Monday, January 6, 2014

Be a Star

[Sermon from Epiphany (transferred), Jan. 5, 2014.]

Once again this morning, we’ve been blessed to see the power of the star of Bethlehem.  We’ve watched the three wise visitors from distant lands as they join us in coming to a peasant’s shack to marvel at the impossible, impoverished king they find there. 
There’s a lot we don’t know about these traveling wise people.  But the Gospel story makes one thing very clear:  It’s the star that draws the magi to Jesus – which makes sense, given that “magi” means astrologers, observers of the sky, the proto-scientists of their day.  In a sense, the star is the main character in this story, powerful enough to draw learned people from foreign lands, powerful enough to make King Herod quake in his boots, powerful enough to reveal precisely where God has come to take up residence among us.
We know this story so well, we may be tempted not to notice how strange it is and how many questions it raises.  For example: Why did these particular wise people see that particular star?  Of all the court astrologers out there, why did these magi notice this star and care enough to follow it?  If the star was so striking, why didn’t all the astrologers of the ancient Near East flock to Bethlehem to see the baby king?  Well, maybe they did – the Gospel story never says there were only three.  Or maybe other wise people followed other signs intended for them, just as the star guided these particular astrologers.  After all, think about the shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks:  They got a battalion of the heavenly army singing to them in the middle of the night.  That’s a pretty clear sign. 
And these are just the stories that Luke and Matthew record.  Who knows how many other people might have received their own signs of the divine wonder: that God had indeed come to save them but in the last place they would have thought to look, in a common shack.  Maybe what the stories of the shepherds and the magi really reveal is the double-barreled nature of this Good News:  first, that everyone’s included in the scope of God’s love, whether you’re a Jewish shepherd or a court astrologer from a distant land; and second, that God is endlessly creative in finding ways to let us know that this love is real, and present, and there for the taking. 
Now, if we’d been scripting this story, we might have written it differently to make sure everybody got the message.  We might have had God’s voice booming from heaven, announcing the news of the king’s birth to everyone on the planet at the same time:  “We interrupt our regular programming to bring you this special news bulletin….”  This was pretty amazing news; you’d think God might have wanted to broadcast it.  Interestingly, God went for narrow-casting instead – crafting the message for each audience.  As today’s reading from Ephesians says, God’s intent is “to make everyone see” (3:9) this amazing truth that God wants to bring all people together in love – “no longer strangers and aliens but … members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19), erasing differences like gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, and social class.  That’s what the church is here for, Ephesians says:  to reveal “the wisdom of God in its rich variety” (3:10).  We are here “to make everyone see” that in God’s eyes, every last person is valuable, every last person is blessed, every last person is desired in God’s kingdom – no exceptions.  Whether it takes an angel’s trumpet or a shining star, God wants the news to get out there.
So how does God reveal this wisdom to wise men and women today?  There are endless possibilities, everything from dramatic life events, to glorious sunrises, to unexpected blessings.  But mostly, I think it’s … us.  It’s you.  You are the star pointing to God’s love made flesh.  You are the light revealing this truth that’s still so hard to believe – that under the reign and rule of God, you’re in, no matter who you are.  Everyone’s a member of the household, regardless of past experience or past perceptions.  God’s family is there “to make everyone see” that God wants everyone to be part of it. 
And the medium is the message:  Particular stars shine for particular people.  Not everybody followed the star of Bethlehem; it was intended specifically for those “wise men from the East” (Matthew 2:1), and it got the job done.  By the same token, none of us has to reach everyone, but each of us is here to reach someone. 
