Sunday, January 27, 2019

"Jesus' Mission and Ours." A Sermon on Luke 4:14-21 from Littlefield Presbyterian Church

"Jesus' Mission and Ours"

Luke 4:14-21

We’re in the season after Epiphany.  A few weeks ago, on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, we heard how when Jesus was baptized and was praying, 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.”
Afterward, Jesus was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil for forty days. Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and he began to teach in the synagogues.
            When Jesus came to the synagogue in Nazareth on the sabbath, he stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. He found the passage that confirmed who he was and what his mission was and read it: “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.”  He began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

            In the midst of everything we see around us in our world, in the midst of a transition in pastoral leadership in this congregation, the scriptures still speak to us today.
In February, I’ll be attending a Transitional Ministry training event in Oregon. One of the books I’m required to read in preparation is Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations, by Anthony B. Robinson.  It’s quite a helpful and readable book, and I commend it to you.

In this book, Robinson tells how management guru Peter Drucker was known for asking two simple but revealing questions of his clients: “What business are you in?” and “How’s business?” 
Robinson was interviewing with a pastor search committee when he asked a similar question of them: “What do you believe this church is trying to accomplish for God? The question caught some members of the committee by surprise and left them groping for words. One man looked slightly troubled by the question. He said, “Well, we’re trying to do what we’ve always done, of course.”
            This response, Robinson wrote, shows a lack of clarity about purpose.
Over time, organizations tend to lose sight of whatever purpose called them into existence in the first place    or they may drift away from it.  When they’re not centered on their purpose, they devote a lot of their energy and resources to their own survival or maintenance.

            When congregations aren’t centered in a clear and compelling purpose, they tend to become reactive. “They try to respond to every need, itch, hurt, and crisis that comes along. And that is a recipe for burnout, because people’s needs, itches, and hurts are limitless and endless.” 
Also, when there’s a lack of shared purpose, congregations and pastoral leaders tend to become too focused on trying to keep everybody happy and together.  You might hear people saying things like, “We can’t do that—so and so says if we do, they’ll leave the church… or withhold their giving…” or whatever. When there’s a lack of a strong sense of shared purpose, a few people can hold the congregation hostage and keep the leaders and the congregation from moving forward in new directions.  It is indeed a recipe for burnout.

            As disciples of Jesus Christ, we have a mission to fulfill.  When we listen carefully and prayerfully to the scriptures-- we discover that God's Word speaks directly to us.  It suddenly can become very exciting...and very energizing.
            As Anthony Robinson puts it, “vital congregations have a compelling, biblically shaped, theologically informed purpose or reason for being that marshals their energies and resources and directs their use.”

            Littlefield Church has gone through a lot of changes over the years. The community and the world around the church have changed.
            When this congregation was planted, it was going to be a neighborhood church. The way they envisioned things in the beginning, they weren’t going to need a parking lot, because people were going to walk to church from their homes in the nearby neighborhoods in Dearborn or Detroit, or drive a short distance.  That worked well for several decades. There was a time when there were two Sunday services, with people sitting in the balcony and an overflow room, when Littlefield had assistant pastors and Christian Education directors. In 1960, Littlefield’s membership peaked at 1,250.

            That was a pivotal time in local churches and on a national level, as church denominations lost anywhere from a quarter to a third of their members, and baby boomers deserted their childhood churches in large numbers.
            This was the beginning of some challenging times for Littlefield Church. The Rev. Harry Geissinger was called to serve as senior pastor in 1961, bringing the strong visionary leadership the congregation needed.
            The 1960’s and 1970’s were tumultuous times in our society, in the world, and in the church. The civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, changing attitudes toward institutions, and many complex and divisive issues all had their impact on the church.

