The Very Rev. Tom Callard, January 6, 2019
Years ago I read a short story from a Science Fiction author named Harlan Ellison. And in the story the main character suffers a series of horrible tragedies, one after another. He loses a child in a car accident. His business partner does things which cause their business to close. His wife begins divorce proceedings. His own health suffers and he becomes depressed.
And from time to time, when this man goes to sleep at night, he has this dream. It is a recurring dream where he is running across a landscape, but it isn’t this world. And he is in a body but it isn’t a human body. He is this other thing, an alien. And there are others like him. And he is on this alien world. And he is happy there. And all the burdens of his life, his waking life, are gone. His Son’s death, the problems with his wife, his business, all gone. Until the morning comes, when he wakes up and he is back here. But in his dreams, almost every night, he returns to that place.
And then one day, suddenly, he’s there. He isn’t himself on this earth anymore. He is that other being from the dream. And he is in that strange body, but is his real body, on this strange world, which is his real world. And so he goes to the first creature he finds and asks them: where are we? who am I? And the other says to him: well, welcome back. You have arrived home. You were off in this other world. We sent you there.
And the protagonist asks: what did I do to be sent to that hell? Was I being punished? Did I do something wrong, commit a crime? And the other says, sir, quite the opposite. You are our greatest leader, you are the best among us. And so we wanted to honor you by sending you off this horrible world where we live to that place of delight, with all the excitement and adventure and possibility of that world there, because here, in our home world, the other creature says, there’s nothing like it. Here we suffer day after day with with this horrible sameness, no great joys, no great sorrows, and that’s not life. This is hell. So we wanted to reward you by giving you the gift of being alive.
I think of that story at Epiphany because an Epiphany is a moment is one in which we realize with clarity the gift of being alive. Here we are in the midst of struggles and challenges and the difficulties we face, and I think from time to time we feel that we are not alive, that this is not life, not the life we’re meant to live, and we’re being tested, or tried, or punished. And so we ask God: get us out of here, give us a new life better than this one. Give us heaven! and God says – but this is heaven.
An epiphany doesn’t take us out of this world, but it shows us that this world is filled with God’s glory and presence. That here God is imbued in the stuff of our days and the challenges we face and the moments through which we pass. An epiphany doesn’t remove us from the life we live, it opens us to see that life as an amazing gift regardless of what we face.
It is an eye opening thing to realize that this, in fact, can be the heaven we seek, for God has chosen to dwell among mortals, to be with us in the form of Jesus, in the gifts of the church, in the prayers we offer, in the works we do, and in the people we meet. That God is here. And at least until we get to the next realm, this can be our heaven.
And the fact that we don’t see it, the fact that sometimes we pine for another life where we imagine we’ll be happier, with a taller, skinnier you, perhaps more outgoing or more patient, whatever it is you pine for – the fact that we don’t always see the presence of God and feel the peace of God and know the love of God, and that we’re not always happy or content, it has nothing to do with God. For God is there.
At our Wednesday morning Bible Study, we were discussing today’s Gospel, and how important is the star of Bethlehem to the story of Jesus’s birth. The Wise Men come to Jerusalem precisely because they observe the star in the sky. It is a star they have never seen before. And because they study these things, they know this star is special and the Savior has been born.
And so they go to Herod and ask him about the birth of the Savior, and Herod consults his scholars about where it takes place, and they tell him in Bethlehem. And Herod sends the wise men to Bethlehem, and they go, and they follow that star and it stops over the place where Jesus is born.
The star is key to the story. As is seeing that star. And so let us not forget that this story takes place in the desert. If you’ve ever been to the desert, you can see the stars really well. And it takes place at a time when there were no big cities, there was no light pollution, and on a night when there were no clouds blocking the stars, and it was not a full moon. And all of these conditions mean that the wise men have a clarity as they go to search for the child who is the Savior. That there is a clear path which leads them to Jesus.
