Sermon for January 10, 2021, 1 Epiphany, Year B, Out of the Deepest Darkness (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
There is a story in the Hebrew scriptures about a king who ruled Jerusalem in the seventh century before the common era who got word of an impending attack on the city and set out to make sure his people had supplies by connecting a pool of water within the city gates to the city’s major source of water outside the walls by way of a tunnel. Setting people to work from each end and having them miraculously meet in the middle, Hezekiah was able to quickly complete what was ultimately an “S” shaped 11,750-foot tunnel that joined the Pool of Siloam to the Gihon Spring. Astonishingly, this 3000-year-old marvel of engineering is still intact and about 30 years ago Gary and I walked through it with my sister Sidnie. My understanding is that nowadays the tunnel is paved and there are recessed lights in the ceiling, but when we went through it it was very much as the first archeologists found it – filled with sudden turns, erratic changes in height, and darkness – lots of deep, deep darkness.
My sister is a biblical scholar and an excellent tour guide, so we came equipped with extra lights and solid footwear. Even so, our inability to anticipate the next turn and sudden plunges from ankle to thigh-deep water produced quite a few nervous giggles and gave us the sense that we had been in there a lot longer than expected. We were (according to Sidnie) about a quarter of the way through when we saw two tiny flickering lights ahead of us. As we drew closer, we saw that they were matches – or rather a series of matches being lit in rapid succession by two young men whose increasingly visible faces were absolutely terrified. They did not speak English (or Hebrew), but we were able to discern from their gestures that they had been traveling from the other end of the tunnel without any light other than matches- and they were about to run out of them. Wet and dirty, they grasped our arms, pointing back the way they had come, clearly asking if they could remain with us. We offered them one of our flashlights and tried to explain that they were actually much closer to the end than we were and that if they just kept going, they would be out soon. I don’t know if they understood us or not, but either way they opted to stay with us and go back the way they had come, taking the longer but seemingly safer way out of the darkness into the light.
Many human beings express fear of darkness – not just physical darkness, but the metaphorical darkness of the unknown, in the hearts of others, and the dark desires and despair of our own souls. Perhaps this is because some deep primordial part of us remembers the darkness out of which the world was created – a deep, formless void without sound, without scent, without air. Maybe we sense that we might return to that ancient, chaotic darkness – to that dense and tangible nothingness. I think this why when we see primitive behavior our reactions are just as involuntary and combative as the actions that triggered them. Fight or flight is not just a trendy way to understand our emotional responses; it’s a biological imperative. When we feel darkness around us our instinct is to protect ourselves and those we love – either by physical or emotional withdrawal or by righteous aggressive engagement. Onward Christian soldiers.
We are in a time of deep darkness in our nation right now – and like the tourists in Hezekiah’s tunnel we must make decisions about how we are going to move forward in this unfamiliar and distressing gloom. This week we witnessed unprecedented conduct in our nation’s capital. Our moorings have been pulled from beneath us: civility, tradition, unity, shared values, and, for Christians, brotherly and sisterly love, can no longer be assumed parts of our communal lives. We wonder how we got to this place – and how we can move forward from here. We seek out light – any light – that we can follow to get us out of this darkness. It is tempting to select a path from among those offered by the human voices among us – especially those who tell us that we need not fear suffering or pain because we are chosen by God. “Have a blessed day” we tell one another -as if when we have a bad day we are not blessed. We mistake faith for favoritism.
The truth is that there is nothing in our theology that promises that we will not undergo trials and tribulations. Anyone who has read our Holy Scriptures knows that they are filled with stories of chaos, war, famine, disease, and death. It takes humanity just one biblical chapter to commit an act of theft and betrayal and begin our long separation from God and one another. Over and over again human beings act out of self-interest and fear despite God’s repeated efforts to teach us how to overcome our baser instincts.
