Monthly Archives

January 2019

Setting the Agenda

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Setting the Agenda”

Rev. Art Ritter

January 27, 2019

 

Luke 4:14-21

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

 

I tend to be a border line procrastinator.  I’m not as bad as some people I know but I am finding that the older I get the more I tend to put things off or delay doing them.  There is an old story about a farm boy who accidently overturned his wagonload of corn in the road as he was taking it to market.  A farmer who lived nearby ran out to investigate.  “Hey Willis,” he called out.  “Forget your troubles for a spell and come on in to my house and have some dinner.  Then I will go out there with you and take care of the wagon.”  Willis replied, “Why, that’s mighty nice of you neighbor, but I don’t think Pa would like me to.”  “Aw, come on, son!  Take a break for dinner!” the farmer insisted.  “Well okay,” said the young boy, finally agreeing.  “But Pa won’t like it.”  After a hearty dinner, Willis thanked his host.  “I feel a whole lot better now,” he said.  “But I just know that Pa is going to be real upset.”  “Don’t be foolish,” exclaimed the neighbor.  “By the way, where is your Pa?”  Willis answered, “He’s under the wagon.”

One of the questions that I often get from parishioners is “How is it possible to write a sermon every week?”  Those of you who have had the opportunity to write and deliver a sermon know just how hard or how easy composing such a discourse can really be.  I have to admit that if there is any place in sermon writing that is harder than the rest, it is the very beginning.  After hearing the story about the wagon, you can probably agree!  Usually I know where I want the sermon to go.  Usually I will find a general lesson or theme that fits the assigned scripture passage.  But often it is difficult introducing it.  I work hard at creating a scene that captures your attention or at the very least creates a landscape of the scene. A colleague once told me that he writes the beginning of his sermon at the end, when everything else is completed.  I’ve tried that but I find that it works best for me when I start at the very beginning, knowing what I want to say, introducing what I want to say, and then doing my best to say what I want to say.

The lesson that we heard from the fourth chapter of Luke is really the story of the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the opening words of his sermon of healing and preaching and teaching.  The story of Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue sets the stage for everything else that follows.  This sermon comes at the very beginning of his ministry, at least according to the gospel of Luke.  It takes place immediately after his baptism and temptation and before there are any specific accounts of interactions with others.  Luke says that Jesus was “filled with power of the Spirit” and that there was lots of talk about him before that day.  He had taught in some synagogues and people were praising him.

On that day, in his hometown of Nazareth, in the very synagogue in which he grew up, Jesus was given the privilege of reading and commenting on the ancient Hebrew Scripture.  He chose a passage from the prophet Isaiah, words that are familiar to all of us, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  I think of these words often.  They were painted in huge, colorful letters that wrapped around two of the walls in the cafeteria of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, which I attended.  The words were there to remind us why we were there, the purpose of being called to Christian ministry.

Some commentators have compared the scene described in this scripture passage with the inaugural addresses of American presidents.  Such speeches establish priorities and announce a vision of what the elected leader has in mind for the country.  Students of history are likely to recall Abraham Lincoln’ second inaugural where he spoke of the evil of slavery and the price the nation had paid for such a curse.  Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural contained the words “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  Of course, some of us can even remember the inaugural of John F. Kennedy when he spoke of the price that needed to be paid for freedom and delivered the memorable words, “Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.”  Jesus’ words are much same.  They are an announcement of his mission, an establishment of his priorities, a setting of his agenda, and a statement of his urgency.  Jesus’ sermon was a reminder of God’s promise and presence in the here and now.

With that, Jesus rolled up the scripture scroll and the congregation waited for his comments.  Would he preach about the world the prophet envisioned?  Would he point toward the future, renewing the promised day of a coming Messiah?  Would he talk about the oppression of the Roman Empire?  Would he share a bit about the attention he had been receiving throughout the land?  He did none of those things.  Instead he simply said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  The listeners must have been shocked.  He did not focus on the past or on the future.  He did not deal with nostalgia or hope.  It is interesting that according to Luke, the very first public word that Jesus spoke was the word, “Today.”  Today.  You will see it.  It will happen right in front of you.  It can happen because of you.  Not yesterday or tomorrow.  Today.   In his very first sermon, Jesus placed himself and his listeners fully in the midst of God’s unfolding work.  He told them that they were part of God’s agenda in the here and now.

