Sunday, January 4, 2015
Gospel text: Matthew 2: 1-12
In anticipation of Epiphany Sunday, I’ve been trying to recall my own epiphanic moments. (Yes, I said “epiphanic,” the adjectival form of epiphany. You’re welcome.) I’ve been reading about what popular culture calls eureka moments (thank you, Archimedes), or lightbulb moments (thank you, Oprah). Many testify to experiences of sudden cognitive or spiritual insights—aha! moments, to use another current phrase. But I must say that, for me, it’s a long, messy series of experiences that eventually shift my consciousness. And my usual response is an eventual “ahh” rather than an “aha!”
I’m going to share a personal “ahh experience.” But first let me invite you to reflect on your “aha! moments.” Have you ever experienced some event that suddenly crystalized for you a significant insight? Has an event altered your worldview or shifted your perspective significantly?
A PAUSE FOR SILENCE
Some of you have endured a low point that suddenly revealed to you the unhealthiness of situation you could no longer tolerate.
For others a quote from a book or a friend or enemy changed your life in a flash.
Sometimes epiphanies spring from disillusionment (the day you realized your father was grievously flawed).
Sometimes epiphanies emerge from fresh beauty and wonderment (the afternoon you saw the Grand Canyon for the first time; the moment you first held your newborn.)
But for me, important understandings about myself and my world form and reform gradually. Fresh manifestations of God seep into my spirit rather than explode on the scene. A star doesn’t suddenly appear to me (to borrow Matthew’s metaphor); a lightbulb doesn’t suddenly turn on (to use Oprah’s).
If you, too, find it difficult to call to mind that kind of epiphanic moment in your life, that’s okay. We’re in good company.
You see, Nelson Mandela also had trouble pointing to any epiphanic moment in his life. In his autobiography, Walk to Freedom, he claimed:
“I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, ‘Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people;’ instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.”
What strikes me about Mandela’s un-epiphany is his description of doing epiphany rather than intellectualizing it. Shifts in understanding matter little unless they change actions. Tradition interprets today’s story as the epitome of epiphany—when wise men outside Judaism received Divine enlightenment because they saw a star, or experienced a journey, or encountered the Christ Child, or all of the above. But readers learn nothing from the text about what new thoughts the Magi began thinking or if their beliefs and understandings shifted. Instead, we learn what they did. They knelt in awe, they shared lavish gifts, and they went home “by a different road” (Matt. 2:12b). Literally that meant they did not report back to Herod and so saved the child’s life. But going home by a different way might mean their life journey took a different turn. They behaved differently after their epiphany.
If we have experienced an authentic manifestation of the divine—suddenly or slowly—we change our trajectory, we walk forward in a different direction. That’s what the Greek word metanoia means. The KJV translates it in the New Testament as “repentance,” but metanoia signals a radical change in direction.
Mandela chose the new path of liberation and he began walking that road—or making that road—before he even realized what he was doing.
Sometimes I wish, especially at the start of a fresh new year, that a cosmic event like a blazing new star would startle me into healthier ways of thinking and doing. But as David Anderson says in Breakfast Epiphanies: Finding Wonder in the Everyday, “In all religious traditions, the door to the numinous stands in the ordinary.”
The recent suicide of the transgender 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, and yesterday’s fundraiser in support of LGBT inclusion, and a question from Rosemarie led me to share today my personal epiphany regarding homosexuality.This story is not dramatic. But people sometimes ask me why a straight woman in her late 50s, a pastor raised Southern Baptist in Mobile, Alabama, became an LGBT ally and an advocate for marriage equality. Rosemarie asked me that essential question a couple of days ago. To tell this story requires me first to confess that I have not always been an ally. That’s something I do repent. I have been a homophobe. I confess that. And I confess that it took many years before I recognized my ignorance and prejudice.
