Epiphany, White Privilege, & Dignity

2015-01-04 Sermon on John 1:10-18

Happy Epiphany! In case you didn’t know, epiphany means something like “making clear upon us”. In other words, making that little invisible light bulb go *plink* over our heads (hold light bulb over head – and the angels sang!). It’s like discovering that something totally unexpected is actually true, or becomes clear. Which is good, because today’s gospel reading is pretty unexpected if you think about it. Stars and weird magicians and kings afraid of babies, and virgin birth. Someone should make a movie, right (!)? But if we know a little of the context, some pretty unexpected things become clear upon us, so let’s jump in.

So, the wise men tell King Herod that this “king of the Jews” has been born, and he’s frightened. This isn’t just nervous. This is great distress, a sense that everything’s already falling apart. That’s a problem for “the greatest builder in Jewish history”. He’s got to constantly prove himself to the Roman Empire to stay king, and you bet he gets things done, but maybe because he’s a tyrant. The Jews resent him for everything he does for the Romans, imposing oppressive taxes, building temples for non-Jews. And he’s not all that observant of a Jew himself. How does he react? Secret police, squashing protests, and imprisoning troublemakers left and right.

So get this – “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Even the Jews. *Why?* Well, imagine we’re the Jews. Herod’s a vicious tyrant, so if he’s threatened, what’s he going to do to us? Sure, we complain, but we’re already trained by decades of his oppression, and we actually think this is normal. But it’s worse, because Herod’s our provider. While his taxes crush us to the point that we end up losing everything we used to have, guess who’s got jobs, and we’re good workers. Besides, when famine and disaster strike, who feeds us? Herod, because he’s got to prove his leadership to the Romans by keeping us alive and functioning. So, Herod may be a bad man, but we get something out of the deal too, so why wouldn’t we be as afraid as Herod?

You see, it’s a system. Maybe it’s so easy for us to picture ourselves as the Jews because we recognize what it means to live in a system. We might see injustice (do we always recognize it when we see it?), we might speak out (do we always?), and we constantly argue about what’s wrong. But we can’t find our way out, perhaps because the system has trained us very well. Trained us to be responsible, to focus on our jobs, our errands, our families, and we work hard. But while we struggle to keep our own lives together, we stop noticing how other peoples’ lives are falling apart. Or worse, the first thing we think is that they’re just not as responsible as we are. They make bad choices. It must be their own fault, since we don’t have those kinds of problems. The answers seem so obvious to us, right? Or maybe it’s that we’re privileged in a system that is deeply broken, and by our own challenges, we don’t believe we’re privileged at all.

So, what do we think when we continue to hear about Ferguson – another fatal shooting on Christmas Eve. And police ambushed in Los Angeles and Tampa. Death all around. So we argue about police brutality, or gun control. Or some say “maybe protesters should think about turning the propaganda and rhetoric down before more innocents are hurt,” which is easy to say when we don’t think we’re connected to those people over there, wherever “there” is. Here, we keep it together by driving to and from work without checkpoints slowing us down. We don’t fear authorities because we’re certain we haven’t done anything wrong, so why should we worry? We shop without being profiled because of the color of our skin, or the way we’re dressed. The other day, I shopped at Target, and when I tried to leave the store with my purchase, the alarm went off. And I work for a security company, I know how their systems work. But no one even raised an eyebrow. I told a cashier and she said, oh, just ignore it. So I left while the alarm blared, and no one even questioned me.

But that can’t be the whole story – we’re no different than Ferguson. We’ve got the same poverty, crime, inequalities, and profiling. Every day, we’re just one confrontation away from an unexpected explosion. We’ve seen it. Yet, aren’t we skeptical when we don’t seem to face the same evils in our own lives? Maybe it has a lot to do with who we know or talk with, and what if there’s something about the system and the way we’ve been trained to succeed in it, that actually keeps us from knowing these people and their stories? We fail to understand the reality of our privilege, given to us and denied to others, yet we can’t avoid benefitting by it, even when we do recognize the injustice. So, can we honestly say that our benefit doesn’t make us guilty? Can we stand before God and simply say it’s not our fault, that we didn’t know? Our politics and psychology may fall down, but theology has a name for all this – sin. Our Lutheran tradition says, “This inherited sin has caused such a deep, evil corruption of nature that reason does not comprehend it.” Our very guilt accuses us rightly, despite reason, because we’re already judged. And the very fact that we can’t wrap our heads around how we’re part of the problem, might actually be another nail in our coffin. After all, do the goats not say: “Lord, when did we see you naked, or hungry, or in prison?”

But, brothers and sisters, the good news is that this is not where the story ends! Let’s hear the Magi again – “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” A child has been born! He’s king of the Jews! Where is he? Friends, salvation has come, in the unexpected miracle of a baby. Of course, the system doesn’t see it – no, the world stumbles in darkness and only sees a poor mother with her illegitimate baby in a dirty manger, just another statistic, just Joseph and Mary coming to Bethlehem for a census. But by the light of a star we see a holy child – the most unexpected, most vulnerable, most humble way for God to come to us, God in our flesh. And suddenly, we remember! Isaiah told us so! A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. Oh, how could we forget Isaiah would be there with us? But now we remember, we see and hear this unexpected miracle for what it really is.

And what it really is, is God’s answer to us, in Jesus. Jesus takes on our flesh and becomes one of us, in order to take upon himself all our sin and brokenness. And he takes it straight to the cross, to suffer and die for our sake. To die in our place. And in three days, he is raised, and we see an empty tomb. Death cannot hold him, and united with us by our flesh, he brings us with him. Resurrecting us. Bringing us from death to new life. Truly, we are now a new creation. And none of this is our own doing. No, it is all done to you and to me, the very thing we could not do for ourselves.

You see, we took our privileges and guilty benefits, and our guilt was just like our unjust systems, it imprisoned us and crushed us. And it turned us inside ourselves and away from our neighbors. But here we have the radical newness of God in Christ, God’s unexpected, unimaginable new thing. Our judgement and our guilt were crucified with Christ on that cross, and on account of Christ we are forgiven, and this is God’s final word. This is rebirth. And freed from the blindness of our guilt and fear, the power of the Holy Spirit turns us outward, where we finally see beyond our own lives. And guess what we see? Neighbors, everywhere we look! And an unexpected thing happens. We bless others without  realizing it or even understanding it. A tiny word of kindness multiplies itself by the Spirit as it reaches someone in their unknown suffering, who in turn blesses others we may never meet. Or what seem like trivial little kindnesses or generosities multiply beyond our imagination. And even when we’re convinced we haven’t done a single thing, by faith we trust that this can actually be true. After all, do the sheep not say “Lord, when did we see you naked, or hungry, or in prison?”

Sometimes we even find ourselves called and driven to communities of need, advocating on behalf of others in the face of systems and institutions. I think of some of my friends and professors from down the road at Christian Theological Seminary who recently drove to Washington DC to join in powerful demonstration that black lives matter. God breaks systems through our lifted voices. And so we shouldn’t be surprised to see people of faith, going to places like Ferguson, and Los Angeles, and Tampa, speaking out against injustice, praying, embracing, and holding hands with friends and strangers, who honestly are no longer strangers. God grants dignity through us when we call each other by name.
And by others’ witness and hope and hunger for justice, they strengthen us for our part of the journey right here, wherever we find ourselves. As God continues to act in unexpected ways, our hope is not in vain. Our path may be unclear, but by faith we see the Holy Spirit at work in us and others, and the kingdom of God unexpectedly come near. And this unexpectedness is exactly what we now celebrate. Happy Epiphany! Amen.

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