Jan 8th: Inspiring Transformation through the Magi’s Journey, with Rev. Kally Elliott.
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Jan 8th: Inspiring Transformation through the Magi’s Journey, with Rev. Kally Elliott.
There’s a saying that preachers only have a few sermons that they preach over and over again, while that saying has never been more true true than it is today. See, I told the following story last Epiphany Sunday, but here we are again on Epiphany Sunday and I’m telling this story again, but I’m doing so because the people and the events of this story led to an epiphany for me. I began to see Jesus in a new way when I was in seminary. We moved into an inner city 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 dress up their yard with the most massive inflatable Christmas characters.
Some houses had a giant Santa and Mrs. Claus along with their reindeer and elves. Other yards were littered with candy canes penguins, Santa hats, wreaths, gingerbread men and other such inflatable Christmas decor inflatable being the key word. One house even had an inflatable Easter bunny because I don’t know why not. Then there were the houses of the more pious 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 and Baby Jesus. Shepherds animals.
Even the three kings were there. But the best inflatable guests of all at this neighborhood nativity scene were Santa and Mrs. Claus, Rudolph’s and Frosty the Snowman, even the Grinch. Now, this was before that. Those giant inflatable dinosaurs were such a hit, but if they’d been available, I am sure they would most certainly have been invited to the lawn party.
It was kind of perfect. But at the time, I was this snobby seminary student, so I knew that that 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 manger scene. Eventually I was able to admit that underneath my seminary snootiness I kind of appreciated the biblical illiteracy and ridiculous frivolity. Because if Mary and Joseph and Wiseman and Santa and 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 want it to be invited especially to that particular inflatable manger. Because the people in my neighborhood knew how to do holidays right. They threw parties complete with feasts of deviled eggs and sweet potato pie, lemonade and sweet tea, ham and homemade mac and cheese. And they gave gifts. Everybody got something.
Even though most of the people in this neighborhood worked an underpaid hourly job or sometimes not at all. They never left anyone out when it came to gift giving. One Christmas morning, as my husband, Bryce 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 our front door. Confused, I opened the door to find my neighbor Addie and her three children carrying bags of gifts for our little family even though we regularly played with her children. Embarrassingly, I hadn’t thought to get gifts for her or her children.
So of course I panicked and left Bryce to entertain them and then went and ransacked our house for something appropriate for the kids. Finding three Harry Potter books, I shoved them in gift bags and tried to act as if giving these books to these kids had always been my plan. And as we chatted, I happened to mention to Addie how much I love sweet potato pie. See, sweet potato pie was a Southern delicacy that I had recently discovered after moving to the south a few hours later, no joke, Addie 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 that I guess I must have cooked though I have no recollection of cooking that day.
And we laughed and we celebrated the birth of Christ together. I will never forget Addie nor will I forget our experience of living in that Atlanta neighborhood and the welcome and the love we experienced there. We were total outsiders, strangers to this hood where most had lived their entire lives. We had no plans to stay past my graduation yet we were welcomed with gifts and with sweet potato pie. In the biblical text from Matthew, we hear about these magi from the east journeying to Jerusalem asking where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?
For we observed his star at the rising and have come to pay him homage. The Gospel of Matthew is written to a Jewish audience written to demonstrate that Jesus himself is Jewish. In fact, Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy of Jesus tracing him all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, the first people of Israel demonstrating that Jesus is fully, fully Jewish. And then Jesus is born to Jewish parents mary and Joseph. But then the author of the Gospel of Matthew opens up the story shifting the narrative to these magi from the east.
Now, not just, like, a little bit east, but like, thousands of miles away east who are clearly not Jewish blood. These magi who worship a different God, who practice another religion who wear a different color skin. The author of Matthew recasts this Jewish story bringing strangers, outsiders, into the spotlight. In the very beginning of the story, of Jesus is this story, a story that shatters all the boundaries of race and class and religion and even perhaps gender. See, it’s easy to make the assumption that the magi were male.
I mean, we sing the song We Three Kings of Orientar, which is a great song. But the Bible, I don’t think, ever declares that the magi are males. The Greek word used is magoy. Now, an Anglican priest used this image on a Christmas card that she sent out, and it caused an uproar from some of her Texas parishes, who called it offensive, because the magi, they kind of look like women, do they not? These Texas parishes asserted they would only stand for the traditional expression of the Earth.
But the very point, the very point of the story of the magi is that they were different. They were not what was expected to show up to see the baby Jesus. And before the story of Jesus is over, all outsiders the unclean, the lepers, the tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, women, children, foreigners, roman centurions will be part of his story, welcome in his company and at his table. But it begins here, at the very beginning of his story, with these magi from a foreign land and a different religion, observing a star and following it to this baby. Now, I am late to the party, but recently I have been awe struck with the images from the James Webb Space Telescope.
Have you seen it? Because if you haven’t seen the pictures, I suggest you maybe stop listening right now and go and Google them and then come back. But if you’re anything like me, you will look at these images and you will feel like the most insignificant, tiny speck in the midst of this mind blowing universe. From what I understand, this is an image of just a slice of our sky, a grain of sand in our universe that holds an estimated 2 trillion galaxies. Each of those planet things, those spiral things, are galaxies, but it’s just a tiny speck of sky.
Some of these galaxies are over 13 billion years old. That’s 13 billion. When the Reverend Nadia Bolts Weber first saw these images she posted on social media, I thought we could all start a list of things that, you know, make no sense whatsoever in light of these images of our universe from 13 billion light years away. I’ll start, she said the first one, nationalism. Now you go.
Some of the answers posted by others were such things as self aggrandizement, superiority. Oh, you know my concern with shaping my eyebrows the better than you mentality, having a nice lawn, whether or not I disappoint my family COVID weight obsession with which bathroom everyone is using, racism obsessing overachieving the perfect body shape, and my personal favorite, using the word awesome to describe anything human made. Now, for me, the images from the James Webb telescope make the poetry of Psalm eight more real, almost like my very own prayer. Oh, Lord, the psalm says, you have set your glory above the heavens. What are humans that you are mindful of them.
Mortals, that you care for them. But seriously, in light of these images of our universe, what are humans? That God is mindful of us, of me? Mortals that God cares about you and me and all of us. And that, too, is the point of the Jesus story.
In a universe as expansive as the heavens, god becomes one of us, one with us. God, an outsider, enters into our lives, and God cares for us. I can’t even begin to comprehend it. But that is what love does. It blows our minds and breaks open our hearts and holds us close.
I told you that living in that inner city neighborhood in Atlanta led to an epiphany for me through my neighbor’s eclectic inflatable manger scene with its indiscriminate guest list and Addie’s gracious personal love for my family. The Jesus story came alive for me in a new way. I was recently struck by a quote from a Native American leader named Richard Twists. Speaking to a group of white Christians, Twist said, look, 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 from the far in the east to honor this Jewish baby Jesus is a story of a new table being built, a much more expansive table between the Gentile and the Jewish people. A table between those who were on the inside of God’s story and those who were thought to be on the outside. And that set the stage for the rest of the Jesus story, a story in which the God of this vast, incomprehensible universe becomes one with us. One of us. Today we celebrate epiphany, a day in the church when we, like the Magi, look up and out and see God’s love active and alive in this world.
We see the manifestation of love in Jesus and in one another. It’s a love in which strangers become friends. The other becomes one of us. And it’s a love that holds us close. May you see love revealed today and each day.
And may you be changed by that love. Amen.