This is Not the Game of Thrones

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Cersei Lannister is not impressed.

Micah 6:1-8
Matthew 5:1-12

“Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord!”

Our Micah reading today echoes a lot of things I’ve heard as a pastor and a chaplain:

“I don’t go to church much, but I’m a good person, Pastor.”

            “I’ve trusted in Jesus all my life and repented of my sin – I know I’m going to heaven.”

            “I’m not sure why I’m going through this – I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it.”

These are words from hospital beds and even deathbeds as heard by pastors and chaplains everywhere. But you don’t have to be sick to think of it: we all have little existential crises from time to time — “Am I really okay? Am I really ready to face death with the assurance that God will take care of me?” “Does God really love me after all I’ve done?”

We all wonder from time to time if we are enough or do enough. We are used to earning our way in the world, after all. If I work hard, I will excel at my job. If I study hard, I will get good grades. If I practice hard, I will be a great athlete. If I give tirelessly to my kids, I will be a good parent.

            We are used to earning our worth.

People think that pastors are an exception. If you learn nothing else from me in our time together, I hope you learn that pastors are just as human as you are. We’re not an exception to trying to earn our own worth, no matter how good our theology may be.

Pastors think, “If I spend hours researching for my sermon, and visit every person in the church, and answer every email and tie up every loose end, I’ll be a good pastor.” But we’re no better at the game than you are. There is always the parishioner not visited, the person not emailed back, the commentary not consulted. We work for Jesus, and quite frankly, that’s a high standard to live up to. Pastors, too, fall victim to the idea that we must earn our worth to be good enough.

We live in a Type A society, after all — one that says that you have to earn anything you get, and that you better try hard, because winner takes all.

There’s a cartoon strip that I love to reference in which there are two people, one labeled “TYPE A” and one labeled “TYPE B,” representing Type A, aggressively achieving personalities, and Type B, the more passive, easygoing personalities. Type B says to Type A, “C’mon, stop trying so hard — you have to stop and smell the flowers every once in awhile!”

On hearing this, Type A gets a determined look. Immediately, he gathers all the flowers he can see and shoves them towards his nose and breathes deeply. Then he hoists a trophy over his head that says “FLOWER SMELLING CHAMPION” while Type B cowers in shock.

This is often how I feel in yoga when told to relax and be.

I am the relaxing and being champion.

This kind of thing is woven into our DNA. It always has been, ever since the days when warring tribes would fight over resources. Even today, in a world that seems filled with violence, we often associate winning with survival: we, like our ancestors, want to get our enemies before our enemies get us. As Queen Cersei famously says on Game of Thrones, “When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.”

We still function this way. You want to be the winner because the winner makes the rules. The winner survives. You win or you die.

This is absolutely the way the world works.

But is it the way Jesus works?

“Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth…

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy…

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

‘Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’”

That’s quite a passage after the week that the world has had, the world which seems so unstable, so divided. We want to strike before we are struck. We are stuck in a Game of Thrones mindset: you win or you die.

I can’t help thinking that maybe it’s time that we mortals listen to Jesus a little more closely before we destroy ourselves.

We live in a world that is violent, unstable, and scary; no one worth listening to is denying that. Jesus lived in such a world, too: one where it felt like violence could strike at any moment. John was arrested and killed for preaching the same message Jesus did, and Jesus was well aware of that.

It is human nature to think about self-protection in violent circumstances. It is human nature to think about how to get the other guy before you yourself get got. I even dare say that, at least on a surface level, it’s smart.

But the problem with such a philosophy is that it can destroy us as well as our enemies. We see this in everything from dysfunctional family dynamics to gang violence: you make me angry, so I hurt you. You are hurt, so you get revenge. Revenge feels great, but before long, we are trapped in an endless cycle of hurting. I kill what you love. You kill what I love. Before long, everything we both love will be dead.

Even if you win in such circumstances, is it worth it to have gained the world and lost our souls?

One of the reasons I believe so strongly in the Gospel is that it runs counter to everything in our self-protective nature, such that it is the only thing that can break a cycle of hurt and hatred. “Love your enemies.” “Pray for those who persecute you.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Welcome the stranger.” “By grace you have been saved.”

