Today in church our Sunday School children and teachers dressed up in magnificent robes and brought their gifts to the manger: precious toys and favorite Christmas gifts laid before the baby. They showed us what the story of Epiphany is about – they came journeying from the east, west, north, south, bringing gifts. And all of us came today, coming together to the center – to God in our midst.
The three kings – or queens, or magi, or wise men and women – were foreigners, other, like the shepherds in being not part of the chosen few. But they were drawn by the light of the star and by their own inner promptings, by their interpretation of the signs and the stars, even by their ‘incorrect’ theology, to Jesus, Emmanuel, the little baby in the manger. It didn’t matter who they were, how they conceived of God, what they brought – it was that they came.
Epiphany is manifestation, God showing Godself to us all. An invitation without barriers to come and see God in our midst.
They came and brought gifts. And so do we. We bring the very best of ourselves and the worst of ourselves too, every week to worship, and here we find God at the center. Here in God’s house, gathered around God’s table, all of us make our journeys over distances, sometimes vast and sometimes not, to come here.
The architect of this church meant something unusual. It is built in the round. No aisles. No kneelers. We’re gathered together in a circle around the altar. There is implied flow and movement.
But early on that made people a bit uncomfortable, and so they brought in structure that they knew from other church buildings. Imported altar rails not made for the space. Made aisles and separated off the holy from the rest of us. Shaped how we use the space and how we are as we worship.
Structure and order serve a purpose, of course. When Jim and I came home the other night late from our travels, we put the kids to bed and then stayed up a few more hours, needing to unpack and put things away and put things right, restoring order to the disorder. When Margot began working in our church office, she spent the first few weeks organizing it, counting inventory of envelopes and setting things right so she could work. In this human urge we are like God, who in the beginnings of creation created order out of the chaos.
But sometimes order and structure can become our barrier. It can wall us off from one another. Wall us off from God. Wall others out we don’t think should be here. In the early days of the church, the Eucharist, communion, was a shared meal, like Jesus and his disciples. Ritual was a part of the meal, but all were gathered together around the table to eat. Over time that intimacy made people nervous – the holy needed to be sequestered. So came the long medieval churches with the people far away from the altar, with the Eucharist conducted by the holy few, muttered in Latin, behind screens and rails. The high point was a tinkling of a bell and the raising of the bread and wine for the people to see, far off in the distance. That was how the people received their communion. Thank goodness we’ve moved a long ways back from that extreme. But some of our church architecture lingers on from those days, setting apart holy places from the rest of us.
The altar rail can serve for good and for ill, a structure and a barrier both. It is meaningful for many to receive communion kneeling, each of us quiet and intimate with God. It is good for us to receive the gift, remembering that we are not in charge, being fed like children. But in this space it can also block off the holy, separate us from the altar. It enforcing certain habits of movement that keep us more separate from each other. It keeps us from bringing our whole selves to the center like the magi brought their gifts.
So for the season of Epiphany, we’re going to see what happens when we remove these rails, removing one set of barriers we have ourselves erected.We’ll see what kind of flow and movement and energy gets created here. We’ll be a little more vulnerable and open about bringing ourselves, our whole selves.
We will all have to live into the flow and choreography of it. We’ve set habit patterns here that will get broken. It will mean a little more chaos. Hopefully creative chaos. But I think it will help us with what we are doing in deepening our community and our understanding of God in our midst. I think it may help us with knowing one another more deeply, bringing more of our selves into our life together, our fellowship, our service, our fun, our worship.
At the end of the season, at the end of February, I will preach on this again and offer you a chance to respond to it. We’ll all live into it first to know what it will feel like.
We come together to the center, God in our midst. We come each of us on our journey, assembling here together and flowing out again, over and over. The Epiphany is God showing Godself to us, inviting us in, taking down the barriers to us being embraced in love. Come and be fed, and receive the gifts this baby has for you.