Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sermon, "How Will You Measure Your Life? By How and What You Give," Luke 6:27-38

Sermon 1/29/17
Luke 6:27-38

How Will You Measure Your Life? By How and What You Give

            When I was little, probably between 3rd grade and 6th grade, I was a part of 4H. You can focus on a lot of different skills in 4H clubs, but mine was focused on cooking and sewing in particular. I remember gathering around the kitchen counter of my leader’s home, learning how to cook and bake. Only, there were a lot more rules involved in the cooking and baking than when I learned at home. In 4H, you learn how to do things the 4H Way. Seriously, that’s what we learned to call it. The 4H way of cooking in baking involved a lot of precision, and very careful measuring, and mixing things in separate bowls, and combining them carefully, and washing hands between every step, and making sure to use your level whenever you measured flour. And there definitely was no licking batter off the beaters at 4H. Every year, I would take part in a cooking demonstration at the Westernville Town Hall. I’d prepare a poster board with the recipe I was going to make, and then have to tell a roomful of people how to put together the recipe, making sure, of course, to do everything the 4H Way. Believe it or not, I used to be petrified of public speaking, and these demonstrations were among some of the most terrifying times in my young life!
I loved being a part of 4H – don’t get me wrong. 4H was a centerpiece of my social life! But cooking and baking at home with my mother and grandmother was a lot different. I can’t remember, to be honest, ever using a level to precisely measure something. There were a lot of recipes in our family that included helpful instructions like “until it looks right,” if it was even written down at all. Tasting the batter was a right of the baker. My grandmother was always making a little extra dough so that if she was baking bread, for example, there was always enough to make us kids our own little mini-loaves to have. Everything was made with a generous hand.
I think about going out to eat with friends. I have a couple of friends, friends I love dearly, but they drive me a little crazy when it comes times to dividing up the bill and calculating a tip. I try to be a generous tipper. Not excessive – I couldn’t afford some of the extravagant gestures I read about sometimes in the news. But generous. However, I have a few friends who, though sufficiently well-to-do, seem to use the $5 or $6 that might be a reasonable tip as the place to start pinching pennies, shortchanging the server by a $1 or $2 – something that would really add up for the server but not make much of a dent to my friend. I believe in being frugal, thoughtful with how I spend my money – but if I’ve already decided to go out for a meal, I don’t want my savings to come at the expense of my server.
Today we’re continuing to think about how we will measure our lives. We talked two weeks ago about who and how we love – and I asked you to be intentional about your loving actions. You even got an extra week to work on it! Today, we’re thinking about measuring our lives by how and what we give. What do we give? How do we give it? Our gospel reading today is from Luke’s gospel. It’s part of what’s called The Sermon on the Plain, a big chunk of teaching from Jesus that takes place while the disciples and crowds are gathered together to hear him. He touches on many topics, some in depth, some with short sayings. Our passage for today is a kind of medley of teachings, but Jesus’ words coalesce around some common themes. He teaches that crowds to love their enemies and do good to those who hate them. Perhaps we are enough used to or familiar with Jesus’ teachings that those words no longer stop us in our tracks, but they’re pretty extreme. Love your enemies. He calls us to give to anyone who asks from us, to give even to those who don’t bother with the asking! “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” After all, he says, if we only love those who love us, and do good to those who do good to us, what does that say about our character? Everyone can do that! Jesus expects more of us than being nice to people who are nice to us. “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” When we do this, we’re modeling behavior after God’s, because God is kind and merciful, even to those who are ungrateful and evil. Don’t judge, don’t condemn. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Finally, Jesus concludes: “The measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
            When we measure our lives, friends, what kind of measure are we using when we give? Are we measuring the 4H Way, making sure to be exact, not a pinch too little or too much? Are we like a stingy tipper, cutting corners in what we give to others to make sure we have as much for ourselves as we want? Or do we look to how God gives, how God measures? Jesus says the measure put into our lap is one that is running over. And indeed, throughout the scriptures, we find images of God’s abundance, God’s extravagance in giving. Just yesterday at Katie Moore’s funeral, we shared together in the 23rd Psalm, saying, “My cup runneth over.” How does God give to us? God gives like one who knows there is no end to the supply of what is available. God gives like it is God’s greatest joy to give to us. God gives to the kind and loving, and to the ungrateful and hard-hearted. God gives to us like we’re God’s favorite things in the world! God gives with a generous measure, always putting in extra for us.