Unlike my early memories of my own race prejudices, I don’t recall being aware of homosexuality until my late teens. Oh, I noticed that effeminate boys and tomboy girls were teased. But back in my day people I knew didn’t talk about homosexuality. And my conservative church didn’t rail against it—not yet. I’m sure I missed a lot of innuendos in popular culture because I was naïve. But by college the topic of homosexuality was in my consciousness, though I associated it with perversion, promiscuity, even pedophilia. I remember about that time someone threw a pie in the face of Anita Bryant, a beauty pageant winner who sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” everywhere and was speaking out against gays. I think I felt sorry for her when I saw her humiliated on television, but also I was embarrassed by her.
By the mid-80s, as a young mother, the news media reported often on the AIDS epidemic, which was equating in my mind “the gay lifestyle” with danger and death. But I was in graduate school by then and reading more widely, so I was finally realizing there were people trying to live honorable and moral lives who were simply different from me.
In 1986 George and I moved to Nashville to teach at a Baptist college. We joined a nominally Southern Baptist church attended by many faculty friends. Because of this aberrant, often irreverent yet earnest and caring church, I began noticing in the larger culture clear examples of racism, sexism, and, for the first time, heterosexism. I began getting to know the few gay and lesbian church members who were “out” to our church family. I certainly wanted to treat them respectfully, but I didn’t know what to make of gay people who openly identified that way.
I met “Jane” at a church picnic and nearly became apoplectic when I noticed—how could I not?—that she had worn shorts but hadn’t shaved her legs, maybe had never shaved her legs. I couldn’t have been more horrified if she’d had rattlesnakes growing out her ears. I was that shallow and that stupid. But my shallowness was so extreme that even I recognized it. I wondered why hairy legs troubled me more than her homosexuality, which I’d assumed was a sin. I got to know “Jane.” How bright she was and how pained because her preacher father rejected her. What was wrong with me for turning an issue of personal grooming into a matter of personal morality? How else had I misjudged people or turned a cultural prejudice into a moral matter?
One Sunday our pastor announced he would offer a class on “What the Bible Says about Homosexuality.” Well, that’s strange, I thought. We know what the Bible says about homosexuality. I’m sure “Jane” knows it, too. Why make her feel bad? But after careful, gentle teaching over many weeks, our pastor showed us that the Bible didn’t really condemn homosexuality at all. And a wonderful byproduct of that class was my first awareness that the Bible should be interpreted with respect to the cultures that wrote the Bible.
By the time George and I moved away from Nashville in 2002, our Baptist church there had voted to call an openly lesbian minister as our associate pastor and was promptly disfellowshiped by the Nashville Baptist association. When I started seminary in Ohio and joined an Open and Affirming church there, I became part of a group of six dear friends, three lesbian, three straight, who had dinner together at least once a month. From my lesbian friends I heard powerful stories that taught me that churches had often been responsible for terrible hurts in their lives. Christians, I vowed, must redress these wrongs. I started marching in the annual gay pride parade and advocating for gay rights. At seminary I became known as a safe person to come out to for the closeted gay seminarians hoping to be ordained by denominations that do not ordain LGBT people. I started thinking I had a sign on my forehead saying, “It’s okay. You can come out to me.” Sadly, these capable but closeted cohorts were on a track that would eventually, it seemed to me, end in a spiritual and institutional train wreck before long.
I share this story of my own “conversion” as an example of gradual enlightenment. Entrenched ideas usually don’t change overnight. But even intransigent prejudices can change. From my own experience and from the story of the Magi I suggest two factors that might facilitate our personal and our collective work against prejudice and in support of those needing a bit of illumination.
The Magi’s epiphany and mine were fostered by community.The Bible never says there were three wise men. Some concluded they were a trio because they brought three gifts. The story is clear that there were multiple sages traveling together. They must have talked about many things across the miles. I was like those archetypes of spiritual wisdom in only one way: my spiritual quest was not solitary. Stories were shared with me. Others’ lives were made known to me. Community supported me.
And, like the Magi, I ventured into new territory and encountered difference. When east meets west, so to speak, strangers spark cognitive and spiritual dissonance and fresh perspective. Community is important. But a diverse spiritual community is best.
I thank God you have found your way here.
Make of us, O God, a diverse community of people who say “aha!” or “ahhhh” together, imperfect people ready to take a different road. Amen