Diana Butler Bass writes that “today” may have been the most radical thing that Jesus ever said.  She said, “Today is a deeply dangerous spiritual reality- because today insists that we lay aside both our memories and our dreams to embrace fully the moment of now.  The past romanticizes the work of our ancestors; the future scans the horizons of our descendants and depends upon them fix everything.  But “today” places us in the midst of the sacred drama, reminding us that we are actors and agents in God’s desire for the world.”

This was not a message that Jesus’ hometown family and friends received well.  It made them uncomfortable.  It challenged them to do something.  It pushed them to heed God’s call.  God’s Kingdom today is the agenda of Jesus.  It should make us uncomfortable.  It should challenge us.  It should open our eyes and ears to the times and places where we are called to do God’s work.  Today God’s promise has been fulfilled in our hearing.  Today we need to live in ways that release captives, bring good news to the poor, help the blind to see, and set the oppressed free.

Preacher and professor Tom Long told a story about being asked to preach at a special family service at a small church.  The notion was that the service would be held not in the church sanctuary, but in the social hall.  Families would gather around tables, in the center of which would be the ingredients for making a small loaf of bread.  The plan was for the families to make bread together, and then while the bread was baking with all of the sweet aroma, the preacher would preach.  When the bread was baked, it would be brought out for a celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  It was a great idea.  It didn’t work well.  Within minutes the social hall was enveloped in a cloud of flour.  Soggy dough balls bounced off Rev. Long’s new suit as the children tossed bits of it at one another.  The ovens didn’t work right and it took forever for the bread to bake.  People were getting cranky and families were on the verge of falling apart.  The script called for Long to pronounce a special blessing before the sacrament but given the irritability of the crowd and the frustration of the moment, Long simply held up his two flour-caked hands in the air and said, “The peace of god be with you.”  Immediately, from the back of the trashed social hall came a young child’s voice, “It already is.”

We come to worship each week with our lives in disorder and our world in a broken mess.  We come believing that the Kingdom of God has come to be in Jesus the Christ yet we know full well that there is still much that is incomplete and damaged.  But as people of faith we are not to give up in the nostalgic recollection of a better day.  We are not to remain stagnant, abandoning our responsibilities to a future time and people when things will get better.  Jesus told his hometown family and friends, “Look around you.  The Spirit of God is at work.  Today.  God is with you, right now.”  Consider God’s promise and be attentive to how that promise is being kept this very moment.  Jesus set the agenda.  The work of that agenda begins today.

 

Living Out Your Gifts

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Living Out Your Gifts”

Rev. Art Ritter

January 20, 2019

Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.

 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

I delighted in reading this week a sermon about spiritual gifts written by Nadia Bolz Weber, a Lutheran pastor and author whose book the Thursday morning Faith Discussion group has used as a resource.  Bolz Weber is probably best known for her tattoos and her rather flowery language.  She wrote about a discussion she had in seminary, with some friends about spiritual gifts.  They all mentioned the ones that Paul wrote about in our Scripture reading this morning, things like humility, gentleness, patience, prophecy, knowledge, and faith.  The students were all trying to figure out just which spiritual gift that they possessed.  Suddenly Bolz Weber realized how disappointed she was that her spiritual gift was not mentioned by Paul.  Nowhere on the list were the gifts of snarkiness and sarcasm.  She commented just how unfair she thought that was.

Some of my colleagues, even in the Congregational tradition, wear clerical collars.  I have never felt the urge to wear one, believing that they are a bit pretentious, especially for those in our free church tradition.  I also know that some ministers feel the same way about pulpit robes.  Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, writes about her ordination and the gift of the collar that she then had to wear.  When the collar arrived, she went into the bathroom to look in the mirror and figure out how to put it on.  It took her over thirty minutes to get it right.  Taylor writes that when she wears a collar she thinks of two stories.  One was when she was riding in a Manhattan subway years ago.  She was suddenly aware that she was lost and had gotten on the wrong train.  Stress and fear and anxiety built to the point of a panic attack.  At that moment, Taylor caught sight of a nun wearing her traditional habit.  Just the sight of that nun in her habit was enough to calm Taylor.  The second story that the collar evoked was from her childhood.  She remembered riding in her car with her mother and seeing a group of men working in the field beside the road, wearing striped, black and white outfits.  Surprised, she asked her mother why the men were dressed like that.  Her mother responded that they were prison inmates and they dressed like that so they would stand out in case they escaped.  From those stories, Barbara Brown Taylor believes that for her, wearing a clerical collar is about reminding herself that she serves God visibly, allowing others to learn by whatever they see from her, from her successes and failures.  For good or for ill, as a priest she was going to stand out and the collar reminds her that she cannot hide from herself or from God.

