Sermon–Who shrunk our faith? January 6, 2019


The Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ-January 6, 2019

William Bradbury

Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7,10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

Because of Christmas pageants across the years, most of us have melded together Luke’s and Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus. Fortunately our Church calendar pulls them apart, so that we read Luke’s story on December 25 and Matthew’s story January 6, today, which is known as the Epiphany—that is the manifestation—of our Lord Jesus Christ. I say fortunately because separating the stories allows us to focus on their important differences: In Matthew’s story, however, the angel of the Lord visits Joseph, not Mary, and a star leads wise men, not shepherds, from the east to visit the Christ Child. All this takes place, Matthew tells us, in the reign of Herod the Great, Rome’s vassal king in Jerusalem whose reign was from 40 BC to 4 BC.

The difference in the stories is one of emphasis only, for they both announce the same good news of the appearance of the Word made Flesh, to use a phrase from John’s gospel. The emphasis in Matthew’s story is found in the fact that Gentile Astrologers are led to pay homage to Jesus, which tells us this is a story for all people, and not just a story for some people. Further, the fact that a star in the night sky is central to the telling of this story, we see it involves all creation. In short, Matthew’s story tells us that the story of Jesus is a cosmic, universal story involving All that is.

Paul tells us the same thing in our reading from Ephesians where he speaks of ““the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things”. He says it is “the mystery of Christ” that “all people have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

So Matthew and Paul, and of course, Luke in his own way, tell us the good news of the “Word made flesh” is a cosmic, universal, eternal, outworking of the love of Triune God for all people.

So it is right to wonder how the gospel in American churches got so small, petty, and divisive. It reminds me of that 1989 Disney movie, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” where a dad’s experimental ray gun goes awry and his son, daughter, and two teenage neighbors, are shrunk to the size of insects, who now have to take on such predators as bees, ants, and a lawnmower, hardly worthy opponents for human beings. According to the movie it is the improper use of technology that shrinks the kids. Many wonder today if our current technology of iPhones and internet is also shrinking the souls of our kids.

A recently heard a college professor say that ten years ago when the students came into his class they noticed one another and engaged in conversations with the other students.  Most of us had that experience in college—friendships and not a few romances were born out of those first awkward conversations with strangers.

Now, the professor says, his students enter class looking down at their screens ignoring those around them, who are also looking down at their screens. They remain in this isolating posture until it is time for the class to start. How can we learn to love if our souls are hiding from each other?

Something similar, but with different causes, happens in American churches. I grew up with this in my small neighborhood in northwest Atlanta. The kids of the conservative protestant family were taught to look down on the kids of the Roman Catholic family, who returned the favor. Some of you have told me growing up Roman Catholic you were told never to enter a protestant church.

My Episcopal family was viewed as suspect by both families because we were considered too lukewarm to generate a strong enough theological position to matter. So while we rightfully steered clear of a polarizing religious partisanship, we sometimes shrunk the faith down to “just being nice”, which is very different from being filled with the passion of Christ to engage the world in order to heal its divisions.

Of course, in the 1960s, it goes without saying, that no one in my neighborhood was interested in going to a Mosque or a Hindu or Buddhist Temple, though on a rare occasion we might attend a synagogue for a Bar Mitzvah of a Jewish friend. Our souls, which are called by the gospel to expand into a universal love story,  were shrunk down to a tiny story about me and my tribe.

Then, once shrunk, the churches used fear, instead of love to motivate the people. Instead of trusting in the Universal Love of the Word made flesh in Jesus, some churches feel the need to attach themselves to the lesser gods of nationalism, commercial capitalism, and a desire for a return to the all-white social world of “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best”.

The wise men were warned not to go back to Herod, so they returned home by another way. The church too often returns to its Herods to maintain their standing in the royal court and therefore never find its true home.

The first native Anglican bishop in India, Samuel Azariah, told the Anglican bishops gathering with the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace in 1930: “In India we wonder if you have sufficiently contemplated the grievous sin of perpetuating your divisions and denominational bitterness in these your daughter churches. We want you to take us seriously when we say that the problem of union is one of life and death. Do not, we plead with you, do no give us your aid to keep us separate, but lead us to union so that you and we may go forward together and fulfil the prayer [of Jesus], ‘That we may all be one.’”

In just a moment we will come to say this line from the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” As you know, the word catholic means universal. We are called to be a universal church because we believe and trust in the universal love of God in Christ.

John’s gospel doesn’t say, “God so loved the church” but rather “God so loved the world that he gave his only son….”

This Universal Love calls the Wise Men to visit the incarnation of that Love.

This Universal Love likewise calls us, so we can be both receiver and transmitter of the Love made Flesh.

In the movie the father is able to unshrink the kids.

How can our Heavenly Motherly Father unshrink us?

One of my heroes was an English Benedictine monk named Bede Griffiths. He was a student and friend of C. S. Lewis at Oxford, but after living as a monk in England for a number of years he felt called in 1955 to move to India to set up a Christian ashram, committed to living out the Universal Love of Christ in the manner of a Hindu holy man, which he did until his death in 1993.

He once wrote: “This is criterion by which the Church is to be judged, not by the forms of its doctrine or ritual, but by the reality of the love which it manifests.

When asked why he felt called to India and to live in such a strange non-Western way, he replied: I am going “to find the other half of my soul.”