            Life in the metropolitan Detroit area was marked by social upheaval and a series of crises in the 1960’s, including block-busting, cross-district busing for schools, and the 1967 race rebellion. Beginning in the late 1960’s, Littlefield struggled with the impact of “white flight” out of its nearby Detroit neighborhoods and significant growth in the number of Arab-Americans of Muslim and Eastern Orthodox faiths in its Dearborn neighborhoods.
            The Civil War in Lebanon, beginning in 1974, resulted in a rise of Lebanese immigrants into Dearborn and dramatic changes in the demographics of the neighborhoods near the church. Then, in 1978, the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon sent waves of Southern Lebanese Shia Muslims into Dearborn. You can read more about this in the history booklet we wrote for the 75th anniversary of the church. (A lot of it is included on the Facebook page we posted for the 85th anniversary.)[1]
            As the Littlefield history document states, these changes in the community had the result of reducing the size of the Littlefield congregation and expanding the mission.
Looking back on this time, a mission study observed, “In the face of tremendous social changes going on all around it, Littlefield Presbyterian Church did not split apart or turn in on itself, it didn’t close down or lose faith, thanks in large measure to the commitment and talents of Rev.Geissinger. The church was blessed with strong clergy and lay leaders and a congregation committed to new ideas and approaches. With these assets, the church survived the turmoil of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.”

            Then, in the mid- to late-seventies, a need emerged and was identified: to develop a relationship with our Arab-American neighbors, to bridge cultural differences and overcome misunderstandings among Christians and Muslims. Since that time, Littlefield Presbyterian Church has taken a leadership in carrying out a ministry of reconciliation.
            Dr. William Gepford arrived in 1979 to begin his work as Director of Arab-American Relations in Dearborn and Assistant Pastor of Littlefield. This was a result of “a strong sense of mission and faith in the future,” following months of discussion, careful planning, and broad-based fund-raising….”[2]
            Over those decades, the membership numbers of Littlefield and other churches were declining. But Littlefield was doing important work building bridges, promoting understanding between Christians and Muslims and members were reflecting the light of Christ as they served the needs of the new neighbors.

            In 1994, after the resignation of the Rev. Del Meester, the church did another mission study. This is what they declared about the church: “Outreach to the community is at the heart of Littlefield Church’s ministry….Our primary challenge is the one that has always faced Christians: to discern what God is calling us to do, and to reflect and model God’s love, justice, and peace….The members of Littlefield believe that the work of the Holy Spirit among us gives us energy and mission and that we are called by God to reinvent and reorient ourselves with regard to who we are and what we do as God’s people.”
            It was after this mission study and an interim period that I was called to serve as your pastor. Over the 22 years that have followed, we’ve worshiped and studied and learned and grown and served God and our neighbors and witnessed to God’s love and justice and peace together.  
            Now, you’re entering a new time of transition. Though, truth be told, we’ve been on a journey of transformation over these past few decades. We’ve been learning and growing and studying. Within the past few years, we’ve worked together to come up with a brief statement of purpose:
“Why we exist: To love God, one another, and all people. To show God’s love in our work for peace and justice.” Two short sentences to summarize why you exist as a congregation. You also worked on a list of your CORE VALUES.
We worked on the statement of purpose because mission can't be an optional activity for the church.  The church exists for mission.
            If a congregation desires to be a vital, growing community of believers, with a faithful future, they need to resist the temptation of quick, simple answers, follow Jesus’ example, and spend time in the wilderness to discern God’s will.  They need to open themselves to the leading of the Spirit, so they can discover more fully the calling God has for them in this particular time.
            The good news is that we can trust in God the Holy Spirit, “everywhere the giver and renewer of life." We can trust that, in a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.…
            “With believers in every time and place, we can rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[3]
            Praise be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
January 27, 2019

[1] Littlefield Presbyterian: 85 Years of Mission on Facebook.
[2] Littlefield Presbyterian Church: Celebrating 75 Years of Mission and Ministry, 1930-2005, page 4.
[3] Quote from “Brief Statement of Faith” of the Presbyterian Church (USA), 1990.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

"An Epiphany of Abundance." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on John 2:1-11.

