January 5, 2020
Epiphany Sunday, Pastor Lynne Nelson
Merry 12th day of Christmas! And Happy Epiphany!
Thank you, Pastor Bradley, for inviting me to share the pulpit at Gloria Dei. I am both honored and humbled to be standing here as we celebrate the gifts of Epiphany this morning.
Today we are celebrating what the Orthodox Christian Communities around the world celebrate as their Christmas – the arrival of the Magi to worship the Christ child. For many of us, we’ve already celebrated the birth of Jesus, making it difficult to stop – back up – take the king figurines and camels out of our creche scenes, and now re-enter them back into the Christ child’s presence. When my children were young, we used to have the Wise Men and their one camel travel through their bedrooms, from East to West, beginning Christmas Eve until Epiphany when they at last arrived along with all the others at the stable.
When we follow the story lines to which we’ve been listening over the past 2 weeks, jumping back and forth from Matthew’s Gospel two Sundays ago to Luke’s on Christmas Eve, and back again to Matthew this past Sunday and today – except not in sequential order – it can feel a bit like Bible story whiplash. It really isn’t surprising then that we conflate these stories into one on Christmas Eve and Day and gather the shepherds, angels, Wise Men, sheep, camels, a star and usually a cow or two, around the manger in our creche scenes. Quite a crowd at a small shed in the dead of night.
However, here we are, 12 days out from Christmas Day at Epiphany Eve and finally at the story of the Magi we hear today. Why are the Magi so late to the celebration? Some people – at least one assumes from evergreen trees sitting out by the curb – have finished celebrating by now. Yet, enter in now these Wise Men – not necessarily three – following a star to the divine child. Obviously, the story isn’t over yet, nor should it be, especially since the story of the Magi is really our story – a story in which we have forgotten our part. The story of the Magi is the story of the strangers – the outsiders – the ones not invited to the first party, but whose invitation came as a quiet announcement in the sky at the moment of the event.
It may be hard for us to see ourselves, or more to the point, remember ourselves as strangers coming late to the party since, as Christians in the 21st century, our faith has been the dominate faith of our culture for a long time. We’ve been in the “in group” for so long, that we have forgotten that we started as the outsiders, the Gentiles, embodied as these Magi strangers late to the holy scene.
Epiphany is the revealing of this child, the Christ child born in Bethlehem as the prophets had foretold to the nation of Israel, as also Emmanuel, God with us for ALL PEOPLE of the world, strangers and outsiders included. As Gentiles, we were those strangers a long time ago – an experience we seldom encounter any longer as Christians in America.
In 1993, almost four years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain in Europe, I had the opportunity to visit a homeland as a stranger. I sojourned with a group of women, Lutheran pastors and laywomen, to the eastern, once communist, zone of Europe. We traveled as strangers to come alongside with and listen to the stories of communities of Christian women there, the outsiders of their culture for being practicing Christians. In some places, we left as sisters in Christ. In others, we never met one another for the fear of meeting and associating with Americans.
I traveled with another objective – to connect, for the first time in my life, with the small walled city in which my mom had grown up, where she had met my dad near the end of WWII, and where my grandmother in Germany had lived and died – a small walled city that had been behind the Iron Curtain.
I, along with two other women pastors, traveled to Aschersleben, a place I knew only from stories and postcards and old maps, a place in which I was the stranger. When we arrived, I walked the streets of the town from memory of those maps. I crossed the Herenbreite green to the Rathaus square. I found the drugstore once owned by the parents of my mom’s best grade-school friend, right by the picturesque fountain pictured on an old postcard sitting on my desk at home. At the apartment next door, I found the name of that friend still listed. I walked the streets to Lange Reihe 12 where my mom’s 400-year-old house with the meter-thick walls had stood, now demolished and rebuilt as a car dealership. We went to my mom and grandmother’s church which was closed. Hoping now to make a connection to someone who may have known my grandmother, I went to the church parsonage where I – a stranger from across an ocean, unexpected, not fluent in the language – knocked on the door, now some 18 years since my grandmother’s death – 48 years since my mom left town.
The story of Epiphany tells us of another journey of strangers. Wise Men, having seen a star all of Judea did not recognize, traveled by the invitation of that star. They sojourned first to Jerusalem where they expected to find the child, where instead they found a despot king, anxious over their continued questioning, “Where is the child born King of the Jews?” Once redirected, they at last arrived at the house over which the star finally stopped – strangers from across a great eastern land, unexpected, overwhelmed with joy, ready to welcome this child with their worship and gifts. They knocked on the door – now some 2 years since the star had appeared.
I stood on that threshold, overwhelmed with awe and emotion at finally standing in this homeplace. As the door opened, my tears started to flow and I clumsily tried to explain my presence. The women standing on the other side of the threshold didn’t hesitate but insistently beckoned us in. Not waiting to hear more, she ushered us to her living room and went to get her husband, the pastor of the church. Almost instantly, we were embraced as I shared in my poor German and English the stories of my family so deeply rooted in this place. And we were welcomed into the fold of that community and I was welcomed home.
In Bethlehem that day the Magi stood on the threshold, strangers in that place. The door was opened in welcome and they entered the home to prostrate themselves before him, to worship him, giving him gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. And in that moment, in their act of welcoming this child, they were welcomed into the community of love that is God with us. This is the story of Epiphany – the revealing of the message that this child, the Christ child, born in Bethlehem as Messiah to the Israelites, has come to welcome ALL PEOPLE to the love of God. This child, Immanuel, God with us, continues to welcome the stranger into God’s love and saving grace.
There must always be a place among us for the stranger as God welcomes all. When we remember that we once were strangers, too, we can turn in welcome to others – especially those who don’t look, think, or act like us. The story of Epiphany continues to invite us to share God’s saving grace with all people. We hear this each Sunday in the invitation of welcome as we prepare to meet at the table when our pastors say to us, “This is Christ’s table: a table of love and welcome. Come those with great faith and those who wish for more. Come those who have tried to follow Jesus and those who have failed. Come those who depend on this meal for life and those for whom it’s a strange thing. These words call all of us together as community in God’s love.
For when we remember we have all been strangers, we remember what it means to be welcomed in! In this Epiphany time – and always – we are all welcomed as God’s beloved, for the child born King of the Jews welcomes ALL to God’s fold. So, Arise, Shine, for our light has come to all of us who were once strangers. Let us invite strangers to share in that same glorious light.