St. Thomas Church,in Auburn. As we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany (a day early) I am mindful of their stated mission "...to share the glory of God, reaching out to the community and the world."
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We live in a time and place when Christmas celebrations begin around Halloween and then are in full throttle by Thanksgiving. Everywhere you go, it seems, it is beginning to look a lot like Christmas even in the midst of trick-or-treaters. Some of us try to resist that cultural tsunami, while others think, “hey if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Regardless, it is what it is. By now, though, many of us may feel like we’re done with the story and perhaps even a little bit weary of it all. So our dry trees may already be chipped up and returned to the earth: ashes to ashes and all that. And our ornaments and crèches are once more carefully packed up until next October or November or December—whenever it is that we decide we are ready to begin again.
In calendar time, we are less than one week into a new year, still perhaps hoping that this is the year we will keep our resolutions and get to the gym more, eat and drink less, get out of debt and so forth. After that ball drops in Times Square and the calendar turns to 1-1-14 we get to hit the re-set button and begin again. Or at least we hope to...
That is all around us: it’s the air we breathe. And yet, as the baptized community, we march to the beat of a different drummer. We try, in our varied ways, to keep the season of Advent as a time of preparation: four weeks of letting a little light at a time shine in the darkness, praying as we light each candle for a little more hope and joy and love and peace—if not yet on earth, then at least around our kitchen table and maybe even in the neighborhood. And then we celebrate Christmas for twelve days and nights—one day at a time—waiting on those magi to arrive to pay homage to the newborn king. In liturgical time, then, today is the eleventh day of Christmas and tomorrow is the Feast of the Epiphany. But since today is Sunday and most of you won’t be back here tomorrow, our focus today is on those magi, the last to arrive and the true culmination of our Christmas celebrations.
I can’t resist the opportunity to begin with the old joke that asks the question: “what if the wise men had been wise women?” Answer?
They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts.
Male or female, these wise ones—these star gazers—deserve a bit of a break: after all they have traveled a long way by camel in a world without interstate highways, and they have made it before the babe is even two weeks old. They come bearing their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Notice that Matthew doesn’t tell us how many magi there were, only that they brought three gifts. It’s a little detail, perhaps, but it is the only reason we presume there were three of them. In fact, there could have been eight of them and they chipped in on three symbolic gifts. Or maybe there were two of them, but they felt that they just couldn’t arrive without myrrh—whatever that is. We don’t know their names, even though later on the tradition would give them names. We do know they came from the east—and tradition has assumed that means Persia and maybe they were Zoroastrians. In any case, our attention turns today to these Iranians wondering as they wandered, and looking for the Light of the world.
“A cold coming we had of it…just the worst time of the year for a journey,” T.S. Eliot once wrote. And then this question on the lips of an aging star-gazer: “were we led all that way for birth or death?” Eliot makes it clear that the answer, of course, is yes and yes. They were, and we are, led all this way to see this light shine forth: the true Light that has come into the world. That is what this word, epiphany, means in Greek: epi-phanos, literally “to shine forth.” They, and we, were led all this way so that we can begin to trust that this Light that shines in the darkness has not and will not be overcome. They, and we, have been led all this way so that we might come and behold him and adore him and fall in love with him the same way we fall in love with our children and grandchildren and our nieces and nephews.
But even now, just eleven days after his birth, we also are mindful that this child will grow up fast, as all children do. Next week we’ll be at the Jordan River and remember his baptism as an adult ready to begin his public ministry. In the weeks ahead we’ll see that light shining forth and then before you know it, it will be Lent again and we’ll be led once more to a hill called Golgatha outside of the city gates of Jerusalem. Were we led all this way for birth or death? Yes, indeed; and beyond death, also, to the new life of Easter morning.
The magi went out into the world looking for the Light. They journeyed all the way from Iran to Bethlehem, guided by a star. I know that this congregation is going to be looking at the Bishop’s Address to this year’s Diocesan Convention. One of the challenges you will find there that Bishop Fisher put before us came from a friend of his in the House of Bishops. It’s a simple invitation: to go out from your place of worship and walk twenty minutes in all four directions, and to pay attention to what you see. Just pay attention. Some congregations have already taken him up on this and the cathedral and diocesan staff are working on doing this together in Springfield in May. One old part of our Anglican tradition is something called “beating the bounds”—that is going out and tracing the boundaries of the parish, which of course is different from the congregation. Your congregation is gathered here, now; but the parish of St. Thomas encompasses all of Auburn, not just those pledging members who show up on a particular Sunday morning.
