Cardboard Epiphanies: Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, 2017

When I was in elementary school I collected baseball cards. I’d use a little of my allowance to buy a pack, and I’d throw away the horrible, hard gum and then I’d carefully organize the cards, first by team, and then alphabetically by player before taking any duplicates and trading them with some of the guys in my class. I ran a shrewd baseball card operation.

Later I outgrew them, and the cards ended up boxed in our garage. After college my parents sold the house I’d spent the most time in growing up, and moved to Virginia. And when they got to their new house I never saw the cards there, so I figured they had just been thrown out over the years and I didn’t give it much thought.

But last week, as you know, I went down to visit my parents in Virginia. They’re getting ready to sell the “new” house that they’ve lived in for over 15 years now, and move into a newer house my oldest sister is building. And my dad said “hey, we found these boxes…you need to look through them when you come down, because what you don’t want we’ll donate.”

And there, at the back of a closet, unopened for decades, was my box of baseball cards.

Growing up my dad had told me stories of the baseball card collection he had lost. When he had deployed overseas his family had unknowingly thrown away everything from Babe Ruths to Ted Williams. He’d always wondered what those would been worth. And so, pulling the big box of cards out of the closet, I figured I’d hit the jackpot.

So, you might be wondering what this has to do with the Gospel text for today. This is a familiar story. Three wise men, or kings, or magi, followed a star until it brought them to Jesus. The Bible really doesn’t tell us much about them other than that they were in some way wise and powerful, and that they came to Herod, the king of the region, to ask about the new king.

19499296-largeAs you can imagine, Herod was not excited to hear this. He was the king, after all. He didn’t want any kind of challenge to his authority. And so he came up with a plan to find out more, so that he could destroy this king. He told the magi, “Go find him, and then come back and tell me how to find him. That way I can go worship him myself.”

Sure, say the wise men. And they kept following the star until they found Jesus and Mary. And they knelt down and gave him the gifts they had brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We know this part of the story well. We sing the verses of “We Three Kings” and we remember those gifts.

But that’s not the best part of the story. To me the best part is this: remember how Herod wanted them to come back and tell him everything? An angel warns them what Herod is really up to, and so in order to protect Jesus, and themselves, they end up going home “by another way”.

I’ve always loved how Herod gets out-smarted. He thought destroying this new king would be pretty simple. Just send someone else out to do the hard work, have them report back to you, and then take advantage of their trust in order to destroy the threat.

But the wise men don’t play Herod’s game. Having met Jesus, having figured out that there was something special about this child, they listen to the angel, they see the signs, and they change their game plan.

I’ve often thought about the wise men’s journey to see Jesus. I’ve thought about how treacherous that must have been. First, the three had to find one another. Then, they had to follow this star to a place they knew nothing about, in order to meet this newborn king that looked nothing like a king. They surely got lost at times. Certainly they grew tired. They were far from home, and navigating by faith.

But as much as I’ve thought about the journey there, I’ve never thought much about the journey back.

I’ll bet that as the wise men were getting close to Jesus they felt a sense of relief. “Okay, we’ve made it…now we will go and pay homage, and then we’ll just go back to Herod’s place, hang a left, trek across the desert, retrace our steps and go home.”

But when the angel told them what was happening, all their plans had to change. They couldn’t go home the way they knew. They had to find a new way.

In the church year, Christmas lasts for 12 days. Twelfth Night is on January 5th. But on January 6th, or the Sunday closest to it, we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. This is our commemoration of the day that the Wise Men finally made it to Jesus.

The word Epiphany literally means “manifestation” or “appearance”, and in this context it means Jesus Christ, God in human form, appearing to humanity, as represented by the three wise men.

When you and I talk about “having an epiphany”, though, we might think of it more in terms of having a sudden and brilliant understanding of something. A breakthrough moment, so to speak. “I finally understood how to do calculus” or “now I know what I’m supposed to do with my life”.

Those two meanings of “epiphany” sound so different. But, when you think about it, they’re really not. Because whether you are seeing God’s love with us for the first time, or you are finally getting something, the reality is this: you understand something amazing in a new way, and you are changed by it.

You will never be the same again, and you will never again go home exactly the same way as you always have before. You have been changed, and your world has been changed. And suddenly going back to the things demanding your attention, the Herod’s of the world with their tricks and their traps, hold no power over you anymore, and you know that you can’t go back.

