Gifts on the Journey

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, January 7, 2018, observation of Epiphany.

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12

 

Today I unabashedly draw inspiration from a new book I received for Christmas, a book entitled, “Joy.” The book is a collection of 100 poems and editor Christian Wiman’s introductory essay is, for me at least, worth whatever price Anthony paid to put the book in my hands.  The opening lines read, “Paul Tillich once said of the word ‘faith’ that ‘it belongs to those terms which need healing before they can be used for the healing of [people.]’ The word ‘joy’ may not be quite so wounded, though I have noticed…that it does provoke some conflicting responses.”[i]  Words can be “wounded”—that is, twisted and misused, abused and made lifeless—and religious words, perhaps, most of all are prone to such wounding. But “grace,” the topic of this new “Grace Notes” sermon series, as a religious word, seems oddly immune to serious damage.  Spiritual writer Frederick Buechner comments on this saying, “After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody’s much interested anymore. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left.”[ii]  Grace is a relational word connected to prayer, blessing, thanksgiving, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, harmonious movement, and beauty.  Theologically speaking, grace can be defined as God’s abiding presence, love, and mercy—always offered as a pure gift, no strings attached.  I love the fact that, in music, the little notes that add emphasis and interest to a melody are called “grace notes.” These notes are “gifts” to the music, accenting the experience of the song.

 

But, I imagine, even with all this loveliness, the critique may arise: how can you speak of grace or be inspired by joy when Dreamers are under threat, when the loss of the Children’s Health Insurance Program leaves so many children vulnerable, when the planet continues to be polluted and destroyed, when juvenile boasts are made by the leader of the free world about the size of nuclear “buttons” as though the lives of all who inhabit earth are no more than blips in a video game? Shakespeare asked the question this way: “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?”[iii]

 

Grace—and the beauty and joy that often emerge in its wake—are like the star in our Gospel today.  They shine and shimmer in the darkness and provide focus and encouragement for the ongoing journey of life and spiritual seeking.  Wiman says that “Joy is the only inoculation against the despair to which any sane person is prone, the only antidote to the nihilism that wafts through our intellectual atmosphere like sarin gas.”[iv]  //

 

Today we observe the Feast of the Epiphany.  The word “Epiphany” literally means manifestation or appearance—and this feast celebrates the manifestation of God’s Word made flesh to all nations and peoples. Epiphany is the culmination of the Christmas Cycle that began with the first Sunday of Advent. And the story at the center of this feast is of the Magi (an ancient, Latin-derived term for Persian astrologers and professors of all things esoteric) who follow the star to Jerusalem and then, upon hearing the prophecy from Micah, on to Bethlehem. The story is a powerful illustration of light shining even amidst the encroaching darkness. It is a story of a journey, a quest for a benevolent ruler whose appearance on earth was written in the stars. It’s a journey to find the One who is God’s love and mercy in human form, One who is, in a word, grace.  It seems a fitting place to begin these weeks when we will focus on grace and ways that grace attends us all along our spiritual journey—through the twists and turns, valleys and mountaintops.

The journey of the Magi—and of the holy family they visit—illustrates ever-present grace in a powerful way if we guard against any de-politicized, sterilized version of the story.  All it takes to do that is to read the whole thing.  Reading Matthew beginning at chapter 1 verse 18 through the end of chapter 2, you see that Joseph, before having a change of heart, was planning to abandon his pregnant-but-not-by-him fiancé Mary (but “quietly”).  Herod, described by my colleague Jim Harnish, (referencing the Anchor Bible Dictionary) as “a pathologically insecure narcissist who was obsessively driven by his fear of any threat to his position and power,” schemes and lies to the Magi in order to do the child Jesus harm.  After the Magi find Jesus and heed an intuitive warning NOT to return to tell Herod of his whereabouts, the King goes on a rampage and has all the children in and around Bethlehem who were 2 years of age and younger killed in hopes of ridding the world of any threat to his power.  Having been warned of this heinous plot in a dream, Joseph and Mary take their child Jesus and flee into Egypt as refugees, only later returning to Israel and seeking a safe haven from ongoing political unrest in a town called Nazareth in the Galilee.

