SERMON BY THE RT. REV. ROBERT THOMPSON AT THE EUCHARIST FOR THE 325TH ANNIVERSARY OF KINGSTON PARISH CHURCH – JANUARY 5, 2020

EPIPHANY 2020

 “And the wise men came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we have seen his star and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:2

Today we pause to give God thanks for the over 300 years of continuous Christian worship and witness from this site. Amidst the many challenges over these centuries, the Kingston Parish Church and this City have evolved together.

In fact, for the first 150 years of its establishment, the vestry of the Parish Church was the legal custodian of this city. Notwithstanding the separation between church and Municipality, the Kingston Parish Church’s mission to this City of Kingston remains pivotal to its Christian witness. It is for the sake of the city, and indeed, the nation that the church keeps in focus, at all times, the need for everyone to be answerable to God for how we serve, respect and treat each other, irrespective of origin class or race. Parish churches minister not to themselves, but to the community and its social context.  Your pastoral care of individuals and communities connect them with the worship and community life of the church in such a way that they and their world are transformed by the Christ who is at the centre of our activity. I pray that during your year of celebration you will find time to reflect on how you may deepen that commitment. 

I give joyful thanks to God for you and your Priest as you continue to give generously of yourself in the cause of God’s mission, and pray that God’s abundant grace will accompany you in the years ahead.

Matthew in our Gospel writes, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” 

That is a capsule description of the world in which we live today.  A New World is desperately trying to be formed out of the disintegration of an old.  Think of our nation today and all the possibilities for change and transformation, which are daily being overshadowed by negative forces of death and chaos.  In such a time as ours, what action can we take to spur the spiral of life-denying forces?  What do wise men and women choose as an attitude to all the social ills that undermine our human flourishing?  What do they look for?  What are the possible signs of new birth?  In the skies of despair and economic clouds of gloom, wise men and women look for the presence of even a single star, a single element of hope – for a possible breakthrough.  

Our Gospel narrative is a stirring drama of the Magi, kings, wise men. European, African, Asian. We really don’t know much about these men, but we do know three things:

1) They were diligent in looking for the star.  2) They were men of action who saw their star and followed it. 3) They were wise – they chose to have their future shaped, not by their own context, but by the one to whom they offered their gifts.

These are the people in every generation who contribute to the advancement of their world, people who see stars and follow them.  Someone once said, “The secret of success in life is for a person to be ready for opportunity when it comes.”   These three men saw their star, and without delay, they mounted their camels and hit the road. Nothing happens in this world until someone sees a star and follows it. This is the first thing our text suggests to us.

Of course, not every star is worthy of being followed. There are many people who are, by nature, impulsive. They may jump at any star–only to regret it later.  There are stars within our culture today that we simply need to re-evaluate in terms of their negative impact on the minds of our youth.  That process will require a national coalition of minds and voices.  Unfortunately, we will have to look beyond politics and the Media to lead that cause.

And the wise men came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we have seen his star and have come to worship him.”  People who are ready to adopt an attitude of hope against all odds, who are prepared to keep looking for the star, despite detractors, know they will have to journey, to change, to search.  That readiness to journey, to search and to change is what makes it possible for the wise men and women of our day to experience their Epiphanies. 

Today, if we would seek wisdom to meet the challenges of our age, we cannot stay where we are or as we are.  We will have to change psychologically, mentally and spiritually.  This is true for us as individuals as it is true for you as a congregation.  It is incredible how people keep on doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.  In order to remain effective in our response to the challenges facing us, we must learn how to let go of our old familiar habits, which stand between us, and a life transformed.  That is precisely what this feast of Epiphany is about and why it was given to us.  To remind us that God makes himself available to us, despite the human barriers we erect. 

Epiphany then is not an idea, but a truly new experience that changes everything. Before you can do anything with it, it does something with you! An epiphany is not an experience you create from within, but one that we can only become open to and receive from another. Epiphanies leave us totally out of control, and they always demand that we change. Most of us prefer ideas and words.  What we are afraid of is when the ideas and words become flesh and engage us and lead to a new and unknown place. Most of us would rather stay inside our private castles and avoid such an adventure. And when we do, we miss out on the great epiphany; on the possibility of new birth.

What I am trying to suggest is that the Feast of Epiphany is not just about an event that took place at the time when Jesus was born, but is available to all of us today. Religion without epiphanies leaves us locked into our private towers where we feel secure, where we are never open to our vulnerable selves, and therefore never having to change.  On the other hand, religion with epiphanies makes us ready to go wherever God is manifested, thereby encountering the star all over again.

The second thing we learn about the wise men is that they were men of action.  There are many persons, who are very much aware of God, but who are never driven to act in his name. They have successfully avoided an encounter with him in ways that could advance his mission in the world because they never received an Epiphany.  Epiphanies, thank God, wake us up so we can, in fact, experience our encounters of the divine, learn from them and be transformed into action for God.  

