The Feast of Epiphany
Today is the 11th day of Christmas and we are celebrating tomorrow,
which is called the Feast of the Epiphany.
In the Western Christian Church, this holy day commemorates the arrival of the Magi, or wise ones, from the East, bearing their gifts of gold,
For the past six years that I’ve been with you on this date, we have heard the familiar story from Matthew, which we also read on Christmas Eve.
I’m grateful today, to share this sermon moment with our own member, Rev.
Coming to this holiday once again, causes us to ask,
“Why is this holiday called Epiphany?”
We just heard again the story of the Magi from the East in Matthew,
as well as the other texts assigned to this day by the three-year cycle of the lectionary.
We sang and spoke aloud portions of the texts from Isaiah and the Psalms in our opening hymn and Call to Worship,
as well as the letter to the churches at Ephesus.
These texts were chosen centuries ago to help us think about the Epiphany.
The first question --what is an epiphany?
Epiphany comes from the Greek, meaning to reveal, to pull back
it means pulling back the existential curtain on something we need to see,
something God needs for us to see.
KB-C: Revelation of what? - Divine Love and the Incarnation
As the word Epiphany means “to reveal” we must ask ourselves what, or in this case, WHO, is being revealed. The answer is magnificent: God who dwells among us in human form, or as the church says God incarnate, God in flesh and bones. God, embodied in Jesus the Christ, is the revelation. Epiphany is a revelation of Divine Love heralded by all creation.
Western and Eastern churches mark the feast of Epiphany differently. In the west, the celebration focuses on the Magi who follow a bright and lofty star a child in a lowly manager. In the East, the celebration focuses on the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan, -- which we’ll hear more about next week from our Seminarian Jaz -- when the heavens opened, a dove appeared, and a voice proclaimed – “This is my beloved child.” Whether East or West, heaven and earth proclaim the incarnate Jesus to be the Lord’s Christ – a divine revelation of great love.
Epiphany is more than a day – it is the season that carries us to Ash Wednesday, to Lent. It is a season that invites us to recognize in the stories of sacred texts and the holy texts of our lives what God is revealing to us. Will we be like the Magi who follow a star, recognize the revelation, worship the child and head home by another way – or will we simply pass by the manger? Or worse, betray the revelation to the likes of evil King Herod? Will we walk along the Jordan of our lives and fail to hear the dove who proclaims, “this is my child?”
God’s revelations happen all the time; what is stunning in the texts we hear today is that individuals recognize and receive the epiphanies; as a result, everything changes; nothing can stay the same once we experience the revelation of God’s love and justice
KMF: In our call to worship and our opening hymn, we recounted aloud the words of Isaiah and the Psalmist and how they envisioned the light of Epiphany.
For the prophet Isaiah was writing to people in exile
-- much like the nearly 71 million asylum seekers in our world today.
He was announcing a glorious new day of hope:
As we sang:
“Arise, shine for your light has come,
fling wide the prision door,
proclaim the captive’s liberty,
good tidings for the poor.”
Much like the hopes we project onto our secular New Year Year at this time,
so Isaiah imagines a new day, a new light, a new start.
And the Psalmist helps us imagine a new kind of king, a new kind of leader,
one who will favor the poor and needy,
who will begin a new era of redistributing justice.
One line from the Psalm that we inadvertently left out of the Call to Worship:
this king will defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.
It causes us to ask, how well are our leaders doing in defending the poor, the needy and crushing the oppressor?
Ephesians offers a tiny reminder, but a slender glimpse, into the divine revelation Paul received. The dramatic, blinding light, fall from his horse, road to Damascus revelation is reduced to this: “…you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation….”
That’s it! And yet, of course it’s not it.
Because for Paul and for us what matters most is what he did in light of the revelation from God, in light of the epiphany that Jesus was - and is - the son of God. Paul, who once persecuted Christians with vile cruelty, ceased to do so. He became a disciple who welcomed gentiles into the Way of Jesus Christ. He was persecuted and imprisoned for his witness, yet he pressed on. His visits and letters profoundly influenced the early Christian communities and continue across centuries and continents to influence us.
