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by it I see everything else

sermon on Matthew 2, magi, and being an outsider

Happy Epiphany! The season of light, we call it. We are a city on a hill, a lamp on a lampstand that no one covers. We are those hundreds of little flames that made our faces glow on Christmas Eve while we sang Silent Night. We are streetlamps set out to light the path for our neighbors. Epiphany is the season of light and it’s about light illuminating everything, not just pretty twinkly lights on the tree. It’s the kind of light CS Lewis spoke of, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Epiphany is a kind of revealing of Jesus, about what difference this birth makes, kind of like Pentecost after Easter. After Easter, we’re basking in the glow of a kind of second birth and then Pentecost rolls around and the Holy Spirit says, “and…?” “Your turn!” and expects us to talk to other people about it all. After Christmas, we’re basking in the glow of the baby Jesus, and then Epiphany and these crazy magi from the East come and say, “and…?” What’s next? What difference does Jesus being born make? What light are we carrying out of the Christmas season this year?

Sharing that light can be really hard, especially when we feel like we’re stuck in the dark, on the outside. Or even when we don’t realize we’re stuck outside in the dark. When I was in junior high school, I was not popular. I was the weird kid. Big surprise, I know. I wore combat boots with girly skirts and read science fiction and talked about complicated English currency. Which, because I can’t keep my mouth shut, meant I was an outsider most of the time. And it was obvious who the popular girls were—they had more money than we had, mostly, and they had perfect hair and skin and dressed on-trend, and knew how to flirt with boys. All I know how to do with boys was argue and be awkward. This might not have bothered me because I did have friends. Nerds and skaters and punks. But when I had a Halloween party one year and my mom and I made up a scavenger hunt and had lots of tasty food, only five people came. I invited 20. Now, you might be rational here and say that 20 was a lot of people for a 12-year-old in a very small town to expect at a party. Of course, but to me it was a huge rejection. I knew I was weird, but I thought people would still like me, would still want to come to a party.

Fast-forward a few years, and I was having a birthday party. I’d invited all my friends, and most of them were coming. One friend who had not yet RSVP’d called up a few days before to ask who all was coming to the party. Surely you know how rude that is, right? “I’m not going to commit to coming until I know who’s going to be there and if I don’t like someone, I’m not coming.” Yikes.

Maybe you’ve had similar experiences. Or maybe someone at school not-so-subtly stage-whispers about how terrible your class presentation always is or how ugly your clothes are. Or someone at work is often conspicuously absent from your meetings. Or shows up and doesn’t pay any attention, which might be worse. It’s all still this question of who’s inside and who’s out. Who gets to stand in the light? Maybe popularity isn’t the standard, but we all find ourselves on one side or the other of the line. I suspect we’ve all been on both sides of the insider/outsider line at some point in our lives. What was that like for you? Who was it who was the outsider when you drew the line? Who was it who was the insider who drew the line against you?

I understand from other clergy I know that sometimes members of their congregations don’t want to hear them preach. They walk out of the sanctuary to avoid it, even. And I understand that happens even here at Good Shepherd, to Pastor Larry when he was here, to me, though I’m not observant enough to have noticed it myself. And it grieves me to know it. Not because I or my words are so amazing or because I need to be liked, but because it ends up making outsiders again. Because it means we’re not listening to each other, not really. Perhaps if you or someone you know leaves when I preach or Pastor Pat or Pastor Jess preaches, it’s because you feel like an outsider. Or maybe you don’t want to listen to whatever claptrap we’ve prepared. I don’t know why and neither do my clergy friends outside this church because no one tells us. Sometimes someone tells us but it ends up only being an ultimatum, not a real conversation about differences. And it’s not just an issue with whether y’all agree with our preaching—out there in the world, we don’t talk to each other. Politicians seem to only be about the sound-byte and the party platform. Maybe they’re having substantive conversation behind closed doors, but we certainly don’t see it. Neighbors in dispute often don’t really listen to each other, preferring to listen to the negative narrative on our heads instead. “He says he tried to get in touch with me about that tree limb, but he didn’t really. He’s a jerk.” Friday afternoon, some guys across the street from my house were not listening to each other…very loudly. Enough that my daughter began crying. Not listening to each other enough that one of them got out a gun. He didn’t use it and they left soon after, but that’s not the point. They could not understand each other, like so many people before them, and resorted to anger and violence. Thank goodness y’all don’t threaten us clergy with weapons when you don’t like our preaching, but nothing will change in any of us if we don’t really talk to one another. We don’t spend a lot of time listening to one another as a congregation when it comes to difficult issues like gay marriage or whether war is justified—are we afraid of hurting someone’s feelings? Or of being transformed by hearing someone’s story?

