Sunday, January 7, 2018

Phil Kniss: The glory slowly rises

Epiphany: We have observed, and we have come to worship
Psalm 72:1, 2, 11-14
Matthew 2:1-12

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I can count on one hand
the number of New Years resolutions I’ve made,
my entire adult life.
I don’t remember the last one.
I may not make another.

Not saying everyone should be this cynical about resolutions.
But I know myself too well.
I try too hard already.

Don’t know whether to blame my inherent personality,
or my action-oriented duty-bound Mennonite upbringing.
But I can make a list of resolutions
blind-folded with one hand tied behind my back.
By nature, I’m a responsible do-er.

Every personality profile I’ve filled out, agrees.
In Myers-Briggs, I’m a J.
In the DISC profile, I’m a C.
In the Enneagram, I’m a 6.
I’m responsible, loyal, conscientious.
I’m a good Mennonite perfectionist
who finds it easy to identify things to work harder on.
Resolutions are a year-round activity.
I don’t need to turn a page in the calendar
to think of ways to do more and better.

But if that’s not your problem, by all means,
make some New Years resolutions.
But for me, and persons like me,
Christmas and Epiphany are a great reality check,
in the other direction.

See, the main characters in these stories, the heroes we honor,
are not the ones who tried harder.
They were not the ones with the most daring New Year’s resolutions.

They just happened to have their eyes open when God showed up.
God chose them for important work,
not for being ambitious, but being attentive;
not for being obsessive, but being observant.

Mary did not make a New Years resolution
to be the mother of God.
Giving birth to a baby who would change the world,
was not on her list of things to do in the year 0 A.D.
God chose Mary because
her heart was open enough to notice the angel, and
her mind was open enough to believe him.

The Bible says nothing—zero—about Mary being dazzled by the angel.
The angel, and the message,
may well have been easy to miss.

Some of you saw the play DoveTales last month at EMU—
a remake of the original by Ted and Lee and Ingrid.
I love it that in the play,
Mary mistakes Gabriel for the plumber.
Even after Gabriel’s repeated urgent pleas,
insisting he’s an angel with a message,
she still thinks he’s there to fix their leaky pipe.

If an angel is someone with a message from God—
which is the literal meaning of the word angel, messenger—
then I suspect we have encountered more than one angel
in the form of a plumber, a teacher, a nurse, a barista,
a homeless neighbor, an immigrant.
And we may, or may not,
have realized what God was trying to get through to us.

Now, the shepherds in the story—they got the full song and dance.
But they deserved a spectacle!
Shepherds were usually the last to know anything important.

But they were the only ones.
Even the magi—those mysterious Eastern aristocrats
whose story is our focus on Epiphany—
even they did not get a spectacular heavenly light show.
Forget those pictures on your Christmas cards.
And for the moment,
ignore the picture I chose for the bulletin cover today,
and the one hanging from our banner.
The Christmas star was not a huge bright diamond-shaped
body of light with a long tail, hovering near the earth,
it was not “a star, a star dancing in the night . . .
with its tail as big as a kite.”

Those are stylized images,
and represent pure fiction.
It’s good fiction. I’m not knocking it.
Like the song I just sang from, “Do you hear what I hear?”
It’s a song for peace, written during the Cuban missile crisis.
A New York City couple wrote it together
as a response to their real dread of imminent nuclear war.
It’s a perfect juxtaposition
of the image of nuclear missile streaking across the sky,
and the Christmas star with an even bigger tail,
carrying a message of peace.
Great song. And we should listen to it again today,
with all the nuclear saber-rattling going on.
In fact, after we dismiss this morning,
I asked the sound crew to play a version I like,
so listen as you chat and walk out.

Yes, some images and traditions are pure legend,
but worth holding on to.
They represent a different kind of truth.

Having said that,
we still ought to know the more realistic scenario.
The trek of magi across deserts in search of a king,
after seeing a star,
is actually not a fantastical story.
To make such a trek would not be an irrational act on their part,
given their profession,
and the dominant world view at the time.
It made sense.

So let’s break down this so-called “Three Kings” story.
Of course, they were neither kings, nor three.
They were eastern astrologers,
and there could have been 2 of them, or 20.

