A Sermon by the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson for Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN
Second Sunday After Christmas
January 2, 2022
O Lord, be in my head and in my heart and on my lips, that I may know you and love you, and speak only your truth. Amen.
Given the events of this week, I hope you will indulge me for just a moment to begin this sermon by retelling the story of the three wise men as if told by the Golden Girls.
Sophia Petrillo opens our tale:
Picture it, Jerusalem, first century, and three kings are following a star.
Actually, history tells us that these were not really kings but probably magi – star readers and fortune tellers, more akin to what we might call magicians.
These had better be three wandering eligible bachelors or I’m going to lose interest real quick!
And, finally, my favorite, Rose Nylund, played by the inimitable Betty White:
You know, I delivered one of my babies with a magician present. St. Olaf’s most famous OBMAG. Obstetrician-Magician. The Amazing Shapiro. He delivered Bridget. But it was so confusing. “It’s a girl! Now it’s a dove… Now it’s a glass of milk.” I don’t know how he got her in that deck of cards, but there she was right after the King of Hearts. “Is this your baby?”
Like many, I love the Golden Girls. Erin and I actually watched the reruns again, many of them for the first time, over the first several months of the pandemic – a nightly ritual of one 30 minute sitcom before we go to bed, something light and funny to end the day. Yet, the show was often serious, and tackled issues of race and gender and sexuality still relevant to this day. But, I suppose one of the reasons I love the show so much is its willingness to tell the story of four women, in their golden years, facing some of life’s greatest hardships and challenges, facing mortality, and yet choosing to never stop growing or learning. Each character is, in a way, after having faced significant changes and losses, choosing a new path for herself, choosing life over fear and despair. Each character is choosing another way!
And, we’ve needed stories of choosing life over fear and despair of late. I don’t know about you, but the way that this pandemic has persisted and even worsened of late, has felt exhausting and disillusioning at best. With rising infections, we’ve all had our plans changed on a number of occasions, events cancelled, gatherings postponed, and opportunities to be together thwarted because of this awful virus. Over the holidays, my inbox and text messages were chock full of news like this, trips rescheduled and parties cancelled, or even worse, those who didn’t and are now sick, living with the fear of how this virus will affect their lives moving forward.
One of the most common responses I’m seeing right now is a kind of despair, a precursor to hopelessness. Don’t make plans. That is the prevailing sentiment. In the face of such unpredictability and uncertainty, the prospect of so much to fear, we are beginning to shut down, to stop making plans, adjusting our expectations to a reality where we connect less and do less. But, what if there was another way?
And, in many ways, that theme, the theme of finding another way, sits underneath the story we hear from the gospel of Matthew, of the magi and their visit to Bethlehem. This is a story haunted by fear and despair and the looming prospect of death. History tells us that Herod was a client king of the global super power, Rome, and as we read in the gospels, his own fear of being undercut by the one to whom the signs and portents pointed, by the rise of a new king, terrified him to his core. He seeks to enlist these wise men in his cause to find and remove this infant usurper. And when they betray him, he will, in his rage and fear, order all the boys in Jerusalem ages 2 or younger to be murdered – and Mary and Joseph and the newborn baby flee to Egypt as refugees, crossing borders to preserve their lives.
The gospel tells us that having been warned of Herod, the magi returned home by another way.
In my favorite rendering of this story, the great author and preacher Frederick Buechner tells it this way,
”’Go and find me the child,’ the king told us, and as he spoke, his fingers trembled so that the emeralds rattled together like teeth. ‘Because I want to come and worship him,’ he said, and when he said that, his hands were still as death. Death. I ask you, does a man need the stars to tell him that no king has ever yet bowed down to another king? He took us for children, that sly, lost old fox, and so it was like children that we answered him. ‘Yes, of course,’ we said, and went our way. His hands fluttered to his throat like moths.”
Three foreigners are drawn across borders and boundaries, through travails and threats and fearful things, following a star to the birth of a child – one whom they believe will be a king. The gospel tells us that despite all this, in the face of fear and despair, when they arrived at the place where the star had stopped in Bethlehem, they were moved to joy! They knelt and worshipped. Their encounter here was profound, and life-changing. And they chose not to give Herod what he wanted, chose not to live life governed by fear and death, but instead found another road home – they found a new way.
This is the challenge before us, here at the beginning of a new year, when we have encountered so much fear and despair, so much uncertainty and loss. In the midst of it all, we have also been given the chance to see Jesus, the one who comes to us in the poor and the hungry, those caught under the knee or boot of an oppressor or a system of injustice – who is there in the sick and the suffering, and whose presence is always there with the dying and those who mourn. This pandemic has shown us just how governed our lives can be by powers and principalities, by systems of injustice and death, by economies of scarcity and fear. Our world is often held in sway to these things, and begs us to join, to be complicit, to despair, to make no plans, or worse, to plan and collude with the powers that be. We have seen just how stretched and fragmented we can be, and are. And, yet, we have seen Jesus, and in him we have seen another way.
As Buechner writes:
“What we saw on the face of the newborn child was his death. A fool could have seen it as well. It sat on his head like a crown or a bat, this death that he would die. And we saw, as sure as the earth beneath our feet, that to stay with him would be to share that death, …And now, brothers, I will ask you a terrible question, and God knows I ask it also of myself. Is the truth beyond all truths, beyond the stars, just this: that to live without him is the real death, that to die with him is the only life?”
Our world is riddled with grief and loss, often in thrall to fear and despair, and visited daily by tragedies and horrors too awful to mention. This is a world governed by systems of oppression, and guided by economies of disparity and death. And, we who have seen the Christ child, who have encountered Jesus, who is ever present in the midst of all these things, the Crucified and Risen One, are called to a new way, His way of liberating and life-giving love in and for the world.
I gave the opening word to the late great Betty White, and so it is probably appropriate that I give the closing word to the late, and even greater Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who also died this month as the year was closing. He writes in his book God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope For Our Time these beautiful words:
“Dear Child of God, I write these words because we all experience sadness, we all come at times to despair, and we all lose hope that the suffering in our lives and in the world will ever end. I want to share with you my faith and my understanding that this suffering can be transformed and redeemed. There is no such thing as a totally hopeless case. Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos, and God can do so always, can do so now–in our personal lives and in our lives as nations, globally. … Indeed, God is transforming the world now–through us–because God loves us.”
So, do not despair, my friends. Make plans to live by a new way, the way of Love made known and made possible in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Make plans to share love, to be surprised by joy, and to follow him whom we worship this day and always. Amen.