Jan 2nd, Epiphany 2022, with Rev. Kally Elliott
Epiphany 2022, with Rev. Kally Elliott.
Matthew two, one through twelve. In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem asking, 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. When King Herod heard this, he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people. He inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
They told him in Bethlehem of Judea, for it had been written by the Prophet and you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah are by no means least among the rulers of Judah. For from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people. Israel. Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.
When they had heard the King, they sent out from there and ahead of them went to the star that they had seen at its rising until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chest, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
When I was in seminary, we lived in an innercity neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia, and every year on the day after Thanksgiving, our street turned into a maniacal version of Candy Cane Lane. The difference was instead of lighting up their houses with traditional Christmas lights, the people on our street seemed to make a competition of who could clutter up their yard with the most massive inflatable Christmas characters from the local Walmart. Some houses had a giant Santa and Mrs. Claus, along with their reindeer and elves. Other yards were littered with candy Canes and wreaths and other such inflatable Christmas decor inflatable being the key word here.
Then there were the houses of the religious where they inevitably had an inflatable Nativity scene, complete with inflatable donkeys and even an inflatable baby Jesus. But there was one house on our street that went all out right there, front and center, where nobody could miss. It was a yes inflatable major scene that included everyone and everything. Nobody and nothing was missing. They had Mary and Joseph, baby Jesus shepherds animals. Even the three Kings were there. But the best inflatable guests of all at this neighborhood Nativity scene were Santa, Mrs.
Claus, Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman. I think even the Grinch was there. It was perfect, but I was a seminary student at the time, so I knew that this scene was not biblically correct, and I would shake my head and roll my eyes at what I perceived to be the tackiness of the inflatable menagerie manger scene. Eventually, I was able to admit that underneath all of my seminary snootiness, I appreciated the biblical illiteracy and ridiculous friviolity, because if Mary Joseph Wiseman Santa reindeer and the Grinch are all gazing at the inflatable Babe, then there’s nobody who is not invited to that inflatable manger, which means that I am invited to, and I wanted to be invited, especially to that particular inflatable major, because the people in my neighborhood knew how to do holidays right.
They threw parties complete with feasts of deviled eggs, sweet potato pie, lemonade and sweet tea, Ham, homemade Mac and cheese, and they gave everybody gifts. Everybody got something. Even though most of the people in this neighborhood worked an underpaid hourly job or not at all, they never, ever left anyone out. When it came to gift giving, one Christmas morning, as Bryce, my husband and I were celebrating our first holiday as parents, we were quietly opening gifts with our newborn asleep in my arms. When we heard a knock on the front door, I opened the door to find my neighbor, Addie, and her three children carrying bags of gifts for our little family.
Embarrassingly, I hadn’t thought to get her or her children anything, so I went and I found some Harry Potter books on our shelves and quickly wrapped those and handed them to her. And while making this exchange of gifts, I happened to mention how much I love sweet potato pie. A few hours later, Addy showed up on my doorstep again, this time presenting me with two sweet potato pies. That evening, our families shared Christmas dinner together in our kitchen over a Communion meal of sweet potato pie and something else I must have cooked, though I have no recollection of cooking anything.
That day we laughed and celebrated the birth of Christ together. A little over a year later, my family and I moved out of that inner city neighborhood to a white, middle class suburban neighborhood in Tennessee, and I began my work as a campus Minister at a University. We’d had our two year adventure of living in the inner city. But my family is white and so, so very privileged. And while I would never forget the friends we made along the way, we had never planned to remain in inner city Atlanta, and since that time, I’m sad to admit that I’ve rarely looked back in my life has become this privileged bubble of white upper middle class.
Sameness. These last two years have been a journey for us all. A pandemic protests, political division. They have impacted all of our lives and hopefully made many of us consider the great divides that separate us from people of colors, ethnicities education, economic status and privilege. In a way, it’s like we’ve had an adventure. We’ve dipped our toes into learning about privilege and racism and what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the midst of a pandemic or political division. But will these lessons change us, or will we, like my family, did simply move on to our next adventure with little memory of what it was to come face to face with those whose life experience is so different from our own.
In the biblical text from Matthew, we hear about wise men from the east heading out on their own adventure journeying to Jerusalem, asking, Where is this child who has been born King of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage. The Gospel of Matthew is written to a Jewish audience to demonstrate that Jesus himself is Jewish. You might remember at the very beginning of the Gospel of Matthew is the genealogy of Jesus. Matthew begins his gospel with this genealogy to demonstrate that Jesus comes from a long line of Jews tracing him all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, with whom God first covenanted.
