I’ve been thinking about the passing of William Christopher, the man who played Father Mulcahy on MASH. And I was reflecting on two scenes in MASH in which he played a very central role. In the first scene, he ends up acting as nurse for a surgery Hawkeye is doing because there just aren’t enough personnel available. In the middle of the operation, Father Mulcahy closes his eyes and begins to pray for the healing of the patient when Hawkeye suddenly yells at him “retraction!” and so he does what Hawkeye says and doesn’t finish the prayer. Hawkeye apologizes but Father Mulcahy’s response is, “Well, God knew what I meant anyway.” Which was more important? Which of his two actions were more Godly? Helping with the surgery or praying?
I want you to think about that while I share with you another scene from a different episode. Father Mulcahy is giving a boy laid out on a stretcher with a toe-tag on his big toe his last rites. The Father is praying over him when he thinks he sees a sudden movement of the boy’s toe. He looks up and sees a single tear falling from the boys closed eyelid and realizes the boy with the toe tag is NOT in fact dead. As a result of seeing this, he is able to call for a doctor’s help and the boy’s life is saved. Still, I ask you, which was more important: the Father blessing the boy and giving him last rites? Or his recognizing that the boy was still alive?
I invite you to think about that as we reflect for a few minutes on Epiphany. How many of you remember what the word “Epiphany” means? The word “Epiphany” means “manifestation”. For us in the church, Epiphany is the Manifestation of Jesus, or the marking of God’s manifestation in Jesus: the pronouncement and revealing of who Jesus is. There are three events that we consider “Epiphanal” in the scriptures. Do you know what these are?
The three incidents are: the visit of the magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the miracle of turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Before 1969 all three of these Scriptures were heard on successive Sundays. All three stories were considered to form a unit because they progressively reveal first the identity of Jesus (from the visit of the Magi who proclaim him to be the Messiah), second, the authority of Jesus (the Spirit descending and the voice declaring that Jesus was God’s son with whom God was pleased) and finally the power of Jesus (through his miracle of turning the water into wine). These three events also show Jesus’ Divinity as recognized or declared first by the Magi (those considered wise), second by God (the Spirit), and third by those around Jesus (who experienced the water becoming wine).
Now, however, instead of having three weeks of epiphany which successively and progressively focus on these three events, we usually have the Magi and the Baptism stories read either together (like today), on successive Sundays, or only one of the two stories is read each year. Additionally, the third story, the story of the wedding at Cana is only in our lectionary every third year. Still all three are considered Epiphany, all three are important to our faith.
All three involve some form of communication with God, but the primary manifestation, as seen in all three of these events, of the Divine in Jesus is through action. The Magi travel, following the star to worship the Christ and pay him homage. The Spirit descends on Jesus after Jesus takes the action of seeking baptism. And Jesus, himself, physically changes the water into wine. The manifestations of the Christ – of God’s presence, authority and power in Jesus – all happen through these actions. These aren’t actions absent of prayer or absent of connection to God, but they are action none the less. Faith is about doing. You are how you act, which shows how you really believe, what really matters to you, what is really important and central to you.
About 13 years ago I was having computer trouble and a friend recommended a computer expert to fix it. He particularly recommended this man because he was a Christian computer technician. The computer expert, after looking at the computer in my home for awhile, said that he would need to do a full system re-format. He took my computer and discs of all my programs that he would need to re-load onto the computer to his home office. When he returned the computer, it was obvious within the first hour or so that he had not fixed the problem and that the computer was as messed up as before. I ended up having to buy a new computer. When I did so and went to load on my programs, I noticed that one program had never been returned from the computer expert. Ironically it was my Bible software. He was a man of faith, so I was told, yet he had “stolen” my bible software.
Matthew 21: 28-31 reads: 28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
31 (Jesus continued…)“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
Saying that we have faith is not the same as acting like Jesus calls us to act – acting with love, acting with grace, living out that faith. We, too, are called to manifest God’s presence – to make it known to others, to shine the light of the Christ into the lives of others – to follow in the footsteps of the Christ by physically manifesting the presence of Christ. We do this in many ways. But paying attention, like the Father in the MASH episodes, helping provide care when called on to do so, allowing ourselves to be called into action and responding to that call – these are the ways we manifest God’s presence. Our faith doesn’t impress others, doesn’t touch others, doesn’t shine the light into their lives, unless it is manifest in the way we live our lives and live that out.
Again, I’m not saying that the prayer part isn’t important. Prayer is central. It grounds us, it makes us into the people who can do the action. Father Elias Chacour, archbishop of Israel said this: “Vision without action is just a daydream, but action without vision is a nightmare.” I would change that, “to action without prayer is a nightmare.” We can’t rely on our own desires or our own impulses to guide us into being the faithful people we are called to be, to lead us to do what’s “right” in God’s eyes. We have to be guided by God and prayer, study, meditation, time with God allows us to hear, and to be centered in our relationship with God.
Still, people know us by the way we behave. “They will know we are Christians by our love”. So how do we behave? You have probably all heard the story: A driver did the right thing, stopping at the crosswalk even though he could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection. The tailgating woman behind him went ballistic, pounding on her horn and screaming in frustration as she missed her chance to drive through the intersection with him. Still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the face of a very serious police officer.
The officer ordered her to exit her car with her hands up. He took her to the police station where she was searched, fingerprinted, photographed and placed in a cell. After a couple of hours, a policeman approached the cell and opened the door. She was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with her personal effects.
He said, "I'm awfully sorry for this mistake. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping the guy off in front of you, and cussing a blue streak at him. I noticed the ‘Choose Life’ license plate holder, the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bumper sticker, the ‘Follow me to Sunday School’ bumper sticker and the chrome plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk. Naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car."
I think about AA and other 12 step groups. They have a saying which is “act as if.” The idea behind it is that we grow into being who we want to be by doing the behaviors of the ones we want to be. We grow into being the kind of Christians we are called to be by practicing doing it. This applies to any Christian actions including praying. None of us are going to have it right from day one. We have to just DO it. It is not just our thoughts or our prayers but our actions make a difference in how people feel and if and how people heal. AA is a doing, not just a thinking. One of the proofs of that is that those who sponsor others are much more likely to stay sober themselves. You have to give help in order to get helped. We have to live our faith out in order to truly and fully experience belief and the grace that is offered to us. We grasp and experience grace by living into it.
Epiphany, the manifestation of God’s presence in Jesus – it is grounded in relationship with God, but it is experienced through action. For us, too – we spread God’s light by being grounded in prayer – and by living out that faith through action. Amen.