A Blessing of Love for the Earth

May the blessings of divine love be upon the earth as a being,
And upon all those associated with it, without exclusion,
So that the progress of the earth and those associated with it
Toward their spiritual potential might be facilitated,
And the transformation of the earth might thereby be expedited,
From a sphere beset by so much fear and conflict
To one where love and harmony might prevail as the basis of social interaction,
And where compassion and concern for the common good might flourish.

And further, that all plans, designs and conspiracies,
By any individuals or groups whatsoever,
for the conquest or domination of the earth and those that live upon it,
In violation of universal law or in violation of the best interests of all who are concerned,
Might fail and come to naught, or, by the grace of God,
Be turned to the service of the good of all concerned.

And further, that all secret tyrannies affecting the earth,
Perpetrated by any individuals or groups,
Which exercise control or manipulation upon humankind,
Or which perpetrate oppression upon humankind,
In violation of universal law, the best interests of all concerned, or the of freedom of choice,
Might come to light
So that knowledge of the truth of these matters
Might enable humanity’s freedom from such oppression.

And further, that the success of all endeavors
In pursuit of the common good of all humanity
And the best interests of the earth and those associated with it,
Might be facilitated.

And further, that those who pursue the good of all concerned
Might be strengthened to withstand
Any opposition to their efforts
From those who oppose the good of all.

Let these things be made so only in accord
With the wisdom and judgment of the Supreme Being,
And with universal law and the best interests of all concerned.
And lastly, if it is beneficial to all concerned
That this blessing be shared with others,
Then let the Holy Spirit guide its dissemination.

So be it

(The author of this prayer is anonymous)

Casting A Wide Net

Matthew 4:12-23

How long has it been since you heard a good fish story? Well I have two. It seems that a man went fishing but after a short time I ran out of worms.  Looking around for an alternative he saw a little crocodile with a frog in his mouth. Frogs are good bass bait, he thought, so he decided get the frog.

You see he knew a thing or two about crocodiles.  He knew that the croc couldn’t bite him if it had that frog in its mouth.  So, the fisherman grabbed the croc right behind the head, took the frog, and put it in his bait bucket. But now the dilemma was how to release the crocodile without getting bit.  So, being the clever man that he was, the fisherman grabbed his bottle of Jack Daniels and poured a little whiskey in its mouth.  The croc’s eyes rolled back and he went limp.  The man released him into the lake without incident and carried on fishing using the frog. A little later, however, the fisherman felt a nudge on his foot.  And there was that same crocodile with two frogs in his mouth.[i]

The second story is a personal experience.  A couple of years ago, we rented a cabin on a trout stream in Northeast Iowa.  Bear Creek.  Anyway, on the first morning of fishing Manny went with me but I soon figured out that this type of fishing wasn’t for a four-year-old.  He was way too noisy and moved around so much that he chased all the fish away.  So it wasn’t until our final day there that he was allowed to come along again.  This time I put a pole in the water and gave it to him while I prepared my “real” pole for fishing.  But as soon as my back was turned, Manny shouted I got one!  And sure enough he pulled in the biggest trout of the trip.  You never know when they’ll bit, do you? But here’s the funny part.  A few weeks ago, Manny was trying to remind us of that fishing experience by describing his catch.  And believe me, it must be a miracle, because in only two years that fish has grown about a foot.  That trout is a big as a musky in Manny’s memory.

Well today, in our text, we have the greatest fishing story of all.  No crocs or record trout, just an image of how to go about fishing for people.  It’s an image however, that we sometimes struggle to put into its proper context.  Jesus was walking along the Sea of Galilee when he came upon two brothers, Peter and Andrew, who, the text tells us, “were throwing their nets into the sea, because they were fisherman.” And later on he encounters James and John the sons of Zebedee who were also fisherman and again, turning to the text, it says they were, “repairing their nets.”

These are the first two contextual clues to the meaning of this text. They were casting nets and repairing nets.  Far too often, I think, we have a mistaken image in our minds when it comes to fishing for people.   We have the image of fishing with a single line.  Our context. Fishing means going out and casting a single line into the water to see what’s going to bite.  And this image can be problematic.  It’s can be problematic because this entire passage is about evangelism.  The dreaded “e” word.

Now, I call this the dreaded “e” word because too often it has been used as a weapon rather than a tool. Consider the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition. And lest you think that was then and this is now, I have had several brushes with this kind of – what I’m going to call – “single-line” evangelism.

