Fr. George's Homily for The Feast of the Epiphany 2021 - Who Shall We Be?
The Epiphany – The Rev. George Daisa
The Feast of the Epiphany/First Sunday after the Epiphany
January 10, 2021
My friends, as we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, the Greek word at the root of which is Epiphaneia, meaning manifestation or appearing…Let us this morning look carefully into the mirror which this horrific scene from Matthew’s gospel affords, to see that we have a choice, a response which is required. Let us follow the star and let it guide us with its perfect light.
Suppose we put ourselves into the scene presented here in our gospel reading this morning, and we imagine ourselves in the shoes of the characters in our Epiphany story, beginning with the star itself. We are told in Matthew that the star appeared as a guiding beacon to the Wise Men from the East. Nature’s response to the divine incarnation of love, then, was to shine light in the vast darkness of the night sky, heralding the coming of the baby whose name is Love. Nature’s response to the birth of God with Us is therefore for us Christians clear and sharp, and just as clear and sharp and bright as the whole heavenly host who appeared to the lowly shepherds watching their flocks by night. But what was the humanresponse? What meaning did this mysterious star have for those who were present in the fields, in the far-East, in the capital, Jerusalem, and in the little town of Bethlehem?
There were the three Wise Men, Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar, the Magi as the Church remembers them, travelling from the far reaches of the known world to pay homage to the newborn king. Having witnessed the star from their own homes, they’re response was to travel thousands of miles to follow a mysterious star and to offer its mysterious child treasures of gold, frankincense and myrrh. As they were kings themselves, they would have traveled with a retinue of hundreds of soldiers, ministers and servants, over “field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star” for many weeks or even months. They’re response to the star was to risk the long journey and the dangers involved. They’re response was to let their wonder and curiosity to lead them without a map or even an invitation to see this newborn king of the Jews. They’re response is to follow and go, and go they did, trusting in the divine light to guide their way.
“Star of wonder, star of night, star of royal beauty bright, Westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.”
Then there was Herod the Great, as he was known, the Roman puppet king of the Jews. Herod is remembered by history as the politically savvy client king of Judea whose many accomplishments in infrastructure and building projects made him a favorite of his Roman masters. But we Christians remember Herod much as the Jews of Palestine thought of him in his own time, as a traitorous and self-serving interloper, an imposter king who would do or say anything to hold on to power, even betray and murder his own people. Deceitful, self-important and paranoid, Herod would stop at nothing, not even giving an order to have thousands of innocent children slaughtered in order to secure his kingdom.
Then there were the Jewish soldiers, Herod’s royal guards, whose job, one might imagine, was to secure his palace and support his sovereignty. These soldiers were working class men. They were not unlike you and me, with families of their own, children of their own. They did their jobs as well as was expected, drew their measly paycheck and at the end of the long day went home to kiss their children. They didn’t ask why they drew this or that assignment; they did what they were ordered to do, and, presumably, they did it well enough. Not a bad job in troubled times. Steady work, steady paycheck.
Can you, then, imagine their horror and disbelief when Herod’s grisly and unthinkable orders came down? Murder innocent children in royal David’s city? Tear babies from their mother’s breast? Their fellow Jews, their own people? And, what would they do when the deed was done and it came time for them to wash the blood from their hands and return to their homes after such ghastly business? Could they ever hold their own babies again? How could they look their wives in the eye after what they had done? No one could ever be right after something so wrong, they’re hearts broken and torn to shreds as they contemplated their orders. They ask themselves, “How can I possibly do this? I didn’t sign up for this.”
But they’re soldiers and a soldier’s job is to receive and obey orders. Our job is to remain loyal, and defend the cause.But, what cause are we defending? No, you don’t question authority, or his right to expect blind allegiance. And so, these soldiers did what they were told to do, shameful and abhorrent as it most surely was, to them and to us, and their evil deeds would go down in infamy, remembered to this day by the Church as the Slaughter of the Innocents.
And then there were the parents. The parents of those little ones who never had a chance, murdered because of their own king’s paranoid delusions. The parents, whose hearts may as well have been torn beating from their chests, the mothers who must have used their own bodies as human shields to protect their children from the soldier’s sword. Anyone who’s ever been a parent can only imagine the anguish and rage and wretchedness those parents must have felt as they helplessly watched the soldiers – they’re own people! – carry out the puppet king’s orders. Marginalized and terrorized by their Roman occupiers, and now slaughtered helplessly by their own king.
When I contemplate this tragic event from our Christian story, I can’t help but think of the tragic events in our nation’s own story. The countless Black parents who have helplessly witnessed the slaughter of so many of their innocent sons and daughters. Ours is a story of children cruelly torn from their parent’s arms and separated by borders. It is a story of so many innocent people needlessly gunned down in the prime of their lives on account of their black and brown bodies. It is the story of Emmitt and Medgar. It is the story of Martin and Robert and Michael and Eric and Tamir and Trayvon and George and Brianna. And now it is the story of over 370,000 Americans lost to Covid-19.
When I contemplate this tragic event known as the Slaughter of the Innocents, I am reminded of another dark time in our more recent history when together, all Americans stared helplessly into the abyss of chaos and darkness…and were repulsed by what we witnessed there.
