Monday, January 4, 2021

Follow that Star

Matthew 2:1-12 

Journey of the Magi
James Tissot

January 3, 2021
Epiphany

 

We call today Epiphany.

The definition of epiphany is:

“A sudden, intuitive perception or insight

into the reality or essential meaning of something,

usually initiated by some simple, homely,

or commonplace occurrence or experience”

 

Today we hear the story about

wise men from the East who came to Jerusalem

looking for Jesus so they could honor him

They saw a simple star and somehow they

knew that the Messiah had been born.

They had an Epiphany.

 

We don’t know too much about these guys.

The story doesn’t mention their names,

the names Caspar, Balthazar and Melchoir

were made up in the 6th century.

We don’t know that they were kings,

that was made up in the 3rd.

It doesn’t say anything about robes and camels

that’s all from someone’s imagination.

We don’t even know that there were three of them,

it just makes it clear that there were more than one.

 

People have supposed these wise men to be kings,

astrologers, magicians, Zoroastrian priests.

People from China, Iran, India and Syria

have claimed them as coming from their countries.

                                                    

The story of these people takes up just 12

little verses in Matthew’s gospel,

but it has created a lot of folklore and inspired

a lot of stories throughout the ages.

Probably because at its core, it’s so interesting.

 

At its core, it’s a story about people who followed a star,

a hope, an inspiration.

They were obviously people who were willing to take risk

and engage in a little bit of whimsy.

It’s the story about people who had the courage

to follow an unsure and uncertain thing with certainty.

It’s the story of people who were willing to follow

God’s lead wherever it took them.

Those wise men.

They left their homes, their comfort,

the things that they knew, they followed the star.

 

So, since they heard this call from God, they were sure

of course, they were positive in what they were doing.

They knew the whole time they were doing the right thing.

They always felt confident and secure, right?

Probably not, but we don’t get to see those parts.

 

T.S. Eliot, wrote a really wonderful

poem about the three Wise Men, called

The Journey of the Magi. It’s been one of my favorites

since college, I’ve always wanted to read it on Epiphany,

but I never have, but since I’m leaving I can indulge.

I’ll just read you the first part of it. 

You can read the rest on your own.


Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot 
 


The Journey of the Magi

 

“A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.”

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

 

I always loved this because it fills in the rest of the story

with a reality, with the difficulty and the

un-sureness of the trip they took.

The feeling along the way that maybe the journey was silly to take.

The doubt that comes before the confidence.

You should read the rest of the poem.

It’s wonderful.

  

I’m kind of following a star myself these days

Leaving everything that’s comfortable and secure

and uprooting my family and going into somewhere

unknown that I feel God’s call to.

And I have to tell you I do not feel confident.

I don’t feel sure and positive that I’ve made the right choice.

I’m not positive that I heard that call the right way.

Like in the poem, I can hear

 “the voices are singing in my ears that this all was folly.”

 

But God has never promised us sure things,

or unwavering confidence, or a lack of doubt.

God just promises to be with us until the end of the age.

 

Now, not everyone needs to follow a star into public ministry,

Or move across the country, that’s just my star.

But everyone is invited to follow some sort of star.

Or maybe you’ve already followed your assortment of stars.

Maybe your star is staying in the same

place for the first time in your life,

and figure things out where you are.

Maybe your star is rediscovering your faith.

Or maybe it’s helping another person you wouldn’t normally help.

Maybe your star is a career choice, or a hobby, or a change in life.

 

Maybe it’s going to a protest, or a meeting,

or writing a letter, or running for office.

Maybe it’s forgiving a friend, or contacting a neighbor,

or reuniting with a family member.

We are all called to do something that leads us on

a different path, a different direction a different way.

  

None of those things are a sure thing.

All of those things contain risk and vulnerability.

All of those things are a bit of folly.

All of us feel a sense of doubt when we’re doing

something different or uncharacteristic.


But I do think that God needs people who will

follow those stars wherever they might go.

God needs people who are willing to follow

uncertain things with certainty and commitment.

 

Of course, God always loves us if we decide not

to go to the weird and strange places.

But I think God sometimes wants to lead us

into the unknown and the strange.

                                                          

The story of Jesus is a story of God’s light coming to earth.

But the light of Jesus needs to be shared with others,

its purpose is to inspire, to ignites hearts and minds

to do things that we would not otherwise do.

To have that “sudden, intuitive perception or insight”

To see and do things differently.