I want to share with you three examples of what I’m talking about.  Here’s the first:  You’ve heard our senior warden, Steve Rock, speak about his friend Deck Murray, who’s been struggling with cancer and who entered the next chapter of his eternal life just this week.  Deck spent most of his adult life actively not being a person of faith.  What he knew of church wasn’t about authentic relationships but about judgment or institutional promotion or self-aggrandizement.  Over the course of Deck’s illness, Steve has been present to his friend in all kinds of ways – and among them has been a quiet but relentless witness, in the literal sense of that word, about the power of a church community to bring healing even in situations that can’t be cured.  And here’s the fruit it bore:  As Deck neared the end of his life, he got deeply involved in a church family, along with his wife; and it’s that church family that will celebrate his life in a couple of weeks.  His connection with God, through a church, happened because Steve let God’s light shine through him for the person God needed him to reach.
Here’s example 2:  I was at the Free Store distribution on Dec. 20, when the cold-weather items you donated were offered to the people who eat at the Kansas City Community Kitchen.  One part of our work that day was different than usual:  Three of us were there not to hand out coats and hats, but to listen.  We asked people there if we could talk with them, and then we got out of the way and let God work.  I was blessed to overhear one conversation Pete Vogt was having.  He was listening to a man named Eric.  Eric had once been a cook, but he’s been living out of his car for four years now.  He suffers from epilepsy and deeply painful rheumatoid arthritis, which I’m sure isn’t helped by living in the cold and which limits his ability to stand for any length of time.  Pete listened to him, and asked him questions about his life, and encouraged him to get available help with medications.   But then, Pete took it one step further.  He asked the man if he could pray for him.  And then Pete offered one of the most beautiful, authentic, personally specific intercessory prayers I’ve ever been blessed to overhear.  Despite his challenges, Eric walked away from the Free Store with a lot more than a coat.  Pete had let God’s light shine through him for the person God needed him to reach.
Here’s example 3.  I try not to fall into the preacher’s trap of using stories about your own kids as sermon illustrations.  The kids didn’t sign up for that just because their dad went to seminary.  But I do want to mention something you may not know about my son, Dan.  He’s a great kid in all kinds of ways that don’t reveal themselves publicly.  But there is one fairly public thing about Dan that I truly admire.  In the past year, he’s invited at least seven people to come to church – friends of his and their family members.  There may well have been more, but I know of at least seven people who’ve come as a result of his invitations.  Given that the average Episcopalian invites something like one to two people to church in a lifetime, Dan’s done pretty well this year.  How does he do it?  He follows God’s lead.  He has real conversations with his friends about things that matter, and sometimes that ends up in an invitation to experience God in a new way.  It’s not rocket science, it’s relationship; and he’s good at it.  Dan’s been willing to let God’s light shine through him for the people God needs him to reach.
I don’t know specifically what Steve or Pete or Dan said to the people they touched.  What I know is the effect of their words and stories and presence on the people around them.  Each of them let others know they were part of God’s family even if they hadn’t realized it yet.  Each of the people they reached came to see God’s love in a unique way, through a unique vessel.  That’s how incarnation works:  God shows up in us, in you.  To people who may not even have known they needed saving, a savior takes flesh and dwells among them. 
So, you might have guessed this was coming:  What is one way that you’ve seen and known God’s surprising, reconciling, healing love in your own experience?  That’s your star.  God will give you the opportunity to speak it or show it to someone – maybe even this week.  Give it a shot.  Take that light you bear, and let it shine.  The star of Bethlehem didn’t attract every Gentile; it attracted those particular wise people from the East.  There is someone in your universe who’s searching for a sign of God’s love in a way that you, particularly, can offer.  Pray about it, speak it, act it – and then let God do the rest of the work.
Years ago, the first President Bush (a good Episcopalian, by the way) talked about offering “a thousand points of light” to the world.  There’s divine wisdom in that.  As Ephesians says, the church is here to make known “the wisdom of God in its rich variety,” the inclusion of all in God’s loving embrace.  One star doesn’t enlighten the world – not even the star of Bethlehem.  But thousands do.   Take your experience of divine love, and let it shine through you for one person dwelling in darkness.  That’s all it takes to be a star.

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