Minister's Sermon - Sunday 6th January 2019
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenSunday 6th January 10.30am 2019

Deuteronomy 29.10-15

Jeremiah 31.31-34

Romans 12.1-2

Matthew 2.1-2

Today, churches around the world, celebrate the feast of Epiphany. For some it’s the day of Jesus’ birth. For others – us included – it’s the day the men we’ve called “wise” appeared from the East. They followed a star, until they found the house where Jesus was laid, and worshipped him. It’s Epiphany, because God appeared and was unveiled, as a child. And in him God’s glory was revealed. But epiphanies can happen to anyone. At any time. In any place. Even 2019 in Chandler’s Ford! And today, as we share in our annual Covenant Service, I want to reflect on how being open to epiphanies in the experiences of our lives helps us to live faithfully. The covenant we’ll affirm again later in this service - the covenant between ourselves and God, that we enter “not for ourselves alone, but as God’s servants and witnesses” – offers us a way of living as servants and witnesses. But, it’s written in a way, that many of us struggle with.

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you 
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things

to your pleasure and disposal.

How does this help us live faithfully in a world where we need to have a job or pension, that supports the lifestyle, we have chosen for families. A home to suit our circumstance, and savings to cushion us, should any of this fail. A healthy mind and body. And a sense of fulfilment in what we do, or have, or are –as Christians and citizens. It sounds crazy to the majority of people. So, what are we to do with a prayer that seems to be inviting us, to lay these aside? Should we pray it? Or should we question it? Well I think we should do both. We need to question it, so that we can better understand it, and decide whether it is something we want to pray. But we also need to pray it, because what we pray shapes our lives, and when we live what we pray, we discover the extent to which its truth is embodied in our lives, and where we need God to stretch us to greater faithfulness. We’ll explore this using today’s Gospel - the story of two kings. And yes, I did say two kings, because it’s not primarily about three kings, as the “men who studied the stars” are usually called. It’s about Jesus, the king of the Jews and King Herod the Great, who offer two very different ways of life. And Jesus’ is seen in the men who studied the stars.

But I want to begin with King Herod. Matthew tells us that when he heard about the “baby born to be king of the Jews” he was “frightened.” The consequence of his fear was appalling. The massacre of all the children, under 2 years old, in and around Bethlehem. Herod the Great, had been given the title “King of the Jews” in 40BC, and he didn’t want stand a rival. Not even a child who is no immediate threat. His fear doesn’t seem rational. But fear rarely is. Reflecting on this, Karoline Lewis suggests, that when some powerful people realize that power isn’t what they thought it would be. When they can’t do what they’d hoped. And when they can’t guarantee they’ll be able to keep it. They distrust it, and become so terrified of the future, they resort to tyranny to try and keep things as they are. The result is irrational killing sprees against children and other vulnerable people, truth-tellers labelled as trouble-makers, supposedly traitorous opposition eliminated, and their inner circle of family and friends purged. For her, “these are all clear signals of a realized inadequacy and an inability to recognize that even the most effective and respected leaders have blind spots.” (1) It’s not hard to recognise Herod’s characteristics in dictators down the ages and today. Lewis is American, and she wants to encourage preachers to speak up about President Trump’s fear, and its consequences for migrants, people in need of medical care and so on. But that’s not her main concern. She suggests that, “rather than dismissing Herod [and all these would-be Herod’s] for being Herod, we [should]… imagine just how much of Herod we tend to be. How much of Herod we live out in our own leadership.” (1) Her question is addressed to preachers, but it’s a question for all of us, whether or not we think of ourselves as leaders. Because as Christians, what we do, what we say, and the way we live our lives, contributes to the shape of the world, the community and church we live in. And the way we do this, witnesses to what we believe about God, and what we think we’re about as Christ’s disciples. Herod is, of course, an extreme example. Very few human beings, act as he did. Yet, there are times when we’ve all reacted to events, situations and people, out of fear. Even ‘though we might not have recognized it as fear. We wouldn’t be human otherwise.