"An Epiphany of Abundance"

John 2:1-11

Jesus and his mother and his disciples are attending a wedding.  Anyone who’s ever officiated or planned a wedding can tell you that things can go wrong. 
            In those days a wedding was a great occasion, and most everybody in the village, plus some people from neighboring villages, would have been invited.   Weddings were hosted by the groom’s family, and the celebrations lasted for up to a week. 
            This celebration is in trouble, because on the third day, they’re running out of wine.  This is a crisis for the family responsible for hospitality. 
            David Lose explains why this was such a disaster: “Wine isn’t merely a social lubricant…it’s a sign of the harvest, of God’s abundance, of joy and gladness and hospitality.  And so, when they run short on wine they run short on blessing.  And that’s a tragedy.”[1]
            Jesus’ mother goes to him and identifies the problem.  But Jesus says, “That’s really not our concern.  And my hour has not come.”  In the theology of John’s Gospel, “the hour” is the hour when Jesus goes to the cross. 
            His mother tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
            There were six stone water-jars there, ready to be used in the Jewish purification rituals.  Each held about twenty or thirty gallons.   “Fill the jars with water,” Jesus says to the servants, and they do.   “Now draw some out,” he says, “and take it to the chief steward.” 
            When the chief steward tasted the water that had turned into wine, he didn’t know where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew.   He called the bridegroom and said, “Normally people serve the good wine first, and then the cheap stuff when people have already had plenty to drink.  But you’ve kept the really good wine for now.”
            John tells us that Jesus did this as the first of his “signs” and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.  The miracles Jesus performs in the Fourth Gospel are never called miracles—but “signs.”  These “signs” are about revealing a deeper reality about Jesus.
In the first verses of his gospel—the prologue, which we heard on Christmas Eve--John identifies the major themes of his message.  We hear that the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth…. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. Turning water into wine is revealing abundant grace. And what does abundant grace taste like? Like the really good wine, when you were expecting the cheap stuff.            
            No matter how hard we may try to “spiritualize” today’s gospel lesson, we have 150 gallons of really good wine at a wedding party that had been experiencing scarcity. 
            Today’s gospel text is about the very nature of God… and about the very purpose of being human.  The nature of God is pure grace-- abundant… surprising grace.  Grace overflowing to the brim, in times and places we least expect it.

            Karoline Lewis has suggested that we have so modified and codified abundance that it’s hard to recognize it anymore.  Some have monopolized abundance…hoarded it…thinking that it is theirs to control, theirs to possess, and theirs to take away. “Theirs to keep for themselves, because those without it? Well, clearly they have not merited God’s attention, earned God’s graces.”[1]
            The gospels teach us that abundance is never about you or me and Jesus alone, as much as we might want it to be—but about bringing us into life—true life, abundant life, for all. In God’s life of abundance, abundance is not ours to grasp individually, but in beloved community, in the world God so loves.

