Transcribed from the sermon preached January 7, 2018
Pastor Lacey Hunter
Scripture Readings: Matthew 2:1-12,
Epiphany, meaning “an experience of sudden and striking realization, an intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something.” An epiphany “allows a problem or situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective.”
I find it compelling that today’s text from Matthew, the story of the three Magi, is known as the Epiphany story. By its definition, this is a story that both reveals to us a problem, a situation in need of help and offers us the deeper, intuitive resources to respond. This story, about foreign travelers, about people who dreamed dreams and followed stars in the sky. People, who believed in, stood with and used their privileges to protect a baby born to an impoverished family in the “wrong” part of town. A story about fearful, controlling and violent empires and the creativity and courage of the people to find a new way home. There is a lot in this story that we can look to, to help guide, to more fully understand the situations of our lives, the world today and new ways forward.
I want to share another epiphany story with you. In the fall of 2015, I walked El Camino de Santiago—The Way of St. James. This is a 500 mile Christian pilgrimage across northern Spain, typically beginning in France just over the border and ending near the ocean at the Cathedral of Saint James in Santiago. I traveled alone, not knowing what walking over 500 miles would do for and to my body and spirit, holding within myself conscious and unconscious questions and yearnings that, over two years later, I am still coming to know.
In 2015, over 250,000 people from around the world traveled to make this ancient trek. Many of the people I met to my surprise were not Christian but had, in one way or another, been drawn to the physicality, the embodiment of The Way, and were compelled by some spiritual desire or force. Often when meeting someone while walking or over a meal, the question would arise, “What brought you to El Camino?” and then stories would unfold. Stories of divorce or partner’s dying. Stories of job losses, life transitions, hopes for slowing down, getting healthy.
I do not remember when I first began hearing in all of our stories, the desire for “an epiphany.” I remember the word standing out to me more and more as I neared Santiago. As this, in a sense, illusion of a destination or completion hung over us. I remember talking with a fellow pilgrim over dinner and her saying to me with some concern in her voice, “I haven’t had my epiphany yet. I keep thinking God will send down a lightning bolt and I’ll know why I am here and what I am supposed to be doing.”
I think this is how many of us have come to understand and expect epiphanies to occur. Like the story of Archimedes’ scientific discovery that elicited the cry, “EUREKA!” It’s grand and seems clear and I get it. Particularly when things feel precarious, I think many of us want something to click, some bigger picture to reveal itself. If my time on El Camino taught me anything though, it’s to pay attention to the detours. Epiphanies are rarely what we expect.
Like Christmas, the Epiphany story reveals the power of God incarnate in the flesh—God’s presence with and among us always. And yet, in a world that has been filled with suffering and oppression for so long, God’s presence can feel illusive, even absent sometimes. Perhaps the rule of King Herod and the Roman Empire was just such a time. We could look at the birth of Jesus as the mysterious lightning bolt that so many were hoping for at that time. After all, a star was shining overhead. And while I do believe that the birth of Jesus was an epiphany, a kind of catalyst, a shockwave that disrupted life-as-usual, I think it can be just as helpful to also understand the ripples of the shockwave, the layers of the story, as epiphanies.
I do not think this story in the Gospel of Matthew has one single, shocking, grandiose epiphany moment but rather is overflowing with creative intuition and humanity’s ability to awaken to the world around us and co-create with the Divine. In this text from Matthew, what might some of these revelations be and what of their legacies today?
An interesting twist in this epiphany journey comes at us right from the start. The witnesses of the star were not who we might expect. The star was understood as a sign of a new “King of the Jews,” yet it is unlikely that these witnesses were Jews coming to bear witness to ancient prophecies. Rather the Magi are understood by some Biblical scholars to refer to a caste of pagan, meaning not Jewish, priests from Persia who could interpret dreams. Others have translated “Magi” to refer to foreign Kings painting yet another complicated scene in a land ruled by Imperial Rome.
Whoever the Magi were, it seems clear that they represented something surprising, revealing. In the travels of the Magi we experience a crossing of borders that once divided, be it religious borders, or borders of cultures and empires. These borders now blurred and transformed, these lives now shared in community.
Through the celebration and kneeling of the Magi, the kings, in the presence of the baby Jesus, we are invited into a radical new experience of dismantling hierarchies and turning the world upside-down so that the presence and power of God is honored in precious, vulnerable flesh, a new world where God’s kingdom reigns and the privileged of the world listen.
In the dreams that brought the Magi to Jesus and that likewise, took them home by a new way, we are awakened to our capacity to live and move and breathe from a place of deep visioning and possibility.
When faced with pressures and threats to, when the ruling elect and systems of oppression seem too powerful to overcome and undo, the visions of the Magi can encourage us onward. Here we are brought into the epiphany of our Beloved power, to be reminded that we are always standing in the presence of God—that new days and new ways are possible and exist inside of us and our communities.