Like many of you, I hold the promise of his writing dear. I love “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God at work within you both to will and work for God’s good pleasure” for it reminds me in the midst of difficulties, difficulties that may give rise to uncertainty, frustration, even fear and trembling, God is with me, God is at work in me. (Phil 2:12b-13),
So too, I hold fast to Paul’s conviction that “ neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor things present no things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord…” (Roms 8:38-39). How fitting that we often hear this promise, this Good News, as part of the Assurance of Pardon each Sunday.
The closing words from the great hymn of love speak of revelations; now we understand partially, one day all will be revealed. Yet even now, we are fully known, fully revealed to God who loves us. “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide; but the greatest of these is love.” (I COR 13:12-13) In the midst of our dimly lit understanding, love sustains.
Imagine how diminished our liturgy, our scripture, and our theology would be had Paul rejected the revelation of divine love and the responsibility it placed upon him?
KMF: I often imagine whether we would be sitting here at all gathered in this Christian church, if it weren’t for Paul’s writings and early efforts at starting the Christian church in the Mediterranean.
And in the familiar passage about the Magi
While the Bible remains silent about the wise ones’ actual names, as well as how many of them there were, we do know that they were clever, wealthy, and most importantly, brave.
“They were willing to take the risk in order to go searching for the truth, in what they discerned was a monumental event,” he said, adding that the Magi can still be a powerful example.
(“Want to know the history behind the Feast of the Epiphany?”by Adelaide Mena, Catholic News Agency, Jan. 6, 2017, quote from Dr. Matthew Bunson, Eternal Word Television Network Senior Contributor.)
They recognize who the infant is and refuse to conspire with evil, they go home by another way…
These are just a sampling of some epiphanies we find in scripture.
Kate and I discussed this week about our own favorite examples of epiphanies,
from elsewhere in scripture, from others’ stories beyond the Bible
and from our own lives.
Kate, who is someone in scripture who had a revelation that has spoken to you?
KB-C: The Prophet Anna:
I would love to share a pot of tea with the prophet Anna. Anna is mentioned only in the Gospel of Luke, which dedicates but three tantalizing verses to her amazing life. We know only this:
- She was the daughter of Penuel from the tribe of Asher
- Anna was married for seven years and then became a widow, presumably childless
- As a widow she never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying
And when she was 84 years old, Anna encountered Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus when they came to the Temple as a family for the prescribed rite and ritual of purification required of every woman 40 days after the birth of a child. And the Gospel says that: “at that very moment, (the moment she saw Jesus) she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
I want to ask her what was so special about Jesus? In her countless years keeping watch in the Temple she had seen thousands upon thousands of 40-day old infants. How - in an instant - did she recognize and receive the revelation that Jesus was the Messiah? Did she see something? Did her heart burn within her? Did she “just know”? Had life in the Temple, had fasting and prayer prepared her heart to recognize and receive the Christ child? What was it like to be the first person to speak of, to preach the Gospel of the Good News of Jesus Christ in a deeply religious setting. Did people believe her - or dismiss her words as but “an idle tale,” or judge them to be the nonsensical ramblings of an old woman? Did she get lonely?
Kate question to Kent:Where are there places in scripture where you’ve had epiphanies?
I actually had an epiphany experience in revisiting passages of scripture that troubled me.
An important spiritual and vocational mentor in my life used to preach to his listeners:
Do not be afraid to give up a familiar truth for a deeper one.
This phrase has become a centerpiece of the way I approach spiritual and theological growth -- my own and others.
When I began reflecting on this wonderful, helpful phrase,
I realized that I had actually applied it earlier in my life.
I had grown up being told that homosexuality was wrong,
a sin, an abomination against God.
The devout and faithful people who raised me had lots of reasons to believe this.
There were scripture passages (just about six) that confirmed this prejudice,
and there was plenty of prejudice in the broader secular culture around us to support homophobia.
Here I was, a child who had been loved and shaped into spiritual being
by my church family,
much in the same way that we committed ourselves this morning
to loving and shaping baby James
and how we do it for the rest of our children and youth
in this holy, beloved community.
As I often repeat, I grew up being taught and actually believing firmly in my bones
that I was “a beloved child of God” and no one could take that from me.
So this belief was shaken, when, at age 15,
it became very clear to me that I was attracted to boys, not girls --
through no will of my own, based on forces beyond my control.
Lots of people had figured this out before me,
like the grade school kids who called me “faggot” on the playground.
But at age 15, my hormones, my growing mind and body all conspired to show me
that this deep-seeded wiring was unavoidably true.
