Benediction Online

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Epiphany -
Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

Today’s gospel is another wonderful story – three magi, astrologers or wise men come on their camels bringing rich and symbolic gifts to the infant.

I wonder how it would be in today’s Middle East if three Iraqis or Iranians tried to get to Bethlehem to visit a baby. If they managed to get visas they would find a 12 foot high, 700 mile long wall surrounding the town. If they headed to Jerusalem to try to meet the Israeli President first they might well be held as potential terrorists.

All in the name of security.

We live in a time of fear. The events of 9-11 are just one of the factors that have made us aware that we are vulnerable in a way this generation has never known. We are vulnerable to terrorist attacks, to rising prices and rising tides. It is only reasonable that in a time of such insecurity we should spend time and money trying to protect ourselves, to identify the next threat and to defend against it. Or is it?

Fear feeds upon fear. Does the wall that separates Israeli from Palestinian contribute to Israel’s safety or does it breed resentment which actually works against Israel’s interests? Does holding people without trial in case they are terrorists ensure safety or does it encroach upon the rights of individuals in a way that begins to threaten the core values of our way of life? Does torture protect us from attack or does it reduce our own humanity in such a way that instead of being protected we are diminished?

These are big questions.

When we act from fear we divide people into groups. These are people who are like me; they are people who are not like me. Then we begin to believe that the people who are not like us have all kinds of characteristics that are alien to us. We can see this on a national level where people are discriminated against because they have Middle Eastern names or because they look Arabic. But we also see it on a local level where those who have different ideas from us about the sewer plant location or technology we think of as stupid or crazy or aggressive. Politicians use this all the time to motivate us – the encourage us to be afraid of and resentful towards people with different skin colors, people with different languages, people with different habits, people with different sexual orientation, people with different religions.

Today’s readings are about the promise of God coming to all peoples. The reading from Isaiah is a wonderful picture of all the nations of the world uniting as they come to Jerusalem in worship. The writer to the Ephesians says that this plan was hidden in God until now – in other words, it has been God’s secret intention all along - that all people should be united in Christ.

This is the meaning of Epiphany – that God is revealed. And when God is revealed, in turning towards God, all our divisions cease.

So the divisions in our world are a reminder that we have not yet fully turned towards God, that God is not yet fully revealed in our midst. I was struck by that phrase from Ephesians, ‘so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known.’ The wisdom of God in its rich variety.

We only have to look at the created world to know that God loves diversity. Who needs an orangutan if they have a gorilla? apparently God does. Who needs the Irish hills when they have the Seven Sisters? apparently God does. Who needs a Chihuahua if they can have an Irish setter? apparently we do.

God is not the only one who loves diversity. We love it. We love color and texture and new things. We are after all made in God’s image.

But difference also scares us. We’re most comfortable with people like us. So it’s tempting to try to make everyone like us, or only to get to know those who are similar. Within a faith community we have two challenges. The first is to learn to love those who are different from us and rub us up the wrong way. Personalities can be very challenging. We don’t choose the people we worship with in quite the same way that we choose our friends. So the message of today’s gospel is ‘get over it’.

Our spiritual challenge is to learn to love and be at one with all of God’s people. That’s one of the reasons we pass the peace before the Eucharist – how can we come to God’s table if we are not at peace with each other? But true peace and true love go deeper than a hug or a handshake. It is a spiritual discipline to forgive and to find a way to love those difficult people, even if they don’t change.

The second challenge we have is to be fully open to new and different people joining us. Its easy to get comfortable with who we are. It’s important for us to think about our identity and our mission and that involves identifying how we are different from other churches and, we would like to think, better. But the more attached we are to how we’re special, the more difficult it becomes to truly welcome others.

The gospel has been described as one of radical hospitality and we see that in today’s readings. No-one is excluded from coming to the light, and this has been God’s plan from the beginning. We see it in Jesus’ ministry. He spent time with people who were considered outcasts and encouraged children to come to him.

In American society things are much more subtle and complex. The ways that we exclude people are quiet and not so noticeable. We develop attitudes that exclude without even realizing it. People feel excluded even if we don’t intend exclusion. It’s easy for us to be complacent and say everyone is welcome here. Are they?

Our government’s response to perceived threat is to try to identify those who are a threat, which means treating everyone with suspicion. It has made preemptive warfare a policy –in other words hitting someone you think might hit you, before they do. It has resorted to inhumane ways of treating people and claimed that somehow it is above international law, while trying to enforce international law on others. It is easy for us to distance ourselves from the policies we disagree with, to say that’s them, not us. But our government’s policies and behavior are a reflection of who we are as a people.

Today’s readings of radical hospitality are much more serious than a nice story of three wise men. They call us to make changes. They call us to examine who we exclude or look down on or avoid, both within the church community and outside. They call us to find ways to embrace diversity – to meet and enjoy people who are different from us. They call us to hold our government accountable for all the ways that we encourage discrimination, foster hate and treat people as less than human.

They call us to action.


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