How do we give? There are many places in the Bible where we get to listen in when someone asks Jesus a question. I read that there are about 65 questions that Jesus gets asked across the gospel accounts. There are a variety of questions, but I notice that several of them that lead to some major teaching from Jesus in response share a theme. Here are a few of those questions: Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath? Do I have to pay taxes? How many times must I forgive someone? Is seven times enough? Who is my neighbor? What do I have to do to get eternal life? Do you sense the theme? As I hear them, in all of these questions, if we strip away to the core of it, the person is asking: What is the very minimum I can do and still be ok? What’s the least I have to forgive? Who is not my neighbor? How little can I give? How little can I do and still “get into heaven?” It seems like a lot of times we want to know: What’s the least I can give and still be ok? I’m not just talking here about how we give financially – although that’s something to consider. I think sometimes we act like we want to know the least we can give of our time, our energy, our lives, our hearts, our control, our plans, ourselves, and still be ok with God.
God wants so much more from us and for us! God want us to do unto others as we’d love for them to do to us, to measure for others like we’d like them to measure for us. Our best bet, as always, is to follow God’s example. How does God measure with us? I don’t want God to be using a level, making precisely sure not to give me too much, making sure not to leave too big a tip, trying to save few pennies when it comes to blessing me or my loved ones, frankly. I’m so thankful that God is so generous, so extravagant, so ready to fill our lives to overflowing! I want to learn to measure with the same measure God uses on us.
Pastor Adam Hamilton shares about a conversation he had with a man who runs auctions, especially estate auctions, where a persons’ possessions – often a whole household of trinkets and furniture and treasures and collectibles – will be auctioned off at a special event. The auctioneer says he often talks to families before the auction to give them a few words of warning about how this will feel. He tells them, “We’re going to take your life’s work and dispose of it in 4 hours.” But Hamilton reflects that the auctioneer’s words are only true if we see our life’s work as the stuff we’ve accumulated. What if, Hamilton asks, your life’s work is to pour yourself out into other people? “We can only take with us what we give away,” he says. (1) How are we giving? We are called to pour ourselves out in generous measure, overflowing the lives of those we meet with love and compassion, just as God does for us.
What’s left is simply to discover what it is that we’re called to give. Here’s what’s on my list: Love, of course. Mercy. Forgiveness. Compassion. Our time, which we treasure perhaps even more than our money. Our hearts. Our selves. All of us have these gifts to give. And all of us live in a world that is aching with need for the very things that we can pour out with a generous measure, and still find ourselves with yet more to give. This week, I want you to pay special attention to what you give and receive. Who will offer you forgiveness, and who will you forgive this week? Who will show you compassion? Where will you offer mercy instead of condemnation in a world that thrives on instant judgment? How will you spend this gift of your time this week? Who can you make time for? How will you give your heart to God this week? What will we make our life’s work? How generous is the measure you use?
“A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” Amen.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sermon, "How Will You Measure Your Life? By Who and How You Love," John 13:1-17, 34-35

Sermon 1/15/17
John 13:1-17, 34-35

How Do You Measure Your Life?

            Some of you may have heard of this little thing happening in our church right now. The RipIt Ministry, which just continues to blossom in new ways, has just kicked off its annual challenge. This year, seasoned mentors are pairing up with folks who are trying to reach some fitness goals to help guide and support them in their journey. I decided, with a little convincing from Amber Ormasen – have you ever tried to refuse a request from her? – to take part. One of the first things we had to do was get weighed and measured. It’s not my favorite experience, for sure. But it’s hard to measure your progress if you aren’t really sure where you started. I’ll be able to measure my progress in pounds lost, but also in changes in inches. Of course, those measures aren’t the only measures that are valuable. Folks might measure how many seconds they can hold a plank position before and after the challenge, or whether their cholesterol has improved after eating healthy for a few months, or whether they just feel better. But whatever way we do it, I know folks talking part in the challenge will be looking for ways to measure the impact of what we’ve been working on.
