Sunday, January 6, 2008

Epiphany sermon (from five !!! years ago)

I can't believe it's been that long. I thought it was three years ago, four at most, that I'd preached this sermon.

Anyway, I wanted to share it. Here it is.

But first:

After the Gospel (Matthew 2:1-12) was read, I played (think of this as an Anthem, but not in the usual Episcopal style ;-)) a tape of the James Taylor song, "Home By Another Way." If you have a recording of it, have a quick listen again. For those of you who don't know the song, here are the words. Just skim them -- you'll find many of them again in the sermon.

**********************************************
"Home By Another Way"by Timothy Mayer and James Taylor

[no copyright date available, think it's 1988]

Those magic men the Magi
Some people call them wise
Or Oriental, even kings
Well anyway, those guys
They visited with Jesus
They sure enjoyed their stay
Then warned in a dream of King Herod's scheme
They went home by another way


Yes they went home by another way
Home by another way
Maybe me and you can be wise guys too
And go home by another way
We can make it another way
Safe home as they used to say
Keep a weather eye to the chart on high
And go home another way


Steer clear of royal welcomes
Avoid a big to-do
A king who would slaughter the innocents
Will not cut a deal for you
He really, really wants those presents
He'll comb your camel's fur
Until his boys announce they've found trace amounts
Of your frankincense, gold and myrrh


Time to go home by another way
Home by another way
You have to figure the Gods saying play the odds
And go home by another way
We can make it another way
Safe home as they used to say
Keep a weather eye to the chart on high
And go home another way


Home is where they want you now
You can more or less assume that you'll be welcome in the end
Mustn't let King Herod haunt you so
Or fantasize his features when you're looking at a friend


Well it pleasures me to be here
And to sing this song tonight
They tell me that life is a miracle
And I figured that they're right
But Herod's always out there
He's got our cards on file
It's a lead pipe cinch, if we give an inch
Old Herod likes to take a mile


It's best to go home by another way
Home by another way
We got this far to a lucky star
But tomorrow is another day
We can make it another way
Safe home as they used to say
Keep a weather eye to the chart on high
And go home another way


****************************************************

During the sermon, I sang a capella all the lines of the James Taylor song that you will see below in italics.

Second Sunday after Christmas / Eve of Epiphany
January 5, 2003
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley

Jeremiah 317-14
Psalm 84
Ephesians 13-6,15-19a
Matthew 21-12


Christmas
is a season,
twelve days long
despite what the stores would have us think.
They are probably prepping their displays for Valentine’s Day
even as we sit here.
And here
we are
on the eleventh day of Christmas,
hearing the Gospel for the twelfth day,
the Epiphany Gospel,
about the wise men and their gifts
and their long journey.

This really is a scary story.
We have the baby Jesus,
still with us, thanks be to God,
and the star,
and they don't move.
This doesn't mean they aren't actors,
***–one can be an actor
***and not move.
But the ones who move around today, the actors with the big parts
are the Magi and Herod;
and Herod
is about as creepy a Bad Guy as you can get.
This is Christmas?
Geez. Not very fun and fluffy.
Now Herod
is petrified.
Because that baby
is a threat to everything he stands for,
but he isn't sure how.
Which scares the daylights out of him even more
because Herod
looooves to control the action.
So
he goes into Major Herod Mode.

The Magi
don't figure this out at first,
when he is doing his first Herod maneuver,
which is
lying:
"Ooooh, go find that baby, I want to worship him toooo!"

Right.
And I’m Queen Victoria.

So the Magi
get a little assist (in their sleep)
after making their visit to Bethlehem,
and they take
a detour,
avoiding the return visit to Herod.

Then
in the scene after the Gospel we just heard
and which we know is coming
Herod
really goes ballistic,
and he moves into even more intense Herod mode,
and commits partial genocide,
like old Pharaoh in the days of baby Moses and his Mama,
remember that one?
and goes for all the baby boys.
"Kill ‘em. Kill ‘em all."
So Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus
(also after some help in a dream)
get to become
refugees.

Some Christmas.

So where does that leave us?

Let’s back up a bit and have a look at the story again
with the help of that bard of the Baby Boom generation,
James Taylor.

