Sunday, January 4, 2015

Another unpreached sermon

I was all ready to give this sermon at St. James for Epiphany but on the way there I remembered doing something very similar two years ago. I checked the service book and, sure enough, 2013. One of the neat things about working for three churches is that you can recycle sermons you like. But not after just two years.

I told some folks at coffee hour about my change in direction and someone asked, "do you think we'd remember something from two years ago?"

"Of course," I said, "I never underestimate lay folks."

And I never do.

But this is worth posting here, I think.


Listen to the words of Isaiah:“… A multitude of camels
shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah…”

Epiphany gets me thinking about Camels.
Camels are remarkable creatures—a miracle of design. Without Camels the history of northern Africa and what we call the Middle East would have been very different.
And the Magi wouldn’t have made it to Bethlehem.
Camels have two humps and are larger than their one-humped cousins, the dromedaries.
Those two humps are made of fat for the camels to live on when there’s nothing to eat.. And when they do eat, they eat the sparse, thorny plants that survive in the desert.
Camels have thick fibrous pads on their feet to keep the heat of the sand from burning them and to maintain better balance. They can travel 70 miles a day and can store 30 quarts of water in their stomachs. In extreme heat they can go without water for nearly a week.
Camels have flaps on their nostrils that close during sandstorms.
They are a miracle of design. You couldn’t make up an animal more suited for that part of the world than a camel. And since they can carry 600 pounds on their backs, they made trade and exploration possible in the harsh, barren regions of the middle East.
Because of Camels, great and sophisticated civilizations flourished in one of the most inhospitable areas of the world.

Camels almost certainly carried Balthazar, Melichior and Caspar on their long journey to from Babylon to Judea.
So, Epiphany makes me think about camels and about those exotic astrologers they carried to Jesus.
Bethlehem was a tiny village in the first century when the Magi arrived. A back-water town. A “one horse” town—or, more accurately, a “one camel” town.
The Magi were wealthy men from a high priestly caste. They were sophisticated—and important enough to demand an audience with King Herod and to cause a stir in Jerusalem.
Bethlehem must have seemed strange and primitive to them.
I have a mental picture of the Magi as they approached Joseph’s simple working class house. They must have wondered if their calculations were somehow off, it they had read the heavens incorrectly. How could the Golden Child the stars had foretold be here in this ordinary place?
The word of their arrival would have spread like wild-fire through Bethlehem. The whole village must have come out to gawk and wonder at these astonishing foreigners. Their caravan would have drawn a crowd of on-lookers, pondering what would bring men of unimaginable wealth to such an unimportant place.
Balthazar, Melichior and Caspar were used to marble palaces and royalty. Yet there they were, ducking their heads to enter the low doorway of a carpenter’s house, dropping to their knees on the straw-covered, dirt floor, opening gifts of astonishing value before a simple, teenaged girl and her toddler son.
Epiphanies seldom come on camel back.
Epiphanies are seldom wrapped in silk and gold.
Epiphany is the unconcealing of God in the midst of life. And epiphanies seldom come on camel back. God is seldom revealed, seldom unconcealed in the spectacular and remarkable events of life.
In fact, there is a dictionary definition of an “epiphany” that I memorized many years ago because I knew I needed to remember it. It goes like this: “an epiphany is the sudden, intuitive knowledge of the deep-down meaning of things, usually manifested in what is ordinary, everyday and commonplace.
God is manifested to us like that: suddenly and intuitively. An epiphany points us past the surface meaning to the deep-down meaning, the essence, the very core and marrow of understanding.
But seldom is “god-ness” manifested in the unusual, spectacular and extraordinary. When God comes to us, it is in what is ordinary, everyday and commonplace.
Epiphanies do not have as much to do with “what we’re looking at” as they do with “the way we see.”
Let’s give the Magi credit—they knew how to see. For two years and thousands of desert miles, they had expected to find a Prince, a King, a Golden Child in a Royal Palace. Yet, when they entered that humble home in Bethlehem and saw that commonplace family in the midst of their everyday life with their ordinary little boy, they knew how to see. They brought out their gifts and they “fell down and worshiped him.”
If only we knew how to see so well.
When I lived in Divinity Hall at Harvard Divinity School, my best friend was Dan Kiger, who’s became a Methodist minister in Ohio. Dan and I played Gin Rummy every day for an hour before dinner in his room for a penny a point. All these year’s later, he still owes me money.
On the wall of Dan’s room was a poster consisting of thousands of black dots on a white background. I stared at it for countless hours while Dan decided what to discard. I thought of it as an interesting “impressionistic” picture.
Then one day, while we were playing Gin Rummy, a friend from down the hall came in to borrow an envelope from Dan. While Dan was looking for an envelope in his desk, Hank said, “that’s a great picture of Jesus” and pointed to the poster of a thousand dots.
After Hank left, I sat staring at the poster for a long time. “How’s that a picture of Jesus?” I finally asked Dan.
He got up and pointed to one of the thousands of dots. “That’s his left eye,” was all Dan had to say. Suddenly, I saw it—it was Jesus! And I could never again see it as merely thousands of dots.
Epiphanies are like that. If we only know how to see, God is everywhere in our world, in our lives.
We need eyes to see.
We need to see that God is manifested to us in what is common and ordinary.
We need to see the one dot in the millions of dots that is the left eye of God.
The Sufi’s have a saying. Whenever you hear hoof beats, look for a Zebra.
Those are the eyes we need. Eyes to see Zebras and Camels in the midst of what is ordinary…eyes to see God in the commonplace…eyes to see Star Light in the dust motes of our everyday lives…eyes to see the Christ Child in every child’s face….eyes to see what is “most holy” in what is “most mundane”….

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.