Sermon Given at St. Timothy, Signal Mountain
Epiphany | January 6, 2019
Text of the sermon is below; a video of the sermon is here (sound improves in a few seconds in).
We saw the photograph for the first time five years ago.
It was taken in 1965, a black and white image. Most of the photograph is hidden in darkness. In the center, there is a group of bodies, all lined in silhouettes.
There is one adult, a college girl, holding a Christmas ornament, or maybe a May basket for a May Day celebration, high above her head.
She is surrounded by four little girls, all pressed in close to her, arms raised, hands outstretched. In the middle of the photograph, one young hand is extended skyward, surrounded by the light pouring in from the window. The hand is open and each finger can be counted.
We cannot tell which, but one of those little girls is my wife, Susan. In 1965, Susan and her family lived in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, where Susan’s father taught economics at a local college. The college co-ed lived in the Weatherford home that year and helped look after Susan and her four siblings.
The photograph is one of those images that could easily yield untold sermons and stories, poems and possibilities. Light and dark bump up against each other, a gift is held and also sought, the caring nurse looks after her charges as the late afternoon sun warms and breaks your heart at the same time.
The whole world appears to be innocent yet how many boys died in Vietnam that day? Was Watts burning yet? Are the little girls enjoying the game or do the shadows in the photograph hide tears and frustrated faces? How long before the co-ed’s arm grows weary and she hands the gift over or is it possible she stands there still, wondering where those little girls have gone?
It is all there. It is a vision of a time before and a vision of a time to come. It is the time before the exile, of change and chances, of growing and dying. It is the time of return, when all are welcomed back, when all is restored. The moment was brief and yet endures because a photographer, possibly Susan’s father, captured the scene with a camera.
The photograph of the college co-ed and the four little girls seeking a mysterious gift is also a scene of the Epiphany. Granted, there are no Wise Men present, though I have no doubt that the Swathmore campus had more than its fair share of brains. And it is a school from the East but I believe the biblical writers were thinking a little more east than that.
As far as you can tell, there is no gold, frankincense or myrrh in the black and white image. There is no young mother surprised to learn that people from away are seeking her child, some to bring gifts, others conspiring to bring death and mayhem. And the closest Bethlehem is 60 miles away and is known for steel, not for mangers.
Yet despite all that, it is a scene of the Epiphany. It is a scene of light shining in a dark place, of daughters held safe in the gracious gaze of a girl who loved them like her own.
Towards the end of Isaiah, we hear a prophetic vision of restoration, of a healing and a blessed time after the exile, after the deep loss, after the hope faded, after despair set in. The prophecy of light shining, of all gathered again comes in the nick of time, even after there appeared to be no more time.
For Isaiah, it is a vision of light, shining light in the midst of all that had grown dark. It is a homecoming and yet there is a twist. Everyone is coming home.
Not just your kin and those you know, those who look like you. All the nations are seeing this light, this glory of God shining, and they are all attracted, all pleased to see it, to draw near to it. What has been displaced is brought back, what has been lost is restored. The children come home but also the nations from far away are coming home and they are being received. It is a time of Epiphany, of revelation.
We take off the masks of fear and brokenness. We take off the masks of hate and prejudice. We take off the masks of shame and division. We all find ourselves bathed in the light, in the light that pulls us in. We all belong to God now in light of the Epiphany.
The scene from Isaiah is an abundant one. The sons are returning and the daughters return, carried by their nurses. Wealth is brought close and the abundance of the sea. Moments before, you were despairing, wondering how you will get through and now a revelation of flourishing is in your midst. You will eat fish for weeks.
To top it all off, a multitude of camels will cover you. Granted, that doesn’t sound all too pleasant but trust me, it’s a good thing. It is a good news image.
In this season of Epiphany, the gathered people of Jesus remember that the light of Christ has come into the world and surprised us by who ends up being found in the light, drawn to the contagious community of holy mercy and healing.
Sometimes when we come to the light, we remember to follow good protocol, to call ahead, to ask if this is a good time, to bring gifts, to make sure we get that thank you note off to the Mother of God as soon as we get home from the audience with the Christ child. We have been planning this trip for a long time, watching the night sky, preparing to follow the star until it takes us to the light embodied in flesh.
But more often than not, we come to the light without anything in our hands, possibly even surprised to be standing in the place of a prophecy. We did not know we were on a journey. We did not believe ourselves to be pilgrims from the East or the West or from across the street.
We were minding our own business, prepared to settle for what was the sure thing. But by now, even the sure thing isn’t all that sure and definitely not all that satisfying. We hunger to go home but we can’t remember where home is anymore. We do not feel particularly wise and all the gifts worth having are so far out of reach. And where exactly do you purchase myrrh, anyhow?
When we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, to feed on Christ in the meal of thanksgiving, we believe we are both walking back into a story of the first meal, of Jesus gathered with friends and disciples, while also the meal is being made anew, we are eating together for the first time. But it doesn’t stop there.
When we gather at this altar, we are also remembering the future, sharing in the love and fullness of Christ with the scandalous belief that someday all meals will be like this and all the nations will come home to this place.
So it is with the Epiphany. This day, we remember a band of wise pilgrims coming from the East, traveling to Herod and going on, traveling to find the true source of power, kneeling before the Leader who would exercise authority by serving, who would reign by loving, who would triumph by dying.
They were from far away, they went to different schools and talked funny and wore odd clothes and yet they were drawn to the same home that holds us now. So, now it is Epiphany again and it is Epiphany for the first time.
Maybe you brought a gift and have been preparing for this day for a long time. If so, welcome, welcome, welcome. The light that has guided you here is the light of the cosmic Christ, the light that transcends language and landscape and only knows that the Glory of God has risen above us all and is descending upon us all.
And if you are surprised to be here, without gift in hand, having left the gold and the frankincense back at the house, feeling particularly unwise this day, then welcome, welcome, welcome. There is a light emerging upon you, as well.
Reach out your hand. Mother Wisdom is holding a gift. It is the light of Christ, made known to us through the life of Jesus. She is holding it above our heads, not to taunt us and to keep it from our reach. She is holding it high above our heads so all can see, so all can come, so all can be gathered again.
The light is given to us as gift. It is a good news gift. It is a resurrection gift when all appears to be dead and gone.
But it does not belong to us alone. We will be surprised at the faces of those who stand near us as we reach for this light. That is where the grace comes in and the mercy. That is where God is calling us to grow up and to be open to just how many sons and daughters are returning home.
The Body of Christ is always being broken and always being made anew. The Body of Christ is before us and we kneel in its presence. The Body of Christ is in us and we shine because of its light. The Body of Christ holds this community together and shapes our common life and prays through us and teaches us to love what God loves.
Welcome to the Epiphany.
Photo by Carlos Irineu da Costa on Unsplash