It is not safe, and I would be lying to you if I told you that it were. It is often not safe to love, to welcome, to refuse to meet violence with violence. But we were never promised safety. We are promised only that resurrection is a reality and that Christ is with us. But no, this is not a safe way to live.

History is littered with the bodies of the prophets who came before us, of whom Jesus spoke at the end of our Gospel passage today. Jesus himself did not live a safe life. We worship a God who died, and we are called to follow. And yes, there comes a time to stand up to a bully, but I believe history shows that more battles are won with truth than with strength.

In my second year of seminary, all of seven years ago, I took a course on the Gospel of John that I have never forgotten. My professor, Dean O’Day, so called because she was also our academic dean but loved to teach, made a statement so profound that it will never leave my mind. She was discussing the moment in the trial of Jesus when Jesus is trying to explain to Pilate who he is. He says, “I came into the world to testify to the Truth. Everyone on the side of Truth listens to me” (John 18:37 NRSV).

Pilate’s reply is the most famous part of the passage: “What is truth?” he says (John 18:38 NRSV).

Dean O’Day blinked and looked up over her glasses from her Bible. She pointed out that this conversation happens in the midst of Pilate arguing with Jesus about whether he was a king, which would mean that he was a challenge to Rome, an instigator who was trying to gain power. He says to Jesus before this, “Don’t you know I have the power to kill you or let you go?”

Pilate thinks that Jesus is playing the Game of Thrones: you win or you die.

Pilate is wrong.

Dean O’Day remarked, “Given the context, Pilate’s question is not ‘What is THE truth.’ It is, rather, ‘What is truth, compared to power?’” (1)

Jesus will go on to answer that question with his death and resurrection.

Truth is greater than power because truth can rise, again and again. It does not need to dominate the way that power does. It is free instead to love, to survive outside the cycle of violence, knowing that even its death is not the end.

I remember a drawing that got passed around a few years ago, much to the amusement of my colleagues, of a muscular Jesus on the cross. Now, Jesus is often depicted as having great abs, but this particular Jesus was so strong that his bulging biceps are grabbing the nails to break the arms of the cross. I get the idea – that Jesus is stronger than death – but I also think that this type of Westernized, Americanized Christianity is making us sick. No, Jesus didn’t break his way off the cross and survive. He actually died, killed by the state and by the religious authorities. He is killed by power. But truth always rises.

The Gospel is that even death is not the end of truth, beloved. Truth rose from the grave and lives among us and promises to be with us always. Truth lives inside our vulnerable bodies and comes to our table in bread and wine.

You see, a world that longs to win and to dominate is short-sighted. Because even if you subdue all of your enemies, you will, as Jesus says, gain the whole world but lose your own soul.

And yes. The call to love in the midst of a world of violence may seem foolish, but Paul reminds us in our epistle reading that the cross is indeed foolishness to common wisdom. It is foolishness to those who are perishing, caught up in the Game of Thrones, the endless cycle of hitting and hitting back.

It is foolishness, even, to those of us Type A personalities who long to earn our way, to earn God’s love, to earn our own inner peace with God. We wonder, over and over, whether we’ve really been good enough. But God tells us, over and over ‘cause we’re dense, that it’s not about winning but about Grace. About love.

“God has shown you, O mortal what is good,” our Micah passage today tells us. Spoiler alert: it is not being the strongest or the mightiest or the best Christian.

The next verse is in our Old Testament lesson and on our wall outside: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly with God?” (Micah 6:8).

You are freed from the Game of Thrones. Jesus gives you a better choice than winning or dying. You do not have to be the Type A Church Champion.

You are free. Free to do justice. To love kindness. To walk humbly with God.

To love Truth. To love others, even when it’s scary.

We are free from the cycle of earning our way. Now let us welcome others in also. Amen.
1. the Rev. Dr. Gail R. O’Day, lecture, Gospel of John course, Candler School of Theology, Emory University, 2010.

