Epiphany Sunday, Year B
Isaiah 60:1-6 † Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 † Ephesians 3:1-12 † Matthew 2:1-12
A video version of this sermon can be found here.
It’s not one of our readings for this morning, but recall, if you will, the story in the first chapter of Luke in which the angel Gabriel visits Mary. The angel greets her, calls her favored and says she will bear a son. There’s actually quite a bit of talk—typical of Luke to be sure, but it is striking how much explaining the angel needs to do about this child and his significance, about what he will do and what will be done to him, about the miracle of her relative Elizabeth also pregnant in her old age. And Mary seems to ask, well, a few questions of clarification—how can this be? Wait a minute, what?—before she affirms, “Here I am” and “let it be so.”
There’s an interesting question that’s asked of this story: was Mary the chosen one, or was she just the first to say “yes”?
I don’t know about you, but with the second scenario, I can imagine a few failed attempts on Gabriel’s part, a little bit of comedy, even. Doors being slammed on him, windows shuttered closed and the like, over-protective fathers busting into the room with a broom to sweep away the holy proposal, souls growing timid when the implications of such an ask become clear.
Mary is often treated as this almost other-worldly saint chosen for her unique character. But what if, what if, she was just the first to say “yes”? What if you and I are also highly favored ones, desired by God for great things, chosen by God to bear God’s salvation into the world?
What if she was just the first to say yes?—especially given what she surely must have known. And just in case we don’t, Luke has Simeon remind us later in chapter 2 when Mary and Joseph come to present the baby Jesus in the temple and Simeon, finally finding peace, takes the baby in his arms and says:
This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.[i]
Was she chosen, or was she just the first to say “yes”? And if the second, why did, how could she say yes even as she knew pain was inevitable?
Why do the magi set out on a difficult and fraught journey that surely has great cost to it along with reward?
Why did UW researcher Helen Chu continually defy her superiors and risk the efficacy of her study to test for the coronavirus in the early days of the pandemic?
Why did teams of lawyers volunteer their time in 2017 to hang around airports to help immigrants from Muslim countries imperiled by a Federal ban on their arrival?
Why do local government workers—bureaucrats!—drop hints and send quiet emails and build relationships to help service groups and nonprofits navigate imperfect and limiting laws for access to government resources?
Why do our kids enter into journeys to claim their true identities when the way is perilous and the resistance and apprehension is fierce?
Why do we say yes?
Why do we give away our time and our resources to agencies and groups and families that are not our own?
Why do we say yes to opportunities to change a future we will not occupy when we know it will be hard and we will likely not be thanked for it?
Why do we summons the courage to give ourselves for the sake of something new by ways and means we would not choose for ourselves?
Why do we speak up and stick our necks out?
Why do you?
I suspect there are a million reasons—a million reasons that come from one spirit. The same spirit that set these magi in motion following a star and a hope. The same spirit that sent them home by another route.
Here’s an idea I’m taking with a grain of salt—let’s say I’m workshopping it for now. It seems to me evil does not need to be very creative. It can be highly effective as a blunt instrument, as Herod demonstrates in the following chapters of this story. Those who wish to benefit themselves or hurt others can fall into the same old habits with great success. The same old tropes work again and again. Using power to resist needed change, gathering gossip and broadcasting innuendo to cripple others.
To do good, though—especially in the name of reform or course correction—I think that generally requires a healthy dose of creativity and commitment and courage. To remain in faith, I think, demands the same.
This moment demands it of us.
There’s a recent poem by a woman out of San Francisco names Louise Spect that gets to this, I think. It goes like this:
I couldn’t get the tree right this year.
In spite of buying it shortly after Thanksgiving
and leaving it to soak its stump in a bucket
in the shady corner of the yard till close to Christmas.
Its needles were soft and pliable--
but a little sparse--
a little brown, and dull.
Even though attended by incantations of carols,
the ornaments wouldn’t hang properly,
but kept being nudged out of place by impertinent twigs.
The decorations the kids made in preschool
never looked so shabby.
The Holy Family
(looking like Renaissance art in a glass orb)
refused to nestle anywhere.
Eventually, they consented to hide deep within the boughs.
And the treetop angel kept looking off into the corner of the room.
The iridescent tinsel that I laid
piece by piece, just so,
slanted off this way and that,
landed on the floor,
and I knew I would be pulling tinsel strands out of my
vacuum beaters for months to come.
And I wondered:
Did the Sukkot booths not come together this year?
Did the Diwali lights keep going out?
What is Eid al-Fitr like when you break bread all alone?
we people of faith.
Because faith is the way we get through the darkest times.
Faith doesn’t solve our problems,
but the rituals of faith connect us to the deeps
within and among us
and provide food for the journey.
Why do we persist? Why do we say “yes” to what is hard? We do so because it is the way to life. We do so because it is our road to healing. We do so because we have a spirit that whispers within us, “let it be so.”
So let it be so.
[i] Luke 2:34-35, NRSV. Images used: Jan Van’t Hoff, Netherlands (Retrieved on December 31, 2020 from: https://www.gospelimages.com/paintings/47/simeon-and-anna?) and “The Presentation” by James B. Janknegt, 2008 (Retrieved on December 31, 2020 from: https://www.bcartfarm.com/pp216.html) .
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St. Andrew Sermons