Why would God give me a desire that was an abomination?
Why would God give me something that seemed to go against all that I had been taught about sexuality,
by these people who loved me so much and taught me how much God valued me?
I tried praying it away. It didn’t work. I got depressed, even suicidal.
But I kept talking to God, kept going to church,
kept soaking up the love around me,
kept hiding what I thought was a deep, dark secret to myself.
Fortunately, I had some good lights along the way,
through friends, loved ones, things I read --
and in my own moral compass,
I still had this spiritual lodestar that I was a beloved child of God.
I knew that the broader culture was changing in its attitudes about being gay.
And eventually, I had to see if God existed in less parochial places than my hometown and my home church.
Not surprisingly, it was at university,
where the world was opening up to me in truly life-giving and diversified ways,
that I had an epiphany.
I threw myself into a paper on the Christian ethics of being gay --
exploring in academic ways this very personal question.
I looked closely at the six prohibitive passages of scripture
and I discovered layers of historical, cultural and literary context in the Bible
that frankly hadn’t been revealed to me before.
I learned that the Holiness and Levitical code prohibited men having sex with men
(but mention nothing about women)
and had a lot of prohibitions and admonitions
that modern-day Christians have long given up --
like not eating pork or shellfish, not sleeping with a menstruating woman,
not wearing clothing of two different fibers.
I learned that the archetypal story of Sodom
-- from which we get the weird word ‘sodomy’ and subsequent laws against it --
actually had to do more with God’s wrath about inhospitality and rape than about homosexuality.
I learned that Paul, in trying to teach a new, Christian way of being
to people living in the Roman world,
more specifically didn’t want Christian men fooling around with male prostitutes.
I also learned that Jesus never spoke about the subject.
I learned that historically, Christians have selectively used passages from the Bible
and the ways we choose to interpret them narrowly
to confirm our own prejudices
about women, slaves, Jews and other minorities and non-Christians.
And I re-learned from the Gospels of Jesus that the guiding light,
the North Star for guiding our souls through the sea of life
is a big kind of divine love:
how much we love God and the things God loves,
love our neighbors and love ourselves.
These were deeper truths overcoming more familiar ones.
For me, the light began to shine in the darkness.
And Jesus Christ was holding that light for me.
As some of you know, I grew up in an interfaith family. My mother, father and step-mother were Protestant Christians and my step-father was Jewish. Together, we observed and celebrated a lot of holidays; my faith as a follower of Christ is deeper and richer for my experience of Judaism. For many years in my 20s and 30s and 40s, I often celebrated Rosh Hashanah - the Jewish New Year - and Passover which recounts the Exodus of the Isralites from captivity in Egypt through the Red Sea to freedom, with Helen Dunn and her family. Helen was a Holocaust survivor. Her Uncle Otto got her out of Europe and to America at the last possible moment; She arrived in New York at the age of 10 speaking no English; at 22 she graduated from Radcliffe and later received a Masters in English Literature and then a Masters in Education, both from Harvard, Before I called her Helen, I called her Mrs. Dunn; she was one of the best English teachers, the best teachers I’ve ever, ever had.
Uncle Otto and her Aunt Bertha did not get out; miraculously they survived multiple concentration camps. Otto only survived because an American soldier recognized some sign of life in him and pulled him off a dead body pile.
Each year at Passover, Helen drew upon words from the diary kept by Anne Frank when she, together with six others, were hiding from the Nazis in a “secret Annex” in Amsterdam. Though Helen, Otto, and Bertha are no longer alive, I can still close my eyes, see Helen seated between them, surrounded by her children and grandchildren at the celebration of Passover. I can hear her recite selections from the diary including the well-known words: “In spite of everything, I still believe people are good at heart.” In the midst of cold, hunger, constant terror, in the midst of Nazi occupation and the threat of deportation to near certain death, - a fate that did in fact come to pass for Anne Frank - she still believed that people are good at heart.
About every three years I re-read The Diary of Anne Frank. Each reading reveals something— an insight, a revelation, an epiphany—I had glossed over before. I first read the book in sixth grade and, not surprisingly, I completely missed that she developed a crush on Peter, a slightly older boy also hiding in the secret annex. Later, I picked up on the crush!
