A Progressive Epiphany Rev Dr Durrell Watkins Epiphany Sunday 2014 Today is the last day of Christmas, a 12 season lasting from December 25th to January 5th. Tomorrow is the feast of the Epiphany, and our readings today are the texts for that Feast Day. In years past, when Matthew’s epiphany story has come ‘round […]
A Progressive Epiphany
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
Epiphany Sunday 2014
Today is the last day of Christmas, a 12 season lasting from December 25th to January 5th. Tomorrow is the feast of the Epiphany, and our readings today are the texts for that Feast Day.
In years past, when Matthew’s epiphany story has come ‘round again, I have pointed out the significance of the three gifts the magi are said to have offered the holly family: gold, incense, and myrrh, each symbolizing states of consciousness.
Gold represents abundance thinking.
Incense represents prayer.
Myrrh, used medicinally in various cultures, represents healing.
To discover God within us, to realize that right where we are, God is, and where God is all good is possible is to also discover that we have amazing gifts that we can enjoy and that we can share to help our world.
A mentality of abundance and generosity, a life of prayer, and a profound hope that healing is always possible are among those great treasures.
In previous years when discussing this passage I have also delighted in sharing another observation: that the magi are Persians, Zoroastrian priests. They weren’t Christians (there were no Christians yet in the world) and they weren’t Jewish. But religion is a social institution, created by and for humans. God is bigger than our religions and is not limited by their various dogmas, doctrines and traditions.
And so these Eastern priests from another religion discover the gift of God among us, within us. We can be faithful within our religious framework while respecting others who are faithful within theirs. We don’t need them to be wrong for us to be OK.
But this year, I want to offer another spin on epiphany.
Epiphany means “appearance” and refers to a striking realization, a dramatic breakthrough.
The epiphany story, then, calls us to search for our own divine encounters and to celebrate them with the gifts we have to share.
Here is an epiphany of mine that I have devoted more than two decades of ministry so far to sharing:
Progressive Christianity isn’t something new.
I love that we are a progressive faith community, but as different as they may be from the fundamentalism some of us came out of, it isn’t new in the history of our faith…We are a DIFFERENT kind of church from many other churches today, but progressive faith is actually rooted in antiquity and may be among the oldest schools of Christian thought!
We see in our own bible stories of Jesus challenging systems of privilege to be more inclusive of those his society routinely ignored, or worst, condemned: women, children, prostitutes, lepers, the poor, Samaritans, Canaanites…even the story of the magi today show us people beyond a particular tradition discovering sacredness in their own context.
Practicing THEIR faith they found the sign that led them to a personal encounter with divine light. Rather than being a barrier or a wedge that divides people of different faiths, Jesus actually shows the way of universal spirituality, of divine omnipresence that embraces, holds, and nourishes all people.
Perhaps people came to see Jesus as a son of God because he spent his life seeing them as sons and daughters of God.
In the Book of Acts, we see Paul visiting a woman named Lydia, a woman leader of a women’s community. These independent women who lived without men actually supported Paul’s ministry. Paul’s ministry benefited from the support of strong, independent women.
Paul, also in Acts, visits Mytilene, which is interesting because Mytilene was the capital of Lesbos. OMG I love the bible!
Also, in the book of Acts Luke tells us that Paul quotes a pagan Greek poet to make the point that it is in God that we all live, and move, and have our being. We are always in God, of God, never separate from God. The idea that all people have sacred value and all people can have personal experiences of the omnipresence isn’t some new age invention, it is a message as old as our bible.
And in the years that followed bible days, the progressive messages kept coming.
Just a hundred years after Matthew’s gospel was written, a man named Origen was born. Origen was a universalist, who unlike me he believed in demons, he also believed that divine grace was bigger than the diabolical and that ultimately, even the demons would be reconciled to God. A divine love that never gives up on anyone, even the demonic…that was a teaching of an early Christian theologian.
Of course, by the 6th century, his teachings were condemned by the institutional church that had a lot invested in an us vs them system, but very early on, there were Christians teaching that God’s love embraced all souls unconditionally.
In the 300s a same-gender loving couple, Sergius & Bacchus, were martyred for their Christian faith. They never doubted that their shared love was an expression of God’s love. They were faithful to their love of God and to their loving commitment to each other until their last breath.