            We need to pay attention to the details in this story.  The water-jars were there to be used for Jewish purification rituals--   When Jesus turned the water into wine, it was a sign that God was doing a new thing.
            And I wonder:  What if Jesus had stuck with his original feeling?  It is not my problem, it is not my time.  What if all of his life Jesus had said, "That’s not my problem and it is not my time"?
            That’s unimaginable, isn’t it?
            Closer to our own time, in the mid 1950s, Martin Luther King wrapped up his course work for his Ph.D. and took his first call to a church.  His dissertation wasn’t done yet when Martin Luther King left graduate school and took a job as a pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama. 
            Not long after he went to Montgomery, Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus.  A meeting was held in the African-American community in Montgomery, and they asked who was going to lead the boycott.  
            All the other pastors and all the other influential leaders of the African-American community were smart enough to know that this looked like a risky business.  They decided to get the new pastor in town to lead the boycott.  
            Rev. Martin Luther King had every reason in the world to say, "It is not the right time for me. I have a young family.  I have a dissertation to finish writing.  I have a congregation that doesn’t know me or trust me yet.   If I start out at the head of this enterprise, what will that do to my relationship to my congregation?  It just isn’t a good time.   I have all these reasons why.  This isn’t the time for me to do something like this.” 
            But, as we all know, this very human being was moved from “not my time” -- to yes.
            More than 60 years have passed since the Montgomery bus boycott.   Fifty-six years have passed since the March on Washington when Dr. King gave his “I have a dream” speech. More than 50 years have passed since he wrote his last book before he was assassinated: “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”
            Have we made progress since that time?  Undoubtedly.  But we need to be honest with ourselves about where we the people of the United States are   and about our history.
            Later in the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus saying, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”[3]
            I believe the gospel has the power to set us free-- as individuals, as a community, as a society-- if we have ears to hear the good news… if we have faith to trust in God’s power to transform us and bind us together in Beloved Community… if we trust in the gospel’s truth to make us free.
            Some of the stories we heard during Advent remind us that sometimes people have a failure of imagination, like Zechariah, when the angel Gabriel told him Elizabeth was going to have a baby: “How can this be?”
            In our time and place, God calls us to be the people who come to know God, to experience the grace and abundance of Jesus Christ, to embody that love and live together in Beloved Community with all of God’s children.  
            Whenever we’re afraid we won’t have enough—enough money or power or privilege or security-- whenever we think the party’s over because things are changing, God will keep doing new things and surprising us with new wine that is sweeter and tastier than ever before… and give us dreams and visions to help us live more fully into the life of abundance and grace into which God calls us.  Can we imagine it?   Is anything impossible for God?      
            In a world threatened by ethnic, racial, and religious conflict, the consequences of trying to defend the status quo or to keep most of the money and resources and power in the hands of a a few…  or of wallowing in the valley of despair and fear and negativity are enormous. But the rewards of inclusive justice and healing are too important not to try.           
            The prophets and the gospel call us to dream, to imagine an alternative reality of Beloved Community for all God’s people.  They challenge us to embody it in our daily lives, trusting that God will provide abundant new wine and better things than we ever tasted or seen or imagined   and a life overflowing with joy and blessing in God’s presence.
            Thanks be to God! 

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
January 20, 2019

[1] David Lose, “Epiphany 2B: What Grace Looks Like!” 
[2] Wright, John for Everyone, Chapters 1-10 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), Kindle Edition, Loc 472.
[3] John 8:32
[4] Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin:  Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.  (Brazos Press, 2016), Kindle Edition, Location 388.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

"Jesus' Baptism and Ours." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Baptism of the Lord Sunday

"Jesus' Baptism and Ours"