Listening doesn’t mean agreeing, mind you. Listening is affirming that the other is a human being with legitimate reasons for thinking the way they do. They might be wrong. We might be wrong. Listening is about seeing the light of God in the other person. When we don’t listen to each other, whether we agree with each other or not, we are, in effect, choosing to sit in darkness and reject the Kingdom of God in all its variety. To ignore another person is to put them on the outside. And it’s the opposite of what Jesus did.
It’s exactly what Herod did. King Herod met with the mysterious magi from the East and was terrified to hear that a new king of the Jews had been born. Wasn’t he the rightful king? What would happen to him if he weren’t? Wouldn’t this new king kill him to get to the throne? So, just in case, he planned to put this “newborn king” far on the outside, he planned to kill him. Now you remember from last week, he didn’t just try to kill Jesus, he killed all the kids younger than 2 years, so the story goes.

These magi who show up following a star, who are they if not outsiders? Who knows if they’re insiders back home—maybe wealthy, learned, powerful people, maybe not. We don’t even know how many of them there were or if any women were part of the group. They were, to the ancient Jews, definitively outsiders. From Persia, so not Jewish, which is outsider enough, but also sorcerers. Scripture only uses the word magi which means magicians, sorcerers, wise in astrology. They didn’t know about Messiahs and Bethlehem and Emmanuel, yet they were prompted somehow to follow the star and worship king Jesus. Matthew’s story tells us that the circle that defines who’s inside and who’s outside is much bigger than we think. Maybe much bigger than we’d feel comfortable with. Look at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians—the church in Ephesus was made up of Gentiles, non-Jews, and Paul kind of made his name on sharing the good news of Jesus with non-Jews. He says that in the past, people didn’t know of this great mystery, the mystery that God was present to all people, not just the chosen, the Jews. He says “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus.” Fellow heirs, meaning these outsider Gentiles were brothers and sisters of the Jews. Members of the same body, he says, meaning even closer than brothers and sisters, of the same flesh, necessary to functioning. And even more, sharers in the promise of Christ—these outsiders who may have hurt us and who are, at the least, strange to us in how they do things, these outsiders are part of the great Kingdom of God. God who created all things, Paul says—all things. Not just the bits we like.
We here today would have been the outsiders of the early churchwe who are now the dominant religion in America, we had to be invited in.

And what do we do once we’ve been invited? We turn and invite someone else. Narcotics Anonymous folks will recognize one of their principles here: “The newcomer is the most important person at any meeting, because we can only keep what we have by giving it away.” We can only keep what we have by giving it away. If that’s not church, I don’t know what is. Do you remember Christmas Eve, here and probably at lots of other churches, we lit candles from the Christ candle up here and then spread the light out among all our candles? The room was radiant with light and heat because we gave away what we were given.

Who is the outsider to you, personally? Who is outside the circle of who you think is appropriate or saved or polite? Who is the outsider to this church? How could we just begin to see them as brothers and sisters? Be honest with yourself—that truth can set you free.
What difference does Jesus make to our lives? Who needs to hear of our love for them? What light will you give away? That truth can set someone else free.
I want to leave you with a song that we sing at the Edge campus ministry house. It’s directly from our Isaiah reading this morning.

Teach “Arise, Shine.”