Sunday, January 10, 2010

The matter of the star, the wise men, and eyes to see

Today's sermon is based on the readings for Epiphany: Isaiah 60:1-6 ; Matthew 2:1-12

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

They saw the star, and they knew not where it would take them, but they followed anyway.

Today we meet the wise men from the east, bringing gifts fit for a king – gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – and these wise men from far away kneel at the manger, and they are the first to worship Jesus.

And nothing was the same ever again, not for them, and not for us.

Most of you have heard this story, for it is told and retold, and is embedded deeply in our collective Christian memory.

We see the story performed in our children’s’ Christmas pageants, and depicted on greeting cards, and in a few moments the wise men will again come down our aisle bearing gifts.

Legend even gives them names: Balthazar, Gaspar, and Melchoir. Their coming marks the end of the Christmas season, and the beginning of what comes next.

Today, though, I’d like you to hear the story of the wise men as if you’ve never heard it before, because this story challenges us in ways that you might not have considered.

First, there is the story as the Bible tells it.

The Gospel of Matthew does not say there are three wise men; it does not say how many there are. It could be two, or three, or an entire caravan. Nor does the gospel give them names. They are mysterious men from the East, and they disappear almost as fast as they appear.

Then there is the matter of the star.

The gospel tells us the wise men follow this star, but the wise men are, in fact, the only ones who see it.

These men from the East see a star no one else sees. Maybe the star of Bethlehem is not so bright, or not so obvious.

Or maybe the people in Bethlehem never look up at the sky, or maybe their eyes were so accustomed to their surroundings that they never notice this star, and they never notice how extraordinary one thing could be – the birth of a baby who comes to bring salvation, God’s peace, God’s shalom to all the world.

It takes outsiders to see it.

Sometimes it takes fresh eyes to notice the extraordinary when the rest of us take something for granted. That, I believe, is especially true in matters of faith.

Our walk of faith, I am convinced, is really about tuning our spiritual eyes and ears to noticing – noticing the Holy all around us, the Holy in ordinary things, and the Holy in each other.

Sometimes it is possible to do this all by ourselves. Most of the time, though, I think it takes a caravan of people – a community – to notice the Holy together.

The word “church” does not mean “organized religion.” The word church means “the gathering,” and that, at its most basic, is why we are here today: to be the gathering that notices the Holy, and takes the time to help each other see the Holy, too.

There is great strength in that, because when I don’t see the Holy, maybe you will see the Holy for me. When my faith falters, or my prayers become dry, I know that one of you will have faith for me, that you will notice the Holy, and your prayers will lift me.

And as you do this for me, I pray you will let me do the same for you.

There is something else to the story of the wise me I want to underline: Sometimes it is people on the margins who see things the most clearly, who sense the presence of the Holy when those of us in the crowded center do not see it.

Sometimes it is someone not on the high end of the social ladder, but on the low end who brings us riches from heaven.

That is why we must find ways, here in this parish, to see those around us who maybe we did not notice before, whether they are very young, or old, rich, or poor, educated or uneducated.

That is why our Social Justice Committee has renamed itself “Ministry Beyond Our Walls,” to underline that the church belongs out there on the margins, where real people live and work, and where real people hurt.

There is yet another level to this story I’d like you to hear:

God brings the wise men from far away to the manger in Bethlehem, and they see things that others who have been there awhile don’t see. The wise men see it precisely because they are from far away.

God brings new people from far away to be with us at St. Paul’s; they may have crossed life’s desert, or simply crossed the street to get here. They come not to help us balance the budget, though we could use help from everyone with that, but rather they come to see and experience the Holy in ways they’ve never seen before.

If we are open to it, new people will help us who have been here awhile to see that which we’ve never seen. That is God’s great gift to us if we will accept the gift.

In this new year, I would ask that we find ways to see, to hear, to welcome new people. When we do, we will be blessed beyond our imagining.

But to do that, we have to be vulnerable to what we hear and see, and that is what makes this so hard. Being open to new people might mean that we will change. New people, like the wise men from the East, come with gifts that will change us.

Change of any kind almost always feels uncomfortable or awkward.

Change is like a dance, and so we need to learn the steps. But God is guiding our feet so we won’t stumble, so be not afraid. Like the wise men, we may not be sure where we are going. But there really is nothing to fear – nothing at all – because God is our ever present guide.

This parish has always received spectacular gifts of new people. Indeed, all of you were new at some point, and all of you have brought spectacular gifts.

There is one gift I want to highlight today: the gift of Ann Willms, who was ordained yesterday to God’s Holy priesthood.

A number of us went to her ordination yesterday in Fredericksburg, and it was an extraordinary celebration of the whole church gathered everywhere as Bishop David Jones gave his blessing to Ann.

Today is her first day with us in her new role as a priest. Previously, she was ordained a deacon, one of the steps along the way in our long and deliberate path into Holy Orders.
Ann will soon celebrate her first Eucharist as a priest.

She will bless the bread and wine, joining with all those who through the centuries have blessed the bread and wine of Holy Communion going back to the Last Supper itself.

Ann has been with us only a few short months, but she has brought remarkable gifts to us.

Like the wise men, Ann and her family have traveled far to be with us, and I can tell you Ann sees and hears things that I don’t. She sees with new eyes, and she has been a prophet among us for finding ways to welcome new people, and to notice those who are standing on the margins.

She is wise. She is incredibly bright and clear-headed. She is compassionate and has a pastoral presence that I find awesome.

We are so very blessed to have Ann, and her beautiful family, and so on behalf of all us, we thank you for being with us, for walking this way on your journey and sharing it with us.

There will be challenges ahead for you, Ann, and for all us. But we have nothing – nothing at all – to fear, for God is with us, Emmanuel, our ever-present guide; and salvation is ours forever, the promise of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Amen.

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