Today we mark the feast of the Epiphany, we remember the magi coming to visit with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In a statement I made Wednesday, I noted that the word Epiphany means “to reveal” or “to uncover.”
On Wednesday, I had planned to record a really simple little video for Epiphany, to bless some chalk so we could bless our houses with it. The hour I had scheduled to record I heard from friends, family, parishioners, folks from across the geography of my life: “Have you seen what’s happening in Washington?” Have you seen the mob of thugs, looters, rioters, terrorists, that broke into the capitol building?
Needless to say, I didn’t feel I could share a simple video blessing chalk. I sat in front of my computer, unable to do much besides scroll and text friends in Washington to check in on them.
There was a word that came up again and again as I read posts and talked with some of my family and friends: “shocked.”
“I’m shocked this could happen. I’m shocked the rioters would be allowed into Congress’ chambers. I’m shocked the capitol police were so ill-prepared.” Behind it, I wonder if there wasn’t a little shock that a large group of white terrorists would stage an insurrection and take the seat of government hostage.
We have been taught subtly, subliminally, who to fear. The word “terrorist” connotes specific images, accents, skin colors. Those biases aren’t just about the media. We saw on Wednesday, we saw undeniably on Wednesday, our police systems were unprepared for the threat they faced. As the president-elect said, “we all know that if they were Black Lives Matter protestors would have been treated very differently.” We need police reform. We do, and we know now we need it for the sake of public safety. We need police reform to make sure our government can continue to function.
I want to be clear today. The sickness we saw on Wednesday, it’s not new. It didn’t start two months ago with the election. It didn’t start four or five years ago with the last election. The sickness we saw on full and shocking display on Wednesday has been with us since our foundation.
This sickness has been with us from the very beginning. On Wednesday January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, that sickness was uncovered again.
If you were shocked, if you were disgusted, I want to invite you to take the next step. Get curious. Learn more.
The sickness has a name.
The Rev. Dr. Willie Jennings has a name for the sickness. It’s not one of the buzzwords. And that’s hard, because buzzwords help me label myself as “woke.” But getting the words right on a sermon condemning the riot Wednesday isn’t enough. Getting a corporate statement worded well, isn’t enough. What we saw on Wednesday wasn’t a foreign threat, but a revealing of a sickness that has infected us all.
The theologian Willie Jennings, in his book “After Whiteness” calls the sickness “white self-sufficient masculinity.” “White self-sufficient masculinity” Jennings explains “is not first a person or a people; it is a way of organizing life.” The sickness isn’t a people. It’s not a skin color. The sickness is a way of thinking, a way of being.
Jennings tells story after story from his career to illustrate. He speaks of a brilliant student from Hong Kong, who speaks five languages but whose paper is torn apart by a White American graduate assistant for small failures of grammar. The message behind all the red ink: “you don’t belong.” Jennings writes of a faculty interview process where a white man is hired over a black woman with equal scholarly credentials because in the interviews it seems he might fit in with the [predominately white, predominately male] faculty a bit better. In truth, Jennings says, these older men all want to be the younger man. They admire his intellect, his swagger, but most of all his confidence. Jennings writes of his own failures as a black leader to stand up for his black students, when they’ve faced obvious frustrations at the Eurocentric curriculum and culture. Can’t they see they see what he has already faced?
Jennings explains White self-sufficient masculinity is a system of desire. We have, all of us, white people and people of color, been taught to desire a sense of control, a sense of mastery, a sense that we can do this on our own. Like all idols, Jennings says, this false god robs us. It robs us of ourselves. When you’re busy trying to seem invulnerable, it can become hard to let yourself feel what you feel. It, also, principally, robs us of one another. We are so addicted to being self-sufficient, being right, that we can’t be vulnerable and let others in. We can’t get close, because we can’t let others uncover our weakness.
Weakness is at the heart of today’s Gospel story.
At some point on the journey, the magi take a wrong turn. They’re close to the destination, Bethlehem is within sight of Jerusalem. But as they came up out of the Jordan valley, the kings got distracted. They turn the wrong way and end up with Herod. The wise men get it wrong.
Herod was known, is still known, as one of antiquity’s master builders. Palaces Herod built can be seen from space, still today. The huge stones of the Western Wall are Herod’s. Herod built the wall around the holy that still stands. If the magi thought they were looking for a king, it makes sense they might turn toward the sumptuous palace, toward the man who already called himself “king of the Jews.”
The magi quickly realize their mistake. They get back on the road and are delighted to see that star still in the sky. In Bethlehem, they find not a child in princely robes, but humble frightened folks God has chosen as kin. God chose to be born hungry, naked, surrounded by the mess and vulnerability of creation. It took getting it wrong for the magi to figure out how to find God.
At the end of the story, we read the most fascinating phrases in the whole Bible. Herod has asked the magi to come and tell him where to find the child. But they were warned in a dream, Matthew tells us, and so they returned home by another road.
They chose another way home. They chose not to be distracted by worldly power again. They admitted they had been wrong to get caught up in Herod’s game. They chose another road. We can choose a different road.
There, at the manger, something else was uncovered. This is the Gospel, the Good News. God is still with us. God is still here. Yes, ugly terrible truths are uncovered all the time, but so too God’s presence can be uncovered where we are taught to least expect it.
What can we do? Pray for conversion.
That’s not saying it’s easy. A number of folks have asked me, as a pastor, what can we do? How can we talk to our families and friends who voted similarly to those who staged an insurrection? How do we talk to folks who are aggrieved and who believe the lies that the election was stolen?
I’ve heard a lot of talk this week about the need to work for “peace.” I’ve heard a number of elected officials and church leaders call for reconciliation. I’m not praying for either of those yet. I’m not. One of the prayers our Prayer Book asks God to help us “fearlessly contend against evil and make no peace with oppression.”
I’m not praying for reconciliation. I’m praying for conversion. I believe we need conversion before we can talk about peace.
I’m praying that my neighbors will stop worshiping the false god of self-sufficiency, the false-god of whiteness, the false masculine god. On Wednesday there were more than a few signs and tattoos that proclaimed the lordship of Jesus. Reporters have verified, there were pastors in that crowd. I am praying for their conversion.
The Jesus I know invites us home by another road. The Jesus I know had no patience with lies. The Jesus I know was a child refugee fleeing Herod. Jesus was harassed and homeless; the son of man had nowhere to lay his head. The Jesus I know was crucified by the powerful for preaching the Good News of improbable love, love that meant the hungry were fed, the naked were clothed, the imprisoned were set free.
I am praying for conversion. I’m praying for the conversion of folks who are caught up in the lies of a would-be tyrant. But I’m praying for my own conversion as well.
Because I need Jesus too. I need Jesus to help me to lean in to uncomfortable conversations. I need Jesus to point the way, to be the star to guide me. There are times it would be so much easier to lean into my privilege, my sense I have the answers, the right words.
I need Jesus to walk ahead of me and say again “come, let me introduce you to your sisters, your brothers, your siblings. Your job is to love. Your job is to love and to listen and to stand for justice.” I know I won’t get there on my own. I need Jesus. Pray for my conversion. I’ll pray for yours.
This Epiphany, what road will you choose?