Beth A. Faeth January 6, 2019
Scriptures Isaiah 60:1–6; Matthew 2:1–12
I am a seeker of light. My favorite indoor spaces are those with lots of windows, providing ample opportunities for copious amounts of sunlight to stream through. I always prefer a table by the window in restaurants, and I will get pretty fidgety if I am stuck in a room with four walls and no windows for any length of time. There are many reasons for this light quest—and some even spiritual—but mostly I like the light because without it, I simply cannot see. I have been wearing contact lenses since I was 13 years old. That is more decades ago than I would like to admit. And I also wear hard or gas permeable lenses, which makes me even more of a dinosaur. My vision is especially poor: I am considered legally blind without corrective lenses.
The glasses I was forced to wear as a child were thick and magnifying and always slipping down my nose, so I am very grateful that there is a way to put all that power into tiny, thin disks of plastic. Unfortunately, like everything else in life, they are not perfect. At the most inopportune moment a dust particle can get trapped beneath a lens, and my eyes will tear unbearably, making people wonder if I am really okay. Long ago that happened just as a bride began her walk down the center church aisle as I stood with her groom on the chancel. By the time she arrived in front of me she was convinced I was overcome with emotional tears at how stunningly beautiful she was and how poignant her impending nuptials were to me. I did not have the heart to tell her otherwise.
But even worse than an occasional painful deluge of weeping, a contact can blink right out of my eye for no apparent reason. My girls have become experts at stopping and dropping to help me find a wayward lens, and I boast that I have even found a rogue contact in the dark in the middle of a field (don’t ask), and on stage during a performance even after I had entered and exited several times with the rest of the cast. One memorable experience with a fallen contact was years ago, when annual visits to Santa Claus were still a part of our family’s tradition. We had gone to the mall to see Santa, and I will let you imagine the chaos present. We were standing in line when Hannah—eager and excited—was hopping about and accidently backhanded me, and as I ducked and blinked my contact popped out. Immediately I was ordering everyone to stand still and stay back so I could try and find it. I just needed the right kind of light to catch the glare of this miniscule circle. Crawling around on the ground, I created a good scene. People stopped and stared. Santa wasn’t the only attraction now. “What are you looking for?” they inquired.
“What are you looking for?” It seems an appropriate question to ask at the cusp of a brand-new year. We can get all in a snit about the worthless practice of resolutions, or we can take some precious time to do some life inventory and consider what direction we might be heading, what or who guides our way and what we might hope to find as we journey. What are you looking for? Some of us are looking to be healthier, looking to be more secure, looking to feel more rested, more balanced, more sure of ourselves. Some of us are seeking the blessing of companionship or needing to resolve a fractured relationship. Some of us acknowledge that our lives need change, maybe even a complete overhaul, and we may be at the beginning of a journey to do so. Some us long to know more deeply a life centered in Spirit and have considered the steps necessary to ground ourselves more completely in Divine presence. Some of us are consumed with the worries of the world, wondering what life will be like for our children and grandchildren, fearful that we are all headed down a path of despair. But all of us, all of us, are searching for something—something that will make our lives more meaningful, something that will help us make sense of the world, something that will allow all the pieces of our life puzzle to fall into place, something to confirm our relevance. Do you know what you are looking for?
I wonder if anyone asked the mysterious Magi what they were looking for. Probably. Because, it seems, they were not sure where they were going or what they might find along the way. There is so much in this scriptural story that scholars love to argue about. Who were the wise ones, Magi, astrologers? The scripture doesn’t say there are three of them, but we deduce that because of the three strange and obscure gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. How much time had elapsed since Jesus had been born? Days, months, years? We enjoy setting up our wise ones in the same scene as the rest of the nativity. But the timing of the visit is potentially much later; Jesus could have been a toddler. And what, really, prompted their journey? The sign of the star? Their magical powers? Word of mouth? A message from God? A deep yearning for something different?
