Here’s an Epiphany sermon from the vault…
“Surely the Bible can teach and inspire. But has it lost the ability to startle us? To make us gasp? In our society, where 90 percent of households possess a Bible and more than a third of American adults say they’ve read from it in the last week, it’s hard to see the text with fresh eyes. Even if you’re in the small minority that admits to never having read it, you probably know something about it. Maybe too little to embrace it. Or maybe too much.”
I felt like I was in between worlds. For roughly twenty-two minutes, the time it took to go from the first notes of the ‘Overture’ to the end of track six ‘But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming,’ I was caught between worlds. To induce me into the mood of the season, I was listening to Handel’s Messiah on my IPOD. This was a couple of weeks ago and I was in Starbucks at Mount Vernon Shopping Center, trying to write a sermon different from this one.
In my ears, the hopes and prayers of the prophet Isaiah were being sung by the London Philharmonic. And in front of me, on the page of my opened Bible, was the news from St. Matthew’s Gospel that in the birth of Jesus Christ those prayers had been answered, those hopes fulfilled.
Despite surrounding my senses with the joy of the season, I felt caught between worlds.
For sitting next to me among the crowded round tables was a man and a young a man- a father and son, I presumed. And what I heard between them could not have been a further cry from “…good news of great joy.”
The coffee shop was loud and crowded, filled with the noise of shooting steam and tables of people debriefing their holiday shopping. Already it was dark outside, the lights from the store fronts bleeding out any notice of the stars.
I was getting my notes and books in order when they sat down. The father, who hadn’t ordered anything at all, was already animated. I tried hard not to make eye contact. I didn’t want my eyes to betray my accidental but now intentional eavesdropping.
Looking down at the tiled floor, I noticed he was wearing expensive-looking loafers, the kind with tassles on them, and also exotically patterned socks. He smelled of cologne and had a distinct if undefined accent. They were sitting, father and son, at a small round table, the kind that’s just large enough for a cup of coffee and a conversation. Apparently the table was not small enough, though, as the father scooted in his chair to sit even closer- at a right angle- to the boy who bore his younger likeness.
You don’t need to have read any pastoral counseling books to identify the father’s posture, his gesticulating, his facial shrugs as aggressive. Dismissive.
Nor do you need to have read any of those books to correctly identify the widening splotches of red on the son’s neck and cheeks and face as shame.
Maybe because I’ve been in similar situations myself, but I could easily read the scene before me. The cues were all there and they were unmistakable. It wasn’t a father scolding a son over poor grades or a missed curfew. It wasn’t a routine argument or a heated but inconsequential debate.
A marriage was breaking up and, judging from the father’s fury, the relationship was well-beyond his or anyone’s ability to repair.
‘Irreconcilable Differences’ would have been a euphemism, I quickly guessed. And, as it goes in such battles, the casualties were young and innocent.
That was what was happening next to me at the adjacent coffee table. The loyalty and perceptions of the man’s son had become an object to fight over- like a house or a car or a couch. The awkwardness of their body language and the reticence of the son made it clear to me: that they had agreed to meet there, at the coffee shop, only after much negotiation. That they were, according to their agreement, on neutral ground.
And I felt caught between worlds. As soon as I recognized what was playing out in front of me I tried to refocus, to ignore them, to read St. Matthew’s news of a new world dawning, to listen only to Isaiah’s words sung in my ears: “Comfort ye my people, says your God.”
But the father was as angry as something caged and he said things- about the boy’s mother. Things that cannot be said in this place, things that Handel’s Messiah could not drown out or overwhelm. And with each indictment of the boy’s mother, the father would point contemptuously at his son, and each time he finished he would hold out his hands like a lawyer who’s just finished his closing argument.
The shame on the boy’s face made him look younger but he was in high school, I think. He wore a black hooded sweatshirt, baggy cargo pants and Vans on his feet. He looked like a kid you might see skateboarding in the church parking lot. Sitting there, he was curled up in as much of a fetal position as the table would allow. More self-aware than his father, he was quiet, obviously embarrassed by the audience his father’s anger had provoked there in the coffee shop.