I was seven, maybe eight years old and I was invited by a friend to attend a youth program at his church.  And it was fun.  We played games and I suppose we did some sort of craft; we ate.  Like I said, it was fun.  Until… until I was taken off into a room, by myself, by one of the leaders and basically scolded until I agreed to be saved.  Now, I had no idea what was going on.  I just know I wanted to get out of that room and as far away from that church as I could so I would have professed a faith in Micky Mouse if I had to.  This type of evangelism uses fear and guilt in one-on-one situations with sole purpose of getting people “saved.” Single-line evangelism.

But there’s another way. Dare I say a better way.  We can cast a wide net.  What I’m going to call the “wide net of invitation.” Remember, the fisherman that Jesus encountered on the lakeshore that day were fishing with nets.  So contextually, when he says, “fish for people,” he’s thinking about casting a net into the sea rather than a single line.  Jesus is talking about casting a net over a whole bunch of people at a time.  So with this image in mind, casting a wide net becomes more about offering hospitality and grace and compassion and love to others because we ourselves have received hospitality and grace and compassion and love.

This concept became clear to me a number of years ago when I was working in a hardware store.  I was in my final semester of seminary. I had left my student pastorate and was in the search process for my first call.  So the trusty old hardware store provided me with an income. Anyway, one day a fellow employee, who knew that I was a pastor, was lamenting the fact that she had, in her words, “fallen away from the faith” and was hoping to reconnect with her Pentecostal church.  Then of course, the question we progressive Christians always dread, “When were you saved?” Now, I always found it difficult, in a reasonable amount of time anyway, to explain the process of salvation as I understand it.  For me, salvation is an on-going process and it asks far more of us than just a day and a time. But something happened next that I cannot fully explain.  Instead of a long-winded theological explanation, I simply said, “I was saved two-thousand years ago, on a cross.”  That was a divine moment.  One of those moments when the Spirit put the words in my mouth.

And as I stand here today, I still believe that answer was correct. Jesus cast a very wide net from the cross.  A net that fell over the heads of the outcast and the insider, the rich and the poor, the sinner, the saint, men, women, children; you and me.  The wide net that Jesus cast is for all humanity; all people; all we have to do is realize it and understand that God is Still-Speaking in our lives and in the world today and then attempt to “live-into” this gracious invitation.

And as we look forward to where the church is headed, this “casting a wide net” approach, this inclusive invitation, will become the standard. But here’s the thing.  This approach isn’t all that different than it was in Jesus time.

My friends, as we continue to walk in the footsteps of Peter and Andrew, of James and John; Jesus says to us “follow me and I will teach you how to fish for people.” And guess what? That’s exactly what he did!  His lessons included eating with sinners, standing up of the oppressed, living in harmony with other religions, and challenging the systems that perpetuated poverty.  Jesus also honored and valued women, children, and those who were disabled. He taught us difficult but important lessons about loving our enemy and praying for our persecutors.  But above all, Jesus wanted us to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Jesus cast a very wide net and today we are challenged to do the same.

One final thought this morning.  I know that inviting someone to church can be uncomfortable.  We might as well address the elephant in the room.  But if you’re excited about what’s going on here; if you’re enthusiastic about the warmth and depth of community that we have here in our church; if you’re passionate about the multitude of outreach and mission and educational opportunities available through both our local congregation and the United Church of Christ; then… why not share the experience with others.  Yes, invitation means taking a risk.  But it’s a risk that well worth it.  So, invite, invite, invite, cast a wide net, and above all remember to tell those fish stories…  My friends, let’s go fish’in.

Amen and Amen.

 

 

 

 

[i] 10 Funny Fishing Tales: http://www.guy-sports.com

Inside/Out

Your blessed when you get your inside world – your mind and heart – put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. – Matthew 5:8 (The Message)

A Devotion for February 2017.

I absolutely love the way Eugene Peterson can turn a phrase.  If you have the opportunity I would encourage you to read the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12) in Peterson’s dynamic translation of the Bible called The Message.  He has a wonderful knack for taking texts that are sometimes hard-to-understand and present them in such a way that they have meaning and significance in the world today.

