Friday, January 10, 2014

Getting It, Giving It

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas includes Jeremiah 31:7-14; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:1-12

Those three Wise Ones are meant to capture our imaginations. Just as our soloists this morning come to us from the little band of talented parishioners who gather on first and third Sundays for Worship Outside the Box, so the three Wise Ones came from outside the box of first-century Israel. They were meant—and are forever meant—to cause fresh thinking and creative wondering… like, what is God up to? and where is God up to it?

In fact, the whole Christmas story asks these curious questions. The holiest of moments isn’t inside a church or a temple, but in a barn, where everyone’s attention is fixed not on an altar or a pulpit, but on a crude wooden manger where the cattle come to feed—and oops, there’s a baby there (try explaining that to the cows, though we like to think they already get it).

And the voices heard commenting on the meaning of all this don’t belong to priests and bishops, but to shepherds and farmhands. Aren’t they a surprising choice to be the preachers of the Christmas Good News? Not in the least, because their sermon starts with the breaking news that God has a passionate thing going for the poor, prefers building a team of leaders from among the poor because the rich just don’t seem to get it. Or give it.

And getting and giving is right at the heart of the Christmas story and its next chapter, the Epiphany story. With the arrival of the Wise Ones on January 6 (so we’re just one day ahead of ourselves, but how can we not celebrate the Epiphany today?), the twelve days of Christmas end, and the several weeks of Epiphany season, between now and Lent, train us to take the Christmas Gospel with us wherever we go.

The name Epiphany sounds like it’s from another time, another place, and yes: it’s a Greek word that means manifesting, showing, realizing. In cartoon language, the light bulb goes on in the little thought cloud above our heads. Aha!, you could say in a moment of epiphany. “I get it now!”. But by the nature of what God is up to, “I get it now” needs to be shown by “I’ll give it now.” Let me say what I mean.

If there’s any Epiphany symbol that outshines the Wise Ones, it’s that star, the one that guides them on their journey. Midway through the twelve days of Christmas, we hear the elegant mystical Prologue of John’s Gospel, reminding us how John speaks of the coming of Jesus, not as Luke and Matthew do, with their stories of Bethlehem, but as a cosmic event, the Word becoming flesh, the light that illuminates every person piercing the world’s darkness. This way of describing Christmas makes the same point as the stories told by Luke and Matthew: what God is up to is worldwide, global, universal: God’s kingdom of justice and peace coming on earth as it is in heaven.

What does that take? You and me and countless millions and billions of people getting it, and giving it. Getting what God gives in Jesus, the gift described so well in the Letter to the Ephesians today: God’s gift to each and all of us is “a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him, so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which he has called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for all who believe.”

Get that spirit, and you will give that spirit. Face into that light and you will reflect that light. Where? Wherever we take the Christmas Gospel—but more than that, wherever we admit we don’t know how to take the Christmas Gospel, where the darkness is gathered, the suffering deep, the hostility high, the grief piercing. Places like that may terrify us, and put us hand in hand with those shepherds (and Joseph, and Mary, and the Wise Ones) who heard the coaching of the angels, “Do not be afraid, even here, especially here, God is up to his old work in new ways, redeeming people from hands too strong for them (to quote the prophet Jeremiah), with consolations to lead them.”

I feel a twinge of loss as I picture Tim packing up this crèche, come Tuesday morning. I’ll miss the message it sends, that just as that barnyard in Bethlehem is a gateway into what God is doing in the workaday world of farmers and shepherds, so our altar is a gate that swings open to the world, offering everyone a place to get it, preparing us to go out there and give it.

And just as the crèche draws us into a cosmos bright not just with constellations but with ranks of angels reminding us that we are never alone, that the grace of God is always at work around us and for us, so this altar readies us for epiphanies, showings, shinings of gratitude that will come to us in the seven days before we gather here again. Old Jeremiah the prophet says that wherever God’s people recognize what God is up to, “they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord… as when young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry.”

Nailed to the doorframe of each Jewish home is an ornament (it may be made of metal or wood or fired clay, earthy stuff) called a mezuzah. It is a little case containing a piece of parchment on which has been inscribed the verses of Torah that include the prayer “Shema Yisrael,” “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One, and you shall love the LORD your
God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The mezuzah is mounted at an angle, pointing towards the room about to be entered, as if to say that God and the Torah are about to enter that room with you.

We need something like the mezuzah, tilted toward the world, mounted on our church doorframe and at our front door at home, to remind us, as we go out, that God’s sanctuary is found not just in places like this, but also wherever the Word is made flesh in attempts at justice, mercy, lovingkindness, and peace-making; wherever God sets up a work bench to build out of human society a truer community, a worthier commonwealth. God may need a hand doing this, and can use whatever radiant hope and consoling love we can offer to the holy encounters that God is up to in this precious world, this challenged earth, this shimmering cosmos.