The boy spoke, subdued and down at the table top.
“But mom said…” was all I could hear him say several times, each time his voice trailing off and fading. And each time his father would shrug his eyes and wave him off, as if his own perspective were the only star worth following.
Now that I am a father myself, I know, unreservedly, that there are some things that ‘circumstances’ can never excuse, that no ‘situation’ justifies a child being made the prey of another’s contempt.
And now that I’m a father I know that I don’t need to know another side to the story to know that the man sitting at the table next to me was proud, angry, without grace, and unwilling to admit error or offer mercy.
That, no matter the cost, he was determined to be his own guiding light.
The whole thing only lasted twenty minutes or so, just long enough to get from Handel’s ‘Overture’ to track number six on my IPOD. And then it was over.
I’m sure there were some there, amidst the shooting steam and holiday chatter, who didn’t notice any of it just as I’m sure there were some who didn’t notice how the father waved his son off with a “I’m finished with you” gesture, and left him sitting there crying beneath his black hood.
Like his son was a lost object, like a house or a car or a couch.
Left behind in the seat of the father’s chair, I noticed later, was a folded and wrinkled copy of the Washington Post Book World. The irony of the bold heading caught my eye so I picked it up and beneath the central graphic I read the introductory lines that the proud and contemptuous man had been sitting on:
“Surely the Bible can teach and inspire. But has it lost the ability to startle us? To make us gasp? Even if you’re in the small minority that admits to never having read it, you probably know something about it.
Maybe too little to embrace it. Or maybe too much.”
Epiphany, the journey of the magi to discover the One revealed by heaven’s star, would seem to have little to do with the scene I’ve just drawn for you.
What I’ve just told you would seem to have little to do with three exotic kings from Persia, Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar, bringing their caravan of camels to Israel in search of a foretold king of the Jews.
Matthew, though, doesn’t tell us their names or where they’re from. He doesn’t even tell us how many of them there or even that they were kings. And St. Luke doesn’t tell us about them at all.
Matthew only tells us that wise men from far away searched out a promise of God and, when they found him, they paid him honor and worshipped him.
And when they left, these men who were used to guiding their lives according to the skies and the stars, couldn’t go home the same way, for the light of Christ had reoriented their whole lives.
Still, though, the story I just told you would seem to bear no connection to Matthew’s story of the magi bringing their gifts to the infant Messiah.
Unless, of course, Matthew’s story is true.
If Matthew’s story of Epiphany is true and the King the wise men discover in Bethlehem really is:
- The mercy of God in the flesh
- The almightiness of God revealed in the vulnerability and humility of a baby
- The love that moves the stars in the sky is to be found in the Body of One who will be broken for the sake of the ungodly
If heaven really is held in Mary’s manger and…
In the love and life of this baby, God chooses to forever see and judge each one of us, then Matthew’s story- Epiphany- it couldn’t have more to do with how we treat one another.
If all that is true…then, you and I, we honor this King not by bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh to him, but by bringing love and mercy and forgiveness and humility to our lives that he was born in order to redeem.
Every year at Epiphany it is the Church’s liturgical custom to talk about:
- How the journey of the exotic magi represents the inclusion of the Gentiles into the People of God
- How the searching of the wise men demonstrates that the light of Israel is meant to be light for the whole world
- How the worship of these foreigners is a harbinger of that future Day when every knee shall bend and every head bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all Creation.
And that’s all true and with good reason, but the way I’ve seen it since that late afternoon in Starbucks…when it comes to honoring and adoring the Christ child, you’ve got to somewhere: so why not with husbands and wives and fathers and mothers and sons and daughters and friends and neighbors injecting into their lives the loving mercy of the One made flesh.
So today perhaps the Washington Post is right. Maybe today the Bible won’t startle you or make you gasp, but I do pray that it will at least begin to transform you.