Sermon: On the Path by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli

January 03, 2022

A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, January 2, 2022, Celebration of Epiphany, “Shine On!” series.

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

One of the things I’ve heard myself say to countless persons in various challenging contexts over the course of my ministry and particularly the past couple of years is: “Things are not always going to be this way. You’re not always going to be where you are right now. It’s a journey…” This is not only a pep talk, it’s a theological assertion and a statement of Christian faith. Because the story we tell is that God is with us, receives our cries, and brings us through suffering and struggle to a new place of freedom and life. From slavery to promised land, from tomb to broiled fish on the beach with friends, the story is consistent. God’s saving love and grace is assured. 

This message has been key in the ongoing global pandemic and especially in the moments when many of us—either personally or collectively—have felt so profoundly stuck. Of course, we all know, really, that things change in our lives. Some of the changes are beyond our control. And some, we have agency to affect. And regardless of how changes happen in or around us, we always have the choice of how we’ll respond. How we choose to respond to new realities or challenges sets us on a particular path, puts us on a particular trajectory. It’s important to choose wisely.

At the beginning of a new calendar year, it is tradition for many to give thought to what kinds of changes they want to make in their lives. I have a love/hate relationship with new year’s resolutions. But the idea of it is frankly pretty good. If you’re going to change one way or another, it is wise to consider what direction you actually want to travel. Where are you trying to go? What are you trying to do? What steps can you take to move in that direction?

I’ve been thinking about this myself and I’ve decided I want to be like Betty White or Archbishop Desmond Tutu or Dolly Parton or José Andrés. There are others I could name, but these are currently front of mind. The point is that I’m thinking about legacy—about the story of my life I want others to be able to tell, about how I wish to be remembered as one who lives in the days we’re currently living. I’m thinking about what our lives mean in the larger world. 

And it’s not that we have to be famous as these I’ve named are. I also want to be like my Dad who is not famous at all. Fame is not the point. All of those I’ve named seem to have clarity about who they are and what gives their lives purpose and meaning. Dolly Parton describes what I’m after saying, “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.” This kind of living makes an impact. Betty White said, “Everybody needs a passion. That’s what keeps life interesting. If you live without passion, you can go through life without leaving any footprints.” And the first lines of Howard Thurman I ever encountered many years ago are these, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” // Whether known by a few or known the world over, the people whose lives make the deepest impact are those who have come alive. 

I’m convinced that the closer we are to the source of life, the more we “come alive.” The closer we are to the heart of all that is, the more strongly our own heart will shine. And the Epiphany story we tell today, in its most broad terms, is a journey story on the path that leads to closer connection with the heart of God, with the life of God, with the love of God. The wise ones who came from afar in search of the prophesied new king, trained in the art of astronomy. I imagine it was their passion. And when they saw something changing in the sky, a herald of a promise, they made their journey, through danger and uncertainty, guided on the path by a star. They knew who they were, they had practiced their discipline, and they moved forward with intention to discover and honor the newborn king. 

The truth is that we don’t know how many magi there really were, exactly where they came from, or what they hoped to gain from their encounter with Jesus. But whoever they were, their actions formed the kernel from which the ancient celebration of Epiphany springs. It is a celebration that reminds each of us to search for the holy one, to let nothing deter us on the way, to draw near, to offer the gifts of our lives, and then to be enlivened by the love of God revealed in Jesus. The nearer you are to the beating heart of God’s love and life, the more you will “come alive,” the more you will shine with God’s love.

And the world needs people who have “come alive.” But you may feel stuck and dull and exhausted today. And you may think you don’t have anything left to offer. And in a time like this with so many challenges, you may be tempted to think there is no point to trying. And it may seem difficult to believe that things will ever be different than they are today. But there are those who have shown us how to shine with the love, peace, and power of God even in the midst of overwhelming pain, injustice, and despair. 

The late South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu is one of those people. He said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” You see, you don’t have to feed whole nations in the midst of a crisis like José Andrés, you just need to keep doing what you can. When the injustice and foolishness of the world threaten to overwhelm you, do your little bit of good and help overwhelm the world. A legacy, a life that makes a difference in others’ lives, doesn’t happen all at once. It is created along the way, little bit by little bit, choice by choice, response by response. 

And as we enter this new year, know there will be things that try to distract you and lead you into places of fear and danger. But also know God will guide your steps, will help you do your “little bit of good” day by day, will help you discern when to hold steady, to take a break, or (as with the magi in our story) to change course for your own safety.

Things are not always going to be this way. You’re not always going to be where you are right now. You and I are on the path. God is with us, receives our cries, and brings us through suffering and struggle to a new place of freedom and life. From slavery to promised land, from cross to resurrection. From faraway places to the intimate, life-renewing presence of God’s love in Christ Jesus. God’s saving love and grace is assured on the path. Whether by the light of a star, the witness of others’ courage, good humor, perseverance, and generosity, or the simple encouragement of a loved one, God will guide us, go before us, and help us get to the other side.

Archbishop Tutu’s affirmation of faith, set to music by John Bell, are where I’ll end. May this song be our traveling music for the journey of 2022:

Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.