About seven years ago, I was in Hartford for Three Kings Day, January 6, also known as Epiphany. I was bringing my son’s class to a social service agency known as Mi Casa.
Mi Casa is located on Broad Street, right on the parade route
and right in the middle of the largest Puerto Rican neighborhood in the city.
They provide case management to get people connected to services,
ESL and parenting classes
and a big afterschool program including sports and cultural activities.
On this day, our kids from the private Montessori school were invited for the 3 Kings celebration.
Their job was to hand out the presents to the kids from the neighborhood.
After playing with the Mi Casa kids and handing out the gifts, the Montessori kids watched the parade.
They even got their picture in the Hartford Courant, standing with the kings, the camel, and the mayor.
It was a pretty great day for the kids from the Montessori school.
They got to have fun, learn about the city, and have a cross cultural experience---
and feel like they were making a difference.
But I wonder what it felt like to the kids who regularly went to Mi Casa.
These kids live in Frog Hollow, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.
What was it like for them receive gifts from the hands of privileged kids from a private school?
What did they think when the mayor chose the visitors for his photo op?
How did they feel when these outsiders were chosen to represent their celebration in the newspaper?
I don’t know if the kids noticed any of this—at least, not at the time.
But I noticed it, and it bothered me.
Rather than bringing kids together, the day seemed to reinforce the distance
between the kids from Frog Hollow and Montessori kids.
It allowed the privileged kids to feel like they were the givers that they were doing good,
and made the Mi Casa kids into passive recipients.
Instead of everyone being on equal ground, each having something to give and receive,
the activities and the choices of the people in charge created distinctions between kids—
Over time, these kinds of experiences would give some pride, and others dependency.
I thought to myself, isn’t there a better way?
I still ask myself that question.
Our world seems set up to create distinctions and separation between people.
Words like ‘Structural injustice’ and ‘Institutional bias’ describe systems and behaviors
that benefit some groups and disadvantage others.
There’s a lot of data:
Women make 78 cents for every dollar men make in the US. (Dept of Labor website)
Black males are incarcerated at a rate that is six times their white peers. (NAACP website, 2015)
The median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings in 2011,
compared to $7,113 for the median black household
and $8,348 for the median Latino household (Forbes magazine, 2015)
These injustices affect minorities in obvious ways--
but it actually worsens political and economic situation for everyone.
There has to be a better way.
That is where Jesus comes in.
Because Jesus represents a different way.
The early Christians saw Jesus as challenging the institutional biases of their day
and turning the system on its head.
They saw him as a poor person, a man of little opportunity, yet God’s chosen Messiah.
They saw him take on both political and religious power, and lift up the little guy.
They saw him reaching out to the untouchables, and bringing in the outcast.
Jesus was all about changing the system.
You can see it in the language that the early Christians used—coopted from the powers that be.
‘Gospel’ originally meant ‘good news from the empire’
usually an announcement of victory in battle or a birth in the royal family.
Mark, however, changed the word to mean ‘good news to the poor.’
‘Advent’ originally signaled the impending arrival of a high dignitary,
but Luke describes the birth of a peasant child attended by lowly shepherds.
‘Epiphany’ often described a high ranking official showing up suddenly to inspect a subordinate;
but Matthew portrays three learned strangers from far away bringing costly gifts—
the likes of kings bowing before a feeding trough holding a baby without one stitch of clothes.
Jesus, born into the lowliest of human families, was changing the system from the inside out.
The early Christians took their cue from Jesus as they organized.
Women and slaves were equal members in the movement;
Gentiles and people of many ethnic groups joined alongside the Jews.
St Paul wrote his famous quote in Galatians, There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,
nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Following Jesus meant leaving aside the prejudices and uneven privileges of the past,
and embracing a new order.
As modern day Christians, we cannot be satisfied with the way things are.
With the strife and violence you see on the news every day, you know as well as I do:
there has to be a better way.
Jesus’ Good News for poor is good news for all of us.
It is a way of inclusion and forgiveness that builds bridges
and will not stop until all people are free and have a fair shake.
But how do we do this?
How can we step back from the prejudices and practices we don’t even know about?
The first step is to listen to those with different experiences than you.
People from different backgrounds help fill in the gaps of your knowledge;
knowing people from other religions or cultures dispels misconception and suspicion
and puts appreciation in their place.
Ask any of the folk in our adult ed classes these past 6 months:
In our study of world religions we had visitors from faiths as varied as Islam, Mormonism, and Buddhism,
and we have found much to treasure in each person who joined us.
Ask the folks who have been volunteering at the Friday Night Gathering at Grace Lutheran in Hartford.
They can tell you what a gift it is not just to serve food to homeless people,
but to sit with them at the table and share stories with them, to learn about and from them.
We all are going to have an opportunity this month to learn.
On Thursday January 14, our national bishop Elizabeth Eaton
is hosting a webcast on racism and the criminal justice system.
It’s part two of a series on racism hosted by our bishop and William B Horne II, an ELCA member from FL.
Also on the webcast will be
Judge Yolanda Tanner, an ELCA member who serves as an associate judge for the Baltimore City Circuit Court and a member of the ELCA.
+ Leonard Duncan, an ELCA member who will share his experience of incarceration, poverty and homelessness. Duncan is a student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.
+ Charlene Guiliani, an ELCA member and former police sergeant. Guiliani is a student at Wartburg Theological Seminary.
You can access the webcast from elca.org, or on livestream on facebook—as well as catch up on the first installment that happened in August.
Also beginning on January 17, we are having a Sunday morning speakers’ series, entitled, “Spotlight on Inclusion”
in which we will learn about Deaf culture,
what supports people with developmental disability need for full inclusion,
and what it means to welcome someone who lives with mental illness.
These are opportunities for us to get connected, to learn and to appreciate others—
and begin to change the systems that have kept us apart.
Since that day at Mi Casa, I have learned more about the celebration of Three Kings.
It has its roots in the Afro-Caribbean slave experience,
when the slaves were granted only one day off a year—January 6, Epiphany.
The traditional story of the three wise men was that they were kings,
and that the second of them, Melchior, was African.
The slaves began to claim this story and this day, and make it their own.
The precious gifts and fitting tribute the wise men brought was a source of pride for the slaves
they saw their own heritage in the ‘Kings’ and claimed their spot at the feet of Jesus.
I see this story as a sign of hope for all of us.
For no matter what systems we inherit, the stories of our faith call us to re-envision the world
They call us to dignity for all people
They call us to stand up against the Herods that breathe power and violence.
They call us to join with people from near and far, exotic and familiar
to stand before our Lord, trusting that he brings the dawn of a new day.
This inscription may be made with chalk above the entrance:
20 + C M B + 15
Write the appropriate character (left) while speaking the text (right).
The magi of old, known as
M Melchior, and
followed the star of God’s Son who came to dwell among us
20 two thousand
15 and fifteen years ago.
☩ Christ, bless this house,
☩ and remain with us throughout the new year.
Prayer of Blessing
O God, you revealed your Son to all people by the shining light of a star. We pray that you bless this home and all who live here with your gracious presence. May your love be our inspiration, your wisdom our guide, your truth our light, and your peace our benediction; through Christ our Lord.