                                                          

God needs us to be open to have those

epiphanies that stir us and move us

Those moments that can also be painful and difficult.

and full of uncertainty and doubt.

The ones that change our minds forever.

 

God needs people who are willing to

travel by another road,

by a completely different way

to follow the light of Christ.

 

Monday, December 21, 2020

Advent 4 - Waiting Together

 Luke 1: 26-44

December 20, 2020

Advent 4

 

When we think of interruptions,

they usually aren’t good.

Our sleep was interrupted,

The class was interrupted

An outburst interrupted the courtroom.

Our life was interrupted.

It’s usually meant as a negative word.

 

As a pastor, people often tell me, “I’m sorry I interrupted you.”

It’s usually from someone with some a theological question,

which is what I actually went to school for,

And what you interrupted me from

was probably not very exciting anyway,

so I usually appreciate being interrupted.

 

Interruptions can be inconvenient,

But they’re not all bad.

 

Take this story today for instance,

Mary is doing whatever she’s doing that day,

making bread or sewing or washing something.

Doing whatever she was doing with her life.

Preparing for her marriage,

thinking her future would be very similar to her mother’s life,

and the life of most other women.

And out of nowhere, Gabriel comes to her

and tells her that she would have a child.

And not just any child but God’s child

and he will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.

She was told that she would give birth to the savior,

the Messiah, the one that everyone was waiting for.

 

That is quite an interruption.

 

Imagine standing there, brushing your teeth,

in whatever state of life you are in right now

and having an angel of God come and tell

you that you were going to be a parent to the Messiah,

right now, if that was okay with you.

 

Even if you were pregnant already,

that would be a pretty big interruption.

 

Now, like with all life interruptions,

Some people would refuse, run away, to go into hiding.

 

But some people, like Mary, decide to accept whatever

God has in mind and see where this interruption leads them.

Here I am, the servant of the Lord.

 

And if you decided to do that –

to accept God’s will like that –

you might join together with other people

who have gotten the same kind of interruptions

which is what Mary does.

 

As soon as Mary accepts this news, she goes out to see

her sister Elizabeth, the one other person

who truly understands this gigantic interruption.

Because she was interrupted several months earlier

with news that she would finally be a mother,

to John the Baptist, the one that would

gather the people and prepare them for Jesus arrival.

 

Mary meets with her, and talks with her,

and compares notes with her and

 I’m sure they also share their fears and apprehensions,

they make plans and they rejoice together.

 

This was kind of the first meeting of the

Christian church when you think about it.

 

And she doesn’t just whine and complain

about God’s interruption into her life,

she sings about it (like a lot of people in Luke’s Gospel do).

 

She verbalizes and celebrates God’s interruption

into her life and she celebrates all the interruptions

that God is planning to make into the status quo

of this whole world:

scattering the proud, lifting the lowly,

filling the hungry with good things,

sending the rich away empty.

Those are some mighty big interruptions.

 

And considering the state of the world today,

don’t we want some of those interruptions?

Don’t we want God to come in

and do something new and unexpected right now?

 

The church is made up of people whose lives have been

interrupted by Jesus coming together to share our

joy and pain, to make plans together, and to wait together,

for God to interrupt us again.

 

And God has interrupted us –

Maybe not with parenting the savior of the world--  

but with other callings and convictions

we weren’t planning on.

 

Maybe we didn’t believe in God at one time

or we were uncommitted to Jesus.

Maybe we had one career in mind

and God called us to another,

maybe we thought our family would look

one way, but it looks another way,

Maybe a pandemic makes us all see life as more precious.

Maybe we didn’t want to be dragged into a project

but then we found ourselves

deep in the middle of it and loving it.

Maybe we’re being asked to leave one place

and go to another.

 

That is God’s job, to make all things new,

To shake things up, to interrupt.

 

Each week in Advent, we have lit these candles.

Each week shows us God’s interruption

into our world is always increasing.

The oppression and hopelessness

may seem strong and ominous at times,

but we know God’s hope, love, peace, and joy

keeps getting stronger and brighter.

 

So we gather together

And we rejoice at the fact that everything has not gone

as we had planned or expected.

And we rejoice that God has interrupted our lives

and asked us to be part of God’s plan for salvation.

We rejoice that God interrupted 
Mary’s life and our savior was born.

 

And we wait together for the savior of the world

to come into our lives and interrupt us again.

 

We long for those days when God comes so close that we

can taste, see, hear, smell and feel God’s presence with us.

