Sermon preached at The Church of the Resurrection, New York
for The Feast of the Epiphany 2016
In the year 614AD, a Persian army invaded Palestine and in the course of its pillaging and plundering took possession of the two most important churches in all of Christendom: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Our Lord’s death and Resurrection, was quickly set fire to, but when the commander of the Persian army entered the church of the Nativity, so the story goes, he saw depicted there in mosaics that told the story of the Birth of Our Lord, three interesting figures: they were Magi (or wise men) that had come to honor this special child and what was most remarkable, they were dressed as Persians.
The commander of the Persian army realized then and there that whatever had happened on this spot, whatever had caused these people to build a shrine on this site, involved his people too. Here were his own people bringing gifts to this Jewish child. Whatever all of this was about, he might not have known, but what he did know was that he, as a Persian, had a place in this story.
So he ordered the building to be spared. And there it still stands today.
I love that story. It is hard, of course, to know just how much of the story is historical and how much is legendary, but that doesn’t really matter, because the truth in this story is about more than just one moment in time. The truth is this: that building survived because someone from the outside realized that the birth of Jesus Christ had significance for him too. He was an outsider, and yet, he was a part of the story.
I must admit I have always loved and been fascinated by those three wise men. The scriptures don’t give us very many details. Tradition may give us their names: Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar, but not much else. So we are left to wonder: where might they be from? How might they have traveled? Would they have trekked on camelback down the king’s highway through exotic places like Petra? Could one have even travelled from even farther away India or Africa (perhaps riding an elephant as your nativity scene so beautifully depicts), or even China maybe? In the movies and in artistic depictions, the wise men are always in the most exotic and foreign dress and they are almost always depicted as being from different races. They are foreigners, they are outsiders, they have nothing to do with the race, religion or culture that Jesus is born into, and yet there they are right there at the heart of the story; there they are in almost every depiction of his birth.
The manifestation of Christ to the gentiles, or the Epiphany, which we celebrate this night is about more than commemorating one moment or episode in the life of Christ. It is about celebrating the truly miraculous fact that we, who are outsiders, are invited to participate in the life of Christ and the worship of God through him. It doesn’t matter what culture we are born into, what class we are born into, what race, what country…no matter how foreign we think we are, no matter how much of an outsider we may feel, there is still within Christ’s story, room for us.
The fact is: we are all of us outsiders here, or at least at some point we were. Nobody is ever born a Christian.
While it is true that many of you may not remember a time before you knew the church and its teachings, and that is a blessed thing I am sure, but you were not born into this religion. Nobody has a birthright to the grace offered through this holy child.
You can be born a Jew, you can be born a Muslim, but you cannot be born a Christian. To be a Christian you must convert. You must look at the story of the birth of Christ, and no matter how foreign or different you may feel, you must find yourself within it. You must realize that his birth, no matter how distant and far away it seems, has implications for your life.
Now your conversion may have taken place at a very early age. It is likely that many of you do not remember your baptisms, but that is of no importance. What is important is that at some point your parents or your Godparents wanted you to be a part of Christ’s story. Well done.
Still, no matter how faithful your parents were and no matter how much they wanted you to live a Christian life and to know the blessings of our Lord, you were the one who had to be converted. You were the one who had to be made part of the body of Christ through the waters of baptism. And whether you came to those waters early in your life or late, you must never forget that everyone begins their journey of faith as an outsider. The miracle that we celebrate here tonight, is that no one need remain an outsider.
This church was the first place that I ever encountered the tradition of blessing chalk on the Epiphany for the purpose of marking our doorposts with the year and initials of the three wise men. I am happy to say that in the past 10 years I have seen this practice increasing among churches and among the faithful, perhaps with a little help from social media. It is an excellent way for us to be reminded of our faith during our daily comings and goings and it is an invitation for our lord to bless our homes during the coming year, but I would put to you that this little symbol can be more than just a sign of blessing made in some mysterious code.
I would put to you that the symbol we mark on the outside of our doors with this chalk can be a reminder to us, that we, like those wise men, all began our journey on the outside, as foreigners to the household of God; as people, who through some miracle given by God and not through any merit of their own, have been given an invitation to enter and who have found themselves to be a part of this story.
Let that symbol remind us of all those who seek God and as yet have not found him. Let it remind us of all of the outsiders in our midst: the foreigners, the outcast, the unloved and the lonely. Let it remind us that just as we have found a place for ourselves within this story, that there is still room here for yet more. Indeed part of our charge as Christians is to help others cross that threshold; to find here a home for themselves as well; to find in Christ’s story a part of their own story.
In our world of countless distractions, it is a miracle that people still seek God at all. In the Magi, we have the model of the religious pilgrim: the journeyer, the seeker, the person who risks much, and leaves much behind in order to search for God. Perhaps the greatest gift that the Magi had to offer Jesus was their attention and devotion: the very fact that they sought him to begin with was undoubtedly worth more to Christ than the Gold, frankincense and myrrh. I imagine it is still so today: Christ honors those who seek him. We must honor those who seek him as well.
Our faith survives because people on the outside still realize that the birth of Christ has significance for them too. There is no reason in this world why the birth of a Jewish child in Palestine should be of any concern to wise men from Persia or anywhere else, and yet miraculously it was of concern. Great Concern. There is equally no reason why it should be of concern to us living some 2000 years later, and yet miraculously here we are, taking the time to end our celebration of his birth, by celebrating the moment that those on the outside realized just how significant it was, and were welcomed into the story.
This parish was founded 150 years ago as a mission to those who were on the outside. This neighborhood, was then outside the city limits, and its residents were at the time in no sense a part of New York City’s elite or genteel society. But the founders of this parish believed that the people that lived here were a part of Christ’s story as well, and thus the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (later the Church of the Resurrection) was begun. But despite the fact that this church has for quite some time now, been well within the city limits, it is still very much in the mission field. Outside of these doors are a vast multitude of souls that do not have the connection to Christ’s story that you have; that are disconnected from the traditions of his church and unaware of the spiritual witness of countless saints and sages, who were also born outside of Christ’s kingdom, and yet found a place for themselves within it. As we leave here tonight to hurry home and mark our doors with the symbol of the Magi, may we give thanks to God that we who were born outsiders have been reborn as a part of this story, may we give thanks for the witness of this parish, which exists to retell this story, and may we always remember those who are still on the outside, looking to get in.