The Least Important Of All God's People
Isaiah 60:1-6;Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14;Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
January 6, 2019 –2nd Sunday of Christmas – Epiphany
There is one of those currents that runs through the Bible, from beginning to end: God always seems to choose the one least likely to do what needs to get done.
Abraham and Sarah were too old. Jacob was a conniver who got connived against. Moses was a fugitive. Paul persecuted the church before his supposed conversion.
Jesus was from the hill country, a bumpkin, a highly improbable savior. He was saved by his obscurity. He was only possibility and vision, not a real human being…until he was.
I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s most recent book these days, Leadership in Turbulent Times. She looks at Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson to try to see what it was that happened to make them the great leaders they turned out to be.
It is a fascinating analysis of all the men who were so different and then so much alike. They grew up under challenging circumstances. There was some crisis that befell each of them. They had been humbled by circumstance beyond their control.
It was because of all of this…not in spite of it…that they became what they become: They were resilient, adaptable, full of empathy for the plight of others, seeing what needed to be seen.
Even the two rich men in the group, the Roosevelts, knew how a shattering calamity felt. Franklin was stricken by polio just as his star was rising on the national scene. Teddy’s mother and wife died in the same house, the same night.
It seems that they did not become the great leaders they were in spite of their misfortune…but rather because of it.
This is an epiphany for me. Maybe it is like something I like to say here: The rich person can believe what they want to believe and be on their merry way; but the poor person has to be able to see things as they are or it will kill them.
An epiphany is a sudden flash of insight. Suddenly you see something new in a very old way; or suddenly you see something old in a very new way. It is something right there in front of you, but it is something that resonates through the years.
It is simply true through time. Sometimes it is a reassuring moment. At other times, it jolts you, and you have to gather yourself before you can go on.
Either way, it changes you, deepens you, opening your eyes and your heart. It might seem like a part of you has died, but there is another part of you that has awakened.
Maybe it is both. What are you going to do about it? How is it going to inform the next decision you have to make?
When we look at these great Presidents…when we look at these pioneers of our faith, it seems like you have to become the least important of all God’s people before you can open the gift God sent into the world through you.
Isaiah calls to a nation that has been defeated, whose leaders have been exiled, and who has now been permitted to return to the rubble of their sovereignty…so long as they do what their conquerors tell them to do…and nothing else.
They can recall the days of glory and it is hard for them to see how those days will ever come again… in their lifetimes or in the history of human striving on the planet earth.
Doris Kearns Goodwin writes about Franklin Roosevelt, the national figure and wealthy man stricken by polio. He, too, became poor at that time.
But, she writes, he bought the compound at Hot Springs, Georgia and fixed it up and invited polio victims from all across the country to come there, swim in the pool, share your triumphs and defeats with others who have polio, and look for a way to get better together.
Goodwin writes that Frances Perkins watched this effort and said it reminded her of an old priest that told her once that “humility is the first and the greatest of virtues. If we don’t learn it on our own, the Lord will surely teach it to us by humiliation.”
Roosevelt had been humiliated far more profoundly than any of us will ever know, but it gave him time to do long, slow thinking. He looked at the responses to his plight that he could choose from and he picked the one he thought was best…in the long run.
The least important of all God’s people know how poor they are – whether they have riches or not – and their poverty…their humility… compels them to search far and wide for the plan that makes us one, makes us all brothers and sisters, and gives us hope…through the stories we hear from our neighbors.
This, too, is an epiphany, to know that we can do it if we come in love in search of truth and want only to live a better life. Arise! Shine! Your light has come!
This kind of problem solving cuts across boundaries. Paul writes to us as one who carried his testimony with him wherever he went. The Jews mistrusted him because he had abandoned them. The Christians mistrusted him because he had persecuted the church. The Greeks mistrusted him because he was caught up in a religious dispute that seemed to have claimed his whole life.
And so, he found that his message of invitation and calling…of hope and salvation…first took root in Gentile hearts…like ours. They could understand what he was saying, literally and metaphorically, and they could see the truth in it as no other person could.
They had no axe to grind with him. They had no historical dispute with his Greek ancestors or his Jewish friends or his Christian ideas. They received his proclamation of his faith as an epiphany.
Of course, it is better. Of course, I will be happier to walk in that way. Of course, it will make me a better person. So why shouldn’t I do that? Why can’t I choose that way?
It is to receive an epiphany to ask that question. In the asking there is a seeing of something waiting, calling, loving. There is daring in it and hope and a way through the deep dark forest of the world to a place where we can all grow together as one.
Lincoln was so good at seeing the reality of what was going on in the little arguments of his day. The Missouri Compromise had said that slavery was permitted south of the parallel 36°30′ and prohibited north of it.
But then, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed providing that each new state got to decide whether it was slave or free. Nothing could be simpler, nothing could be fairer, right?
But Lincoln saw that the containment of slavery, that would lead to its eventual extinction, had now been repealed. Indeed, pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers rushed into the territory to assure that the vote would turn out their way.
Pro-slavery settlers attacked, burned out and killed anti-slavery. Then John Brown began to lead raids on pro-slavery settlers. It became known as bleeding Kansas.
In debating Douglas, Lincoln made it very clear and very understandable what was going on here. There were two adjacent farms with only a fence between them.
One of the farmers had his prairie grass dry up. He removed the fence so his cattle could feed on his neighbor’s pasture. When confronted by his neighbor the farmer claimed he had done nothing but take down a fence.
“It is my true intent and meaning not to drive my cattle into your meadow, nor to exclude them from it, but to leave them perfectly free to form their own notions of the feed and to direct their own movements in their own way.”
Everyone in the audience had a sudden and robust epiphany on hearing those words. Everyone now understood clearly what was at stake and what was afoot.
And the pro-slavery people began to hate Abraham Lincoln with a new kind of anger that day. It’s not what you say about them that makes them mad…It’s what you say about them that’s true.
As a church, we can now turn such lessons into ministry and mission. We now have a great meeting place in the community that can draw people together. We have a Bridge Club and an AA group. Yesterday, the Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork held a day-long training session here.
We welcome Rotary and we serve a community meal every week. And now we find that we can be instrumental in providing safe drinking water to a rural village in Nepal through the Eagle Scout Project of Blake Remington, whose mother and grandmother grew up in this church.
We have been blessed by this day… as Abraham was blessed and Jacob was blessed and Samuel was blessed …to be a blessing.
We celebrate this day as an epiphany…as an invitation from God to the Gentiles…to join in the upward call of service and hope. We are only as little a church as we choose to be. We can only be as good a church as we choose to be.
But we get to choose. Today, we have new choices and new hopes. We drink the blood and eat the broken body of Jesus in our communion celebration today, not so he can be part of us, but that we can become part of him.
You are what you eat. You are the body of Christ in the world. You have become the blood of Christ flowing through the world.
We are a body of believers gathered in the name of the one that the Gentile Kings from afar had to explain to the Jewish King Herod of that day. We can see possibilities where others see problems. We can see hope where others see despair.
O Lord, it’s hard to be humble,
When you’re perfect in every way.
I can’t wait to look in the mirror,
Because I get better looking each day.
To know me is to love me,
I must be a heck of a man.
O Lord, it’s hard to be humble,
But give us the grace to do the best that we can.
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us… through me…this day? Amen.