How many of you have felt like an outsider at one point or another? How many of you feel like outsiders even now?
My best friend growing up was my next door neighbor. We’ll call him Ernie. Ernie parent’s were from Ghana. Ernie and I had different color skin.
One day we both went to the baseball card shop in the shopping plaza near our town home community. Between the two of us we had fourteen dollars. We were determined to spend all of it that day at that store. After parting ways to look around the place for our favorite cards, the man who had been behind the counter when we arrived left his station and hovered over Ernie the entire time that we were there. When we left I asked Ernie if he had noticed the man watching him and what he made of it. Ernie replied, “Ben, they always stare at me in stores.”
Epiphany celebrates the manifestation, or showing forth, of the glory of God in Jesus Christ
Tonight is the feast of the Epiphany. While Christmas celebrates Christ’s coming in the Incarnation event, Epiphany celebrates the manifestation, or showing forth, of the glory of God in Jesus Christ. Over the next few Sundays, we will witness the showing forth of Christ’s glory in various ways. Tonight we heard about wise men coming from the East to worship at the cradle of the infant Jesus. These wise men, possibly priests but we don’t know for sure, were Gentiles. As our collect for the day makes explicit, the Magi here in Matthew’s Gospel represent “the peoples of the earth”: the unclean, the outsiders. Here, near beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, the glory of Christ is made manifest to people who do not belong. For this reason the great church father Augustine of Hippo once preached that “the whole Church of the Gentiles has adopted this day as a feast worthy of most devout celebration.” For “We, beloved [outsiders], of whom the Magi were the first fruits, we are the inheritance of Christ to the ends of the earth.”
If we were listening closely, we’d notice that Augustine is not just talking about the story that we read this morning; the story of the Magi beholding the glory of the Lord. He’s also introducing another episode from Matthew’s Gospel. He’s bringing together the text that we’ve read tonight from the beginning of the Gospel with another text from the Gospel’s end. The text that Augustine unites to tonight’s Gospel lesson is Jesus’s final word to his followers in the Gospel of Matthew, where the resurrected Christ tells his people, “to go and make disciples of all nations.” To go and make insiders out of outsiders.
Go and make insiders out of outsiders
Maybe you’re like my friend Ernie, who often times feels like an outsider. Maybe you too feel unfairly judged and looked down upon. Maybe you feel like you don’t fit in, and trying to fit in only makes it worse. Or maybe you’ve made some mistakes, and the people closest to you just will not let it go.
From my, albeit limited, experience of being a pastor, I’ve found that most people that I meet and talk to feel like outsiders in one way or another. For some, it is an ever-present reality, for others it’s more situational, but nevertheless very real.
The story of the Magi, worshipping at the feet of the infant Jesus and experiencing his glory, is a word of the Lord to those of us who feel like outsiders. For as Augustine said in his sermon in 412 A.D., the wise men were the first-fruits. The first outsiders of the kingdom of God who were made insiders. Today we follow in their footsteps. Today the church is no different. It is made up of outsiders of all kinds, misfits of all sorts, sinners of every stripe.
For as Augustine would later write, the Church is an all-embracing mother.
A haven for losers.
A refuge for the oppressed.
A hospital for sinners.
Now let us go and tell outsiders everywhere.
Rev. Ben DeHart is the Associate Minister at Calvary-St. George’s in NYC and a new contributor to Emmaus via Canterbury.