Those magic men the Magi
Some people call them wise
Or Oriental, even kings
Well anyway, those guys
They visited with Jesus
They sure enjoyed their stay
Then warned in a dream of King Herod's scheme
They went home by another way


Those magic men the Magi
Some people call them wise
Or Oriental, even kings
Well anyway, those guys–


A lot of our imagination has been captured by the Magi
the gold, the smells, the fabulous clothes...
The symbolism of the gifts
–the gold of monarchs, the incense of worship, the myrrh of burial–
The traveling, the search,
the adoration: representatives from the far corners of Earth
kneeling before a tiny child.

Though the text says nothing about this,
***nothing about three people, only about three gifts,
***nothing about kings, only about magoi, "Magi,"
***which can mean several things including interpreters of dreams
***or magicians, or those who deals in particular kinds of knowledge,

legend and custom
have named the so-called "wise men from the East"
three kings.
***Le jour des rois, in France where I grew up,
***"the day of the kings,"
***you eat a special flat cake made of a kind of puff pastry,
***la galette des rois
***and you get a crown, making you king or queen for a day,
***if you find a little charm inside your slice;
***it used to be a bean in olden days,
***but somewhere in the modern era
***it became a little ceramic token
***on which you had to make sure not to break your tooth.
***El Dia de los Reyes in many Latin American, Caribbean, and
***U.S. Latino communities
***also means "the day of the kings"
***and on that day, there is feasting and gift-giving;
***in fact it, not the first day of Christmas,
***is the day you get presents;
***and often there are processions and parades,
***those mini-pilgrimages
***that bring out all the generations
***into the street.

Maybe me and you can be wise guys too –We do tend to identify with the Magi,
although they are, as the story has it,
foreigners of the most foreign sort
Gentiles for sure and not Jews
***–signs to us and to the community of Matthew’s Gospel
***that Jesus’ presence
***had something to say to the wide world
***and not just to the folks at home–
Gentiles from the East,
maybe Persia, maybe the Arabian Peninsula,
at any rate somewhere around what we today call the Gulf.
Yes, that Gulf.
And the Magi were –what? Astrologers or scientists of some kind?
We love to speculate about that one.
It makes the whole story more exotic.
Or maybe not so exotic:
maybe we too, like those fantastic characters
gaze at the heavens
with some human mix of science, superstition, and poetic vision,
beneath and in which
there is some kind of mysterious pull
from the One Who Is
and Was
and Will Be.

We tend to identify with the Magi,
those wandering Gentiles
because of their wandering.
That’s probably what the processions are about.

We don’t tend to identify with the baby Jesus.
He’s Jesus and we’re not
though we were all babies at some point.
And so at Christmas
we shiver with recognition
when God comes
as one of us.

Maybe some of us identify with Mary and Joseph,
the parents gazing upon their child
with awe and responsibility
they’d never felt before,
beyond what they could have imagined
before that birth.

But we don’t identify with Herod.
God forbid!! He’s the bad guy.

Herod, though, is a compelling character in this story.
Perhaps it seems this way
because we live in a time
filled with Herods
and Herod-like ways of operating.

Though as this story makes clear
there have always
been Herods.
And this time
is nothing new.
We might do well
at least this year
to focus a little less
on those guys in the fabulous clothes,
and a little more
on Herod.

Steer clear of royal welcomes
Avoid a big to-do
A king who would slaughter the innocents
Will not cut a deal for you
He really, really wants those presents
He'll comb your camels’ fur
'til his boys announce they've found trace amounts
Of your frankincense, gold and myrrh


Herod, the puppet King,
ruling over the Jews but not one of them,
cuts a deal with the Magi.
Or so it seems.
They have been busy following the star
and are perhaps
dazed by the glitz at Herod’s court,
the trappings of power,
the counselors and ministers assembled around.
Wow, this is the big city.
Jerusalem.
Capital cities make one dizzy.

That’s Herod’s way.
Make ‘em dizzy
with power and glory
and courtiers
and secret plans
spun
in the night.