 

 

 

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Down the Rabbit Hole

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Matthew 4:12-23

Something I learned more than ten years ago, right when I started preaching: whenever a scheduled big event happens in the world, the wise preacher waits until after that event to write one’s sermon. It’s a headache, but it saves you a rewrite; never assume that you know how these things will go.

But before our nation’s 45th President was inaugurated around midday on Friday, before my Facebook timeline was filled with a combination of fear but also jubilation, resistance but also pride, all mixed in with a few dashes of bitter indifference, and before all of those people got crossed up into arguing with strangers about whose emotions were correct, something else trickled across my feed on Thursday night, something that seemed somehow appropriate. It was a clip from the cartoon version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

If my Facebook timeline is any indication, a lot of us, of varying political views, actually, feel like we’ve kinda fallen down the rabbit hole a little lately. Whether you feel that what’s happening currently will swing us wildly to the positive or wildly to the negative or maybe you’re hoping for somewhere in between, our current situation is not what one would call normal. Things are swinging wildly, with high emotions everywhere.

Down the rabbit hole we go.

Now, listen to me one time really well: as I said on the Sunday after the election, your politics are not my concern. It is not my obligation to affirm your political beliefs, and neither will I push mine into you. Neither of those is fair, and both are well above my pay grade. The things that make me a pastor, by necessity, would make me a terrible politician. I am not interested in telling you what the correct emotional response to any of this is, because there is never a “correct” emotional response. My goal is not to make you feel afraid of anything, but neither is it to convince you to feel calm and okay.

I said the Sunday after the election that our one promise is that we will not forsake each other. We welcome all of God’s people in this space, including those with whom we vehemently disagree politically — an increasingly strange thing in today’s climate —  and no, it is absolutely not always easy, but we would rather have each other than not.

So down the rabbit hole, together, we go.

The reality is that the news is weird and facts are increasingly seeming to be an combination of strange and shaky and a little scary, regardless of whom you think may be lying at any given time. We are deeply divided and we don’t know how to talk to our neighbors. But those neighbors, indeed some of the people in this room, are afraid today, feeling unheard and hated, even possibly afraid of what comes next. Some of us are downright scared of our neighbors, and this should not be. That part is my concern.

That is my prelude: that’s what you need to know about that.

And so on Thursday, while thinking about this text about Peter and Andrew and the calls of the first disciples while also doing some light reading about the ways the world would change on Friday, I stumbled upon this video of the Cheshire Cat meeting Alice in Wonderland.

Down the rabbit hole we go.

Alice meets the Cheshire Cat, my personal spirit animal and favorite trickster in all of literature, shortly after she arrives in Wonderland. She finds herself in the woods, alone, with signs pointing everywhere, bidding her to go this direction, no, that direction, no, up, no, down.

Sounds a bit like our political climate. Everything wants your attention, everyone wants your support.

Alice, with the ambivalence of the current American public, says, “I wonder which way I ought to go…”

Just then, she hears a voice singing what sounds like nonsense:

“Twas brillig

And the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe…”

A smile appears above a branch, glowering down on Alice. “Lose something?”

Alice replies with a start, “Oh, no, I was just wondering…”

And the cat treats her to another serenade of nonsense as he appears in his full form.

“Why, you’re a cat!” Alice says. “I just wanted to ask you which way I ought to go!”
“Well that depends,” the cat says, “on where you want to get to…”

“Oh it really doesn’t matter, as long as I c…”

“Then it really doesn’t matter,” the Cheshire Cat replies, “which way you go.”

In turbulent times, we all get turned around, unsure of which way to go. What we forget is that our turbulent times are not the first or only turbulent times. We even forget where we want to get to.

Today, Jesus begins his ministry by calling the first disciples. And he does so in turbulent times. The first line of our Gospel lesson tells us that this happened right after John was arrested. Israel at the time is occupied by Rome. Things are shaky. Things are scary. Some Jews in Israel support Rome. Others see it as the oppressor that kills its neighbors. Matthew tells us specifically that Jesus, for his part, begins to preach the exact same message that John preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Gutsy.

Jesus knows where he wants to get to: the Kingdom of God.

