The Wise Men and That Sacramental Life

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If you stick around the Episcopal Church long enough, you will eventually hear someone say that we are a creedal church, not a confessional church.  What that means is that the summation of our faith is found in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, whereas in some other faith traditions, like Presbyterian and Lutheran denominations, their core beliefs have been expanded upon in what are called Confessions.  The Rev. Dr. Justin Holcomb, Episcopal priest and professor at Gordon-Conwell Seminary describes confessions as “color[ing] in the picture, tying theology to everyday life in all sorts of ways.”[1]  Some would argue that our Book of Common Prayer is the Anglican version of a Confession, but within its practice, our theology can be widely interpreted, so the Book of Common Prayer can’t really be used to declare any sort of standard teaching on a subject.  What it does include, however, is a Catechism, or an Outline of the Faith, which is intended to be used as a commentary on the creeds without trying to offer any kind of complete statement of belief or practice.[2]  It is, for lack of a better term, a primer of the faith for Episcopalians.

In the Catechism, on page 857 of the Book of Common Prayer begins a section on the Sacraments.  There, the Sacraments are described as “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ…”[3]  In the Episcopal Church, because of that little addendum about the Sacraments being given to us by Christ, we would say that there are only two Sacraments: Baptism and Holy Eucharist.  Our Prayer Book contains five other Sacramental Rites, which have evolved in the Church over time: confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent (also called, Confession), and unction.[4]  All seven of these sacramental actions contain outward symbols: water and oil in baptism, bread and wine in the Eucharist, and the laying on of hands in each sacramental rite, which convey an inward and spiritual grace given by God, including union with God through the forgiveness of sins, the nourishment of Christ’s Body and Blood, healing, forgiveness, and blessing.

Over the years, I’ve stirred up some trouble by suggesting a different way of looking at the Sacraments and sacramental acts of the Church.  My working definition is that these liturgical acts are formal signposts of the church catching up with what the Spirit is already doing.  In ordination, when the bishop lays hands on the ordinand, it is the Church making official what God has long-since been doing in that person’s life.  In the Holy Eucharist, the bread and wine as Christ’s Body and Blood are meant to nourish those who are already actively working to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

As we prepare to celebrate the baptism of your Soren Erbach this morning, I am keenly aware that even for this almost one-year-old child, the Sacrament of Baptism is an outward and visible sign of what God is already doing in his life.  Yes, there is a specific inward and spiritual grace conferred by God in the ceremonial action of baptism, but grace doesn’t start here.  Through his grandmother, his mother, and even through this faith community, Soren is already learning what it means to follow Jesus.  He will, as he matures, gain a deeper understanding of how God is calling him to live out that faith through the promises of our Baptismal Covenant.  He will be nourished with bread and wine made Body and Blood through our prayers and the Holy Spirit, and grow, we pray, in the knowledge and love of the Lord.

The life of faith is full of sacramental actions that may or may not be called as such.  Many would say that the foot washing liturgy on Maundy Thursday is a sacramental rite.  Marking oneself with the sign of the cross is a sacramental action, denoting forgiveness, blessing, or the invocation of the Trinity.  Bowing at the cross, genuflecting to enter your pew, or raising your hands in praise are all outward and visible signs of some kind of inward and spiritual grace at work.  The whole premise of this season called Epiphany is that we should always be looking for ways in which God’s grace is revealed to us in and through the messiness of this world.  This season reminds us that as Christians, our entire existence can be looked at as one, ongoing sacramental action.

Even our Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Epiphany seems to be a story of a kind of sacramental action that is meant to catch up with what God has already put into motion.  When the Christ-child was born in Bethlehem, a new star appeared in the western sky, which the Wise Men thought to be a sign of the birth of a new King of the Jews.  They pulled together their gifts and began the long journey from Persia.  Matthew is really sketchy with the timeline of all of this, but it seems like this journey took several months, if not more than a year to complete.  The whole of their journey is one large sacramental act, as are the details along the way.  They came, according to their own words to pay homage to, literally to bow down and worship, the child, born king of the Jews.  Their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh each carry an inward and spiritual value as well.  The gold was a symbol of Jesus’ earthly kingship as a descendent of the throne of David.  Frankincense is still a common incense used in worship, and symbolized the divinity of Christ, the Son of God.  Myrrh was used in the embalming process and served as a symbol of the suffering Jesus would one day endure.  None of these gifts were prescriptive in nature.  They did not make Jesus a king, the messiah, or a suffering servant, but rather, they were all given as a sort of catch up for what God was already doing in the birth of a Savior in the City of David.  As Mother Becca suggested in her sermon on John’s prologue last week, Jesus was King, Savior, and Lord from before the beginning, when the Word was with God, long before the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.[5]  In remembrance of the blessing the wise men brought to Jesus, and as our own sacramental sign of God’s blessing upon us, last year, we began the practice of blessing chalk on Epiphany.  This chalk is mean to be taken home and used to mark the main entrance with an outward and visible sign of God’s blessing upon your home and all who will pass through it during the year ahead.

