A homily preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC January 5, 2020, the Epiphany of the Lord.
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
If you follow me on FaceBook you will know that responding to Friday’s breaking news related to the United Methodist Church kept me from writing a word of my sermon that day (Normally I do the lion’s share of writing on Fridays). I posted a picture of my computer screen, blank, save for the sermon title at the top, with a prayer for help from “Sweet Baby Jesus.” In response, I received many encouraging words, some very funny. My colleague, Magrey DeVega went so far as to write a sermon for me: “Some days, you just need a warm hug and a glass of wine. Today is one of those days. So let me just say: God loves you. So do I. Let us pray.” So helpful!
As tempting as it is to let that be it, today is the first Sunday of a shiny, new year. It’s also the day we observe the Epiphany, an even more ancient celebration among Christians than Christmas. Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas Cycle, which began the First Sunday of Advent and completes the 12 days of Christmas. It is the festival of the manifestation of God’s Word made flesh, honored by the gifts from all nations and peoples. The story we tell on this day is of the magi who “observed his star at its rising” and were the first to bring gifts to lay before the Prince of Peace. And we tell that story today in the midst of deadly violence and threats of more war. With all that, it seems that perhaps a bit more than a warm hug and wine is in order.
But the message I want to share today is pretty simple. When things are most complicated, uncertain and scary, simple truths can be very helpful anchors in the storm… At the heart of our story today is a quest, a search made by “wise men from the East.” Truth is, we don’t know much about the folks who “traverse afar” following “yonder star.” But what is clear is that they’d studied both prophecy and the stars, understood that something big was happening, and were determined to find the baby who was prophesied. I don’t know what they thought was on the horizon with the birth of Jesus. But we who live all these years later have some data. We know that the promise extended to us in Jesus the Christ is unconditional love, grace, guidance, encouragement, insight, and vision for our own lives and for the life of our communities and world. The promise is life in the kin-dom of God, a taste of mercy and of justice, of peace even when things are hard and of hope even in the face of fear. We know that Jesus created unlikely communities made up of unlikely people to do wondrous things. We know that Jesus sacrificed comfort, reputation, fame, fortune, power, and every other human temptation in order to be in relationship with and for the impoverished, the oppressed, the silenced, the forgotten ones. Ultimately, we know that Jesus sacrificed his life because he was unwilling to run away from the powers hell-bent on injustice, violence, and cruelty. He was unwilling to give up on love, on reconciliation, on the human capacity to grow and to change and become more loving, gentle, and wise.
Like the wise men before us, we seek the promised messiah. Like the wise men before us, our spiritual journey has as its destination finding and drawing near to Christ. We search for the kind of life Jesus reveals, a life of meaning, purpose, love, and wholeness. But what is it that guides us in our search? The biblical wise ones followed a rising star. Their clear focus kept them on track even in the midst of danger and uncertainty. What do we follow that will lead us to life? What are our rising, guiding stars?
The first “guiding star” I’ll mention is bright, shining, clarity about what you are after. What is the reality that you are trying to live into? In our personal lives, relationships, work, or congregation, clear vision for what you are trying to get to provides you with direction and, if you take the vision seriously, keeping your eyes fixed upon it, will help you know when to change course or say “no” or do something painful or difficult. Over the course of these past years in the United Methodist Church, it has been very important for me and for us as Foundry Church to be clear about our goals as they relate to the struggle in the denomination. Some of our goals have been: full inclusion of LGBTQ persons, removal of discriminatory language in The Book of Discipline, solidarity through presence and advocacy with those stranded in vulnerable places, a commitment to our Wesleyan emphasis on grace and “going on to perfection,” and to providing leadership in the denomination. We have been at all this for at least 25 years so it is clear we’re in it for the long haul. When pushback comes or things get tough, knowing what we’re after—and why—is essential in order to have the energy to stay engaged and to know which path to take.
Another source of guiding light for us is discernment through practices such as prayer, study, and meditation. Clarity about direction for our lives, projects, or relationships requires some silence, some listening to the wisdom of others, some intentional Sabbath time resting in the presence of God. In moments of turmoil, anxiety, and confusion, these practices of discernment allow for us to regain perspective, to perceive things that we would miss if we didn’t hit the pause button, to connect to our humanity instead of reverting to reptilian antics. In this moment in our church and world—and in many moments over the past years—it is so important to receive news, documents, plans with a deep breath and a commitment to be thoughtful, prayerful, and measured in our response. Simple and intentional practices of discernment give us a much better chance of being helpfully responsive to emerging realities instead of destructively reactive.
Another source of light-filled guidance is people. I remember a time at Camp Egan in Tahlequah, Oklahoma on family retreat with my church, 1st Methodist of Sapulpa. I was about 12 years old, we were in the outdoor “Tabernacle” near the creek; and at the end of the session, for reasons unknown, Cliff Brown—a man I had known as part of my church family since I was a toddler—said directly to me, “Listen, God loves you. And there’s nothing you can do about it…” And then he went on to quote from Romans 8: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) Why do I remember this so clearly? Well, it was a bright, shining, moment when I was offered an assurance of God’s love for me, a sign of Cliff’s love for me, and a powerful witness of faith. Cliff held the light of Christ for me. There are countless others who have been light-filled guides along my way inside and outside the church. I imagine you could say the same.
Over these past years, in the midst of what’s been such a difficult time in the United Methodist Church, your faces, your stories, my love for you and yours for me, are lights that have guided my footsteps. And one of the beautiful gifts in the midst of the mess is that I have gotten to know and come to love some of the most amazing people who are serving at all levels of the church and fighting the good fight for the sake of love and justice. // I encourage you, in the midst of every twist and turn on your life’s journey, look to the people who love you, who push you to be better, who inspire you, who make you laugh, who prove their friendship through true solidarity, kindness, grace, and generosity. It has been very important to discern who I could trust along the journey of life and ministry and leadership and who I could look to for support and guidance. Discern carefully and then remember—the thing I also learned at camp—the “take a buddy” rule and stay connected to those who will be true companions, who will be light for you in dark places.
Regardless of our good discernment, even the strongest and best people we know will falter here and there, will make missteps and disappoint us. We’re all human. And so if we are wise, as the wise ones of old, we seek the One whose love, friendship, solidarity, and compassion never falter or fail. Jesus the Christ is worthy of our trust, our hope, our devotion, and our love. The perfect light of God’s love and loving intention for us and for the whole world is found in Christ. Our call is to faithfully follow the guiding stars in life so that perfect light and love might fall upon us and be reflected in us. Such reflection may make you a rising star for others. What a gift. Thanks be to God.