The Episcopal Church formally adopted the Revised Common Lectionary at its 2006 General Convention, but only in part. I’ll save the reader, especially the non-Episcopalian crowd, the full legislative history, but as a piece of the process of adopting the RCL, in 2000, the Episcopal Church revised the Revised Common Lectionary. The most heavy-handed revisions occur during the Christmas Season, wherein the old Book of Common Prayer Lectionary is substituted fully for both the First and Second Sundays after Christmas. So, while y’all are preaching from Matthew’s long nightmare, I’ll be sharing with my people the lofty and uplifted image of Jesus Christ as Logos from the prologue to John’s Gospel. In fact, all things being equal, I’ll never actually have the opportunity to preach on Matthew 2:13-23, as that full pericope is never appointed in our revised version of the Revised [Common] Lectionary.
If you made it that lengthy introduction, then you know that I’ve already betrayed my opinions on the standard Gospel lesson in the RCL. Sandwiched between two dreams in which God sends a message to Joseph is the brutal story of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. It is the kind of story that brings up all kinds of questions about theodicy and the role that God plays in the evil that happens in the world. These are the kinds of questions that people don’t much enjoy with their peanut butter blossom cookies and hot apple cider, but they are questions that a tired preacher ought to probably consider before the rush of services from Advent 4, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, through Christmas 1 leave you scrambling at midnight on December 28th.
We can all understand why God would send an angel to appear to Joseph in a dream in the hopes of protecting Emmanuel, the Second Person of the Trinity who was sent to earth bring salvation for our sins. What is less easy to understand is why God didn’t send angels to every father of a toddler under two living in and around Bethlehem to protect them from the crushing sadness of losing a child to the deranged paranoia of a powerful tyrant. Sandwiched between the two dreams of Joseph as it is, the slaughter of the innocents is exceedingly troubling for those of us who follow a God who is assumed to be loving, just, and compassionate such that the story can feel like one long nightmare from the flight to Egypt, through the slaughter of the innocents, to the return to Nazareth. The quotation from Jeremiah makes matters worse. At least in Matthew’s mind, the death of these small children seems to be a part of God’s plan. A plan that is elsewhere in Scripture described as “good and perfect.”
God’s good and perfect plan was to send the Son into the world so that the world might be saved, but how that plan gets lived out in real life brings with it all kinds of skirmishes between good and evil, the God and Maker of All and the powers and principalities which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. While this story is meant to show us that even as an infant, Jesus is more powerful than any political leader hellbent on destruction, a preacher, especially a preacher in Christmastide, would do well to help their congregations see and understand that the Innocents weren’t killed by God’s divine plan but by the sinfulness of humanity, the wonted corruption of political power, and a madman who lived every moment of his life in fear of losing all that he had gained.
The Slaughter of the Innocents is remembered with its own Feast Day on the Fourth Day of Christmas and recounted by the Revised Common Lectionary on Christmas 1 to remind us of God’s ongoing plan of salvation in the light of humanity’s epic ability to do evil. We remember those young souls as martyrs because their deaths remind us of what happens when the powers of this world are confronted by the power of God’s love. We tell this story during the “most wonderful time of year” to remind ourselves that God’s will, as our Presiding Bishop often says, “is to change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.” In order to get there, we must admit the truth of that nightmare, that this world is corrupt, evil, and violent, in order to then flip the script and move toward a place we dream of when on Christmas we sing “Peace on earth, and mercy mild/God and sinners reconciled.”
The Rev. Steve Pankey is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Steve holds a Master of Divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary (’07) and a Doctor of Ministry from the School of Theology at the University of the South (’17), but the degree he seems to use most often these days is the BS he earned at Millersville University (’02). As a disciple, a husband to Cassie, a father to Eliza and Lainey, and now a Rector, Steve struggles to keep it all in the right order, and is constantly thankful for forgiveness and grace. You can read more from him at his personal lectionary blog, draughtingtheology.wordpress.com.
One of my favorite allegories for ministry comes from the scene in Disney/Pixar’s original Toy Story, where toy space ranger hero, Buzz Lightyear, “proves” to Andy’s other toys that he can fly. He climbs up the post of the footrest on Andy’s bed, takes a deep breath, and confidently proclaims his trademark phrase: “to infinity and beyond!” With a leap off the bed, he soars toward the ground but at the last second lands on a bouncy ball, which catapults him head over heels onto a Hot Wheels car sitting at the top of its track. As he rides the car down the shoot and loops around the track, Buzz catches air once again and shoots up to grab the ceiling airplane. His momentum jolts the plane to circle faster and faster until it launches him into a graceful arc to land on his feet in front of the awed and astonished waiting toys. “It’s true!” they exclaim in awe and wonder. He “flies!” (Except Woody, who declares later that Buzz is simply “falling with style.”) Such is often the case with ministry as, despite our all too human quirks and foibles, the Holy Spirit brings grace and transformation out of our fumbling attempts to do God’s work and will.
How many of us have had the humble moment of dissonance and disconnect when we, like Buzz later in the movie when he discovers he can’t actually do all the things he thinks he can do, discover that our hard work in ministry doesn’t always pay off? That often, instead of the awe and glory and miraculous transformation, what we think is our ability or gift doesn’t seem to make much difference, might not actually accomplish the big change we thought was in the making, hasn’t done much to usher in God’s kingdom in the here and now. How many of us wonder if the miniscule return is worth the effort? That if the few moments we get it right make the many moments we don’t worth the discouragement and disillusionment? I know I have.
This is why I find Mary so intriguing. Mary: a teenager pregnant out of wedlock, who faced sure and certain social, religious, and familial condemnation. Mary: sent away from her home, into “seclusion” if you will, to live with her cousin Elizabeth for at least nine months or perhaps until the scandal died down. Mary: facing the possibility of a broken engagement with Joseph, assured gossip and ridicule, and a lifelong precarious social position.
