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.

Do your homework and pay attention – a sermon

Today’s Christmas 2 Sermon is now available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

When I was in High School, I learned about a chemical phenomenon called Osmosis.  You’ve probably heard of it too, it is the tendency of a liquid to pass through a semipermeable membrane into another liquid where the solvent concentration is higher, thus equalizing the concentration on both sides of the membrane.[1]  Being a curious, albeit also a lazy high school student, there were a few nights when I attempted to push the limits of osmosis.  With a big test looming the next day, a test that I had probably not studied for at all, I would place my text book under my pillow hoping that the information that was highly concentrated in the book would osmotically make its way into my brain where the concentration of information on the subject was quite low.  Unfortunately, it never worked, and I usually did pretty poorly on the tests that I studied for by osmosis.  Eventually, I learned that the only way to really learn something is by doing my homework and paying attention.

As we wind down the 12 Days of Christmas and transition to the Season of Epiphany, the Lectionary provides us with the story of some men from the East who did their homework and paid attention.  The Wise Men, the Magi, the 3 Kings; whichever name you call them by, this story is as much a part of our Christmas consciousness as the angels, shepherds, and swaddling clothes.  It is through their part in the Christmas story that we find our place in the Kingdom of God.  It is through their diligence, their devotion to an odd, pagan religion known as Zoroastrianism, and their desire to pay homage to the newborn King of Israel that we get our first glimpse into how the birth of Jesus was meant to change more than just the fate of Israel: Jesus came to save the whole world.

The story of the Wise Men begins long before Christmas and far away from Bethlehem.  These men, traditionally given the names Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar were men who studied both the stars and the world around them.  They were keenly aware of the promises made by prophets and oracles around the known world.  They had read the holy texts of the world’s religions so that when a new thing occurred in the night skies, they might know what it meant.  On that first Christmas night, a new star shone bright in the heavens, and the wise men were paying attention.  They had done their homework, and knew that this particular star was rising in the west, announcing the birth of the King of Israel, promised by the prophet Balaam in the 24th chapter of Numbers.  They felt compelled to welcome the newborn King, to pay him homage, and so they began their long journey, following the star along their way.

After a very long journey, Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar finally entered the city of Jerusalem, home of the Throne of David, fully expecting that the now toddler to whom they’d come to pay homage would be found there.  They’d done their homework, but they’ve missed a few key details, and so “they strode into Jerusalem like a person wandering bare-footed into a snake pit asking, ‘Where’s the baby king?’”[2]  Eventually, they would find themselves face-to-face with the current King of Israel, Herod the Great, who also happened to be one of the most murderous madmen to ever occupy a throne.  The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia describes Herod as “of commanding presence; he excelled in physical exercises; he was a skillful diplomatist; and, above all, he was prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.”[3] Needless to say, Herod didn’t take too kindly to the question, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”  The Wise Men were schooled in the art of paying attention to the stars, but how about reading people?  Did they see the fear in Herod’s eyes?  Could they read the deception in his heart as he invited them to bring back word of his location?  Were they paying enough attention to see through his forked tongued hope to “pay the child homage?”  I can’t help but wonder if the dream that warned them not to return to Herod was the Spirit confirming their own suspicions honed by the reading of the stars, of holy writ, and of the many powerful people they had come to meet along the way?

We will never know what was going on inside the Wise Men as they finished their journey, following the star until it stopped over the house where the Holy Family lived, but we do know what happened when they got there: they were overwhelmed with joy and bowed down in worship.  Once again, I can’t help but think that these Wise Men were in tune with what was going on both within them and around them.  They had come to meet a King, but found themselves face-to-face with the Son of God himself, a holy child who would change the fate of the earth just as he had already changed the landscape of the heavens.  All throughout their journey, the Wise Men paid attention, learned new things about themselves and about the baby boy they hoped to find, and they came to realize that God was doing something amazing.