Matthew wants his audience to know Jesus is truly a man from Israel, a Jewish man through and through. And as author of his gospel, Matthew could make his narrative about Jesus to be exclusively about the Jewish people, for the Jewish people. But Matthew tells us the story about these wise men, these magicians who make a long journey from the east from Gentile, outsider, nonJewish territory, these men who are clearly not from Jewish blood. He includes in his narrative Magi who wear a different colored skin, who worship a different God who practice a different religion.
These are the people Matthew tells us, made a twoyear journey, showing up, not actually at the manger but at the home of a peasant Jewish couple, Mary and Joseph and their toddler all to honor the Jewish baby Jesus. And they make this journey because as the Jewish prophecy and Isaiah says, they lifted their eyes to look around and they saw a star. Isaiah says, nations will come to your light and Kings to the brightness of your dawn. And they lifted their eyes to look around. And in doing so, noticed the invitation to follow to be with those who were strangers, so very unfamiliar and yet part of a bigger story, a story so transformative that we continue to share it year after year, yearning to find ourselves right there in the mix of this strange family.
And, you know, we know this. We’re an inclusive congregation. We know Jesus is not just for those who believe a particular doctrine or practice their faith in a particular way or look or think or act or vote just like us. And I believe that we desire to be even more radically inclusive. We’d love to be known as a Church who doesn’t just say things as Black lives Matter, but who lives every single day in a way that demonstrates this to be true. I believe we do hope for reconciliation between those with whom we disagree politically, who voted for the wrong candidate, who forward conspiracy theories, those who won’t wear a mask, or maybe those who do wear masks.
I don’t know exactly what anyone believes or thinks or how you vote, but I believe that all of us here are trying to make this world a more loving and inclusive place. But look around. Yes, we are different from one another in many ways, but also most of us in this congregation look a lot alike. See, the thing about my neighbor’s eclectic inflatable Manger scene is that it is probably more reflective of the heart of the Jesus story than the sanitized versions we see on display in stores or on the front lawns of area churches, or that we might have in our own homes.
The inflatable Manger scene, with its indiscriminate guest list more accurately reflects the kingdoms of God. In an article written by Christine Stein, she says, I participated in a meeting with a Native American leader, Richard Twist. Not long before he died. He told me, we don’t want you to invite us to your table. We want you to be willing to sit down and create a new table together. The story of the Magi journeying to honor Jesus is a story of a new table being built, a table between the Gentile and Jewish people, a table between those who were on the inside and those on the outside.
And when I think about the Christmas table I shared with my neighbor Addie and her children, it was still definitely my table. She brought gifts to share, but though I tried to hide it, my attitude was one of superiority. I felt like I was inviting her to my table, and I wonder how that Christmas dinner might have been different had I had more humility, more openness to love? How might I have been changed when I think about the person who most needs to be invited to the manger?
Often it is me. I need the manger, the inflatable kind with Santa and shepherds and reindeer and Angels and Mary and Joseph and the Grinch and Jesus. Author Ryan Harrison writes What I feel when she says, I have a pit in my stomach, and I don’t think it’s from too many Christmas cookies. My inability to admit that I am the one in need of a manger has crept up on me, and it settled in, rooting itself into my stomach, the way a Hedgehog Burrows deep into the dirt.
I am the one who needs the upside down Emmanuel. I need the upside down of the King who welcomes sinners and tax collectors into his presence, but also Pharisees in the dark crevices of the night. I need the upside down King who isn’t afraid to tell his disciples that they have it all wrong that they’re empty. Arguing about first and last isn’t the way of the Kingdom, even after they’d known so long seen and heard for so long that it wasn’t the way I need the upside down King who says just one more step to the man who really isn’t willing to follow him so far.
After all, I need the upside down of the one who loves the deserter denier who calls out beloved instead of betrayer. I need the upside down King who tells me I’m holding on to my life too much. And the only way to keep it is to lose it gradually, step by step for the sake of others and sometimes all at once for them too. The magized journey ends with them going home. By another way, they know Herod. The toddlerlike maniacal tyrant wants them to return by way of the palace to tell him where this new baby King is living so he can kill the baby and ensure his place of power and glory.
But the wise men do not return to Herod. The text says they go home by another way. What have we learned these past two years? Will we simply return to the status quo to our positions of privilege and power, or will we, too, go home? By another way? This is the season the Church calls epiphany. It comes after Christmas and celebrates the incarnation of Jesus, God slipping into skin and being one of us, one with us. And here the word epiphany doesn’t mean a sudden flash or inspiration or knowledge, but a manifestation or appearance, the manifestation or appearance of God in the flesh, God with us.
Could it be those gathered at the manger could be the very manifestation of God in the flesh who will lead us another way the whole way home. Amen.