The Magi leave Jerusalem,
having had their interview with Herod
who has properly briefed them
just enough
hiding the fact that he doesn't really know entirely
what is happening
but that he knows, or thinks, or fears,
that this child is some kind of new leader
for the people he is governing by force;
and if that is indeed the case,
he doesn't like it.
And he’s not going to let this get out of hand.
But he doesn't say that.
He says "Tell me when you find the child.
I want to worship him,
this Messiah."

Lying in what he doesn't say.
Lying in what he does say.
That’s Herod’s way.
Lies
made to look like truth.

But in the next scene,
they visited with Jesus... In the next scene,
at the warm and shining heart of the story,
the Magi
get to gaze at the child,
this blessed one,
in whom the whole world is somehow concentrated
in whom we see our life
and the world’s life
through a new lens.

And we,
seeing them,
hearken back
to Christmas night and Christmas day
when we with the shepherds and their sheep
contemplated
this cosmic, this eternal truth
in ordinary flesh
held in human arms
warmed by the breath
of earthly creatures.

But then
the Magi get word, somehow,
through God’s help,
in one of those moments of clarity
that can only come in the dark of night
that it is not a good idea
to go back to the court of Herod
this petty tyrant who wants to be a really big one.

So they
go home
by another way.

Exeunt the Magi.

They visited with Jesus
They sure enjoyed their stay
Then warned in a dream of King Herod’s scheme
They went home by another way


Herod finds out.
He pitches a fit,
because of course his plan
to use them
***–that’s another Herod mode of operation
***he uses people to his own ends,
***for his own power and not for their good
***or the good of the world–
his plan to use them
has failed.

And that baby is still at large.

So Herod escalates
from lies and manipulation
into that other
characteristic of the Herod way:
Violence.

Being Herod, he doesn't do it halfway.
He uses a combination of targeted and random violence.

This is a very bad scene.
Herod kills babies.
All the boys in one region who are under two years old,
since he is not exactly sure of Jesus’ age and precise location.
So, kill ‘em all.

That’s Herod’s way.

That’s Herod’s way:
Doing violence to Christ.
Doing violence to those who look like Christ:
doing violence to humans,
the more vulnerable the better.
Doing violence to their communities
you can imagine what happens in a community
where children have died in large numbers,
what this does to parents,
to siblings, to families,
to the well-being of an entire region.

Home is where they want you now
You can more or less assume that you'll be welcome in the end
Mustn't let King Herod haunt you so
Or fantasize his features when you're looking at a friend...


The reign of falsehood and violence
also increases the temptation
of internalizing Herod’s deadly means.

The killings raise the question
of how to live in this situation of violence,
how not to have our lives distorted,
whether our violence is in Oakland or Hebron,
in Baghdad or Tel Aviv,
in New York or in Chiapas;
or in our home
if there is violence there
and in more homes than we care to admit
there is,
and home ceases to be home.
Home becomes
Herod’s domain.

Any place can become
his fearful and fearsome playground.

Home is where they want you now
You can more or less assume that you'll be welcome in the end
Mustn't let King Herod haunt you so
Or fantasize his features when you're looking at a friend


How do we watch out for Herod
who is real
and not have the trauma he wreaks upon the world
repeat itself?
How do we not live
in such a way that we see him everywhere
even in nights meant to be restful
even in the face
of those who wish us well?

What a task.

We have to discern the Herods
and their tactics
and speak the truth
in the face of their lies.

And we also have to try to keep our lives
free from Herod’s becoming
our primary obsession,
our own internal engine of destruction.

This is true for those of us
whose lives bear the scars
and the brunt of violence.

It is also true for those of us who inflict violence
or who condone it
or who stand by
and watch it happen.

The violence of wounding and killing.
The violence of manipulation and lies.

How are we distorted by it? How can we learn not to be?

What does it do to us
to live in a country
that sets out to kill people in our name?

What are the ways
in which preparing for war
brutalizes and distorts
all of us?

How do we keep
and cultivate
clarity,
courage,
compassion
and peace?

Keep a weather eye to the chart on high...
James Taylor has his limits as a Christian resource;
though he’s got it right with the first part of that line:
keep a weather eye... Watch
with the eye of one who can see storms coming
and the sun about to rise.
Watch that child.
Watch that steady star of Christ.

