By Pastor Tim Phillips
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise ones from the East came asking: “Where is the child?” --Matthew 2.1-2
What happens when the world comes knocking on your door searching for the promise of a child?
I have always loved the Epiphany story in Matthew 2. These days, it doesn’t get the kind of play Christmas does. But in many cultures, January 6 is a day of big celebrations, gift-giving, and hoping for that revelation of light that will brighten all the nations of the Earth. If the Epiphany story gets overshadowed by Christmas angels and cuddly animals and cute babies, it may have something to do with the challenge the story presents. There is political intrigue and the murder of children and a desperate escape of the Holy Family into foreign territory as refugees. There is very little that is redeemable about a story in which political oppression and fear get turned on children and families.
The truth is, the Epiphany story hits very close to home. Wise ones are appearing from all over the world. They are searching for some kind of promise for their children. Like those ancient ones, they too are asking for directions and help. But unlike those older Wise Ones, they aren’t just passing through. They live here. They are refugees and immigrants looking to find home “another way” —the kind of home where children are safe and possibilities are real and hope is alive.
The Epiphany story is unfolding right now in our neighborhoods and we have the opportunity to help write another version. In our story, Wise Ones appear from the East and West and from all over the world and they ask for help to find some promise for their children. We can play King Herod and act out our fear in policies that lead to death. Or we can welcome, support, celebrate and receive from them the many gifts they and their children have to offer.
Thanks to Peach Jack, we have been introduced to the Seattle World School just a few blocks from the church. One of Seattle Public Schools, the World School provides education and access to family services for children from around the world – some from countries torn apart by war or from refugee camps. Many of these folks are currently living in temporary housing or are homeless. Because Mary’s Place, with whom we have a long relationship, provides services for families in these situations, they are partners in this work as well.
So help us write a new version of the Epiphany story this year. In the lead up to Epiphany (Wednesday, January 6th), we are inviting your gifts of new or slightly used school supplies for the children and families of the World School. Greatly needed are backpacks, notebooks, pens and pencils. Students also appreciate healthy snacks, such as energy bars and portable non-perishable foods. Bins for collecting these items can be found in Fellowship Hall and in the church office. Our Christmas Eve offerings are already on their way to Mary’s Place and to the Friends of the World School for additional support.
This Epiphany let’s write another story. Herod doesn’t have to be the star of the show. A refugee child can be. After all, Jesus says later in Matthew, “Inasmuch as you have done it for one of the least of these, you have done for me.” What version of our Epiphany story do you think Jesus would want to tell?
by Pastor Tim Phillips
Our theme for this Advent and Christmas season is the gift of simplicity. It is beautifully pictured for us by the video on our website and it has already led to a number of conversations about what it means to simplify. Patrick remembered the year that he decided to resist the commercialism of the season and make simple gifts for his family – only to realize that it was a lot more complicated to make something than to buy it.
Patrick’s story reminds me that “simple” isn’t necessarily “easy.” Uncomplicating our lives can be very complicated. There are expectations to deal with and overwhelming intersections of need and our own good intentions and just plain old stuff. And it isn’t like we can go back in time. The truth is, those “simpler times” were a lot harder than we would like to imagine. We should remember that the modern experience of Christmas – at least in the U.S. – has a lot to do with World Wars and loss and the nation trying to find some way to celebrate something hopeful together. The ancient story of a poor family giving birth to hope in a shed and then ending up as refugees fleeing an oppressive government proved a good cultural backdrop. Neither of those could really be described as “simple.”
Susan Dohrmann sent me a David Brooks article from the New York Times titled, “The Evolution of Simplicity,” which is a very helpful historical look at the development of thinking about simplicity in our culture. He quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes saying that civilization is about the complexity (I have an old seminary professor who used to talk about “complexifying”) that honors depth, diversity and a “fuller and richer life.” But, even as we recognize the amazing complexity of the world and our lives, there is also an impulse to simplify. David Brooks observes that some of that impulse has turned into “just alternate forms of consumption” with its own market of books and magazines and services.
Simplicity isn’t easy and it isn’t something you buy. It isn’t nostalgia and it isn’t an excuse to hunker down in our own little world while that great big complex world out there spins out of control. If it is a gift to be simple, then it may have more to do with clarity, focus, uncluttered centeredness, and a sense of gratitude.
When the great African- American preacher and teacher, Howard Thurman, wrote his Litany of Thanksgiving, he starts:
I begin with the simple things of my days:
Fresh air to breathe,
Cool water to drink,
The taste of food,
The protection of houses and clothes,
The comforts of home.
Simplicity isn’t ignoring the complexities of the environmental crisis or hunger or homelessness. But it is, at least, unencumbering our heads long enough to let those everyday gifts work their way down into our hearts because, while we may be looking for the great big gifts of a better world or world peace or unbridled joy or the universal experience of unconditional love, we might miss those simple gifts of hope, peace, joy and love that are all around us. The gift to be simple is a gift we give ourselves and each other this season by taking the time to slow down as the shoppers rush by; to eat less and buy less and worry less; to find some quiet amid the noise; and to celebrate the candlelight kind of beauty that too often gets lost in the harsher light of our days.
The old Shakers have it right: “It’s a gift to be simple; it’s a gift to be free; it’s a gift to come down where you ought to be.” That unique religious community experienced God in the gift of “coming down” from the temptations and addictions and hubris of life into the freedom and joy and gratitude of simply being. According to that ancient Christmas story, that’s where God meets us. And that IS a gift. It’s the gift we want to give each other this season in these weeks of Advent and Christmas.
This blog includes thoughts from various contributors at Seattle First Baptist