Monday, January 8, 2018

Dreams of Resistance, Refuge, and Return: Epiphany and a Sermon on Matthew 2:1-22

Given today is the first Sunday after Epiphany, it is only appropriate to share of my recent experience as a wondrous traveler in search of a great mystery…in IKEA. The treasure in pursuit was Minde, the product name for the full-length mirror I was to pick up when there to purchase our table, Jokkmokk. I traveled from the East, or Mt. Airy, to the town of Plymouth Meeting, where the light in the sky led me to the sacred Swedish home decor store. I went there for what I assumed would be a 15-minute stop.


I walked into the marketplace, determined that I would find what I needed rather quickly. And I did find Jokkmokk. But I still needed Minde. I asked the nearest salesperson who pointed me to the show room, where I could see a number of mirrors and even other tables, if I’d like. 

I walked into the showroom and immediately was overwhelmed but still committed. So I began to follow, not a star in the sky, but arrows on the floor that weaved me through the endless display rooms like a hamster in a glass-covered maze. And there was only one route, or so I thought- follow the arrows. And Minde, according to the next nearest salesperson, was at the end of the route. 

Needless to say, 45 minutes later, I found Minde, placed on my shopping cart with those 360 degree wheels that made me feel as though I was traveling on ice in bowling shoes, and headed for the checkout. I had overcome, but I was spent. I didn’t know the journey for such a simple item would be so complicated. It was supposed to be simple, quick, and easy. 

The story of Epiphany begins with what appears to be a harmless and holy venture of three Magi from the eastern lands following a route prescribed by a single star in the heavens. While we are accustomed to hearing the first half of the Epiphany story and all the imagery fitting for a seasonal carol, the latter portion is far from what you would want for a holiday jingle for the last day of Christmas. This may be why the prescribed reading in today’s lectionary cuts the narrative short,* leaving off the aftermath of the Magi's thwarting of Herod's orders. 

Yet today’s gospel story must be engaged in its fullness. Much like an IKEA marketplace, we cannot shortcut our way through; we have to weave through it all. Ok, for those seasoned IKEA veterans, maybe you can, but then you miss so much that’s on display. So, too, you cannot begin to understand the fullness of epiphany if you stop with the Magi returning home and tuck under a Swedish rug what happened in the verses that followed. So we won’t do that. Instead, we will briefly engage the full story by way of the common thread throughout Matthew’s Epiphany story: unsettling dreams. 

The first dream in the Gospel of Matthew occurs when Joseph receives word of the incarnation through his betrothed, Mary. While the contents of the dream are earth shattering, the recipient is to be expected. Joseph is an upstanding Jewish man with an impressive heritage that Matthew just outlined, starting with Father Abraham. 

The recipients of the next dream, however, raise more than a few eyebrows:  Eastern wisdom teachers and astrologists from the region most known not only as Gentile territory, but also as hostile enemy territory, i.e. Babylon, that ravished their ancestors and led them into exile. Out of this land, Matthew illustrates new characters, not of collusion with empire, but in a grand conspiracy of hope. Mathew even tells their story of being the benefactors of a revelation from God, an epiphany, about the One who would establish God’s throne on earth as in heaven.

The Magi are led by the star to Herod’s courts and meet in secret with this fabled King Herod, whose allegiance was neither to his Jewish roots nor the Roman empire, but to power and self-interest alone (sound familiar). Then they head out to find who it was they (and now Herod) were looking for, only to come to an abrasive halt as the star stops "over the place where the child was."  Matthew is intentionally abrupt here, only to follow up with, "and they were overwhelmed with joy.”

Makes you wonder why? Had they studied the Hebrew Scriptures and found something, better said, began searching for something greater and more redemptive than anything they previously discovered in their land’s own brands of oppressive ideologies, religious myths, and violent throne hoarders. Surely this juxtaposition is part of Matthew’s intent. Maybe here we can relate to the Magi in our own longings for something better than, maybe even some semblance of joy within, a world where threats of nuclear war are played with on Twitter, the trending hashtag #metoo exposes ongoing realities of sexual harassment and abuse in virtually every place of work to include the church, when children’s health insurance is used as collateral in partisan tax agendas, or when our lingering bouts with depression or grief leave us searching for light in the darkness. We are looking for joy that overwhelms despair.

So, too, for the Magi. So when the star stopped they stopped and offered their gifts fitting for a new kind of kingdom. Then they had a dream- their epiphany. Do not return to Herod. And they didn’t; “they left for their own country by another road.” Another road. They were accustomed to roads like Herod’s that led to devastation, oppression, and the lures of redemptive violence. Their encounter with the Christ child, however, reframed everything and moved them to subvert the oppressive mandate and refuse compliance to what was sure to be a murderous assault on this vulnerable child beneath the star. This was an all too familiar road.

Friends, this is the good news to us this morning: in the Christ child we find joy beyond mere sentimentality that overwhelms despair and nudges us to take alternative roads of non-compliance to cultural narratives and the powers that be whenever they threaten the well-being of those most vulnerable to systems of oppression, injustice, exploitation, and violence.

