Epiphany: Learning to see what’s really real

A sermon for Epiphany Sunday

by Ken Sehested
Text: Matthew 2:1-12

            Before examining the text, let me first do some interpretation of this service. We’re doing two special recognitions this evening: earlier we did the blessing of Jessica and Rich, and at the end of the service we will commission those traveling to Cuba this next week.

            Welcoming a child into the world, whether by birth or adoption, is still among the most profound callings. This is true even though some who dearly want to have children are not able to do so. And crossing the boundary of enmity, to build relationships with friends in Cuba, is an extraordinary witness to the Gospel word. Some of the legislation governing U.S. relations with Cuba are officially called “Trading with the Enemy” Act.

            Among the illusions which the world teaches us is that being recognized in public—having your name mentioned among a select few, achieving some level of fame or notoriety—is a zero-sum game. The more attention you get, the less attention available to me. So the publicity game gets to be a contest, with winners and losers, and we do whatever it takes to get recognized, honored, our names in print, our voice heard over the crowd.

            But this is not what we do here. When we give special recognition to particular individuals, we are not saying that these are among the few worthy ones in our midst. Worth has nothing to do with it. In the Bible, the human agents of divine action are a mixed bag of sinners and saints.

            Rather, when bless, when we commission, when we ask people to take leadership roles, we are saying: Look what God is doing in our midst! Santa Clause is the one who keeps a list of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. God’s only question is: How can my community of promise be coached and coaxed into seeing and moving toward the Beloved Community? And God makes some surprising choices for delivering redemptive messages.

            Which leads us to the well-known text for today, of the Magi, coming from the East, following a star to Bethlehem’s manager. Note that the text doesn’t say these visiting dignitaries are kings. The text doesn’t say there were three of them, or that they were riding camels. One of the most shocking facts that’s hidden in the text is that these royal visitors were following a star. You see, Jewish scripture has several explicit commandments against star-gazing, of reading history through the movement of the stars, as if all futures are predetermined. This story upholds the scandalous notion that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not constrained by our lists of who’s been naughty, who’s been nice. Which is to say, if we are faithful to this God, we should be prepared to also be shocked by those on whom God’s spirit comes to rest. And maybe shocked to find out that the ordinary circumstances of our lives are the very places where the story of redemption break out.

            There was a time in my life when I thought the old hymn, “What a Fellowship,” was among the worst examples of domesticated religion. The refrain—“leaning on Jesus”—seemed to be a terrible form of religious passivity, a kind of theological co-dependency. Until I first saw that PBS special entitled “Eyes on the Prize,” the extraordinary documentary about the Civil Rights Movement. On December 5th, 1955, when black citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, were gathered in the Holt Street Baptist Church, the opening hymn was “What a Fellowship.” That’s when I realized that one way our tradition affirms a source of history-shaping power—power beyond what passes for empirical evidence—which is available to those willing to trust an alternative vision of earth’s fate.

            When Michael May was three years old he lost his sight in a chemical explosion. He lost one eye entirely, and the other was completely blind.

            But then, 40 years later, as a result of new medical technology, he agreed to undergo an experimental procedure to try and restore sight to his remaining eye. And lo and behold, it worked. For the first time since his infancy he could see the vivid colors of flowers; he could see the mountain slope he had learned to sky without use of his eyes.

            But what he couldn’t do was recognize complex shapes and objects, like the faces of his children, his wife, and friends. He couldn’t tell the difference between men and women. He described a cube as a square with extra lines.

            The neuroscientists that treated him treated him raised some fascinating questions which this research was exploring: What would happen if a blind man got his vision back? Is it something innate or is it something we have to learn? What the researchers concluded is that vision, like language, is something that has to be learned. Vision is more than sight, because what is seen has to be interpreted before it makes sense.

            At the end of the article about May’s amazing recovery, he’s quoted as saying: “I will never be fluent visually, but I get better the more I work at it.”[1]

            And so do we. We bring new children into welcoming homes. We cross boundaries that separate us from our enemies. We engage in the recovery of historical memory, like what we do when we celebrate St. Nicholas’ birthday. We visit the sick in hospitals, and provide comfort to those who grieve. We provide financial support to organizations that speak up for justice, who advocate for peace. Sometimes we even risk arrest and imprisonment for the sake of the Beloved Community. And through it all, we work at practicing patience with each other, because we all have our knucklehead moments.

            All these things—and many, many more—we do in order to being more visually fluent, to be able to see more clearly what God has in mind for the world, to see where the Spirit is present close by and far away, and how it is that we might follow Jesus on the road to the resurrection day.

[1] “Blind man's restored vision gives new insight into nature of seeing,” Associated Press, 8.25.03, http://chronicle.augusta.com/stories/2003/08/25/liv_386035.shtml

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Circle of Mercy Congregation
Asheville NC
6 January 2008

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org