And as he walks by the seashore, he sees Peter and Andrew fishing, and he tells them the famous line: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And they get up, immediately, and follow.

Now, like a lot of things in the Bible, we’ve gotten used to this passage and accepted it as fact: yep, they get up and follow immediately. But back up. Think about it. This random dude comes walking by these fishermen and says, “Follow me, and I’ll make you fish for people!” — a crazy statement worthy of the Cheshire Cat.

Had I been Peter, I’d’ve likely said, “Whoa whoa whoa. Are we gonna net ‘em or hook ‘em?” It seems to be an operative question. “Also, uh, we eat fish… we’re not going to… are you some cannibal, man?”

But they don’t ask him anything. They get up and they follow. And all at once it occurs to me that what Peter and Andrew did in immediately getting up and following this guy they’ve just met both makes no sense and makes all the sense in the world, considering the turbulent times they lived in.

We believe that a life can be changed in a moment like that. Especially if you’re feeling desperate, like you need to do something. How often do things that are seemingly meant to be begin as crazy impulses?

Like when you finally decided something: to ask that person out. To get up and go back to church. Or that one time when you decided that enough was enough and you needed to make your voice heard. Or that one time that you left your metaphorical nets, got up, and followed.

Down the rabbit hole.

You have to be a little crazy to take that moment, but if you do, you can find your life’s purpose therein.

I imagine Peter and Andrew following after Jesus thinking to themselves, “Is this who I am now? Is this who we are now? People who just leave our jobs in the middle of a work day and go follow after this new teacher?

Yeah – I guess this is who we are now.”

Down the rabbit hole they go: in a path that leads to miracles, trouble, the Kingdom, and ultimately, resurrection.

In her encounter with the Cheshire Cat in the forest, the Cat says, “You know, if I were looking for a white rabbit, I’d ask the Mad Hatter.”

Alice sputters, “Oh, no no, I…”

“Or,” the Cat interjects, “There’s the March Hare, in that direction.”
“Thank you,” Alice says, turning in that direction, “I think I’ll visit him.”

“Of course,” the Cat interrupts again, “he’s mad too.”

Alice looks dismayed. “But I don’t want to go among mad people!”

“Oh, you can’t help that,” the Cheshire Cat chuckles.

“Most everyone’s mad here.” he pauses for a big laugh.

As he begins to disappear he continues, “You may have noticed that I’m not all there myself.” he then sings his way into invisibility, leaving Alice to navigate Wonderland.

We have already talked during Advent about how faith, in itself, is a little crazy. The idea of resurrection is a little crazy. The idea that somehow, through our most turbulent times, that God is still somehow in control of all this chaos, is crazy. From its very beginnings, Christianity has been a little nuts. It begins with this guy who is God incarnate approaching guys who were doing their jobs and telling them “Get up and fish for people with me.”

And they went. Down the Jesus-y rabbit hole they went.

Jesus is calling.

Even here at Our Savior’s, we’ve got folks who took that call even when it seemed crazy to step out in faith. To open your home to strangers. To feed people even when it was hard. To give to someone or something even when it seemed crazy.

I would love to change our welcome to, “Welcome to Our Savior’s. Most everyone’s mad here. You may have noticed that I’m not all there myself.”

Our times are turbulent and our world is changing. And the biblical witness is here to tell us that that’s most often exactly the time when God chooses to call people into action: when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. When the temple was in need of rebuilding. When Israel was occupied by Rome. And Jesus begins just after someone was arrested for preaching the same message: the Kingdom of heaven has come near. God gets moving during the messy times. All God is looking for is people crazy enough to join in, to jump down the rabbit hole, to step out in faith to speak God’s words, to defend the vulnerable, to preach the Gospel, even when it seems crazy. Where we are going depends on where we want to get to — but Jesus is headed for the Kingdom, and Jesus is calling us to come along.

And that is when we, like Peter and Andrew on the seashore, throw our nets down and look at each other we think, “Maybe this is who we are now.”

Maybe you’ve never been the one to speak up for what you believe. Maybe you’ve never been the one to comfort and protect those in distress or feed the hungry or pray for your leaders even or maybe even especially when you vehemently disagree with them. Maybe you’ve never been the kind of person to engage someone with the opposite beliefs as yours.