The good news is that we can learn from our mistakes. There is much in our Holy Scriptures that suggests that periods of crisis, disunity, and chaos can be clarifying and unifying for God’s people. God’s chosen are repeatedly separated from God only to be reconciled each time with new knowledge about what God wants from the people. Each tragedy, each separation cleanses us from our sins and prepares us to move forward with a better understanding of what it means to be part of a beloved community. Our forebears valued such cleansing so much that they codified it into our worship rituals. Paul asked the people of Ephesus if they had received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. They answered that they had not, but they had been baptized in John’s baptism – a baptism of repentance. Similarly, we in The Episcopal Church weekly confess our sins against God and one another and are absolved of them. This ritual is called a “sacramental rite,” and is an important acknowledgement of our heritage- an acknowledgment that we are powerless without God. It is not, however, a sacrament; it is not an outward and visible sign of God’s blessing upon us.
The primary indication of our membership in Christ’s community is our willingness to share in his life and death through baptism. When we are baptized, we recognize and accept that Jesus died for us, and we enter that death with him. Today we remember Jesus’s own baptism by his cousin John. Because we perform infant and child baptisms, the light sprinkling of water received in baptisms in The Episcopal Church does not adequately replicate the serious dunking that Jesus would have received in the Jordan River. Baptism is a symbol of death and rebirth. It should feel like drowning. When we agree to be baptized, to become Christian, we agree to drown – to die with Christ. With Jesus we go down into the darkness of the deep water – where there is no sound or light, but only a great void of nothingness – so that we may, with Jesus, rise out of it again.
That is what it means to be a Christian in a time of darkness. It does not mean that we are the ones who will escape tribulation. It does not mean that we are the ones who will be proven correct. It means that we are the ones who are willing to move forward through the deep water, through the darkness, through death if need be – because we know that Jesus is with us in the chaos and gloom. Dive deeply then into the current night without fear. The cleansing may be painful. The losses may be hard, but we must not turn around now. Darkness is always only temporary, for our God is the creator of light. Have faith and hold fast -and at the appointed time we will like our savior rise up out of the darkness to see the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove and the voice of God speaking and saying, “You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” AMEN.
Sermon for January 3, 2021, 2 Christmas, Year B, Three Kings walk into a Barn (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
There is a sign in the Grace Church kitchen that reads, “Three Wise Women would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, brought practical gifts, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and there would be peace on Earth.” I had, of course, seen it before but had forgotten it was there until wandering into the kitchen the week before Christmas to restock the Deacon’s Pantry and wash some dishes. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
I have never been sure whether I actually like that sign or not. As a woman I enjoy the suggestion that some folks of the female persuasion might have reacted to the Revelation of Jesus’s birth in a helpful and sensible manner. I do not, however, like the implication that they would have been so consumed by doing that they missed their chance to recognize and cherish the theological significance of the event. This balance – between doing “church” and being a worship community- is a tricky one to which we must give careful attention, as evidenced by the fact that Jesus himself gave Martha quite a talking to for getting lost in serving casseroles instead of listening to the words of the living God.
It is always interesting to look at a famous story from a different perspective, but the truth is that we don’t need to rewrite the tale of the “wise men from the East” who appear in today’s gospel – because – as the Grace Church youth group members found out at our most recent Christmas Trivia night- it’s already been rewritten. Most of us who grew up attending a Christian church are acquainted with “Three Kings,” named Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, who arrive from “the Orient” at the end of the Christmas pageant wearing crowns and bearing gifts. As you just heard, however, other than the gifts, none of these things are found in today’s gospel, which is the only place in scripture that these wise people are mentioned. That is not an accident.
Those of you who have been in Bible Study at Grace know that while three of the gospels are very similar (synoptic) in content, they have some significant differences too. That’s because each of the gospel writers frames the good news about Jesus with a specific lens. Matthew’s gospel was written for a Jewish audience and focuses on Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. That means that it’s likely that the story of the visit of the wise people is about the relationship between Jesus’s birth and the fulfillment of the prophecies found in the Hebrew scripture.
Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman suggests that, “Ancient readers would have recognized the Magi as astrologers from the East (perhaps Assyria) who could read the course of human events from the movements of the stars. These wise men are pagans, [non-Jews] … whose astral observations have led them to recognize that a spectacular event has transpired on earth, the birth of a child who will be king. The text never explains why Assyrian scholars would be interested in the birth of a foreign king. Perhaps their worship of him indicates that they understand him to be far greater than a mere mortal, king or otherwise.”
Matthew’s inclusion of the story tells us that the first people who took it upon themselves to answer the call of the Christ child were not the priests of the Jewish king or the scholars of Jewish prophecy, but outsiders. They recognize that Jesus’s coming has been orchestrated by nature itself and that he is worthy of worship, despite his humble circumstances. These foreigners – speaking another language, bringing gifts from another tradition, and believing in a different theology- were the first of the procession of non-Jews who would worship the Jewish Messiah – and they were the first people who put their lives in danger to do so.
They accepted him as he was. Every detail of the story of Jesus’s birth is consistent with our understanding of the man who was both God and human being. He was born as he lived – into the most unassuming of circumstances surrounded by people that his society accounted as practically worthless. Yet, despite the poverty and dangerous circumstances of his nativity, the joy and gratitude of everyone who hears the news demonstrates that God is present in this child. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus was born among the very people he would continue to bring joy to for his entire life – the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. He also wants us to know that, as the prophets predicted, Jesus is, from birth, rejected by those who might have known him best.
Anthropologists tell us that human beings began to sort themselves into groups incredibly early in our history – and almost as quickly developed rules for keeping people out of them. Exclusionary criteria have and continue to include age, gender, physical ability, language, and belief. This was certainly true in the sixth century before the common era, when Jeremiah told the exiled Jews that they would eventually return home from their long sojourn with a broader community than they had previously accepted. The procession home described by Jeremiah is “a remarkable scene of healing and inclusion. The blind and lame excluded [previously] are here welcomed back. This fits with a broader theme of inclusion in postexilic prophetic texts; elsewhere, foreigners are also said to be welcomed to serve God.” God’s desire, it is clear, is for everyone to be part of the homecoming.
The early Christians struggled with issues of inclusion too. Remember that the first Christ-followers were Jews – and they weren’t so sure that they should welcome non-Jews into their midst. Today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Christ community in Ephesus is “a manifesto that proclaims full membership, equal status, and honorable place for Gentile Christians in the people of God.” Ehrman suggests that “It is the Gentiles, the non-Jews, who originally do not have the Scriptures but who learn the truth from those who do. [They, like the Magi, make the spiritual and physical journey to…] worship the King of the Jews.”
In the almost two thousand years since this communication was heard, church members and leaders have repeatedly participated in discriminatory practices that benefit certain people at the expense of others. We have often refused to share Jesus’s humility and universal acceptance, taking him from among the barn animals, removing his crown of thorns, and placing him in the heavens wearing the countenance of the prosperous and powerful.
This is not what is shown to us in the narrative of Jesus’s birth – and it is not what God wants. As today’s psalm makes clear, our God has the power to do anything, but what God does is to continue to try to bring all creation to Godself. The offer is clear. The signs are there– but we miss them when we forget that our earthly work and our love of God are inextricably linked. It is no accident that I was reminded of the Magi in a room where much labor has been performed for others on God’s behalf. As the Magi followed the star, so too we must follow the Magi – patient, diligent, and open-minded- growing in grace and gratitude until we too will be overwhelmed with joy. Ask for directions, arrive on time, help where you can, show your faith in practical ways, give thanks at all times and in all places – and there will be peace on Earth. AMEN.
Bart D. Ehrman (2002), The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings: A Reader (2nd edition), [Oxford, England: Oxford University Press].
Christopher B. Hays, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 172.
Luis R. Rivera, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 184.