Isaiah 60:1-6 and Ephesians 3:1-12. Preached January 2, 2010 at Old First Reformed United Church of Christ by the Rev. Michael W. Caine.
This is the first of two Epiphany sermons on either side of the 6th, the actual day the liturgical calendar assigns for the arrival of the Wise Ones, dreamers really, as I’ve been quick to point out this season.
I pray these two sermons will challenge us to look at God, the world and ourselves in some new ways. That’s what epiphany is after all– an “aha” … when suddenly you see things for how they really are. How they’ve been all along, but somehow you missed noticing before. An “aha” suddenly so obvious, so in your face that you can’t understand how you didn’t realize it before…
Let’s see if this works: I read once, that if what tradition names the 3 wise men… Wait a minute, before i go any further, before I try and get us to question our assumptions and practices, you might be helped by my outlining some of them:
~Do we realize that Matthew’s Gospel is the only account of Jesus’ birth that includes the Epiphany story, this vignette of the Magi, a word deriving from the Greek, meaning astrologers. We didn’t read the Matthew text this morning, but we will next week.
But you know the story: Wise ones from the East have seen a star, and knowing of the promise, the prophecies in the Hebrew scripture, they set out to find this messiah.
~In Matthew’s biblical account, the number of the Magi who came to see the Christ child is never noted. Instead, three gifts are specified: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Those gifts are traditionally accorded their own significance:
Gold as an offering appropriate for an earthly king.
Frankincense, an incense, a gift or symbol for priesthood and prayer;
Myrrh, used as a perfume for anointing the dead, as a foreshadowing of this child’s death and signifying the Christ’s suffering.
There developed then another conclusion of interpretation — that there was a one to one correlation– each gift brought by one giver. And in time, the 3 magi were given names and origins. Gaspar of India, Melchior of Persia and Balthasar of Arabia in the Western Church from a Greek manuscript written in approximately 500 C.E. in Alexandria.
Interestingly, Syrian Christians name the Wise Men alternately: Larvandad, Gushnasaph and Hormisdas.
Ethiopian Christianity have different names: Hor, Karsudan and Basanater.
The Armenian church calls them: Kagpha, Kadadakaharida and Badadilma.
~Likewise, the Magi’s origins are, in various legends, defined differently. Matthew only writes that they were from the East.
Gaspar’s name, and the historical King it correlates with, is perpetuated in the Afghan city that King founded, what we hear about sadly in our news reports, Kandahar.
Another tradition has it that the three were Persian, Babylonian and Yemeni Jewish.
Chinese Christians believe that one of the Kings was Chinese…
My point is that many of the details of this holy visit were filled in long after the biblical account, later additions to the sketched outline that Matthew leaves us with, without any real authorization except that they survived time and have been passed down to us.
Details added by people not unlike you or me, looking to find folks like themselves, their experiences reflected, their needs answered in the telling and interpretation of the holy story. It’s important, no crucial, to see ourselves reflected in the holy origins of our faith.
Which leads me back to what I once read. Somewhere it was written– not any less with the authority of legend I will suggest — that if the Magi were women the whole story would have worked out differently.
Three wise women would have asked for directions.
Women would have arrived on time.
Would have helped deliver the baby.
They would have cleaned the stable.
Made a casserole.
Brought practical gifts.
And today, there’d be peace on earth.
Traditionalists, wanting to protect the legends they have inherited, invested with authority, will find fault with my interpretation– pointing out that it makes stereotypical assumptions about the difference of men and women. But, beloved, I’m not worried this morning with figuring out the differences between males and females, or what accounts them. I’m talking to you, the church, about the inequality between men and women.
Of course, our religious traditions are not without their agendas. Either are the legends that we grow up, nurture around them. Or our own interpretations.
I guess my point is that we need to begin by acknowledging those agendas. And next, we need to determining how in faith we are to respond to such an agenda. I mean, for me, the question isn’t whether or not are traditions develop. Or carry agendas. Spawn legends. Need to be interpreted.
But instead, how all those are used. Or how these use us. Leave us captive. Or free us.
Beloved, with what we know of God, even what little we understand, shouldn’t our religion challenge us to new understandings, even discomfort us, rather than confirm our prejudices, undergird our comfort if it’s built on another’s disadvantage?
This week I am speaking to you about the place accorded women in our religious tradition. It’s a topic from way back… At least from the beginning, in how Eve is depicted in Genesis. But even that was probably a reflection of some cultural understandings that were already well ingrained. And it’s a tradition, the devaluing of woman compared to position, power and prestige of men, that has found recurrent reaffirmation through out the Scriptural witness and down through the years of our Christian tradition.
Noah’s wife and daughters have no names, but the men do. Moses‘ adoptive mother, the presumably powerful daughter of Pharoah, has no name. The wife of Minoah, the mother of Samson, is never given a name. And legend never filled in what the Bible did not provide.
The names of the women are lost. And our tradition has not seemed to fill them, or even miss them.
The woman who dried the feet of Jesus with her hair, and perfume them. The Canaanite woman whose faith prompted Jesus to heal her daughter and even take a second look at his own understanding of who God cared for. The woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment and was cured of her hemorrhaging…
The names of these faithful women have been overlooked. And legend has not seen fit to add them, nor tradition, apparently, even missed them.
Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Dinah, Mary Magdalene are given names alongside their mistreatment by men of their own time or ours.
Tamar, Deborah, Judith, Esther in the Hebrew Scriptures; Tabitha, Priscilla, Phoebe, Chloe in the New Testament… just some of the female heroes of faith that have taken a back seat to the males.
