Text: Matthew 2:1-12
Beginning a new year offers us an opportunity to view what lies behind us and to also consider what lies ahead of us. There may not be a better biblical story to frame such reflection than the one you have heard read this morning—the visit of the magi to the manger. The cast of characters is rich in symbol and metaphor. King Herod—that figure who represents all the things that threatens freedom, justice, love, redemption, salvation, and life—looms large, much like the struggles that loom large over our society as we enter 2010. There are the magi—those courageous and brave star-gazers who point us to new possibilities and hopes if we, too, can summon the courage to trust new paths and directions for the future. And, lest we forget, there is the Christ-child—the central character whose birth symbolizes life and love, freedom and responsibility, redemption and salvation, justice and mercy. Then there are those wonderful turns of phrase in this Epiphany story, phrases that hold promise and possibility for us if we have the willingness to ask them as questions. Consider these:
- Where do we observe the star rising? In the Dow-Jones index, unemployment rates, in pandemics, in the fighting of holy wars?
- To what do we pay homage? Our jobs, our bank accounts, our institutions, our country?
- In what places are we searching diligently for the child? In familiar settings where others are like us and where we are known?
- What gifts do we offer? Are they large enough? Good enough? How do they compare to others?
As much as these are individual questions, and questions we would do well to consider as individuals, my intent this morning in raising them is for our life together as a church. At this moment in Pullen’s history, we are faced with several significant questions that could focus our attention solely on ourselves: questions of leadership, overall staffing, institutional survival from a financial perspective, and setting priorities from an internal point of view. There is no doubt that a vital piece of our work together for 2010 is in responding to these concerns and issues—pledging our budget and making decisions about staffing priorities. It is very tempting to focus exclusively on these questions—fixing our attention on institutional health and survival. But in the spirit of “telling it like I see it,” I would suggest that such a focus is simply navel-gazing in the tradition of Herod, who was so fixated on preserving his own power that he missed the single greatest event and opportunity of his moment in history. Conversely, the journey of the magi may hold the key to how we can faithfully address our future, or better yet, our current moment in Pullen’s history. The magi were people of means in their own right—educated, wealthy, and powerful. Exactly the kind of people who had a vested interest in preserving things as they were, maintaining the status quo. And yet, they followed a star. Let’s be clear, they had no map or GPS. They followed a star in the best sense of what it means to follow a star. It is this tradition of star-gazing that speaks to our very best tradition of being a prophetic church—a people who have consistently chosen another road.
There is that Herod place within all of us—that place of self-preservation, of self-interest, of prejudice, and ego. It is a very human place. But as we know from Herod’s story, when we live solely from that place and act exclusively from that place, we become destructive to ourselves and to one another. We shut down. We can’t see the larger picture of possibilities. We don’t hear the cries of others. We react rather than respond. We narrow our options. We view the world and others as a threat. We live in fear. We become small inside, unable to see the potential within ourselves and others. Yes, this place of Herod resides in us all. If you are like me, you know this place well. And yet, we have a choice. We have a choice in how much time we spend with Herod.
As we move into this new year and the challenges that face our church, the less time we can spend with Herod the more opportunity we have to be like the magi—to follow the star at its rising, to search diligently for those places where the Christ-child resides today, and visit those places with our gifts. Yes, the less time we can spend with Herod, the more time we have to pay our homage to the things that matter—to a God that is greater than our understanding, whose presence and love transcends our ability to take it all in, to a God who resides in every single human being—tall or short, black, white or brown, male or female, young or old, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, American or Arab, Christian or Muslim. The less time we can spend with Herod in 2010 the more gifts we will have to offer to our community and our world—feeding the hungry, ministering to the lost and forgotten, welcoming the stranger, making a place at our table for those who have no place or no power, sharing our resources and space with others, and nurturing our children and youth in a faith that teaches freedom and responsibility along with justice and compassion.
Our church is faced with a year that will require us to look inward—to navel-gaze a bit. It is required of us. However, if we fail to balance that with our strong tradition of being star-gazers—of diligently searching for justice and mercy, of paying homage to the way of truth and peace, of offering gifts of compassion and love—we will lose our way. The question before us as we consider our priorities for 2010 is this: Will we simply be navel-gazers or will we live more fully into our tradition of being star-gazers? We honor a tradition here at Pullen that is based in this Epiphany story—the tradition of going home by another way. We have not been a club for religious people but rather a community of faith. We have been star-gazers! We have not been a congregation simply held together by our friendship with one another but rather by the love of God. We have been star-gazers! We have not been a people who come to enjoy the Sunday morning service, but rather a people who present themselves in worship before God. We have been star-gazers! We have not been a people who measure success by numbers, but rather a people dedicated to making a difference in the world. Yes, we have been star-gazers! We have not been a people concerned with the survival of the church, but rather a people committed to the ministry of the church. May we have the courage to continue to be star-gazers. We have not been a people bound by the past, but rather a people who draw strength from the past. God, give us the courage to continue to be star-gazers. We have not been a people who despair of the future, but rather a people whose heritage offers hope. May our most fervent prayer be that we wil continue to be hopeful star-gazers in 2010. It is not a time to give way to the Herod within. The Christ-child is counting on us to be star-gazers. May it be so. May it be so!
This is where I intended to end today. But an hour ago Laura Ford shared our end- of-year financial report, and we are 40 thousand dollars in the red. It would be irresponsible not to address this fact this morning, especially in light of my message. It is tempting to say that we can’t star-gaze from a deficit; to say that we must preserve our institution in order to follow God’s call. And those things would be true, but they are not the only truth. The other truth is that neither Herod nor the magi are absolute—they live within us and within this institution side-by-side. The deficit we face forces us to ask the question: what do we want to preserve? Or what are we ready to let go of or to see change? One thing is sure: the dreams we envisioned and lived into in 2009 are as yet unpaid. How will we respond? And how will that influence our ability to star-gaze in 2010?
I have watched this congregation long enough now—for nearly 18 years—to know that when our church is faced with advancing the mission of this church to be a prophetic voice in the world, to show love and compassion to all, to welcome the stranger, to feed the hungry, to care for the lost and forgotten, to follow the way of truth and peace, we meet the challenge with steadfastness and devotion. The time is now. The challenge is before us. Let each of us respond, for God has blessed our church richly.