The Magi in Peru

Elise Ashley Hanley
The Feast of the Epiphany, transferred
7 January 2018
Matthew 1:1-12
Trinity on the Green

As some of you may know, my spouse, Chris and I have just returned from a journey to Peru. Our reason for going was for the celebration the marriage of his only sibling. His sister moved to Cusco, a city in the Peruvian Andes, 3 years ago, and last May, she married a Peruvian man in a civil ceremony- one whom no one in the family nor in her group of friends had yet met, until last week.

Going on this journey, I often thought of the Magi, or the Wise Ones. I did question just how wise we were being – we were to be traveling for many hours immediately after Christmas, already exhausted and both ill with sinus infections. We were also traveling to Cusco during its off-season – the rainy season – and yes, that is an accurate description. Cusco is also over 11,000 feet above sea level, and many people suffer from altitude sickness for their first few days there. We were arriving less than 24 hours before the wedding celebration. Was any of this wise?

It didn’t matter, for we had to go, we so wanted to go. We so wanted to be present for the wedding celebration, to meet her new husband and his family. To see where she was living, more than 3000 miles away from us. To try to understand what about the city, its culture, and people had lured her away and kept her there. And like the Wise Ones, we wanted to show up – and pay homage, show our respect and love, with gifts. And, after all, as a bonus, we’d get to go to Machu Picchu – the ancient, Incan citadel located high in the Andes – how could two we resist?

Like the Wise Ones, we also wanted revelation. Neither of us had been to South America before. We wanted to understand people and cultures and ideas that were different.  We wanted to understand Chris’ sister’s choice, to move so far away from family and friends. And, if nothing else, perhaps we too could have a high spiritual moment, high up in the Andes. We were excited, in this season of Christmastide, to meet God in new and different people and places.

As it turns out, altitude sickness is real – we both almost fainted just off the plane!  Another effect of the altitude was that we were exhausted for days. But like the Wise Ones, we had taken a chance. Like the Wise Ones, we sought guidance along the way – often because our Spanish was so limited.  And ultimately, we also relied, like the Wise Ones, on what we could sense and discern for our travel, for our lives and relationships, and for what our future choices might be.

Who were the Magi? Traditionally, one of three answers has been given.

  1. They may have been magicians, or Zorastrians, who practiced divination or enchantment.
  2. They may have been Court priests, serving the rulers of Persia, in what is present-day Iran. At least one scholar argues that as such, they may have been part of a rebellion that attempted to end the rule of cruel and arbitrary rulers, which would give their presence in this story overtones of subversion and change. Salt to taste.
  3. Or – they were astrologers – star gazers and star studiers – who interpreted the heavens, and told leaders of their meaning. As such, they could pay a heavy price if their message was not what their rulers wanted.1

As much as we have grown accustomed to “We Three Kings,” no number is mentioned. And the names Balthasar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar of India, is an Armenian tradition: they are not listed in our Biblical account.

Whoever they were exactly they were likely quite learned. And they were seekers. They were risk takers. And they wanted to see and experience God in Jesus.

The Wise Ones likely lived a disciplined life of study to know and understand the coming of the messiah. Our text does not specify the number of them, nor their gender identity. Their traveling party could have been quite large and diverse – I’d like to imagine it was so. They traveled quite a long distance, and they brought costly and symbolic gifts that would have been standard to offer a king: gold to represent Christ’s majesty, frankincense as perfume, and myrrh, an anointing oil used in the preparation for burial, foreshadowing his premature death. I imagine the arrival of these ornamented, well-to-do out-of-towners in Bethlehem, coming to learn about some poor, local kid, may have been as exciting and questionable as our arrival as wealthy and fussy white American tourists in a developing country.

As it is the New Year, it is a common time for resolutions, a time to examine our lives and make decisions about how we may want to change or grow.

What star are we following? What different star might each of us need to follow this year? What will help all of us to ultimately journey to Jesus? Now is a good time to become disciplined and discerning like those Wise Ones – to find a new practice or habit and try it. Maybe the Daily Office, or other daily prayer will help you. Maybe it’s more exercise, yoga, or sleep. Maybe it is an overdue journey to see a loved one. Maybe it is a religious or spiritual pilgrimage. How is God still speaking to each of us? Because God is!

And those Wise Ones – they went home by another road. They resisted the King. I often wonder if they eventually got caught somehow. What or who might we need to resist? What might we need to say a loud and solid “no” to, even if our lives or our relationships depend on it?

We left Peru, and went home by another way, and we are so glad to be back home here at Trinity and in New Haven. In this new year, may we all recharge ourselves. May we strengthen ourselves and each other in our mission to learn, grow, serve, and love our neighbors as ourselves. May we try to be as wise, disciplined, discerning, and generous as the Magi.

(And finally, one last bit of guidance: if you travel to Peru, don’t go in the rainy season.)

AMEN.