So what would it be like to go out like the magi did, not sure of what you might find but trusting the star to guide you and the light to shine forth—to go out in four directions, beating the bounds and looking for the Christ? How would you be changed for good if you went out there with open eyes, wondering as you wandered about what it means to be led more deeply into life, and death, in the world that God so loved? For many congregations this represents a radical change of mindset from trying to balance the budget and keep the doors open. But it’s an idea as old as the very first Christmas, and the magi show us the way…
The magi also remind us that the Christian life is a journey, not a destination. We try to be patient and kind with one another, because we remember that the journey of faith is not like making Christmas cookies that can be cut into precisely the same shape. As a member of the bishop’s staff I am learning that it is the same with congregations. There is not some cookie-cutter formula for success, but rather faith that God is at work in our various contexts and that even when we lose our way, or feel we have lost God, the journey continues, and God is faithful.
Along the way, each of us will almost certainly have some things we need to “un-learn.” Because let’s be honest, some of us have been “mal-churched.” I always find it interesting when someone begins a conversation with, “well, what I was taught in Sunday School is…” That should always be a conversation starter, not ender. And the follow-up is important: do you still think that is right? What you learned as a child, I mean—in a bygone era in an Episcopal or evangelical or Roman Catholic Church, from a Sunday School teacher or rector or even parent, no matter how well-intentioned: the question is, does that still ring true for you? Or is it something you would be better off letting go of as your journey in Christ continues, something you might leave behind in 2013 so that in fact this new year might reveal new possibilities to you? What ideas about God, about religion, about yourself, about the world are you still carrying around like sugar plums dancing in your head that it might be time to let go of? Not because God has changed, but because the world has, and because you have, and because always the Spirit of the Living God invites us all to be made new again by growing and changing, not staying and stagnating. A parish that takes it's name from one of my very favorite of Jesus' disciples - Thomas - I'm sure appreciates this at a very deep level. As the only "St. Thomas" in our diocese it is part of your mission, I think, to remind us all not to be afraid of the questions, because those questions lead us to more intimate encounters with the risen Christ.
The birth of a child—the birth of this child—points us toward the future, not the past. Every child, but especially this one, gives us a new perspective on things by allowing us to look at things again with new eyes. So I ask you again: how will the birth of this child we have come to adore today change your life in 2014? And maybe even change the life of this congregation? Are you ready for that adventure? It seems to me that the wisest women and men I have ever known are not rigidly bound to the past, but neither are they untethered to a tradition. Rather, they are people who trust that the God who has been their help in ages past will indeed be their help in years to come. Like these magi, they get it that the journey of faith takes us far from the comforts of home but that it is in so doing that we are led to Christ.
God is being made manifest to the world, in our world, in the streets of Auburn. The Light of Christ has come into our world and by God’s grace we allow it to shine through us, even if just a little bit. For today it is enough to consider these rather strange travelers from the east—three or so of them, give or take; male or female, young or old: all people who are willing to follow a star on a hunch in search of the holy child. If we mean to be anything like them, then we cannot be a people who sit comfortably in the same pew or stand comfortably in the same pulpit year after year, and expect that Christ will come and find us. Maybe that will happen, and maybe there are other sermons for other times when the preacher—even this preacher—might counsel that we watch and pray, that we hold still long enough for the Spirit to break in. In fact I can even think about that time after the resurrection when the disciples were waiting for the Holy Spirit and that is what they needed to do: wait. So for everything there is a time and a season…
But as this Christmas season comes to a close, the good news on this day (as I hear it) is that we are called to be people on the move, a people on a journey. Not just a journey anywhere, but a journey into uncharted territory to look with open eyes to the east and to the west and to the north and to the south. To go out, in order to see where Christ is being born.
Are we led all that way for birth or death? Yes. For sure.