This never would have happened if that star had been in the night sky were over Hartford or New York or Los Angeles. I lived in Los Angeles for about six years, and never once did I see a single star. Well, maybe four or five. But mostly there was no clarity.
And so part of the story of Epiphany, which is the story of getting to Jesus, is that there must be some clarity. The conditions around us must be good and clear. And the conditions within us must be good and clear. For we are the sky polluted by light. We are the ones covered by clouds. Ours is the vision blurry to the presence of the divine. .God is there, just like every night above us the milky way has spread its canopy, but you’d never know it. We just see a piece, a detail, a moment. As Saint Paul says, we see through a mirror, dimly.
So the question for Epiphany is: how do we clear our vision to see God? And what do the wise men teach us? Do you think these wise men just happened upon that star, that it was chance that they stumbled to Bethlehem and found the baby in the crib? No. They sought him. They went out for him. They quested. They travelled.
Here in the Cathedral have you noticed the wise men have travelled. Last week they were over there and this week they’re over here. The shepherds have hardly travelled at all.
The shepherds in the story, I always get the feeling that the shepherds just get lucky. They are in the right place at the right time, tending their flocks, when suddenly the angels comes and tells them about the birth, and they go and see for themselves. I imagine it’s like they just walk down the hill to the manger. It takes them 15 minutes. But the wise men go on a quest.
Now some people, God bless them, are like those shepherds, and Lord just comes to them. They don’t have to do too much work. But so many of us are wise men who have to seek for God. We have to struggle and put effort into finding God. We have to dedicate time. It has to be a quest for us. For that’s just how it is. We are spiritual journeyers.
So imagine night after night how much time the wise men spent paying attention to the stars. We must pay attention to our life. They noticed that one star out of billions had moved. That’s crazy.
Perhaps if we’re to find God, we must pay attention to the billions of things in our life to try and figure out where among them is Jesus. And pay attention to all the things that block us from seeing Him clearly: Our own self-preoccupation. Our anxieties. Our fears that block us. The constant narrative that we bring with us wherever we go. This chatter. It blocks us from seeing the presence of God right here.
How do we see better? Do we write a journal, do we spend time in silence and prayer and meditation, do we take a searching and fearless moral inventory? How can you know the presence of God in your life if you don’t know your life?
Every time I learn about myself, I learn more about how God is with me, how God urges me to do some things and God invites me to stay away from others. And the more I learn about the gifts and skills God has given me, the more I learn to see my purpose. Consider this a challenge for 2019, know yourself better. Begin with you.
So the wise men see the star, they make the trip to Jerusalem, and then they consult with Herod. How many of you have ever consulted with someone else about your spiritual journey or had a good conversation about your faith? How many of you have gone to someone, come to me or to Jerry or to Linda, or talked with anyone about what’s going on spiritually and with your relationship with Jesus or God. This is something I do on a regular basis. I meet with my spiritual director, I talk with my Bishop, I spend time with my colleagues talking about God. How many of us participate in a Bible Study, or a small group, or have a spiritual partner or friends with whom we can journey.
Do you know the wise men had a lot of help getting to Jesus? They could not have done it alone. We can not do this alone. Epiphany requires help. Sometimes spiritual things just happen because we’re shepherds to whom the angels appear. But so many times we’re wise men. We’ve got a lot to do to get to Him.
At the end, it’s not hard because God wants to be seen. Jesus aches to be known. And he is doing his best every day and every hour to make us see him, here, in the church, in the communion, in the prayers, out there in our struggles, in the poor, in the sick, in the dying, and in the depths of our hearts.
So here on the first Sunday of the year, I wonder if you can start this year with yourself. It’s not selfish to begin with yourself. Know that if you’re not prepared, it’s hard to help prepare others. If you’re not clear, you miss out on a lot of God.
I’m not a big believer in resolutions. In fact I think I’ve already broken every New Year’s resolution I made. But I do believe in goals. And this is a good goal: take time with you, in the presence of God. And take time with another, or a group, to focus on Godly things. And prepare for the Epiphany that will come.