________

1 See Feasting on the Word – Exegetical Perspective by William R. Herzogg II for Epiphany, Year B.

 

 

Christmas Day Homily, 2017

Elise Ashley Hanley
Christmas Day 2017
John 1:1:1-14
Trinity on the Green

Happy Christmas, everyone!

You might be surprised to NOT find the story of Jesus’ birth in our readings this morning. There’s no story of Mary and Joseph and angels, or shepherds. There’s no talk of no room at the inn, or a babe in a manger. Instead, the Gospel of John begins at the beginning – the beginning of time. Long before the birth we celebrate today, Jesus, the Word, was with God – and Jesus was God. All things came into being through Jesus – and without Jesus, not one thing came into being. The poetic language of the text may be a little off putting at first – in fact, some scholars think that this prologue of John’s Gospel was written as a hymn to sing –  but our Gospel message reminds us of the cosmic Christ – the Word of God who was always there, and who then became a flesh and blood human to live among us. On Christmas, we celebrate not just Jesus the baby, or just Jesus the man who died for us, but Jesus, as  the essential word of God; Jesus Christ, the personal wisdom and power in union with God, God’s minister in creation and government of the universe. Jesus who always was and always is, and is to come.1 God sent Jesus into the world to save us by becoming just like any of us, a human being: a human being to be our friend, role model, and saviour.

If I could describe this Gospel passage with just one word, I think I would say that it is mysterious. How does God become human while still being divine? And why must it be that the divine must become human, in order for us humans to be bound to God? Christmas is ultimately a great mystery.

Now, as much as I wish I were Nancy Drew or Columbo, I’m not here to solve any mysteries today. We don’t have many if any hard facts on how Christmas happened exactly. What we have are stories, passed down through the generations, written and translated again and again. Somehow, over 2000 year is later, we still tell this story.  We still continue these traditions.

Today, we celebrate that God did not remain aloof and removed from us. Instead, God sent Emmanuel – God with us. God IS with us. And God loves us, no matter what. I invite you on this Christmas Day to revel in the mystery of God’s love, in the mystery of the incarnation. Let us  continue to tell the story of Jesus – the Word made flesh. I wish you all a blessed Christmas.

Amen.

_______

1 drawn from class notes with Dr. Deirdre Good, The General Theological Seminary.

 

Choosing Joy – Advent 3, Year B

Elise Ashley Hanley
Advent 3, Year B, 16 December 2017
John 1:6-8,19-28
Trinity on the Green

Today, the Third Sunday of Advent, is also known as Gaudete Sunday – the Latin, “Gaudete,” meaning, “REJOICE!” Today, we light the pink candle on our Advent wreath; some of our sister churches even get decked out in pink or rose colored vestments, and we are reminded by the command in today’s Epistle reading to “Rejoice –  always!”

For some of us, that might be easier said than done, even or especially during this time of year.

I remember as a child, the Third Sunday of Advent was an important marker for me.  I couldn’t wait to light that pink candle. This was both because, as a little girl, I LOVED the color pink, but also, because once we lit it, it meant that Christmas was really soon! It meant that we were more than halfway there! I rejoiced with a child’s sweet impatience and anticipation of all the wonders of Christmas.

Now, as an adult, I light that pink candle – and I panic, because it means that Christmas is really soon! This year, it seems even sooner, for the Fourth Sunday of Advent IS Christmas Eve! That pink candle makes me pause, and question my preparedness – not only around shopping or decorating, but as a priest and spiritual leader: have I slowed down enough this Advent? Have I made enough time for extra prayer and reflection?  Have I truly prepared enough for Christ’s coming into my heart and life? (Have I posted that daily “hashtag” Advent Word on Social Media?)  Have I done all that has been expected of me, and all that I have told others is expected of them?

The answer to these questions most years, including this year, is NO. Life gets in the way. Consumerism throws us off track. Unexpected illness or death causes us to lament and disconnect. The end of the year requires final exams from students, grading from teachers, end of year fundraising and sales from and for non-profits. Instead of being still and reflective, the pace of life often seems to accelerate from the First Sunday of Advent on.

But today is Gaudete Sunday – today we called to rejoice. At one time, Advent was observed more like Lent – it was a penitential season, and there was a strictness to observing the liturgy, like no organ playing allowed. Gaudete Sunday was the break in between – a chance to break one’s fast, to play the organ, and to focus on the joy in the nearness of Jesus’ return.

Wherever you are today in your Advent journey – even if you don’t feel like you’ve been on one – I invite you to pause with me, and rejoice. Rejoice, even though everything might not be accomplished, rejoice, even though everything might not be fine. It’s ok if everything isn’t done and wrapped with a bow.  Henri Nouwen writes that:

“Joy is not the same as happiness.  We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us. Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong… to God…Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.”1

We are promised God’s grace and mercy to help and deliver us. We are promised Jesus, in just one week from today! Let us choose joy. Let us rejoice.

Amen.

_______

1 from  The Heart of Henri Nouwen: His Words of Blessing.