Luke 3:15-22

Here we are again, in the season of Epiphany, on Baptism of the Lord Sunday.  Each year the lectionary gives us the story of Jesus’ baptism, as told by Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  This year, it’s Luke. 
Most of the third chapter of Luke follows the story of John's ministry as told by Matthew and Mark.  John is the voice crying in the wilderness… John baptizes hundreds who came out to be baptized. We hear John making it clear that he isn't the Messiah:  "I baptize you with water," he said, "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."
But then Luke adds a little interlude about Herod being very angry with John, because John had charged him with stealing his brother's wife.  Indeed, Luke tells us Herod was so upset that he shut John up in prison. The lectionary wants to omit these verses. They interrupt the narrative we’re used to hearing, and they complicate how we interpret the story of Jesus’ baptism. But I think Luke included the verses for a reason.
After the little interlude about Herod throwing John into prison, the story goes on. "Now, when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized.
But how could John baptize Jesus if John was in prison? Or is Luke simply writing about something that had already happened before Herod imprisoned John?
If we pay close attention, we might notice that Luke doesn’t say anything about Jesus' baptism. There's nothing here about Jesus going down into the water or coming up out of the water. We probably assume that this happened as the other gospels tell the story, but Luke doesn't seem to be very interested in the actual moment of baptism-- but only what happened after baptism.
What Luke seems to be more interested in is that Jesus was praying when the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove.
There’s another difference in the way Luke tells the story. In the different accounts, we hear John saying, “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming.”  But Luke goes on to say, “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.
            Now, I know some people’s minds connect the “fire” John talks about to the fires of hell, but that’s not what this is about. Generally, “fire” in the Bible isn’t about punishment, but about purification.  This imagery is about Jesus separating the good grain in our lives from the chaff—which is the husk part that is often thrown away-- and how the chaff would be burned away.
            Luke tells us that, when Jesus was baptized, the spirit in the form of a dove came upon him. As Adam Ericksen points out, the symbol of the Roman Empire was a fierce eagle—a bird of prey. The early Christians had a different symbol: a peaceful dove.[1]
            Luke pictures John the Baptist as an end-time prophet who announced that the world was about to change, that the realm of God was being ushered in—a new world in which all things would live together in love, peace, justice, mutual support, freedom, and dignity.
            When John called people to repent and be baptized, he was calling them to turn away from complicity with the old age and its values and behaviors and to turn toward the coming realm. John announced that the one who was coming would be more powerful, and would bring in the new kingdom and leave the Holy Spirit to empower the community to continue to witness to the realm.
When Jesus was held under the water by John the Baptist, whenever it happened, he showed what baptism is, for Jesus and for us. It’s a sign of what’s already true—no matter what the Herods or Caesars of this world say. God tells us who we are: “You are a beloved child of God.”
            Jesus’ baptism was an epiphany moment—as the Holy Spirit descends upon him… and he and others heard confirmation from God: “You are mine.  Beloved.  I am well pleased with you.” 
            Baptism teaches us who we are – God’s beloved children.   It reminds us of the promise:  God loves us unconditionally.   Baptism reminds us that we discover who we are in relation to whose we are:  God’s beloved children.  We belong to God’s family, and baptism is a tangible sign of that.
            Baptism is about knowing who we are, so we don’t waste precious time searching frantically for an identity that something or someone else can confer on us-- but instead, use our lives to live out our God-given, baptism-shaped identity.
            The same Spirit that descended on Jesus baptizes us!   We can live in confidence that-- no matter how often we fall short or fail-- nothing that we do or fail to do can change the fact that we are God’s beloved children.  This identity is something God gives us—as a gift.
            Maybe you don’t remember, but at your baptism, that voice named and claimed you.   We need to remember our baptism.  So, turn to your neighbor, and remind them.    Tell them, you are God’s child...  God’s beloved.   God loves you and claims you.  [Some people even got out of their seats to share this good news.  There were smiles and maybe a handshake or hug or two.]
