“More than a nice Hallmark quote”

A Sermon for the Commemoration of
The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.
Prophetic Voice and Martyr for Justice

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

January 22, 2020

Dr. King image

It is always fascinating to watch how someone who is being honored and celebrated is presented on Facebook. I have found this to be especially true of the recent commemoration of the Birthday of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.

To my surprise, this year, there was a different assessment—not of Dr. King, but of those who were choosing to honor and to celebrate his legacy. A number of these posts raised an interesting question, “Are we who celebrate Dr. King, attempting to tame or to present him in a way which fits a preconceived mold which we have, rather than remaining true to who he was?” In particular, these posts pointed out that we have a few favorite quotes from Dr. King which we like to use. In them, he comes across as a very benign—but rather uncontroversial thinker. I would like to think that this is because we have indeed made progress. If that were true, it would mean that our own racist attitudes and actions have truly changed. Statements and actions which might have seemed controversial—or even shocking, now seem “normal” and “acceptable.”

Is this the phenomenon of the “taming of the Prophet?” Does this mean that we have lost the impact, the surprise, the shock of Dr. King’s words and actions? Does it mean that we no longer recognize the “newness” in him? Does it mean that we are no longer challenged, energized, and even impelled by his message? Have we allowed him to become a series of nice Hallmark quotes? I cannot help but recall those words of Our Lord about the complacent dwellers of Jerusalem, “Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So, you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs.” (Luke 11: 47-48, NRSV) Those are hard words to hear!

When I read these posts, I was challenged and troubled. It seems to me that the message of Dr. King is every bit as relevant today as it was more than 50 years ago. So many of the same problems—racism, racial profiling, violence against Blacks, subtle forms of segregation and red-lining, gentrification, the “War on Drugs,” voter suppression, and mass incarceration persist. In fact, in some cases, these problems have worsened. What would Dr. King say to us today? So much a part of his own ministry was that of solidarity—he went to the places where people desperately needed someone to walk with them and to speak on their behalf. Where would he be present today? Where should we be visibly present today?

Providentially, I came across a powerful essay written by the late James Baldwin. In it, he reflected on his own experience of being present at the funeral of Dr. King. Most interestingly, though, he wrote—in depth—about the two most important leaders of the Civil Rights Movement; Dr. King, and Malcom X. He pointed out that both of them grew, developed, and changed over the course of many years of struggle (a very healthy thing). He suggested that Malcolm X had “mellowed out,” and that Dr. King had become increasingly “radicalized.” Now that was a fascinating idea!

Tragically, these two Prophetic Voices, these two Men of God, were martyred for the cause of justice. And we are all the poorer for that! Who knows what might have happened if they had been allowed the time and space to work together—and to continue to call us to conversion? As an aside, I completely understand the concept that a Calendar of Saints ought to celebrate lives of Christian holiness. Yet, I cannot help but wonder what powerful message would be sent if we, as a Church, also honored and celebrated the gift, charism, legacy, and witness of Malcolm Shabazz?

In the article, there was a quote which captivated me. Mr. Baldwin clearly saw the essence—to the very rotten core–of the insidious and evil way that racism and injustice function and thrive: “America, Baldwin believed, was split in two—not between North and South but between the powerful and the disenfranchised. Racism, that scourge that beclouded our democracy, remained—remains—the nation’s greatest peril. But the powerful maintained the status quo by sowing discord among the disenfranchised. Poor white folk, rather than uniting with their socioeconomically oppressed brothers and sisters against the rich, trained their targets on poor black folk. They channeled their anxieties into a vengeance against blackness.”

Perhaps Mr. Baldwin too, is a Prophet, who speaks God’s word to us today. Wisdom! Let us be attentive.

MLK and Malcolm x


“They rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”

A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas
January 5, 2020
Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
In Easton, Pennsylvania

Star-of-Bethlehem for Word Press

Rejoice with exceeding great joy
with March of the Kings, We three kings and The first Noel

Oh when they saw the star they rejoiced with great joy!
Oh when they saw the star they rejoiced with great joy!
Oh when they saw the star they rejoiced with great joy!
They rejoiced with exceeding great joy

O’er mountains and valleys it led them each night. (A star of most radiant light.)
Radiant light and so, the wise men rejoiced as they (The wise men rejoiced as they)
journeyed a far to behold such a beautiful star

Oh When they saw the star they rejoiced with great joy!
When they saw the star they rejoiced with great joy!
When they saw the star they rejoiced with great joy!
They rejoiced with exceeding great joy

(The star shone bright giving)It led those three kings to a Holy Child. (wondrous light.)
When they saw the star they rejoiced with great joy!
Oh one bright day I saw in rich array
When they saw the star they rejoiced with great joy!
three mighty kings all their court go marching,

When they saw the star they rejoiced with great joy!
marching one bright day Kings in rich array
They rejoiced with exceeding great joy
beheld a star shone from far away
They rejoiced with exceeding great joy
We three kings of the orient are.
When they saw the star.
Bearing gifts we
They rejoiced wit great joy!
travel afar.
When they saw the star.
Field and fountain moor and mountain
They rejoiced with exceeding great joy!
following yonder star.