As followers of Jesus, it is possible to make our whole lives to be one ongoing sacramental action.  Each outward and visible thing that we do can be a symbol of the inward and spiritual grace, love, and mercy of God.  Our lives are meant to be lived as though we are shining the light of Christ into what is so often the darkness of this world.  Every action is meant to convey the promises of our Baptismal Covenant, which we renew this morning.  As we embark on this season of Epiphany, may God be revealed to you in all kinds of ways.  May the world around you be a sacrament of God’s grace and mercy. May your lives be a sacrament of God’s love to a world that desperately needs it.  And may we all be blessed with the task of catching up with God’s ongoing work of restoration, at home, at work, and at play.  Amen.

[1] Quoted in https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/whats-the-difference-between-creeds-confessions-catechisms-and-councils/ Accessed 1/3/19

[2] BCP, 844.

[3] BCP, 857.

[4] BCP, 860.

[5] https://beccakello.wordpress.com/2018/12/30/tell-me-the-story/?fbclid=IwAR0vc-kOroa9ecmWu7DtKRtwWkcqa3hVNJpK4CfPpS-s7nljc4zBsDTdtI8

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Distracted by Power

The story of the wise men, kings, or magi from the east is an interesting one.  Often conflated with the Christmas story, the events described by Matthew in Sunday’s Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Epiphany seem to have taken place well after Jesus’ birth.  Given Herod’s reaction with the slaughter of the innocents, it seems likely the wise men showed up upwards of a year or even two later.  Matthew indicates that the Holy Family are still in Bethlehem at this late date.  From other Gospels, we can assume they had travelled to Jerusalem for a short visit to the Temple to offer the proper sacrifices for the birth of their son and the purification of Mary.  Oddly, at least according to Matthew, they didn’t return back to Nazareth after the census was over, thus allowing the priests and scribes to interpret the prophecy of Micah with the declaration of the people that David and his lineage would rule as king and shepherd from his hometown in Bethlehem.

What’s odd about all this is how the magi end up in Jerusalem at all.  They have been following the star that alerted them to the birth of this new King of the Jews for quite a while by the time they reach the capital city.  Matthew doesn’t seem to indicated that the star suddenly disappears when they arrive in town, but rather, it would seem that these powerful religious leaders from the east became distracted by power and prestige.  Suddenly, the star that had been leading them for months was not the source of the answers they sought.  In a move that would baffle modern political strategists, the “wise” men detour off course to ask the sitting king where the new king was to be born.  This deviation from their primary role as star-gazers leads to the death of many innocent children, causes the Holy Family to have to flee to Egypt, and is even quickly realized as a mistake by the magi who receive a dream that warns them to return home by another road.

The-Wise-Women

The Wiser Women wouldn’t have made the same mistake

How often it is that we get distracted by power and prestige.  As the new Congress takes office today and the government shutdown nears its third week, Americans are keenly aware of the role that those in power can have over their lives.  Like the three kings, however, when we focus on the powerful, we tend to forget the things that have grounded us in ages past.  We can lose focus on our call as members of what was originally a persecuted sect of an impoverished and oppressed religious group to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  Like the “wise” men, when we lose that sense of our original purpose, the collateral damage can be quite severe.  The details of the Epiphany story are worth noting, dear reader, as they remind us to keep our eyes not on the powerful and the privileged, but on how God’s specific call to each of us can work toward the restoration of this world.