At last fall’s silent auction, Vicki Gaines purchased the right to choose the sermon topic for this morning.  I know that she spent a lot of time and thought in deciding just what she wanted me to explore in a sermon message.  She finally settled on the words of the apostle Paul from the fourth chapter of the book of Ephesians.  I especially remember Vicki pointing out to me the first two verses of the passage, “I therefore beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”  These are some powerful words addressed to followers of Christ in the early Christian churches.

A major theme in the book of Ephesians is how to live with others in the context of community.  In the book Paul writes about how to live as the body of Christ.  He reminds his readers that the church is composed of a wide variety of people with diverse gifts and different interests.  Diversity is something to be celebrated for sure, but diversity that promotes its own interest above the benefit of all is harmful.  We know that we live in a society that forms special interest groups to advance our own special causes.  We tend to spend time with and listen to those who share our interests or who tend to agree with us.  We must acknowledge that even in the context of the church, there are different perspectives and certainly varied talents and gifts.

In Ephesians, Paul writes that we make every effort “to maintain unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”  We do this in different ways but primarily by acting and thinking and talking like Jesus.  We act and think and talk in a way that embraces and examples humility, gentleness, and patience; and also honors God.  It is as if we are all wearing clerical collars or prison garments garbed in words and actions so obvious that others will see us and know to whom we belong.

Yet we must understand that Christian unity isn’t found in believing the same exact thing or worshipping in the same exact way.  Unity is found in recognizing that God has created differences because in those differences God is better served.  Each person with different gifts offers up a unique and authentic image of God.  The Kingdom of God is composed of lots of different little pieces and while each of us might reflect and represent God, the only way to see the complete fullness of God is for God’s people to bring all of the little pieces together and stand as one.  For Paul, spiritual maturity was the ability to recognize your own gifts and your own special nature but also seeing every person as a child of God and recognizing that there is truth in each viewpoint and value in each gift.

There are a couple of important statements in the passage that Vicki suggested that truly spoke to me.  In the very first verse Paul writes, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”  These are powerful words.  Lead a life worthy of your calling.  Be who God created you to be.  Do not spend your life in a futile search to authenticate your existence through human standards of success.  Simply live with the purpose that God gives to you.  Paul writes that you are to live as the better people you actually are.  Live as the people you were called to be.

Mark Adams writes of a story in the life of Alexander the Great who was in the midst of conquering the entire known world with his powerful army.  Alexander was a very observant and demanding leader and general.  One night he came across a soldier who had fallen asleep on guard duty.  The penalty for such a sin was usually death.  The soldier began to wake as Alexander stood before him and immediately began to fear for his life.  “Soldier, what is your name?” shouted the leader.  In a quivering voice the soldier responded quietly, “Alexander.”  Alexander the Great repeated the question, “What did you say was your name?”  “My name is Alexander, sir” the soldier repeated.  For a third time the great leader asked, “What is your name?”  And for a third time the soldier meekly answered, “My name is Alexander, sir.”  Alexander then looked at the young soldier in the eye and said, “Soldier, either change your name or change your conduct.”

Paul’s words remind us all of the special nature of our calling as people of God, as the Body of Christ.  We are to strive to be worthy of that name, worthy of our calling.  To each of us God supplies gifts.  We are to discover what it is that when we are at our best, we are also best in reflecting our Creator.   Live as the better people you are.  Live as the people you are called to be.

Secondly, in addition to living a life worthy of our calling, we are to make every effort to maintain the unity of spirit by living with others in all humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another in love.  Part of our success in building the Kingdom of God comes through looking for ways to work with those who gifts differ from ours.  We should not assume that everyone sees things as we do or does things in the way we do.  Again, we must remember that it is through the many pieces of the puzzle that God speaks one eternal truth.

