Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The river that flows below the surface



Epiphany 2C.  20 January 2013.

 

Psalm 36.5-10

           

            Over the last several years I have occasionally reflected on this whole thing of coming to church.  Our timeless liturgy of the Holy Eucharist is a "no brainer"—Jesus said, "Do this."  And we do.  Even on Morning Prayer Sundays, there is an obvious and inherent good in coming together, reading the Scripture and praying.  Even if the Sacraments are not celebrated that day, there is something sacramental in coming together.

 

            The purpose of the sermon is to help us understand and appreciate the meaning of our faith and the Bible.  There are many levels. You've got the most basic meaning on the face of it, and you've got the tradition that goes back with its dimensions of symbolism and prophecy and so forth. 

 

            And though the sermon is intended to make familiar and new what at first seems foreign and ancient, there are times when I wonder, if you knew ahead of time the themes that would be coming up in the readings and in the sermon, would you show up to listen and engage it with me?

 

            Christmas, Palm Sunday, Easter and Pentecost have set themes, which always come up.  You and I know that when we come to Palm Sunday, we'll be talking about the crucifixion.  Easter—resurrection, new life, joy, celebration.  Christmas—the poor and neglected, Christ coming in the messiness of human life.  You know what is coming.

 

            But now, let's take the Second Sunday of Epiphany, or the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, and it could be any number of things.  We could be reading a parable, or a story of healing, or an account of frustration between the Pharisees and Jesus.  And even though there are timeless themes of wisdom and courage that are waiting to thrill and delight and convert and strengthen, it's still nothing like…say, tuning in to something you know you will want to see and enjoy.

 

            The way we do things here is very different, because this isn't entertainment, it's worship.  It is a sacred encounter between us and God, meeting together by the grace and protection of the Holy Spirit, so that we may better serve the world in Christ's Name. 

 

            Still…  I have wondered what our worship would look like if we could all press our own little "church" button and get the exact theme we want for whatever is going on with us on that particular Sunday.  As it is, more often than not, we sort of expect that the readings and sermon may hit or miss us—we don't know. 

 

            Sometimes we come hoping to hear something that addresses us where we are, and sometimes we come hoping to hear something that will lift us out of where we are, and give us something else to think about.  Or maybe we sort of sift the ideas though the filters of our "here and now," and self-apply them wherever it makes sense. 

 

            Or…well.  There is, of course, another option that I don't really like to talk about, because it's embarrassing to all of us.  And that's the option of coming without any expectation of hearing anything useful. 

 

            I remember coming to chapel at high school, and college, and seminary, and even church on Sunday and thinking:  There is no way that the Rev. So-and-So has anything to say that can touch my circumstances.

 

            I had yet to hear anyone talk about the inner conflict that can mess with your head when you are a teenager, and you've got a mad, passionate crush on a girl you don't even know.  None of it makes any sense.  She's not pretty; she's not funny; she has none of your interests, and yet you can't take your eyes off of her.  And what kind of sermon did I hear?  Stewardship.  Reconcilation.  What is a 15 to 20 year old boy or girl going to do with that? 

 

            Maybe you come not really wanting to hear anything at all.  There is a value to just being present as the scripture is read and sermon preached, but not really listening to it…just being here for it.  I know what that's like.  And it doesn't offend me at all, if that's how you feel.

 

            I would say that most of the time I came to chapel at seminary with my brain completely off.  I was happy to sing the hymns and see the vestments and watch the chapel team change the hymn boards.  I used to run my eyes over the Altar and the flowers and the silver, and just delight that God had placed me in this place at this moment with these people.  I didn't listen to the readings or the sermons…well, sometimes…but not often.  When you're swimming in the pool, you are wet all the time.  Another sermon wasn't going help.

 

            But this brings up an interesting idea.  There is a form of worship that is—I believe—a very deep movement of the Holy Spirit.  A movement that defies explanation or understanding…and that is simply to be with God and the Church.  It takes place deep below the consciousness of an individual.  Down deep in a place beyond words or concepts—where it's just the Holy Spirit moving and us moving—at times—

imperceptibly with it.

 

            I have a good friend who told me that his father served in World War II, never drank or smoked, never went to church, but every Sunday he would listen to the Billy Graham preach on the radio.  What was going on inside him?  Well, that's his business. 

 

            There is a devotion that has nothing to do with words or music, or concepts or theology, but just simply is.  Like a river that flows below the surface of your life that you don't see, but you know it's there.  Sometimes it nourishes, and sometimes you don't even want to drink from it, you just want to know it's there.


