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Sermon | A Multitude of Camels
Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Speaker: Mark Rupp
One of the biggest losses for me during this pandemic has been the necessary cancellation of the extended family gatherings for my mother’s side of the family. We have still been able to gather with my brothers and their families while being as safe as possible, but I have deeply missed the chaotic large group gatherings with cousins and cousin’s kids running through legs and under tables, aunts making the rounds to catch up on all the family gossip, uncles quietly falling asleep in a chair until someone dares to change the TV channel, and the occasional significant other brought along for the first time who always ends up looking overwhelmed trying to remember so many names.
My mother is one of six siblings, each of which has multiple children, many with their own growing families. The pandemic has made me lose the exact count of all the babies my various cousins have been having over the last two years, but at this point I think these family gatherings end up pushing close to 100 people when everyone is there.
And nothing better sums up and symbolizes this large family chaos better than the much loved tradition we have of playing Christmas Bingo. This tradition started many years ago when we finally outgrew the ability to do direct gift exchanges. Instead, one of my aunts designed bingo cards using all the Christmas clip art she could find (of course Jesus was the free space because Jesus is free for everyone), and all the households brought in generic gifts to add to a communal pile. Sounds simple enough, but early on my other aunt who served as Bingo emcee introduced a “Yankee swap” element where you could steal a gift someone had already opened rather than opening a new gift. If you are a fan of the show The Office, this is probably familiar, and yes, it turned out to be just as chaotic and confusing. Usually there is at least one hot item that everyone wants, often something silly like a garden gnome or a set of tupperware.
The emcee-aunt is also a big fan of the show Survivor, so after the first year of Yankee Swap chaos, she introduced something she called the “immunity plate” where instead of getting another gift when you bingo’d, you could get an immunity plate to keep others from stealing a gift you already had.
All of this was mostly done in good humor every year, though I do think some genuine bad blood still exists in regard to the Fleece Blanket Incident of ‘09.
Every year we would gather, usually with at least one more baby to add to the mix. We eventually outgrew my grandfather’s house, and then after a few more years we outgrew my aunt and uncle’s home, and even though it will probably be awhile until we officially outgrow the church fellowship hall we now rent, that giant space always manages to feel full.
Even for this introvert, these gatherings gave me a renewed sense of joy every year, an appreciation for being part of a family that could bring people together from such diverse walks of life around tables of food and bingo cards and storytelling. Every year I would leave with much more than just a new Christmas candle or fleece blanket (which, for the record, I fully maintain was won without any need for cheating). Every year, I would leave these celebrations with a strong sense of being part of something bigger than myself, something good and sacred that inspired me to create and maintain bonds not just with these family members but with all others I met.
I know that not all of us have the same kind of experiences with family gatherings. That’s ok. Families come in all shapes and sizes and qualities of connectedness. Regardless of whether you can relate to your given family, I do hope you can relate in some respects with whatever other chosen families you may be a part of. And I hope that this chosen family we call Columbus Mennonite gives you some sense of that sacred joy of being part of something bigger than yourself that inspires you to put more good into the world.
Whether it is Christmas Bingo or Cookie Sunday or some other cherished chosen family tradition, I hope you have space in your life for celebratory gatherings that bring you that kind of meaningful joy.
When I read the passage from Isaiah this week, I couldn’t help but reflect on these kinds of gatherings. The author writes, “Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your offspring shall come from far away, and your young ones shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.” While this imagery certainly took me back to those family gatherings, I have to admit I was reminded of them even more by the author’s words a little later, when they write, “And a multitude of camels shall cover you.” I couldn’t help but picture my cousins and I before we finally outgrew my grandpa’s house weaving in and out of legs and tables and around aunts and uncles talking in tight hallways. We were always told to stop acting like a herd of elephants, but a multitude of camels is probably pretty close.
This portion of the book of Isaiah is thought to be written after the exiles have begun to return from Babylonian captivity. While earlier sections attempted to make sense of that exile with calls to be faithful and to repent, Chapter 60 comes in with a bolt of hopeful energy: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” To a people struggling to figure out how to rebuild, the prophet comes here not with exhortations to get to work but with an invitation to turn up the lights, to gather the people in, and to celebrate what God has done. There is certainly much work still to be done, but for this moment, what is needed is for the community to come together and shine their lights brightly.
Today is our last official Sunday in our Advent/Christmas worship series where we are looking at the essentials. For the past 5 weeks, we have named hope, peace, joy, love, and Immanuel as essentials for life, things that are part of the foundation for a way of living that gets back to the basics. And even though the feast day of Epiphany will come later this week, today we name epiphany as one of life’s essentials.
Huh…To be honest, when you place epiphany next to hope, peace, joy, love, and Immanuel, it feels a little like the people who planned the worship theme just tacked epiphany on to this list of essentials. What makes epiphany essential? I suppose that was my job to figure out this week.