It is not within your abilities to control the emotions of others. They will not calm down or be afraid or be happy because you tell them to. But by the grace of God, you just may come to understand them. No one who is told how to feel will ever obey, but they can be understood.

Maybe you can work to understand your neighbors: why they are scared or why they are freaking out or why they are happy or why they feel so unheard or why they feel heard for the first time in ages. 

Crazy, I know. But Jesus is calling, and maybe this is who you are now.

Get up. Fish for people.

Jesus is always calling us to become a new creation, to do a crazy thing, especially in turbulent times.

And the God who calls is able, even if God does seem a bit nuts at times, calling us to do hard things.

But hey, we’re all mad here. You may have noticed that I’m not all there myself.

Amen.

Baptism of the Lord: Named and Loved

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Grace Cathedral in San Francisco 

Matthew 3:13-17

Garrison Keillor, patron saint of Lutheranism, talks about baptism this way as he recounts a trip to the Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco: “I went to church in San Francisco on Sunday, the big stone church on Nob Hill… there with considerable pomp we baptized a dozen infants into the fellowship of faith and we renounced the evil powers of this world, which all in all is a good day’s work. . . .

And here, this morning, in a city famous for eccentricity, we strangers in a cathedral embrace other people’s children and promise to fight the good fight in their behalf, a ceremony that never fails to bring tears to my eyes. We renounce evil powers. I renounce isolation and separation and the splendid anonymity of the Internet and the doink-doink-doink of the clicker propelling me through six Web sites in five minutes. I vow to put my feet on the ground and walk through town and make small talk with clerks and call my [friends] on the phone and put money in the busker’s hat. We welcome the infants into our herd and though some of them sob bitter tears at the prospect, they are now in our hearts and in our prayers and we will not easily let them go.”

“…they are now in our hearts and in our prayers and we will not easily let them go.”

If you’re a lifelong Lutheran, you were probably baptized as a baby. If you’re like me and were raised evangelical, you probably weren’t, but it’s likely that you were baptized as a kid. If you weren’t raised Christian, you might’ve been baptized as an adult. As for me, I was baptized as a precocious and overactive ten year old, exactly twenty years ago this past July. This may come as a shock, but I never quite fit in with the Southern Baptists. In addition to the obvious problems, among them being called to ministry while also being an obvious girl, I had too many questions and loved the smells and bells of liturgy too much. But being born and first claimed by God there has also served me: I have unending compassion to this day for fundamentalist evangelicals and a deep knowledge of the content of the Bible.

No matter when baptism happens — whether it happens when you’re an infant or a two year old or a thirty-five year old, whether in happens in the denomination you end up in for life or not  — it always means the same thing to us Lutherans. You were named and claimed by God that day. It is the day the Church universal, of which we are a part, told you that you were named and claimed, that you are now in our hearts and our prayers and that we will not easily let you go.

There’s a reason some people still refer to a baptism as a “christening” when it happens to an infant: it used to be where babies were officially named as well as baptized. And today, it is where we are given identities as Christians: where God and the Church make the claim that we will not easily be let go. I dare say that it’s where God makes the claim that we will not be let go at all.

If you’ve ever left home for awhile, you know something about this. Parker, for example, was down South for ten years and out of her hometown for even longer. Her parents stayed and were pillars of their little joint Presbyterian-UCC congregation. In addition, she also chose to begin going by her middle name in that time, furthering the confusion of those who stayed behind in Saratoga Springs. Still, when she would return to that little church on break, she had only to mention her last name to be welcomed back to that little church as family. “Oh! You’re one of the Diggory children! We love your parents. Welcome home.”

As a new pastor, I haven’t yet met everyone’s entire family, but I know that if anyone shows up with the last name of Terkelsen or Steininger or Person or Pueschel or Wells or any number of other last names, they are to be let into the building and welcomed post-haste. “Oh, yes — I know that name! You’re one of ours! Welcome home!”