Despite these very real and prodigious challenges, Mary somehow sings with gladness and exultation. How does she do it? How does she find, as Isaiah describes, “waters breaking forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand becoming a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water?” How does she, like the farmer in James’ epistle, wait with patience for the precious work of God to come into fruition before it has even begun? How does she act with confidence, proclaim salvation already at hand without the doubt of John in Luke’s Gospel, questioning “is this really it, God, or should I keep waiting for you to make it more clear?” And most intriguing: how does she do it all with quiet peace and without grumbling, moving forward in confidence though there is no indication whatsoever that everything is going to work out okay?
It’s a question that has haunted me for over a year. A question that began burning as I trekked my way along the Camino de Santiago, that weighed on my shoulders as I traversed the landmines of an unintentional interim ministry, and eventually experienced “the worst”—finding myself unexpectedly unemployed with no immediate prospects on the horizon. I found myself in the place so many people do so very often in life: liminal space. It’s a word I first heard while in seminary, a word thrown around as our young heads nodded wisely without truly knowing. The Latin word is limen. Limen. Threshold. It’s the word that best describes Advent, the actual living in the already-but-not-yet promise of anticipatory hope. Coach and poet Christine McDougall, in her poem Liminal, defines that anticipatory hope differently than Mary. She writes:
The space between
A Dawning, a Dusking …
The immanent threshold
Crossing … to what?
The moment is calling you
to pay … exquisite … attention
Advent is truly a liminal season, a betwixt and a between; rife with hope, temerity, grief, cold dark, warm glowing light. It is a season ripe and potent as we look forward to the incarnation of God with us, of the Christ Child. Advent is an immanent threshold that calls us to slow down and pay exquisite attention to all that roots and coils within us, to watch and wait for God’s infinite plan for our salvation, personal and corporate, to unfold. Advent is a time during which we turn toward the promise of what-is-to-come, an act which requires us to let go and mourn that which must die in us to allow that promise or desire to unfold. Advent, liminal space, betwixt and between, not yet is not a comfortable space. Perhaps that is why the season is only four weeks – it is difficult, even dangerous to make our home in the unknown and the amorphous for too long. Far more comfortable to move from what has been to what will be, than to live in the in-between of not yet that is now. And yet, this is what we all do at any given time in our lives, live on the threshold of the next thing, for nothing in life is constant. Advent is the poster-child of the old adage that “the only constant is change.” Perhaps this is why the glow of candles on Christmas Eve warms us so. The waiting and watching, the not knowing, is finally done. Now we know all is well, and we can breathe a sigh of relief.
And yet, we know, too, that Advent will come again and again and again. I have always thought of the spiritual journey as circling a mountain. We slowly spiral our way around, sometimes climbing, sometimes descending in order to climb again, seeing the same view over and over again but often from a different vantage point depending on our spiritual growth or palsy. Gary Snyder’s short poem, On Climbing the Sierra Matterhorn Again After Thirty-One Years, captures, for me, the goal of the spiritual life:
Range after range of mountains
Year after year after year.
I am still in love.
How do we shift from discomfort to become friends with the uncertain and unknown? How do we wait with patience for the crop to come to fruition, how do we experience joy in all circumstances, how do we find peace in the midst of the varied changes and chances of life?
The answer is simple. Trust God. Trust God with the faith of Mary, the faith of Isaiah, the faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Trust God so completely that you have no fear of fallout, no fear of survival, no fear for what may befall. Easy, right?
Not easy. Not remotely easy. There is a cost to discipleship, to following God with this level of commitment. The cost might be high. The cost will likely require abject humility, an unflinching examination of self, courage to embrace and heal the parts and pieces of your self that are messy, and broken, and maybe even unlovable. It is not easy to hold on to the absolute and unflinching trust, that you are enough, that God created you to be who you are in all your imperfect, messy, learning, be-ing and that God has prepared a place and a purpose for YOU – especially when it seems that everyone around you has an opinion otherwise.
That is the trust with which Mary lived. That is the trust that she taught Jesus to live. That trust is what gave them, and countless others, absolute, unshakable confidence and peace. The lack of fear terrified the people around them, terrified them because we humans are accustomed to being bound by the limits people around us impose. But Mary, and Jesus, Isaiah, and countless others lived beyond the limits. They lived, in their here and now, in the realm of the Infinite, the creative, the realm of boundless possibility rather than the finite world the rest of us inhabit. They lived as if God’s promise was already a reality, even if there was no sign in the moment that God’s promise was even a possibility.
Soren Kierkegaard once wrote that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Liminal space is a constant in our lives, but so is God’s promise. So when we find ourselves in those tenuous moments of not knowing, when we can’t understand why it is that we are going through what we are going through, can we trust? Not blindly, expecting God to magically work everything out into a smooth, even path. But with trust – like Isaiah, James, Mary, Jesus and all the other saints who have gone before us, choosing to live confidently in the God’s promise to do what God has said God will do as if it is already a reality, as if God is already at work. It is not an accident that the very first words of the gospel, the good news, are “Do not be afraid.” To be free from fear and angst… what kind of peace would that freedom give us?
In his writing on liminality, poet and storyteller Padraig O’Tuama tells the story of the work he does at Corymeela, a place and people that seeks to make peace between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. “A practice of peace,” he writes, much like dwelling in an advent liminal space, “is messy. It is not easy. It is fragile and thin and breakable. It is a verb, not an achievement. It needs to be conjugated regularly. It is the experience of having been torn. And, having been torn, staying with that new shape and finding dignity in language, in protest, in lamentation, in justice, in re-ordering, in catharsis. It’s not a landscape; it’s staying alive… Liminality, if it means anything, must be as truthful as forgiving, as confessing, as breathing, as surviving.”