For most of us, that is going to take a lot of discipline.  It is going to take discipline to change a lifetime of habits and to begin a new life.   We live at a time in which the personal self is what we use to define our world, and we will do pretty much what we feel like doing, and feel good about it.  O yes! We must all take our feelings seriously, they are part of who we are. But there is more to you and me than our feelings. There are also our hopes, our aspirations, our dreams, our visions, our responsibilities and our obligations.  All these are a part of our life, too.  And you and I ought to be as honest about those things as we are about our personal feelings. 

To nurture a disciplined spiritual life one must be able to say; what is real for me is not the way I am now, but the way I know I can become.  The wise men must have said this to themselves.  They must have said; “we can be more than we are”.  That is the kind of inner work that is required from everyone who journeys for the star.   A journey that involves risks, the rearranging of priorities, of self-image; and, of course, one’s budget.  Only then could they have found the star, offered their gifts and made a complete turn-around to their destination. 

They enter another world from their own, they trust their own skills as astrologers and God uses their secular profession to bring them to His divine purpose! They interrupt their daily regimen at great length and, if they were kings, they submitted to another one! It’s quite an extraordinary imagery and lesson for us today, and one we need to consider if our Epiphany is to lead to a change of direction.

Herod tries to co-opt the wise men to betray their journey, to end their commitment to the possibility of social and personal transformation. “Tell me”, he said, “When you have found the child.”  – And we know, of course, what he intended to do. 

Germany, I am told, has one of the world’s best apprenticeship systems in which the private sector partners with the government to shape the next generation. They recognise the importance of young people having leadership and employment programmes to provide focus and direction.  And when that is done, they are not likely to be co-opted into violent and socially disruptive activity.  It helps to explain why Germany is largely non-violent and stable. And we can achieve the same if there is a national will to do it. And why not?  Because it is easier to pay extortion fees than to engage in the audacious task of transforming lives. We are obligated, if we believe it, to take the lead in facilitating programmes that will rescue our youth from being co-opted by the evil schemes of the Herods of this world.

Despite every good intention, there are forces of discouragement standing by to cast doubt on any attempt to heal the social and moral wounds of our society.  But, if we are wise, we will do what the wise men did.   We will listen to the voice of the old king of death and fear and cynicism but will go our own way.  The wise men went their way, and because they refused to be seduced by cynicism, the star they had committed themselves to appeared again.  You see my friends, if we commit ourselves to the God who calls us to journey; to the God who calls us to search for that which shines as the ultimate value in our experience; that ultimate value; that star; that light of God haunts us and draws us and calls us.

Finally, although the wise men acknowledged their cultural environment, they were not limited by it.  They were directed, instead, to offer worship to another God.  So “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you”.

What is most significant about the passage from our Old Testament reading is that it is in the form of a command, “Arise, shine.” How can Isaiah do that? How can you order somebody to start a new life, when everything around him spells darkness and gloom?  You can do so, only when your starting point is at the place where you have knelt to offer your gifts.

We live in a time when the wisdom of the day tells us that we are the product of our past, or of our cultural environment, or our genes, some kind of destiny placed upon us, and we can’t do anything about it. In that kind of world, therapy consists of accepting who you are. Sometimes, that is all right, it needs to be said. But sometimes, it sounds an awful lot like “settling down in Babylon” the place from which Isaiah spoke.  We may not have the life we want now. Things may have happened to make us feel that we are stuck where we are. But do you know what is true? When you live with anything for a while, it doesn’t seem so bad after all. Especially, when you are asked to change – because then, you can see the advantage of even being in bondage. At least you know what to expect. At least your life is familiar to you.

The late Nelson Mandela spoke some words at his inauguration as the first black President of South Africa. He was quoting from a poem written by Marianne Williamson.  I share them with you, as I believe we could derive some benefit as we seek to journey toward our own star.  Sometimes I feel that collectively as a Diocese we have allowed ourselves to be defined by the limited boundaries we set for ourselves.  And yet throughout this reflection, we have been reminded that we are, in fact, more than what we are.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be?   You are a child of God.  Your playing small does not serve the world.  There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We are all meant to shine, as children do.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.  And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” 

And once again Isaiah reminds us; Arise, shine; for your light has come

Christian faith says that the most important fact about your life is not what has happened to you in the past, and not the way you are right now. The most important fact about your life is what God is offering you. God has given you the future. God has given you a new light to shine forth in the world.  No one can claim it for you.  You have got to claim it for yourself, move with it and let it shine.

So do it, even if you don’t feel like it; even if you don’t believe, or can’t imagine, that the promise that is offered can come to you. Get up and follow it anyway, because you are a person of faith, and you believe that what is real is not only the way you feel now, but the promise offered to you in Jesus Christ. So “arise, and shine.”

So, my friends, I say to you in this New Year, follow that star. People who make a difference in communities and in the world are not content to sit on the sidelines. They set their sights on a worthy star and they follow it with all their hearts. Of course, the most magnificent star that we can follow is the same today as it was in the time of the Magi. It is the star of Christ, himself. Bowing before him in adoration and praise and offering the gift of ourselves.  If we were to commit ourselves to doing that, then that would be enough to guide our journey in achieving our full human selves in the image of God and in active service and ministry for the sake of his Mission.