Here’s an example of what I mean. In the eighth verse, he says, “Your blessed when you get your inside world – your mind and heart – put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.” I can look back on my life and journey of faith and recall many times when this passage applied.  With my 20/20 hindsight, I can correlate the most difficult patches of my journey with my inner self thinking that I had all the right answers, that my opinion of the only viable one, or that my path was the only path. In other words, my “mind and heart” the inner most part of my being was focused on my way rather than the Divine way. A kind of spiritual blindness.

Currently we live in a nation and world that is very divided.  We belong to a religion that is also split by political ideologies and theological ideas about the nature and calling of God upon the Church.  I’ve noticed that these differences cause people to “dig in their heels” even at the expense of common sense and reason.  Global climate change is one example of this.  I won’t get into the argument for and against the changing climate because there is finally no viable evidence against the fact that the carbon footprint of humanity is rapidly changing the climate of the earth.  Unfortunately, this has become a political issue at the expense of God’s beautiful creation.

This is the kind of spiritual blindness that Jesus spoke of on the mountainside.  External things like ideologies and the need to be right cause our internal selves to be out of rhythm with nature, which can cause us to miss God in the outside world.

As we continue our journey together, may our eyes be open, along with our minds and hearts, to see the presence of God all around us in wonder of God’s creation and in the diverse faces of humanity.

Peace and Blessings, Pastor Phil

Come & See

John 1:29-42

Let me ask you a question, “Have you ever been in the wrong place at the wrong time?” A young preacher was contacted by the local funeral director to hold a grave-side service at a small cemetery for someone with no family or friends. The preacher started early but got lost, making several wrong turns along the way.  He arrived a half-an-hour late. The hearse was nowhere in sight and the workman were eating lunch. The preacher went to the graveside and saw the vault already in place. Taking out his Bible he conducted the service. As he was returning to his car, he overheard one of the workmen say; “Do you think we should tell him it’s a septic tank?” Wrong place, wrong time.

Here’s another question: “Have you ever been in the wrong place at the right time?” I read a wonderful and amusing story this past week by Rev. Rosemary Brown about beginning her ministry in a small southern congregation. When I was assigned to the first church I pastored, she writes, I was so excited you could hardly stand me. I had been a director of Christian education for 17 years and now feeling God’s call to preach, I stepped into the pulpit ready to be what God was leading me to be–a clergywoman. The cabinet and bishop sent me to a little church with a congregation of 30 people and I was ready to go. I had been there three weeks when a member of the church called me and said, “Rosemary, my aunt has fallen and broken her hip. She’s 85 and hasn’t been able to go to church for some time. She doesn’t have a pastor. Would you go to see her?” Oh, would I? I got so excited. My first official pastoral call to a hospital. She gave me the room number at Baptist Hospital and I left immediately. I hurried into the hospital and caught the elevator up to the 5th floor and made my way to the room I had been given. I looked in and there she was, leg up in traction, weight hanging off the end of the bed. I circled the bed and reached in and got her hand and said, “Hi! My name’s Rosemary Brown and I’ve come to see how you’re doing today.” She smiled and said, “Good. But clumsy old me, and I turned around too fast and fell and broke my hip.” Now, I continued to listen to her life story and got so engaged that I lost track of the time.  I’d been there 45 minutes and they had instructed us in seminary never to stay over 15 minutes on a first visit. Here I was, already blown it by 30 minutes, so I reached in and got her hands and I said, “I need to go now, but would you like to have prayer before I go?” “Sure,” she said and closed her eyes. I closed mine and began, “Dear God, please be with Mrs. Morgan.” But then I felt a little tap come on my shoulder and I opened one eye and looked at her, and she whispered, “My name is Mrs. Jones, dear. Now you go on with your prayer.” So I started over. “Dear God, please be with Mrs. Jones.” When I finished, I leaned over in the bed and hugged her good-bye, knowing that I was going to have to find Mrs. Morgan and start all over again. You see, they had given me the wrong room number and somewhere in that hospital Mrs. Morgan was still awaiting my visit.  But as I left the room, a nurse was standing there and she had tears running down her face She said, “Lady, I don’t know who you are, but Mrs. Jones has been in this hospital for two weeks and you’re the first visitor she’s had.” For 45 minutes, I had been in the wrong room at the right time.[i]