Mary does all of these things in her Canticle of praise, as do Isaiah, and James, and many others. In her song she names the tearing of her personal and corporate life, finds dignity in language, in protest, in lamentation, in justice, in re-ordering, in catharsis. Mary stays alive and survives, but also thrives in God’s promise of mercy and remembrance. At the heart of trust is remembering how God has fulfilled God’s promises before, being sure that God will provide again, and knowing in one’s very being that God is already at work on what is next. If we can bring advent joy, hope, love and peace into every day then perhaps we, with the gladness and exultation of Mary, might also proclaim with confidence “the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is God’s name” wherever this journey of faith takes us –to new and unknown places, to new spiritual depths, to Christmas … to infinity and beyond!
The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is an Episcopal priest with over two decades of leadership experience that includes public advocacy, social justice, teaching for transformative change, and interfaith collaboration. In January 2020, she will begin a new call as the Associate Rector at St. Christopher’s in Carmel, Indiana. Her great joy in ministry is helping people of faith ask the hard questions of life and God, to discover that “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live” (old Irish proverb). Or, as Jesus said it, we truly show our love for God when we show care and concern for every person we encounter, like us or not. In her spare time, Chana can be found fulfilling her bucket list items before she turns 65 (so far 23/75!), playing D&D, dancing Lindy Hop, or exploring local activities and events with her husband, TJ, and their dog-children, Molly and Momo.
The start of Advent begins the new liturgical year for the Christian calendar. However, many churches find themselves pushing toward the end of the year and Christmas day. Our culture certainly does not help us enter into the Christian timeline. Usually by the start of Advent we have already received our Christmas catalogues, celebrated our hanging of the greens, and have begun making our wish lists. Many preachers may find themselves in this very struggle between where the congregation wants to be (preparing for Christmas) and where the Gospel text leads us (the apocalyptic judgment of God).
While some Christians would argue that the apocalyptic end is near with the divisive and chaotic news viewed when the TV is turned on, the passage from Isaiah for the start of our new year paints a very different picture of the apocalyptic judgment of God. Many readers of the Isaiah passage get lost in the dream of peace: swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. War will be no more. The vivid imagery of swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks has tricked many a scripture reader into missing the bigger picture. Even the notion of ultimate peace can keep us from seeing the bigger picture.
Each of these texts runs the risk of being subverted for our own intentions. The reality of Christian history is that the church has too often used the final apocalyptic judgment of God to get whatever it is we believe the church (or, more accurately, ourselves) may want. Too often, the Advent season is like this. The challenge for the reader and/or preacher is to be true to the expectant waiting and preparation of the Advent season. I do not mean to suggest here that we need to put Christ back in Christmas. Instead we must find a way to allow the anticipatory nature of Advent to be what it truly is: a sitting/waiting in darkness for the light of Christ past, present, and future.
Isaiah’s vision, or dream, is a beautiful hope for the world. Who among us hasn’t wished and hoped deeply for peace in the midst of conflict, fighting, and war? However, the challenge of the future is that it is a dream – not unlike the Christmas wish lists made up from children whose families celebrate gift-giving. Too often peace seems to be a dreamy and idyllic hope. In fact, history if filled with individuals who have had such a dream who are meet with the violence of a world that cannot envision the dream with them.
Isaiah’s dream of peace does not just appear at the end of time. This apocalyptic peace comes with arbitration. The Holy One “shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples” (verse 4). God not only speaks to the nations, but listens to grievances, disputes, and concerns. God listens and adjudicates. These two words— “judge” and “arbitrate”—are the only active verbs assigned by the text to God. There can be no true and lasting peace without justice.
My own faith formation and theology reads scripture metaphorically more than literally. I do not read of the apocalyptic end times and God’s final judgement in a literal sense. However, this means I also do not read Isaiah’s dream of peace between the nations literally. The chaos, sorrow, pain, and violent conflicts do not merely disappear when Christ is born on Christmas day. To be true to the season of Advent means to acknowledge the struggles and doubts. The preparations made throughout Advent proposes risk and potential failure to live into the ideal of the dream.
It is here that Matthew’s Gospel reading enters. While the Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent is focused on the unknown future day of judgement, the setting is actually the present. The present day in which the thinking of the apocalypse is set is characterized by a lack of knowledge: uncertainty (possibly even doubt). This lack of knowledge extends beyond humankind to even the angels and the Son. Instead of preparing for Christmas, or even the future apocalyptic judgement of God, these texts have a word for us today.
Most people realize that too often they are like the disciples who follow Jesus around, yet almost always get caught up in the wrong things or miss the point altogether. We are so very often aware of our lack of understanding. However, most of us also want to be better. We hope and we dream about a future that is better. Many of us long for the peace of Isaiah’s dream. Humankind is excellent at dreaming. We struggle with the steps between here and there. Matthew’s Gospel text for the start of the new church year reminds us that there are some things we simply do not know.
The other thing humankind is excellent at is guilt and shame. The struggle in these two texts relates to the push and pull between peace and judgement. These poles suggest that there are two ways to miss the point of our scriptures: one would have us focused too much on the peace and miss God’s judgement. I personally see more people lean the other way: too focused on judgement and miss the peace. Our faith certainly requires action of us. We should be working toward God’s justice for God’s world. However, Matthew’s Gospel text points us toward the work of wakefulness and watchfulness.
We are called to peace. We hope for peace. We, as the church, work for peace. However, the highest mountain tops of Isaiah’s dream come – not from our work, but from somewhere outside and beyond it. We are called to watch for it. We are called to witness it. We are called to preach it to the world. As we enter a new year of the church may we prepare for the rapture. May a rapture of relief come over us when we realize we do not have to know everything. May a rapture of relief overwhelm us when we realize we need not do everything. May a rapture of hope, peace, joy, and love fill us this Advent when we realize that our work—while important—has nothing to do with our own or anyone else’s salvation.
 Noted by Paul Simpson Duke in the “Homiletical Perspective” of Isaiah 2:1-5 FEASTING ON THE WORD: Year A, Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press. 2010.
The Rev. David Clifford is the Transitional Minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. David is graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). David lives in Henderson with his wife and three children where he enjoys bicycle riding and reading. He also coaches a local elementary archery team.
I don’t know about you, but when I read the Ash Wednesday lectionary scripture this year, I immediately thought of George Michael.
