Some of you know that when I was in seminary I worked at St. Matthews Episcopal Church in St. Paul. St Matthews had been involved with an organization called Youthlink, which is a day service center for young adults experiencing homelessness. Youthlink’s goal is to be a one stop shop providing every kind of need for homeless young adults except overnight shelter, so that they would only need one bus token to get all their needs met. At one point St Matthews’ Rector Blair Pogue went to Youthlink for some kind of event, and she wore her collar. Someone saw her and said, “You know, we provide every kind of care to these young adults except spiritual care. They don’t have any spiritual care.” Blair told me about this conversation, and without thinking, I just tossed off the idea that since I was a trained spiritual director, I could just go listen to these young adults to provide spiritual care, and I could get a whole lot of other spiritual directors to do the same thing. You have to be careful when you say things like this because people might actually take you seriously. Anyway, long story short, I ended up volunteering every week at Youthlink for three years, providing spiritual care for these young adults.
When I was preparing to serve them, I interviewed anyone and everyone I could think of who might have any kind of experience with basically doing street spiritual direction. Here I was, a middle aged middle class white woman trying to be chaplain to young homeless predominantly African American men with their jeans around their thighs. I met with a chaplain at a juvenile detention facility, which unfortunately many of the Youthlink folks had been through. He told me that what these youths most needed was hope. They needed hope that had some kind of tangible expression, hope that was beyond a pipe dream. They had grown up in generational poverty and neither their parents nor their grandparents had ever had enough income to make ends meet. They did not even have the generational memory of things ever being better for them. So they needed hope with some flesh on it, hope with some skin. They needed hope they could see.
Hope is something between a fleeting wish and a certainty that something good will come that is not currently here. It’s more than a wish because there is some tangible reason to think that the good that is wanted is possible. For those youths, hope did come from various places. It came when we believed in them and affirmed their God-given dreams, that they could be more than young vagrants with hoodies. Hope came when they realized they were children of God with gifts desperately needed in the world, and when they saw that others in their shoes had broken out of the cycles of poverty and homelessness. Hope envisions many things. Hope imagines that children separated from their parents at our borders will be united and those who are captive will be released, because we the people of this democracy can do something about what our government decrees. Hope envisions that people of color will no longer be stuck in the generational poverty that is the legacy and creation of systemic racism, because our country and each one of us can be healed from the sin and sickness of white supremacy. Hope envisions that we who are followers of the way of Jesus can see and live into a different story than the ones being told by our politicians and parties and social media. Hope envisions that each one of us can be healed in those areas we aren’t whole. But where do we get hope, hope with flesh, hope with skin? Where do we move past a wish into faith that these things are possible?
Today is the Epiphany, which is one of the seven great feasts of the Christian year along with Christmas, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday and All Saints. On the Epiphany we honor the fact that the magi, the wise men, followed a star to the baby Jesus. But what in the world does that mean? Why do we elevate this moment so much that it is one of the seven major feasts? And what does any of that have to do with the hope I’ve been talking about?
Epiphany is a word that means revelation or manifestation. We talk about having an epiphany of something, and it usually means an a-ha moment. It’s about suddenly seeing something that had been hidden to us. For the magi, it was the Epiphany of the presence of Christ. The magi were thought to be astrologers and seers. Some scholars think they were probably Zoroastrian priests from Persia who believed that God sent saviors to the world, and they were constantly on the lookout for those saviors. Their eyes were attuned to a reality different from the common narrative of the day, which in that time was the Pax Romana, the great peace promised by the empire Rome. The magi watched the signs in nature itself, in the stars and in the world around them, for evidence of salvation, and they found it in Jesus the Christ. Now their theology of Christ was likely very different from ours today or from a Jewish theology of the Messiah at that time or now. But what they did have, which was essential, was hope for God’s salvation to show up in physical reality and not only in the world of ideas. So they undertook an incredible journey in real space and time to encounter a baby in a barn in the backwaters of the Roman empire, whom they greeted with overwhelming joy because it was an Epiphany of God’s presence, a savior God had sent to the world.
We who are followers of the way of Jesus use the word Incarnation to describe what Jesus was and is: the merger of the divine and the human in a real physical human being. This is cause for hope, hope with flesh, hope with skin on it. It’s hope that transcends the usual divisions of religion and categories—from the beginning even followers from different spiritual traditions could see the significance of this baby, and the gospel reading from today says that it overwhelmed them with joy. The Incarnation is not limited to one physical human being in history, to the carpenter Jesus of Nazareth who lived and died and rose again. We in the church say that we continue to be the body of Christ. In the bread and the wine we believe that Christ’s real presence is with us in some mysterious way. A former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, said that because of the Incarnation all of creation is sacramental—everything we see, all physical reality, is blessed with sacredness because of Jesus. We say God is with us, all the time. But that means that Lake Superior and Bde Maka Ska and Lake Harriet and this building and your homes and the people you encounter every day are also sacred. We can have an Epiphany of God’s presence among us in physical reality, and this changes the way we walk through the world.
Throughout the season of the Epiphany we will see how this gives us hope. Next week we will celebrate the baptism of Jesus in which God called Jesus Beloved, and we will celebrate our own baptisms which initiate us into his way of love. The following week we will celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who followed the way of Jesus so deeply that it gave him a dream for freedom and the Beloved Community—a hope that was so profound it inspired this country to make great strides against the sin of racism. The next week we’ll have our annual meeting and we’ll celebrate Jesus’ mission in the world, which is to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed. We can allow ourselves to pay attention to a different narrative than the polarities between Democrats and Republicans or to the patterns in your family of origin or the things you tell yourself about who you are. We can be granted an Epiphany of God’s presence here, the Jesus who is already out there ahead of us and within us and all around us, working healing and justice and salvation that we can participate in and follow.
May God grant you little Epiphanies every day of the presence of Christ in your life. May Christ grant you hope that things can be different, for you and for the world God so loves. May the Spirit fill you with power to follow the way of Jesus, the way of love. Amen.
 See Niveen Sarras, Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12, January 6, 2019, in Working Preacher from Luther Seminary, at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3931, accessed January 6, 2019.