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been away or whether anyone recognizes you: if you’ve been named as a community’s own, they know you, even if it’s just by name. Once you’ve been named and claimed, you will not easily be let go.

One of my favorite stories about baptism comes from rapper Dave Scherer’s presentation at the ELCA worship jubilee one year. He talked about how we are named and baptized as kids, but as we grow up, people give us other, much less kind names. He talked about how remembering your baptism is remembering what God says about you: that you are beloved and claimed and one of God’s own. In baptism, every false word that will ever be said about us is washed away, and God’s word alone stands. Dave said that he puts his son to bed every night with these words: “I love you, your mom loves you, and God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

You are named and claimed. You will not be let go.

I saw a cartoon this week by the Wesley Brothers, a Methodist cartoon that occasionally follows the liturgical calendar. It featured Martin Luther, so it caught my attention. It’s called, “Martin Luther Belittles a Protestant”: 
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I love Luther. Anyhow. Point is: God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Love is stronger than death, stronger than physical or mental illness, stronger than sin, stronger than addiction, stronger than us. You are named and claimed, and you will always be welcomed home.

In a world that wants to claim us for so much else: are you liberal or conservative? Democrat or Republican? Are you for the Patriots or some other team? In this world that longs to label and dismiss us, we make the outrageous claim that God has named and claimed us for life. Because of Jesus, we continually welcome each other home in spite of any other labels that have been given to us: names like addict. Alcoholic. Homeless. Crazy. Unemployed. Too old. Too young. Too liberal. Too conservative. Neurotic.

Failure. Flop. Flaky.

While the world would rather label and dismiss, we have the audacity to claim that it’s God who names us first, and that God’s word about us alone stands forever. That God loves us, and that we love each other, and there’s nothing we can do about it. That we have been named and claimed and will not be let go. That, my friends, is good news not only for us, but for the world. When we say “Go in peace, tell the good news” at the end of the service, this is what we mean: that in Christ we are named and claimed, and in baptism every other word that is said about us is washed away so that God’s word alone stands. We are beloved. We are family. We belong to God and to the Church, and we will not be let go.

And, considering how many words will be said about all of us in our lifetimes, that is good news indeed. So let us, as Black folk sometimes say in the South, run and tell that. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Epiphany: Things That Make You Say “HUH!”

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Matthew 2:1-12

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, though the feast itself happened on January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas. For this congregation, it was also significant because that was the day that we commended to God one of our best and brightest brothers, Howie, who passed away on New Year’s Eve. It seemed appropriate to commend to God such a guiding light to so many people on that day. Today, we remember another guiding light: the star that led the magi to discover Jesus, the Savior of the world, not in a palace, but in the most unexpected of places: with his young, poor parents in an occupied land. That’s quite an epiphany.

To have an epiphany can mean a number of different things, as you all well know. The word itself has roots that mean “to reveal” or to make clear. To the Christian calendar, of course, it means the revelation of Christ to the magi, Gentile astrologers, scholars, maybe even kings from the East. But if your friend tells you that they’ve had an epiphany, it could mean something different: a moment of realization or clarity. It could be something deep and meaningful, like realizing one’s purpose in life, or it could be something far more trivial, like a list of statements that Buzzfeed published online recently.

Sudden realizations like:

Your car keys have traveled further than your car.

The object of golf is to play the least amount of golf.

Or, finally, “Of all the bodily functions that could be contagious, thank God it’s the yawn.”(1)

Whether it’s something trivial like these or something profound, epiphanies are moments where we sit back and go “HUH,” where we realize something important that we hadn’t thought of before, where we begin to see things differently.

The story of the wise men itself is full of epiphanies — epiphanies within the epiphany, if you will. You see, we’ve been subjected to so many representations of Christ’s birth story that we sometimes forget what’s actually in the text and what isn’t.

For example, Matthew is the only Gospel that gives us this story of the magi. Matthew doesn’t mention shepherds. Therefore, there is no Gospel story that gives us both shepherds and wise men — our nativities, and our church year, are a composite story, piecing together the details of Christ’s birth from two different ancient accounts, from Matthew and Luke. HUH!

Second, how many wise men were there?

