Monday, January 9, 2017

Follow the Stars

A Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12 and Isaiah 60:1-6
by Griff Martin

For the People of First Austin: a baptist community of faith
On Epiphany Sunday

Jan 8, 2017

Incarnate God, we ask that you once again take the Word and transform it into a living and breathing reality we can all together experience. Be present here in this space and in these words God for if you are present here then nothing else will matter, but if you are not present here then nothing else will matter. In the name of the Creator, the Christ and the Comforter. 

Happy Epiphany! It’s one of our major feast days, a day that celebrates the revelation of God in human form, God as Jesus Christ. For the Western church this day centers on the Visit of the Magi to our Christ child and this day is a really important piece of our theology: 1) It celebrates the humanity of our Savior, the mystery of Incarnation, that our Divine God choose to became flesh and blood 2) It celebrates that some of the first folks to know Jesus were Magi, outsiders to the story who suddenly were insiders and 3) It celebrates a God who calls out to us, a God who wants to get our attention, a God who desires to be known.

And those are three hallmarks of my faith, pretty central to everything I believe: the Incarnation and humanity/divinity of Jesus Christ (a God who knows what it is to be human, but calls our humanity to More), a God who includes everyone in the story and a God who wants to be known.

And so this day is worthy more than just contemplation it’s worth celebrating. So Happy Epiphany!

Although technically that greeting comes a few days too late. We are celebrating Epiphany a few days after the fact. Epiphany falls 12 days after Christmas which is Jan 6 (which just by calendar logistics is more often than not, not a Sunday). Epiphany was Friday, however most of us probably missed it because we were already back to our normal routines, our before the holiday break routines. We had to do lists that we already way too full for just 6 days into a New Year. We had to get the kids to school and we had to be at our jobs on time. We had a new exercise routine to stick to. We had to run by the grocery store, we had to rake leaves, we had to return gifts, we had plants to cut back after the last freeze and we had Christmas decorations to get back in the attic. In short, normal daily life had started back up again.

Because that is what we do after the Christmas and New Year break, we go back to normal life.

Because we are supposed to be done with the holiday season. Our gifts have all been given, the eggnog and peppermint bark is no longer as festive, the cards have been sent, the baked goods have been devoured and the left overs have gone stale, champagne has been open and the holidays are over.

It’s why some of us walked into this place this morning and looked around a bit confused. Why are the church Christmas decorations still up? You wondered if maybe this new pastor who had spent 5 years in Louisiana did not understand that it’s tacky to leave your Christmas decorations up for too long (although let me assure you, after spending 5 years in the south, I know tacky).

We as a people have seen a great light and we celebrated it appropriately for a few days- Joy to the World, the Lord has come…. But come on people it’s time to get back to our regularly scheduled programming. We saw the light and then we returned to our old lives just like we did last year and the year before that and the year before that.

Because as a people we have domesticated our Christmas celebration. Which is exactly why we need this story of the Magi today…. We need them and we need their journey… We need them to bust up into this place just like they must have busted in Mary and Joseph’s house, unexpected and upsetting every daily routine we have.

These three men who we don’t know anything about…. I mean we are not even sure they are three, we just think that because they brought three gifts. And actually we are not even sure they are men. But we have become quite fascinated with them… we have named them, or at least Henry Longfellow named them: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar which works as well as anything. We have created stories and legends about them. Our current hymnal actually has more songs about them than it does for the whole season of Advent.

What we know is what Matthew gives us in 12 short verses… and it’s actually quite startling. Matthew writes the Christmas story to prove that this baby is here to save all of Israel; it’s why he starts his book with 18 verses of names, giving the baby a lineage. So Matthew builds up the story this baby is here to save all of Israel and then this baby’s first set of visitors were foreigners…. God is already turning things topsy turvy by bringing outsiders into the story.

Although maybe that is not quire fair because I don’t even know if this Magi knew there was a story to be brought into, these are not Old Testament Torah scholars. They are magicians and astronomers. They study the stars for signs from the gods. These are folks most good baptist would shy away from, after all we’ve been warned about those who spend too much time looking at the stars.

And yet, it’s these Magi, these Wiseman from the East who get it… they look to the stars and the stars declare that there is a newborn King of the Jews. And maybe that’s a call for us this year to spend a bit more time looking at the stars to see what God is saying

The Magi look and they see as star. And again there has been all sorts of speculation about the star. Is this maybe as simple as a conjunction of the planets, perhaps Jupiter and Saturn have aligned again creating a magnificent light? Or is this a supernova where a star violently explodes and gives off light as it dies? Or is this Halley’s Comet, which history now tells us passed by around 12 BCE? Or is this maybe a miracle, a theophany from God (after all this is not the first time God has spoken using the stars…. “Abram count the stars”… the Psalms sing out that the stars declare God’s glory… in the Exodus they are lead by lights in the dark sky).

