An Epiphany Story

Sermon for January 6, 2013
The Feast of the Epiphany
Isaiah 60: 1-6; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2: 1-12
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

I’m not sure how or when it started.  I was at the end of week two of the three week cold that everyone seems to be getting, tired of being sick, and exhausted after Christmas.  On Christmas Day I got an email from my mentor Frank that Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon had died in her sleep that morning —the bishop who had ordained me and who taught me that “for Christians hope is never optional.”  The next day I was with Don and Grace on our way to Nebraska for our traditional “second Christmas” with Don’s family, when I got word that a very dear friend had just died—and her memorial service would be while I was gone.  I would miss it.

I tell you this not as a plea for sympathy, but to set the stage for an Epiphany story I’d like to share with you. And like Isaiah’s poem for the Israelites returning from exile to a desecrated Jerusalem, and Matthew’s story of the wise men from the East who traveled in search of a star, this Epiphany story begins in the darkness.

Some of you will remember that on Christmas Eve I quoted novelist Taylor Caldwell saying that the whole message of Christmas is that we are never alone.  I said that because we are never alone we need never be afraid—that this is the good news of the gospel. “It is good that we are here,” I said repeatedly…here as God’s church and God’s family.

But then I wasn’t. I wasn’t here for a week that seemed like an eternity, and all that Christian hope that Bishop Dixon had taught me wasn’t optional wasn’t even an option, and the words I had preached on Christmas Eve were but a distant echo.  It felt for all the world like darkness was closing in all around me.  Even though I was with the family I love and adore, I was too far away from my church family—my faith family–to remember the good news I’d preached just days before.

So this is the beginning of my Epiphany story.  It’s the story of how by the grace of God working through this community of faith I was able to see a glimmer of light in a very dark sky and stumble towards it like a desperate Magi until I could see once again the light of Christ; how because of you I was able to remember Isaiah’s promise and believe that this promise included even me.  It’s a story that begins in darkness and like all good Epiphany stories ends in Light.

Now some of you may be uncomfortable with this level of self-disclosure from your clergy.  For some of you this may fall into the category of too much information.  You may prefer to think that those of us who wear white collars are bedrocks of faith who never falter or stumble out of exhaustion, sadness, or grief. But if you know nothing else about me after almost five years of worshipping and ministering together, you certainly know that I am human—something I may have forgotten myself because it had been so blessedly long since I’d felt such a profound degree of perfectly human, but painfully empty, despair.

Listen again to Isaiah:

“Arise, shine; for your light has come, 

and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;

but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.”

Isaiah’s message is so full of hope, and light, and affirmation! In the Book of Common Prayer it appears as Canticle 11, the Third Song of Isaiah, in the liturgy for Morning Prayer.  We sang it at least once a week in seminary and I’ve read it more times than I could even begin to count in the intervening twelve years. Yet until this week I had completely missed something in it that you, too, may not have noticed.

I had completely missed the paradox hidden in the verb tenses of the prophet—the paradox that yes, the Light has come…that yes, the glory of the Lord has risen upon us….that yes, God is present….and that darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness shall cover the peoples.

God’s glory—God’s presence—is with us, Isaiah affirms.  But this doesn’t mean there won’t be times of darkness when we don’t feel God’s presence. It doesn’t mean we won’t feel lost or afraid from time to time.  Our faith– our affirmation of God’s sovereignty and Christ’s Divine Love—is not a vaccine against suffering.

I have been so caught up in recent years by God’s grace in my life, and so filled with gratitude and joy, that it’s been easy for me to shout from the rooftops, “Arise!  Shine! For your light has come!”  I’ve had my share of sorrows like everyone else, but overall, in the past five years God has done far more for me than I ever would’ve dared to dream.

And I forgot the taste of bitter tears.  I forgot how frightening it can be to look into an abyss.  I forgot that faith isn’t a silver bullet that protects us from doubt or darkness, sorrow or grief.

But what’s worse is that I forgot that that’s okay!  I forgot that the next two verses in Isaiah’s beautiful poem hold a promise for the future:“…but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.”  Darkness may cover the earth and enshroud the people, but darkness, like death, is never the final word!

When I preached on Christmas Eve about how good it is in times of darkness that we are here, together, I had no idea how much more meaning those words would soon have for me. Because it was coming home and being with my community of faith that saved me from the dark place in which I found myself.

I saw the bright light of a star in the dark sky when I was with the worshippers at the Wednesday morning healing Eucharist, hearing the words we prayed together as if for the very first time… sharing the bread and the wine…listening intently to the muffled whispers with which I was asked to pray for friends and loved ones… smelling the healing oil as I anointed each forehead.

The star shone even brighter that night, being with a small group that gathered to practice Ignatian prayer…listening to one of them share with us how much the image of Christ’s Light means to her at this dark time of year, marveling at what different prayer experiences each of them had with the same guided meditation, and noticing how good and how safe it felt to be surrounded by fellow travelers on this spiritual journey to know God.

All week I had conversations with church friends who trust me with their feelings and invite me to trust them with mine…friends who shared their tears of grief with me, friends who shared their experience of God’s presence with me, friends who were God’s presence for me.  Some of them knew I was struggling, many of them didn’t.  But all of them were church friends—faith friends—living in Christ’s light and shining it on me without even knowing it, until I could once again see it and follow it and find my way home.

This is that home. We are all lights shining in someone’s darkness, shining the light of Christ so others can find their way home.  St. Stephen’s is a church where we are that light for each other, where we look for that light in each other, and where we follow that light with each other.  This is what it means to be God’s church at St Stephen’s, and it is good that we are here!

It is a paradox of our faith that God’s saving Light has come into the world and that even so, darkness can enshroud God’s people.  But darkness will never win. Darkness will never overcome us.  Not since three very wise men saw a little spark of light in the night sky and followed it till they found the Light of Christ; not since the Light of Christ escaped from a cold dark tomb and shone victorious on Easter morning; and surely not as long as you and I reveal that Light of Christ to each other. So arise and shine; for our Light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon us! Amen.


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