In the 400s, there was a theologian named Pelagius. His nemesis, Augustine, came up with the notion of original sin, but Pelagius didn’t buy it. Pelagius said that we are not innately depraved, our origins are not sinful.
We can make poor choices but we can also make good ones, and our seeming imperfection is due to our not having evolved yet to where we are meant to be. We are at least potentially good, and we can always grow into deeper expressions of our goodness.
Also in the 400s there was an anonymous writer who borrowed the name of a companion of the Apostle Paul, Dionysus. Because Dionysus was his nom de plume, we now call him Pseudo-Dionysus. Pseudo-Dionysus stressed the idea of divine omnipresence (there’s not a spot where God is not).
In the 800s there was a Christian teacher called Eriugena who translated the works of Pseudo-Dionysus and was so influenced by them that he then taught that the divine Nature embraces everything, that nothing and no one is beyond God’s presence. Indeed, Eriugena insisted that God is actually in all life as the essence of all life, that all things that exist are manifestation of God.
In the 1300s a guy we call Meister Eckhart said that God is the innermost part of each and everything. He was a Christian academic, but he also studied Jewish and Muslim literature. He thought no one held the exclusive rights to truth and God could speak through any tradition.
Later in that same century was a Christian mystic named Julian. She lived in a turbulent time, but her theology was outrageously optimistic. While the plague and peasant revolts were shaking her world, she insisted that God’s love embraced all people.
In the 14th century she called God both Father and Mother. MCC has used inclusive language since 1981 and most mainline Protestant seminaries use inclusive language today, but Julian beat all of us to it by knowing in the middle ages that God is beyond and part of every gender expression.
She also insisted that God was all-loving with no wrath at all.
And so, even when appearances suggested devastation, Julian used an affirmation to express faith in a Truth beyond current facts. Her now famous affirmation was, “all shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
In the 1600s Quaker founder George Fox would say that there was an Inward Light, that of God in every person.
In the 1800s Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson would declare, speaking for all of us, “I am part and parcel of God.”
And 20th Protestant theologian Paul Tillich understood God as the “ground of being.” He said, “the power of being…works through [even] those who have no name for It, not even the name ‘God.’” A God who lives in and through us even when we have more questions than answers about It…that was the God of arguably the most significant theologian of the last century!
Many of us are survivors of narrow, myopic, and even hostile fundamentalist churches. The good news is that fundamentalism is not the only expression of Christianity nor has it ever been. There have always been progressive thinkers, teachers, practitioners, healers, and leaders among us.
There have always been faithful visionaries who believed to follow Jesus was to have a progressive understanding of spirituality, who believed that following Jesus meant learning that God is the source and substance of our lives, present in our hearts and in our loving relationships and in our thinking and in our sharing and in our searching.
There have always been those who held a vision of Jesus as one calling us to believe in our sacred value, in the goodness of life, and in the ability to have hope even when conditions seem hopeless.
There have ALWAYS been progressives among us, calling us to wider visions and more joyous understandings. Some of us even believe Jesus must have been such a progressive; that’s what must have made him so attractive to the hurting and so dangerous to the privileged.
This time of epiphany can be transformational.
Those who have insisted that God hates gays, that God hates non-Christians, that most Christians aren’t really Christians, that God doesn’t regard women as highly as men, that God opposes science, that God hates pluralism and diversity, that basically God hates what every small-minded bigot hates will be so surprised to learn that there have always been women in religious leadership, there have always been Gay people of faith, there have always been Christians who respected and loved non-Christians, and there have always been people who thought the Christian message was that God is everywhere, embracing everybody, an no one is ever beyond the reach of God’s love.
We are the remnant of faithful Christians who have been here since bible days. But this message is new to some people, and as we share it, lives will be transformed.
Let’s make this a year of transformation, where we share more boldly than ever our progressive, positive, practical spirituality that can change and even save lives. Let’s support this message, mission, and ministry with time, talent, and treasure and make sure that more people than ever before know that right where they are, God is, and that means that all good is possible for them. And this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2014
All shall be well…
All shall be well…
And all manner of things shall be well.
Thank you, God!