Oh Star of wonder star of night,
star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Lead us, guide us
guide us to thy perfect Light.
to thy perfect Light.
Star of wonder star of night (Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel)
Star with royal beauty bright (Born is the King of Israel)

Oh when they saw the star,
Oh when they saw the star they rejoiced with great joy!
When they saw the star they rejoiced with great joy!
When they saw the star they rejoiced with great joy!
They rejoiced with exceeding great joy

Lanny Wolfe Arr.: Derric Johnson
© 1978 Lanny Wolf Music/Gaither Cop

This has become one of my favorite Christmas songs, and perhaps my favorite song about the Epiphany—all because of one phrase: “exceeding great joy.” I try to imagine what kind of joy this must be. A joy that exceeds almost any other joy imaginable. A joy that so fills the heart that it overflows A joy that is so complete and perfect that it is like a light which illumines the darkness and reveals everything which had been hidden in the shadows. Not just a great joy-an exceeding great joy!

There is a real danger which we face when we hear very familiar passages. We are tempted to focus on what we know. We know what to expect and so, as we listen, we are waiting for familiar ideas—and even words. We listen for them, and when we hear them, we think—“yes, there it is.” The problem with that, is that it prevents us from “hearing anew” We are not listening for something different or unusual—after all, we know this story. And, we are not trying to look for something unexpected or surprising. The downside of that, is that we could discover that there is new meaning and insight in the old story which we know so well. If we limit ourselves to recalling what we already know, we may fail to discover what the story is able to reveal to us if we look at it a different and untried way.

This past year, I found myself surprised to discover a renewed interest in Holy Scripture. While this is something which I have wrestled with for most of my adult life, and something which I have studied in some detail, I suddenly found myself hungry to learn about Scripture in a new way. I found myself curious to want to understand more about the meaning of the words in their original languages. I found a desire to understand the symbolism and the context of the stories.

Why were these stories written? What message was the author trying to convey by sharing these specific stories? How did this particular passage relate to other Biblical passages? What had this story meant over the centuries? What does it mean to me here and now? What good news—what message of hope and encouragement—is contained in this account? What lesson can I take away from it to live a life which is more fully connected to God, to others and to creation?

This new and different way of engaging with Scripture became far more than a scholarly exercise. the reading of Sacred Scripture provided a mechanism to listen to God and to discern God’s call and plan in my life. It meant putting aside everything which I already knew and becoming open to hearing something new, surprising, challenging, and life-giving

This new approach proved useful in exploring the account of the Visit of the Magi which we encountered in today’s Gospel. I photocopied the text of the gospel and circled each word as it “jumped out at me.” And then, I examined the sequence in which these words were recounted. What did each of these words mean? What did each word contribute to the story as it began to unfold? Could I take these words as they unfolded and tell a story—without worrying about additional or even superfluous words? This allowed me to examine these words in a more focused and specific way than I had previously. By doing this, some details which I had not noticed previously were revealed to me. Some ideas–trees which had gotten lost in the forest–emerged. And I found answers which I had not discovered previously.

There is not enough time to look at each of the words in detail, but I would like to share some thoughts about a few of the more important words with you.

Jesus. The name jumps out at us at the very beginning. It is a name we already know from the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. When the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, he was told that the child would be named Jesus, because he would “save his people from their sins.” This is a play on words. The name in Hebrew and Aramaic Yeshua or Joshua means “God Saves.” When, on the eight day after his birth, Jesus was entered into the covenant with Abraham through the rite of circumcision and was named, he was recognized as a Jewish child, the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—a descendant of the House of David.

Bethlehem. In Hebrew this name literally means “House of Bread.” It was most famously, the hometown of King David. That it is mentioned here, shows that the child Jesus, is a descendant of the Royal Family. Yet, clearly that does not mean as much as it did at one time—the family of David has fallen on hard times. That family no longer rules in Israel. They lost power when the Babylonians conquered the entire area in 878 BCE and never regained control. The monarchs who came to rule after the Maccabean revolt were Levites-and not from the family of David—and were thus not viewed by many Jews as being legitimate rulers. Later, they were usurped, in turn, by Herod, who was an Idumean (a descendant of Essau). Many thought that Herod was not even Jewish to begin with. His family had been forcibly converted to Judaism several generations earlier and was not even descended from Jacob.

Wise Men. This is a fascinating word. Tomorrow we will celebrate the Feast of Epiphany—sometimes called “The Feast of the Three Kings.” And yet, the text does not call them Kings. Here they are called “Wise men.” The word Magi, derived from the Greek magoi, does not necessarily mean that they were kings at all. Commonly, it referred to a very well-educated court adviser who used the stars to give advice. They combined astronomy and astrology with other kinds of knowledge to make suggestions as to how to proceed in times of discernment. We are not told how many there were or even where they were from—only that they come from the East.