Again, in her sermon on spiritual gifts, Nadia Bolz Weber makes a thoughtful point.  When we think of spiritual gifts, we usually think of things that people are naturally better at doing.  For example, Marcus is gifted at singing.  We usually don’t say things like, “Art is gifted at breathing oxygen.”  Being gifted means having a special ability that no one else has.  Bolz Weber then speaks about a woman in her congregation who rather casually expressed a desire to teach a yoga class.  The congregation found a time and space for such a class and a year later the woman was teaching two classes, accompanied by prayer and Psalms.  The teacher was given a gift by God.  Bolz Weber writes that we don’t need everyone in the church to have the gift of singing or healing or preaching or wisdom or teaching yoga.  We just need someone to have that gift.  She writes, “That is the way it is supposed to be.  Because having to rely on the gifts of God given to our brothers and sisters and then having to rely on the gifts entrusted to us is God’s intention for those who bear the name Christian.  We don’t have what it takes to love God, to pray to God and to follow God alone.  And that’s kind of beautiful but not always easy.”  I would add that is where the attitudes of humility, gentleness, and patience are important.  Through those lenses we can better appreciate what we have in one another and encourage each other in striving to be worthy through sharing of our own gifts.

It is God’s intention for us to be in community with one another.  We are to worship and play and work and learn together because it is in community where we best find and use the gifts that make us worthy before God.  It is in community where in those times when we are finding it difficult to hope and to love, we find the presence of Christ in others and through their gifts we gain that hope and love.  And so to this place, this community of faith, we bring our gifts, striving to be worthy of our calling as children of God, seeking not conformity but challenge and beauty in the face of Christ presented in the gifts of those around us.

 

Taking the Plunge

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Taking the Plunge”

Rev. Art Ritter

January 13, 2019

 

Luke 3:15-22

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 

Thomas Long, professor at Emory University’s Chandler School of Theology, tells the story of how back in 1976, a very creative writer came up with an interesting idea.  Since the nation was celebrating its 200th birthday, the writer believed he could find someone alive at the time who was old enough that when they were a child, they could remember someone who was old enough to have been alive at the founding of our nation.  He thought this would be a living link to the beginning of the country.  Sure enough, the writer found such a person.  He was a Kentucky farmer named Burnham Ledford, who was over 100 years old in 1976; and he could remember that when he was a little boy he was taken by a wagon to see his great-great grandmother who was then over 100 years old herself.  She was a little girl when George Washington became the first president of the United States.  When the writer asked Burnham what he remembered about that day, he said he remembered being taken into his great-great grandmother’s house.  She was very feeble.  She was blind.  She was sitting in an old chair in the dark corner of a bedroom.  Burnham’s father told her that they had brought their young son to see her.  The old woman turned toward the voice, reaching out with her long bony fingers and said in her crackling voice, “Bring him here.”  Burnham recalled that he was afraid of his great-great grandmother.  They had to push him across the room toward her.  But when he got close enough for her to touch, she reached out her hands and began to stroke his face.  She felt his eyes and his nose, his mouth and his chin.  And then, apparently satisfied, she pulled young Burnham close to her and held him tight.  Finally the old woman said, “This boy is a Ledford.  I can feel it.  I know this boy.  He’s one of us.”

Baptism is kind of a tricky thing in the church.  I frequently get calls from people within and outside the congregation requesting baptism or baptism for their children.  I usually ask these people why they want to be baptized and sometimes it is hard to get an answer.  For some people, baptism is the initiation to joining “The Jesus Club.”  We know that we have to do something to join the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts or Kiwanis or Rotary.  We figure that baptism is the admission requirement to Christian faith and once in, all we have to do follow God’s rules or at least have the best of intentions to follow to stay an active member of the club.

For others, baptism is a ticket to heaven or at the very least, insurance from hell.  I have spoken with parents and grandparents who want their infant children and grandchildren baptized as soon as possible just in case something bad happened to them.  One grandmother at a church I previously served wanted her grandson baptized before he got in a car and left the hospital.

For still others, baptism is a cultural thing.  We get baptized or have our children baptized because it is part of the timeline of life.  There is no real grasp of the promises of faith or of the power beyond the experience.  Baptism is a marker of a certain time in life like getting your driver’s license or graduating from high school.  It is a one-time social event with little significance for the future.  Throughout my ministry with four churches I have received many phone calls from people requesting baptism or baptism for their children who are mystified or even angry that I ask them to attend worship a few times before discussing the sacrament.  Much of society today fails to understand that baptism isn’t something that you can do alone.  It has to be learned and celebrated and lived out in community.

Why does baptism matter?  Perhaps we haven’t done a very good job of answering that question.  We are all aware of the declining attendance at most mainline Protestant churches.  People, particularly young people, have left the church and haven’t come back.  In the old days, when people left your church it was because they went to another church.  Today, more than likely, when people leave your church they are just leaving.  They stop going to church, period.  They see little connection between what happens on Sunday and the rest of their busy, over-scheduled life.  People may still believe in baptism but they no longer know what baptism means.  We still practice baptism, but once baptized we don’t consider the impact that baptism should play over our lives.  We have taken baptism less seriously, celebrating it too thoughtlessly, making promises too casually, and neglecting its place in our identity too easily.