Wrong place, right time. I wonder if this story would have resonated with those who were by the riverside with John that weekend. Maybe right place, right time would be a better description their calling. Because there they were, hanging out with John the Baptist when suddenly John shouts “Look, here comes the One I’ve been talking about.  This is why I’ve been baptizing.  I watched the Spirit make a home in his being. There’s no question in my mind, this is God with us!”  “And,” the text tells us, “the two disciples heard him and went with Jesus. Jesus [then] looked over his shoulder and said to them, ‘What are you after?’” To which they replied, “…where are you staying?”[ii]

Now, the answer Jesus gives to the two men is interesting.  There’s no long-winded sermon full of obscure theological truths, but instead just three simple words: “Come and see.” Come and see. Jesus’ response here is brilliant.  It’s brilliant because it’s both an invitation and a promise. “Come” is an invitation to join him on an unknown adventure and “see” promises that this adventure will lead them, perhaps, a little closer to God. These two disciples were indeed in the right place at the right time. But that’s not all, they also had the right response! They took Jesus up on his challenge. But right response doesn’t end with accepting the invitation.  We must also “live into” the promise.  The disciples didn’t stop with following Jesus, instead they became a living testimony attracting others to “come and see” as well.

And this still applies in our time too. In his reflection on this text, theologian Charles Campbell claims that “In the power of the Spirit, which Jesus has breathed upon us, we offer our fragile and vulnerable testimony to Jesus, backed up by the faithfulness and integrity of our life together.”[iii] In other words, as individual people of faith and as a congregation we are the living-breathing embodiment of God in the world today.  And our calling, our invitation to “come and see” beacons us to do more than simply follow; we are challenged to share our experience of God and the healing and restoration and hope and peace that God has brought into our lives, with others.  Right place, right time, right response!

John Dominick Crossan reinforces this thought when he says: “Heal those who are hurting and then eat with those who are healed.  And out of the healing and out of the eating will come a new community.”[iv]  So right response leads to community. And that makes sense to me because community was a hallmark of Jesus and those who had the courage to follow him.  And community for Jesus took many forms. Community existed among the inner circle, the twelve disciples, but community for Jesus also included large crowds gathering around him.  But there was another aspect of community as well. Jesus often created community in a one on one sense.  There were numerous occasions when he brought healing and restoration into the life of an individual. And we, my friends, are invited to participate in this same kind of ministry.

 I read the following story this week composed by an unknown author who had just such and experience. One evening, he  writes, I was parked in front of the mall wiping off my car. I had just come from the car wash and was waiting for my wife to finish work. Coming my way from across the parking lot, was what most people would consider a bum, a homeless burden on society.  From the looks of him he had no car, no home, no clean clothes and no money. There are times when you feel generous, but there are times that you just don’t want to be bothered. This was one of the don’t-want-to-be-bothered times! “Hope he doesn’t ask me for money,” I thought. He didn’t. He came and sat on the curb in front of the bus stop and he didn’t look like he could have enough money to even ride the bus. After a few minutes he spoke. “That’s a very nice car,” he said. He was ragged, but had an air of dignity around him. I said “Thanks,” and continued wiping off my car. He sat there quietly as I worked. The expected plea for money never came. As the silence between us widened, something inside said, “Ask him if he needs any help.” I was sure that he would say yes, but I held true to the inner voice. “Do you need any help?” I asked.  He answered in three simple, but profound, words that I shall never forget. We often look for wisdom in great accomplishments. I expect it from those of higher learning and accomplishments. I expected nothing here but an outstretched grimy hand.  Then, he spoke three words that shook me. “Don’t we all?”  he said, “don’t we all?” Right place right time but right response? Sometimes God surprises us.  Sometimes we are the one who stands in need of grace, in need of healing and restoration, in need of community.

Friends, God places opportunities to come and see every day.  Invitations to walk with those who are struggling, suffering, who are on the margins of society.  But that invitation is always accompanied by a promise. A promise that we will never walk that path alone.  Don’t we all stand in need of something greater than ourselves? Don’t we all stand in need compassion and forgiveness and grace and hope? Don’t we all stand in need of community; community with God and community with our fellow sojourners as we, like the disciples of old, take Jesus up on his offer.  My prayer for all of us as we depart this service today, and go about our busy week, is that we will all become aware of those opportunities that God has placed in our path and that we will respond with all the grace and compassion and hope and love that we can muster. My friends, we are all invited “come and see” what’s possible when we find ourselves in the right place at the right time. May it be so for you and for me. Amen.

