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A sermon preached by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson
Feast of the Epiphany (transferred), Year A
January 5, 2020
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, MN
So, Christmas morning, tired and barely awake, my family and I were treated to brunch and presents at my in-law’s condo in Eagan. We had a delightful time despite the fact that I could only just keep my eyes open. We were just finishing with presents and about to have dessert when the door opened and three individuals wandered into the foyer and began unloading gifts. I caught my wife, Erin’s eye and together we acknowledged that these were not people we knew. Thinking perhaps that our in-laws had invited friends and just not told us, we turned to them. They were just as baffled as we were. And, then the uninvited guests noticed us, and were startled to see strangers in what was supposed, clearly, to be a familiar gathering. They wandered out as quick as they’d come grumbling about how all these condos looked the same.
I couldn’t help thinking, yes, showing up is the most important thing we can do. It’s just good to show up at the right address!
How do you show up? In the world, in your home, in your workplace, at the PTA meeting and at the ballot box — how do you show up?
And, perhaps just as importantly, what compels you, what drives and draws you out of yourself, toward others, toward your family, your partner, your colleagues, your friends, your fellow citizens.
Underneath and around this morning’s familiar gospel story are these two simple ideas – what does it mean to show up, and what is it that draws us?
How do you show up? What draws you?
Four years ago this month the unthinkable happened in Paris. Armed fanatics attacked ordinary citizens and journalists in the city killing 17 innocents. The headlines screamed about religion and extremism, about Islam and immigration. In the midst of it all a small story emerged about Lassana Bathily, a Malian-born man, a kid really at the age of 24, and a Muslim, who was working in a stockroom of a store when a gunman broke in and killed four customers. Bathily hid several other customers, all of them Jews, in a fridge in the back of the store, disrupting the freezer function before sneaking out to get help. His actions were regarded as heroic, and his story was, as you can guess, compelling. The French government granted Bathily citizenship in gratitude for his heroics. Though as the BBC reported in 2015 when the story broke, Lassana Bathily did not think of himself as a hero.
“People say I’m a hero but I’m not a hero. I’m Lassana, I’ll stay the same. I would do the same again, because I was following my heart.”
In 2018, again in Paris, after the brutal murder of Holocaust survivor Murielle Knoll in her apartment, Bathily again showed up, this time at a vigil in Knoll’s honor. Knoll’s killer had been identified as a Muslim, and Bathily wanted to show solidarity again with the Jewish community.
As the Times of Israel reported, Lassana Bathily had a message. He told reporters:
“I want to tell the Jews of France, you are not isolated. You are not abandoned. This is your country. Do not leave France, stay here, there are many like me who support you.”
Bathily showed up courageously, humbly, and with compassion. Bathily followed the better angels of his nature. In his words, he followed his heart!
How do you show up? What draws you and what do you follow?
The Magi of today’s gospel, these so-called “wise men” follow a star and are compelled to find the king the star portends. And, they come. They show up with gifts appropriate to such an occasion, with Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. They come to pay homage, and arrive in a spirit of humility, deference, and even worship.
Often this scene is portrayed, as is the whole of the nativity story folded together from several sources into one. It is shown as a moment of great tranquility and peace. While Jesus was likely a toddler in the chronology of Matthew’s gospel, often Christmas cards and pageants much like our own have the wise men stumbling into the stable tableau next to donkeys and cows, close on the heels of loveable shepherds and their flocks. And the whole scene radiates a kind of soft warmth and a homely glow. But, the backdrop of this story, like the backdrop of the story of Lassana Bathily, like the backdrop of our world today, is one of abject terror and ruthless men striving for power at all costs.
Let us not forget Herod. The desperate proxy king, a would-be great man, whose quest for power, we heard last week during the season of Christmas, in a scene that follows directly on this story, this morning, when Herod in his rage orders the execution of all 2 year old boys. The least Christmas-y of all Christmas stories, the slaughter of the innocents, is the momentary amplification of a persistent background noise of grinding fear and ever-present violence. The wise men follow their star through peril and under the watchful eye of tyrants. They show up to Jesus and worship despite the real and terrible consequences that such an act might hold.
Today we observe the feast of the Epiphany. As theologian Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder describes, the word epiphany connotes appearing or showing, “show up, show on, show out.”
And, there are many epiphanies in this story. As she writes:
“The intermingling of conflict with a call to revere is palpable. There is terror and tension. There is also wonder and worship. Herod is so filled with anxiety and paranoia that he fabricates his intent to pay homage (Matthew 2:8, 2:12). Nevertheless, this wise group travels through the deceit in order to share of their treasure. Herod’s anger stands in stark contrast to the awe and curiosity of the magi. He is overcome with fear. Upon seeing the child, the magi are overwhelmed with joy. Herod is not the recipient of honor. The horror he inflicts later upon innocent children reflect this displeasure. Yet, the bowing of the magi to the newborn Jesus reveals their understanding on the promised one. The magi ‘show up.’ Herod ‘shows out.’”
This morning that tension is present in our world too. With a rise in anti-semitic and anti-immigrant violence, in a world literally on the brink of war, in a world driven too much by the fears and ambitions of would-be great men, we are called to show up with our voices and votes as well as our compassion and curiosity. We are called to show up non-violently in a violent world. We are called to show up humbly in a world decimated by the proud and by braggarts. We are called to show up vulnerably, in a world that often only values strength, to be tender in a world of brutality.
This past Friday was my favorite author and fellow nerd, J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday. One of my favorite quotes from his most popular story, The Lord of the Rings, is an interaction between the two protagonists, Frodo the hobbit and Gandalf the wizard, discussing the terrible task facing them of destroying the ring of power, that symbol of ultimate evil.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” says Gandalf in response, “And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
How do you show up? What or whom do you follow?
Indeed, if we are true to the calling given us in baptism, we follow a God who shows up, in all circumstances, in the midst of sorrow and suffering, in joy and delight. We serve a God who shows up, most of all, in the forgotten places and among the least and the lost. We serve a God who is showing up always and ever on the margins of society, among the oppressed and the persecuted, among the innocent who are always the victims of would-be great men. And, we follow that God, into the same places, into places of hurt and suffering, into places of grief and loss. Just as our Community of Hope pastoral care team who will be commissioned in a few moments will learn, our call as people of faith is to follow Jesus into the places of deepest need, to the bedside of the dying, to the kitchen table of the grieving, to the visitor standing alone at coffee hour, and even to offer shelter to the homeless at Project Home, when we welcome immigrants and asylum seekers, when we stand against antisemitism and sexism and homophobia. We show up to each other in the church and beyond these walls, in small acts of kindness and magnificently large acts of generosity, for we follow the God of all generosity who put aside glory, becoming one of us, to be with us.
This, my friends, this is how we show up. This is who we will follow.