 

This is not a saccharine tale.  It’s a nightmare.  The journey of the Magi was fraught with danger.  The holy family’s safety and survival was at risk from the very beginning.  But notice the grace notes that appear throughout…  Joseph’s heart and mind change, thereby providing support for Mary already full of grace; the Magi have one another as companions on the path, the star to guide them, and the skill to follow that light; dreams and intuitions of danger not only arise but are heeded, thereby allowing escape from harm; and even the duplicitous word of Herod provides necessary guidance pointing toward Bethlehem and the child, Jesus.  In the midst of so much risk and vulnerability, with powerplays and violence lurking in every quarter, with a horrific ruler on a rampage, innocents trampled, and countless lives lost, even in the midst of all that (the Gospel reminds us) there were journeys punctuated with grace, with manifestations and appearances of love and mercy and guidance.  Hatred and cruelty tried to snuff out grace—the love and mercy of God.  But that plot failed. The light of Christ shines and the darkness did not, will not, overcome it.

 

At this time of year, I’m acutely aware that many of us struggle—the cold, long nights, the emotions and memories stirred by the holidays, the turn of the year highlighting where we are—or aren’t—in our lives, and the pressure to get things “resolved”…  All of this and more can trigger depression, anxiety, and relapse into the false comfort of addictions.  For many, this part of the annual journey is always especially fraught.  And even if we manage these days with relative equanimity, at this or any time of year, it is easy to get caught up in all that is wrong in our lives and in the world.  One of the reasons I’m glad our story for today often calls the Magi “wise” is that they were smart enough to travel with a buddy—to not go it alone.  I imagine that helped when, tempted to shut down in the face of the real dangers and scheming around them, they don’t focus on those things or allow themselves to get thrown off-course by them.   They stay together, know what they seek, keep their eyes focused on the light, and continue to walk together toward their destination.  That kind of focus and perspective reeks of wisdom.  And “When they saw where the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”

 

On life’s journey, on the spiritual path, on the Jesus-seeking path, there is so much pain, confusion, struggle, disappointment, and injustice along the way.  Those realities have the capacity to draw all our focus, to steal our energy, and keep us from apprehending the grace notes that dance in and among the shadows offering points of light.  On the journey, it is an act of sacred resistance to notice, welcome, and savor moments of joy, to acknowledge, as Christian Wiman writes, “how in the midst of great grief some fugitive and inexplicable joy might like one tiny flower in a land of ash, bloom.”[v]

 

One poet puts it this way:

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,

we lessen the importance of their deprivation.

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,

but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have

the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless

furnace of this world. To make injustice the only

measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.[vi]

 

We are called to praise the Christ child not the Devil.  And today we are given the grace of this ancient story of the Magi and the holy family, a story that reminds us that in a world like the one we know right now—even when illness or circumstance keeps us from apprehending it—light shines.  The story teaches us to seek out companions on the journey and, together, to focus our attention on the places where light shines, where grace is enfleshed.  The fact that we can choose where to focus our attention is itself grace.

 

Where will you focus your attention in 2018?  How might you attune yourself to the grace notes on the journey?  Perhaps taking a few minutes to reflect on the gifts of each day with gratitude…perhaps a commitment to pause and take in moments of wonder…perhaps an intention to actively appreciate the grace of traveling companions on life’s journey…Seek light.  Seek love and mercy incarnate.  Stay focused on delight and beauty, courage and generosity, tenderness and care.  As you journey with such focus, the primary threat may be that you become overwhelmed…with joy.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Christian Wiman, “Still Wilderness,” Joy: 100 Poems, Yale University Press: New Haven, 2017, p. xi.

[ii] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, p. 38.

[iii] Wiman, p. xi.

[iv] Ibid., p. xxiv.

[v] Ibid., p. xii.

[vi] Jack Gilbert, “A Brief for the Defense,” excerpt, quoted in Joy: 100 Poems, p. xxiii.