January 5, 2020 (Epiphany)
Friends, it is now 2020 . . . and the world is on fire. Both literally and figuratively.
Literally, there are fires raging across Australia, displacing communities, killing at least 24 people; destroying livelihoods, decimating animal and plant populations. There were fires from protests at the US embassy in Baghdad earlier in the week, then the fireball of an explosion that killed Iranian general Soleimani.
Figuratively, there is the burning fear of what the effects of climate change will be for us; fear of how Iran might retaliate and what it will mean if we go to war.
There is raging political hostility.
There are smoldering problems in our own community–where our homeless shelter is inadequate to provide a warm space for those experiencing homelessness during these dangerously cold nights; where the county is poised to spend hundreds of millions to expand our ability to incarcerate people. Where too many people go without proper medical care because our state legislators refuse to expand KanCare.
The world is on fire. Happy New Year?
I will tell you, though, that in times like this my calling as a preacher feels unusually difficult and particularly sacred; it is my job, my holy duty to preach the Good News—no matter how bad the news of the week might be.
As our country is on the brink of (another) war and our world is already reeling from the effects of global warming, it is my privilege to stand before you and say, not “Happy New Year,” but “Blessed Epiphany.”
In the midst of the darkness, we, the church, celebrate light.
In the midst of fear, we celebrate hope.
In the midst of terrible revelation after terrible revelation in the continuous news cycle, we celebrate the revelation of our God in the person of Jesus Christ.
Usually, this is the time in the church year where I preach about the magi from the east, coming with their gifts for the Messiah and going home by another way. And we did, indeed, hear that scripture from Matthew, it is one of the passages assigned for this Sunday in the Lectionary. But before Christmas, when I was putting this order of worship together, I was intrigued by a different assigned reading—this passage from Ephesians.
As Episcopal priest Lisa Fischbeck notes, the magi’s visit to the Christ child “is a scene depicted in the Gospels, but its significance is given to us in the Epistles.” And that significance, according to the writer of this particular epistle—or letter—to the church in Ephesus, is all about a revealed mystery.
I think that’s what so intrigued me about this passage—all the talk of mystery. The term is used twice in the verses we heard, and twice more in the two preceding verses. “The mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.”
I mean, I do love mystery stories, to be sure. We just saw Knives Out yesterday. It’s a little embarrassing how many murder mysteries I check out from the library. But, more significantly, I think I’m drawn to this talk of mystery right now because the world feels like a mystery to me. The way people react and respond to events and to each other feels like a mystery. The question of how to preach Good News in the face of all the bad news—it is a mystery. It is these deeper mysteries that make me curious about the claims of this scripture passage—that the mystery has been revealed.
Mysteries have long captured the human imagination. In fact, during the first century, as the early church was forming and when this letter to the Ephesians was written, there were several cults that practiced what were known as “mystery religions.” These were private groups with secret initiation rites and sacred meals that promised salvation. Because of these features, some people in the ancient world thought that the newly-forming Christian churches were just another mystery cult.
I appreciate the way the writer of Ephesians turns this idea of “mystery” on its head, distinguishing Christianity from the mystery religions and critiquing their elitism. In mystery cults, the “mystery” of salvation was largely dependent on individual spiritual experience, and it was restricted to the few privileged enough to be let in on the secrets of salvation.
The Christian mystery is the opposite—the mystery is that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” The mystery is that, while we try to form special groups to keep certain types of people out, God invites all in to a grace-filled relationship with the Divine.
In a sense, the mystery is that there is no mystery. No trick. No gimmick. No secret password. Salvation is not strictly personal. Salvation is not exclusive or elitist. It is for even—maybe especially—those people we think are furthest away from God.
This type of openness and inclusion expressed in Ephesians truly does feel like a mystery today. The political divide in this country is stark—with people on both sides refusing to listen to or meaningfully include those on the other side.
The economic divide in this country is staggering. It has been for a long time, and it’s getting worse. Under the current administration, the stock market is going up—and so is homelessness.
And, of course, there are divides within churches and denominations. I know at least a few of you saw the news this week about the proposed split of the United Methodist Church—over questions about whether LGBTQ people are to be included fully in the church. And, trust me, these conversations are still happening in MCUSA as well.
So for me, today, January 5, 2020, the expansive, all-inclusive grace of God does feel like a mystery. And here’s the part of this morning’s scripture that feels most mysterious of all: “through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities” (Ephesians 3:10)
Sometimes, the church feels like more of the problem than the solution when it comes to elitism and exclusion. But the promise of God, the mystery of the Good News, is that the church—that’s us—the church is designated by God to be a force that reveals God’s presence in the world—a force that demonstrates the love, the peace, the justice, the inclusion, the grace of God.
And on this Epiphany Sunday, with the light of the Christ child shining down, if we look in the right places, we can catch glimpses of this mysterious truth.
The Church serves “the least of these”—people struggling to meet basic needs of food and shelter; people other organizations often exclude. Today, some of you brought food for LINK. Some of us will go serve. Some of us are signed up to volunteer at the winter emergency shelter. Many of us have purchased—or are purchasing—gift cards for Family Promise clients; some of us will help when First Baptist hosts the families next month.
It’s not that churches alone are responsible for these programs or that everyone who volunteers and gives is a Christian, but it is churches who host and sustain these programs; church members who provide the bulk of volunteers. “Through the church, the wisdom of God in its rich variety” is made known.
The Church proclaims peace and justice in our communities, our country, and the world. While many of us serve people who are homeless, the new Justice Matters research group is looking at how our community can become a more just place where far fewer people experience homelessness to begin with. Through Justice Matters, church folks—along with interfaith and neighborhood network friends—work to share “the wisdom of God” with “rulers and authorities” in order to make our home community look more like the kingdom of God.
And when our national rulers and authorities act in ignorance and violence, the church speaks up. Based on some very active Facebook discussion threads, I can tell you that I am not the only preacher denouncing the US assassination of Soleimani this morning. Ours is not the only congregation praying for peace—for ourselves and for our Iranian and Iraqui siblings.
On Friday, there was published a “Faith Statement on Escalating Violence with Iran.” It is signed by 23 organizations—most of them associated with churches—including the American Friends Service Committee, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and Mennonite Central Committee. This statement says that we “condemn the United States’ dangerous aggression towards Iran.” It proclaims: “We know that human flourishing entails breaking cycles of violence, being courageous peacemakers, and focusing on the root causes of conflict.” This is a message from the Church so that “the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities.”
The world is on fire. It’s true. We can watch it and read about it and hear about it every day.
But I am here to do my job this morning—to preach the Good News:
God’s grace is real.
The riches of Christ are abundant.
The power of God is greater than the powers of this world.
The mystery of salvation is for ALL people.
And we, the church, are being used by God to reveal this mystery to the world, even as we are invited to remind ourselves and each other of this mystery each time we gather together.
Thanks be to God.
And God have mercy on us in 2020.
 Feasting on the Word commentary; Year A, Epiphany. p. 206.