 

We wait together for the wonderful things

that God has in store

for us and for all the world.

 

We wait for God to interrupt us again.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Advent 3

 John 1:6-8, 19-28,

Advent 3, December 13, 2020

The incandescent bulb

was invented in the 1800’s

and the first commercial one was made in about 1880

Since that time, most people in the world

can just walk a few feet over to a wall and flip a switch

and there will be light.

And when you go to many places at night now,

you wouldn’t even know that it was dark out.

 

So until about a hundred years ago,

before the electric light was invented,

(In other words, for most of the history of humanity)

People had to burn oil or wax for light.

The fire was unreliable and dangerous.

Darkness had much more control over people’s lives.

For most people, things stopped about every 12 hours,

sleepy or not, you couldn’t do much work or go out.

People feared the dark.

And especially in the middle of winter,

when the days were the shortest

The darkness could feel oppressive.

 

Advent is a festival of light.

Waiting for the darkness to subside and the light to come.

Most religions have their own festivals of light

 Kwaanza, Chaunaka, Diwali Day in India,

Advent is one of the many light waiting festivals.

 

Of course there is that literal hope for more sunshine,

for warmer months and longer days to come,

But the hope for the light to overcome the darkness

is also a metaphor.

 

Darkness has meant many things biblically speaking:

sadness, injustice, disaster, illness, oppression,

death, mourning, regret . . .

and metaphorically, I think the light was hope

that those things will end.

 

Our gospel today starts by saying:

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 

7He came as a witness to testify to the light,

The true light, which enlightens everyone,

was coming into the world.”

The light that breaks through the darkness.

 
But now that we have electric light, 


it seems to be everywhere.

True, literal darkness is harder to find.

Now a days we actually have a thing called light pollution.

The artificial light clouds the darkness and drowns out

the true light. That’s literally and metaphorically.

 

Literally, we need to preserve the darkness
so that we can see the real lights, the stars and planets.

In Big Bend, (which I mention again because I know my

friend and former parishioner, Jim Woodard, likes it when

I preach about it) Big Bend is designated a Dark Sky Park.

Meaning that they put extra effort into making sure all

artificial lights are out after dark so that the night sky is visible.

And it is.


I remember the second time going there, I was going to sleep on my

cot outside again and I was facing the nearest mountain in the basin

and there was this annoying light that started to rise

onto the mountain side. I assumed a truck was coming through the

campgrounds. But then it got larger and lighter and

it really looked as if someone was showing a movie

on the side of the mountain. And then I thought it was a

space ship, what could be making that kind of light?

  

I went from annoyed to frightened in several seconds.

And then amazed and delighted because,

of course, it was the moon rising.

I had never seen the moon like this before or since.

Because I had never had the gift of pure darkness,

I never got to see this beautiful light.

 

Metaphorically, lots of things get passed on as true light.

We try out self help books and politicians and philosophies

and shopping and food and drinks and other things.

But they’re just artificial flood lights, gas station lights

and parking lot lights littering the sky.

 

Detrich Bonhoffer said “A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes -
and is completely dependent on the fact
that the door of freedom has to be
opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent”

And he would know something about prison cells and waiting.

We are waiting for the light,


We need people like John to point to the light

the true light that is coming into the world,

not the fluorescent, gas station lights.

 

But the darkness is not bad. The darkness lets us see the light.

The true light. Literally and metaphorically.


Metaphorically, 2020 has been a dark year.

Pandemics, and deaths surround us, we are

separated from friends and family and so many other things we love.

But maybe this darkness is not a tomb, but a womb.

Maybe the darkness is what we need to be born again.

Maybe this darkness that we have now,

will help us to see the light.


We are waiting, in the beauty of the darkness,

to wait for the true light of Christ to be born.

Born to the world, and born in us.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Advent 2 - Waiting Together

 Mark 1: 1-8
December 6, 2020 - Advent 2

 A man meets God and asks, "God, what is a million years to you?"

God says, "Well my son, a second to me is like a million years to you."
Then the man said, "God, what’s a million dollars to you?"
God said, "Well,...a million dollars to me is like a penny to you.”
The man said, "So God, can I have a penny?"
And God said, "In a second."

 We are waiting. Waiting for God to act, for the world to turn

for things to be right again, for Christ to come.

Waiting for those paths to be made straight again.

Waiting.  I think 2020 is giving us a new understanding of waiting.
The time since the pandemic has started seems to have crawled by,

but where did it go, what did I do?

