January 5, 2020, found the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights observing the day of Epiphany – a celebration of God’s light and life in the world. Often, we’re tempted to see these weeks after Christmas as a time to clean up the decorations, or to sing the less-favorite carols, or to look for the big sales. Epiphany is, of course, much more than that – it is an opportunity for us to remember that the Light that comes into the world is for ALL people – there’s no “them and us” in this. During Advent, we considered stories of great reconciliation from the scriptures as an encouragement for us to seek to be reconciled with those who surround us. We revisited this Advent theme as we took a fresh look at the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child (Matthew 2:1-12) and considered the mystery that is the church (Ephesians 3:1-13).
To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the player below:
I don’t know if it happened like this, of course, but it could have. I like to imagine a conversation in a small, dimly lit room on a crowded street in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago.
M: Who was it, Joseph? Who was there?
J: It was another group of strangers, outlandish, really. Outsiders who have nothing better to do than bother peaceful people like us. I told them to go away.
M: If you told them to go away, why do I hear what sounds like camels snorting and spitting outside the window?
J: I said I told them to go away, not that they actually went away. They said that they’d wait.
M: Good. Let them in.
J: Mary, come now – be reasonable. We don’t know them. They told me that they were out looking for a king. Do I look like a king? They are lost and misguided, and we have enough to worry about here.
M: I am pretty sure that they are not looking for you, Joseph, and I think you should let them in.
J: Mary, you know the ancient texts as well as I do. Do you remember when Moses was leading our people out of Egypt? They asked to cross the land of Edom, and Edom met them with an army – refusing entry. How can we trust foreigners ever again?
M: And Joseph, you know as well as I do the promise that we have received. Ours is not an ordinary baby. What if YHWH has sent these foreigners to worship and greet the child, just as he did the shepherds?
J: But how could that be? Surely you remember the text: no foreigners are to be admitted to worship – down to the tenth generation!
M: And yet the great King David was the grandson of a Moabite woman, Ruth! I’m asking you please, Joseph, to let them in!
It’s easy to understand “Joseph’s” point of view in that presentation, isn’t it?
I mean, sure, he’d seen an angelic vision. He was trying to move forward in trust with Mary. But if everything that the angels had said was true… if he could really believe Mary – then what a huge responsibility he had! If in fact that child was the promised one, then Joseph would need to be on his guard continually; it was up to him to protect Jesus in a hostile world. In fact, it would be irresponsible not to.
Thankfully, if such a discussion ever did occur, then Mary won out. The Magi did enter, and worshipped, and left their gifts. And Matthew tells us that they “went home by another way”.
You might say that they took a different path home, and maybe you’d be right; but I’d also suggest that they went home as those who had been changed. Their reality was different because they’d been invited into the presence of the Holy Child, and their worship changed them.
And now we have come to honor their memory on this day of Epiphany. We remember them as the first gentiles – the first true outsiders – to worship Jesus. Matthew tells this story, we think, to present these men as outsiders who embraced the Lordship of Jesus even as many who claimed to share his faith would not do so.
I imagined this dialogue between Mary and Joseph because I want to offer a word for those among us who favor prudence and caution. We are not “nervous”, per se; rather, we are, like Joseph, being reserved; we are taking a conservative approach. We know how real life can be.
For instance, I’ve had the amazing privilege of hosting my grandchildren for two weeks – 14 sleeps on Cumberland Street. As the parent of an only child, this may be the most intense unbroken stretch I’ve ever spent with two young children. Those of you who have multiple children have my deep respect! If you’ve been there, you know what it sounds like:
“Hey! Don’t eat all of that! I want some!”
“Yes, honey, but you already have some on your plate.”
“But I might want more! I don’t want it to be gone!”
Or, “Move over! I want to sit in Grampy’s lap, not you.”
Or, “It’s my turn! I’m going first!”
All of these well-founded concerns of my granddaughters are rooted in the concept of scarcity. There is only one lap. Most meals, there are only so many potatoes that are cooked. And if there is only a finite amount of lap, or potatoes, or anything else – then it is a prudent and thoughtful child who makes a claim early and often.
In most families, we come to see that such fears of scarcity are groundless. In my home, for instance, if you leave the table hungry, it’s your own fault. While Grampy’s lap is not really getting any bigger, there is always space, sooner or later. Everyone who wants a hug can get one. In most families, we learn about delayed gratification and sharing and taking turns and trusting that there will be enough.
And yet, somehow, it’s hard to apply those concepts to all of our lives. We live in a world filled with budgets: if we buy this, we cannot buy that. We plan our days on calendars: if we go now, we will not go then. Last weekend I had a houseful of visitors and a dozen people wanted to go to the hockey game. As some of us sat in the next-to-last row of the upper deck, we discovered that the PPG Paints Arena is defined by its capacity: for each Penguins game, there are 18,387 seats available, and no more. That arena, like our lives, seems to be measured by how much it can hold – and what, of necessity, must be excluded. We can do this much – and no more.