Down in Virginia my dad and I opened up that big box of baseball cards. We pulled out the cards that looked the most promising: the Mark McGwire rookie cards. The Cal Ripkens and Wade Boggs. The Nolan Ryan all star cards.

And then came the moment of truth. I typed the cards’ information into Google, and waited on the results, expecting to have struck gold. Or, at least a little extra cash.

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Not worth what you might think. 

But here’s what I found. I would say that late 1980’s baseball cards, even the most coveted ones, are a dime a dozen. But, honestly, that would be cheating the dime. In fact, you could buy an entire year’s mint-edition, complete set of hundreds of cards online for about $30.

And so Dad and I laughed about that box, stored untouched for about three decades. The one that had survived multiple moves, and taken up closet space. My nine year old self, who painstakingly organized team after team, would have been so disappointed. My investment had been worthless.

Except it wasn’t.

If I could go back in time and talk to myself on the day I boxed up those cards for the last time, I think I’d say this: “These cards…they’re not going to be worth much someday. But, pack up that box anyway. Because years from now, on a winter’s day when Dad is 84, and when you are visiting from far away, you are going to open it. And you are going to sit with one another, and talk, and laugh. And it’s going to be worth it. That’s the epiphany that you will have years from today.”

Sometimes the blessings we expect are different than the blessings we get. Sometimes what we get is even better.

By the next time I see my parents, they’ll be living somewhere else. I’ll literally need to go home by another way. But, it will still be home.

The story of the Epiphany teaches me that God’s path for us is always changing. Where we end up isn’t where we always expected. What we end up with isn’t either. But if we pay attention to the signs on the journey, and we are open to where the road leads, we might just find something that is greater than we could have imagined. Amen?

John the Baptist, Penn State, the Harder Right, and the Easier Wrong

For the past eight months, like many of you, I’ve been keeping an eye on the story coming out of Penn State. There were the accusations, the arrest, more witnesses and survivors coming forward, a trial, and finally, the verdicts. By the time the jury said “guilty”, few of us were surprised.

But more than the man who committed these heinous crimes, I’ve been interested in the whole system that was involved, all of Penn State. The coaches, the university staff, the alumni board, the rioting students, some of the fans. Most of us, thankfully, would never hurt a child. Not the way that Jerry Sandusky did, anyway. But even if they never did the things that he did, so many seemingly good people seem to have done just that. Either by their actions, or by their lack of actions, they hurt kids.

This week a report on what happened at Penn State came out. It’s well researched, unbiased, and thorough. It’s also pretty damning. It turns out that time and again those in positions of power looked the other way when they could have stepped up. I don’t know who exactly knew what when, but clearly what was happening was not a secret. And time and again the most powerful people on campus didn’t call the police. They didn’t notify child welfare. They didn’t do anything that would cause a scandal. And, most importantly, they didn’t ever seem to think about the children.

The Bible text we read today isn’t set in the shadow of a winning football team. It doesn’t involve a beloved head coach with a spotless reputation. There aren’t any children in the story. And yet, even two millennia apart, the two stories speak to one another.

We’ve read stories about John the Baptist many times here. We remember that he was the guy down by the river who ate locusts and wore camel hair. We might remember that we called on those around him to repent and make straight the way of the Lord. More than anyone else, John pointed to Jesus and told people to get ready.

Herod had heard John preach. Herod was the king, and yet he liked listening to John. And John had told him some hard things, some things he didn’t want to hear. Some things concerning his wife. But Herod still protected him, and believed he was a good man.

His wife, Herodias, didn’t feel the same way. She had a grudge against John, but she couldn’t do anything about it because Herod liked him so much. Until one night. When Herod had a birthday party. And his daughter danced for him and for his guests. Herod was so pleased that he told her “whatever you want, I’ll give it to you…anything.”

The girl asked her mother what to ask for, and Herodias saw her chance: ask him for the head of John the baptizer.

When Herod was asked, he didn’t want to do it. He was conflicted and grieved, and yet he knew if he didn’t do what he said he would, he would lose face in front of all the important people gathered there. So he gave the order. And had John killed. And brought his head on a platter.

It’s a gritty story. Not one we really like to talk about. I had thought about preaching on the Old Testament text this week just because it’s just plain less gruesome. But then that Penn State report came out. And I felt like I was reading the same story twice.