            In every church I have served there have been people who love the church who don't come.  And I mean, LOVE the church, but don't come.  One man I knew would come an sit on a bench outside the church and just be there.  You wouldn't see hide or hair of him on a Sunday morning, but during the week, here and there, on the bench…staring at the bricks and mortar and just there

 

            "Do you want to talk?" I'd ask, at first.  "No, no…"  And after awhile, I didn't ask, I'd just wave and he'd wave back.  I'd go get the church's mail from the post office and there would be an envelope addressed to the treasurer and his name and address up in the corner.  He cared deeply for the church, but the building was like the Vietnam Wall in Washington, where you watch veterans standing at a distance, unable to go over and look at it too closely. 

 

            There is a seminary professor I heard about whose wife died and after that he came to chapel every morning for Morning Prayer.  At Virginia Seminary, Morning Prayer is like our fifth Sunday service.  Organ, vestments, everything.  And the whole community is expected to be there, so he came everyday, because it's what he was supposed to do.  And I heard that he stood for the hymns, sat for the readings, knelt for the prayers, but he didn't sing, listen, or pray.  The community was sensitive to him.  They didn't ask him to preach or celebrate the Holy Eucharist—unless he wanted to, and he didn't.

 

            He taught his classes, graded papers, ate with the community, even managed a smile here and there, and in time—maybe a year and half—he picked up the Prayer Book and followed along.  And then the Hymnal, and sang a verse.  And little by little, he came back.  But it was slow. 

 

            And when enough time had passed to where he could talk about where he had been, he said, "In those days, the seminary community was praying for me.  Not "praying for me," as in offering prayers that I'd get over it, although they were doing that, too.  They were praying when I could not pray.  They were praying for me.  And that's what got me through." 

 

            There are reasons to come to church and not listen, or think, or even pray, but just be here: to be surrounded by memories; to see light through the stained glass; to hear words that have been spoken for many thousands of years.  And to draw…what?  Strength?  Courage?  Maybe…  But maybe sometimes we draw something beyond any of those concepts.  Maybe sometimes we just want to be.

 

            But what would the pulpit say if you could make it say whatever you wanted?  What sort of benediction would you like to give to the world as you know it; or what sort of story would you tell?  How would you frame the Gospel of Christ such that anyone could walk into this church and know what you know about the goodness of God? 

 

            Would you even talk about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus?  Would you speak of prophecy or praise from the Babylonian exile, Israelites in their bondage in Egypt, or maybe a garden and a snake and an apple? 

 

            In my last church there is a woman who served as the Altar Guild coordinator.  She was wonderful.  At one point I noticed that there was a little tear in the hanging on the pulpit, and between the services, she got her needle and thread and stood there in the pulpit sewing. 

            I wasn't used to anyone being in the pulpit but me, so I said, "Claudia, you look like you are about to preach!" 

 

            She said, "Oh?  No!  You wouldn't want me to preach."

            I said, "Sure, I would."

            She said, "You wouldn't want to hear what I would say."

            I asked her, "What would you say?"

            She said, "I'd tell them to behave themselves and mind their own business."

            I said, "Claudia, that's a good sermon." 

 

            Maybe you have something you'd like to say, but maybe you don't.  Maybe you'd like the pulpit to fall silent from time to time and just let the Holy Spirit rest among us. 

 

            One of the most holy moments in our liturgy is after we've all received the Sacrament of the Holy Communion and are back in our pews kneeling, just before the prayer after Communion.  We've all shared the sacred meal, and sung a hymn or two, or simply waited.  Maybe your mind is already turning to the week ahead, but it can be a very sweet space of time to reflect on the Lord and his death and resurrection.  The church is the church, in that moment.  No one is talking; no one is doing anything, except maybe praying, or Wilson/Mildred playing the organ.

 

            We move on to the prayer after Communion, because, you know, we can't sit here all day.  But sometimes I wish the Holy Spirit would just immobilize us all, like Gabriel appearing to Zechariah in the Temple and striking him dumb.  Or the Holy Spirit descending at Pentecost and interrupting all our plans.

 

            But, because we are a people of the book, and a people of the Word, something must be said.  What would you have the pulpit say, if it could say nothing else?

 

            Well, there are many excellent options, but I think I know what I would choose.  I would choose the portion of the Psalter appointed for today.  Psalm 36.5-10.  It is a thanksgiving, a prayer, a teaching, an encouragement and a benediction, all rolled into one. 