            We’ll be thinking a lot about how we measure things as our worship focus for the next few weeks. I think we’re busy measuring most areas of our lives. We want to know – how do we measure up? How do we compare? How are we doing in life? How do we stack up? Our question for the next three weeks is this: How will we measure our life? The question isn’t whether we will measure our lives or not. We’re all measuring – whether we’re aware of it or not, whether we know how we’re measuring our lives or not, whether we’re happy with our measurements, or not. We do measure our lives. So for the next few weeks, we’ll ask ourselves: How do we measure our lives? We’ll ask how we do it now. How do you measure your life right now? What measure are you using? What results are you looking for that tell you you are “on track” or not? And we’ll ask how we should be measuring our lives. How does God measure us? How does God ask us to measure our lives?
            So how do we typically measure our lives today? We might measure our lives by what salary we earn and how successful we are at work. That’s where we spend the bulk of our time, most of us, and a lot of our sense of self-worth can come from being measured at work. We might get bonuses or raises or a good review or be rewarded for being employee of the month. We might be in positions of power that give us status. We might get a new, prestigious title, or measure our worth by the size of our office. In sports, we keep track of how many points were scored, or how many yards someone went, or how many homeruns someone accumulates, or how fast or how high or how far someone could go. We give awards for best acting and best directing and best writing and if you don’t qualify for any of those, you might win best dressed, at least. We’re measured in school by our grades and our scores on standardized tests, by our attendance records. We’re measured by our appearance – how much we weigh, how tall we are, what brand of clothing we’re wearing. I think more and more we’re measured by how happy we can make ourselves look in facebook photos and Instagram pictures. So many ways that we add up and measure the value of our lives. How do you measure your life?
            It’s not just out in the secular world that people try to measure success like this. I have to tell you: when pastors meet, typical questions are: How big is your church? How many people are in worship? What’s your budget? How many people are on staff? There’s a tendency to think that bigger is always better, and that success in ministry means getting appointed to larger and larger churches. It can be pretty toxic, pretty stressful, this culture of measuring each other’s worth in this way. I wrestle with the allure of wanting to measure up. I would argue that meaningful ministry is about so much more than numbers, but I also get excited when we have more, and I also feel acutely aware of how much we have, or don’t have, of everything. When we measure, I feel like we set ourselves up to be disappointed with our results.
            How will we measure our lives? Rev. Adam Hamilton shared that when he meets with families to plan a funeral for a loved one, most people don’t talk about the achievements their loved ones racked up at work. Few people pull out the plaques or trophies or awards that their beloved had accumulated. What they talk about is how loved they felt. They talk about the time they got to spend together. They talk about the times they laughed together or cried together as a family. They talk about the quality of their loved one’s character – how kind or brave or caring or compassionate they were. (1)
            How will we measure our lives? No matter how much time we spend pursuing other aims, it seems that what really matters is who and how we love one another. Jesus tells us that the greatest commandments are that we love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and that we love our neighbors as ourselves. But how on earth do we measure love? In the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, the writings speak of loving-kindness, of steadfast love. In the New Testament, the gospels and letters use the word agape for love, a word that has the connotation of a selfless, self-sacrificing love. In other words, just claiming that we love someone – that we love God, or that we love one another – isn’t enough. Our love has to be demonstrated in real action. Our love has to show in what we do and how we live. Jesus talked about this as bearing good fruit. We heard John the Baptist mention in the text we read just last week – we’re called to bear fruit – the fruit – what we have to show for our lives – is how we’re measured. Again and again Jesus shares parables suggesting that God looks to make sure we’re growing good fruit in our lives. So how do we love in a way that gives us something to show? How do we measure our lives by who and how we love?
            Our gospel text today shares a scene that we typically hear on Maundy Thursday, the night that Jesus celebrated what we call “The Last Supper” with his disciples, the night that he was betrayed and arrested. The word “Maundy” is from a Latin word that means commandment. Jesus gives us in this passage what he calls a “new commandment.” But of course, the new commandment Jesus gives is one that is actually not new at all: He commands us to love one another as he has loved us. So that leads us to the question: How has Jesus loved us?