Wherever you are on the socio-political spectrum, there is no denying that we live in important times when our allegiance is tested, our discipleship challenged, and our understanding of what it means to be God’s people in the world is stretched. And while there are sure reasons to despair, there are even more reasons to be overwhelmed by joy as we see evidence of people, both inside the church and beyond, taking alternative routes other than those fueled by bigotry, sustained by privilege, and manifested in pervasive poverty, racism, violence, and negligence of those most vulnerable in our neighborhoods, nations, and larger world. Whether it is a Presbytery raising nearly $400,000 to leverage education of children, disrupt a school-to-prison pipeline, and or work towards restorative justice or churches like yours who continue to partner with Barth Elementary School to empower young peacemakers in your community, new roads of resistance are being carved. There are churches, ministers, and community organizers who have housed refugees, linked arms with and provided sanctuary for immigrants, hosted art festivals to raise awareness about local gun violence, and again, your church, has committed to read Waking Up White and host an author talkback open to the community as you consider how to dismantle systemic racism. Here new roads of resistance are carved. Friends, the revelation of this Christ child begs the same question today as it did two millennia ago: will we follow the road that leads to power and privilege or follow overwhelming joy on alternative routes of love, justice, and equality for all of God's children?

But there is more to the story. While we may find initial relief in how the Magi’s alternative road made a way for the safety of God’s anointed child, there is a very dark side to Epiphany that leaves us with more questions than answers. The infuriated and deeply insecure Herod (O how those in power are so deeply insecure), hell bent on finding the one who was a perceived threat to his power, orders the killing of children two and under. So again, Joseph receives a dream, “Get up, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you.” In an intra-biblical allusion to the Exodus, where Herod is cast as a new kind of Pharoah, the Holy Family flees and finds refuge in the land once known for enslaving the Jewish people. The story is so unsettling that, again, the lectionary stops short of it. Most of us hesitate to read to our young children. I do. I even hesitated to read to you today.

Then I wonder, is this second chapter of Epiphany precisely the story Jesus' parents told him every year when they acknowledged his birth?  You can almost hear Mary whisper, "My son, you are our beloved. You are God's beloved. Yet your entrance into this world has not been as beloved by the powers that press upon us from all sides. Many have already died so you may live, children even. Young ones like you. Never forget your life came at a cost. Never forget the babies of this world, the children of Bethlehem. So live and love, like those distant visitors from foreign lands who made a way for your deliverance, offer your life as refuge for all who are threatened to have their lives taken away."

It's no wonder Jesus, the Christ Child now matured Messiah, forcefully spoke these words to his disciples who had become a blockade to little ones in their thirst for power and privilege:
“He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me." (Matthew 18:5) 
Jesus knew new the witness of the Magi and never forgot the children.

I dare say this is the second gospel message of Epiphany: to hear the cries of God’s children looking for refuge. Whether in Syria, Pottstown, Philadelphia, or modern day Israel/Palestine, dare we hear their cries and quest to protect children often burned by the negligence of adults and the powers that be? May we be willing to take it a step farther and empower and invest in their voices and passions, questions, and ideas about alternative routes able to move us even a little bit closer than previous generations to God’s dreams for a world made new and right again. 

One of the most binged shows on Netflix is Stranger Things. In the middle of season two (hold your spoilers please), it dawned on me: the entirety of this show hinges on the willingness of adults to listen to children caught in the nightmarish upside-down and related monsters unleashed by the foolishness and irresponsibility of adults. In Stranger Things, children and youth are both the vulnerable victims and heroic protagonists. Some of the most beautiful scenes are when adult characters have their own epiphanies that affirm what young people have already told them about what is really going on just beneath the surface of the world they thought they knew so well.

Friends, if we are to live into our agency as disciples of Jesus, like the Magi, we must always be on the side of children and youth who are frequently both vulnerable victims and heroic protagonists, leaders of faithful resistance against the strange and monstrous powers that threaten their present and future well-being bound to ours as adults.  

All this leads to the final dream of today’s story, again given to Joseph. “Get up, [actually, both the original Greek and The New Revised Hamilton Bible read, Rise Up, wise up] take the child and his mother, and go to Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”

So that is what they do. As the Magi returned to their own land, leaving us to wonder the new stories they told as fresh evangelists to the gospel, Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child return to familiar lands, albeit not in Bethlehem but Galilee and the marginalized town of Nazareth. 

What is most compelling about the final chapter of Epiphany is that it ends neither with fight nor flight, death nor despair, rather return. God’s story has always been about return, dare I say resurrection, when all will be made new and right again. Life and homecoming are the promised finish line to what Julia Esquivel, an exiled Guatemalan poet who wrote in the wake ofgenocide in the middle portion of the 20th century, refers to as a Marathon ofHope. This marathon runs along the margins and often-neglected corners of our world.

This is today’s final good word of Epiphany: the fullness of God’s revelation is encountered when God’s people return to and make their home along the margins of our neighborhoods to live into God’s restoration and wholeness, love and justice that is especially for our most vulnerable neighbors near and far. So what does that look like for this congregation? Where and alongside whom may God be awakening you to run this marathon of hope? Where might you personally see God’s star hovering? These are Epiphany questions worth asking.

Church, in journeying through the fullness of Epiphany, we are assured by the Magi that when we encounter the Christ child we will find a joy that overwhelms despair and nudges us towards alternative roads of resistance to the narratives and power structures that infringe on all who bear the image of God. We are reminded of our call to hear the cries of and provide refuge for the youngest among us, even to empower their voices as they lead us in alternative routes towards God’s justice and peace. Finally, we discover again that God’s story hinges on a return to and make our home on the margins where we embody the hope found in Jesus Christ alongside our more vulnerable neighbors near and far.  

Each of these words came by way of a dream, an epiphany from God who were open and willing not only to receive, but also to respond to the vision. What about you? May you be just as open to the dreams of God in such a time as this, for Lord knows the world needs Epiphany people just as much now as it did two millennia ago. So get up, rise up for this marathon of hope in a world God still so very much loves.  Amen. 


*I am aware that Matthew 2:13-22 appears in lectionary year A. Still, I do not believe they should be separated. The beauty and edge of the story is in fullness from star to Nazareth.