 

 Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, *
            and your faithfulness to the clouds.

Your righteousness is like the strong mountains,
your justice like the great deep; *
            you save both man and beast, O Lord.

How priceless is your love, O God! *
            your people take refuge under the shadow of your wings.

They feast upon the abundance of your house; *
            you give them drink from the river of your delights.

For with you is the well of life, *
            and in your light we see light.

Continue your loving-kindness to those who know you, *
            and your favor to those who are true of heart.

 

 

 

-o0o-

 

 

 

If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.

 

The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

 

Monday, January 14, 2013

But wait, there's more!

To listen, click here.



Epiphany 1C.  13 January 2013.[1]


 

 

            Each year, the Church celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the season known as Epiphany.  Epiphany means a sudden recognition.  A moment when something mysterious or strange becomes obvious.  The first of these epiphanies is the visit of the Wise Men, which we celebrated last Sunday.

 

            The season of Epiphany is a time for the Church to recall the sudden recognitions that Christ is truly one of us and at the same time the Son of the living God.  The visit of the Magi is a recognition that even as a child, Jesus’s presence on earth was relevant beyond the confines of Judaism.

 

            So here we come to the first Sunday after the Epiphany and we are given—each year on this Sunday—the story of the Baptism of Jesus.  All four gospels contain an account of the Baptism of Jesus—yet it is likely that the early church was not altogether comfortable with it.  Perhaps you are uncomfortable with the Baptism of Jesus.  John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance.  We believe—the early church believed—that Jesus was without sin.  So what’s he doing in the water?  What does this really mean?

 

            Well, there are several meanings to it.  The most obvious is that it elevates Baptism to being more than just a washing, symbolic of repentance, to a Sacrament of new life in the kingdom of God.  Jesus inaugurates his ministry by being immersed—a common experience of wanting to be cleansed and renewed.  His public life begins in the water.  Childhood is over.  Adulthood begins.

 

            This is partly a rite of passage.  And as with all rites of passage there is more to it than meets the eye.  The voice from heaven—understood to be the Father’s voice—confirms that Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God with whom God is well-pleased.  This is the One.  This is the One human being who is fully pleasing to God, and the One through whom—by his life, death, and resurrection—all people will become fully pleasing to God.

 

            Jesus does not need to be baptized for his own sake.  He does this for us.  He does this to share with us the moment when we turn from our own ways and offer “our selves, our souls and bodies” to God.

 

            But there is more to it than that, because when we are talking about Jesus, there is always more to it.  This is a mystery.  You have heard me use the word mystery many times.  And because the word is used so often in our common language to indicate something sinister or dark, let me just take a moment to describe the classical meaning of the word mystery

 

            Mystery comes from the Greek, μυστήριον and if you look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, you will see that its first definitions speak of a truth that is revealed by God.  The original concept—which I think we have lost in our modern language—is that a mystery is not able to be explained or even understood by us.  We are given glimpses of its fuller meaning by God, who alone knows its full meaning.

 

            Now, let me just pause to let that idea sink a little further in.  A mystery, in the classical sense of the original Greek, is a great truth that is only known fully by God, but is revealed in little bits by God to those who seek after it.

 

            Did you know that there are many, many people who think that Christianity is reducible to heaven and hell?  Sin and salvation.  And I can understand why, because it’s part of the religious DNA of the United States of America.  If you watch the PBS documentary “God in America” you will see how this country has been shaped by the religious contours of Christianity, and by the belief that America—as a whole—has a unique relationship with God from all other countries.  From the pilgrims forward, there has always been a religious presence in America of those who said: You are either in or out.  You are either part of us, or you are not.

 

            I remember hearing about a priest friend of mine who was in a restaurant and overheard a couple talking about Judaism and Christianity.  I don’t remember all of the story, but one of them said, “Aren’t Christianity and Judaism the same thing?” 

            And the other person responded, “I don’t think so, but I think they hate the same people.”  That’s Christianity to a lot of people—who you hate and who you don’t hate. 

 

            That’s not the Christianity I know.  I’m sure it’s not yours, either.  My Christianity—what I believe is the Church’s Christianity—is about seeking after the mystery of Christ—and God revealing him in little bits, until one day, when we stand before him, we’ll know who he really is. 