[i] Rev. Rosemary Brown.  In the Right Place at the Right Time. (www.DayOne.org 2000)

[ii] The Message.  Ed. Eugene Peterson.  John 1:37-38.

[iii] Charles Campbell.  The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels (Duke Divinity Lectures)

[iv] John Dominick Crossan.  God and Empire. (Harper Collins 2007) pg. 118

Act and Action

Matthew 3:13-17 – The Baptism of Jesus

Can you remember your baptism? Were you and infant and therefore the memory of your baptism lies in photographs and the stories of elders? Perhaps you were an adolescent baptized at summer camp or as a part of confirmation. Or maybe you’re like me, baptized as an adult. Perhaps baptism isn’t a part of your journey yet, if it will be at all.  But regardless of your experience of baptism, whether by sprinkling or full emersion, it is most certainly a foundational part to our understanding of the relationship between God and humanity. Baptism is a gift from God. It’s a means, a conduit of God’s grace signifying the establishment of our covenant with God and our welcome into the family of God.

Baptism however, can be divided into two distinct parts. There’s the act of baptism; the actual physical act of sprinkling water on the forehead and the action or response to baptism.  Act and action. Baptism begs the question: “How do we engage individuals and the world in a different and hopefully better way because of the act of baptism, whether that baptism was my own, or that of my child, or a child under the care of my church?”  In other words, what real life difference does baptism make?

I was once asked to baptize an infant in a river that ran behind her home. Now, this seemed like a good idea in theory. The symbolism of running water, the beautiful backdrop of nature, the joyful gathering of family and friends and church members on the banks of a river that had meaning and significance for their family. Wonderful idea. Except. It had rained, and rained, and rained that spring and the usually meandering river was a raging torrent.  I joked that I should have brought a reed basket just in case I lost the infant in the current.  That was maybe more truth than fiction.  How would I manage to baptize a baby under those conditions?  Today I would be smart enough to dip a small container of water from the river and baptize her on the shore.  But not back then.  Nope. I climbed down into the river, braced one leg against a log and the other down in the rocks and leaned into the current.  Then the child was handed down to me, very trusting parents by the way; the child was handed down to me and holding her in one arm I dipped a handful of water, baptized her, and quickly handed her back to her mother on the shore.

Now, compare that situation with another act of baptism.  I was called to the postnatal intensive care unit of a local hospital to baptize a premature little girl who was not expected to make it.  She weighed less than two pounds.  The nurse had placed a small bowl of water inside the incubator, and with only the mother and a nurse present, I baptized her using the rubber glove attached to the side of the machine keeping her alive.  I touched her with the water and I will never forget the image of a single drop trickling down her tiny forehead.

In both situations, the river and the incubator, I contend that the act of baptism was coupled with action, because you see, there’s more to both of these stories. The river was a joyous gathering.  Family and friends, church members and Becky and I were witness to a covenant that day that was memorable. Memorable to me anyway, because together, we were the church by that river.  This was articulated by the parents of the little girl.  You see, they had been, well let’s say they were strongly encouraged by her parents to get their baby baptized.  It wasn’t really on their radar.  But because we were willing to meet them on their turf, so to speak, because we were willing as a congregation to take the church to them, they were forever changed.  We were forever changed.  After the ceremony was over and we were standing around talking, the father of the girl said to me, “I can’t believe you (meaning the church) would do this.  This is so wonderful. So thoughtful.”  And I discovered later that the family did find a church in their community to call home.  The grace of God goes before us in all that we do.

The incubator was also an example of act and action; if different subtler example. After the premature infant was baptized, her mother, a single mom who was not a member of our church, showed up one Sunday morning a few months later. She showed up with small but healthy baby girl in her arms. I never saw her again after that day, so I don’t know what ever became of them, but I do know that the church reached out beyond itself that day to embrace her and her daughter in their time of need.

Do you see what I’m getting at here? Do you see a pattern forming?  When the church moves out beyond the four walls of its building, bringing with it the wonderful traditions and rites and rituals and sacraments that have defined us for so many generations, great things are possible. When baptism becomes more than just the act of sprinkling water and truly blossoms into the sacrament that Jesus intended for all people, that’s action. That’s the interdependence of act and action in motion and that’s what it means to BE the church in the 21st Century.

