By The Rev. Sherry Deets
Epiphany – January 4, 2015
Happy New Year! Happy Epiphany! Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany and the beginning of a new church season.
Matthew tells us of the wise men, gentiles, also known as the Magi, who observed a star and came in search of the child, born king of the Jews. Not unheard of in that day – the idea that heavenly signs marked the births and deaths of great leaders was widely accepted. What they saw excited them, even enough to make them drop what they were doing and follow the star.
What if the wise men had decided to stay home? We listen to this story of cross–country travel every year, and when we look at the manger scene, we expect to find our turbaned travelers kneeling by the baby Jesus. The crèche would seem empty without them, as if a family picture were being taken and some of our closest relatives were missing. But what if they had never arrived? Or what if they had considered taking the trip into the unknown but then decided that it was just too risky or too far or too complicated? What if the trip seemed too overwhelming or just too much trouble?
If the wise men had stayed home all those years ago, they would have missed the Christ child. If they had not dared to venture out into the unknown, they would not have encountered God in this new way. There was a miracle waiting to be discovered, but they would not have experienced it because they would still be safely rooted in their everyday routines.
Optimism tends to accompany a new year. But we leave 2014 somewhat broken and disappointed. The online magazine Slate has christened 2014 “The Year of Outrage.” Here’s the deal: our outrage grows from our most vulnerable places, our basic fear that things are not as they should be. Something is wrong with our world, and in a fundamental way we don’t know how to fix it. Faced with moral and social disorder, the deep evolutionary structure of our brains prepares us to fight: outrage! We may think we’re angry because we’re right – and someone else is so, so wrong. We’re really angry because we’re disappointed. How do we overcome our disappointment, and do something different than showing outrage in it’s various forms? Shall we dare to take that journey to find the Christ child?
A true story: Many years ago in India, a group of men traveling through desolate country found a seriously wounded man lying beside the road. They carried him to the Christian mission hospital and asked the physician who met them at the door if a bed was available. The physician looked at the injured man and immediately saw that he was an Afghan, a member of the warring Patau tribe. “Bring him in,” he said, “For him we have a bed.” When the physician examined the man, he found that an attacker had seriously injured his eyes and the man’s sight was imperiled. The man was desperate with fear and rage, pleading with the doctor to restore his sight so that he could find his attacker and extract retribution. “I want revenge,” he screamed. “I want to kill him.”
The doctor told the man that he was in a Christian hospital, that Jesus had come to show us how to love and forgive even our enemies. The man listened unmoved. Revenge was his only goal, vengeance the only reality. The doctor rose, saying that he needed to attend to other patients. He promised to return to tell the man a story, a story about a person who took revenge. Long ago, he later began his story, the British government had sent a man to serve as envoy to Afghanistan, but as he traveled to his new post, he was attacked on the road by a hostile tribe, and thrown into a shabby make-shift prison. There was only one other prisoner, and the two suffered through their ordeal together, poorly clothed, badly fed, and mistreated cruelly by the guards.
Their only comfort was a copy of the Book of Common Prayer, which had been given to the envoy by his sister in England.
She had inscribed her name along with a message of good will on the first page. The book served not only as a source for their prayers, but also as a diary, as a place to record their daily experiences. The margins of the prayer book became a journal of their anguish and their faith.
The two prisoners were never heard from again. Their families and friends waited for news that never came. Over twenty years later, a man browsing through a second-hand shop found the prayer book. How it got there, no one can say. But, after reading some of the journal entries in the margin, he recognized its value, located the sister whose name was in the front, and sent it to her.
With deep heartache she read each entry. When she came to the last one, she noted that it was in a different hand. It said simply that the two had been taken from their cell, publicly flogged and then forced to dig their own graves before being executed. At that moment she knew what she must do. She was not wealthy, the doctor continued, but she marshaled all the money she could and sent it to this mission hospital. Her instructions were that the money was to be used to keep a bed free at all times for a sick or wounded Afghan. This was to be her revenge for her brother’s torture in the hands of Afghans and his death in their country. “My friend,” said the doctor, “you are now lying in that bed. Your care is her revenge.”
This “New Year” thing is a curious fiction, isn’t it? The planet on which we’ve hitched a ride has been wheeling through space a lot longer than 2,014 years. And the hoopla we make at midnight on December 31st is a tad over the top for one more tick of the clock.
But this annual ritual allows us to imagine that maybe, just maybe, we’re on the threshold of something new and better — and some of our imaginings might come true, depending on what we do. Here’s a small poem that’s large with wise guidance for threshold-crossing:
We look with uncertainty
by Anne Hillman
We look with uncertainty
beyond the old choices for
to a softer, more permeable aliveness
which is every moment
at the brink of death;
for something new is being born in us
if we but let it.
We stand at a new doorway,
awaiting that which comes…
daring to be human creatures,
vulnerable to the beauty of existence.
Learning to love.
Christmas is more than just one day. Epiphany reminds us to check our spiritual compass. What star, what light, are we following? Like the wise men, take that risky journey toward the light, toward new life. Dare to take the journey and go home by another road.
Happy Epiphany. May your star always lead you to Emmanuel. Amen.
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