 

            There is more to him than meets the eye.  There is more to the Baptism than just a theological explanation of why we believe he goes into the water, and what he is accomplishing.  You can feel that.  You know that that is true, because you know what it is to bump up against “the mystery”—the unknown, but powerfully relevant and meaningful.

 

            I remember in my first church as the rector, I was celebrating the Great Vigil of Easter.  It is traditional that all the reserved Sacrament be consumed on Good Friday so that Christ’s presence in the Sacrament is gone completely during Holy Saturday.  On Holy Saturday, we believe Christ laid in the tomb and his soul descended into hell. 

 

            At the Great Vigil of Easter, when the Holy Eucharist is celebrated, the Sacrament is newly reserved in the tabernacle.  It was my great honor at that time to re-light the Sanctuary Lamp, signifying that Christ’s presence in the elements of Bread and Wine had returned to the Church. 

           

            As I lit the Sanctuary Lamp that night, the church was in complete and utter silence.  All eyes were fixed on that lamp.  And when the lamp began to flicker again, I did not know this, but one of the parishioners who was known for being argumentative and difficult, began to weep. 

           

            He came up to me later and asked what the Sanctuary Lamp meant.  I told him:  Christ is risen; his presence in the Sacrament has returned to the Church; this is a mystery; we honor this belief with the lamp.  He said, “Yes, but there’s more to it than that.”  I said, “No…that’s what it means.”  He said, “No…I don’t accept that.  There is more to it than that…”  (Pause.)  And it’s like the scales came off my eyes and I didn’t argue with him further.  He was right.  (Pause.)

 

            When Peter was born, the hospital let me spend the nights Karin was recovering and we began the process of bonding.  I slept in the bed next to Karin, and I remember being half awake when a nurse came into the room to change one of Karin’s bandages.  She was just changing a bandage.  The old bandage comes off, the new bandage goes on.  That’s all there is to it, right? 

 

            Well, maybe it’s because I was only half awake but it kind of hit me.  There is more to it than that.  Jesus was wrapped in swaddling cloths—bandages—and laid in a manger.  When Lazarus came out of the tomb, he was covered in bandages.  Jesus told them, “Release him, and let him go.”  Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus in a linen cloth and laid him a new tomb.  Those cloths where found on Easter morning, empty and folded up.  Bandages will never again be just bandages.  (Pause.)

 

            There is something about Jesus going into the water to be baptized that is a mystery.  It fulfills all righteousness, as Jesus said.  What does that mean?  I don’t know.  Or perhaps I should say, I can’t tell you all that means, because I know that there is something happening there that is beyond description—beyond theology.  It is perhaps symbolic of God himself that we cannot fully explain it.

 

            Think for a moment about our liturgy of Baptism.  A little baby, not old enough to do anything, make any decisions, commit any sins...  As an act of love and a belief that unity with God is a free and unmerited gift, we baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  The water is poured; the candle is lit; the baby is anointed; the parents smile; the church weeps with joy; the communion of saints is enlarged.  Is that all?  Is that all?  Is that all?  No! 

 

            Something profoundly wonderful is going on.  Somehow that little baby, or that grown up, or whoever is being baptized is joining this river of life that bubbles and sings and rejoices.  You can’t get to the bottom of it, any more than you can describe the beauty of a rose, or a spring sunset in the Shenandoah Valley. 

 

            I have told you this story before, but I’m going to tell it again.  When I was in my first year in seminary I had a class on the Sacraments, and my last paper was also my final exam.  It was a take home, open book exam.  And there was only one task.  We were asked to write a letter to a Christian who wanted to know what the Holy Eucharist means, and how we believe that Christ is really present in the bread and wine, without altering the bread and wine.   In other words, how is the Sacrament able to be the Body and Blood of Jesus and still be bread and wine.

 

            For some reason, I elected to skip church and write my exam on a Sunday morning.  I thought it would inspire me to work on it then, and that at the end of the exam I would feel as if I had spent the morning receiving the Holy Communion.  Well, I wrote and wrote, and revised and revised.  And I got to the bottom of it.  I had—to my mind—written the definitive work on what the Holy Communion is and is not. 

 

            I made a mental note to contact the seminary library to have them burn all the books on the subject, because my answer would be superseding them.  Once this document had been fully absorbed by the faculty, I would be unanimously approved to graduate and be ordained early with a life ahead of either bishop or professor of theology.  It was only a matter of time.  I had done the theological equivalent of placing a square peg in a round hole.

