Sunday, January 8, 2023

HOMILY: "The Foolishness of Epiphany"

A Meditation on Matthew 2 (Epiphany)
Sunday, January 8, 2023
Community Church of Durham


“What are you doing, O Magi?”  These are the questions of Bernard of Clairvaux in Burgundy, a mystic, abbot, poet of the church in the 12th century.  

What are you doing, O Magi?
Do you adore a little Babe,
in a wretched hovel, wrapped in miserable rags?
Can this Child be truly God?
Are you become foolish, O Wise Men?

"Journey of the Magi" (Jane Tattersfield)

And then, of course, his own answer, and ours.  “Yes, these Wise Men have become fools, that they may be wise.”  Fools, that they may be wise.


There are different kinds of foolishness, right?  All kinds of fabulous foolishness!  There’s the foolishness I used to embrace, as a boy, the first week in April every spring.  When I’d announce to my parents and brothers that that year would be the year the Red Sox finally won the World Series.  There’s that kind of foolishness.  And there’s the foolishness of the old man who plays the same lottery number, week after week, year after year, convinced it’ll pay off though he’s spending down his savings.  There’s the foolishness of the sailor sailing solo around the planet, and the foolishness of the lover falling to her knees, proposing, and the foolishness of children making scrambled eggs for the first time on a snow day.  All kinds of foolishness, right?

And then there’s the foolishness of Epiphany, the foolishness of faith, the foolishness that finds God hidden, but holy, in ordinary lives and broken places.  It’s a different thing.  “Do you adore a little Babe in a wretched hovel, wrapped in miserable rags?”  The foolishness of Epiphany derives wonder from the love of God in a tiny and unprotected Child.  The foolishness of Epiphany meets the grace of God face to face, irrepressible grace, unifying grace, and responds with gladness.  The foolishness of Epiphany makes you blush for the privilege of being alive in a world that teeters on the edge of insanity and violence.  But it’s not stupidity, this foolishness.  And it’s not irrationality or lightheartedness, either.  The foolishness of Epiphany, the foolishness of faith means opening your heart wide, wide, wide—welcoming the eternal in the finite, grasping the holy in the mundane, cherishing one another as friends of God.  “Yes, these Wise Men have become fools, that they may be wise.”

So I want to speak to that foolishness this morning; I even want to insist on it in the church, in our church.  The foolishness of faith.  The foolishness of God.  The foolishness of Christ.  I want to encourage us to embrace it and claim it as our own.  Even as our culture faces huge mental health crises among our youngest and our oldest; even as our politics frighten us and divide us into tribes; even as our own church sorts through budgets in arrears and bottom-line issues.  I want to encourage us to embrace the foolishness of Christ, and then to live in it, to draw energy and imagination from it.  The foolishness of Christ. 


I want to offer up this familiar tale, then, this old, old story of wise men following stars, and then bowing before babies, and then defying empires—I want to offer up this Epiphany tale as a promise of where we might go, and how we might get there, together.  It survives, this story, not because it’s been verified by CNN or the New York Times; it survives because it marks a trail that we too might follow.  It offers signposts for a church (like ours) daring to discover a pathway to hope and resistance, to mercy and blessing in a world God chooses to redeem and renew over and over and over again.    
"The Crowning" (Sara Star)

For starters, when these strange mystics from the east choose to interpret the rising of a star as the arrival of a king, they choose to displace themselves.  Let me say that part again.  When these mystics from the east choose to interpret the rising of a star as the arrival of a king, they choose to displace themselves.  To leave the familiar behind.  This is the beginning of their foolishness, right? They don’t have to go.  The king, after all, isn’t even their king.  Or maybe he’s a prophet; but he’s not exactly their prophet. They could choose to linger in their comfort zones.  They could remain in their cultural milieu, their spiritual sweet spot.  They could simply settle into their positions of privilege, their seats of honor, their familiar tribal routines.  They don’t have to go.  But, of course, they do.

And this is so important for us.  The foolishness of Epiphany has something to do with displacing ourselves.  Something to do with repositioning the church.  Something to do with aligning the church, not with tired patterns of privilege and power, but with God’s promise of holy hospitality and divine blessing and reconciling love.