First, let me apologize in case Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go is now stuck in your head. Second, let me explain. Despite his international celebrity status as one half of the duo Wham! and as a successful pop star in his own right, it was only after his untimely death in 2016 that another side of his life became public: he had anonymously donated millions to charities, secretly bankrolled ordinary people’s dreams, and volunteered regularly at homeless shelters where he asked that his participation be kept quiet.
George Michael’s under-the-radar generosity stood out in part because it ran so contrary to the more common mold of celebrity giving: many lend their faces to high profile events that highlight their pet causes, yes, but also conveniently give the stars a PR boost.
Ironically, hupokrités—Jesus’ term for such public do-gooders—also brings to mind celebrities, especially the Hollywood kind: originally referring to stage players who wore a mask when performing roles different from their real-life personas, it later morphed into a figurative term for those who put on an act in public different from their private motivations for doing so.
Jesus uses a formula to condemn this two-faced behavior: when you give alms/pray/fast, don’t be like the hypocrites who announce their behavior publicly; they’ve already received their reward. Instead, give alms/pray/fast privately, and God, who sees you in secret, will reward you in a different way.
What exactly are the rewards the hypocrites receive? Jesus names the dividends for publicizing our piety as praise (v. 2), visibility (v. 5), and recognition (v. 16) – in other words, having our status and worth confirmed by others.
For those of us who like to think we have developed some measure of self-awareness, it can be easy to dismiss this external validation as superficial nonsense we know better than to chase after. But you don’t have to be standing on a street corner broadcasting your charitable works to get hooked by this kind of reward.
Have you ever re-worked a sermon with a particularly vocal parishioner’s potential reaction in mind? Or casually shared how many pastoral visits you’ve made this week so your congregation will know just how busy—and therefore valuable—you are? Or said “yes” to officiating a non-member funeral or presiding over the town prayer breakfast because you know it will raise your profile—or your church’s? Heck, I even publicize it to my spouse whenever I take out the compost, just to ensure my contributions to our domestic happiness are properly appreciated.
Our egos are always happy to justify such behavior. After all, what we’re doing is good, and we are often doing it for intrinsically worthy reasons mixed in amidst the external ones. And having our worth reinforced by others is, indeed, a powerful reward, one we’ve been trained to seek out since the time we were children looking for our parents’ approval.
Many of us crave being told we are good and worthy because, deep down, we aren’t consistently certain it’s true; and no wonder, since the very people and places where we find validation can just as easily reject us, as any pastor who’s made an unpopular decision can tell you.
It’s no surprise, then, that Jesus calls us to examine our motivations not once but three times; he is working to break through years of human conditioning. And three times he follows his admonition with a reminder of where our true worth lives: in God, who rewards us in “secret”–kruptos, meaning in a hidden or inward way.
What is this inward reward? Though the NRSV uses the same word to describe them both, in Greek public piety is rewarded with misthos—literally pay, wages, or salary; while the way God rewards private piety is apodidómi: to give back, return, restore. One seeks to motivate us with “more,” while the other seeks to reconnect us to the “enough” that we already are.
As Jesus’ repeated use of “Father” reminds us, we are inherently worthy and deeply beloved children of a parent God—one who created us not for approval but for relationship, and one who longs for the restoration of that relationship, as the Hebrew Bible lectionary reading for today reminds us:
“Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart.” (Joel 2:12)
The more we put our stock in that relationship this Lent and the more we trust in eternal validation rather than external ones, the more we’ll find our hearts at home, in the very place where God resides:
“Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:20-21)
The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is currently on maternity leave as the pastor of Park Avenue Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves a run; some good thrift shopping; and a dance party with her two kids and her husband, Chris.
The Epiphany! It is a holiday that I had no real idea about before I joined the Episcopal Church in college. Growing up vaguely non-denominational in the South, the Magi (aka Wise Men aka Three Kings) sort of just went along with the Christmas story and disappeared (along with Mary) after we took down the nativity scenes before the end of the twelve days of Christmas were even up. Now, it is one of the most important holy days in the year for me.
Working in an Episcopal congregation that is about forty-five percent Latinx, the Epiphany, or Tres Reyes Magos (Three Magic Kings) as it is called by many of my parishioners, has taken on new life and energy as it is a major celebration when the Reyes Magos come to pay homage to the Christ Child and bring gifts for the children at church with them (liturgically, this totally makes more sense to me than exchanging gifts on Christmas day, btw). I’ve seen the joy it brings to our congregation—for first- generation immigrants it is a taste of home, for the second generation it is a family celebration, for the rest it is an educational moment, and for all it is a thoroughly spiritual celebration of love of God and others.
The pictures and depictions of the Magi are also really significant. A lot of times they are depicted as coming from different continents, which shows the universality of Christ, the Gospel, and the Church. This means a lot in a time when border crossing is increasingly perilous and politicized and those with different customs and ways are increasingly demonized by polarizing politics and a culture that is being drained of its empathy faster than the political swamp is being drained of corruption. There is a ruler in this Gospel text who lacks empathy for others, and he is by no means shown in a positive light.
On a more personal note, I find myself relating to the Magi here on a few levels here:
As someone with a tendency to spend too much time in his head (read: nerd), the Magi are a reminder that the mind and the soul can become one in our quest for the Divine—much like St. Thomas Aquinas’ lifelong goal. As much as anyone can tell, astrology was an odd combination of science and magic in the ancient world, so perhaps their commitment to spirituality and to the observance of the natural courses of creation leading them to God is a helpful example in a time of changing climate and uncertainty about our future. Their heeding divine warnings about a perilous future if they keep their present path and deciding on an alternate, better course to prevent needless tragedy seems like a wise example here.