We are waiting for a vaccine,

then we apparently will have to wait to get it,

and then who knows exactly what this will all bring.

We’re waiting for things to get back to normal.

But we’re waiting to see what normal will be.

 

We get impatient waiting, don’t we?

We get sick of this kind of in between here

and there place that is no place at all.

That’s probably why so many of us just

and went to gather with family this Thanksgiving

even though there were lots of warnings not to.

We just hate the waiting.

 

But waiting is, in a lot of ways, what we’re called to as Christians.

God moves at God’s own pace,

only when the time is right will God act.

And sometimes what we want is not what God wants.

So that usually means a lot of waiting.

And sometimes we don’t ever

get to see what we’ve hoped for.

 

We all know the story of Moses, right?

He’s chosen by God to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt.

Everything in his life seems to lead up to this calling.

He’s destined to do this, it is what he was born for and created for.

Forty years he’s with the Israelites in the wilderness.

Forty years, he hears all the whining, the belly aching,

“We don’t have food, we don’t have water.

Things were better in Egypt.”

 

He’s worked on this project most of his life

and just as they’re about to enter

the land that’s been promised to them –

He can see it over the mountain – Moses dies. 

Right there.  Right on the border of the promised land.

 

He didn’t even get to finish the project

He didn’t get to check it off the list.

Moses is the original story of what’s in store

for all of us when work with God.

 

The story of John the Baptist that we read in the gospel is the same.

Luke’s gospel has him kicking inside his mother’s stomach

at the sight of Mary and Jesus who she’s carrying.

He’s destined to be the one who points to Jesus.

He’s destined to be the one who prepares the way.

 

But then just as Jesus is starting his ministry.

John is dead. Beheaded by Herod.

 

He never sees the fulfillment of what he hoped for.

The people never seem repentant.

He never sees those paths made straight

He never sees the mountains made low.

He never sees Jesus die and rise again.

He never even gets to sit down with Jesus

and ask him a couple of things.

 

In today’s world this seems ridiculous.

We want things now, or yesterday if possible.

People don’t embark on something

that they can’t finish and see the end of.

The great wall of China took over 2000 years to finish.

I complain because the internet is slow.

 

Why would people like Moses and John work on projects

that would never see completed?

As people of God, we hope for things that seem impossible to some
And even in the back the back of our minds,

we know we won’t see them.

We hope for the things that God has promised:

 

Peace all over the world, the end of fear.

We hope for God’s justice to be served,

that everyone would be fed and taken care of.

That no one would be treated unfairly or forgotten about.

We pray that God’s will would be done on earth as in heaven.

These are things that our parents hoped for,

and their parents before them and all the way to

the beginning of humanity when someone

realized that things just weren’t right.

Even after we get a vaccine, and things get back to normal,

we’ll be back to waiting for those things.

 

John the Baptist has been described as a lot of things,

a zealot, an Essene, a wild man, but at heart

what I think he was an optimist.

 

 
He cried out from the wilderness,

All he saw in front of him was corruption and dishonesty,

people who needed repentance, broods of vipers.

But he lived his life and his call in hope.

He saw the potential in people

that repented and changed their ways.

He knew that that God would make a way

where there seemed to be no way at all.

 

Even though he would never see

the fulfillment of what he was waiting for

with his own eyes, he didn’t despair.

He gave it all the enthusiasm and dedication he could muster

and he waited with hopeful expectation.

 

And that is what we are called to do.
We are called to do things and believe in things

that we may never see the end of

But we are called to do our jobs and to wait in hope.

To live and acknowledge reality and to be eternal optimists.

 

We are always living in that in-between space

between now and the reality of God’s promises

We wait for the day knowing that
5Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
  and all people will see it together,
  on this, the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Monday, November 30, 2020

Waiting Together 1

 Mark 13:24-37

Advent 1

November 29, 2020

 

I read an article earlier this week

And it said that with everything going on,

in this country and in this world

that many people will be experiencing

mild Post Traumatic Stress.

 

And it said that one of the ways that we can alleviate that

is by stopping our apocalyptic thinking.

To keep our sanity, and our heads about us as we go through this,

we need to stop thinking that every moment is the beginning

of the end of the world.

 

This kind of thinking actually re-traumatizes us, it prevents us from

thinking and acting rationally, it justifies bad behavior.

In apocalyptic thinking, the candidate we oppose

is not just “the one we wouldn’t choose”

or even a “bad candidate”,  apocalyptic thinking says that

“they mean to end democracy and our way of life as we know it.”