Despite the revolutionary practice and message of Jesus, in which women and men (and prostitutes and hated tax collectors) were treated equally, which we see extended in Paul’s insistence on the welcome of the Gentiles… as tradition played itself out, women’s roles were once again restricted, as the inferiority of women was not only restored to a status nothing short of holiness. It became an assumption to the traditions, legends and interpretations of the church.
The subtle message or the assumption is that men are somehow more like God, almost unconsciously– or not– that God is really male. Think how we expect God’s voice to be deep and booming. Maleness is somehow associated with God in some special way. Being male is a better image of what it means to be godly.
I’m going to be very specific on this one. It’s been plaguing me this whole season– how male the whole Christmas story is. Sure we have Mary and Elizabeth, but that seems almost grudging, that there have to be wombs in order to have babies. Otherwise, the holy narrative is dominated by men– prophets, husbands, innkeepers, shepherds, Kings, even a Creator God in “his” most fatherly moment.
I’ve actually been worried about this since I arrived at Old First. You see, ever since I remember being conscious of church, in the UCC, we have worked at using inclusive language. That means, that when we refer to God or humans, we avoid the male pronoun that English has assigned them. Not just when we speak. But also when we sing. And when we read the Bible too. We come up with other constructions, sometimes stilted, even awkward, to make two important points:
God is neither male nor female: gender is not an attribute of God.
And humans cannot be accurately described more in the masculine than in the feminine. If that were so, than being masculine would be both more Godly and more human.
But every week in church, at Old First, we speak of “God, he…” Most often it happens when we read the Scripture, but that’s not the only time.
Likewise, we fail most usually to go the second mile to make sure that when we speak of humans, men are no more normative than women.
All this has been apparent to me in our worship from my first Sunday with you. It’s less glaring to me now as Old First has become my worshiping community. But that’s almost more troubling!
I’m not the only one who notices. I have visitors comment to me, friends that come, but even 3 strangers that worshiped with us in Advent– surprised, upset that a community like ours wasn’t more careful, that we would allow exclusive language in worship.
The issue, of course, is not about my or any guests discomfort. It’s about women’s disadvantage, and our church’s failure to do everything possible to right a wrong too long perpetrated. Shouldn’t our religious tradition be used, with all power and creativity, to effect justice as a visible, this-worldly mission commitment to God’s will– that all people are loved, honored and respected.
Every time in church we affirm that God loves gay people, I think with pride: “maybe there’s some young person in our pews this morning, struggling with his or her sexuality, wondering how to be what she or he is feeling.”
And, I give thanks, that here, in this church, if those young people are listening, if they are watching, they will see us show, act out explicitly God’s loves for gay and lesbian sons and daughters just as much as their straight sisters and brothers.
I want our church to provide a similar degree of affirmation, the same unyielding commitment to justice for everyone else too.
To stand up over against all the put-downs our world still comes up with for brothers and sisters of African descent.
And for those who learn in their daily lives that they aren’t adequate or important because they are jobless or poor.
Church needs to stand with and for those who fear they aren’t right or successful because they are single or divorced.
And empower those who are differently-abled.
Doesn’t this same support need to go out to the women among us who need to make whole lives in a world that still suggests they’re only worth 77 cents for every dollar a man earns? Don’t women, in the face of subtle and not so subtle messages that the ways their are different are inferior… not quite equal… don’t they deserve the power of the church on their side?
I want this for all the women in this sanctuary. But especially for the young girls like Madelaine or Francesca, who have to grow up, make their way to adulthood through a series of reinforcements, barriers really, sometimes subtle, but strong nonetheless, that tell them that being female is not as good as being male.
And our young men too– also influenced, limited ironically within their privilege as to how they ought to and ought not be.
Of course, it’s not just Old First. It’s not our fault. As I said earlier, there’s a long history in our tradition of this problem.
But shouldn’t we be doing everything possible to stand up to, stand over against, offer an alternative to all the ways our world maintains inequality, teaches that some people matter more than others. Shouldn’t we be different because we believe that God’s not like that?
If women and men and our world are to find true equality, all our minds, and our myths and our practices have to be changed in the process. A stratified society based on any criteria, such as gender, race or economics has never been a God-declared truth, just a man made reality. Prejudice-bearing tradition, legend, interpretation are not God’s true message.
I am going to be bold. I don’t, as pastor, ask for things explicitly all that often. But could I ask Old First to work on its language. Can we become more conscious? Renew our commitment? Correct our biblical translations? Oh, you know me, I’m not worried about the occasional expletives; the rough words phase me less than the put-down words. Language that assumes male is somehow more normative than female is driving me to distraction. Making worship hard.
Can we as a church stand up for God over against such inequality? Can we take a step towards recognizing the truth of God’s equal love for all people? Can we in worship recommit ourselves to the battle for justice, even in the ways we often unconsciously use language, or unconsciously let language use us?
I’m not really asking anything except for the promise that we will recognize the truth of God’s word and begin acting more uniformly, more equally, according to the faith we profess.
I wonder if anyone noticed: The first hymn we sang this morning, it avoided exclusive language. Instead, it called us to sing the Christmas Gospel without even recognizing the holy child of God as one gender or another. Because that’s not really the point of the story after all.
The next two Christmas hymns we sing in this service, they may be unfamiliar. But I pray they two will invite us to look at the Christmas story with fresh eyes. They both approach the tradition from a different perspective, from the underside, if you will:
~the first one from the experience of Christians in the southern hemisphere who experience Christmas at the summer solstice.
~and the second in the experience and idiom of the Huron people, first nation folk in present-day Canada.
My point, my prayer really, is simply that all we do in this sacred space is practice really– even in the details, maybe most especially in the details– for how we are to be, how we are to go out from here, and how we are to remake our world, not as we would have it, but as God has meant for it to be all along. Amen.