Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 and Matthew 2:1-12. Preached at Old First Reformed United Church of Christ by the Rev. Michael W. Caine.
I guess today’s first question could be “have you had any Epiphanies lately?” Webster’s defines an “Epiphany” as an unusually sudden and illuminating discovery, realization or disclosure. So what have you seen, understood or been given to know that is surprising, even transforming?
You have probably heard of the famous quote from the theologian Karl Barth (that curiously scholars cannot source), where he insists that a Christian read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I always thought of that when I used to ride the subway daily, and some fellow passengers– Christian, Jewish and Muslim– would have their noses so deep in Scripture that they were dangerously unaware of anything else (it’s always a good idea to know what’s going on around you on the subway!), even their immediate surroundings.
What I take Barth’s instruction to mean is that the Bible is a good place to go looking for God. But even when one finds God in those ancient, tissue paper pages, if one can’t make some “translation,” some leap of faith that allows us to recognize God in our immediate surrounding, our real, every day living, flesh and blood, exhilarating joys and sorrows almost too deep to survive world, can one say that she is anything more than a Bible scholar? Until we also find God in our day to day lives and in this messy world we share– walking the streets with us, crying over our sorrows, loving us as we are– can we really say we are Christians, the ones who know a God who came to be with us in Jesus?
I am announcing the beginning of a monthly class here at Old First. For some time, concerning different issues, situations and questions, a number of you have asked me what the Bible recommends or how to read the Bible… appreciate what it has to offer.
When people come and ask me, I try to help them think biblically, theologically about whatever it is they are facing, that concerns or troubles them. But what I really hope for is that we get to know our own faith tradition better: how it starts with the Biblical witness and adds in the witnesses of people since then to come up with a richness, meaning for living our questions. No, our side of the church aisle doesn’t offer many black and white answers. But it abounds in trust and grace, our clues for living into the mystery with hope, faith and love.
What I wish for you… is to feel empowered to use our tradition faithfully, with spiritual creativity for living fully, abundantly your real lives, the living of your questions. My prayer is that one hand is guided by the God you know from the Bible and the other one is guided by the God you encounter in your honest-to-God, no-faking, real lives.
Starting on January 24, I am going to begin a new series. It’s called “Living the Questions.” It’s going to invite us all into a deeper conversation with our faith, our religious tradition, the Bible, and one another.
Old First says it wants to invite more people into this faith community, but can we really do so until we are aware of and can ex– before we claim wholeheartedly– that tradition ourselves?
Every 4th Monday (because the first 3 Mondays have become meeting nights at church) for approximately the next two years (!!!), I want to invite you all to come to church. Yep, that 4th week, I’m asking you to come here twice– Sunday for worship and fellowship and again on Monday for class. It’s a good way to start out a week that finishes a month.
But you are not coming for a meeting or a shelter meal. Instead, we’re going to start getting to know our own religious tradition, to become more conversant in our faith, to listen to our own lives and one another, and some of the best-respected leaders of our times… All so we grow in faith AND in our abilities to articulate for ourselves and others what it is all about, where it comes from, how it makes sense, why it makes a difference. Deeper in the stream of this living water, you can begin to live out your relationship with God and the transforming spirituality that comes of it. AND even share it with others.
I haven’t gotten all the details worked out yet. But, church, we need to get going, we need to get deeper, we need to get serious. There’s just too much blessing here to keep it to ourselves. And there’s no one but all of us to begin to share it.
I’ll figure out how to have childcare (Adam, I hope you can help me with that), and we’ll come up with a meal (Brian, that’s what I’m looking to you for)… so even on a busy weeknight, everyone can join us once a month.
We’re going to investigate our tradition, but let me ask you this Epiphany question right now: “Where do you see God in the world?” It’s an important question for who you are and how you are living your life, about this God you say you believe in… or say you don’t believe in, or wish you could believe in.
Sometimes we ask a question like that as a gathering reflection. And there’s something sacred about people being asked to identify, daring to identify where and how they have recognized the Divine. Let’s try it here, right now. Turn to your neighbor and if you can think of someplace in your world lately that you’ve seen God… take just a minute and tell him or her about it…
(a buzz goes up in the sanctuary as people begin to talk together)… Amen.
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The next question could be, “Where would you go to see God.” While theologically we believe, as I’ve said, that God comes to us in Jesus… that’s sort the ground rock of our faith. But knowing how easily we can get ourselves turned around, how fast we can run away, how far from the mark we often are, how deeply lost we sometimes are… Isn’t it also true that sometimes, in this or that way, we have to get up from where we are and move to some place new in order to encounter God.
I’ve said it before, it’s something I like very much about our communion tradition at Old First. Rather than being served right wherever we are, having God brought to us, so to speak on a silver platter, we have to stand up and move around, mix ourselves up in a crowd, come forward and circle around in order to draw nearer to God.
Have you ever traveled some distance, literally or figuratively, physically or emotionally, to see God? Have you ever gone out of your way that you might cross Jesus’ path, or taken a new direction so you might walk in his way?
The whole Christmas story is one of movement. Joseph and Mary are sent, refugees first from the census and imperial taxes, from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Assuming after they registered there, in Joseph’s ancestral hometown, they presumed they were headed back home. But fates, at least according to one version of the tradition’s story, makes them literal refugees, as fleeing for their child’s life from Herod’s insane, murderous jealousy, they leave Bethlehem for Egypt.
