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The Feast of the Epiphany (Transferred) January 3, 2016 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
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The Feast of the Epiphany (Transferred)
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
 
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Washington
Sunday, January 3rd, 2016
The Rev. Samuel Torvend
 
On New Year’s Day, the News Tribune ran a short article about the annual poll, taken by the Associated Press, of U.S. editors and news directors, a poll that asked them: “What were the top stories of 2015?” The majority of the stories focused on fear of terrorism, fear of the police, and fear of mass shootings in public spaces. Such fears continue to be echoed and used by many running for elected office in this political season. It is an old ploy played out among us once again: take genuine concern, magnify it into fear of others, and then use it to promote aggression as the most effective response to real or perceived threats. What do we hear? Build a wall along the nation’s southern border while demonizing people struggling with poverty who seek work here. Exclude people of a particular religious tradition. Allow citizens to carry weapons into classrooms, churches, and cinemas. Carpet-bomb a Middle Eastern country that has nuclear ambitions. At all costs, defend the symbols of slavery for fear that racial justice might triumph one day. In order to sustain access to oil reserves, support regimes that terrorize their own citizens. Eliminate funding for homeless persons in need of medical supervision, thus making them appear “dangerous” in order to remove them from gentrified parts of the city. Here is the strange logic: aggression itself nurtures fear and the response to such fear is even more aggression.
 
All of which brings me to my mother. Yes, quite a leap. She was trained as an art educator and employed much of her training as a liturgical artist and an educator in the history of Christian art. Every Epiphany, she would place in our home a reproduction of a painting or mosaic or stone carving of the three kings bringing gifts to the Christ Child. But the artwork would always show one of the kings, his crown placed at the feet of the Christ Child, kneeling as he offered his gift to Mary and her son. Why did the image always show the first king with crown set aside, kneeling before an infant – which no king, no king, in his right mind would ever do? Indeed, in the story we hear today, a paranoid ruler asks the visitors from the East to let him know where this “new infant king” is to be found, for, as we know, he will soon order the death of the child and many others, so fearful is he of a usurper to his throne.  Yes, fear inspires aggression, doesn’t it?
 
Why did the image always show the first king or visitor with crown set aside, kneeling before an infant? With Jesus, our mother would say, things tend to be turned upside down: what we might think valuable has become worthless with him; and what we consider worthless has become of immense value to him. You must do more than simply look at the visitors adoring the child, she would say. You need to ask: “Who or what do they adore or worship?”In other words, who is this child and what does he ask of those who worship him, of those who pledge their loyalty to him, in the first and in the twenty-first century?
 
 Matthew begins to answer the question as he narrates the first public actions of Jesus. He does not build walls between people, but rather breaks through the culturally constructed divisions of gender, race, and class that long divide people from each other. He does not demonize those who struggle with poverty but, in his great sermon on the mount, calls them blessed, honored, favored by God and does so in utter defiance of the widely held view that they are cursed by God for not working hard enough. He does not ask his followers to exclude people of other traditions – Samaritans, for example – but welcome them into the generosity of God. He is a companion to those who suffer mental challenges and the healer of the chronically sick. Jesus enjoys the company of those perceived to be losers, those who live their lives differently than the majority. He is committed to freeing rather than enslaving others. And this, too: in the presence of his enemies, he refuses any offer to protect himself with weapons and asks his followers to do the same.
 
Before whom does the visitor kneel and offer his gift? Is it not the One we worship here as the prince of peace and the son of justice, the lover of every soul and the Savior – not the excluder – but the Savior: the One who comes into this world with life, health, and wholeness?
 
One principle that shapes the worship of Christians is this: the One who comes to us in, with, and through the Word of God and the Sacraments of Grace, the One to whom we give thanks here, desires to shape our living out there. Or say it this way: liturgy orients us to living, that is, if and when you and I receive this One and allow his presence to influence and shape our affections and our commitments. In other words, we strive for coherence, integrity, a conscious integration between what we say and do here and how we live in the world of daily life out there.
 
It’s of interest to me that, at this time of the year, the biblical readings, the liturgical canticles, and the hymns so frequently speak of Christ as the bringer of peace on earth. “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth,” we heard on Christmas Eve. Indeed, we exchange a gesture and greeting of peace with each other at every Eucharist – not so much, not so much, as a sign of welcome or hospitality but rather as our shared commitment to live as peace-makers, to promote peace in our society and in our world – our gesture and greeting as encouragement to each other that you and I will strive to forego aggression and coercion in our daily interactions; that you and I will consider the number of violent images and lyrics we willingly accept each and every day into our lives and the lives of our children; that you and I will resist calls to exclusion and the demonization of others based on their orientation, class, ethnicity, race, or religion.
 
But there is this, too: in the presence of threats or enemies, will you and I forego the temptation to use weapons whose only purpose is to maim or kill? What did the angels sing? Will you say it with me? “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth.”
 
Fr. Samuel Torvend