This morning we contemplate the story of the baptism of Jesus according to the gospel of Luke.  The Scripture passage we heard is really more about John the Baptist, about his warning of the Messiah who would follow him.  “He is more powerful than I am!  I am not worthy to untie his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  He will separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff with his unquenchable fire.”   John’s description of Jesus is a bit awesome and powerful, yet we must admit it is more than a little frightening.

Then quickly, almost without fanfare, Luke describes the baptism of Jesus, the first official act of Jesus’ public ministry.  Apparently Jesus was part of a crowd of others getting baptized.  Perhaps he just wanted to blend in.  If you read the gospel of Luke carefully, you will note that the narrative says that John the Baptist was already in prison- so we don’t even know if he was the one who baptized Jesus.  But Luke says that when Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended, and a voice cried out, “This is my beloved Son.  With you I am pleased.”

We need to remember that while only two gospels contain a story of Jesus’ birth, all four gospels tell a story of Jesus’ baptism.  And in each gospel that baptism is at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  It speaks to God’s promise upon him and that he belongs to God.  In baptism, we are too are named and claimed by God.  Jesus’ baptism spoke of God’s hand, or of the hand of the Holy Spirit in his ministry.  In baptism, we are reminded that our life is about God’s purposes and that we no longer live just for ourselves but to, for, and with God.  The lesson of Jesus’ baptism is that our baptism is just as important as his.  It is a serious thing meant to be taken seriously.

I recall many years ago I was asked to participate in a baptismal ceremony for the Greater Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit.  That inner city church and my church in West Bloomfield had shared some worship services and fellowship activities together.  When I arrived at the church where the baptisms were being held, I was quite surprised.  I was dressed in a suit and tie but was handed some chest high waders and a long white robe and told that I was going into the water.  Many of you know that water is not my favorite environment to function.  But the next thing I knew I was standing waist high in the waters of a large baptismal pool at the front of a church that I had never entered before, helping men and women and even children out of the water back onto a deck where they could dry off.  I remember the water coming up over the top of my waders and my legs and feet getting wet.  I remember feeling most unstable trying to move along the bottom of the pool.  I remember holding onto wet strangers, embracing them and having them share their baptismal waters with me.  It was not a comfortable experience for me.  But I it was a powerful experience.  Because it was so uncomfortable and so out of my control, I sensed the presence of the Spirit in the water, as well as the faces and embraces of the baptized.  We were claimed by God in the same family of God.  We belonged.

Perhaps my experience is how we need to start viewing the sacrament of baptism and even our own baptisms.  While we don’t have to construct a baptismal pool or take babies and baptismal candidates over to Meadowbrook Lake, we need to see baptism as something more than a tame and repetitive ritual.  Baptism should matter.  Baptism teaches us about our identity as God’s creatures and about God’s work through us.  It is the moment when we are claimed by someone special when God holds us close and calls us by name and says “This one belongs to me.”  It is a moment when we called to do something special, when we express God’s love for us and our love for God by how we do our living in this world.  It is the moment when we join with saints of the Kingdom of God, taking our place in the work of bringing God’s way into being, having the responsibility of living and speaking with God’s authority.

Baptism is not a once and done event but something that we must remember and revisit daily.  Each day, perhaps many times each day we must recall that we are baptized and take the plunge into the holy mysterious waters.  There, like Jesus, we find who we really are, whose we really are, and what we are called to be.

 

 

Your Light

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Your Light”

Rev. Art Ritter

January 6, 2019

 

Isaiah 60:1-3

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

 

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

 

Back in November of 2005, the Associated Press reported on the tiny Austrian town of Rattenburg.  In the matter of a couple decades, the town had lost 20 percent of its population and at the time had only 440 residents.  The reason was darkness.  Rattenburg is nestled behind Rat Mountain, a 3,000 foot peak that blocks out the sun from November through February.  At the time, an Austrian glass company, headquartered in Rattenburg, had developed what they thought to be a solution.  They planned to install 30 heliostat mirrors on the mountainside, to grab light from reflectors on the sunny side of the range and direct it back into dark Rattenburg.  The light would not illuminate the entire village but would provide sunlight in enough spots that people could congregate in the brightness to catch a break from the darkness.  The cost of the project was to be $2.4 billion with the European Union set to cover half the bill.  The glass company was committed to pay the other half as a test project for brightening up some 60 other villages.  A company spokesperson said, “I am sure we will soon help other villages see the light.”  It was hoped that the mirrors would bring enough light to draw more tourists but also to convince younger people to live in Rattenburg year round.