Scripture is pretty clear that even though they were blinded by the light, they really didn’t know where they were going. They thought they would find the child King in Jerusalem. Well, that’s where one King was . . . the kind of King that ruminates ridiculousness in the middle of the night and instills fear into his constituents in order to maintain control. These strangers enter the city, causing a ruckus as they inquire about a new King. Gaining entrance into the palace, they no doubt were disappointed in what they found—this pathetic king could not, indeed, be where their celestial light beam was leading. Herod was not what they were looking for. But Herod’s ego was feeling dented, and, unsure of their premonitions in their search for a King, Herod confers with his cabinet. Well, yes . . . there was this prophetic premonition by someone named Micah, something about a new kind of leader for the people Israel. Why not let these strange wanderers do Herod’s reconnaissance work and save big on homeland security? Micah’s prophecy dictated the new King to be born in Bethlehem, nine miles from Jerusalem. Imagine that, the travelers followed God’s light beam nine miles out of the way. Interesting how we can get off track even with the best of intentions. Herod commissioned them as political allies and sent them to go find this “new ruler,” all the while making promises he knew he would never keep, and devising a plan where many would suffer. That all seems a bit too familiar.
Seemingly undaunted by their detour and their peculiar encounter with a bizarre King Herod, the wise ones picked up the star’s trail, and it took them exactly where they had hoped to go. While an infant Jesus was not likely what they thought they were looking for, they were overwhelmed with joy in their finding. This new leader stirred their hearts, gave them new hope, created in them a sense of purpose and belonging. This divine encounter was exactly what they had been searching for and broke open their hearts to understanding a different way of being than that which they had known.
A different way of being than that which they had known: Is that what you are looking for? Two-thousand-nineteen opens wide the door at Plymouth to shed light on some of the dark places that haunt our hallways. This fall, we began the tentative process of examining our welcome, of getting serious about the messages we send to people of color, of having to confront our own white privilege and fragility in ways that are sure to bring discomfort, disillusionment and a need to get real about our own ego.
The conversations about the embroideries are only a beginning of a much longer, more consuming, more transformative process in how we truly become what we say we want to be: racially just, radically hospitable, honoring and inclusive of all people. This work will require some serious self-assessment, a willingness to be bold and courageous, an awareness of our need to be humble and repentant. If what we are looking for is to be more than a church that hangs a friendly banner on the outside wall exclaiming something we are not yet, then we must be willing to embrace the shining beacons that lead us, stand up to power that demeans, encounter a detour or three without getting discouraged, and trust that we are indeed on a path that ends with a different way of being than that which we have known. This was the trek of the Magi. And it is now our journey, too.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come! The glory of God is rising upon you. Though darkness still covers the earth and dense clouds enshroud the peoples, upon you God now dawns, and God’s glory will be seen among you!” the prophet Isaiah exclaims to a nation rebuilding in our first reading this morning. And the message is for us, too, in our rebuilding time. As the wise men returned to their homes by another way so as to escape Herod’s evil plans, they did so with new understanding. Their experience of Christ was meant to be shared. Epiphany means to make manifest, to make real. Like the Magi, we are beckoned to be light-seekers. When we emerge from the darkness into new ways of knowing and being known, we bear the responsibility to share the light, magnify the light, multiply the light. The Light encountered by the Magi was not meant to be contained. Epiphany is really about making the distinction between missed opportunity and revelation. The Magi discover that transformation occurs as a result of divine encounter; it also occurs through our recognition that we must change or die.
Back to the scene at the mall. Much time had passed. We had walked every single corridor and hallway, due to the fact that Santa had gone on break just as soon as we reached the front of the line. The contact was still lost, and I was adjusting to my poor eyesight as well as to the fact that 1) I was just going to have to deal with blurred vision for Christmas and 2) that our outing to see Santa had the potential of taking all night. And at that point I wasn’t sure which was worse. Growing warm, I took off my coat. As I looked down, there on the floor at my feet, I saw it: a glimmer. Picking up the glare of the lights was my minute, round contact. I could not contain my glee! “I found it!” I shouted, not minding the stares of the people around us. My family did a little cheer and this momma got a lot less crabby. The blind could now see. It was nothing short of a miracle. Or was it? The reality is that it was probably right under my nose along, having gotten caught on my sweater as it fell from my eye.
Sometimes, what we are looking for is already within our reach.
And when we find it, we see the world more clearly than we have ever known.
We are enlightened.
And everything changes.
It’s called an Epiphany.
What are you looking for?