Home
Epiphany

Pastor Elizabeth Bier

Epiphany

Religion
6 mins
January 12, 2021

Epiphany

Ephesians 3:1-12 - The gospel’s promise extends to all

Matthew 2:1-18 - Revelation of Christ to the nations of the earth & Herod’s response

Greetings in the name of the Creator, Spirit and the one who sets us free. Amen.

On Wednesday, the world witnessed armed, white extremists converge on our nation’s capital. They climbed walls, broke windows, planted bombs, spewed hate speech, rappelled off of balconies, erected gallows, flew the Confederate flag, forced elected leaders into hiding, and assaulted essential workers. All of this raged largely unabated.

We were witnessing “white privilege on full display.” As a white woman, who finds no ideological connection to those who stormed the capital, it’s tempting for me to point at the domestic terrorists and declare that they alone are the problem.

But, white folks, let’s be clear: Privilege misleads us into thinking that these people have been an aberration. It is Privilege that allows us to experience surprise. Black Siblings, Indigenous Siblings, and other Siblings of Color have made it abundantly clear that Wednesday—however unnerving, however deplorable—is simply one more chapter in a long, painful history of unchecked white nationalism and white supremacy. In the history of United States, first Europeans came for economic exploration and then political and religious freedom, and they brought a broken interpretation of Christianity which allowed them to visit genocide upon those who lived here. Literally counted non-northern European white people as partial people. White supremacy is our nation’s original sin.

And if we think one political party or another is altogether exempt, we deceive ourselves [and the truth is not in us]. 

The events in Washington unfolded on the Feast of the Epiphany—a feast we are celebrating today. The seekers of wisdom (magi) come as non-Jews to see Jesus. This shows us that Jesus’ life & ministry already has impact beyond the Jewish community. This story also sets up Jesus as a political, public actor - his life will run counter to the ruling power of the day. Epiphany is the day in the church year when we remember a tyrant [Herod], who was so threatened by the power of one baby [Jesus], that he ordered a hit on the children in his kingdom. On the Feast of the Epiphany, we also remember those seekers of wisdom [magi], who, at their own peril, chose to disobey an authoritarian regime so that new life could find a foothold in a weary world. They didn't turn Jesus over to Herod - they chose a different path. 

Herod was a symptom of the ruling Roman culture. For all his power and authority, Herod is a weak and fragile ruler. Herod is also very human. How easy it can be to perceive threats where they do not exist. The rage displayed on Wednesday was that of Herod - of dominant culture and empire challenged, countering a false threat.

Some look at the riots of this past week and compare to this past summer. While it might look similar, they happened for different reasons and aren’t really the same. Context matters. The "why?" matters. We’ll start simply (credit: YouTuber Beau of the Fifth Column). A student at their desk, looks over to another desk. If they need the page # to follow along in a book, that’s ok. But if they look over during a test; that same action; that’s not so good. What if I take an axe and smash through your wall, drag your unconscious body out of our house and put it in the back of a truck. Uh-oh! Unless I just got off a firetruck and I’m putting you in an ambulance. 

This past summer, it was protests against unilateral force and violence exercised by state and local governments, particularly against Black and Brown people. This past week, it was insurrection and seeking to stop the certification of our national democratic process, the voices of all the people, not just the ones we agree with or have historically had more power; the validation of which has been verified in courtroom after courtroom. There was also a difference in what police and military response looked like. A legacy of white supremacy is that Black and brown bodies protesting are assumed to be violent - and often met with preparations for that; white bodies who gather are assumed to be peaceful, even when, like this past Wednesday, they have literally been threatening violence; and requests (from the DC mayor) to prepare for the anticipated violence this past week were delayed and denied. My reading of theologian James Cone this past week got at this context and history.

James Cone is often referred to as the father of black theology. I think a more accurate description is the midwife of black theology - he brought to birth truths about God and Christian faith that were burning within him and his community. His memoir is called Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody. The title is from a gospel song. Many who Jesus healed, told not to tell anybody, but they couldn’t keep it to themselves. Cone’s heart was burning within him to speak from and to the black experience, rather than from the white context he had been educated and trained in. Because the “norm” of Christian theology was written by & out of the context of white, European men. 

Here is an excerpt from Professor Cone’s book.

Luke’s gospel was clear: Jesus’ ministry was essentially liberation on behalf of the poor and the oppressed. I didn’t need a doctorate in theology to know that liberation defined the heart of Jesus’s ministry. Black people had been preaching and singing about it for centuries. When I turned away from white theology and back to scripture and the black religious experience, the connection between Black Power and the gospel of Jesus became crystal clear. Both were concerned about the liberation of the oppressed.” (pg. 15)

I never said that blacks were the only people suffering or that liberation was the only message in the Bible. But I replied that white supremacy is America’s original sin and liberation is the Bible’s central message. Any theology in America that fails to engage white supremacy and God’s liberation of black people from that evil is not Christian theology but a theology of the Antichrist.

“My language was offensive and I knew it. The truth of the gospel is always offensive and unpopular because it expresses solidarity with the powerless and those on the margins. Jesus was offensive to the Roman government and that was why they crucified him. If we are going to understand and embrace his liberating message today, we must see Jesus through the experience of the oppressed black people who are crying out for justice in a white racist society.” (pg. 18)

Cain killed his brother, Abel. But Abel’s blood spoke: ‘Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I don’t know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen: your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!’’ (Gen 4:9-10).