This week I searched the internet to see how the Rattenburg project was going.  I was hoping for a happy ending.  But I was disappointed.  While there was no large follow up article or current investigative report, apparently the reflective mirrors have not been installed.  The glass company has not followed through on their financial commitment.  Sadly, the leaders of Rattenburg have come to believe that the plan will never come to be and that the darkness must simply be accepted.  I read some recent quotes from Rattenburg tourism officials that actually promoted the dark winter environment as an attraction.

Today we observe the Sunday after Epiphany.  Epiphany is the day in which we remember and reflect upon the visit of the three magi to the Christ Child in the manger in Bethlehem.  Epiphany is the date in which the Christmas story moves from an innocent tale about a cute little baby being born in a magical setting into the meaning of that birth as a revelation of God that will challenge the powers and the darkness of the world.

Epiphany is a Greek word meaning “manifestation,” or something that is suddenly made clear or obvious to the mind or eye.  An epiphany comes during those “a-ha” moment when the light bulb above our heads suddenly clicks on.  I receive Epiphanies occasionally when leading discussion at Mayflower Cafe.  I receive Epiphanies when my spouse points out what was wrong about the clothes I picked out to wear to worship on Sunday.  Epiphanies add meaning to our faith.  Without epiphanies, the Bible is just another storybook and Christmas is just the birth of another baby.  But epiphanies bring to light the significance of what has happened and they reveal the truth about what it means.

Indeed, light is the focus of Epiphany.  The star which the magi followed to Bethlehem is often used as the symbol of the season.  The passage from the prophet Isaiah speaks of the light, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen up on you…Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”  This passage was written to a people who lived in a place not unlike the darkness of Rattenburg, Austria.  The people of God were in exile, away from their homes, away from their traditions, away from their hopes.  All they could see was darkness and ruin and despair.  It was like being stuck in this bleak January winter time that sometimes seems to never end.  But God promised something different.  God was rising up in glory to bring light to those who lived in darkness.  God was providing illumination for leaders who needed light to rule with mercy and justice.  God was providing the brightness of hope to a world that could not save itself from war and greed and selfishness.  The people of Isaiah’s time needed to be able to see the light before they could be the light.  The words remind us of what God’s light needs to be for us today, a source of hope and power when we are without purpose and strength.

The prophet’s words tell us something else about the light of God.  When light comes into our world and into our lives, the light isn’t always the reassuring, peaceful thing we wish for.  It disturbs and challenges, and moves us.  The light of the star was the epiphany that guided the magi and directed them to the baby Jesus.  Then they saw something in Mary’s baby that others in the world did not see.  This revelation was not so good to the Herod’s of the world.  When light comes into the darkness, it is not good for the darkness.  Light discovers what is hidden in the shadows.  Light disturbs the comfort of the status quo.  Light threatens those whose power is based upon anything but peace and goodwill.  Light changes things, shakes things up, and proclaims a new way through lasting truth.

In the T.S. Eliot classic poem, The Journey of the Magi, the wise men describe their difficult journey to Bethlehem.  At the end of the poem the writer says, “We return to our places, these Kingdoms.  But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.”  That is the thing about epiphanies- God’s light bursting forth into our world changes the way we see and what we see.

Late on New Year’s Day I was trying to tidy up the house a bit, running the vacuum cleaner over the floors.  It must have been much later in the day than I normally vacuum, or New Year’s Day was much cloudier than normal, because I could not help but notice the light on the front of the vacuum cleaner, shining on the floor.  I never recall noticing the effect of the light before but on that day it was most evident.  In that light I saw every bit of dust and dog hair and Christmas tree needles.  I remember thinking that perhaps I should always vacuum at night, with the lights out!

Epiphany Sunday is the same reminder for us a people of faith.  The gift of God is present with us.  The light of God is shining upon us.  That light shine upon our existence and change our perspective and our capability.  Arise and shine.  Today is the day to ask ourselves, “Where is the glory of the Lord in our world and in our lives?”  Today is the day to ask, “How does that light change our view of our lives and our world?”  Today is the day to ask, “What does it mean to shine?”