Monday, January 6, 2014

So Three Magi Walk into a Bar(n)...

A sermon preached at St. Andrew's On-the-Sound Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC on January 5, 2014. The texts were Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a and Matthew 2:1-12.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost 
always bad men.” This phrase, taken from a letter by the old historian Lord Acton written to an Anglican Bishop in 1887, pops up quite often throughout literature, and its critical spirit continues to echo as women and men discuss power, authority, and the use of force in the modern world. Its truth has been seen countless times in history and is manifest in our world today. From tyrants of history, like Herod in our Gospel, to tyrants of this present age, we have seen the rise and fall of women and men who have been corrupted by their exercise of an office that gives them power to shape and mold their world, to give and to take away, to bind and loose. Positions of great power, especially positions of governmental authority, often grant individuals an opportunity to shape and transform the lives of countless people they may never meet. From authorizing drone strikes in an Oval Office that result in civilian casualties, to cutting wages and assistance benefits from the comfort of a Senate chamber, we see the way power, checked or unchecked, grants people the opportunity to shape and mold the lives of those ‘under them’ in the hierarchy of things. It’s no wonder, then, why the phrase ‘power tends to corrupt’ rings true.

But power doesn’t necessarily need to corrupt, does it? I think, perhaps, that 2013 was the Year of Pope Francis. Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis’ life both before and after becoming the Bishop of Rome has been marked with humility, a concern for the poor, and a spirit of dialogue. His first act as Bishop of Rome was to refuse the lavish vestments of his predecessor and to ask the faithful worldwide to pray for him, a sinner. Behind closed doors, at a dinner with cardinals and bishops, Francis jokingly said, “May God forgive you for electing me.” He wears the same brown shoes he has worn for 30 years and drives a Ford Focus instead of the BMW’s and Mercedes’ of his predecessor. Soon into his pontificate, he challenged priests and nuns to forsake the lavishness of the past and to embrace a more humble spirit of poverty, citing the strangeness of a servant of God driving fancy cars when the world is dealing with a food crisis. And in what I think is his most challenging quote, he offers a view of the church that doesn’t rest on its laurels or wield its power absolutely: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.”

It was this man, one who prefers a church bruised and dirty from being out in the streets, who was elected Person of the Year by Time Magazine, and Person of the Year by the Advocate, a magazine dedicated to the equal treatment of LGBT people. When was the last time a pope, let alone a Christian, was named Person of the Year by any major news source? And when was the last time we have seen a worldwide leader and political figure, with so much power in his hands, act with such humility and concern for the poor? There’s a certain fanaticism about the Pope, and all that he does. Perhaps his acts of humility and compassion are so startling because the world seems to trade on currencies of power and force. But perhaps it’s not just a surprise, but an attraction…an attraction to a way of life that trades more on humility and love than power and force…an attraction to a way of life that allows people to transcend the normal relationships of power and domination we are so used to. An attraction to a way of life that was inaugurated in the humility of God to be enfleshed and born in a manger as a poor, vulnerable child.

Though Christmas day has come and gone, we are still basking in the glory of Christmastide, and we are approaching the Epiphany…a feast where we celebrate that ‘a-ha’ moment where we realize and bear a fuller witness to just what the incarnation means for the whole world…just how significant it is that we proclaim that God was born into this world as a poor, vulnerable child. And this Epiphany, this ‘a-ha’ moment of realization, puts forwards a new challenge to us, causing us to seriously reflect on how are lives are made new, and how differently we are going to live them ‘this side’ of Christ’s birth. For this Epiphany, this moment of realization, is not an ‘a-ha’ moment like any other. It’s a moment where we see God in a different way, where we encounter God as if we are encountering God for the first time…it’s a theophany, as our sisters and brothers in the Orthodox East would describe it. In fact, the East calls this day the Theophany, not the Epiphany. But regardless of what we call it, both of these names indicate just how transformational this event is for the life of the world. They both indicate that we are beholding, with the eyes of our heart, the reconciliation of the world with God, beholding humanity’s redemption, humanity’s remaking…and we behold, right before our very eyes, the possibility of our own transformation into something new…all because the Son was willing to be ‘emptied…taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself.’ 
Think for a moment on the words of our collect: “O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” Something was done to humanity, something was changed at the very core of what it means to be human, all because the Son did not grasp for power but rather humbled himself for us. And we pray this morning that we may share in the divine life of him who humbled himself to share in our humanity. What’s so profound about this celebration is that it is a celebration not of God’s triumph and power, but of God’s humility, and an invitation for us to embrace that same spirit of humility in order that we might share in the very life of God. In our Epistle today, the Apostle declared that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”. Every spiritual blessing. Not some, not a few. Every spiritual blessing. And we can receive these blessings if we are willing to humble ourselves before this vulnerable king, as the Kings from the East knelt before his manger and there, in the words of St. John Chrysostom, ‘made a beginning of withstanding tyranny.’ 

Paul continues in Ephesians: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.” Wisdom. Revelation. Eyes being opened. Words that speak to an Epiphany, an ‘a-ha’ moment where we truly realize what we are called to become, and how that opportunity to become something new is within our grasp, within our reach. It’s not far off. It is here, today. Though we are still stuck in a world that trades on power and force, we need not remain blind to the signs of transformation all around us. Like the Magi who were transformed by their humility before a humbled God, and Pope Francis’ modeling of what it means to be transformed by Christ into a humble, compassionate servant, we too can become something more in light of the incarnation, that ‘a-ha’ moment where we realize God is continually doing new and surprising things in the world. 

Our transformation begins as we humble ourselves before God, bring forward the sacrifice or our lives and all our aspirations, and feast around this altar. St. Augustine said it best: “My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit. So now, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: "You are the body of Christ, member for member." [1 Cor. 12.27] If you, therefore, are Christ's body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord's table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying "Amen" to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear "The body of Christ", you reply "Amen." Be a member of Christ's body, then, so that your "Amen" may ring true…Be what you see, receive what you are.

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