As a queer person, I love that Scripture isn’t ashamed of the Magi’s queerness or strangeness. In fact, it is their queer sensibilities and their queer ways that enable them to see and appreciate the actions of God at work right under the very nose of the Temple and other authorities, who either miss what’s happening or get so upset by it that they take tragic actions to stop God’s new and liberating work being done among the poor and the animals and the foreigners and the queer people. It’s hard not to relate to the Magi on this one. That and their aforementioned affinity for astrology, which is totally a thing in the queer community (and if you don’t believe me you can consult any queer social media and see exactly what I’m talking about). Additionally, many images of the Magi depict the men dressed rather flamboyantly and differently than others we see depicted in Scripture (an admirable commitment to style given the fact that they are on a presumably long journey). The story of the Magi and the Epiphany is, to me, possibly one of the most affirming texts in the whole of Scripture for queer readers. And I might not be the only one to think so. Manila Luzon, Peppermint, and Alaska 5000 from RuPaul’s Drag Race even did a shockingly reverent and comfortingly queer music video We Three Queens with each of them representing one of the Magi with a traditional gift.
The other level at which I find myself appreciating the Magi here is being an Episcopalian in the rural south. When we have visitors from the local Baptist or Methodist or non-denominational churches, one gets the impression that sometimes they have no idea quite what to do with us and our peculiar ways as we offer vessels of gold and rich incense at the altar of the Lord while adorned with unfamiliar vestments and saying or chanting strange prayers. Still, the message here is clear; gifts given by sincere hearts are acceptable to Christ whether they come from unfussy shepherds or zhuzhed up Magi.
The story of the Magi and the Epiphany is a message of warning to those who are trying to stop the flow of God’s gracious and liberating work in the world; you can do whatever you want, pull any strings you want, commit any atrocity you want, but you will not win. More importantly, it is a story of comfort to those who are on spiritual journeys or who find themselves feeling strange or outside of the regular come-and-go of life in either their church or broader communities. Whether the light of the Epiphany enables us to get a taste of our old home as we make a different life in new lands, or encourages us to be more welcoming of those who are traveling across borders, or shows the cruelty of rulers who abuse children in the name of politics, or brings our minds and souls into a singular commitment to God, or helps us own our place adoring and following a Christ who accepts our queerness without shame, or helps us to be more appreciative and understanding of those with different religious traditions than our own, or some other profound message that is no doubt embedded in the rich, but surprisingly brief, story, it is a light we need in our time. May it shine all the more brightly on all of those who encounter it.
The Rev. Caleb Tabor is Vicar of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, a bilingual congregation in Oxford, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from North Carolina, he has settled down close to home in Mebane, North Carolina where he lives with his husband, Logan, and dog, Dandy. Theology, coffee, creative writing, and RuPaul’s Drag Race are just a few of the things keep him occupied in his spare and not-so-spare time.
Modern theologians and philosophers The Rolling Stones melodiously gifted their wisdom when they proclaimed, “You can’t always get what you want; but you get what you need.” Consumer culture—especially during the months of November and December—would benefit greatly from setting that song on repeat. We love to spend money on crap we don’t need just to satisfy a desire to impress our neighbors, our peers, and sadly, ourselves. The way we know God loves us is by counting the amount of material possessions we have, right?
In fact, prosperity preachers—while intending to proclaim a positive message (I hope)—do more harm than good to those less fortunate than themselves; AND to those just as fortunate. The message of “If you pray like me, then you shall have a nice house, three cars, and a boat,” tends to lead to despondency rather than hope; feelings of inadequacy instead of acceptance. What does it say to the single mother of three who works two jobs just to keep her children housed, fed, and safe? “Sorry, you must not be praying hard enough; keep trying. Meanwhile, I’m going to continue being God’s favorite; I mean, look at all my stuff!” There seems to be a general sense of self-importance brought about by tying our self-worth to our obtained earthly desires. I am guilty of this more than I like to admit, just as I imagine you might be, too. But the question I have is this: When is enough, enough?
Humanity is driven by desire; desire to be loved, accepted, appreciated and safe. We want—at our base level—to feel a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, we express that desire in flawed human ways, sometimes forgetting that God has more for us than we could ever need if we would only turn around and accept it. C.S. Lewis explains this in his sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” where he preached,
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.1
Our desires have been co-opted in the name of consumerism, the neo-God of the twenty-first century who only takes and never gives back. What would it look like if we simply reigned in our crazy and accepted the fact that, regardless of income and possession, God loves us equally, regardless of our achievements? Psalm 51 says, “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise,” but I think that we’re more satisfied with praying, “Fill my wallet, O Lord, and I’ll ask you for a raise.” With these desires running rampant and unfulfilled, when do we have time to say ‘thank you’ to God? When do we stop and rest, knowing that we have already received the greatest gift we can be given—the gift of redemption by way of Jesus’ death on the cross? We haven’t expressed our gratitude to God nearly enough, nor could we ever, for that boon.
But at least we could try.
Praise and thanks are the keys to rebooting that desire, as well as the means to understanding our true needs—to ensure that we love creation in good order, and allow the rest to come after. St. Augustine reminds us how to do this, as he writes,
But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.2
Doesn’t this sound like implicit gratitude and praise? By stopping and weighing that which we love, we are also noticing its worth. “Thank you, Lord, for my neighbor, I will love her.” “Thank you, God, for your grace. I will share it with others.” If we can reorder ourselves to notice HOW we love things, then I imagine that the things we love will inevitably change, becoming those which we ought to have sought in the first place.
Preaching thanks and praise can be difficult. I can almost see the eye-rolls and hear the groans of people in my congregation, “Yes, Sean, we KNOW that we’re supposed to say thank you.” But perhaps taking a glance at how we desire will provide a hearing-aid to those who can’t discern the intention behind living a thankful lifestyle. Matthew’s gospel wants us to reorder our yearnings and to lay down our worries; worries that we’re not good enough and that we always have to seek more. The reading also tacitly reminds us to be thankful for that which we already have, and to know that God will always provide what we need. Reminding our folks that they’re starting from a place of that absolute love and care—and asking them to take a look at what they really want—could mitigate some of their anxieties surrounding the upcoming holiday season. And, it might just be the little nudge they need to accept themselves as they are, the Imago Dei, rather than as the world wants them to be.