When I was walking El Camino, I did not have a lightning bolt epiphany experience although it was an epiphany journey for me. The epiphanies I experienced were subtle, sometimes uncomfortable, even terrifying at times. They were often rooted in the vulnerability I felt as I walked each day into new villages and cities, dependant on the hospitality of strangers and cultures not my own. What I came to understand as my Camino epiphany was something of the breath of God that in each moment the possibility of connectedness was being revealed.
What if the lighting strike that we are each waiting for is really the small energy particles that exist between each one of us, the trees, plants and animals, the rural towns and elaborate cities, between ancient stones and walls and the prayers whispered inside, shouted out and held in our bodies? What if epiphany is everything that weaves us together?
As we learn from this story and ask ourselves about epiphanies in our world today, I think it would be unwise for us to ignore King Herod’s response. However painful it might be to imagine, we too have it in us to respond as Herod did from a place of fear and control.
When faced with epiphany opportunities to transform the walls that separate us, walls that keep some in power while oppressing others, we too have perhaps responded by ignoring the dreams, by clinging to systems that feel familiar, systems that have kept some of us secure and silenced the revolution that is afoot.
The story and journey of Epiphany does not end with the birth of Jesus, the visit of the Magi, not even with the violence of Herod. Perhaps like every story of Epiphanies, the striking moments of realization are just the beginning of the way. It is a journey of awakening and going forth. After greeting the baby Jesus, had the Magi intended to return to King Herod and tell him of the birthplace? We don’t know. What we do know is that something in them opened up and changed their course. Something in them knew that simply showing up that first time was not enough or the end of the dream, that this presence, this community, this new way of living would need continuous, steadfast protection and love.
The epiphany journey for the Magi was just beginning. I imagine it continued to be a complicated and at times painful journey. The violence brought forth under Herod’s rule is proof enough of that. And yet the Magi went on, carrying in their hearts all that had been revealed to them and moving in their actions with the hope of a new kingdom. I believe this is true for us today as well.
We are now in the season of Epiphany, the Christian liturgical season between Christmas and Lent where we follow the Life of Jesus. A life that began by bringing together people of different religions and vast backgrounds, to heal a hurting world and dream a just kingdom into being. Today is also the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus, when he, like Mary, heard God’s voice calling out, “My Beloved,” and committed their lives to making God’s will be done on earth. These are the epiphany legacies that we have inherited through our Christian faith. These are the new ways we are called home by.
If you were to write the epiphany story today, what story would you tell? What guiding star shimmers above? What relationships emerge? What borders are crossed? What challenges and pain arise? What impossible way opens up ahead? What then?
I’ll share with you some of what I see. I see stars with #s in front of them. Stars like #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #NoBanNoWall.
Today, across the country, another start rises. People are showing up wearing all black, as a way of saying #TimesUpNow. It is part of larger movements organized by women farm workers, women in the entertainment business and many more, working to raise awareness and end discrimination based on gender, and the harassment and assault of women in the work place. If you watch the Golden Globes tonight, notice who is using their platform to say #TimesUpNow.
I see all these stars shining down on a hurting world, radiating a sign of Love, pointing to a way of life that is liberating. I see these stars spreading the news far and wide, reminding so many of their divine power and what is possible. I see fear rising up too. Fear of what it would mean for the time of white supremacy, of patriarchy, of Christian hegemony, to pass.
Beneath these stars, behold, gatherings of unlikely people–Jews, Christians and families who survived local Japanese internment camps, showing up in solidarity with undocumented and Arab communities to proclaim, #NoBanNoWall.
I see Native tribes who once warred, Christian faith leaders and military veterans joining together to protect the water and the lives of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
I see Coalitions of communities of color, queer and transgender folks, youth and elders, folks living with different abilities and from every class, coming together to follow the leadership of women as we together, seek to create systems for community safety, healthcare, housing and economies that nourish the earth.
I believe there are stars overhead and we are living in a great time of prophets, a time when, if we set out and listen to the voices of the dreamers, we will find ourselves kneeling at the presence of God on earth.
I believe it is the season of Epiphany for a reason. Now is the time to open our eyes to the stars overhead, to see what borders in ourselves and in our world are in need of transformation, what relationships need to be nourished and allied with, what visions need to be protected and amplified.
The birth of Jesus needed angels to sing out and people searching the sky and the world ready for a sign of hope to bring together all of God’s creation. The visions of the Magi needed open hearts to receive them and courage to embolden the Beloved Community by trying a new way no matter how challenging or dangerous it may appear.
May we too open ourselves to the epiphany stories of today. And may our hopes, prayers and visions not simply remain in sermons and church walls but sink into our cells and carry us forth by a new way, in total praise of the one who calls all of us, “Beloved.” Amen.