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.

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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.

A Lenten Epiphany

As you are probably aware, the season of Lent is the 40 days (not counting Sundays) that lead up to Easter Day and the Feast of the Resurrection.  It is a season of penitence and fasting, in which we are invited to bring to mind our sinfulness, repent of our wrong-headedness and stiff-necks, and seek God’s forgiveness.  Because Easter is a movable feast, falling on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, Lent begins at different times each year.  This means that the number of Sundays after the Epiphany can vary.  What is unexpected, however, is when smack-dab in the middle of Lent, we get what feels like a Sunday in Epiphanytide.

Such is the case this Sunday with the foreshadowing that John uses in the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple.  The lessons appointed for the Sundays after the Epiphany tell the of the ongoing revelation of God to humanity through Jesus Christ.  We hear of the Magi, who recognize Jesus as the King of the Jews thanks to the appearance of a star in the heavens.  In the Baptism story, Jesus is revealed to be God’s beloved Son.  Nathaniel recognizes Jesus as the King of Israel.  The season always concludes with the Transfiguration of Christ, wherein Peter, James, and John are made privy to Jesus’ full revelation as the Christ of God.

In Sunday’s lesson, then, the Third Sunday in Lent becomes another opportunity for who Jesus really is to be revealed to the disciples.  After the Jewish leaders demand some credentials after his turning the Temple system on its ear, Jesus tells them what the sign will be.  “Tear down this temple, and I will build it back in three days.”  John concludes the story by noting that “after [Jesus] was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”

giotto_-_scrovegni_-_-27-_-_expulsion_of_the_money-changers_from_the_temple

Note the disciples (left) looking like “This is not going to end well.”

It is a slow play, to be sure, two, more likely even three years, in the making.  Over the course of his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is continually pulling back the curtain, slowly, as his disciples and crowds are able, unveiling more and more fully who he really is and what he came to do.  It is helpful, I think, here in the season of Lent, to take a moment to reflect on what this time of preparation reveals to us about Jesus.  From the Ash Wednesday invitation to a holy Lent all the way through Holy Saturday’s holy waiting, the lead-up to Jesus’ Passion and death are constantly unveiling God’s grace and mercy to us.

Dazzling Jesus

the-transfiguration-by-carl-bloch-danish-painter-1834-1890-cropped

One of my favorite events each year is the annual tour given to the kindergarten and first grade Godly Play class.  There, I get to nerd out on stuff that they’ve been learning, but that most people don’t give a second thought to.  We talked about the word nave, and how it is built to look like the hull of a ship.  We got to touch the 1905 paten and chalice given in honor of Frederick and Sadie Price before the second Christ Church in Bowling Green was destroyed by fire.  They had the chance to see what the church looks like from the pulpit, lectern, and behind the altar.  Standing there, I asked the group why they thought we had candles in churches.  One, very practical child, guessed that it was so we could see better, which was, of course, true.  We went on to talk about how the candles in the church remind us of the light of Jesus, and how when we come to worship, that light comes alive in us, and we get to carry it out into the world.

What I didn’t think to tell them was that this Sunday’s Gospel lesson is all about the light of Christ.  The image above is from a painting of the Transfiguration by Carl Bloch (c. 1865), and I think it captures visually what the English translations of Mark’s account fall short on.  That is, Bloch’s painting shows us what Mark means when he says that Jesus’ clothes became “dazzling white.”  The Greek word is something akin to glistening, sparkling, or shining.  It isn’t that Jesus’ once dusty tunic became Clorox white, but rather, it light up like the noonday sun.  There, atop that mountain, Peter, James, and John became privy to the fullness of the light of Christ.

As they made their way back down to meet the waiting crowd, Jesus commanded his disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen until after his resurrection.  Stories about the light of Christ aren’t necessary when the light is standing right in front of you.  As time has passed, however, the need to tell the story and to share the light has grown.  As 21st century followers of Jesus, we are called to let the light of Christ shine through our lives, and the best way to keep that light shining brightly is by regularly returning to the source.  You could travel to the Mount of the Transfiguration, or, more practically, you can attend worship, commit to regularly praying and reading the Bible, and sharing the love of God with those inside your sphere of influence.

In the transfiguration, the fullness of the divinity of Jesus was made manifest by way of a voice from heaven, two prophetic witnesses, and the shining of a bright light.  Only one of those is available to us on an ongoing basis.  As I often say during the Offertory Sentences this time of, “let your light so shine before others that they may see your Good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

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.

What the joy of the Lord looks like

“They rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.” – Mt 2.10

On Christmas 2013, I preached a sermon that argued that God matched the Shepherds “fearing a mega-fear” with good news of “mega-joy.”  I loved that sermon, and I’ve been thinking of it here in this Christmas season.  It came to mind again today as I read of the response of the wise men when the star stopped over top a house in the Judean countryside.

“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”  That’s the NRSV’s version of Matthew 2:10, and it was enough to pique my interest.  So, I opened up my ten year old version of Bibleworks to look at what Matthew actually said.  Young’s Literal Translation handles the Greek original in this way, “And having seen the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy…”  I’m not a grammarian, but I did notice that they handled the adverb rather poorly, so the SJP Translation goes, “they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.”

That’s what the joy of the Lord is like, “rejoicing with exceedingly great joy.”  That’s a whole lot of joy; joy enough to overcome even the darkest nights, the hardest hours, the toughest days.  It isn’t the sort of happiness that Joel Osteen promises in terms of ease of life and toothy smiles, but joy that sustains even when it feels like all hell is breaking loose.  That’s the sort of joy that the Wise Men will have to draw from when they escape Israel while hiding from Herod, the sort of joy Mary and Joseph will need when they flee to Egypt, and the sort of joy that the people of the house of David will need as Herod’s fear means the slaughter of innocent children.  Joy that sustains even in the darkest hours, that’s the joy of the Lord.