For most of us, fear has less to do with the way we exercise power, than how we live with events that challenge us in our everyday lives. On Friday, I read a book called, “Everything happens for a reason and other lies I’ve loved.” It’s by Kate Bowler who is a professor of theology. Her book grew out of an article she wrote for the New York Times in February 2016. This is how it began. (2) “On a Thursday morning a few months ago, I got a call from my doctor’s assistant telling me that I have Stage 4 cancer… I am 35. I did the things you might expect of someone whose world has suddenly become very small. I sank to my knees and cried. I called my husband… I said the things that must be said… But one of my first thoughts was also Oh, God, this is ironic. I recently wrote a book called ‘Blessed.’ I am a historian of the American prosperity gospel. Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith…” Hundreds of people started writing to her. She wrote, “It feels as though the world has been cracked open, and it bleeds and bleeds… My in-box is full of strangers giving reasons.” (3) The main themes of her book is the reasons people give her for her illness. Some reassure her that her cancer is all part of God’s plan to enable her to help people by writing her article in the New York Times. She points out the circularity of this. But then notices that “when I feel everyone’s eyes on me, watching my progress and my attitude for signs of the Gospel –

I am gripped by fear. If - ...the oncologist says that my days won’t be renewed – will I scream or sit quietly? Will I feel at peace or will I beat the ground?” (3) Her greatest fear isn’t that she will die. It’s that she won’t live as people expect her to. The prosperity gospel she’s researched for years sees her cancer as evidence of sin. And when sin can be identified it can be healed through prayer. She says, it “offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you.” (2)  Kate doesn’t believe this. But she understands it an attempt “to solve the riddle of human suffering…” Suffering from illness, from poverty that prevents people getting health care, and from the lack of control illnesses face us with. Kate is surprised by the discovery that for her, a full life, means being successful and in control. When she’s admitted to a new drug trial with three different chemicals, she tries to stay on all three for longer than everyone else thinks sensible, because she wants to make a success of being ill. Because if she’s a success, she’s in control, and doesn’t have to be afraid. In the words of the modern version of the covenant prayer, she has “work” to do, getting well, being a successful trial patient. And that work gave her “value” and “fulfilment.” Please don’t mishear me. I’m not suggesting this is wrong. We wouldn’t expect anything else of a 35-year-old. But there was a moment, when Kate recognised that clinging on to her need to be a success, to get better the harder way by staying on all three drugs, was making her life too challenging. And that really living, living well, meant letting go of all three drugs and being open to a future in which being a successful drug trial patient wasn’t essential. She wrote, “The most I can say about why I have cancer, medically speaking, is that bodies are delicate and prone to error. As a Christian, I can say that the Kingdom of God is not yet fully here, and so we get sick and die. And as a scholar, I can say that our society is steeped in a culture of facile reasoning. The prosperity gospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. [It’s] perfected a rarefied form of addiction to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies… our need to stare down our deaths… and be filled with dread and wonder. At some point, we must say to ourselves, I’m going to need to let go.” (2)  She doesn’t call it an epiphany. But it’s what she describes. A new, unknown future, being unveiled.

And that brings me to the story of the “men who studied stars” who “came from the east.” I love their story, because they are only the first of the outsiders in Matthew’s Gospel, to “worship” Jesus. And the same Greek phrase for “knelt down and worshipped him,” is used whenever people previously excluded, were healed, or included in, and become his followers. This was as much an epiphany, for the community Matthew wrote for, as for the Magi. The Greek word for “Magi” is translated variously, as kings, or wise men. But they were Zoro-ast-rian priests, who earned the title “wise men,” because they were the scholars of their day, skilled in astrology and interpreting dreams. Zoro-astrian-ism is one of the oldest religions in the world. It’s still observed in Iran, ‘though before Islam, was the official religion of Persia. Its main prophet is Zoro-aster. He was born to a 15-year-old Persian virgin, and predicted that, “other virgins would conceive… divinely appointed prophets as history unfolded.” (4) But like the Jews, the Zoro-astr-ians also anticipated the birth of the true Saviour, and believed his birth would be foretold in the stars. In Jesus, Matthew tells us, the Magi recognize the Messiah, so they knelt and worshipped him. In Matthew’s Gospel this story is significant, because it anticipates the disciples worshipping the resurrected Christ, before he sends them to “make disciples of all nations.” But Niveen Sarras, a Lutheran Pastor also suggests that “It was important for Matthew to show that the Magi went to Bethlehem not Rome to look for the King of the Jews, the Messiah. Because for Matthew’s community, the Persians to be a long-standing religious and political ally, against Rome.” (4) I’m not going to follow that idea just now, but I mention it, because it reminds us that neither the Gospel writer nor the Magi were innocent, uninformed pawns in the story. The Magi’s decision to “return to their country by another road,” makes them what Karoline Lewis calls “resisters.” People who challenge power and defy authority. “They believe in their own experience, their own encounter, their own epiphany.” She says. “They get that there just might be more to the story than what they have been told. And therein lies the heart of our Christian faith.” (1) Their response to Jesus, anticipates the response of the outsiders who encountered him, later in his life. And it embodies the attitude he sought to instil in his disciples and praised in children. They were searching. Open. They recognised that they didn’t know everything. And in their persistence in seeking, their openness to the new, their resistance to Herod’s direction, they embody a holy resistance to powers and people that are threatened by anyone who calls into question their self-serving leadership.