They dare, these Magi: they dare living by the light of that grace, following the fiery star of that hope, trusting deep and abiding possibilities for a world redeemed and renewed by love.  Not just for one people, but for all people.  Not just for their families, but for all families.   Not just for a single tribe, but for all tribes.  And so it is that they go.  So it is that they risk going.  So it is that they displace themselves.  Isn’t that something?  Isn’t that a particular kind of foolishness?  Isn’t that the trail we want to travel—with God, with one another, as a church?  Displacing ourselves.  Repositioning the church.  Transforming tribal routines.  Foolishness, right?  The journey of the magi!


And, of course, their journey, the magis’ journey takes them far from home, through Herod’s chambers, into uncharted territory, and then into Bethlehem itself.  Where, our story says, they are "overwhelmed with joy."  So, friends, if displacement is something like the first movement in foolishness, joy is the second.  But let’s notice this morning, this Epiphany, that the magis’ joy has nothing to do with their own accomplishments, nothing to do with their own brilliance and prowess, or even their remarkable receptivity.  Their joy is all about God’s grace.  Their joy is derived only from God’s transcendent and transcending love.  Their joy is pure gift, unwarranted grace: holy and divine and offered without condition.  A Baby King, whose love heals our many wounds with mercy.  A Word Made Flesh, whose promise unites a fractured humanity in a single body.  Their joy is this gift.  Their joy is this grace.

Their joy, let’s face it, my friends: their joy kneeling before that crude cradle, their joy cooing before Mary the baby’s mother, their joy in Bethlehem is only more foolishness.  The foolishness of Epiphany.  That God could so love the cosmos, that God could so love humankind, that God could so love all of this and all of us—that God would be born in Mary’s flesh, a teenaged mother, that God would be born in a wretched hovel, in occupied Palestine, that God would be wrapped in miserable rags.  Every bit as vulnerable.  Every bit as beautiful.  Every bit as human as you and me.  Foolishness, right?


Seeing Kim and Melissa here this morning, I’m reminded of their gorgeous wedding here last summer.  And the dozens of guests who told me afterwards that they’d never seen that kind of love, that kind of hope, that kind of joy in a church before.  And what moved them, I think, was much like the wonder that moved the magi in Bethlehem, and then at the cradle, by Mary’s side.  It was this knowledge of God-with-us.  It was this palpable, embodied experience of God blessing all of us; not just some of us, but all of us; and not just a little bit of blessing, but an inexhaustible, endless font of blessing.  

August, 2022 (Kim & Melissa's Wedding)

It struck me that wonderful day, as it strikes me today, that we are not called simply to survive the world.  You and I.  The church.  We are not called simply to survive the world, but to bless it, and to rejoice in it, and then to channel through our own lives the mercy, and the wonder, and the grace that God pours into our hearts.  And the thing is, I think, that kind of foolishness does indeed make us wise.  And will make us wise.  Wise enough to displace ourselves when we have to.  Wise enough to revel in love.  Wise enough to celebrate our diversity and share life abundantly and gratefully.  Wise enough to see the hand of God in the rising of the sun every morning, and the sweet shining of the stars every night.

So let’s not miss this opportunity, this moment.  And the gospel promise.  Christmas doesn’t end when we take the trees down.  Christmas doesn’t end when the kids go back to school.  Let’s not take ourselves so seriously that we miss this Epiphany message of foolishness and grace.  Can we all agree on that?  Let’s not be so intense about what we know that we miss the wonder and beauty of all that we don’t.  

I imagine the magi dancing home at last, across sweeping deserts and valleys, wading through rivers and laughing themselves to sleep by campfires.  They do go home again.  Of course, they do.  It’s just that they take a completely different route to get there.  Bethlehem changes they way they travel, the way they wonder and wander, the way they lean into God’s future.  

On the way, I imagine them writing new songs to sing with old friends, and dreaming new dreams of a world of abundant blessing and peace and solidarity.  Everything is new now.  Everything is blessed now.  Everything is holy now.  Call all that foolish, if you must.  Call it folly.  But, my friends, that’s where God is always to be found.  And faith means dancing home with them.

Amen and Ashe.