 

            But, I hadn’t been to church!  And I was beginning to think that it would be a victory lap if I could just go to a little 5 o’clock service of Holy Eucharist at a church I knew just down the road from the seminary.  I arrived in time, enjoyed a little sermon on some parable or something, and then prepared my heart and mind to receive the Holy Communion—something that I had completely and utterly figured out.  It is this, and this and this, but it is not that, or that, or that.

 

 

            I stretched out my hands and received the Host, and then the chalice, walked back to my pew and knelt down.  And the little voice of God in my heart said, “`This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.’  Not only is he this and this and this…he is also that and that and that.” 

 

            Christ is a living mystery.  What he does, who he is, how he works, how he loves…you will never get to the bottom.  You will never be able to say that this is all there is about Jesus.  There will always be more.

 

 

 

-o0o-

 

 

If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.

 

The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.



[1] Adapted from Epiphany 1A.  9 January 2010.

 

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Epiphany. 6 January 2013.


To listen, click here.


 

Matthew 2.1-12

 

 

            As many of you know, I work ahead on my sermons.  I do it, because I don't really work well under pressure, and because it allows me time for reflection—time to live with the text, research it, try to find its echoes into modern life.  I remember hearing, years ago, that the Gospel of Christ is something we have overheard from a conversation that was started years ago.   Actually, I prefer how Tom Long, a famous scholar and preacher, likes to put it—the Gospel reverberates into our time and into our lives.

 

            This kind of endeavor can be very fruitful for your own devotional life.  You might, sometime, read ahead in the lectionary to some Sunday a month or so ahead and find a lesson that interests you.  Study it. (I'll help you, if you like.)  Live with it.  And see how God may drop things into your life that give contours and textures to the meaning that really speak to you.  And then, when you hear it read and preached on that Sunday, you might come to me and tell me something about where you have been with it. 

 

            But because I work ahead, sometimes, I have trouble staying "in the moment" with a particular season.  For instance, I spent the week before we celebrated Christmas studying the story of Wise Men for today.  Even on Christmas morning, December 25th, as I was getting ready to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, my mind was playing with the Magi. 

 

            Now, we have a rather sweet tradition at Emmanuel at Christmas that the three Wise Men for the Nativity scene at the back of the church are kept on each of the three windows on the liturgical south side of the Nave.  So they are, as it were, on their way to the manger.  I have to say I really love this; but I had forgotten about it this year.

 

            So I sat down, before the Christmas Day liturgy, at the back of the church, next to the Nativity scene, and turned my attention to the Altar, and some prayers.  My mind had been on the Magi, in fact, one of my prayers was, "Lord, what in the world I am going to say about the Wise Men?"  And I looked over at the windows, and there they were! 

 

            What shocked me was not that they were there, but that each of them had been angled so that their eyes were looking straight over at Nativity scene where I was seated, so it seemed like they were looking at me, too.  It was a little disconcerting to take in at first glance. 

 

            So I asked them, "What should I say about you guys in a couple weeks?"  And they said, "What do you mean?"  I said, "Well, you gentlemen are front and center for one of the major feasts of the church.  In fact, in the Episcopal Church, Epiphany is called a `Principal Feast,' on par with Easter, Pentecost, Trinity, and Christmas Day."


            They said, "Yeah, well, today is Christmas Day.  Why don't you just celebrate that, and give us some time to get there?"  So I did.  But it bothered me, because the Wise Men have always bothered me.

 

            They don't fit neatly into the story of Jesus.  They are from the East, likely Persia.  They are astrologers. They study the stars, and they draw human meaning from cosmic events.  Astrology is not religiously compatible with Judaism or Christianity, but here they come. 

 

            Do you remember the Ethiopian eunuch in the Book of Acts?  You remember he's in a chariot reading Isaiah?  And we read that, and we remember that after the Exile, Jews were dispersed throughout the world—what is called the Diaspora.  Jews fled the Holy Land, and found themselves throughout the world.  They may have been ethnically Jewish but decided that it was too difficult to find a Jewish spouse, so they married others in their new lands, and there we are. 

 

            It should come as no surprise to us that someone of Jewish descent could be found in Ethiopia, or Persia, or really anywhere, and should come as no surprise that the Hebrew scriptures would have been known to learned people throughout the world.  Just because someone doesn't believe it that doesn't mean they can't read translations of sacred texts, or reports about those sacred texts, and want to know more.

