A Sermon for the Eve of the Epiphany.
January 5, 2020
As many of you know, only a couple of months ago, I found myself a stranger in a strange land. I found myself on pilgrimage in the Holy Land, the bedrock of our faith. And for a thirty year old, I feel like I’m a pretty seasoned traveler (having lived over seas upon three separate occasions). Yet nothing could have prepared me for the culture shock that was Israel. My uneasiness might have been exacerbated by the forty-eight hours of travel, or the overwhelming exhaustion from work leading up to the trip in general, or being dropped in the midst of a crossroads of cultures. Yet, whatever the compilation of factors, the first few days for me felt quite unsettling. I tried to spiritually center myself during my jaunt around the old city of Jerusalem, but I felt inundated by all of the sites, smells, and sounds. In all honesty I felt a bit lost. I could not decipher the Hebrew letters, let alone begin to understand the local language. I could not locate myself on a map well at all, because I could not read the streets signs a significant portion of the time. And on top of it, I was learning new religious customs left and right. For the first time in my life, I understood what it really felt like to be the religious minority, to be the outsider, to be a stranger in a strange land.
Yet, there was a particular point in time when that feeling began to shift. It was at Shabbat dinner on a Friday night. I found myself at the home of my traveling companion’s, my friend Devora’s, family—her aunt and uncle, Tova and Daniel. The food was different. The rituals were different. The prayers were different. And yet y’all, the hospitality was the same. I was given more nourishment than I possibly could have needed—mind, body, and soul. Even though, yes, on many levels I was still an outsider, I was also welcomed with open arms. I was asked engaging and encouraging questions about my ministry here in Lake Tahoe, and about my faith as a Christian. I was offered some delicious Israeli wine and chowed down on the most diverse kosher meal of my life. I also was taught bits of Hebrew by their beautiful and mischievous eight-year-old granddaughter—Ariva.
I imagine that the wise men, the magi from today’s Gospel according to Matthew—whose journey to Jesus we celebrate at the end of this Christmastide—, well, they may have felt similarly—being strangers in a strange land. Traveling from far away, from an Eastern area—most likely Iran, Iraq, or Saudi Arabia. The language was different. The customs were different. The people were different. The religion was different. Yet these sages, who were not Jewish—were not of Jesus’ tribe, language, or nation—, were welcomed with open arms and paid homage to Christ the king. They offered him their illustrious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
I find it interesting that at the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel—a Gospel specifically written by someone who was Jewish, for a Jewish audience—, that the author would include outsiders, foreigners, strangers in this triumphal birth narrative. Yet it is a beautiful theological move on the author’s part: setting a scene where all are included in the kingdom of God, where all are welcome to come and worship, where all are children of the Lord—no matter where they were born, or what language they speak, or what clothes they wear. There is even no mention of religious conversion in this passage! Such inclusion, such a welcome, such warm hospitality is not only the beginning, but the heart of the Gospel message.
If we page through our Bibles, time and time again Jesus encourages us to include those who have been excluded—whether due to disease, or gender, or race, or class. Throughout the Gospels, the Good News of God in Jesus Christ, we are constantly encouraged to think beyond our limited human constructions that keep insiders in and outsiders out—that separate one beloved child of God from another. We are constantly encouraged (and, yes, challenged) to love those who are different from us, who might not be of our tribe or our faith tradition.
The early church even struggled with this, was challenged by Jesus’ revolutionary teachings. We see such a reality brought to light in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul, a Jewish, well-educated, Roman citizen, ardently believed that the Gospel is not just meant for God’s chosen people. Instead he believed that Christ’s message of love was meant to be shared with all—Jews and Gentiles alike. If you have not read Acts of the Apostles yet, the inclusion of non-Jewish people in our budding religious tradition, was definitely up for debate in that day. Yet in today’s Scripture, Paul speaks of God’s grace not solely as an individual phenomenon but as a communal reality. And praise God for his commitment to spreading the love of Christ to all corners of the globe—Jew and Greek, slave and free, woman and man. All are one in Christ Jesus.
Now we as the church are called through the power of the Holy Spirit, to continue to challenge ourselves today—to think beyond the limited circles we have created and discern where divisions must cease, where bridges must be built, where all must be welcomed in with our understanding of God’s radical hospitality and inclusivity. In our own country of late we have witnessed what a culture of exclusion can create. We have witnessed a rise in anti-semitism, a rise in hated of the Jewish people—Jesus’ own tribe, his own kin, and our own lineage. Yet we as Christians, we as disciples of Jesus, we as believers in this Gospel message, we are called to strive for justice and peace and create a safe harbor for those whose safety is at stake. We are called to welcome with open arms those who have been excluded and ostracized.
My friends, we as the church, we as the Body of Christ in this time and place, are called to arise and shine. We are called to be vehicles of God’s glory. We are called to lift up our eyes and look around, and see where this beautiful but broken world is in need of God’s healing embrace. We are called to lift up our eyes and look around, and speak truth in love to those who spew hatred against our Jewish, Muslim, and any other brother and sister. We are called to lift up our eyes and look around, and welcome all of God’s children with the Divine’s radical hospitality. We as God’s church, y’all, we got to burn a bit brighter in this time and this place and bring our own abundant gifts to a world who so desperately needs God’s redeeming love.