The Rev. Sean Ekberg is the Rector of Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He earned a Master of Divinity from Seminary of the Southwest in 2015. His favorite pastimes are talkin’ bout Jesus, enhancing his terrible golf game, and taking vacation time with his favorite person in the world—his wife, Nicole. They have a thirteen year old pit bull named Ty. He likes Jesus, too.
“The Internet can be an awful place full of awful people.”
Ever since Star Wars: The Last Jedi hit theaters, my partner and I find ourselves saying this on the daily—whenever we see people complaining about a fun movie, saying something reprehensible in the comments section of a news article, and so forth. And it’s easy to see how it’s true, right? You know the comments sections I’m talking about. The debates unfolding on your Facebook wall between your aunt and that one random person you met on a trip across the country. The people that seem to post from high horses about how amazing life is and how #blessed they are in a way that seems to mock others. The Internet can be an awful place full of awful people.
The problem though is that sometimes, we ourselves are those awful people. The Internet is only what it is because we use it in those ways. And sometimes, we as people just aren’t great.
The uncomfortable realization that people—ourselves included—just suck sometimes is what Lent is all about. Okay, that might be my Millennial pastor translation. In more formal terms, Lent is a period of 40 days ahead of Easter set aside to solemnly prepare oneself for the Holy Week observance. It represents the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert facing temptation in preparation for his own ministry. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which is what we are focusing on in the texts for today. Ash Wednesday emphasizes our mortality, as we remind each other “from dust we came and to dust we shall return.” Introspection about mortality often invites an honest recognition of our shortcomings, so the Lenten season is also seen as a time of repentance and renewal before the highest holy day in our tradition, Easter Sunday.
Which brings us back to this: sometimes people are awful, and we can see this play out on the Internet. It’s today’s texts that bring the Internet to mind, though, as our Ash Wednesday texts include the series of Jesus’s maxims about how to conduct one’s spiritual life in the world. He warns his audience that prayer, giving, fasting—these things are between us and God. In fact, in these passages, we see the suggestion that if we are to do these acts as a public display of piety, then our reward will be just as vain and worldly. We will get the satisfaction of knowing that others know how holy we are, and that’s it. These passages are particularly convicting in the age of social media. Sometimes it seems like nothing is done in secret. We know exactly how much our friends are donating to what causes, we saw their selfies from the community service site, and we know what page their on in their devotional books.
Like others my age, I love posting all about my life on Facebook and Twitter—my joys, my griefs, my goals, and my meals. And as a religious person, it feels natural to include religion and spirituality in the umbrella of topics and themes I reflect about online. But what are we to do with Jesus’s warning not to be “not be like the hypocrites” who “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others?” Are we hypocrites if we post on Facebook or Twitter about our prayer, our fast, or our giving?
This dilemma accompanies almost every piece of wisdom attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. Did Jesus literally want us to turn the other cheek? Sell all our possessions? Keep mum about our spiritual disciplines? And it’s not as simple as hoping Jesus didn’t mean what he said so that we can do what we want instead. There are actually good counterpoints to this advice. Yes, a humble person may stay quiet about the money they donated to a cause, but what making the donation publicly helps to encourage more giving? (This is the premise of crowdfunding sites after all.) And the same is true about spiritual disciplines—there is actually power in accountability. I know there are certain practices I should be doing for my own good, but it’s easy for me to put things out of my mind until I am reminded by someone else posting about prayer, reading, writing, and other practices that theoretically matter to me. Lent reminds me that I’m mortal, finite, flawed, and way too often, I fall short of who I want to be. Connecting with others online, in the best case scenario, reminds me that I am called to live differently.
So what are we to do this Lent? If we use the time to rededicate ourselves to spiritual disciplines, must we hide it to reap the rewards? I worry about my compulsion to water down the high demands my faith makes of me, so I won’t do that here. I’m not ready to let us off the hook. Maybe some of us do flaunt our spiritual acts too much, and maybe those 47 likes we got is the reward we get. After all, the drive of social media is to post about our lives and get interaction from other people. But maybe it depends on why we post and why we are embarking on spiritual practices in the first place.
If we set out to show people how good we are, then yes, the appropriate reward is the social media popularity. And still, if we are truly seeking support and accountability, we may find it online. I don’t know that the answer is that the Internet is horrible and it ruins everything. Instead, we may just need to be cautious of our motivations, knowing ourselves and the temptation level of posting updates about our lives to get affirmation from others in the form of likes and comments. Additionally, perhaps it’s worth asking ourselves why we are posting and if there is a better way to meet that need. If I am truly looking for accountability, maybe there is a friend I can reach out to online instead. If I’m truly looking for the opinion of a group of fellow pastors, maybe I can use my privacy settings in such a way to reach curated groups of people. The Internet can bring out our worst, for sure, but perhaps we can use it to bring out our best, too.
The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram is the Director of Religious Life and Chaplain of Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. She grew up in non-denominational evangelical land and is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She and her partner Kyle just recently moved back to the state of their youth after eight years away collecting experiences and degrees.
I love the Epiphany story; it is the tale of two seekers.
Wait a minute, did I just say two seekers? I thought there were three wise men?! I know Three is One and One is Three and whatever, but Christians can’t be that bad at math.
Most Christians aren’t bad at math (my personal failings notwithstanding.) The Epiphany story has two sets of seekers: King Herod on one side, and the Magi (or wise men) on the other. They each sought the star and the king that basked in that miraculous heavenly glow. But the motivations for each were wildly different.
In verse 3, King Herod’s motivation for seeking is made plain: “When King Herod heard this he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” The Magi come, proclaim a wondrous miracle, and the King responds to the knowledge as though they issued a threat. Not only that, but his fear makes all of Jerusalem—all those over whom he has authority—afraid. In verse 7 he calls a secret meeting of his advisors and schemes. In verse 8 he sends the Magi on their way, declaring that he too wants to pay homage to the child.