Where Matthew, Mark, and Luke all write about Jesus sharing a final meal with his disciples during Passover, John focuses on something entirely different: a foot-washing. During supper, Jesus gets up, prepares, and sets about washing the feet of his disciples. Some of you may have participated in a ceremonial foot-washing as part of a Holy Week service before, or in some other setting. When I was about to be ordained, our bishop at the time Bishop Violet Fisher washed the feet of all of us who were in my ordination class. It can be a deeply moving experience. But I also think it is one that’s a bit hard for us to translate into contemporary culture. In Jesus’ day, foot-washing was a common practice. People walked in sandals on dusty roads, and whenever you entered a home, it would be common to wash your feet. But you would wash your own feet or it would be the task of a slave to wash your feet. If you weren’t a slave, you would never wash someone else’s feet. And if you were the higher ranking person, if you were the teacher for example, you certainly wouldn’t be washing the feet of your disciples. Jesus was taking on the task of a slave. When he washed their feet, it was an act of humility, service, devotion, love, an act of love he offers on the night before he will even give his own life as a demonstration of his love. I have a hard time even finding an act we could offer someone today that would compare to what Jesus offers the disciples.
            No wonder, then, that Peter reacts how he does. Disbelieving what is clearly happening, he asks Jesus, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” He insists that Jesus will never do such a menial, humbled act for him. But Jesus tells Peter that if Peter wants to have a share in Jesus, he needs to receive what Jesus is offering. And then Peter is in, whole-heartedly! Once Jesus has finished washing the disciples’ feet, he says to them: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord … So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” And it is then, in this context, that Jesus says “I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
            Jesus has demonstrated what he means by loving one another. When Jesus shows love, it means that he’ll trade in his status as teacher for that of a slave instead. When Jesus shows love, it means he will serve others in ways that most people would consider beneath them. When Jesus shows love, he humbles himself, that the other person might be lifted up. He offers his very life as an act of love. This is what I mean by loving as I have loved, Jesus says.
How will we measure our lives? By who we love and how we love. We are God’s strategy for loving the world. We are God’s plan for redeeming the world with love in action! (1) That’s an amazing responsibility, an amazing gift that God entrusts to us. We can measure our lives by the fruit that our love-in-action grows. And we love-in-action by loving like Jesus – by forgetting about our status and instead thinking of how we can serve others, by humbling ourselves so that others can be lifted up, by putting others first, by sharing with them the valuable gifts of our time, our attention, our heart.
I challenged the children to think about how they would put their love into action this week, and I want to challenge you to do the same thing. Love might seem like a hard thing to measure, but Jesus says we can see good fruit, a sign of love’s presence. I want you to pay attention, to keep track this week, and challenge yourself. When can you demonstrate love for someone? When you are at school, at work, at the store, at a meeting, out for a walk – how can you – how will you – practice lovingkindness this week? And be on the lookout for ways that others are demonstrating their love for you! When you see good fruit in someone else, when you notice their loving actions – take note! Next week we’ll talk about what kind of fruit we saw this week.
How will we measure our lives? By who and how we love. Jesus shows us the way, as he washes our feet. How will we love? Like Jesus does. Amen.

(1) Hamilton, Adam. Sermon,

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Year A, "The Baptism of Jesus," Matthew 3:1-17

Sermon 1/8/17
Matthew 3:1-17

The Baptism of Jesus

            Many of you know that I spent this last week at Sky Lake, which is one of our conference camps, down in the Binghamton area. Pastors are supposed to take some spiritual renewal time each year, and this was mine. I spent the week doing some worship planning, thinking about the ministries of the church, and spending some time in prayer and reflection with God. While I was there, I was thinking about my own time as staff person at Camp Aldersgate, some 22 years ago now.
As soon as I was old enough, I applied, and spent a summer lifeguarding and working in the kitchen. The staff was made up of young people mostly between the ages of 16 and 25, aside from some of the older year-round staff, which is pretty typical. And it’s a pretty intense experience. You’re with this group of people all day every day for a summer, and most of the people are, like you, at the stage in life where you are trying to figure out who you are and who you want to become. It’s a time of making some pretty major life decisions. And when you’re all going through that together, it can be intense and meaningful and life-changing. One of the hardest things to remember, though, when you part of a tight knit group like that, is that even though you have such deep connections with the friends you are working with, and even though you are loving your time with your team, it isn’t your experience that is the one that matters most. It isn’t your satisfaction, or you feeling great about how things are going that matters in the end. Everything that you do is for the campers who come to spend time there, learning about God, learning about who Jesus is, and how they can get to know Jesus, and draw closer to God. Camp is for them, not for the staff. And so if the staff is having the best time of their lives, but the campers aren’t, then the great experience of the staff is worth, well, nothing much, because the camp is not serving its purpose. That’s tough to remember when you are a young adult on the brink of all these significant life changes and decisions. And yet, the life-changing experience that many campers have every summer will tell you that (at least most of the time) the staff remembers what they’re all about.
