Sermon for Afternoon Worship, January 8, 2014
Ecumenical Chapel, School of Theology and Ministry, Seattle University
The Rev. William Seth Adams
Blessed be the Name of God
Apparently it was sometime in the 2nd century that someone decided that there were three of them, likely because of the three gifts reported in Scripture. Makes good sense! By the sixth century, they had names—Gaspar, Balthasar and Melchoir. In our lifetimes, we know more clearly that they are, in fact, Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Michael Palin. Think Monty Python!
* * * * * * * * *
They arrived by camel, down the dark streets of Bethlehem. They stopped at a shabby dwelling, nothing really more than a collection of raw wooden poles and ratty blankets. They were fiercely overdressed as was common in those days for Easterners. Tiaras, turbans, veils—a regular jumble sale! They were greeted suspiciously by the woman, the mother, who was reluctant to let them in to see the child, especially when they said they had followed a star. But the gifts won her over, though she wasn’t too keen on the myrrh—some sort of ointment they said.
Once inside, the three knelt adoringly by the side of the child, and, asking the child’s name, burst into chants of praise. Puzzled, the woman, possessed of a scratchy cackling sort of voice, inquired of them,
“Astrologers are you?”
“Why yes,” replied one of the trio.
“What’s he?,” she said, pointing toward the child.
“What’s his star sign?”
“Capricorn, eh? What are they like?”
“He’s the son of God, our Messiah, the King of the Jews!”
“That’s a Capricorn, is it?”
* * * * * * * * * *
Perhaps Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” isn’t the most common place to begin the proclamation of the Epiphany, but it does offer its possibilities. The manifestation of the Christ child to the Gentiles, the likes of us—personified in this wonderful film by three of the zaniest and most inept creatures ever imagined. The premise of the film revolves around a case of mistaken identity. The Magi, led by the star, come upon the wrong manger, something they only discover after forcing gifts upon the unnerved mother of this infant, Brian. Upon leaving, the three discover that the star was actually shining on the manger next door. So they quite rudely return to Brian’s mother and forcibly take back the gifts. And off the film goes into the narration of Brian’s misadventure living a life parallel to Jesus. We learn a good deal about Brian and precious little about Jesus—but then it’s the “Life of Brian” after all!
Brian’s mother asks the evocative question. “What are they like?” or for our purposes, “What is he like?”—not Brian but the child in the neighboring stall. To say that this festival day marks the manifestation, the showingforth of this child, to the Gentiles, the Nations—what does that mean, exactly? Who is it that we are meeting? Who is it that is being revealed to us?
The Scriptures tell us, of course, what we know—Son of God, Messiah, healer, friend of sinners—that sort of thing. We know that God reveals in this child the gathering of the Nations into the promises made to the people Israel. We know all that and that’s a lot! But there’s so much else that we might know, that we might wish to know—that we don’t.
We know that he liked to eat, did it all the time, but what did he favor—fish, poultry perhaps. Maybe he was a vegetarian! Was he in the habit of turning great vats of water into wine—like at Cana—and if so, what did he do with it? Must have thrown quite a nice party. Wonder what his favorite colors were or what he wore when he went out with friends? Could he wear plaid? Not everyone can, you know. Carpentry is mentioned in Scripture but nothing is said about an income. I wonder how he got by, making ends meet. Must have had independent means.
There’s so much else to ask, if only we could. What’s it like to ascend? Any motion sickness problems? What are the social implications of being “homoousion?” Does it feel different? Does one have to closet oneself if you’re “homoousion” or can you be “out?” Would he “get” original sin? What would his take be on the Crusades? Which of the three Popes active at the same time in the early 15th century would have been his favorite? Rome, Avignon or Constance? What would be his take on transubstantiation? Where would he have positioned himself in the Colloquy at Marburg? Which team colors would he have worn during the Wars of Religion? How would he have reacted to the awakening associated with the brothers Wesley? Would he have felt threatened by Darwin? Would he be pleased with John Henry Newman’s tract writing or no? Would he opt for Handel or Haugen, Bach or David Hurd? On the matter of bishops, what sense, if any, would he make of apostolic succession? Would he have voted red or blue this last time around? Inquiring minds want to know!
The Scriptures don’t tell us all we want to know. There is content to this Epiphany that we do so wish we had. Some mere curiosities, some of greater moment. The time we live in invites more information, more assurances, more confidence. But as my trail of perhaps frivolous questions suggests, there’s an end to what we know, and what we can know. That puts us—and I mean us, theological sophisticates as we are—in a perilous place.
In some ways, we are an unusual congregation. Composed of clergy and aspiring clergy, seminarians and such like, it is our current and future vocation to provide the Church with some measure of clarity and wisdom, some inspiration based on faithful prayer and study, through the constant mediation of Mary’s child, the one on whom the light truly did shine.
I have been a priest of the Episcopal Church for 46 years and a teacher of sacramental theology and matters liturgical for a goodly part of those years. My students entrusted me with a level of confidence, even certainty, about matters that matter. For the most part, when I have something to say, they listen. The same is true for most clergy. People ask questions, expect good answers. They pay attention. And herein lies the peril. Because you and I know what words to say and how to say them, these good folks may mistake us for someone who knows more, believes more than they ought to imagine, that our faithfulness exceeds theirs.
One of Wendell Berry’s poems comes to mind. It’s called “A Warning to My Readers.”
Do not think me gentle
Because I speak in praise
Of gentleness, or elegant
Because I honor the grace
That keeps this world. I am
A man crude as any,
Gross of speech, intolerant,
Stubborn, angry, full
Of fits and furies. That I
May have spoken well
At times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.
Collected Poems 1957-1982 [North Point Press, 1998], 213.
Our calling, then, is to tell the truth. In whatever we write, in the prayers we offer, in our proclamation, we are obliged to be transparent in our strength and in our weakness. Announcing the Epiphany over and over again within the boundaries where we can speak and sing with confidence and grace.
Among other things, this means that we must hold accountable not only ourselves but also others, and this is perhaps where we can be of the most help. In the public rhetoric that fills our lives, in this remarkably “religious” land of ours, at least below the 49th parallel, it is people like us who ought to help others know what they can know, and not more. We ought to be the ones who help to announce the limits, and to glory in the mystery that exceeds those boundaries. This is more than a pious “religious” obligation. It is rather a political one. To the extent that what was revealed at the Epiphany becomes the stuff of political rhetoric, then our obligation is similarly political.
We thank God for showing us what we know, for the things revealed in Jesus, however partial and evanescent. They are precious tokens of God’s greater glory.
I revel in our fellowship and in the common things we share. I’m delighted to receive again this Epiphany in your company and to be with you as brother and friend. As the prophet says, “Arise, shine; for your light has come…”
Blessed be the Name of God