They lived in a culture that believed, as fact,
that there were many gods in the heavens,
controlling earthly events.
So it only makes sense that there would be
a whole intellectual body of knowledge about this,
and a group of people whose profession in life
was watching the heavens for signs.
If gods up in the skies manipulated events on earth,
then it made rational sense to study the skies
for signs of what might be about to unfold on the earth.

I’m not arguing this story is historic or scientific fact,
as we understand science and history today.
That’s a different question, and not very interesting.
What I’m saying, is Matthew was not spinning a fantastic fairy-tale
for the fun of it.
This is a rational story within the larger story of Jesus.

The main characters
were real, educated, and visionary people
who lived outside the culture and religion of Judaism.
They were observant, foreign intellectuals,
who worked the night shift, studying stars and constellations,
looking for something new or unusual.

Their journey of thousands of miles on camel-back was a big deal.
But it was not surprising, to people familiar with their body of work.
Making the trip made sense in their world.
There was a connection between rising stars and royal birth.
This was a sign from the gods that needed investigation.

The magi made it their life’s work, to look for light,
to be expectant and observant for signs of the Divine.
So they noticed the star when it appeared,
probably a small blip in the sky that few other people saw.
They examined the body of knowledge available to them,
and when their own knowledge reached its limits,
they made a choice to look deeper.
They set out on a journey toward the unknown,
to see for themselves whether the sign in the skies
matched any events on the ground.
This was nothing spectacular and magical.
The magi aren’t in the story because their experience is so other-worldly.
It’s found in Matthew 2, because it’s part of the Gospel.
It’s a piece of the Good News for us readers.
Matthew assumes we will connect with it, personally.

The wise men earned a spot in this sacred story by being observant.
At least, that’s what Matthew 2:2 says.
“We observed his star at its rising,
and have come to pay him homage.”
“We observed . . . and we came to worship.”

Almost everyone can see.
Not nearly as many . . . observe.
It’s possible that others back east also saw the star.
But only a few observed it.
Observing goes beyond seeing.
To observe, is to engage in active watching.
When we observe, we are attentive, expectant, reflective.
We wonder why.
We explore the reality behind the visible.

I suggest that the best way to begin a new year,
is to adopt the posture of these persons in the Christmas story.
Not make a long list of ways to try harder to be a better person.
But to decide to be more observant.

I can’t remember a year
when the power of observation was more important,
than this year, when the world is in such great turmoil.
Believe it or don’t believe it,
but our faith declares it true.
God is doing things in this broken world.
God’s saving grace is pouring down, even now.
God’s light is breaking out all over.
How many of us are able to observe it?

God is not threatened by evildoers in our world.
God will not suffer defeat at the hands of worldly powers.
If that is true, as our faith declares,
there is good reason to be observant.
Because what we see in this world,
is not all there is in this world.

As the prophet Isaiah said in today’s reading,
“Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.”
God’s glory that rises may not be blazing glory.
It may not immediately capture our attention.
Like a sunrise on a foggy morning,
the glory slowly rises.
We barely perceive its arrival.
But light is still there, just as real,
just as sure as when it comes in spectacular fashion.

God is still about hope, healing, and salvation.
But we have to observe, and open ourselves to it.
Like the shepherds and wise men,
we who witness signs of the grace of God,
will need to act on those signs,
to set out on a long journey with only some of the facts,
but a wide open heart.
And then bow down to the one who rules all,
and pay homage,
and worship.

That’s why we celebrate the Lord’s supper again today,
on this first worship service of 2018.
We begin the year recognizing, and receiving God’s gift of grace,
and pondering what it means for us, here and now.

This is a table of grace,
spread with the bread and cup of God’s grace,
given to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
It’s not an overwhelming or spectacular table.
It’s sparse and simple.
But it’s as real as any overflowing buffet
you may have eaten at over the holidays.

This morning we invite you to the table not only to taste and see,
but to observe more deeply,
to contemplate on it, reflect on it.

So as we begin . . . hear these words of scripture, from Matt. 26
26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”
27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

—Phil Kniss, January 7, 2018

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