            I was thinking about this this past week: times when our purpose, our mission, is not for ourselves and our own benefit as much as it is for someone else, for others. I was thinking about that when I was wrestling with our text for today. Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. It’s a day when we remember that Jesus was baptized, and we reflect on what that means for us. And as I think about his baptism, I keep asking: who is it for? What purpose does Jesus’ baptism fulfill? Is it for himself? Is it for others? How? It’s nice to remember a meaningful event in Jesus’ life, but why is it meaningful, and what does it have to do with us now?
            Jesus’ baptism is an important event for us to think about for a few reasons. First, it is one of very few events in Jesus’ life that are recorded in all four gospels. That tells us that it was significant – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all write about it. It’s also the starting point of Jesus’ public ministry. We’re not sure about much of what Jesus was doing between the time of his birth and the time he came to John to be baptized. But his baptism is the beginning of everything we do know. Once he is baptized, Jesus spends time in the wilderness, and then from there, it’s three years of preaching and teaching and healing and ministry seemingly non-stop until he is arrested, executed, resurrected. So for Jesus, his baptism marks a beginning, something he feels he must do as he begins the work he came to do.
Baptism wasn’t a brand new thing, though. It wasn’t created by John the Baptist. When we read about John baptizing people, he wasn’t doing something unfamiliar to the people. The literal meaning of the word baptism is “to be dipped” or “immersed” in water. Baptism was a cleansing ritual, a rite of purification that people would participate in when they wanted to make a new start. When John begins calling the people to repent, that is, to make a 180° turn around in their life, to get going back on God’s path, it wouldn’t have been surprising that baptism was the ritual that was paired with their act of repentance.
            What John does is add his specific meaning to baptism – he explains that he is baptizing for repentance, in preparation for the coming of God’s reign on earth. And he notes that Jesus, too, will add meaning to baptism – a baptism with, John says, “Holy Spirit and fire.” Eventually, the apostle Paul and the early church will add more layers of meaning to baptism – baptizing in the name of the trinity: in the name of God, in the name of Jesus Christ, and in the name of the Holy Spirit. Our particular faith traditions add layers of meaning to baptism too. In some traditions, baptism is a decision-making moment when a person commits to being a follower of Jesus. In our tradition, we emphasize God’s action in baptism. We celebrate baptism as an outward sign, the public celebration of God’s grace at work in our lives and our acceptance of that grace, or, in the case of those who cannot accept it for themselves, a commitment from family and sponsors to nurture them in the knowledge and love of God, that they may someday confirm those vows themselves. 
John’s focus, though, was clear: this baptism was a sign of repentance in preparation for God’s coming reign. So one of the big questions we have in this text is “Why does Jesus need to be baptized?” In fact, John even asks this question. He says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” After all, if baptism is a sign of a commitment to repentance, then Jesus doesn’t fit in. Our understanding of Jesus is that he is without sin. He is God-in-the-flesh, even as he is fully human, so he doesn’t need to repent. But John was hearing people’s confession of sin as they came for baptism. Why, then, does Jesus get baptized?
            He responds to John’s question saying, “Let it be so for now; for it is proper in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Frankly, that’s not immediately a very helpful response is it? What does it mean that his being baptized “fulfills all righteousness?” First, Matthew, throughout his gospel, is particularly interested in showing that Jesus is a fulfillment of the messiah promised in the Hebrews scriptures. This conversation between John and Jesus that we’re sort of eavesdropping on is a way for the gospel-writer to tell us that Jesus is the messiah, even if he isn’t what we were expecting. Second, Jesus says he fulfills “all righteousness.” Righteousness means justice, being set right in our relationships with God and others. When we’re in right relationship with people, we experience God’s justice, God’s wholeness. That’s righteousness. So Jesus says that his being baptized is a part of the process of bringing about justice in the world. How does his baptism achieve that? Well, his baptism is a sign of affirmation for the message John has been sharing. Jesus may not need to repent, but it’s his public proclamation that this is the mission he’ll be about – the one John describes – announcing the arrival of God’s reign right into the middle of our world and our lives. Jesus getting baptized is a way that Jesus can publicly claim the vision John has already been telling folks about. John’s been calling people to bear good fruit in their lives, and Jesus is going to show them how to do it. God doesn’t call us to repentance and leave us alone on the journey, in the struggle. Jesus is with us, leading us. He claims our journey as his by joining us in baptism. Finally, Jesus says, “Let it be so for now.” His wording suggests that this baptism is something he does that is the right thing for just the right time. Whatever Jesus was doing before, now is the right moment, God’s time, for Jesus to begin to act. His baptism announces that to everyone. And when Jesus comes up out of the water, God’s voice is heard, as God’s Spirit descends like a dove on Jesus: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” God’s words are confirmation of John’s message, and Jesus’s baptism, and Jesus’s claiming of his identity and path.