            There’s something else we need to remember: at our baptism, God gave each of us the gift of the Spirit.   So, let’s turn to one another and remind one another:  You’ve got the Spirit, because God gave it to you when you were baptized.
[Again, people moved around a bit and made sure everybody was reminded that they’ve got the Spirit.]
Okay, so what does all this mean? 
            Without the rest of Jesus’ life, his baptism isn’t something we can comprehend.  We can only comprehend the purpose of Jesus’ baptism when we look at the days and years that followed that day in the Jordan.  It’s when we see Jesus taking his place with hurting people that his baptism starts to make sense.  Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan foreshadowed his baptism on the cross.  Baptism was Jesus’ commissioning for ministry.
            During the week before his death, Jesus was challenged by the leaders of the temple: “By what authority do you do these things?”
            Jesus answers by referring to his baptism: “Was the baptism of John from heaven-- or not?”  In other words, I was baptized.  That’s how all this started.”  It was in the waters of baptism that Jesus heard the Spirit calling him to speak the truth and to live with grace.
            In baptism, God proclaims God's grace and love for us.  God claims us and marks us as God’s own.  We have a new identity as members of the body of Christ.
            So, we are baptized and begin a lifelong journey with God...  a lifelong process of conversion and nurture that begins at the font and doesn't end until death, until we are at last tucked safely into the everlasting arms of the God who first reached for us in baptism.
            God keeps on reaching out for us throughout our lives.  God isn't finished with any of us yet.  Every day we live out our baptism.  Every day we need to respond to God's gracious gifts in our lives...  open ourselves again to God's work in our lives...  say yes in all the big and little things we do and people we meet and promises we keep throughout the day.
            A major part of God's daily saving work in our lives is God's gift of the Holy Spirit. Just as God's creating Spirit hovered over the waters in the very beginning, the Holy Spirit works in us...leads us daily...tugging at our lives until we are more fully turned toward God. 
            In our baptism, we become part of a royal priesthood, a holy nation, in order that we may proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called us out of darkness, into God's marvelous light.[1] 
           In our Reformed part of the Protestant branch of Christ’s church, we take our membership in the priesthood of all believers very seriously.  In fact, in the Presbyterian Church, we take this calling so seriously that we ordain our officers for service.  The questions we ask at a service of ordination and installation of elders and deacons-- the questions you'll hear in a few minutes-- are the same questions asked of a Minister of the Word and Sacrament, except one.   The congregation makes promises too:  to support and encourage and pray for those who are serving as officers.              
            Every one of us gathered here has been given a particular set of gifts to use in God's service.  This community of believers is part of God's plan to bring good news of healing and freedom to a broken, hurting world. 
            On this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, we are reminded of Jesus' baptism and our own.  We are reminded who we are...  and whose we are.
            At your baptism, the same Spirit came down upon you as came down upon Jesus at his baptism.   The same Father said to you,  "you are my beloved son"...   or "you are my beloved daughter."  The same Father has continued ever since to hold you...   and to work to empower you for God's work.
How easy it is, in the midst of this life, to forget who you are...  and whose you are.  So, the church is here to remind you that God has named us...  and claimed us...   and seeks us and loves us unconditionally.
This is the gift Baptism gives to us. We are children of God, joined together with Christ to all the other Children of God. 
            So, remember your baptism and be thankful.  For this is who we are.
            Listen attentively for God’s call.  Use the gifts God has given you as a sign of the outbreaking of the kingdom of God.  Take on new challenges in your ministry.  Rely on the Holy Spirit to lead and empower and uphold you. 
            As you go out into the world, be the minister that God has called you to be.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
January 13, 2019