Scripture tells us that Herod may very well have been a good man. He listened to John, protected him, was open to what he had to stay. What he ended up doing caused him personal pain. He wasn’t without conscience. He knew it wasn’t right.

I believe that most of the people who looked the other way at Penn State were probably good men too. They probably loved their families. Protected their own children. Tried to be honest. If you asked them if they were good people who did the right thing, my guess is they would say yes.

And most days they probably did. Just like you and I and the vast majority of people in the world. But on the days in question, they rejected the hard right, and chose the easier wrong.

What if Herod had said “no”? What if he said, I am not killing John? He would have lost face. He would have lost the respect of his family and his officers and everyone at that banquet. He would have paid a price. But John would have lived.

What if the ones in those meetings at Penn State had chosen the harder right? What if the grad assistant who saw something so horrendous had stepped in right then and there? What if the coach had called police the minute he heard? What if the administration and trustees had said, “We will have no part in a cover up, no matter what price we pay?”

What if they had done the right thing even if it meant their football program’s name might be tarnished and it would never be the same?

My guess is a lot of children would have been saved a lot of torment.

The sad irony is that because no one stood up for those children, that football program’s name is tarnished perhaps beyond repair. Similarly, when we think about Herod, we think of a man who may have been good, but who time and again didn’t choose the right thing. First with John, and then with Jesus. History rarely remembers the person who chooses the easier wrong well.

But these stories, this sermon, is about more than a small handful of people. It’s not just about a king two thousand years ago and a handful of modern day coaches and university administrators. It’s about me, and you, and all of us.

Probably all of us have had moments where we’ve wished we could bring ourselves to choose a harder right over an easier wrong. Maybe we’ve wanted a little more courage to step in and say something when we’ve seen someone being mistreated but we also haven’t wanted to become the target ourselves. Or maybe we’ve wanted to stand up and stop it when our company makes a choice that we also know is ethically wrong, but we also know will raise profits. Or maybe we’ve been in a parking lot and seen one member of a couple hit or threaten the other, but we haven’t wanted to get involved because we wanted to “mind our own business”.

We know what the right thing to do is. We know it as surely as Herod did and as much as I hope every one of those people at Penn State did. But we’ve also known that doing the right thing could cost us something. Our jobs. Our status. Maybe even more.

At least initially.

But the good news is this. No matter what worldly things we lose, what we gain is worth even more. Our self-respect. Our dignity. Our ability to look in the mirror and know that we are following the Christ who told us to love our neighbor as ourself.

It won’t always be easy, and we won’t always get it right. But we can keep trying, along with all the others whom Christ called his brothers and sisters. And the first step is admitting that sometimes we have, and we will, get it wrong.

There’s a big mural in State College, Pennsylvania. It’s in the center of town and many well-known people associated with Penn State are painted on it. Joe Paterno is painted there. And after he died earlier this year, the artist went and painted a halo over his head. He became Saint Joe.

Yesterday, in the wake of the report that came out this week, the artist went back. And he painted over the halo. Joe Paterno was no longer Saint Joe. He was just Joe. I felt sort of bad for Joe Paterno. Maybe for the first time since this whole thing broke. It felt like an unnecessary dig after the fact.

But the more I thought about it, I realized the artist, a friend of the Paterno’s it turns out, was right. He was not a saint. He was not a saint anymore than you or I or the people we know are saints. He was just a child of God who like a lot of children of God made some big mistakes in an otherwise good life. Mistakes that cannot be glossed over with a halo, but that must be acknowledged. For the children’s sake. And for his sake.

I hope that at the end of my life, those who knew me will say that more often than not I chose the harder right over the easier wrong. But even if they do, I know no one will be rushing to paint a halo over my head. And that’s a good thing. Because we need that reminder that all of us remain staggeringly, shockingly imperfect, even on our best days.

We all, like Herod, have our banquet guests to please. We all have our own equivalent of a crowning jewel football programs to protect. And we all have a life to live that will continue to confront us with hard rights and easier wrongs. We might never earn that halo here on earth, but perhaps we can learn from the example of the one whom John died proclaiming, the one who taught us that in the the harder right can be the thing that brings the world a little more grace, and that that grace may save us all.

May Christ be with us in the places we need him the most, and may God’s grace give us courage when we face our hardest choices, whatever they may be, and whenever they may come. Amen.