Both sides have done it.

 

When we raise everything to the level of apocalypse,

then we live in a constant state of reactivity and emergency.

The article said we have to stop thinking that everything that happens

is a sign of the end of everything we know and love.

I thought that had a lot of wisdom in it.

Stop the apocalyptic thinking.

 

Apparently, Jesus has some other thoughts on that.

This chapter in Mark is called a “little apocalypse”.

Every first Sunday in Advent, we read these little apocalypses.

Just in time for Christmas!

 

Each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke)

has these little apocalypses.

They all start out with things that we fear:

Terrible suffering, wars, hatred, persecution,

vitriol from family, natural disasters.

And then, after that, things don’t get much better,

the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give out light

the stars will fall, and the powers of the heaven will be shaken

Very scary indeed.

 

And they’re all punctuated by Jesus plea to “Keep Awake”

stay on guard to watch out for the signs that others might be ignoring.

Look at the signs and be alert to all of them.

In other words, to have apocalyptic thinking.

Apparently, Jesus and the Gospel writers have not read

Psychology Today or whatever I was reading.

 

To be honest, it has seemed like the beginning of the end

several times in 2020.

In March when I was lined up at Kroger at 6am hoping

they weren’t out of toilet paper, it kind of felt like the

beginning of the end. And since then we’ve experienced political

division, threats to our democracy, more police killings,

shut-down of everything, then the refusal to shut down everything,

the long lines at food banks, and so many people getting sick,

and so many deaths all around the world.

 

Jesus wants us to keep awake during all this and notice the signs.

But what for? Why should we keep awake?

Does Jesus want us scared and nervous all the time?

Does Jesus enjoy our anxiety?

Is this a way to scare us and to control our behavior?

No, I don’t think Jesus is telling us this to raise our anxiety, Jesus actually wants to lower it.

  

All of these little apocalypses end in the same way.

there is fear, there is suffering, and then there is Jesus.

The suffering and fear are just a preamble to God’s presence with us.

They are an assurance to us that God is near.

When the sun is darkened and the stars are falling,

and things seem to be getting seriously worse for all involved,

that is the time that God will be there and we will truly know God’s power.

 

Back in Texas, I went camping in Big Bend with a group

of people from church.

The sky there is beautiful at night because it’s so dark

you can see more stars there than I have ever seen.

And one of the nights that we were there,

There were a lot of shooting stars.

 

Most of the people had gone into their tents

and the few of us who were sleeping outside

started to notice them. We spent the next couple of hours

lying there, monitoring different parts of the sky a

and saying, to the right, to the left, down, up.

And everyone would look to catch a glimpse.

 

Even though I was ready for bed before we saw them,

I was wide awake looking at them.

My eyes were open and I was super-alert.

I didn’t want to miss any of them

and I was responsible for looking at my part of the sky.

I didn’t want to let anyone down.

I saw about five shooting stars myself,

but all of us must have seen thirty shooting stars together.

I felt the excitement of the, 

even if I didn’t see them with my eyes.

 

This is the attentiveness that Jesus is calling us to.

To wait with one another, to keep each other alert, to be aware.

To look not with dread, but with hopeful anticipation.

 


Our expectations about Jesus second Advent

should be shaped by what we know about Jesus first Advent.

When he came to us as a child, he lived and suffered with us,

and finally poured out his love for all creation on the cross.

When the sun was darkened and the powers in heaven were shaken,

was when God took the worst of creation and gave us the best.

The coming of Christ is a welcome presence,

the arrival of our dearest friend.

It is the beginning of salvation.

 

So we need to watch for God’s presence.

Keep awake and alert.

And we do that together,

so we can point these signs out to one another

and when we fall asleep or get cynical or exasperated,

or too anxious, or crazy, or just plain tired,

someone else is there to keep watch and remind us.

Like people watching for shooting stars.

Look, over there, I think I saw God working there.

We can see much more together than we can alone.

 

The word apocalypse is from the Greek

and it means “uncovering”, “revealing”, “revelation”

not necessarily the end of the world,

but the uncovering of God’s presence.

 

There is suffering in every time, in every era,

in every community, in every life.

Jesus tells us to not look at those

moments with hopelessness.

But to look at them with anticipation.

To look at them and wait for God to be revealed.

 

So let’s have those apocalyptic thoughts,

not that it’s the end of the world,

but that it’s the beginning of everything.