Fr David's Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.” Matthew 2:11
Each year, when we celebrate Epiphany, we have the same gospel reading. The visit of the Magi only appears once in the Bible, in the passage we heard from Matthew’s gospel.
We know it well. We probably all know already, for example, that nowhere in his account, does Matthew say that the travellers from the East were Kings, nor that there were three of them. We know that they are “wise men”, probably astrologers or astronomers and we know that they must have been relatively rich. We know too of three gifts that they brought, but we don’t actually know if they were royal, or whether they brought one gift each.
You’re probably also familiar with the inferred meaning of each of the gifts: gold to show Jesus’ kingship, frankincense, for worship, to show Jesus’ divinity, and myrrh for the anointing of a body, to foreshow Jesus’ death.
And familiar too with the significance of these visitors not being Jewish.
Last week when we thought about the visit of the shepherds, we thought about Jesus coming among the ordinary, potentially forgotten people of that society: born not in a palace as we may have expected for a king, but with the animals in the outhouse of an inn, with minders of sheep his first visitors, not the rulers and leaders of the day.
All of those involved would, however, have been members of God’s chosen people, the Jews.
I remember a friend of mine who taught in a catholic primary school telling me of the shock when she told her young class that Mary was not a catholic! And not just Mary and Joseph, of course. As residents of Judea, the inn keeper and the shepherds too were presumably Jewish. Among them had come, be it in a rather unexpected way, their promised saviour, the Messiah, the Christ.
What is striking about our star-gazing visitors from the East is that it is extremely unlikely that they were Jewish. The Magi represent the people of other cultures coming to worship the God, not just of Israel, but of all people, incarnate as a small child.
Of course, by the time they had followed the star from their starting point to first Jerusalem, and then on to Bethlehem, Jesus would no longer have been a new-born in the stable. These people had come some distance to find Jesus: they had come into the scene from outside. And that is significant.
The visit of the Magi foreshadows the opening of the gospel to the Gentiles. It begins to fulfil the words of Simeon in the temple “a light to lighten the Gentiles” that we will celebrate next month at Candlemas, but which would likely have happened before the visit we celebrate today.
It is there too in our reading from the letter to the Ephesians; Gentiles for whom Paul is suffering in order that they too might know the gospel.
From the beginning, the gospel is a story of the outsider being brought into the centre: Jesus is born among the poor, visited by the foreigner. He spends his time among “sinners” and hated tax-collectors, the sick, the lame, the mentally unwell. He makes enemies of both religious and political leaders, challenging the scribes and Pharisees and having the state side with them against him when his popularity becomes a threat to their Roman overlords.
The gospel is not so much a statement about any specific group of people, as an overarching narrative: those who were on the outside are brought into the centre and consequently, those at the centre are forced to give way.
I’m often asked what it means for St Saviour’s to call itself an inclusive church, and why I have promoted that aspect of our identity so much since my arrival. Though you might think that I mention it often enough, that we all ought to know by now!
St Saviour’s has been a member of the organisation “Inclusive Church” since long before my arrival. Our membership signals to some people that may not feel at home elsewhere in the church, that St Saviour’s is a safe place; somewhere where women’s ministry is valued equally with men’s; somewhere where relationships are honoured regardless of the respective genders of the couple. But it is much more than that.
Being a member of Inclusive Church means little if it’s about specific groups being included while others are not. Being a member of Inclusive Church is about St Saviour’s being a place where the Gospel of Jesus Christ is honoured as good news that calls everyone in, good news that leaves no one behind.
It means that if we have ever found ourselves feeling excluded, feeling like we are on the inside looking in, then here we can be assured that the Good News of the incarnation is good news for us.
If we’ve ever felt like we are too poor, or too badly educated, too sinful, too reserved, too selfish, too young, too old, too weak, too needy, or that we are not good enough because we are disabled, chronically ill, an addict, a divorcee, or because of our gender identity, sexuality, race or the colour of our skin, then here we are reminded that God invites us into the centre, to know ourselves as the ones for whom God became incarnate.
But just as the journey from the East didn’t happen overnight, but was long and tiring and hard work, truly being an inclusive church, truly spreading an inclusive gospel, takes time and effort and learning. It’s not just about feeling welcomed when we are on the outside, it’s a challenge to us when we are at the centre, and the nearer the centre we are, the more of a challenge it is. For we need to make space, we need to recognise our privilege and be prepared to step back.
We want St Saviour’s to be the kind of place where people feel it’s ok to remain on the edge, if that’s where they need to be, but we also want it to be the kind of place where everyone is welcomed and encouraged to come into the centre, and for some of us, that will mean knowing when to move out of the way, when to let others take on the thing that we might otherwise do, when to help or enable them to do so.
As I was getting the church ready yesterday, I had to reorganise the crib scene. There was no room left on the little table and the shepherds were dominating the scene. I had to move the shepherds out of the way to make space for the Magi to bring their gifts.
As we enter a new year, a year that we hope will eventually bring us freedom from the pandemic which is currently restricting the church’s life so much, the arrival of the magi brings a challenge to us all. If you feel like you are on the outside looking in, now is the time to come closer, now is the time to bring your gifts to the centre. You might think you don’t even know what they are, but that’s ok, we can discover together.
However, if, like me, you find yourself at the centre of things, up the front, doing lots and already comfortable using your gifts, then perhaps our challenge is to look for ways to step back, ways to encourage others to come forward, and bring their gifts to God.
We don’t need to bring gold, incense or fancy ointment, the gift we bring in worship is ourselves, just as we are. But we do need to remember that the gold was brought to one who is king over all of us, not just some. We do need to let the incense remind us that we are called to worship together, as one, even when that’s remotely or physically distanced. And we need to remember the myrrh that signals sacrifice. The sacrifice that makes clear God’s love for each one of us, calls us to be willing to sacrifice our position, our privilege and our comfort, to make room for those we might otherwise exclude.