Cain can be viewed as a metaphor for white people and Avel for black people. God is asking white Americans, especially Christians ‘Where are your black brothers and sisters?’ And whites respond, ‘We don’t know. Are we their keepers?’ And the Lord says, ‘What have you done to them for four centuries?’

“The blood of black people is crying out to God and to white people from the ground in the United Sates of America.” (pp. 170-171)

Blood crying out in gospel reading - the children killed by Herod. Rachel wailing.

The birth narratives contain in them the death of Christ. Those foreign seekers of wisdom brought gifts for Jesus, this new king. Gold denotes Jesus as a king. Frankincense and myrrh are sweet-smelling resins that were used in offerings to a god and at status burials. These are symbolic gifts for the divine king who has come to die. 

Jesus was crucified. A death meant to instill fear. A death for sedition - crimes against the state. Unjustly. Lawful at the time, but not just. One of Cone’s recent books is the Cross and the Lynching Tree - exploring the lynched black body in the U.S. as the crucified Christ. Lynching of black bodies across the U.S. was lawful, but not just, not right. Christ is crucified wherever people are tormented.

Jesus’ death was not the end. Death and suffering, and white supremacy has not been the end for black communities in the U.S. either. Black liberation theology pricks the conscience of white folks. Like it should. Like other liberation theologies from oppressed communities around the world. Like Jesus’ inclusion of those on the margins & outside pricked the consciences of the Pharisees, Jewish leaders and scribes, Roman rulers & citizens. 

When the oppressed are freed, stand up for themselves - dominant culture is challenged & given the opportunity to listen, change & grow. We are the dominant culture - I am - white, straight, middle class. The discomfort & "offense" in that challenge is not oppression. Rather, they are growing pains - birth pangs - invitations to new understanding, more wholeness; pruning that leads to growth. 

The Epiphany story closes with the words, “Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, [the seekers of wisdom] left for their own country by another road.” Learning of the danger, they went home by a different route - they changed their plans.

Our readings from Ephesians & Matthew speak to this different route we are called to as Christians; we are alive with Christ as new creations - a new message, new way of life and love for the whole world - humans and all of creation. Ephesians - all adopted into God’s family. Jews and Gentiles - two peoples now one. One humanity, one human race; one body of Christ in the world. We confess when we have not lived out this reality and work for reconciliation to make it a reality.

We follow Christ’s lead as he centered his body with those who were truly marginalized and oppressed; today - race, gender, class, etc. This learning from and with the oppressed gives eyes to see the well of living water, the transforming, good news of Christ in ways that nourish our souls. Loved right where we are & not left there. 

Here is another passage from Cone. 

The gospel of Jesus was defined as God’s coming reign in the life, teachings, and death of Jesus, liberating the poor into a new realm of existence. Jesus’s liberation was both political and spiritual, fighting the Roman Empire and giving those who believe and follow him a salvation that no one could take away. White and black churches had failed to preach and live Jesus’s gospel of liberation. They were too concerned about their own survival as institutions and failed to heed Jesus’s saying: ‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it (Mark 8:35).”

This is the foolishness and the promise of the cross. Thanks be to God.

___________

LITANY

P: This week, we watched in horror as a mob stormed the US Capitol building. Lives were lost. The institution of our democratic republic was shaken. The peaceful transfer of power was threatened.

As people who live in the United States, we cannot help but be affected by these events. As people of faith, we put our trust and hope in God, our creator and provider.

Today, I invite you into a time of prayer for our country, our elected leaders, and our neighbors. At the end of each petition, please respond with the words, “Grant us peace.”

P: God who raises up the lowly, we pray for the most vulnerable. We pray for those who lack adequate food, shelter, or employment. We pray for those who are in harm’s way due to the pandemic. God of mercy,

C: Grant us peace.

P: God of justice, too many of our neighbors see justice delayed or denied. We pray for victims of violence, especially those who have been harmed by the violence of systemic racism. Inspire and equip us to break down injustice in our nation, our communities, and our own lives. God of mercy, 

C: Grant us peace.

P: God, you are the King of kings and Lord of lords. We pray for those with political power, especially those elected to leadership in our federal government. Give them wisdom, discernment, and compassion. Guide them to make decisions that are in the best interest of all our neighbors. God of mercy, 

C: Grant us peace.

P: God of reconciliation, we have seen the damage caused when trust is broken and communities are divided. Help us to hear the pain of our neighbors; guide us toward the truth; heal the brokenness among us. God of mercy,

C: Grant us peace.

P: We conclude with a prayer for a time of crisis from the ELW…

O God, where hearts are fearful and constricted, grant courage and hope. Where anxiety is infectious and widening, grant peace and reassurance. Where impossibilities close every door and window, grant imagination and resistance. Where distrust twists our thinking, grant healing and illumination. Where spirits are daunted and weakened, grant soaring wings and strengthened dreams. All these things we ask in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

___________

Imagination/Direction

Epiphany star words. You can choose from the list in the bulletin. I also have an online spin the wheel here: https://wheelofnames.com/view/wxp-v6v/ 

The magi followed the star to find baby Jesus, bringing their gifts. We are also seeking Jesus, trusting God can/does use many signs (or stars) to guide us closer to the Divine presence. Choose a star word to reflect on for the coming year. Cut out a star shape from paper & write your word on it—post it in a place you’ll see it daily or take a photo & make it your phone background.


This article was orginally reported by
Pastor Elizabeth Bier

Rev. Elizabeth Bier is the pastor of ONE in Christ Parish, a three-point parish in Greenwood, Longwood, and Withee. She is ordained with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and has served the ONE in Christ Parish since February of 2019.

Profile