Now, a thoughtful reflection on the interdependence of act and action in baptism leads us naturally to the story of Jesus’ baptism.  A story that actually begins in the Book of Isaiah.  In the second writing of Isaiah, we hear a timeless and poetic suggestion of how Divinity might encounter humanity. The author reminds us that God is faithful to God’s promises, and that how we live and order our world matters to God. It matters so much to God that God will send One to begin the process of transformation.  A process that continues still today.  A process of transforming the troubled times in which we live into a time of beauty and grace, healing and justice. The very Spirit of God is within this transforming Servant, the chosen one whom God upholds and in whom God’s soul delights.[i]

Now, these same themes consistently appear in both Isaiah and Matthew: righteousness experienced as compassionate justice and care for those who are poor and/or marginalized, humility and faithfulness that always point to God as the One who is at work in this transformation, and the hope–the promise of new things.[ii]

By the Jordan river that day, Jesus reminded John that his baptism was necessary to fulfill God’s covenant.  I find two things very interesting about this encounter.  Frist, the location.  Like the incubator and the river, John meet the people where they were at.  Both in a sense of where their state of mind and spirit were at and physically where they were at.  You see, he didn’t do all this preaching and baptizing in the Temple or in a synagogue, he went out into the wilderness. Out to the margins of society; out to the fringes of life to encounter the masses. So covenant keeping, or covenant making as the case may be, takes place anywhere.  Not just at the church altar.

The second thing that I find interesting here is that this is not a new idea.  John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul and characters all throughout the history of Christianity have embraced this notion of “taking the God to the people.” This is the essence of mission.  Taking the love of God, the compassion of Christ and the presence of the Spirit to all the ends of the earth.  And service has become the hallmark of this on-going movement of the church. Kahlil Gibran, a 20th century mystic once said, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”[iii]

“I acted and service was joy” My friends the act of baptism and our action in response to our baptism is manifest in service to humanity and creation in the name of Christ.  And that service brings a great joy into our lives.  Whether in a river, or in an incubator, or at the altar in our beloved sanctuary, baptism, the act and action of baptism, leads us and those who participate and witness it, to places of great joy.  This day, however you remember your baptism, may that memory lead you to reaffirm your covenant with God and then extend that covenant beyond the walls of this building in service of all God’s people. May it be so for you and for me.  Amen.

[i] Isaiah 42:1-9

[ii] Kathryn Matthews, Possibilities Unfolding (www.ucc.org/samuel/sermonseeds) 2017

[iii] Ann Naylor.  How to increase Your Joy Through Service. (Huffington Post Blog: 2009)

A Prayer for Winter

Source of Love, Ground of Being, Creator of All, Light of our Lives…

May the Christ of Light shine upon us this day. May the Spark of Divine beauty dance in the eyes of those we love and the universe sparkle with delight at vastness of Your Creation. May the rising sun fill us with hope and gratitude and the new moon touch us with a sense of Grace.  Loving Creator, let the reflected and refracted light of winter glistening on the fields and forests remind us that your Light continues even in the cold of January and that the frozen waters will once again bubble with spirit and life. Let heaven’s wind stir the depths of our soul and awaken within us the courage to persevere; to live; to love.  

Amen.

There’s Something Shiny Over There

Matthew 2:1-12 – A Celebration of Epiphany

I had an interesting dilemma this week. You see, because of the way the Christmas and New Year holiday’s fell this year, Epiphany kind of “got lost in the shuffle.”  January 1 we celebrated the coming of a new year, with all its’ hopes and expectations, and, according to the lectionary anyway, today is supposed to be Baptism of Jesus Sunday.  So Epiphany kinda got pushed aside.  But, that’s not going to be the case for us. We’re going to celebrate Epiphany today and shuffle everything else back one week. Because, you see, the whole season of Epiphany is dependent upon understanding the nature and importance of Light.

Starlight in the case of the Magi or Wise Men; the Three Kings, all of these terms identify the same Biblical Characters. Starlight that represents the Divine Light; Jesus Christ coming into the world. The word ‘epiphany’ literally means: ‘showing’ or ‘shining forth’. The Divine light that shines forth from the Christ-Child. And this is an important concept to grasp as we move from Christmas, the incarnation, the coming of God into the world as a baby, into the Season Epiphany.  Because Epiphany takes us forward from the visit of the Wise Men, to the Baptism of Jesus, continues with the calling of the Disciples, leads us through the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount for a couple of weeks, finally landing us smack-dap in the middle of the Transfiguration.  “Oh, the places we will go,” to quote Dr. Seuss. But before we can move on I think we need to pause and consider the meaning of Light and its significance to the Magi and to our lives as well.