Our wallets are filled with “credit limits”, our parking meters are ticking away minute by minute, our vehicles have exactly so many seat belts and no more, and our calorie counters are reminding us that we cannot have more cake, not today, and maybe not ever.
And then we come in here and hang around with Jesus for a while. And he looks at us with our fears and limits and capacities and plans and availabilities and he appears to throw all of those notions out the window.
5,000 people show up unexpectedly and want a sandwich? No problem.
Little kids want to receive a divine blessing at the end of a long day of teaching? Bring them over!
Do you remember how he walked around saying such outlandish things as “come to me all who are weary, and I will give you rest…”, or “all that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away…”?
Or the time when he came face-to-face with Zacchaeus, the tax collector we all love to hate – and instead of reaming him out and setting him straight, they went to dinner together?
How he was touched by an unclean woman who was bleeding, or implored by a Canaanite woman who begged shamelessly… and he responded with grace and mercy and healing?
Who is this Jesus, and why is he messing around with things that everyone knows are best left alone?
This is the mystery of our faith, beloved.
In today’s readings, mysteries abound. Who were these kings? Why did they think that frankincense and myrrh were appropriate baby gifts? What did their worship actually look like?
In the reading from Ephesians, Paul actually uses the word “mystery” four times. This word occurs twenty-eight times in the New Testament, twenty-one of which are in the letters of Paul. It nearly always refers to something that was previously concealed for one reason or another, but is now being made known. That’s important. When Paul is saying that this is a “mystery”, he’s not saying, “Who can tell? How will we ever know? It’s a mystery!” Rather, he is saying, “Wow, we’ve struggled with this for a long time, but now we get it – now it makes sense – this mystery!”
The letter to the Ephesians seems to indicate that in many ways, the mystery at hand is the church – God’s plan to bring all to participation in the Big Thing that God is doing in the universe. Paul tells us that the call to the ancestors like Abram and Sarai was a hint at what was to come; the visit of the Magi to the Christ child was another. In Paul’s time, the inclusion of the Gentiles in the worshiping community was an astonishing indication of how wide the love of God truly was. And I am here to say that I suspect that even the old Apostle would be flabbergasted to know how big the family of God really is. There is no reason to exclude any race, class, gender, ethnicity, or orientation from participation in the mysterious fullness of God as expressed in Jesus of Nazareth. In the church, all of us are invited to become one, and to find our unity not because we share any one of these external characteristics but rather in Christ alone.
Communion is a symbol of this. On the outside, it is preposterous. Have you ever tried to explain communion to a child? You say it’s the “Last Supper”, but what kind of supper consists of a crumb of bread and a couple of teaspoons of grape juice? There is nothing “supper-ish” about this so-called meal.
And yet what it signifies! The point is not what is actually on the table, but who is included. Do you remember that the one time Jesus shared this meal with his friends, he served Judas, and he washed Judas’ feet? The table is meant to stand for abundance, and inclusion, and the wonder that God would include someone like me AND someone like you in this invitation!
One of my all-time favorite movies is a 1984 film entitled Places in the Heart, wherein Sally Field portrays a young widow who tries to bring in the crop in her Texas farm in the midst of the Great Depression. That film ends with a scene in the local church where the congregation is taking communion. As the elements are passed, worshipers whisper “Peace of God” to each other. It takes a minute, but the viewer realizes that there in those pews are not just the heroes of the film, but rather the dead husband and the stingy banker and the lynched African-American and his attackers and the children… Somehow, in that film, everyone in the story gets included in the peace of God. (see the bottom of this post for a link to view that scene for yourself).
Most of my friends haven’t seen that film; some of those who have absolutely hate it. How can things end like that? How can everyone be included? How can HE be in this film, at the end, getting communion?
But I love it. It reminds me that no harsh word, no act of hate, no human mistake ever has the power to define us. No human exclusion can negate the call of God in Christ.
I know that I am preaching to a room full of people, some of whom feel pushed past their limits on a daily basis. You are tired, you are irritated, you are angry, you are dejected, you are wondering how you can make it to the next payday, or day off, or doctor’s visit, or counseling session. Maybe you’re just empty. And maybe some of that emptiness leads you to be offended when you look at the manger and see who all is there – when you come to the table and see who all is invited. You wonder how God can include a person like me, or her, or him, or them, in the promise. And you wonder, “What is God thinking? What is the world coming to if everybody is ‘in’?”
And yet this morning, let me encourage you to remember that you are defined by more than the things that have hurt you or offended you. You have been given your identity by the Lord of life and so have I. You will get through the difficult places where you feel stuck now. How? I don’t know. That may be a mystery. A glorious mystery, in which we are revealed to belong to, with, and for each other. So when the trays come to you, just whisper to the person sitting next to you, “Peace of God”. And trust that it is here, and it is coming. And do all you can to share that all of that peace with all of the folks who surround you this day and this week. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Numbers 20:14-21
 Deuteronomy 23:3
We did indeed share the sacrament of Communion following the sermon. My friends in the worship team enriched that experience by singing a new song by Idina Menzel as the bread was passed. I’d encourage you to give it a listen.
Here is the scene from Places in the Heart that has been so meaningful to me.