Paul’s Epiphany for the Ephesians – a homily

We did it!  We survived another Christmas season.  At least until we all have heart attacks when the credit card bill comes later this month.  Still, surviving the roughly 47 day secular holiday season from the first Christmas carol plays on Lite Mix 99.9 on November 9th through to Christmas Day is a feat enough, but add to that the Church’s 12 Days of Christmas, and you’ve really done something!  Now here we stand, on the Feast of the Epiphany, ready to celebrate a new season when what do we have, but those pesky Wise Men from the East, who have been paying homage to Jesus in Christmas crèches for months now.  Thankfully, we heard their story on Sunday, and having already preached on the Magi[1], I don’t feel compelled to go back to Christmas and rehash it all, so instead, I’m going to try to make sense of Paul’s convoluted message to the Church in Ephesus.

The Ephesian Church is like every other church that has ever existed, it has had its struggles.  No one knows for sure what all the conflicts in Ephesus were about, but certainly the question of how to integrate Gentiles into a largely Jewish community of faith was one of the bigger ones.  This letter, then, is intended for those Gentile Christians who have made it through the hard times, and are looking for what God has in store for them next.  They are in need of an Epiphanic Event, hoping that God will reveal his will for them. Here in the third chapter, Paul encourages them to not lose heart, and to look at the example of his life.

You might recall that prior to his conversion, Paul was not a big fan of Jesus and his disciples.  We first meet Paul in the seventh chapter of Acts as he holds the coats of those who stone Stephen; looking on approvingly.  From there, with the blessing of the Jewish leadership, Paul began a harsh persecution of the church, dragging men and women to jail for following the Way of Jesus.  Two chapter later, while en route to Damascus to inflict more damage there, Paul is struck blind by Jesus himself.  In the hours that followed, Paul’s eyes were opened, figuratively and literally, to the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Paul’s epiphanic moment came when Jesus chose to personally reveal himself to him, and from that moment on, Paul couldn’t help but seek to continue to reveal Jesus to everyone he met.  Because Paul had a revelation, he spoke a revelation, and every time someone heard the Gospel and believed, Paul passed on the responsibility of revealing God, of sharing the Good News of Jesus to the new believers.  Paul writes to the Church in Ephesus as a steward of the Gospel, compelled to share the Good News of God’s love for everyone and everything God has created.

Paul’s words to the Ephesian Christians are just as important for us today.  We continue to live in a world that doesn’t fully know the saving power of Jesus’ love.  For Paul, it is the church’s primary responsibility to share the almost incomprehensible mystery that God loves his creation so much that he sent his Son to restore everything to right relationship.  As stewards of the Gospel, the Church corporately, and each of us individually should feel compelled to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with everyone we meet.  As followers of Jesus, we’ve already had our epiphany; we’ve come to know the power of his grace.  Our job now is to share that epiphany, so that others might be able to have epiphanies of their own.  This isn’t necessarily easy, of course. Paul ended up in jail because he couldn’t not tell the Good a News of Jesus.  We might risk embarrassment and rejection, but as stewards of the gospel, that risk is well outweighed by the rewards of helping a lost soul find their place in God’s never failing love.  May this season be an opportunity for you to share the love of God with a world that so desperately needs it.  Happy Epiphany!

[1] https://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2016/01/04/pray-worship-serve-share-a-sermon/

The Feast of the Epiphany

We did it.  We survived Christmas: both the secular version which begins somewhere around July 5th and the Church version which inexplicably lasts only 12 days.  We’ve made it through countless airings of “Feliz Navidad” and every version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” that money can buy.  We’ve gained 5 pounds on cookies, extra wine, and the always beloved fried turkey and roast beast.  Did I mention that the kids were out of school for 2 weeks as well?  We survived that too.  As the alarm went off on this cold morning in LA, so began the first day of the rest of our lives, at least until June 3rd, when the secular Christmas season begins again.

I really like the Feast of the Epiphany and the Season that follows.  I like thinking about how God is manifest in the world He created.  I enjoying looking for glimpses of the Kingdom of God and seeking ways to be a part of it.  I think the arrival of the Wise Men is emblematic of what God is trying to accomplish through Jesus, “that the whole world might come within the reach of his saving embrace” (BCP, 101).

The lessons over the next six weeks: from the Baptism of our Lord to Jesus calling his disciples to the revelation of the demon possessed man to the Transfiguration; invite us to ponder anew what God is up to in the life and ministry of Jesus.  They also, I believe, ask us to think on what God is up to in our own lives and ministries.  What is it about Jesus’ work in the world that we are being called to emulate?  How do we find our calling in a world full of noise and distraction?  Where is God at work, and where are we invited to join in?  That’s what this Season is all about, and who knows, working for the Kingdom might help you lose those extra Christmas pounds.