But the shepherds are also called away: from their fields in the hills surrounding Bethlehem, from their flocks, from their work, to go into the city to see this sight.
And the wise ones, much of the import of their story is the great distances they travel– distances in culture and faith, distances over land and through political complexity– in order to welcome this child born a King.
From where and how far have you had to travel to get here today? What journey has been involved for you in drawing near to God? Why did you have to move? What did you learn from the distances and time involved? How were things different when you came to the new place?
The spiritual life is about movement and journey, about ending up places we never quite expected to reach, maybe never quite arriving, but finding out along the way that we were never alone.
* * * * * *
The third and final question I want to pose today, following the outlines of the Epiphany story is: what do you bring with you; what do you have to offer; what can you give back to baby Jesus, this child born a King?
Today, coincidentally, serendipitiously, or just thanks to Suzanne who had an inspiration and Zeb who stayed up most of last night getting it finished… today marks the kick-off of our new outreach campaign, “Reasons People Come to Our Church.”
Built on your real life faith stories, it’s a great effort to initiate the season of Epiphany– the time of the church year when we attend to how this good news of great joy, the little bundle of Gospel in a manger tucked away in a stable spreads to the ends of the earth.
We’ve not gotten that far along yet! But, today, as I said at the beginning of service, we’ve just unveiled the post-Christmas iteration of the website, the next generation of our getting our message out.
And that message is getting clearer, stronger: while these days people have a lot or reasons for not coming to church, at Old First we can share some good reasons why people come to our church.
Next new signs with this message will go up on the fence out front. You see, the internet is our virtual fence, but there’s still a physical fence too, as we try and share the good news to the ends of the earth. We might dream up some other ways to use our faith stories to invite people to take another look at church and what God can offer. We’re dreamers too.
Beloved, what can, what do you bring this Christ child? In most general terms, the answer is what we’ve been singing at the Offering for the past few weeks:
What can I offer, poor as I am? If i were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise one, I would do my part. What can I offer, all my heart.
Beloved, share your faith. Whether it’s a little or a lot. Whether it’s all worked out and articulate; or whether it’s more stumbling or just seems full or questions; or even composed mostly of an awe that leave you mostly speechless.
Because sharing our faith is not just words. It’s also what we do. How we live. Kierkegaard said that the best sermon that any of us can ever preach– and we all preach them whether or not we’re willing to admit it– is the living of our lives that others may see and be touched, may see and be thankful, may see and believe.
Each of us has her or his own peculiar faith to offer, gift to give. And it’s a peculiar gift. A unique witness that no one else can provide. I want to ask you to take that seriously. Don’t put yourself down. Don’t think everyone else has it more together. Has more to offer. That others are so much richer– spiritually or any other way– that they can or should do all the giving.
What can you offer? What can you bring to that manger in Bethlehem? Or to this table Jesus sets before us? Or to this church community? To that neighbor who has a need? To God’s world?
Someone asked me this week why I cared so much about church. Sometimes that’s harder to answer than others. It was a frustrating week around here. So it took me a minute to respond. I had to think hard before I answered.
But then I said, I think church offers grace amidst the chaos. (Actually, when delivering the sermon, I misspoke this line– a Freudian slip?– and before correcting myself, said, “…I think the church offers chaos…”) Church is where we are given gifts we really don’t deserve. Where we are blessed, that we begin to experience how precious we are in God’s sight, how rich we really are, and in that eternal mystery, where, somehow, we start to be changed, just enough, to see how we fit in and can give back.
What are the gifts that you can give back to God? Here at church? In your family? At work? In our world?
Will you ask yourself that this week? Maybe, every morning, you might begin your day with the simplest prayer, “Lord, show me today the gifts I have to share.”
To get you started– because worship is really just practice for the rest of our lives: what we do in here first is so that “out there” we can do the same with the rest of our lives… To get you started, in your order of service, there’s a construction paper ornament. Just a cut out star with a hole for the string already punched in it. We won’t use it this year (since today’s the last day of our Christmas celebrations). So in a minute, this ornament will disappear, like the Creche’ and soon the rest of the decorations.
But next Advent, when we prepare the sanctuary for Christmas, downstairs on the Card Tree in the lower Narthex, long before any of those cards appear, these ornaments will be hung.
So, today, I want to ask you to get these ornaments ready for next year, by writing two things on them for me.
First, please write down a gift you see in someone else that you want to celebrate. Someone’s patience or love, or their cooking, or their willingness to listen. Whatever gift jumps out at you, put a person’s name and a gift of theirs for which you are thankful.
Second, write down a gift of yours that you want to work on this year– something you hope to develop more completely, or share more widely…
I’m going to ask you to place your ornaments on the communion table when you come forward for the bread and the cup.
And then they will disappear. Until next Christmas when we hang all your gift stars. And you might look around on that tree for yours. And remember what you wrote. And see how you did with your gift this year.
But it searching for your star, you’ll also see others’. See the gifts of people for which people are thankful. Maybe come across yourself as a gift celebrated.
And you will remember all the hopes we have for developing and using the gifts that God entrusts to us.
And in that moment, having seen God at work in our lives, having discovered how far and what incredible places we can go to draw near to God, and understanding how precious and fragile and promising and hopeful each of us and this community are– an Epiphany. Amen.