The Divine Light, Jesus, if often understood as the appearance of God on earth.  And that’s a good way to look at the incarnation. I often use this same kind of language in my speaking and writing. Incarnation is simply the coming of God into the world. But there’s another way of viewing the Divine Light.  In addition to the appearance of God, Christ is also the transparency of God. A place where the veil between the divine and creation is “very thin,” to use a popular metaphor. And it’s this “thinness” this “transparency” that brings us close to God.  Not that we can fully comprehend or even begin to understand the complete nature of God, but that even in our ignorance, we can feel a connection, a bond, an intimate closeness to the Divine.  An intimacy represented by Light.

Now, turning to our text. The Magi had to be really focused on their task. As we consider this idea transparency or closeness to God, I think the beauty of the concept and its profound significance, sometimes gets lost in the distractions of life.

You know, we often laugh in our house because I tend to lose my focus from time to time.  Look at Becky laughing. She knows where I’m going with this. I may be in the middle of a sentence, have an unrelated thought, and abruptly change the topic.  Verbal whiplash as it were. Anyone else do that? Or, and this is way too common.  I’m on the internet looking up a particular topic, get distracted by a host of headlines, and forget what I was looking up in the first place.  Is it just me? In our house we have a term for this. We call it “seeing something shiny over there”

Well the story of the Magi traveling from afar gives us an example of how to be focused on the goal. I mean think about it. The Magi had to travel for at least a year, one way, into a strange land with all the distractions of such a journey.  There were strange foods to try, tourist traps to check out, and they were wealthy, so there had to be a temptation to “live-it-up” along the way.  And if that weren’t enough, Herod tried to commandeered their quest, or at the very least, use them to do his dirty work. But they remained focused on the goal. With all the “shiny things” that could have distracted them, they remained focused on seeing the face of God.

The sixty-four thousand dollar question however is of course, “how do we find a similar focus in our lives?” How can we keep our attention on the things of the divine while resisting the distractions of life.  How do we avoid chasing every shiny thing we come across?

Well, in ancient Celtic Christianity there is the practice called reading from the two books of God–the big book and the little book. It’s a concept that may be helpful here as we talk about focus.  Now, the big book refers to the universe, to the creatures, to everything that has been spoken into being. ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ says the Gospel of John, and all things have come into being through the Word. In other words, logas, The Word, the Divine, actually spoke creation into existence. Thus, the universe is like a sacred vibration, a living text that we can learn to read. And this text, this narrative of nature, includes the movement of the stars, the flowing of the seasons, the dreams of the night.

But there’s also the little book. The Bible. The book of Scripture in which we listen for God speaking to us through those who have gone before, our mothers and fathers in the faith. Their experiences of God, their mistakes and failings, as well as their hopes and wisdom are given to us so that we too can learn the way in which God speaks in the human heart and in human history.  And that’s finally what the Bible is all about.  It’s a wonderful collection of stories about experiencing the “thin veil;” the “transparency” of God in the lives of God’s people.

And that’s what we too are invited to do. We are invited to experience God in both books; Scripture and Life.  We are challenged to listen to these two books in stereo, to the big book and the little book. Because if we listen only to the little book (Scripture) and ignore the big book (Creation), we may miss the vastness of the utterance, God in all things. And if we listen only to the big book (the expression of God in the universe) and ignore the little book (the word of God in Scripture), we may miss the intimacy of the voice, God speaking in the secret places of the human heart. The challenge is to listen in both books because in concert because they provide us with the framework to keep our focus on both the sacred and the mundane. A framework that helps us to hold both of these things and all things of life in proper balance.1

And yes, this can be a difficult thing to do. But, here’s the good news! We don’t have to go it alone.  We can discern the movements of life and the profound teachings of the Bible in community.  A community that is and will continue to faithfully wrestling with current issues of life and faith.  We will continue to be a community that focused less on proclaiming certainty and more on living the questions. And together, we will continue this mission we’re on.  A mission to share the Light of God by becoming a flashlight of the compassion, and hope, and love, and peace; a flashlight that lights the path of others.

 

  1. The Light Within All Life,” the Rev. Dr. John Philip Newell, Day 1, 2013.