Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6, 2019

Don Alexander
Sermon Text: 

Feast of the Epiphany

January 6, 2019

Don Alexander

Today we quietly celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany.  I say quietly because in Mexico this Feast Day is a bigger celebration than Christmas.  In many churches, the magi will show up after the service with candy for the kids.  Later families will gather to exchange gifts, eat a festive meal and have rosca de reyes or Three Kings cake for desert.  And yes, a plastic baby Jesus is hidden in the cake and the person who gets it  traditionally makes tamales for the group on Candlemas day, which celebrates Jesus’ presentation in the temple.  After dark there will be fireworks late into the night.

While the Mexican celebration of Epiphany is exuberant, I like our low-key celebration better.  It’s probably because its familiar and as an introvert, the quiet celebration lets me ponder the possible meanings of Matthew’s story.  For starters, the word magi that Matthew uses could mean kings, wisemen, astrologers, or sorcerers depending on which linguist expert you want to believe. And Matthew is vague about where they came from saying only they came from the east. More than a dozen countries now claim to be home to the magi.  So it’s fun to ponder; who were the magi, where did they come from, and why is the story only found in Matthew’s gospel?

There’s even debate as to the historicity of the story.  When scholars debate whether a biblical event really occurred, that’s a hint to me the gospel writer may be making a point beyond the simple facts of the story.  There may be a deeper meaning to be discovered.  It’s clear to me the gospel writers were more sophisticated that we expect from simple fishermen, tax collectors, and the like.  The funny part is, I think the scripture writers made the opposite mistake.  They overestimated our sophistication, never expecting future readers, like us, to take some of these stories literally.

Could Matthew be telling a story that seems far from our experiences but is actually a story with which all of us can identify?  His general outline has the magi discerning the birth of the King of the Jews.  They set off on a trip to pay the king homage and then return home.  Along the way King Herod asks them to tell him where he can find this king, ostensibly so Herod could pay him homage, also.  Yet, in a dream they are warned not to go back to Herod so, “...they left for their own country by another road.”

For many years I enjoyed this apparently simply story but it had no particular meaning to my life. About 30 years ago I found a message that gave me meaning and comfort and maybe it will to you as well.  As Christians we are on a journey, like the magi, to discover Jesus. The star we follow is to live a life that brings the Kingdom of God here on earth.  Along the way, we discover things and learn more about our journey.  Sometimes, like the magi, what we learn causes us to change course, or as Matthew put it, we go home “...by another road.”

The theme of taking a different road home is more popular than you might initially think.  Today’s gospel reminds me of books like, Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton, Take This Bread by Sara Miles, and Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor.  The common thread that ties these books to the gospel motif is they’re all stories about people who decided to take another route home.  Thomas Merton was born to hipster parents, then orphaned. In college he found himself seeking hedonistic pleasures when he discovered God and ultimately became an influential monk.  Sara Miles, raised by atheist parents, learned to cook.  Cooking became a theme in her life, and continued as she worked as a war time journalist.  Later in San Francisco, after a period of deep introspection, she casually received Eucharist at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal church.  There she encountered the real presence of Jesus and dedicated her life to feeding the poor.  Barbara Brown Taylor discovered God and the Episcopal Church while in college.  Eventually she became a priest, only later to discover that her priestly calling wasn’t a life-long vocation and she changed course. Each of these authors, like the magi, were on one path when they encountered something and took a different road home.  

But more than any book I’ve read, Matthew’s gospel reminds me that there have been times in my journey through life that I’ve had to change directions.  Some examples from my life may help you see what I mean. Perhaps you will examine your life to see where you have (or could)  change your route home.

For most of my adult life I was comfortable with how I dealt with homosexuality; love the sinner - hate the sin. It had never occurred to me that my position lacked compassion and removed the possibility of a full fledged loving relationship. 15 years ago a family member, very near and dear to me, revealed they were gay.  When they ‘came out’ I was the one they trusted.  The level of trust was a profound honor and yet it was also an equally intense shock.  My heart literally skipped a beat, I momentarily lost my breath, and yet, God’s grace was in that moment and instinctively I hugged the person who was in tears.  I assured them I loved them and that wouldn’t change.  Yet, while still in the embrace, I was processing my Roman Catholic teachings that stated homosexuality was “intrinsically disordered”, “counter to natural law”, and that same sex acts were ”gravely depraved.“

I had never questioned that teaching but now I needed to explore it.  In short order I began reading about the basis for the teachings.  I discovered there were respected Catholics who also questioned Church doctrine.  I solicited advice from well-informed people I knew; priests, psychologists, and a moral theologian.  After a few years of pondering the issue, I found myself taking a different road home on the matter.  I realized same-sex attraction, love, and marriage wasn’t sinful. Instead it was part of God’s plan and I could embrace it with intellectual honesty and peace of heart.

The fact that I’m standing here represents the culmination of different paths I’ve taken.  As a former Catholic I took my religion seriously.  However, as I made my journey home, discerning life’s events increasingly put me at odds with official Catholic teaching.  I had long believed the priesthood should be open to women. Over time, I saw that denying women ordination also denied them leadership roles and this seemed counter to living the Kingdom of God.  What gnawed at me the deepest though, was the intrinsic importance given to right belief and conforming to official doctrine.  This emphasis seemed more akin to the teaching of the Pharisees than the preaching of Jesus.  Jesus spoke of loving your neighbor, comforting the suffering, welcoming the poor, and treating the least among us with respect.  Eventually, the route I was taking differed enough from Catholicism that I needed to follow my conscience and take a different road. To be clear, I am not bashing my former denomination.  Their understanding of how to follow Jesus’ teachings and mine were simply two different paths. 

Changing my route hasn’t been just about my religious beliefs and practices.  When my first marriage ceased to be life giving, I discerned it was time to take another route home.  Usually however. the changes were minor.  I wasn’t living a life of sin by routinely breaking one or more of the ten commandments.  More often it was a matter of not living into the Beatitudes fully.  I would recognize ways that I didn’t always love my neighbor as fully as I should.  Or, I’d find I didn’t show mercy when I could. Sometimes I’d hold a grudge when I should be forgiving or making peace.   When I didn’t live the beatitudes, I wasn’t bringing the Kingdom of God. 

There may be times when we each need to take a different road to follow Jesus. These times may present painful challenges to deeply held beliefs but they are also grace filled times of growth.  I think in today’s gospel Matthew is telling us that everyone seeking Jesus, will need to take a different road occasionally.  No one ever gets it all right from the start. Changing our path to follow Jesus often reflects positive spiritual growth and maturity.  As we learn to follow our star home, this gospel can give us comfort knowing it’s not just okay to take a different route, it’s expected.

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