Text: Matthew 2:1-12 (the Magi follow a Star to Bethlehem)
In the dark months of winter, the church directs us to focus on light — first in the season of Christmas and now in the season of Epiphany. I appreciate this, and never more than this winter when recent political events have darkened my vision . . .
But first a few words about church and politics. Some people complain that my sermons are too political, and I appreciate the feedback. But I disagree with the idea that politics is out of place in church.
Religion has always been political. The very first priests were also the first kings, and the very first kings were also the first priests. Ever since, political power and religious practice have been intertwined.
The books of the Bible are chock-a-block with political topics — slavery in Egypt; the careers of Israel’s kings; tales of wars and conquests; and the attempt of Roman rulers like Herod to crush Jesus’ movement of love and justice.
I agree that churches should not direct their members how to vote. But today in the face of the success of racist politicians, I am moved to articulate some of my feelings about their success and what it might mean for us as a church.
On the other hand, I also am aware that few people are as consumed by social and political trends as me. In preparing services, I rely on what is happening around me: conversations I have had; what is happening at the church; things I have been reading and watching; and my reactions to these.
November’s election in the United States has affected me deeply, probably more than most; and that difference makes it challenging for me to minister right now. This is one of the reasons I hope many of you will be able to come to an evening of sharing on January 19. But more about that in a minute. For now, on with a sermon about the search for light in a dark season …
In the past, I watched with dismay as far-off countries succumbed to racist leadership — Uganda in the 1970s when it practiced ethnic cleansing under Idi Amin; Iran in the 1980s when it turned to the fundamentalist dictator Ayatollah Khomeini as its revolution faltered; Russia in the 1990s when it came to be led by authoritarian nationalists like Vladimir Putin after decades of communism.
Today the success of racist and authoritarian politics is as close as the United States. It is in this context that I reflect on the story of the Star over Bethlehem and discuss how we might try to emulate the Magi who followed the Star’s light.
No matter how one feels about the results of November’s election in the United States — and I acknowledge that some people in the congregation may welcome the inauguration of a new U.S. President in twelve days — I believe that a new era is dawning. It is an era in which fears of social change have reached such a point that acting like an incompetent and ignorant bully is no longer a barrier to success for a politician. It is an era in which a leader who brags to a reporter that he has sexually assaulted women can garner millions of votes. It is an era in which fanning prejudices against racial and religious minorities is a ticket to victory rather than a shameful and career-destroying act.
Today, the politics of ethnic cleansing, disregard for the rights of women, and an eagerness to use military power — even weapons of mass destruction — in pursuit of national interest has moved from the world’s periphery to the most powerful nation in the world.
But as unfortunate as this may strike us, there seems little we can do about it. So, some of us might now withdraw from following the news and the struggle to make a difference in the wider world.
I understand this point of view. And thinking about this brought to my mind the life of a member of the church in Rockglen, where I served from 2011 to 2014. One day over lunch, Hans Wurmlinger told me the story about his life during World War II, a story he has told to generations of schoolchildren in Rockglen, and which I retell here.
Hans was born in 1929 in a German-speaking part of what is now Romania. When war broke out between Nazi Germany and the Allied countries ten years later, the region where he lived was captured by the Germans. But happily, the Germans occupied the area without struggle, and life on the farm where Hans lived continued relatively unchanged. As a teenager, Hans heard little about the war, and life in his rural community seemed OK.
Unfortunately for his family, things changed in 1945 when the Russians pushed the Germans out of the region. As a 16-year old German-speaking male, Hans was arrested and sent to a camp in Siberia. For two years, he endured wretched conditions there and watched some of his friends die of cold and malnutrition. When he was released, he made his way across Europe, the Atlantic Ocean, and Canada to Moose Jaw where one of his uncles lived.
Once in Saskatchewan, Hans found work on a farm near Rockglen. He met a local girl named Gloria, whom he married, and together they raised a family on a farm.
Would it have helped Hans as a child if his Roman Catholic priest in eastern Europe had preached about the dangers of Nazism? Would it have helped him as a teenager if he knew more about the War even though it had little effect on the rural community where he lived?
I am glad that Hans lived his childhood in relative ignorance. Although the forces of war and racism eventually overtook his family, I am happy that his first 16 years of life were relatively peaceful and uneventful.
In the face of the new government in the United States, perhaps we should emulate Hans’ example and ignore it. Maybe we should just tend to our own gardens and enjoy life in Edmonton until the flames of tribalism and war overwhelm us too.
Some of the time, I imagine that this is how I will cope. Although a church can do little about political or military events, we can always love our families and neighbours, bless babies when they are born, mourn and celebrate the lives of loved ones who have died, and proclaim hope in a world of awesome mystery.
Once authoritarian racists have political power, it is difficult to displace them. I don’t know how resistance to racism and war will develop in the United States and Europe in the next few years. I pray that young people will exhibit creativity, solidarity and community-building in surprising new ways that will help preserve the rule of law. I also hope that my fears will prove to be overblown.
We have an opportunity to discuss these issues here on Thursday evening January 19. The Worship Committee has engaged a facilitator to help us share feelings and perspectives. In the face of a new political situation, what is on our hearts and minds? By listening to each other’s feelings, I hope we may gain a sense of whether we want to shift the focus of the church’s mission or worship life.
During the season of Epiphany, I also suggest that we emulate the Magi. When the Magi saw a Star in the West, they were curious and journeyed towards it. Because they didn’t understand what the Star meant, they stopped in Jerusalem to ask questions of King Herod. When they arrived in Bethlehem, they expressed awe and wonder in the face of the infant Jesus. While there, they listened to their dreams, and at the prompting of the Spirit, they ignored Herod’s request to tell him what they had found in Bethlehem and returned home by a different way.
Like the Magi, we too could stay curious, ask questions, express awe in the face of the sacred, listen to our dreams, and have the courage to follow the path of God’s Love instead of the one mandated by empire.
On each of the Sundays of the season of Epiphany, I plan to focus on a new source of learning and revelation. In a political environment where lies are the norm, learning in and of itself becomes an act of resistance. We could read history or science books, learn a new skill, or join a discussion circle. I believe that whatever new knowledge or ability we gain is part of the work of saying “yes” to the light and “no” to leaders who want us to remain ignorant and in the dark.
In the face of official fictions about economics or ecology, we could inform ourselves of the facts and the science that lies behind them. In the face of political judgements and crude insults we could stand for honesty and fairness. In the face of crooked logic and disordered thinking, we could support sound reasoning and evidence as the basis for policy.
Instead of fearing people of different races or religions, we could opt for hospitality and inclusion. In opposition to the idea that might equals right, we could express awe in the presence of what is truly sacred — a baby who bears the image of God, and a fragile world of immense beauty.
During this dark and cold winter, I pray that we will turn towards the same light that guided the Magi from the East. Like them, may we journey together, discover new manifestations of God’s Love, and kneel in awe in the face of all the wonder and beauty that a life dedicated to love and learning reveals to us.
In opposition to forces of racism and war, let us join again in hope and repeat God’s creative refrain: “Let there be light!”
May it be so. Amen.