About five years ago, Anne Frank’s entry from March 8, 1942, exploded before me as a profound statement of faith. She wrote:
“And in the evening when I lie in bed and end my prayers with the words, “I thank you God for all that is good and dear (sic) and beautiful,” I am filled with joy. Then I think about ‘the good’ of going into hiding, of my health and with my whole being of the ‘dearness’ of Peter, of that which is still embryonic and impressionable and which we neither of us dare to name or touch, of that which will come sometime, love, the future, happiness, and of ‘the beauty’ which exists in the world, the world, nature, beauty and all, all that is exquisite and fine.”
After she concluded her prayers – most likely the recitation of Shema Yisrael, the prayer that is central to morning and evening prayer in the Jewish community, Anne Frank added: “I thank you God for all that is good and dear and beautiful.” The world was burning around her, yet she kept the faith, added to it, experienced life as sensuous, and found joy!
Almost 80 years later, Anne Frank’s words and witness, her love that could not be extinguished, continue to inform my faith. I begin most mornings in prayer. I start by lighting three candles. I strike a match and say “for all that is good and dear and beautiful.” To this, as the match approaches the fourth candle, I add, “and Holy in Thy sight.”
I begin my day surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.
KMF: Developmental stages story
One other epiphany we want to share today comes from
an internship I had where I was learning to be a pastor.
The learning curve was steep
-- learning to be a part of a church with a lot of programs,
many moving parts, learning to preach and plan and coordinate worship logistics,
learning to do ongoing pastoral care,
to start new ministries...
and learning, for the first time in my life, to be a part of a staff
and to attend many, many, many meetings.
More meetings than I had ever attended in my life before that time.
I was struggling. Floundering
I felt like the gifts and talents that had served me so well in other places
were not working here.
It felt like everyone around me was in fifth-year Arabic
and I was just starting out, having to try to keep up.
I was starting to lose heart, to want to give up, questioning if I had made a mistake.
But I kept at it, kept trying to do the work,
Kept going to those endless meetings.
And then one day, one week, it all changed.
I gained better competencies, things started to become clearer,
I understood the system better
I was able to integrate the life and the skills that had preceded this internship
into the skills required to do the job.
I reflected on this later with a trusted mentor in the program
who said she had noticed more ease and grace about my work.
She shared with me about her own experience as a single mother.
She recalled what it had been like to raise her now-adult son
and how there were time when this otherwise delightful, inquisitive child
would become an absolute bear:
difficult, impetuous, stubborn, temper tantrums.
She, of course, began to question her motherhood,
began to worry about the child.
And then, out of nowhere, he would change and become this lovely little boy again.
In retrospect, she realized that the moments when he was a bear
were the moments when he was trying to figure out new skills,
new ways of being in the world.
They were shifts in his development and growing up.
And once he had learned the new skills,
adapted to the changes in his body,
changes in his intellectual or physical ability,
or whatever it was… he became a calmer, more delightful person.
He returned to his core essence.
He had reached a new developmental plain and had smoother sailing.
This to me seems to be the nature of epiphany.
If we are continually growing, continually stretching, continually learning,
we continue to have developmental shifts,
developmental challenges --
and if we are willing to push through them,
to rely on God and the lights, the people and opportunities that God puts before us,
we may break through the veil
and find a new plateau of strength and clarity.
Conclusion: Resolution vs. Revelation
KB-C: In this secular season of New Year’s resolutions and personal resolve,
Kent and I invite you to leave your resolutions, as noble as they may be, at the church door.
KMF: Or perhaps you want to bring them into this sanctuary and ask for God’s blessing and guidance on them.
KB-C: In this sacred space, we invite you to enter the Epiphany season of revelation. We invite you to contemplate how you might prepare your heart to recognize and receive a revelation of divine love. How might you prepare your heart? Perhaps like Anna, with prayer and fasting.
KMF: Perhaps by “not being afraid to give up a familiar truth for a deeper one,” an by always remembering that you are beloved of Child of God,
and no one can take that away from you.
KB-C: Perhaps by incorporating the prayer of one you admire into your own life of prayer.
KMF: Perhaps by recognizing that when you are floundering and feel lost you are actually breaking through to a new truth and a new way.
KB-C: In the midst of it all, hold fast. Remember the promise of the Prophet Habakukk:
“For still the vision,- the revelation - awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end, it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.”
KMF: Then perhaps all of us, like the Wise Ones, may learn to go back home by another way.