That piece is missing in the song.
It’s not the chart on high we Christians watch.
It’s the life,
The warm heart at the core of this story
the Christ child
and the Christ child’s way.

Well it pleasures me to be here
And to sing this song tonight
They tell me that life is a miracle
And I figure that they're right
But Herod's always out there
He's got our card on file
It's a lead pipe cinch, if we give an inch
That Herod likes to take a mile


Herod’s always out there.
He was there back then
and he’s there now.
He just has more sophisticated technology.
And he’s not just
out there. He’s not just
the other.
Though he is there
out there
in all his forms.
But he is also
our own temptation.
We've got to face him outside ourselves
and
we've got to face him within.

Are we going to live with the tactics of Herod?
Or are we going to live like the child Jesus,
and his mother Mary, and his father Joseph?
Or perhaps, to begin with,
like those wandering Gentiles
who went home changed,
we are not sure how,
but who certainly were never the same.
***We returned to our places, these kingdoms,
***but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.
That is what T.S. Eliot wrote
in his meditation on the Magi.
They were
no longer at ease
after having glimpsed
the way of the Christ child.

Time to go home by another way

On September 11, 2001,
our presiding bishop, Frank Griswold,
wrote one of the first,
and for me one of the most thoughtful and true
statements to come from religious leaders
on that day.

It was titled
"We are called to another way."

What is that other way?
That way
which is not
the way of the Herods of the world
or of their allies.

Here is part of what our brother Frank wrote that day:
***Never has it been clearer to me than in this moment
***that people of faith,
***in virtue of the Gospel and the mission of the Church,
***are called to be about peace and the transformation of the human heart,
***beginning with our own.
***I am not immune to emotions of rage and revenge,
***but I know that acting on them
***only perpetuates the very violence
***I pray will be dissipated and overcome.


That other way:
We don’t know entirely
what it looks like,
just as the Magi didn't know exactly
what this Messiah baby would be like
or what he might expect of them.

We do know
that this other way
is the way of the child Jesus,
that child who both guides us
and needs our help.

We do know
that is it the way of which his mother Mary sang
as we heard just a few weeks ago:
***the mercy moving from generation to generation
***the hungry fed
***the lowly lifted up
***the powerful brought down from their thrones
***the mercy
***again

The Magi
were called to a way
that wasn't Herod’s way.
But guess what,
it wasn't their way either!
It was a new way to them.
They had to learn it.

Time to go home by another way...

It’s still Christmas
God makes God’s home
among us.
We find a home
in God.

All these travelers and seekers and wanderers and refugees
the Magi
Joseph, Mary, Jesus
and we too
find a true home not in the royal courts
but on the road,
with each other,
in the company of other travelers slightly crazed with the love of God
the God who loved us first.

We keep a weather eye for the guiding light of Christ
even when it is sometimes no brighter than a faraway blinking star.

So we move from the Christmas season to Epiphanytide,
numbering the coming Sundays from that twelfth day of Christmas,
rooting them in this day of the wise ones
when we go on the road
to live the Gospel.

Jesus’ birth:
it makes us uncomfortable
and it brings us home.

***A home we find not in a palace
***but on the way
***together
***lit by the star.
***...home by another way...

***********************Jane Carol Redmont

3 comments:

FranIAm said...

Oh my- my heart is touched indeed. Beautiful and moving.

I am emailing this one to myself for re-reading.

Thank you Jane!

johnieb said...

This touches me in several ways; I tried to come home to speak truth to the Power, and all the ways were blocked, so we all had to find other ways home.

Many weren't good ways--prison, pills, the violence we were so accustomed to: not good at all, but we got through, and the survivors are learning to be peaceful.

But it's not the home we so desperately longed to be in, and never was, for we weren't the boyz who left, and "the world" had gone on as if nothing had gone wrong. Our "home" had to be changed: inside and out.

Being subversive to that Power seems to me a worthy vocation, no matter how it plays out; if you teach introductory courses in Community colleges, and in other venues, you may get away with a much more common and realistic view of our national myths.

more cows than people said...

wow, jane. excellent. thank you for sharing this. 5 years later it speaks even louder, i think.

i wish i knew this song! i'll have to download it.

peace be with you, more cows