The Outsider's Perspective
Over the holiday, I had the privilege of serving as chaplain for the Diocese of Mississippi’s winter camp for 9th-12th graders. I had a fabulous time and I saw the Spirit at work in a variety of ways. I’ll share just a few with you. I watched as two lonely kids spent several hours working on a puzzle together and came away friends. I saw kids from across lines of race, gender, geography and social class collaborate in creative problem solving – cooking a chocolate cake inside a hollowed out orange over a campfire! I witnessed an entire camp of high schoolers cheer and provide back up for a young girl who loves to sing but suddenly found herself frozen on a talent show stage in front of a crowd. I worshiped with these kids and heard them pray openly for one another and for the world. It was an honor to witness their spiritual formation.
But, their camp is in transition between executive directors, and as both a priest and an outsider, I was perfectly positioned to receive a lot of teen angst about the future of this place they love so much. I am no stranger to anxiety about places and projects and people that I’m deeply invested in, so I felt their pain. But as a member of a different diocese dropping in for a week, I have to say that my biggest impression of their community is that the Spirit is present there in a deep and powerful way, and I am not worried at all about their continued thriving in the world. I tried to share this sentiment and plant this seed gently wherever I could.
This is something I’ve been doing a lot of lately. I’ve been at Christ Church for six months now, and while I certainly don’t feel like an outsider anymore, I have had the gift of seeing the Spirit at work in ways that folks who’ve been in the trenches of transition work might have missed, and I’ve tried to share these moments as they come, as well. Through the newcomer’s vantage point that I have occupied lately, I have developed a surprising and unexpected kinship with – of all people – the Wise Men. Like I did, the Wise Men arrive on the scene as strangers and yet immediately sense the presence of God. Their story reminds us that the outsider’s perspective on the Spirit is a vital part of God’s mission in the world, essential to revelation and salvation.
Scripture is filled with outsiders recognizing the true nature of God before God’s own people do – Hagar, the Samaritan woman at the well and the centurion, just to name a few. And today we hear the story of the three Wise Men, quintessential Gentile believers who changed the course of salvation without even knowing it. Here’s a delightful tidbit about them. We call them the Magi because in the original Greek, Matthew’s Gospel calls them μάγοι, which means Zoroastrian priests.
Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world, and had a tradition of prophets being born to young virgins long before Gabriel appeared to Mary. Having heard of Jesus’ birth, these Magi came looking for a prophet of their own. Instead, they met the Messiah and somehow, they knew right away the impact of what they had found. They instinctively change their course and their lives to protect him, one of the first acts of Christian discipleship. We have much to learn from outsiders who understand the Gospel message. In fact, appearing to outsiders is one of the principle ways in which God reveals God’s self to the world. And this is what we celebrate on the Feast of the Epiphany.
God’s presence is revealed to us in all kinds of ways: in nature, in relationships, in music, in uncanny and otherwise inexplicable circumstances. I recently told the story of how the Holy Spirit came to me through mathematics. Sharing stories about the beautiful and captivating ways we have seen God in the world is an essential part of our faith – but also a glamorous one. It’s pleasant and agreeable to talk about sunsets and spouses and sonatas.
But on Epiphany, God is a little rough around edges. We are reminded of the places we see God that are not as appealing: a storm, a divorce, an embarrassing mistake, a stranger who makes us feel uncomfortable. It is much less pleasant and agreeable to talk about our failed relationships. We’d rather pretend we did not just stick our foot in our mouth than apologize. We’d rather not make eye contact with the non-english speaker next to us in line, and we’d definitely rather not listen to people we disagree with. We would rather hunker down and ignore these irksome occasions until they pass from attention. But when we do, how much of God’s handiwork are we missing?
As it turns out, quite a lot. God is constantly using outsiders to bring about the Kingdom and never seems to let them stray too far from the story of salvation. The Gospel message can be made manifest not just to those of us who are looking for it in a church, but to all people, from the murderous Cain to the Zoroastrian Magi to a 21st century immigrant in any country. And to see God’s mission in the world clearly, we need each and every perspective. Just think. If it weren’t for those three Wise Men from a distant land and an unfamiliar religion who shielded him from Herod’s wrath, Jesus the Messiah might not have lived to reveal God’s salvation to anyone.
I am so looking forward to seeing the Spirit at work this afternoon as we rededicate our magnificently restored stained glass windows. Take it from this relatively new Christ Church family member, the Holy Spirit most definitely shines through these windows. They are a symbol for us on this Feast of the Epiphany of the power of light from outside our walls. Light that is epitomized by the Magi, and by outsiders everywhere. Light that can break through from even the most irksome and unexpected of places. Amen.