As we embark on a New Year as disciples of the King of Israel, I wonder if I’m paying enough attention.  Star gazing isn’t a part of my spirituality, but listening for God certainly is, and I believe that part of a fulfilling religious life is paying attention.  There are myriad ways in which God can come to us, seeking to “wonderfully restore” our relationship with Him and with the world He created, but if we aren’t paying attention, if we aren’t attuned to the voice of God, then most likely we’ll miss an opportunity for great things, and the key to paying attention is practice.

As Keith said in his sermon last week, a life of prayer is one in which God speaks, something happens, and we respond.  When our response is to actually do something, to see God’s hand at work and to roll up our sleeves and join in, then we become more and more able to see God in the little things.  We become accustomed to the nuances of the Spirit, the little nudges, the soft voice, the burning in our hearts.  Paying attention to God at work in the big stuff, enables us to better pay attention to God at work in the little stuff, and allows us the opportunity to see the wonderful works of God all over our lives.

Yet the world is full of distraction.  So many things battle for our limited attention.  Often I’m so busy worrying about me and my stuff that I forget to look for God in the world around me, and when I’m not paying attention, I miss out on opportunities to bless and be blessed that are beyond my wildest imagination.  The problem gets compounded in the church.  Too often, congregations get so wrapped up in their own needs and desires that they forget to pay attention to God’s call to get beyond what time Sunday services should be or what kind of music people like or whether or not the whole prayer list is read every week and actually make a difference in the world around them.

God can change our hearts through osmosis.  The Spirit can work her way in, even without us noticing, but the real gift comes when we pay attention, when we do our homework, and when we seek out the will of God in our lives: personally and communally.  May God bless us richly with open eyes, ears, and minds that are paying attention to his call to be his hands, his feet, and his heart in Foley and to the ends of the earth.  Amen.

[1] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/osmosis

[2] This paragraph owes thanks to Alyce McKenzie, “Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh: Reflections on Matthew 2:1-12” www.patheos.com

[3] http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7598-herod-i (emphasis mine)

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.

Are you paying attention?

The good folk over at WorkingPreacher’s Sermon Brainwave spend a pretty good amount of time during their Epiphany podcast on a tangent about the stars.  After going back and forth about the delicate way in which a Christian preacher should treat astrology and suggesting that maybe the star is more Garmin GPS than it is horoscope giving future teller, they got me thinking about the fact that these wise men pay attention to the star at all.

They were tuned into stars.  They paid enough attention to the night sky to realize that something new had appeared.  “We saw the star at its rising,” they told Herod, “and we’ve come to pay homage to the newborn king.”  Star gazing isn’t a part of my personal spirituality, but listening for God’s call certainly is.  Whether you are Zoroastrian or Christian, the key to a fulfilling religious life is paying attention.

God might work through stars.  God might work through loved ones.  God might work through budgets or car repairs or the struggles of addiction.  There are myriad ways in which God can come to us, seeking to “wonderfully restore” our relationship with God and with the world He created, but if we aren’t paying attention, if we aren’t attuned to the voice of God, then most likely we’ll miss an opportunity for great things, and the key to paying attention is practice.

As TKT said in his sermon yesterday, a life of prayer is one in which God speaks, something happens, and we respond.  When our response is more often than not to actually do something, to see God’s hand at work and to roll up our sleeves and join in, then we become more and more able to see God in the little things.  We become accustomed to the nuances of the Spirit, the little nudges, the still, soft voice, the burning in our hearts.  Paying attention to God at work in the big stuff, enables us to pay attention to God at work in the little stuff, and allows us the opportunity to see the amazing works of God all over our lives.

Yet the world is full of distraction.  So many things battle for our limited attention.  Often I’m so busy worried about me and my stuff that I forget to look for God in the world around me, and when I’m not paying attention, I miss out on opportunities to bless and be blessed that are beyond my wildest imagination.  As I prepare to preach Christmas 2, while “off” this week and looking forward to 48 hours of nothing but football in the middle of it all, my prayer is that I can pay attention, that my eyes might be fixed on the hand of God, and that I might answer the call to follow his lead, no matter when he calls.