[1] Adam Ericksen, “Girardian Reflection on the Lectionary: The Baptism of Jesus: Deconstructing the Fires of Hell.” 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

"A Different Way." A Sermon on Epiphany Sunday from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"A Different Way"

Matthew 2:1-12

The after-Christmas sales have been going on since December 26, and a lot of people in the wider society have moved past the celebrations of Christmas.  However, the church is on a different calendar.  There are twelve days of Christmas.  So today we’re celebrating the Epiphany, which actually falls this year on January 6.   In Latin America and parts of the Caribbean, Three Kings Day is the big celebration of Jesus’ birth.  And in the Eastern part of the Church, Epiphany is the important festival and celebrates the baptism of Jesus.
            In Matthew’s gospel, the Christmas birth narrative is told in the first chapter.  By the first verse of the second chapter, the shepherds are a distant memory.  When the mysterious seers from the East bring their gifts and worship, Jesus is almost two years old.   The holy family is settled in Bethlehem, raising their toddler.  
            On the road to Bethlehem are a group of magi-- Zoroastrian priests, who—despite what the song says-- weren’t kings.  Matthew doesn’t tell us how many there were. Maybe they were known as wise men- because of their skills in interpreting dreams and understanding astrology. They were searching the darkness of the sky...  following a star...  hoping to find the Christ child.  They left the comfort and security of their homes to travel through the desert on their quest. 
            When they saw that the star had stopped-- they were overwhelmed with joy!  They found the child Jesus...    and they knelt down and worshiped him.  Then they offered him their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.
            In his story about the Magi, Matthew tells how some people responded to the birth of the Christ with joy and devotion. But woven into the story of the Magi's devotion is the story of Herod's reaction to the birth of the King of the Jews.  “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” I think we can read between the lines to understand that when Herod was unhappy, the people in the region had reason to be concerned about what he might do.
            Herod knew that his kingdom would be threatened by a new king.  The possibility of not being in charge of the kingdom didn't bring him joy.  He was confused and afraid… “and all Jerusalem with him.”  If this child was really the Messiah-- it would change everything.
            In Matthew’s telling of the Nativity story, we hear a note of fear and opposition to the Messiah’s birth.   The news of the birth of a new “king of the Jews” threatens Herod’s power and the status quo. 
            Perhaps the fear and agitation were also about how the world might be changing, that God is doing something new, and that nothing can stay the same. 
            The arrival of these three astrologers is a sign that the reach of God’s embrace is broadening…that there is no longer “insider” and “outsider,” but that all are included in God’s mercy and salvation.  This isn’t a new theme in Judaism.  But now it is happening in ways that wise ones can see it.  Who knows what could happen next?
            Do you hear the given-ness of that event—the gift?   Do you hear the inclusive and universal nature of it?  What God did in and through Israel in Jesus is not only for Israel-- but for the whole world, for all people. 
            If we were listening carefully on Christmas Eve, we heard the angel say this to the shepherds:  this good news is for all people. 
            Some of us hear this as good news.  But for others, this more inclusive understanding of God’s salvation plan is troubling.  For those who are more privileged or powerful, the idea of change can cause a fearful response.   Herod had instructed the magi to come back and tell him where they’d found the Christ child.  But they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they traveled back to their own country by a different way.  An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and warned him the Herod would be searching for them and sent them to Egypt, so the Holy Family became refugees.
            Herod was so terrified of the promise that God would, in this child, restore peace and justice that he was willing to slaughter the infants of a whole region.  When he realized the magi hadn’t come back to tell him where the Christ child was, he ordered that all the children two years and under in and around Bethlehem be killed.  This reminded people of what had been written by the prophet Jeremiah:  “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”[1]
            As David Lose suggests, such a grim account of wholesale massacre and desperate flights to safety would seem far-fetched were it not for similar atrocities and tragedies happening right now.[2]   How many Syrian refugee families have left everything behind in a desperate flight for safety?  How many children are starving to death around the world or dying of preventable illnesses?  How many families have fled the danger in their central American homes, desperately seeking asylum?  How many families are contending with their own sorrows and hardships?
            The light shines in the darkness, but there is still so much darkness in the world.   But Matthew wants us to know that in Jesus—Emmanuel—God has drawn near to us and came to live among us, full of grace and truth. 
            When life is beautiful and filled with goodness and grace, God is part of that, blessing us and celebrating with us.  When life is hard and painful and scary, God is part of that too, holding on to us, comforting us, blessing us with the promise that God will stay with us through the good and the bad, drawing us more and more deeply into God’s loving embrace…and promising that nothing—not even death—can separate us from God’s love.[3]
            Our scripture lessons for Epiphany are good news!  We hear the prophet Isaiah saying, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.”  No matter how dark things look to you now, look around.  You shall see and be radiant.  Your heart shall thrill and rejoice.”  
            The Gentiles from the East, these outsiders kneeling to worship the Christ child, remind us that to worship the Christ with them is to see humanity differently, as one family of God, and that the mission of the church is to nurture, promote, work for, and celebrate the oneness of the human family—not to divide it
            Here too we can learn from the Magi and how they responded to Christ’s birth.  The magi had to take another road home.  Not the most direct route, or the most convenient or comfortable. 
            Now that we have traveled to Bethlehem, things can be different for us
            I love the way Peter Gomes puts it: “For we have come from an encounter with the world of the possible in the midst of the impossible.  We have seen God…and survived to tell the tale, moving about not knowing that our faces shine with the encounter, bearing the mark of the encounter forever, and marveling in the darkest night of the soul at that wondrous star-filled night.”
            The world will change because we are changed.  We have seen God—not high and lifted up—but lowly and vulnerable.  God with us! 
            We have seen the reality and power of love to conquer hate and violence.  We have wondered at the mystery of life and love.  We have seen the Christ child, and nothing will ever be the same.
            We are changed.  And because we are changed, the world will change, gradually, as we live out our call to carry Christ’s light out into the world...  to let the light of the gospel shine through our lives
            Let the light in, live in it, and let your light shine…  That is the heart of the Christian life.
            Which brings us to this Table.  For here Christ, the Light of the World, offers himself to us in the gifts of bread and wine.  This table is open to all who have been claimed by Christ in baptism, all who come to be fed, all who desire to know the truth and power of Jesus.       
            So, come.  Taste and see…and feast in the radiant reality of Christ our Light.  May the Light of the World not only shine on your life, but live in and be reflected in you.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
January 6, 2019