual commitments lay. And today, we encounter the same thing by people who I probably wouldn’t call “wise,” yet nonetheless search for God in their own way, on their own terms.

An article, by American preacher Lillian Daniel has been circulating widely among religious professionals. In fact I think half my clergy friends on Facebook and Twitter provided a link to it because it speaks to a common frustration among church folks.

The article has the provocative title “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.”

In the article she takes on those who create their own spirituality on their own terms. She scolds those whose heartfelt theological reflections lead people to the deeply profound and radical conclusions that they “find God in the sunset” or “during walks on the beach” or “while hiking in the mountains” as if we Christians never thought of finding God in nature before.

She waves a finger, chiding them saying “Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself.

“What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself...”

I understand her frustration. As one who has dug deeply into the Christian theological tradition, and discovering its riches, it can seem downright insulting to centuries of thoughtful theological reflection being diminished in favour of a “I find God in the sunsets” kind of kindergarten spirituality.

And we - YOU - as a church, who gather regularly to hear God’s word and receive the Holy Sacraments, who work hard to build a strong church, who give so much of your time, talents, and treasure to ensure that the proclamation of the gospel is heard between these walls and lived out in the community might be insulted by people who create their own spirituality and pass it off as equivalent to a life time of faithful service.

Those of you who’ve lived, breathed, and died the gospel message, might be offended to hear that some folks believe their self-styled “walk along the beach” spirituality is a more authentic expression of faith than you who have holy dirt under your fingernails.

In my job I encounter these folks with self-created spiritualities all the time, folks who dismiss or challenge institutional religious traditions. But the weird thing is that they want me, as a religious leader to affirm their religious rants, no matter how bizarre they are.

A conversation usually goes like this, “Look, pastor, I know you are a Christian, but I believe that the earth is just a school for us to learn how to live on a higher plane of existence when we die, after which we exist as pure energy. And when we suffer it means we were meant to have that experience because in a past life we hurt someone and we need to feel the same thing. That’s true right? RIGHT?”

And, of course, if I disagree with them, I’m forcing my religion on to them, being the typical despotic preacher who demands intellectual obedience, as if they weren’t doing the same to me.

I find those conversations annoying, if not insulting. As if their random musings are at the same level as thousands of years of deep theological refections.

Many religious commentators have chimed in on why this phenomena is happening. Some say that it’s because of boring church services with long, tedious sermons that are out of touch with peoples’ daily lives.

Others suggest that we speak a religious language that does not compute in the brains of non-believers; that the words we use get lost in translation when they reach secular ears.

Yet others blame the growth of a multi-cultural society, where there’s no moral or religious consensus, and so the spiritual waters have been so muddied that folks are forced to create their own spiritual meaning.

Still others blame a self-centered consumer society, where people get to pick and choose everything else in their lives, so why not their personal spirituality?

While I’m sure that there’s truth in all of these theories, I wonder if the rise of self-styled and self-created spiritualities is the unintended consequence of Christians behaving badly. Our cultural memory is long, and history doesn’t forget, and it hurts our proclamation and our reputation as good news people.

When people are wounded by church folks, why are we surprised when they wander off and claim spiritual independence for themselves?

It’s easy to get frustrated by those who don’t share our commitment to the faith. But this is where the wise men challenge us. In the wise men, God has opened up the door for everyone to walk through. It’s uncomfortably universal because these wise men show tremendous understanding of who Jesus is. Their gifts illuminate Jesus’ ministry. They believe that he is the king of Israel - God’s people.

And they leave Bethlehem without dedicating their lives to him and the God revealed in him. And everyone seems ok with that.

But God used them anyway. God put them in this story to push the boundaries, to enlarge God’s territory, to draw all people into God’s embrace. Whether they knew it or not, God did a new thing through them. And whether or not they returned the favour and remained faithful to the God of Israel revealed in Jesus, God still remained faithful to them.

That’s why I don’t get upset as I used to when I look outside our church doors and see a world that doesn’t acknowledge much less honour the God revealed in Jesus. I don’t get upset because God can and does use all people for God’s purposes. God’s mission includes those of us in the church, but doesn’t stop with us. God’s arms are too long and God’s mission is too expansive to leave it up to a shrinking number of those who call themselves “Christian.”

God can and does use the gifts of those who do not see or acknowledge the faith we cling to. God can and does use the gifts of those who seem indifferent to Christianity to bring about the continued unfolding of God’s new creation. God can and does use the gifts of those who even seem hostile to religion to keep renewing Christianity, but force us to really think about what we believe, keeping us from intellectual laziness or spiritual complacency.

God will not be limited. God uses whomever God wants in order to fulfill God’s mission.

Our job, then, as the church, is to shine. Maybe a better way of saying it is that God uses us to shine. God’s light shines through us.

We are the ones who tell God’s story. We are the ones who bring the concerns of the world to God in prayer. We are the ones who dare to believe in a God who will - one day - save the whole world, and we live according to that belief. We are a people of hope. We are the ones who proclaim resurrection in the midst of death.

God has shone though us, and God will continue to shine through us. Until that day comes when “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 4Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. 5Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you...because the Holy One of Israel will glorify you.”

So shine. Fill your world with God’s love. God light is burning within you. Now we will go and cast a glow into every dark corner, bring warmth and healing and peace and forgiveness to those trapped in the darkness of shame and hurt.

This is the epiphany of our Lord, the God who shines light into the world’s darkest places, so that one day, all people shall see the salvation of our God.

May this be so among us. Amen!


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