            So, why is Jesus baptized? I think, like everything he does, it is for us. He pours out his life for others. His purpose in the world is not to serve his own interests, but to be hope and light for the world. We’re not baptized because Jesus is. Rather, Jesus is baptized because we are, and his purpose is to join in fully with our lives, that in so doing, we have someone to follow, who leads us to the heart of God.
            Today, as we remember baptism, and we remember how Jesus, too, was baptized, immersing himself in our world and our struggles and our wilderness journey, I hope that we can see this time, this remembrance, this reaffirmation of our faith as an act that helps prepare us for the mission to which God is calling us – whatever that turns out to be! Just as Jesus’s purpose is to serve others, that’s our mission too: living for others. And that’s the purpose of our church, our community of faith. We can be lulled into thinking that we exist for our own comfort. We come here for our strength, our learning, our comfort, our support. Indeed, I hope we find those things as we gather as a community of faith. But the church exists not for the comfort of those who have already come to know God and commit to being disciples, but for those who are still searching and seeking, for those who don’t even know they’re looking for something yet.
            This act of renewing our baptismal covenant reminds us that we know who we are, and who we belong to. We are God’s children. We belong to God. God claims us. We remind ourselves of who we are in God so that we have strength to go out and serve others. This act of renewal also reminds us that we’re not alone. Baptism is not a private act. It’s an act of community. Jesus’ baptism joined him to the people among whom he would minister. Our baptism, our remembering our covenant together reminds us that we are a congregation, a community of faith. We can’t be the church alone. We can’t follow God by ourselves. We need God, and we need each other. This act of renewal is our way of saying to God that we’re ready. We’re all in. We’re with Jesus. His mission is our mission. We’re ready to follow.
Following our time of renewal this morning, we’ll sing a hymn by one of my favorite hymnists, Ruth Duck – a hymn for baptism called, “Wash, O God, Our Sons and Daughters.” As we prepare our hearts and minds, I invite you to hear words from the last verse of this hymn: We your people stand before you, water-washed and Spirit-born. By your grace, our lives we offer. Recreate us; God, transform! Let that be our prayer – Recreate us God. Transform our lives. We’re ready. Amen.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Sermon for Epiphany Sunday, "Light of the World," Matthew 2:1-12

Sermon 1/3/16
Matthew 2:1-12

Light of the World

Maybe in my second or third Christmas at my first church appointment, I read about this great idea for a Christmas Eve service for children. I don’t remember where I read or heard the idea. But the gist was this: You take several warm Christmasy blankets and spread them all over the chancel area, and get a rocking chair to sit in, and then, during the Children’s Sermon, you read a book to the kids, while they’re all snuggled onto the cozy blankets. And the book serves as message for the adults as well. I just loved the idea. I bought several copies of a book I thought would be meaningful, and I had four people set up to stand with copies throughout the sanctuary, to turn the pages along with me as I read, so that the adults could follow along too – we didn’t have any big screens that I could project the images on in my first church.