 

Sermon for All Saints Sunday, 2017

Elise Ashley Hanley
All Saints Sunday, Year A, 5 November 2017
Matthew 5:1-12
Trinity on the Green, New Haven, CT.

Have you ever experienced a thin place?

A thin place is what is described as a location where the distance between Heaven and Earth lessens – or thins – where the present world, and the world hereafter meet. One writer, who experienced such a thin place, described it as “a place… where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again.”1  A concept that is often first attributed to the Pagan Celts, and then Christianized over time, the saying goes that “Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places, that distance is even shorter.”

I first experienced a thin place while leading a church group on a so-called mission trip to rural upstate New York, where we helped with repairs and rebuilding after Hurricane Irene. We stayed at a rundown retreat center in the woods. One night, we had a campfire, and with it the usual scary stories and s’mores. I decided to head back to my room a little early. By myself, I headed back through the through the dark and smoky woods, only lit by the moon and stars, and suddenly  – it hit me.  I was overcome with the feeling that I had stepped through an invisible portal – that the mortal world had collided with Heaven. While absolutely not under the influence of anything except fresh air and a week of hard work – suddenly, I felt an incredible closeness with God. I felt an incredible closeness with my father, who was long dead. My grandfather, my grandmother – all long gone. It overwhelmed me so that I started to weep, but with a sense of joy – and as quickly as it started, it went away. Thin places are often liminal.

Have you ever experienced such a thin place?

It could be at a beach, a bookstore, a monastery, or even an airport.

I believe in these. I believe we can have such experiences, in which we can experience a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven – in which we can feel connection to our ancestors, all the saints – and in which we realize that we are truly knit together in one Communion and Fellowship of the mystical body of Jesus Christ.

Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Crafton has written a book called The Also Life. In it, she describes this earthly life as living in a small basket. Our small basket, however, is resting inside a much larger basket – that is the Kingdom of Heaven. We like living in our small basket, and yet, now and then, we can just barely peek through the spaces between the strips of the woven basket, and when we peek, we can just catch a glimpse of the larger basket – of God’s greater realm. According to Crafton: it has and is always around us.

Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day have been known throughout the centuries as Hallowed Days – a holy and liminal time, when crossing between this world and the otherworld is thought to be easier: a thin space. It is a time when Christians throughout the world practice such customs as remembering and praying for the spiritual journeys of those who have died, by visiting cemeteries and cleaning or decorating gravesites, and even providing hospitality for the return of deceased loved ones with food and drink. And indeed, I believe it is a time when we can peek – and perhaps see or experience the Kingdom of Heaven in a new and surprising way.

On this Feast of All Saints transferred, we continued to observe this Hallowed time – this morning, we remember all the Saints –  the word ‘saints’ being used to describe the entire membership of the Christian community, past, present, and yet to come. We will receive a new saint today at the 11:00 service, as we baptize a new member into the Church. In our Baptismal Covenant we, along with traditional Christians around the globe, profess the words: “I believe in… the communion of saints, … the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” We recognize and celebrate our belonging to a Holy Community – we welcome a new member into it through Baptism – and we honor all Holy Ones, those known and unknown.

Our Gospel for All Saints Day is the Beatitudes – likely so familiar to many of us, the Beatitudes also offer us a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven, and what we need to do right now. The Beatitudes are Jesus’ first sermon in Matthew’s Gospel, and he speaks it in the tradition of a Jewish rabbi who would be expected to offer commentary on the Law, to explain to people how to stay faithful to God’s covenant.

Even as familiar as I am with the Beatitudes, I still find them surprising. They are not easy ways to live and be. For example, I do not want to be reviled or persecuted! I don’t want to mourn!

And yet, I have been reviled. I have mourned. These experiences will no doubt occur again. Being meek does not mean being submissive or wimpy, but means rather means having disciplined compassion. These tasks are difficult – we need help with all of these things! I need help and comfort when I am reviled, and when I mourn, I need help and guidance when I am not being meek, or being a peacemaker, or being merciful – etc. I need others to help me practice living by the Beatitudes. These practices are work for all the saints – all who have been baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I depend on you, my fellow saints, to hold me accountable to the Beatitudes, and to forgive me when I mess up. Likewise, we all depend on each other. And we all depend on God – as our Baptismal Covenant also reminds us – we can only act with God’s help. This is the holy work of our Holy Community.

The Beatitudes also provide us with a glimpse of how the world will be at the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven – they remind us that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the presence of the Kingdom of Heaven can already be felt and seen. It may be a struggle to live a Christian life, but we have the witness of those saints who have gone before us, providing us examples of living life faithfully, loving and honoring each other. And we are assured of God’s promises – that we should be called children of God.

Have you ever experienced a thin place, where heaven and earth meet?

Together, we stand at that portal:  the Kingdom of Heaven is near – it is both already, and not yet.

AMEN.

________

1  Eric Weiner, “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer,” New York Times, March 9, 2012, accessed November 4, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/travel/thin-places-where-we-are-jolted-out-of-old-ways-of-seeing-the-world.html.