If you’ll look at the text closely and forget your assumptions, you’ll see that it doesn’t exactly say. We get three from the fact that there were three gifts, but there could have been two or three or four or six. HUH!

Also, it’s pretty clear from the text that this story happens in a house, not a stable. This story probably didn’t happen on the night Jesus was born, but up to two years later. We know this because when Herod tries to take Jesus’ life to keep his own power, he has all children two years and under killed, based on when the star that announced his birth rose. HUH!

Finally and most significantly, we know from the text that the wise men came looking for a king. That’s probably why they went to Herod’s palace: you find kings in palaces. Duh. If you’d followed the star right to the house of Joseph the young carpenter and Mary his wife, you’d’ve thought Google maps done got you again. No. The king of the Jews couldn’t be in this house. Kings are supposed to be in palaces. But they found the King right there, with his poor, young parents in a land that’s not even ruled by the Jews, but occupied by the Roman Empire. Huh.

So there you go: epiphanies about the epiphany, breaking down the difference between what the text actually says about Jesus’ birth and the details that our culture has filled in — and the ones we’ve overlooked because we’ve heard the story so many times.

What most people know about Jesus can be summed up in two episodes: his birth and his death and resurrection. Christmas and Easter. This is when our churches are at their fullest, and arguably, these are the two most important moments in Jesus’ story or in anyone’s story: where his time on earth began and where it ended.

But it’s also true that what’s in between is crucial, too. It’s true of all of us — it’s a kitschy thing to say, but people often refer to “the dash” in all our lives — the time between the year we were born and the year we die. As we remember and grieve the loss of our brother Howie, it becomes even more clear: Howie’s life among us is what mattered, much more than just where he was born or how he died. His life is when he made an impact on us. That’s when he became the guiding light that we knew and loved that pointed to Christ, just as the star that guided the wise men led them to Jesus as a child.

In the same way, though our church won’t be as full during this time between Christmas and Easter, this time — this time between Jesus’ birth and his death and resurrection — is the church’s time to live with the incarnated Christ, who was born in the most unexpected of places and lived in the most unexpected of ways. As I said earlier, we will read the Gospel from the middle of the congregation during this time as we remember that Christ is born and lives among us. The sign outside reminds us of the same thing.

When I was doing my very first internship in my very first church job, I was at a United Methodist Church in Midtown Atlanta called St. Mark. St. Mark had an excellent children’s director named Jackie. Jackie, who was in her 60s at the time, had been doing children’s ministry for quite awhile. She was battle tested and parent approved. And, as any good children’s director does, she was always coming up with new and crazy ideas. On the morning of Epiphany Sunday that year, after the prelude, Jackie’s voice rang out across the hushed sanctuary: Where is the Christ child? Little voices rang out behind her: “He is among us!”

As she came into view, we saw Jackie’s trusty, near life size wooden camel, Diego, rolling on his wheels behind her, and then, about ten tiny Methodists with Burger King crowns on their heads. “Where is the Christ child?” Jackie yelled out again. “He is among us!” the kids responded. Soon, the congregation got into it too.

Tears brimmed up in my eyes as I thought of these kids — and this whole congregation — being invited into the story. Today we come searching for the Christ child, just as the magi from the East did.

Every time we look, we find the Christ child here: in bread. In wine. In water and words. In the Holy Spirit that lives in each of us. Where is the Christ child?

He is among us.

He is in the most unexpected of places: not in a palace, and not in some heaven far away, but among us.

That’s quite an epiphany.

So may we live, as our Howie did, to point to Love, and to point to Jesus. May we remember the life of Christ in the coming weeks. Though our church won’t be as full as it will be on Easter, we will be blessed to hear the words of Jesus’ teaching and his life during these weeks. The Christ child is among us, and we will live the story here, week by week, and maybe we’ll have even more epiphanies along the way.

Where is the Christ child? He is among us. May we do all we can to point the way.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

(1) https://www.buzzfeed.com/robinedds/statements-that-get-more-true-as-you-think-about-them?bffbmain&ref=bffbmain&utm_term=.qtdAkO1P5#.br1ZeB39D