Everything was planned, and I was so excited about it, and could just picture how awesome the service was going to be. And then Christmas Eve finally came, and it was a disaster! I got the kids all settled on the blankets, and started to read the story. But kids are so so wound up on Christmas Eve. They’re wearing these fancy outfits they’ve never worn before, and probably brand new shoes, and they’ve been eating Christmas cookies all day, and they just want to go home and go to bed so they can wake up and see what Santa has brought. It is not exactly, as it turns out, the best time to ask children to sit demurely in front of a congregation full of people and listen quietly to a lovely storybook. The kids were restless almost immediately, and a few pages in, they were bored and on the verge of revolt, I could tell. I started to panic. The book was taking much longer to read than I had planned, and I was losing what little attention from the kids I had. I started simply summarizing what was on each page, flipping through the story faster and faster. Of course, this left all of my helpers out in the congregation scrambling to figure out which page I was on. Everyone was confused, and no one seemed to be having this perfect experience I had in my head. Mercifully, eventually I made it through the book and sent the kids back to their seats. But I was devastated by how awfully everything had turned out. All my plans, ruined.
A bit later in the service, I made my way over to the choir loft to serve communion to the singers sitting there. My hands were literally shaking with stress and anxiety over my failed service. One woman, Dee, looked at me with concern in her eyes. She asked, “What’s wrong?” I said, sarcasm dripping in my tone, “Oh, everything is just going so well!” Wasn’t it clear to her why I was so upset? But no, she just looked confused by my response. After the service, her response was echoed by others. They had no idea why I was so upset. They’d experienced a meaningful Christmas Eve worship service, a celebration of the birth of Jesus, and apparently, I hadn’t ruined everything with a poorly received story for the kids. Apparently, I was the only one having a crisis. Apparently, I was the only one who had concluded that the service had been ruined. In reality, though, the only one whose experience was ruined was my own, and I had done that to myself. I had this picture in my head, these expectations of how everything was supposed to go, and when I didn’t find what I was looking for, when where things ended up on Christmas Eve didn’t match the plans I had, I let it overwhelm me with disappointment.
            Have you ever experienced something like that? Have you ever had a vision or a plan or had a picture in your mind of some event – where you had it all mapped out in your head, how things would go, a journey, physical or metaphorical, where you set out with a clear aim, or goal, or purpose in mind, only to find when you reach your destination that what is waiting for you, what really happens, is not at all what you expected? How did you feel, when things unfolded so differently than you had in mind? Did you totally lose your cool like I did? Did you go with the flow?
Our scripture text for today is about a journey like this – plans all laid out, but nothing unfolding as anticipated. Today is Epiphany Sunday. The word Epiphany is from a Greek word that means literally “coming to light,” or “shining forth.” Epiphany is the day when we celebrate the Magi, Wisemen from the East, coming to see Jesus and bringing him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This is significant because it represents that Jesus is light to the whole world, celebrated even by these foreign strangers, not just the people of Israel, not just a chosen few. Jesus is the light of and for the whole world.
We really know very little about these wise men. They appear only in this passage from Matthew. Matthew describes them as men from the East, which maybe may have meant they were astrologers from Persia, interpreters of stars and dreams. The idea that they were kings comes from a verse of a Psalm that talks about kings bringing gifts to the Messiah – a loose connection at best. The number three was just layered onto tradition over time, perhaps because three gifts are named, along with traditional names for each of three wise men. But again, these ideas are not mentioned in the Bible. What the Bible does tell us is that these wise men came to the palace of King Herod looking for a newborn king, since they had seen a star that was significant to them.
We don’t even know why the Magi would be interested in seeing a new king of the Jewish people, since they themselves were not Jewish. But we do know that when they were looking for this new king, they expected to find him at the palace. That’s right where they went – straight to the palace, to have an audience with Herod. They expected, perhaps, that Herod had a new child who would eventually become king, or some other similar chain of events. Instead, they find a baffled and frightened Herod, who has no idea what they are talking about. They’re sent to find this new king by Herod, guided by additional details about the child’s likely place of birth, and eventually, finally, they find Jesus with his mother Mary. They have brought gifts for the child that would have been appropriate at the palace: gold, frankincense, myrrh. Costly gifts.  And so they offer these gifts to this child, Jesus, who they find not in a palace, but in a normal home, in a small town, the child of a carpenter and his wife, totally normal by every visible clue.