I remember where I was when I first heard the news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. It was Friday, December 14, 2012, just eight years ago, and I was just getting up to have my coffee when I turned on NPR and heard the news. The shock was visceral and it hit me like a punch to the gut. A lone gunman had killed twenty-six people in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. I was cut to the core. Those children who were killed – all twenty of them – were six and seven years old. I quickly calculated in my head…Most of them were born in 2005. I was the father of a seven-year-old who was born in 2005. Amelia was awake and playing on the rug in the middle of our living room, unaware that three thousand miles away, twenty school children her age were murdered, cut down in cold blood in their own classrooms. All I could think to do was to grab Amelia and hold her as tight as I could. As I rocked her close to my heart, it occurred to me in that moment, I remember thinking, there are twenty parents in Newtown today whose only wish in this world was to hold their children just as I was holding my own. I remember feeling so powerless and small when I thought about how scary the world is when a man would bust his way into an elementary school and slaughter twenty innocent children. And my heart broke for those parents, and for our nation.
And “a voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
I’m sure by now you’re wondering why I’ve led us down this dark path on this feast day known for its light and hope. I suppose part of the reason is because of what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story.” Because it is our story. All of it. Not just the Wise Guys and the star and the heavenly hosts. All of that, yes, of course, but also the heartbreak and the loss and the shock and the pain and the horror. It’s also part of our story, though our lectionary usually leaves these unsavory parts out. And, it is not just our story in the sense of our Christian inheritance. Not just because the story of Joseph and Mary and Jesus and angels and Herod and the Magi are part of our salvation history from a time and place long ago and far away, though this is precisely why these ancient stories still speak so powerfully to us in our own time. It is because these are the stories of what it is to be human.
These are our stories, and they stand as powerful reminders not only of the boundless hope, compassion and mercy of which humankind is capable, they also remind us of the capacity for great evil which the human heart can conceive and human will can perpetrate. Within us all lies the potential for great good and great evil, the light and the darkness, and our stories serve as mirrors to show us who we are now and who we want to be. They offer us the chance to make a choice.
In the wake of the horrific events of this last week in Washington, many well-meaning politicians and clergy alike have commented that the violent mob which overran the Capitol on Wednesday does not represent America, that “this is not who we are.” And while that aspiration is most certainly true on some level, its sentiments do not represent the whole of the story. The truth is, just as our nation was built on the ideals of freedom, justice and equality for all, it was also forged by inequality, violence and oppression. All of it is, indeed, who we are. It is all a part of our story.
This potential in the human heart and will for great good and evil, for unity or division is shared by everyone in the human family. Abraham Lincoln confronted the realities of this potential in his first inaugural address in 1861 on the cusp of Civil War, when he said, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
This week, every American, regardless of race or creed, color or socio-economic status, or political party, stared together into the abyss of lawlessness and chaos, and we are united in our horror by what we have seen. The events this week are now written in the annuls of our American story, and to move forward we must find it within our hearts and our wills to forge a future together shaped by our common humanity guided by the better angels of our nature. We know better than to resort to the false dichotomies of “good guys” versus “bad guys,” and “us” versus “them” mentality. Every heart in America today is broken by violence, disease and death. Together, we must make a choice, as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry offered in his “Word to the Church” on Wednesday, between chaos and Beloved Community. Reflecting on another time in our nation’s history when we were divided and at war with one another, the turbulent decade of the 1960’s, he wrote,
“We were at war in another country, but there was war on our streets. The nation was deeply divided. Cities burned. There were riots. Riots at national conventions of political parties. The future of the nation was in question, and it was at that time that Dr. King realized that in moments of danger, a decision must be made. And he titled his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community. I believe as he believed, as Abraham Lincoln believed, as I believe you believe, that we must choose community. Chaos is not an option. Community is our only hope.
The truth is Dr. King spoke often of all that he did and labored for was for the purpose of realizing as much of the Beloved Community of God as it is possible on this earth. He spoke of Beloved Community, the Bible, the New Testament, Jesus spoke of the kingdom or the reign of God. Jesus taught us to pray, and to work, and to labor for that Beloved Community, that reign of God's love in our time and in our world, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth just as it is in heaven. Those are our marching orders from Jesus himself.”
Bishop Curry goes on to declare,
“I am a follower of Jesus of Nazareth because I believe that his way of love and his way of life is the way of life for us all. I believe that unselfish, sacrificial love, love that seeks the good and the welfare and the well-being of others, as well as the self, that this is the way that can lead us and guide us to do what is just, to do what is right, to do what is merciful. It is the way that can lead us beyond the chaos to the Beloved Community.”
My brothers and sisters, what is our response to the Epiphany, the manifestation of God in Christ? How will we respond? What will our story be? Will it be one of division, of disease and despondency? Or will it be one of unity, respect for the dignity of every human being, and hopefulness? There will always be dark days ahead, but our hope is in the light of the world that cannot be extinguished! The light cannot be thwarted! Our trust is in the divine light that shines in our darkness, of whom the darkness will never overcome. Our confidence is in Jesus, the one who stands with the slaughtered, the despondent and the powerless. What is our response to the manifestation of the God of Love in Jesus? Our response on this first Sunday after the Epiphany of Christ must be to stand with the slaughtered, the despondent and the powerless in our midst, because the God of love stands with the broken hearted, those whose voices wail and lament, with those who refuse to be consoled. God stands with all those who love peace and justice and mercy and goodwill toward all people. God’s holy star illumines the darkness of our hearts. The good news of the Epiphany, of God’s appearing, is that God waits for us there in our darkest places. God stands with open arms of love to announce good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor for us! Let us all, therefore, join with God and with those who weep and refuse to be consoled, in God’s song of hope and promise for every last one of us:
“Arise, shine! For your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you!”