The word epiphany means something akin to a revelation, an “aha moment” where the lightbulb finally clicks on. And this connection with light goes back to the roots of the word which translate more or less to mean “to shine on.”
Epiphany is a bright light that reveals something to us, a beacon that calls us toward something new.
And so when I read these epiphany texts with Isaiah calling the people to gather and shine their lights and the magi following the star to find where it leads, I see two interrelated ways that epiphany is essential for our lives.
The first is the idea that celebration is essential for drawing people into– and strengthening us for– the good work that God is doing. The Isaiah passage speaks of nations and rulers and children all gathering round the light that we are being called to shine, and it has a very celebratory tone to it. The “multitude of camels” imagery that grabbed my imagination is meant to evoke the strange and magnificent gifts that are brought to this great party when the light serves as an invitation to all those far and wide to partake in its glory.
In my early years of seminary I began to learn about the field of liberation theology, which is a way of doing theology that doesn’t just focus on emphasizing the liberation of the poor and oppressed but a tradition that emerges from within those communities. Rather than a top-down approach where theological norms are dictated by those with power, liberation theology relies on the wisdom of the very people most in need of liberation and trusts that God is with them as they work within their communities to build greater justice and peace.
One piece of liberation theology that was particularly paradigm shifting for me was learning about what is sometimes referred to as the cycle of praxis. In its essence, this is the idea that the work of theology involves a cycle of seeing and naming reality for what it is, acting to change the parts of that reality that are not just or good, and assessing those actions to understand how to be more effective when you start the cycle over again.
See reality. Act to change reality. Assess those actions. See a new reality…and so forth.
It sounds simple enough, but what was so impactful to me was the way liberation theologians insisted that this process for community organizing and social change was deeply theological work, that God was still speaking and the best way to hear the voice of the divine was not just to listen quietly by ourselves but to listen and act together within a community directly involved with the work of justice and peace.
See. Act. Assess.
All of this was making an impact on the way I thought about theology and the Church, but it wasn’t until I participated in a cross cultural trip to Cuernavaca, Mexico that it really clicked for me. And this is where we get back to epiphany. While on this trip, we got to hear directly from community leaders living out liberation theology on the ground. And it was these leaders who taught me that there is another step in this cycle of praxis. After the community sees, acts, and assesses, it needs to celebrate.
These leaders taught me that spaces for celebration and gathering together as a community in joy are essential for strengthening us to continue to do what God is calling us to do. Without celebration and other public acts of joyful relationality, the cycle of praxis can too easily just become work and toil. There is always more work that needs to be done, more injustice to be made right, but finding space for celebration reminds us why that work really matters.
Celebrations give us a foretaste of the Kin-dom of God as we live in this liminal space of an “already but not yet” fully redeemed world and thus are essential for empowering us to continue doing that work. It is essential that we create spaces in our lives to arise, shine, and celebrate the places where the light has come.
Which brings me to my second idea about why epiphany is essential: These celebrations aren’t just frivolous excuses to party, but when they serve as foretastes of the Kin-dom, they reveal to us that something new is possible. We aren’t just strengthened to keep doing the same work we’ve always been doing, no matter how good that work may be; when we come together as a community we build relationships that help us see the world in a new way, that help us name reality differently and direct our ongoing work toward new ends.
The magi followed the star because they could tell that something new was happening. When they got close to their destination, however, they allowed their assumptions about where such a great thing would be happening to lead them to Herod. When they asked Herod where the child was who has been born King of the Jews, Herod freaked out because he recognized that this child was a threat to his own authority, a threat to the way things have always been done.
He eventually sends the magi to Bethlehem with what I imagine is a thinly veiled lie that they should report back to him when they find the child so that he can also pay his respects. These magi are known to be pretty wise, so I have to imagine they can see that Herod represents a way of doing things that will do anything to protect itself and to hold on to power, regardless of what new light is rising.
When they eventually find Jesus, the texts says they were “overwhelmed with joy.” If there was any doubt about what new thing was happening and what this great light had been drawing them toward, those doubts melt away as they present the child with their gifts. And then, having found the light, basked in its glory, shared their gifts in an act of relationship building, the magi return home by a different road.
Epiphany is essential because it helps us change course, to realize that a new way is possible and to walk toward it. The new star in the sky led the magi to Jesus and they went home by another way because they could recognize that something new was happening that didn't fit into the old systems. When we encounter the light of God and join together in its glory, none of us can go home the same way.
And so, my wish for us is:
- That we would find spaces in our lives for coming together with community, to remind ourselves that we are part of something greater than ourselves.
- That this revelation would empower us to see that a new world is possible.
- And finally, in this season of growing light my hope is that we would begin to see beacons of hope, peace, love, and joy all around us calling us to follow them.