The star. It would be impossible to live anywhere near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania without thinking of the star. It is one of the most visible elements of the Moravian Tradition—there is the illuminated star which may be seen on South Mountain each night. And, notice that we have one here in front of the altar. Much ink has been poured onto paper over generations in an attempt to prove that there was a literal star which the magi saw and followed to Jerusalem—which is the first place that it led them. However, in the early church, there was the notion that the word kokhba in Hebrew or asteri in Greek, might have actually referred to an angel. In Greek, an angel is a messenger—someone who carries news from God. In my own thought and reflection, I imagined that it might have been something like the pillar of fire which guided the people of Israel by night on their journey through the desert towards the land of promise. Whatever it was, it caught the attention of the magi and led them to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem. Now it is time for an embarrassing confession. In all the decades in which I have read and heard this passage, I never paid attention to the fact that the magi were first led by the star to Jerusalem. Was I “gathering wool” in class when we studied this passage in seminary? Perhaps. Recently, I came across a fascinating video by Dr. Brant Pitre. In it, he suggested that the star represented nature and creation. These elements could only take the magi so far. They had to go to Jerusalem (the city from which King David ruled) to have Scripture experts tell them where to find the child.

The Scripture scholars explored the Hebrew Bible and found three prophecies—Numbers 24:17, Isaiah 60: 1-6, and Psalm 72: 1-10. These prophecies indicated that a “king of the Jews” would be born in Bethlehem, the City of David. He would be visited by Kings bearing gifts and that the gifts offered would include gold and frankincense. The point, Dr. Pitre makes, is that Revelation was needed to complete the journey—without the insight gained from revelation, the second phase of the journey would have been impossible. When the magi left, headed for Bethlehem, the presence of the star was the indication that they were headed in the right direction. When they arrived in Bethlehem, where the infant Jesus was, the star “came to rest over the place where the child was.”

Rejoiced with great joy. Now you see the inspiration for the chorus for which I began the sermon today. I just love this verse. The magi realized that their pilgrimage was completed. They had found what they were looking for. The star had led them to Jesus. Their hearts were full to overflowing. This line captures the joy and wonder of that moment.

Fell down and worshiped. This fascinating word (proskyneo) is more than “paid homage” or even “adored.” It is a word which means that the magi literally threw themselves on the ground and gave the kind of respect and devotion that was given to God alone. In other words, their action acknowledged that the child Jesus was God—he was divine. How astonishing, at least in the Gospel of Matthew, this is the first time that this has happened. And, worship comes not from his own people, but from foreigners, gentiles, pagans. The last people who might have been expected to know and to acknowledge something like this. Now, that is unexpected.

Gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. They brought three gifts, and so, readers of Matthew and of the prophecies mentioned above concluded that these magi were, in fact, the kings who had been prophesied. Since they brought three gifts, there must be three kings. So there we have it, “We three kings of Orient are.”

We use a theological word to refer to this story, we call it The Epiphany. Epi-phanes in Greek might literally mean something like the “manifestation” or “the appearance upon earth.” But as it was used at that time, it describes something like “the revelation upon earth of the child in Bethlehem as the Son of God.” Oddly enough, I am one of those unusual people who think that Christmastide ought to actually end with the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. Why, you might ask? Because when the Priest Simeon takes the child Jesus in his arms and gives thanks to God he utters that famous prophecy, “this is the light of revelation to the nations, and the glory of your people, Israel.” Simeon’s words explain what had happened when the magi or kings had visited the child Jesus.

There is also an interesting connection to the Feast of Lights or the “Feast of the Dedication,” as Chanukah is called in the tenth chapter of John (10:22-30).In that passage Jesus is at the Temple in Jerusalem during Chanukah. Perhaps there was a special menorah at the temple which was kindled on the feast—in addition to the hanukiyot which people kindled in their homes. Judah Maccabee led a revolt against the evil king Antiochus IV in the year 167 BCE. Antiochus desecrated the temple in Jerusalem, forbade Jewish religious practice such as circumcision, forced observant Jews to eat pork, and tried to transform Judaism into Greek modes of thinking. He gave himself another name, Epiphanes. His use of this title indicated that he considered himself to be divine. For the Maccabees, none of this was tolerable. So, against immense odds, they fought a bloody and vicious war which lasted six years. When they finally defeated Antiochus and regained control of the temple, the miracle of Chanukah occurred when the oil for re-dedication—which only should have lasted for one day, lasted for eight.

In the minds of the community of Matthew, it seems no stretch of the imagination to see Herod as another version of Antiochus Epiphanes. The Emperor in Rome was also beginning to be worshiped as divine. That miraculous oil of the temple menorah reminds us of the light of a star—and of Jesus as the “light of the world.”

The “good news” for this for me is that the discovery of Jesus by outsiders, foreigners, and aliens, points to the importance and significance of Jesus for all. His coming brings the promise of light, hope and “exceeding great joy” for the whole world. The gifts which the magi gave to Jesus help us to better understand the mystery which he represents: he is Priest (frankincense), Prophet (myrrh) and King (gold).

As we continue the journey with Matthew during this year, we will learn more about the ways in which all of this plays out in the ministry of our Lord and in the saving mystery of his passion, death, and resurrection. May we too love, serve, and worship him. And as we do, may we rejoice with exceeding great joy.