Rev. Rainey Dankel | 1.2.22


Today we continue our celebration of Christmas with the story of the Magi from the Gospel of Matthew. We are moving towards the Feast of the Epiphany, signaling the end of the twelve days of Christmas and the beginning of the season called Epiphany. Epiphany, a Greek word meaning “manifestation” or “showing,” extends the Incarnation, the birth of God in human form, into our lives, as God is revealed to us as a gift to all the world.

Epiphany begins as “wise men” come from an eastern country, probably Persia. Traditionally we say there were three kings, though you will note that Matthew does not specify the number of travelers, only the number of three gifts presented by the visitors. These wise persons were scholars in their day, people who studied the patterns of stars as signs of coming events, something of a cross between astronomy and astrology. These were not Jewish people, but when they saw a miraculous star, they knew enough about prophecy to come to Judea to see the promised king.

Perhaps this story is quite familiar to you. I want to focus on the very end of the passage we read today. The magi had come to Herod’s court as the logical place for a new king to be born. Jealous Herod has asked them to let him know when they have found the baby. But Matthew says the magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and they “returned to their own country by another road.”

The next part of the story is never in our Christmas Pageants. Herod is enraged that he has been tricked by the magi. So he mounts a terrible campaign to wipe out his supposed rival. We call this the “slaughter of the innocents,” as Herod orders the death of all babies in Bethlehem under two years of age. Joseph is also warned and escapes with Mary and the Child to Egypt, where they remain until Herod dies. This part of the story, grim as it is, reminds us that God has chosen to come into our messy human lives, where jealousy and violence mar the happiness that God desires for all of us.

The magi, foreigners, not part of the chosen people of Israel, remind us that God is reaching out to all people. Having found the object of their search, they remain alert to God’s leading, and avoid the murderous Herod and help to spare the baby’s life. Somehow they realize that the child whom they have worshiped is not part of the corrupt and violent power that Herod relies on. An encounter with the Christ Child has changed them. That is the message of Christmas that I am thinking of today. The possibility that an encounter with love made human, love living in our midst, can change our lives, can set us on a different path.

What brings you to the manger today? Perhaps you are looking for a different way, a way that doesn’t rely on raw power or competition to be successful. Perhaps you are weary of the relentless pandemic and the sadness and dislocation that it has brought on us. Perhaps you are remembering a different time, a time when you felt loved and safe, and you wonder if it will ever be that way again. Whatever brings you here, together we affirm that God is reaching out to us, to speak to us, to comfort us, and to help us see our status as beloved children.

I dare say we are all pilgrims, seekers of meaning and blessing, a reminder of whose we are—beloved children of God. In the company of other faithful people in every generation, we are drawn to the light as we look for God’s message of peace and goodwill for all. The way is not always clear, nor is the path an easy one. But we know that we are not alone in our seeking.

As one route on the different way home, I urge you to consider joining one of the small groups that will begin meeting virtually in a few weeks. With many other Episcopal churches, we at St. Paul’s are engaging in the discussion series called Sacred Ground. Together we will listen to each other’s stories and struggles. We will learn how better to engage each other in difficult conversations, with opportunities for growth as individuals and as a community. We will continue to come to terms with our history, especially around issues of race and privilege, and find ways to come closer to the Beloved Community that God wants for all of us.

That, my friends, is the promise of Christmas. Not that there will be no struggle. Not that there are no consequences of bad choices or unfortunate circumstances or oppressive systems. But that the love which guides the stars reaches out to us, to help us discover the light inside of each of us. And to guide us toward our true home.

An icon of that journey is Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died a week ago. Yesterday the world mourned as he was laid to rest in God’s welcoming arms. Surely, this beloved leader has made an indelible mark on his native South Africa and indeed across the world. Best known for his work to dismantle apartheid and help his country heal, he was also an outspoken supporter of the rights of LGBT persons, when many African churchmen wanted to break Communion with the American Episcopalians over this issue. He didn’t hesitate to call out the corruption of some notorious African officials, and he put his own life at risk as he went into the streets to break up violent demonstrations calling for freedom for his people. He joined with other world leaders working to end genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia. His trademark good humor, the twinkle in his eye, and the spring in his dancing step did not obscure the seriousness of his message or the fervor of his faith in a God who dreams of peace and justice for all people.

In the many tributes being paid to him upon his death at the age of ninety, let us remember that the best way to honor his memory is to join in the struggles he championed, especially as people of faith. When he was criticized as being too “political,” Tutu always responded that God cares about the real lives of everyday people. God wants all of us to know that we are beloved. (See especially his book God Has a Dream.) Anything that gets in the way of that message is an affront to the God who made us. Tutu often said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Truly he helps us see another way, a way of living together with forgiveness and peace based on the wellbeing and dignity of all.

As we begin another year together, may we rededicate ourselves to following the way of Jesus, the way of Love made visible in the world. May we discover ourselves as God’s beloved children, and may we find joy in sharing that Love. Together let us go home by another way. And as we journey, let us sing a South African song of liberation. Our closing hymn is the South African hymn “We are marching in the light of God.” The words are in English, Zulu, and Spanish. In case your Zulu is a little rusty, let’s practice the words now. SI-YA-HAM BEH-KU-KHA-NYEN KWEN-KHOS We are marching with our beloved Archbishop and in solidarity with all who seek a better way, as we follow the light of God.

Christmas Blessings to you.