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Epiphany 2004


Readings:

Isaiah 60
Ephesians 3
Matthew 2

Archimedes (so the tale goes)
while sitting in his bathtub,
scared the bejeebers out of his household staff
when he suddenly shouted Eureka! I've found it!

He wasn't talking about the soap.

He had been trying to find a way to determine the purity of gold.

Watching his arms float in the water
helped remind him of specific gravity.

Pure gold displaces less water
than an alloy of gold mixed with lighter metals.

Epiphany is humanity's Eureka!

Seeing Jesus makes the light go on
when we're working on the puzzle of the nature of God.

At the heart of it is the anthropic principle;
the emergence of humanity.

Astronomers and physicists use the anthropic principle
as a way of determining the history of the universe.

The theory is that a certain particular sequence of events
was required from the time of the Big Bang
so that it was possible for human life to emerge.

Had the universe expanded too rapidly,
basic atoms like hydrogen and helium would not have formed.

There would have been no heavier elements as we know them today
and thus, no formation of galaxies and planets.

The universe would be simply an expanding cloud of radiation.

Had the universe expanded too slowly,
it would have collapsed back on itself
and the escape velocity required for galaxies to spin off
and form stars and planets would have been impossible.

The narrow margins of temperature and radiation within which humanity can survive
form such a precise set of conditions
that it is possible to generalize
quite a specific astrophysical map backward in time.

But the astrophysicists cannot tell us much about the God behind all this.

That is the weakness of natural law theology.

And so, while Stephen Hawking refers to the anthropic argument,
he opts for a weak rather than a strong one.

In other words, for Hawking,
humanity exists because the universe evolved in a certain way;
the universe did not evolve in a certain way so that humanity could emerge.

There's a little bit of light,
but not enough to reveal the nature of God.

For the light to go further, another argument is needed.

That is the incarnational argument.

Not only did the universe evolve as it did,
so that humanity could emerge;
but humanity emerged
so that God could enter into communion with it.

The words of Adam in the Garden of Eden story
are really the words of God :
At last! bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.

Now enter Herod and three magi.

Herod was scared.

But you have to cut old Herod some slack.

Herod was in communion with no one:
he was, after all, middle management, trapped between the multi-national Roman government that held his option
and the people he was supposed to keep in line.

Martin Buber's marvellous anthropological theology taught us about I and Thou.

Well, Herod had long ago ceased being a Thou
and degenerated into an it,

Herod was not a Jew and he would never be a Roman,
but he lived a political existence in the age of empire.

Individuals cannot matter in such a world.

They can be commodities and factors,
but they cannot be of ultimate concern
when there are global decisions to be made.

It is a world with which you and I also struggle.

We are ecclesiastical politicians.

We are called the pastors of the pastors,
but we cannot, in fact, be pastors
in the personal sense of I and Thou.

We can be pastoral in our behaviour,
but we are the global decision-makers and disciplinarians.

We often make choices against individuals
for the sake of the strategic plan we follow.

We may have to decide to say no to a minority of the Christian family
who live on the left edge,
so that the majority in the middle will stay intact.

Yet we serve a gospel which proclaims a God
whose desire is to have communion with us.

The Incarnate One was not an idea
Joseph and Mary decided to teach Jesus
after they saw all the marvellous things that happened to them.

The idea preceded the beginning.

It took part in creating the beginning.

The light was there from the beginning,
but humanity loved the darkness better.

Remaining constantly in the darkness is hard to do.

Light is relentless.

When you open a door from a lighted room to a dark one,
it isn't the darkness that spills into the lighted room—
it's the other way around.

To live in darkness, you have to shut out the light.

That was Herod's world.

He had to work hard at keeping the light at bay.

So do we.

We want to keep things united, orderly and calm.

We want to create plan, structure and predictability.

Yet, Jesus' light shone toward a new community.

This is the God Walter Brueggemann refers to as
undomesticated, unfettered; capable of savage freedom.

Ivan Illych, the educational theorist and philosopher,
describes the earliest Christian communities as
voluntary gatherings of people
brought together by their individual callings in the Spirit.

They kissed each other on the mouth and said
The Spirit in me greets the Spirit in you.

As the centuries progressed
and the Roman forum became the model for church architecture,
Roman contract law became the model for ecclesiology.

Instead of being unconditionally moved by the Spirit,
people now responded to the liturgy with the contractual phrase,
Yes, by the help of God.

Instead of kissing each other,
they kissed an icon that the priest handed around,
then they finally quit kissing altogether
and the practice degenerated into the desultory hand-shaking
that we do today at the passing of the peace.

How's that for closing the door on the light?…or the Spirit?

The wind's blowing in—close the door!

Were you born in a barn?

Pilate too, the VP to whom Herod reported,
also washed his hands of the mess.

But three wizards, pagan Gentiles,
were willing to look the light in the face.

It was easier for them.

They had nothing to lose.

Nobody tried to baptize them.

I think they escaped Pentecost.

They didn't have to worry
that Jesus would turn the nation away from its ecclesiastical commitments.

They didn't have to plan the Sanhedrin's agenda
and balance the temple books.

Unlike Mary, they didn't have to make a life-long commitment
to serve an unexplainable and heart-breaking mission.

I'll cut Herod some slack
because I worry more about his kind of worries
than I do about a lot of other things.

So now I'm at the part of the sermon
where you would like me to assure you in spite of all this:

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

But I can't
because I'm preaching on Matthew and that's from Isaiah.

Herod's fears were valid.

Seventy years later Jerusalem would lie in ruins,
the slopes denuded of trees
because they were cut down and used for mass crucifixions.

The hold-outs were besieged at Massada.

Jesus' people were scattered
and driven out of their homeland yet again

Where is the word of grace in this,
that will make being a bishop worth it?

For that, we have to look beyond the cross.

We have to look beyond the beginning of the story
to the concluding principle.

The concluding principle is that the cross is worth accepting
because in it is the source of true freedom from idolatry.

In the cross is the freedom to choose
to let God be God not matter what.

The idolatry of the North American church
is that because it has had access to financial and other resources,
it can effect whatever will of God
it has chosen to identify as ordained.

God , however, chooses to reveal Godself
in ways that God, in God's freedom chooses.

Does the light enter the world?

Yes!

Do we see it?

Well, Herod, what do you think?

Do you want to embrace this baby
or do it in while you have the chance?

The promise of God is that tax collectors can be forgiven,
traitors can be redeemed,
death can be undone.

So bishops, do you want to languish in your slough of despond,
or do you want to claim the resurrection promise that:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.(Matthew 28:18)

The apostolic history is that this gospel of Jesus
prevailed against the powers of paranoia's darkness
and became the church in which we found salvation and life.

Let us not be discouraged that the light we seek to point to
may be seen more clearly by those to whom God is not known
than by the children of light.

Ours is not to reason why.

Ours is only to celebrate the vision.

Sometimes the gospel is a surprise to everyone,
good or evil.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

Raymond L. Schultz, National Bishop



This sermon was preached on Epiphany 2004 at St. Mary of the Lake University, Mundelein, Illinois. The occasion was that of one of the Eucharist services of the annual January study gathering of bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The bishops of the ELCIC attend this event as co-participants.


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