So what experiences, which epiphanies, will lead us to worship God in Christ? To live as God’s servants and witnesses? To resist the fear today’s world is infected with? One of the things the covenant prayer does, is to invite us to choose Jesus’ way of life, revealed to us by the Magi in today’s Gospel. It is a prayer for those who choose Jesus’ way. A prayer in which we affirm that everything that happens, every experience, whether it seems positive or negative to the us or the wider world, happens within God’s embrace. There’s a similar prayer within the Christian tradition - from the beginning of Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises - that helps us to understand the covenant prayer better. This is a modern version of it written by Christopher Chapman. (5)“Humankind is created for a relationship of love with God, for by this means we are made whole. Everything that exists [and happens] has the potential to help us move towards this end, for all comes from God and is good. However, what matters is attaining a life of love in God, not the possession of things, Where the gifts of creation help us attain our goal we are to use them, but when they become an obstacle, we are to let them go… We are not to be bound by our needs and desires. We should not be so attached to health, riches, the good opinions of others, or our safety that we are unable to respond freely to God’s invitation. For illness, the lack of possessions the loss of our good name, or exposure to risk can also be means by which we are led more deeply into life. Our guiding principle in all the choices we make is to discern what better serves us to lead to our goal of wholeness and freedom through the growth of God’s life in us.” Everything we experience has the potential to be an epiphany. A way in which God’s glory and Christ’s way of life is unveiled, disclosed, revealed to us and for us. In her book, Kate Bowler witnesses to how her illness allowed her to understand God, in new ways. Her willingness to ask questions, explore and to search. Her desire to remain open and persist in believing God was present, even ‘though she didn’t always know how or where, deepened her life and her faith. She doesn’t say whether or not she welcomed any of this. ‘Though some who have experienced illness, or other supposedly undesirable things, do value them. And this has been my experience. Illness led to a deepening of my life of faith. And of my understanding of God’s call. ‘Though I didn’t recognise it at the beginning. It only came with time. Through it, I discovered that the covenant prayer offers, an attitude to life. A way of seeing that opens up the possibility that events, situation, people can become epiphanies. That in and through them something of God is being unveiled. For each is an invitation to align our desires and longings with those of God in Christ. Although it might sound like it, this isn’t a passive acceptance. Think of the Magi who resisted Herod’s directions to return via Jerusalem. Of Jesus who humbled himself and became human, welcoming all sorts of people and experiences, his people’s religion says he shouldn’t. And think of the witness of people whose challenging experience, have revealed God’s glory, and strengthened our faith. This is what we affirm in this covenant service. We don’t need to understand it all. ‘Though that doesn’t mean we should question it or wrestle with it. But we do need to pray it. For what we pray shapes us, and when we live what we pray, we discover how its truth is embodied in our lives and where we need God to stretch us to greater faithfulness. Amen.

Sue Keegan von Allmen

References

(1) https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5271

(2) https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html

(3) Kate Bowler, Everything happens for a reason and other lies I’ve loved, 2018 p107 & 112, 123

(4) https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3931

(5) Seeing in the dark Christopher Chapman 2013, 113