[Preached on Saturday, January 6, 2018 (Feast of the Epiphany) at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral – Minneapolis, MN].
Several years ago, while serving as an intern at an Episcopal campus ministry, I had one of those experiences that, in hindsight, helped me better understand the vocation of the church. It must’ve been during the second semester of my senior year of seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. I’d made a habit of arriving at Absalom Jones Chapel a little over an hour before our Sunday evening Compline service. Normally I was the only one in the building and the quiet of the chapel was a place of solace and refuge for me.
One day, while cleaning icons and arranging votive candles in the small sacristy, I heard chairs moving in the nave. When I went out to find out what was causing the noise, I saw an older woman dressed in a heavy coat with an amazing broach that shimmered in the dim light. She was sitting on the front row with her eyes downcast. I couldn’t tell whether she was asleep or in prayer. I wanted to make my presence known to her, so I came out of the sacristy with a handful of votive candles and began setting up our altar.
“Y’all having service tonight,” she asked?
“Yes, ma’am. In about 45 minutes or so.”
“Oh,” she said, “I didn’t mean to come so early. I’ll leave if you need to set up.”
No, no,” I replied. “You’re quite welcome to stay. Please don’t let me disturb you.”
“Thank you,” she said. “It’s so cold outside. Plus the light was on, so I knew it was safe to come in.”
Even though the Gospel leaves out this detail, tradition suggests that there were three wise men for the three gifts. Tradition has also given them names – Caspar, Bethesar, Melchior. But using my own sanctified imagination, I wonder why the actual number of them matters. I also wonder if their gender is at all important to this story. Does it matter that there were three wise men? Could the story be equally, or perhaps even more meaningful if there were just one wise man, or fifteen wise people of all genders, or just one woman in a heavy coat and a dazzling broach?
The Church is regularly graced with the presence of curious strangers – those who, for all intents and purposes, shouldn’t be there, but somehow find their way in. They begin with curiosity, but in the end, they find themselves lost in wonder, love, and praise. These strangers, these foreigners, are drawn by a light that we do not create, but a light we are called to curate and to shine. The job of the church is not that dissimilar to that Motel 6 – to leave the light on. We are called to let curious, weary travelers know that there is
Something within that holdeth the reins,
Something within that banishes pain;
Something within I cannot explain,
All that I know there is something within.
Many years ago, before that incident at Absalom Jones, I was one of those weary travelers. I was tired of church, sick of the judgment and prejudice, weary of the endless list of the ways in which I did not measure up. When I sat in my car in the parking lot of St. Martin’s Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, I was giving church one more shot. I remember telling God, “it is now or never.” When I walked inside and sat down, I met a woman named “Martha” who walked through the liturgical aerobics Episcopalians are known for. More importantly than that, Martha loved me, a complete stranger, and showed me a brilliant vision of the light of Christ.
Jesus tells his followers later in the Gospel that “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” Using my sanctified imagination again, I imagine Jesus saying this in a bit of jest, with a heavy dose of sarcasm, and a hefty side of shade. “OBVIOUSLY, no one turns on a light to hide it… right? RIGHT?!”
It seems obvious, but if we look more deeply into the question, Jesus is critiquing those who do the very thing he is suggesting no one does. How many times do we hide the light of Christ beneath the layers of cultural baggage, cumbersome traditions, unnecessary red tape, or apathy and disengagement? How often do we suggest, or outright state, that in order to have access to the Light of Christ, one must be of a certain class, or vote a certain way, or have access to a certain level of social capital? How often does our worship of Jesus Christ, the light of the world, resemble more of the private ritual of the “in crowd” rather than the collective fanning of the flame of the Holy Ghost in our midst?
Our work as members of the saving community of Jesus Christ – those who have come to the presence of Christ as the behest of others’ willingness to shine brightly with the light of Christ – is to make sure that the light of Christ is burning, brightly, within our own hearts, within our worshiping communities, within the spaces where we live and play, within our places of employment or education. We are called to be luminarias of life, hallmarks of the holy, sign-posts of salvation, beacons of blessedness for a world of weary travelers in desperate search of a place to lay their heavy burdens down, especially those whose travels are increasingly burdened by the baggage of alienation, systemic oppression, and dehumanization. In his groundbreaking book on the desperate need for compassionate spiritual leaders in our postmodern context entitled The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen suggests that “Like the Semitic nomads, we live in a desert with many lonely travelers who are looking for a moment of peace, for a fresh drink and for a sign of encouragement so that they can continue their mysterious search for freedom.” People are looking for hope and if the people of God do not have it, who else will?
Our work is the same work that has always belonged to the Church, to declare in word and deed that God is able to set a table of abundance in the middle of the desert; that love and compassion and joy and grace still abound in a world that seems to be in short supply; that there is yet a God who is present and active and deeply invested in this world that God has made; that we still believe in the ability of God to destroy the chains of death and sin and to restore all things to life and wholeness. We are called to shine the unconquerable, unquenchable, unstoppable Light of Christ into the darkness of the world in order to light the way home for all people.
We are called to be luminarias of life, hallmarks of the holy, sign-posts of salvation, beacons of blessedness for a world of weary travelers in desperate search of a place to lay their heavy burdens down.
I can’t help but imagine what our weary travelers must’ve thought when they found a poor infant in a dirty stable at the end of their long journey. They were clearly looking for a royal baby in a palace. I am shocked when I discover that, in the face of what might seem like a letdown, they bowed down to worship and offered the infant king gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It isn’t their number or their gender that matters. It is their wisdom and perhaps this is what made them wise – that they were able to see, beneath the layers of class, ethnicity, and social location, the good news incarnated in their midst. That is the news that causes the powerful to tremble in fear – that worldly power is ultimately feckless, a charade, insecurity and weakness in the drag of strength. True power rests in the ordinary.
Ultimately, what we have to offer the world isn’t loud, it isn’t rich, it isn’t all that impressive, and despite attempts at the contrary, it really isn’t even all that powerful in the way we have come to think about power. It is simply the good news of grace wrapped in a humble package displayed in the last place folks might think to look. Our God has a way of showing up in ordinary things, things one must see in order to believe.
Are you a signpost of salvation? A luminaria of life?
Does your life resemble a beacon of blessing?
Do your words and actions bear the hallmarks of the holy?
Maybe you are one who is in need of a light to guide you home.
Hear the word of God: Arise! Shine! For your light has come! And the glory of the Sovereign God has dawned upon you…
Or maybe you know it like this…
This little light of mine; I’m gonna let it shine.
Let it shine.
Let it shine.
Let it shine…
 Matthew 5:15
 Henri J.M. Nouwen. The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (New York: Image Books, 2002), p. 89.
[Artwork: Advent Starry Night 2, Virginia Wieringa, 2006]