But we know this story.
We know that in Matthew 2:16, Herod kills all the boy children in the region in order to secure his throne. He responds to the mystery of the star with fear, scheming, and eventually rage. He understands the star as a threat to his power and control, and so he misses the very miracle of God in his midst.
The Magi seek differently. They are kings or scholars from the East; from a land and a people beyond Israel and beyond the Jewish religion. They are astrologers who use their education and their resources to fund a quest to follow the miraculous star to Bethlehem. They are men of means. They offer gold, frankincense and myrrh—which were the gold, platinum, and diamonds of their day—without expectation of a blessing in return. And yet, they seek not out of a need to control, but out of a sense of joy. In verse 10 the text reads: “When they saw the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”
Overwhelmed with joy.
What a radically different response to God’s miracle in the world! The Magi were not afraid of God’s awesome power, or of the kingship prophesied about the child. They were not threatened or made insecure in their earthly wealth or authority. They were seekers who sought for the pleasure of the seeking and were rewarded with abundant, overflowing joy.
There is much that can be made of the two responses to the miracle and mystery of the star. Do we fear God’s miracles or delight in them? Are we comfortable with the destabilizing effect of mystery, or do we seek to control it? Is God’s power a threat to our earthly power? Do we seek Jesus for power or control, or do we seek out of the sheer delight of finding him and knowing him? Do we seek and pay homage without expectation of a blessing or a reward?
St. Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th century theologian, coined the phrase “fides quaerens intellectum” or faith seeking understanding. The Magi are a perfect illustration of this concept. They have faith that the star is a miracle and that they will find a king—a holy person—at the end of it. They don’t understand how or why the star arrived. They don’t scheme or seek to control the star, the child king, or the miracle. They have faith, and they go in search of understanding.
Their foil is King Herod. He has faith—faith that the prophecies are in fact true and the star is a clear sign they are set in motion. But he doesn’t seek understanding, instead he seeks control. He allows fear to hold him, closing his vision until all he can seek is a way out, instead of an expansive revelation. Herod is left in fear—fear that grows to paranoia and then to violent rage. The Magi, on the other hand, find a sense of wonder, of awe at the sight of baby Jesus. They are overwhelmed with joy.
Do we have faith that seeks understanding? In a world of uncertainty, are we responding with fear and the need to control, or are we responding with expansive curiosity and wonder? Do we live with fear or do we allow the miracle of Emmanuel, God with us, to overwhelm us with joy?
The Rev. Laura Brekke is the Benfield-Vick endowed chaplain at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia. She is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys the hills and hollers of Appalachia, even if her nearest Target is an hour away.
I am not always proud of who I am or about the things I’ve done, but there are times when I’m guilty of telling myself “well, at least I’m not like him.” There are people who embody the exact opposite of the faith and grace I have come to love in Christ and I am guilty of looking down and judging them for it. When I am honest with myself, in my heart I know there are times when my only thought about someone is: “Thank heaven that’s not me,” or “I am such a better Christian than they are.” When these thoughts cross my mind I hope I am subtle about it. I hope I don’t let it show. But whether it’s seen by others or not, I know I can be self-righteous. There are times I need to remind myself I’m not the one who separates the sheep from the goats.
Judgment comes from a place of vulnerability inside each of us. It comes from our need for self-assurance. It’s a misguided way of convincing ourselves that we have God’s favor because someone else does not. There are many reasons we judge others. Sometimes we judge because it simplifies a complicated world by putting people in boxes of ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Most of us grew up watching TV shows and reading stories where it was obvious what side a character was on. A child reading The Lord of the Rings knows that the Orcs and Goblins are the bad guys and the Elves and Hobbits are good. In old Western movies you could distinguish good and bad by the color of someone’s hat. But in the real world people don’t fit into simple visual narratives, although it would make life much easier. People are ambiguous; saints can be sinful and the wicked can be redeemed. We see only a small snippet of each other’s stories. Even after spending a lifetime with someone, at the end we will have only understood a fragment of who they are in the eyes of God. It is God who alone sees us in our entirety and decides where we ultimately belong.
In the First Testament passage from Ezekiel God is described as a shepherd who cares for the flock. Those sheep who “pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with [your] horns until [you] scattered them far and wide” are rebuked and judged for their actions. The passage is filled with promises from the shepherd about what he will do: “I myself will search;” “I will rescue.” It is worth noting just how active this shepherd is. It is a theme Jesus draws upon repeatedly. Throughout the Gospels Jesus proclaims a great separation that will happen at the end of the age. Wheat will be separated from the weeds, chaff from grain, good fish from bad and goats from sheep. But none of this is self-selected. The sheep don’t decide who gets into the barn. The fish don’t get a say in who’s kept and who’s tossed back. That decision is made by the one to whom they all belong.
Judging is not the same as having an opinion. Being non-judgmental does not mean anything goes or that we should accept unacceptable behavior. What someone says and does communicates who they are and influences how we will relate to them, so of course we will have opinions about others (it would be naive to think otherwise). The difference is that opinion is something open that can be changed; a person can reform and relationships can mend. But a judgment is something final, something we don’t revisit once it’s been made. Once we’ve judged someone then we have dropped a curtain on them and refuse to pull back up. That’s something we don’t get to do. That is something up to God alone.
It is not our job to separate the sheep from the goats. The kingdom of heaven is not a club with us handing out entry tickets. We are more like promoters, not bouncers; we help send the invitations but who gets admitted isn’t up to us. Our job is not to be the gatekeepers but to care for everyone as long as we’re out here in the field. What happens after that is up to God, and until then we are called to love without reserve or distinction. We have all sinned in the eyes of God. It is not that one person is more worthy to receive God than another, but that God continues to love us all regardless of our past.
The Reverend TJ Tetzlaff serves as Assistant Priest at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Southport, North Carolina. He received his Master of Divinity from Episcopal Divinity School and has worked with a number of churches and nonprofits. He and his wife Chana, recently moved to Wilmington, North Carolina with their two dogs Molly and Momo. In his spare time TJ can usually be found walking on the beach, playing board games, or playing with his dogs.
