Sunday, January 5, 2014

Phil Kniss: To a far country

Epiphany Sunday: “Fear not, your light is come”
Matthew 2:1-12

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So I wonder how many New Years’ resolutions have been made,
    by the people in this room.
Not to be pessimistic,
    but I admit to also wondering
    how many of them have already been broken.

Isn’t it interesting,
    that the simple thing of turning a page in a calendar,
    or getting out a new calendar,
    makes people think there is something brand new in the air,
    and makes them want to change their lives?

January 1 is a completely artificial time marker.
    It’s not tied to any movement in the planets
        or anything in the natural world.
    I guarantee you, the squirrels running around the church yard today,
        have no clue that anything changed in their world this past week.

But that’s okay.
    Artificial or not, this transition from 2013 to 2014
        makes us sit up and take notice a little more.
    It’s a chance to focus attention
        on certain aspects of our lives,
        especially where change is needed for our well-being.
        I’ve made a few New Year’s resolutions over the years.
            And there has probably been at least some benefit.
        But resolutions are most famous
            not for being made, but for being broken—
            for lasting maybe a few days or weeks,
                then back to business as usual.

    Personally, I know I have some things to work on.
    But I haven’t made any official resolutions.
        I think I’m already pretty well aware
            of the areas of my life needing attention.
        My personal and spiritual “to-do” list is already pretty long.
    Maybe it’s my Mennonite upbringing.
    Maybe it’s my personality.
        But I do a pretty good job of knowing
            what I don’t do a pretty good job of doing.
            And getting all down on myself about it.

    I guess New Year’s resolutions are perfect for Mennonites like me,
        who have been taught well
            to give more time, more effort, more determination,
                to be a better person.
        Try harder, do more.
        And climb up a notch in God’s list of favored people.

But then we look at the Gospel story of Epiphany.
    Or the whole Christmas story, for that matter.
    And we say, “Wait a minute!”

From beginning to end,
    the ones who received the greatest blessing,
        who served God in the greatest way,
        who are now heroes of the Christmas story,
            were not the ones who tried harder.
    They were not the ones
        with the boldest 10-year master plan.

They were the ones who happened to have their eyes open
    when God made his appearance.
    God used them because they were attentive,
        not because they were ambitious.
    God looked on them with favor,
        because they were observant,
        not because they were obsessive about getting everything right.

Mary did not aspire to be the mother of the Messiah.
    It wasn’t one of her New Years resolutions
        when she turned the calendar page to the year . . . 1 B.C.
    But she had open eyes and open heart,
        when the angel came to give her the news.
    Despite the paintings and movies of the Annunciation,
        Luke chapter 1 gives no indication whatsoever
            that the physical appearance of the angel Gabriel
            was either dazzling or even impressive.
        A less observant person than Mary
            may not have even noticed the angel.

The shepherds did get a dazzling appearance, it seems,
    at least it scared them silly
        (that has to be a better translation than “sore afraid”).
    But they also had no ambition to be Christmas heroes.
        They did not try to become witnesses and messengers.
        It was handed to them, because they were attentive and willing.

And the magi.  Who would have guessed?
    These scholarly, sophisticated men from the East
        certainly had no aspirations to become central figures
        in the salvation story of an obscure Hebrew people
        who lived thousands of miles away,
        in a tiny Mediterranean country occupied by Rome.

In fact, they knew nothing at all
    about the social and religious context of the Jews.
    They knew nothing at all about their God.
    They were about as secular and disinterested as they could be.

So why were they blessed with the appearance of the star?
    They were being observant.
    They saw something happening in the heavens.
    They perceived it was a sign
        that something important was happening on the earth.
    So they came, not knowing the details,
        only believing that it was some significant royal event,
        and they were willing to go to great lengths
            to study it more closely,
            to pay their respects to this future king.

The main thing the wise men did to earn a spot in this sacred story,
    was to be observant.
They said to Herod’s people in Matthew 2:2,
    “We observed his star at its rising,
        and have come to pay him homage.”
“We observed . . .”
    That’s an important word—observe.