They see something in the stars and it calls out to them. They head to the star and they get a bit sidetracked in Jerusalem, which is just 9 miles from Bethlehem, and that makes sense. 9 miles is not too far and it would make sense in the excitement of getting closer to just assume this new king was in Jerusalem. So they go there looking and then King Herod gets involved and he just can’t wait to come “worship” this new king. And then they realize the star is still calling and they get back on track, back to the star which leads them straight to the baby.

They arrive. They bring some most inappropriate gifts. Can you image a newborn mother’s face when the baby is presented with frankincense and gold and myrrh? I bet she is cutting eyes at Joseph and thinking… diapers, swaddling blankets, toys, and formula….

I have a friend who is good friends with Lyle Lovett. When Lyle got married to Julia Roberts my friend did what he did for all his friend’s weddings, he went to Wal-mart purchased a toaster and sent it on. Lyle told him later, when we were opening wedding gifts and Julia opened your toaster she cut eyes at me and said, “this must be from one of your friends.” I think that is the look Mary is giving this morning.

And when they are there the star disappears back into the sky. The star has served its purpose, it lead them to the Lord and now the only light they need is found in this little babe.

And sometime while they are there they are given a new vision: you can’t go home the same way. You see once you have seen and experienced Jesus, experienced this love that is beyond anything we know, everything must change. In the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, after encountering Jesus, “none of their old maps worked anymore, they needed to find a new way home.”

In other words these Magi must just come in here this morning into our worship space still decorated for Christmas and they might feel right at home… where they don’t feel at home is out there in the world where Christmas decorations have already been taken down… because they want this season to go on and on and on… they would be puzzled by how many of us have taken Christmas down and gone back to our normal routines.

I can just imagine them watching all of us this week and whispering to one another, “They must have missed it again…. The Christ child was born again and they have not lost their old maps but have returned to them.”

And they are here this morning to remind us that after Christmas we can’t go back to the way things have already been because we have experienced a light and a love that changes everything.

They would stand up here and preach a one-sentence sermon: “Because of what you experienced, you must find a new way.”

And I believe them…. This year it does feel different. Never before in my life have I had such a strong conviction that the world desperately needs the church and the world needs a church like this one. A church that understands the theology we celebrate today: a God who because human and calls us to More, a God who wants everyone in the story and a God who wants to be discovered and encountered. And a church that wants to share that theology with the city around them if that be in our ministry to our homeless neighbors or our Theater Arts Ministry or Sunday morning worship or our communal spiritual formations events. This church has something important and needed to offer this city and this world…. And the city and the world needs it.

So our question this morning… because of what we have been given, as a result of what we have experienced, how are we going to find new ways to live this year?  How can we follow the words of the prophet Isaiah that called out to us in the first lectionary reading: “Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you….. Then you shall see and you shall be radiant.”

How will we shine like stars this year, stars that will lead all around us, including our very selves, to experience the love of Jesus Christ?

This morning we are going to begin a new Epiphany tradition (and maybe this will be your only Epiphany tradition). A few weeks ago Abby and I taught the children’s mission groups on Wednesday night and we made all these stars and decorated them…. Each star has a word on it (tenderness, kind, quiet, passionate, hopeful….) Our kids decorated the stars and then the church staff laminated them and cut them out and prayed over them… each star has been prayed over.

And we are about to pass out baskets with these stars in them and your job is to blindly (no peaking) to reach into the basket and pull out a star. Whatever star you get, that is your word for the year and somehow in that I believe God is going to let you shine…. Maybe you draw the star with reconciliation on it and you fix a broken relationship in your life that needs to be mended this year or you work to bring reconciliation into a world that is so broken.. Maybe you draw the star with hopeful on it and you decide this is going to be the year you hold hope for those around you or this is the year you give up cynicism and instead choose prayer… Maybe you draw compassionate and this is the year you go all in on our ministry with our homeless brothers and sisters… maybe you draw gratitude and this is the year you start a gratitude journal where each day you keep a list of 3 things you are thankful for….

Here’s what I know… in a mystical way, you are going to get the exact star you need. One of my dearest friends Patti does this exercise each year in her church. As a pastor, it’s one of her favorite exercises of faith, but it has a deeper meaning than just that. A few years ago Patti’s husband was dying of cancer and they both knew the end was near. She had taken some time away from church to be with her husband but he wanted to be at church for this Sunday, it was one of his favorite Sundays of the year, getting his star. So they went knowing this would be his last epiphany and they drew stars and she drew her star and got the word acceptance and then she looked over and her husband had drawn a star with the word freedom on it. And every year she said it comes out like this, you get the exact word you need whether you know it yet or not.

So here is how this will work, our time of commitment will look different this morning…. Baskets passed around…. And as the music plays you draw a star, you look at it- ponder it- pray over it- commit to it… and then you pin it to you for this day so as a community we can see the stars. And then when you get home, put it somewhere where you will see it each day of this new year, maybe a mirror, closet door, your dashboard…. And once everyone has the stars, we will rise together and join in the song of celebration, “I Saw the Light.”

Again the prophet Isaiah…“Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you….. Then you shall see and you shall be radiant.”

Amen and Amen.


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