My knee-jerk response to this parable is negative for three illegitimate reasons:
1) I can’t bear to think of God as “harsh…reaping where [he] did not sow, gathering where [he] did not scatter seed” and engendering fear in his timid slave.
2) I really, really dislike the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” imagery.
3) I shudder to think that many read this parable as an endorsement of modern financial investment practices.
I doubt that I am alone in struggling with the temptation to skip right over this passage looking for more congenial lectionary texts. But if we give into that temptation over and over again (which can happen so easily), we deny our people the chance to wrestle alongside us and miss an opportunity to teach folks “how” (tools, concepts, etc.) one interprets hard texts. In this passage, three key “concepts are ripe for elaboration: parables, eschatology, and apocalypse.
My first illegitimate reason for wanting to avoid this text is caused by an overly-allegorical approach to interpreting the parable. Often we want parables (or Scripture generally) to provide some sort of clear directive or advice or doctrine. That isn’t how Scripture works generally and especially not parables! The more we preachers can break open the Word from the chains of even subconscious literalism, the more we are inviting our people into spiritual maturity and real-time engagement with the Living Christ.
A common (mis)reading of parables looks to one-to-one equivalences. In this case, the man is God the Father, the slaves are servants of God. Two of the slaves “invest” their talents and are rewarded. One buries it and is condemned to hell. So my first knee-jerk aversive response is based on lazy interpretation: Jesus isn’t suggesting that the “man going on a journey,” later referred to as the “master” is the first person of the Trinity. We might glean some meaning by making that association, but the association is limited. It doesn’t work the whole way through as a lens for understanding the nature of God – and that is okay because parables aren’t allegories.
Moving away from one-to-one equivalences also partially addresses my second illegitimate reason for wanting to avoid the text: the use of the “outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It is a misreading of the text to equivalate the “outer darkness” as “hell” in the “heaven/hell” binary of popular culture. This parable is not about soteriology (how Jesus saves or redeems the world and its creatures) and should not be reduced to a teaching about an individual’s fate after death; rather, it is one of a cluster of teachings about how to live faithfully when the world is falling apart around you. In other words, it is apocalyptic.
The passage is situated in the Jesus’ “final discourse” in Matthew. Beginning in chapter 24 and concluding with the parable of the sheep and goats at the end of this chapter, Jesus is responding to the disciples’ questions about signs of Jesus’ coming and the “end of the age,” about eschatology. You can almost think of this section as a post-script to the ascension, even though this discourse precedes those events in the narrative. Perhaps Matthew, likely writing after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E. and certainly amid conflict with traditional Jews, imagines how Jesus would speak into Matthew’s present-day situation. How do disciples find the courage to live faithfully in a context where clear lines are surfacing between Jews who are part of the “Jesus movement” and Jews who aren’t, especially in a context where the first type of Jew could be persecuted by the Romans? The ultimate “End Time” that Jesus is purportedly addressing in the discourse is likely blurred with a proximate “End Time” for displaced, persecuted Jews who are realizing their allegiance to Jesus means they are no longer welcome in the synagogue.
As much as my skin crawls at the imagery of gnashing teeth, I am more empathetic to Matthew’s use of the terms when it is placed in the context of a literal struggle for survival. Perhaps it is part of our unredeemed human nature to create binaries in which we find tend to make ourselves superior. Certainly this tendency is exacerbated when we feel threatened. Fear is a powerful motivator. (There are so many examples from our political life today; I don’t need to cite them.) This parable is one of several in this discourse that use judgement scenes almost as a trope to convey skills, dispositions, virtues that disciples need as they wait the End Time when the Kingdom of Heaven is more fully realized.
So now for my final negative knee-jerk reaction to this parable: that my parishioners will hear it the context of present-day global economics and believe Jesus encourages us to make good financial investments. Again, one-to-one equivalences distract us from the harder work of struggling with the parable’s meaning. In God’s economy, spiritual gifts, “talents,” grow when they are used and given away freely for the benefit of others here and now, not when they are controlled for some future “use,” as can happen with financial investments, endowments, etc.
The slaves don’t “earn” the money and certainly never lay claim to owning it. They are given the money each “according to their ability,” resulting in different amounts. This resonates with Jesus’ earlier parable in chapter 13 about the sower getting different yields. We aren’t all given the same spiritual gifts, and we don’t all produce spiritual fruit in equal quantities. The master knows how much each slave is capable of stewarding well, and the slaves are accountable to the master for using what they’ve been given. The two who use their talents, who serve the master, find benefit for themselves (“enter into the joy of your master”). The one who doesn’t experiences “consequences,” as my father would say after I disobeyed him.
A question to wrestle with, and which might be an excellent topic for a sermon, is why the third slave buries the talent. If the third slave knew his master liked a return on the talents and was afraid of him, why wouldn’t the slave have sought even a modest return? Was he paralyzed by fear? Was he captive to his own desire for security and control? Was he just lazy and taking the “easy way” out? The master knew he was capable of doing more than he did but the opportunity for doing good (using spiritual gifts to strengthen the community) passed him by, and there were consequences of this inaction. Another possible angle for preaching is to look at how human beings respond in the context of fear. Does fear, say in this political climate, make us more timid to speak our minds, to use our gifts? Does fear make us more passive in the face of harsh, unjust powers? Which is harder in the long run: hiding our talents and being cast into outer darkness or taking the risk to use our gifts and claim our voice even though we can’t fully control the outcome?
The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in the Mountains in Haywood County, North Carolina. When not thinking, reading, or writing about spiritual leadership, missional priorities, sermons, or pastoral care, she chases two kids, a cat, and a husband around Lake Junaluska and other beautiful spots.
 The conclusion to Amy Jill-Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus elaborates on this point.
 Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. p. 203.
 This is the thrust of Hauerwas’ argument. Ibid. pp. 201 -212.