Most everyone can see. Not nearly as many of us . . . observe.
    Seeing, and observing, are two very different things.
I bet there were hundreds of folks back east who saw that star, or comet.
    But only a few wise persons observed it.
To observe is to go beyond seeing,
    and to watch attentively . . . expectantly.
The Latin root of the word means to “attend to” what is being seen.
    To reflect on it.
    To wonder why.
    To explore it from different angles.

I submit to you, that as we begin a new year,
    we are better off adopting the posture
        of these persons in the Christmas story,
    than we are making a list of ways to try harder to be a better.
The best decision, and action, we can take in the new year,
    is to be more observant.

These days, seeing what’s happening in the world is not hard to do.
    Without even trying, we see.
    Almost instantly, we see exactly
        what’s unfolding on the other side of the world.

If Jesus had been born in our age of information,
    the star would have been irrelevant.
    CNN would have a live satellite feed outside the stable.
    No one would be making long unnecessary trips.
        The whole world would be watching live streaming video.
            And leaving comments on every move baby Jesus made.
        The magi could order their frankincense online,
            and FedEx it overnight to Bethlehem.
        Everyone in the world would see immediately,
            react immediately,
            and forget immediately.
        There would be precious little observation, I’m afraid.

That’s what we do today,
    when it’s so easy to see, anything, everything, anytime,
        and react immediately to it.
    We have no compelling need to observe and
        critically reflect.
        Other people do that for us.
        We just choose our preferred source.
        The so-called “truth” is served up to us, 24/7.
        It takes no effort on our part to just drink it in.

But to be like the magi, and observe a star at its rising—
    to ask the question why,
    to reflect on what it tells us about the bigger picture,
    then make a costly and complicated choice
        to act on what we have observed—
            to travel long and far,
        now that is something altogether different.

And that is the one commitment I am making
    as I enter this new year.
    I want to be more observant.
    If we truly believe that God is up to something in the world,
        that God is not threatened by workers of evil,
        and is working even now for our salvation and redemption,
            then, like the magi, I have some work to do.
            I have some traveling to undertake.
            I must go to a far country, so to speak.
            I must seek, and find, and act upon
                what God is up to
                that is bigger than my small world.

Our culture of individualism, and consumerism,
    and instant information,
        impacts our whole way of life,
        including the way we work out our faith.
    It has led many of us to be woefully short-sighted,
        instead of gazing toward the horizon.
    It has encouraged us to be reactive, instead of reflective.
    It has isolated us, instead of drawing us into community.
    It has kept us close to home, secure in our comfort zone,
        instead of drawing us toward the far country,
        into places of uncertainty and growth,
        to the frontier of God’s activity in the world.

God himself, in effect, went into a far country.
    By coming here, to join us in our humanity,
    God demonstrated a willingness to risk it all,
        to hopefully gain it all.
    I find it more than a coincidence,
        that in a number of Jesus’ parables,
        he has the God-figure—be it king, nobleman, or landowner—
            talking to his servants about something,
            then going into a far country.           

The God of the scriptures invites us still
    to join God on a journey into a far country.
    God invites us to participate in something beyond our borders,
        something larger than ourselves,
        to participate in God’s cosmic mission of redemption,
        to be part of God’s holy nation and priestly people,
        to serve God on behalf of the world.
    God invites us to be tools in his hands,
        for God to use as God wills.

To find our way into this far country,
    we have to be observant.
    We will have to be willing to engage
        that which is strange and unfamiliar,
        and do thoughtful, critical reflection.
    We will have to raise our eyes to the far horizon,
        and even the heavens above,
        to see and observe the bigger picture.
    We will have to try to discern what is going on
        around the world,
            that God is involved in,
            that God is actually interested in.

We can’t afford to waste our time and energy
    getting all reactive and indignant,
        about what some politician just said about Duck Dynasty.
In this age of instant and constant information-sharing,
    our brains so quickly shift out of gear,
        and we just see and react, see and react.

We should try observing and reflecting . . .
    and talking with those who observe and reflect
        from different perspectives than ours.

There may not be a new star moving across the night sky to guide us.
    But God is at work in this world.
    God is working to bring hope, healing, salvation, reconciliation.
        So let us be observant.
        Let us open ourselves in new ways to God’s new work.
        Let us notice where the light is, and walk toward it.

—Phil Kniss, January 5, 2014

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