Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Sermon 2nd Christmas 2016: Hello Jesus, Happy Birthday!

Sermon 20160103
St. John’s Church Getty Square
2nd Sunday after Christmas
Jeremiah 31:7-14
Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a
Matthew 2:1-12
Psalm 84 or 84:1-8

When we were decorating the church we got some of the workers to help us put up the wreath.  One of them was named Jesus, and jokingly asked him whether his birthday was Dec. 25th.  To my delight it is his birthday! and I came to understand that boys born on Dec. 25th are often named Jesus in some countries.  I imagine this makes Christmas strange, it is both your birthday and the birthday of your savior.  It makes Christmas into a hybrid celebration, half feast of the Incarnation, half anniversary of one’s birth!

Today is a bit of a hybrid celebration.  Today is the Second Sunday after Christmas, it is also the 10th day of Christmas, and on this Sunday we usually remember in some way the Holy Family.  We remember Joseph taking the child and fleeing to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod.  Or we remember Jesus being taken into the temple for his redemption from God being the first born male child.  We celebrate the reality that all of us are not just individuals but that we are social creations greatly influenced by the love we receive in our growing up, and this is not different for the life of Jesus.

However, it is a hybrid celebration, because of the pastoral accommodation to those who do not generally keep midweek feasts.  You see this Wednesday is the feast of the Epiphany, and we will have our Wednesday service at noon if you’d like to come..  Epiphany is one of the major feasts of the year, yet people have fallen out of the habit of making a point to go to church that day.  The Roman church in this country even celebrates Epiphany on this Sunday.  Our church does not, but it gives us the option of making today a hybrid service.  We can use the Gospel Reading for that Feast.  Today’s gospel is about the coming of the wise men, the feast of the Epiphany.

It is an important feast because it represents a major spiritual development.  The prophets foretold that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Moses would become the God of all people.  That the nations would stream to Jerusalem bearing gifts to worship the one true holy and living God.  The psalms teach us that all people will say, “In Jerusalem was I born” When the Magi from the East, probably Zoroastrians from Persia, come, they bear gifts and they worship Jesus.  Jesus is recognized by foreign wise men as the fulfillment of prophecy, the fulfillment of a spiritual promise, as a new step forward in the unfolding of humanity’s encounter with the divine.  And the star which led them there indicates that something within the fabric of existence points it out, shows it to be true.

It is interesting also that humanity resists the unfolding of this truth.  Herod tries to use the wise men to find Jesus so that he can kill him.  There are many people who have become so enamored, who have so learned to draw some satisfaction from the divisions that beset humanity, the individual grasping for power and wealth that overtakes and motivates them, that they wish to resist the spiritual invitation of God for all humanity to become one family where all are valued, all are cared for, all are important. 

As I prayed about today’s worship I was overawed by the devotion of the wise men to follow this star to Bethlehem.  They probably had to take leave from their job.  They had the means I guess to take a few months off work to travel.  The baby was probably about two years old, so presumably the star appeared two years ago.  They then had to figure out what the star meant, had to prepare for their journey, and had to follow that star.  Of course it is a fantastical idea.  How does one determine what house a star stands over?  Even the wise men had trouble, which is why they had to go to ask Herod where the child was to be born.  But their determination to solve this riddle, their willingness to follow this star, their desire to see the one this star foretold is amazing to me.  It shows devotion and willingness and wisdom and courage.

How do we follow the star to find the incarnate Christ?  How do we discover the birth of Jesus in our own lives?  What are the signs we look for?  Christ himself gave us the clue.  He said whenever you do something for the least of these my brethren, you do it to me. When Christ was alive he ministered to the needy, the hungry, the lonely, the outcast, the sick, the sex workers, the enemy collaborators, foreigners, sinners.  If we are to follow our star to find the incarnate Lord we will go to these same people.  We will find the incarnate God wherever there is opportunity for us to befriend those who are needy.

I have been amazed at how many groups of people there are who are doing things to befriend people in dire situations.  We had a group called the Alternatives to Violence project meet in our church.  They run workshops teaching young adults and adults how to respond to situations using alternatives to violence.  We have the Sharing Community next door which feeds people who are hungry and it is great to have volunteers who helped there last Sunday.  At the Yonkers Thanksgiving Celebration we had a  young man speak about his club Youth Giving Back which writes letters to prisoners, does peanut butter drives for the hungry, and engages in ways of helping those who are in need.  Nearby we have Fessenden House which is a ¾’s house for people struggling with various issues.  It is run by two Episcopal brothers of St. Gregory.  Episcopal Relief and Development is a wonderful organization because all of the relief work it does is coordinated with the local church so that it is real relationship building.

One danger to charity, however, needs to be mentioned.  Giving to the poor is not what Christ means.   It is not enough to try to “fix” the needy,   to alleviate their poverty so that they become like us.  First of all, that is not possible.  People are often in dire straits because they have been deeply damaged.  There are people who will never barring a miracle be able to become so called productive members of society.  We are not called as Christians to fix people.  We are called to befriend them.  This is why Christian service is about establishing relationships with those who are needy.  It is not romantic.  It is not easy.  It has challenges.  It causes us to look at ourselves deeply and ask why do I find it hard to work with someone who is encountering such hardship, who has such deep wounds?    Just as the journey of the wise men was arduous, so too is Christian service and relationship, when we take it seriously.  It is not child’s play. 

Yet it is also deeply rewarding.  We come to see people as real four dimensional people who exist.  We come to learn their stories.  We begin go uncover their deep beauty.  We begin to truly understand that when Christ took humanity he took the humanity of all of us, including those who are deeply wounded.

I think it is important for every Christian to give to support the worship of the church, to give also to the needy.  But giving is no substitute for actively putting our person in relationship with those who deeply need our friendship.  I think there is no true way to discover the Christ within us if we do not discover the Christ within those we are called to serve.

The truth is by serving those who are in deep need we become more aware of our deep need.  By learning to love those who are deeply wounded we can begin also to love the wounded dark places in our own souls.  We begin to see that the star which leads us to those we are called to serve is also directly over our heads, for Christ came to save us too, and as we minister to our neighbor, Christ is ministering to us.

Why did the wise men meet Jesus and then go home after a short stay?  Because they understood this truth I am talking about.  Jesus takes us to himself.  The truth  is all of us have a birthday on Dec. 25th.  The truth is all of us are named “Jesus”. The truth is he is with us always, even unto the end of the age.

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