Rumours, and A New Way Home

Epiphany: 7th January, 2018
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Our Magi, the Wise Ones from the East, have been travelling across the St Peter's sanctuary since the Sunday before Christmas and they have now arrived at the crib. We all know this wonderful story that is found only in Matthew's gospel, but that has been told and retold through countless pageants and sermons. I'd like to reflect briefly this morning on two decisions that the Magi made. At the very start of this part of the gospel story they acted on a rumour, and then after seeing the Christ-child they took another decisive action, they returned home by another way.

Let's start at the beginning; acting on a rumour. The Danish philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, wrote these words about the opening verses of chapter two of Matthew's gospel (cited in Thomas L. Jackson, Moments of Clarity, vol. 3, p. 180):

Although the scribes could explain where the Messiah should be born, they remained quite unperturbed in Jerusalem. They did not accompany the Wise Men to seek him. Similarly we may know the whole of Christianity, yet make no movement. The power that moved heaven and earth leaves us completely unmoved. 

What a difference! The three kings had only a rumour to go by. But it moved them to make that long journey. The scribes were much better informed, much better versed. They sat and studied the Scriptures like so many dons, but it did not make them move. Who had the more truth? The three kings who followed a rumour, or the scribes who remained sitting with all their knowledge? 

What a vexation it must have been for the kings, that the scribes who gave them the news they wanted remained quiet in Jerusalem!  We are being mocked, the kings might have thought; for, indeed, what an atrocious self-contradiction that the scribes should have the knowledge and yet remain still. 

This is as bad as if a person knows all about Christ and his teachings, and [that person's] own life expresses the opposite. We are tempted to suppose that such a person wishes to fool us, unless we admit that [this person] is only fooling [him or herself].

Who do you identify with I wonder? The scribes, who know a great deal, but who do not act on their knowledge; or the Magi, who know much less, but who take the risk of doing something about it? It's a good question to honestly ask ourselves at the start of a new year. Jesus himself didn't mince his words on this matter when talking to religious people, like us. Later in Matthew's gospel he gives the scribes and Pharisees quite a telling off: "You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!" Matt 23:24. Is that me? Is that you? Or are we prepared to act on a rumour of God's love this year? I wonder where that would take us?

So much for the start of their journey; equally challenging is the end; what did they do next? After seeing the Christ-child, and paying homage to him, the Magi made an important decision; they returned home by another way. Maggi Dawn, Associate Professor of Theology and Literature at Yale University, reflects on this wise move of the Magi (365 Days of Yes: Daily Prayers and Readings for A Missional Church, ed. CMS, p. 46):

The idea that we cannot go back the way we have come is an important spiritual metaphor: having encountered the Christ-child, we can never just go back. Even if we return to the same life, we find that it has somehow changed. This is by no means a new idea. Pope Leo the Great wrote that the change of plan in the Magis' journey home was not only to baffle Herod's murderous plan, but also that 'it behoved them now that they believed in the Christ not to walk in the paths of their old line of life, but having entered on a new way to keep away from the errors they had left.'

So, I wonder, have these 12 days of Christmas changed us? And if so, how? Have we acted on a rumour of the Messiah, or are we prepared to? And will we travel by another way in the New Year, transformed by our encounter with the newborn Christ child? I don't know about you personally, that is a matter for you and God to work out, but these principles apply to our church as well as to ourselves personally. I wonder if I might tell you a story about a rumour and a new way home that we will be taking as a church in 2018.

In August last year, Fr Graeme sadly left us after a very fruitful and pastoral three years on the ministry team. Once his resignation was public I started looking for a new staff member to replace him. Over the years I've discovered that recruitment and job hunting is all about rumour. We started off with an advert in the TMA, and I then rang all the bishops and asked for the names of potential applicants. The interviews and conversations that followed led me to Fr Richard Murray, Senior Chaplain of RMIT University. The other half of his job was Locum Ministries Coordinator for the Diocese, so I went to see what rumours he had heard of people who might be looking for the sort of job we were offering at St Peter's.

Fr Richard very helpfully gave me a list of names, and then told me that he was retiring at the end of the year. "Would you like a job at St Peter's?" I asked. "No," he replied politely, "like I said, I'm retiring at the end of the year!" Then a light came on in my thinking: "What about the RMIT Chaplaincy?" Quick as a flash Fr Richard came back, "I though that's why you were here!" And so the seed was planted for what I think is going to be a significant new ministry direction for St Peter's Eastern Hill. This past week we have been finalising our contract with RMIT and the appointment of two new staff members to enable this outreach ministry to become a reality. We are building on the pioneering work of Fr Rob Whalley, as RMIT Chaplain more than 10 years ago when he was at St Peter's. In a world where the statisticians tell us that less and less people are coming to church, I think that it is essential that we as a church go out to the people. It's nothing new really; just back to first-century basics; Oxford Movement basics even.

There will be a cost, however; there are consequences. This is the Magi's "new way home" for us here at St Peter's in the coming year. Your Vicar will be heading up a team, as part-time Senior Chaplain at RMIT University, and this will take me away from the parish. I won't be able to do everything I usually do, I will have to deligate some of my current duties. I have been working closely with the Wardens and Parish Council, thinking through the practicalities of this, and will continue to do so. It will require some reshaping of our ministry staffing and structures, which will be well thought through and well communicated, let me assure you. Things won't always run smoothly, as in any time of change, so we need your prayers, your feedback, and your support to make this happen. But I am convinced that this is a new way home that our Lord has opened up for us in 2018. Thanks be to God!

Alae Taule'alo