 

            These fellows are astrologers.  They study the stars, and they draw meaning from that, and they think they've seen a star that indicates the birth of the king of Jews.  It's an interesting situation on many levels.  First, this is the time of the Roman Empire.  There is no King, but Caesar.  Matthew has written "King Herod," but that's Matthew's little joke.  Herod had a big ego, and calling him King Herod was meant to be a dig at how arrogant he was.

 

            It's alarming to Herod to hear these foreigners—probably from the court of a foreign prince—as much as say to Herod, "You and Rome are in power by force, but there has just been born a genuine hereditary king of the people you've got under your thumb, and it's all over when he grows up." 

 

            I mean, imagine it!  They've come to pay homage to a baby!  The baby isn't going to remember this!  But the men are coming to honor him, and not the people who are really—at the moment, anyway—in control.  So there is political intrigue here.

 

            Herod calls for the chief priests and scribes.  This is big news, if the men are right.  And the priests and scribes said, "Well, the scrolls say Bethlehem is the likely birthplace."  Herod calls for the Magi, and says, "Go find him, and when you have, let me know so that I can also pay him homage."  Ha. Ha. Ha.

 

            The men went to Bethlehem, and find their way to the Holy Family.  They pay homage—meaning they bow before him, recognizing the inherent meaning of the child's birth. 

 

            They offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Church has explained them as symbolic of royalty, sacrifice, and death; however they were most likely just the traditional gifts of honor to foreign dignitaries.  They are then warned in a dream not to tell Herod, but to essentially sneak back to their homes. 

 

            In the narrative of Matthew's Gospel, this story foreshadows some interesting themes.  First, of course, and most importantly, is the recognition that this child is the long awaited Messiah.  Epiphany means manifestation.  This is the manifestation, or public appearance of who Jesus is to the world.  Second, the story indicates the insecurity of Herod and the chief priests and scribes who are worried.  Even in Christ's infancy, by his very presence, their power and position is threatened.  At least, that's how Matthew's church remembered it. 

 

            Third, the gifts indicate God's provision for the Holy Family.  One could preach a whole sermon on the faithfulness of the givers and the receivers.  Both the Holy Family and the Magi have been faithful to what they felt God had called them to, and both in giving and receiving they are blessed.  This becomes a major theme in Christ's teaching.

 

            Fourth, it brings the story of the Messiah out from the confines of Judaism, and foreshadows that Jesus will be for all people.  That even from the beginning of the story of Jesus, the social and political barriers are coming down.

 

            If you look purely at the movement of people in the Gospel: at the beginning of the story, foreigners are coming to see Jesus.  In the middle part of the story, Jesus goes out to the people of Palestine.  At the end of the story, the disciples are sent by the Holy Spirit throughout the world. 

 

            What interests me, of course, is the part that least fits into story, and that's that star.  I lived with it for a long time.  I endured the fearful stare of the Wise Men in the windows.  It was stuck in my mind like the little bits of tape around Peter and Maggie's presents.  I thought about it going to sleep at night.

 

            What I have finally come to happens to be a fifth theme in the Gospel.  That God uses everything to draw people to his son.  People come to Jesus for obvious reasons: they are depressed, they are sick, they are blind, deaf, demon possessed, hunger, scared, lonely.  Of course. 

 

            But people also come because they are looking for meaning.  Something to help them draw a line between that which is beautiful and holy and right, and that which is ugly and evil and wrong.  We all have to draw that line somewhere.  Everyone puts it where they think the line belongs; and they make friends and enemies on the basis of where the line is drawn.  I can accept this, and this, and this, but I cannot accept that.  This will help me be happy and faithful and content, and that will make me feel angry, hostile, and depressed. 

 

            The astrologers have begun with a star, and ended with the Messiah.  They did not seek the star, but the meaning they believed was behind it.  I like to think that God drew them to Jesus by whatever means they would best understand it. 

 

            Today we are going to baptize Aaron Jollay.  It is traditional to baptize at Epiphany, especially in the first two Sundays, as a sign of the manifestation of Jesus, which powerfully converts, and redeems, and gives meaning to human life.  In Christ we have seen the true light, not from a star, but from the manifestation of God on earth.

 

            Jesus is the one who helps us draw the line between the holy and the evil, the beautiful and the profane.  He gives meaning.  He breaks down the barriers that divide us.  And finally, he sends us out by his own Spirit, driven from the waters of Baptism into the wilderness of the mission field, where we may become heralds of the Gospel in our day.

 

                       

 

-o0o-

 

 

If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.

 

The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.