Imagine if the Magi reacted like I did that Christmas Eve when my plans didn’t go as I wanted. The Magi could have decided they had gotten it all wrong and taken their gifts and gone back home, disappointed that they had come so far only to find that this so-called new king was just a regular baby born to no one special. But Matthew says they were overwhelmed, not with disappointment, but “overwhelmed with joy.” Nothing went as planned, but they simply changed their course as a new plan was laid out for them. They went where they were led. And they were thrilled with it all. They didn’t judge Mary and Joseph and Jesus by their outer wrappings. They recognized the Holy in the child Jesus. The Epiphany is the coming-to-light, the shining-forth of Jesus as light of the world. It wasn’t what the Wisemen set out to see. But what was revealed to them by the light was nonetheless exactly what they were seeking, overwhelming them with joy.
I’m wondering what we are expecting, as we journey with God. As we begin a new year, what destinations do we have in mind, what plans and schedules have we made, what results are we looking to see? What solution to our problems, what fix for our troubles, what cures for what ails us we are expecting to find at the end of the calendar year, at the end of our journey, at the completion of our plans? And then, what will we do when, inevitably, what we find as the days unfold is not what we were expecting. What will the light of Epiphany reveal to us?   
One of my favorite authors is Mindy Kaling. She’s the writer and star of the TV show The Mindy Project. Or you might know her as a writer and actress on The Office – she played Kelly Kapoor. In her book Why Not Me? she spends one chapter of her book divulging, with great wit and sarcasm, all of her beauty secrets. One of them? Stay in the shadows! We look best, she insists, under the forgiving lighting of shadows, without the harsh brightness revealing every detail that we’d rather keep hidden. I think about this fact sometimes with my phone’s camera. On most smart phones, if you use it to take a “selfie,” the camera automatically switches to a setting called “beauty face.” I love it! It gives your skin a nice uniform glow, erases any imperfections, and subtracts about 5 years of wrinkles and lines from your skin. Selfies, after all, are pretty close-up pictures – and do we really want to see everything about ourselves that the camera might reveal?
Epiphany is a time when we celebrate that the light of the world is shining. But more than just acknowledging the light of Christ, our task is to look closely at just what the light of Christ is revealing in us. Our task is to let that light shine into our lives and bring all of the dark places out of the shadows. What would it mean if the light of Christ focused on your life and made visible everything that has been hidden? What unexpected things might we see, discover, when the Star of Bethlehem shines on us?
I’ve been thinking about this in two ways: First, I think letting in the light of Christ would make us deal with aspects of ourselves and our behaviors that we try to hide in the shadows, or cover up with “beauty face” mode. Do you struggle with envy or coveting what others have? Are you facing an addiction that you can’t control? Are you holding on to resentments or conflicts with others that you have been unwilling to resolve? God at work in us reveals all those things – uncovers them, not so that we can be judged and condemned, but so that we can be healed and redeemed and move forward. This is a time when so many of us are making New Year’s Resolutions, and I think that the reason that so many of us fail in our efforts is because we don’t really examine what’s behind our feelings – why aren’t we happy with what we have, always longing for what others have, for example? We start out to change our lives on our own, without the grounding, the source of our being. Jesus is the light, and we can’t shine without that source, God, empowering us.
What would it mean if the light of Christ focused on your life and made visible everything that has been hidden and unseen? Here’s the second way: In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” I think that may be our hearts’ desire – to be known fully, completely – and also our deepest fear – that someone will see us – flaws and imperfections and things we’d rather keep in the shadows. So often, we look at ourselves and see only our failures. We gloss right over the gifts we have, the way that God has created us, the strength we have, the ways that we have been formed and blessed and placed in this world so that we can serve and give and bless others. We don’t see in ourselves all that God sees in us. And so we let ourselves off easy, because we’re convinced that we can’t do what God knows we can do and do well. When the light of Christ brings everything in us into view, when we let that light shine in all the overshadowed places, then we start to see ourselves as we really are, as God created us, and as God is calling us to be. God sees us, all that the light of Christ reveals in us, and is overwhelmed with joy in us.
That’s the journey of Epiphany. We find at the end of the long road we travel what we didn’t plan or expect. Instead, we find the light of Christ, light of the world, shining back at us, dispelling the shadows, revealing who we really are. God isn’t disappointed in what’s revealed in us. God is full of hope at all that yet might be in us. And I believe we won’t be disappointed when we embrace God-revealed to us. May we, like the Wisemen, lay our very best gifts as an offering of thanksgiving at the feet of Christ, overwhelmed with joy. For we find there not-at-all what we expected, but instead, shining in the light, exactly what we’ve needed. Amen.