Rev. Beth Hoffman Faeth
January 9, 2022, Epiphany Sunday
Scripture: Matthew 2:1–12
We, both collectively and individually, have experienced many firsts since March of 2020:
- A first Zoom meeting,
- A first time wearing a face mask in public,
- A first decision about the need to cancel a planned family gathering or travel or special experience,
- A first time working from home,
- A first time learning from home, or navigating our child’s education through the computer,
- A first time growing quiet within our own home, without access to entertainment venues or dining experiences.
The list goes on and on, doesn’t it? And certainly, Plymouth has also marked many firsts in these last 22 months: the first time we recorded and delivered worship to you via an empty sanctuary; the first time we held a congregational meeting via Zoom; our first livestream worship experience; a first time meeting our new Lead Minister in the parking lot, of all places.
None of us imagined, when acknowledging those firsts, that all these months later we would still be nestled in the predicament of the pandemic. Here we are, having to return to virtual worship only, and pulling back on all in-person gatherings—not only at church but everywhere right now. I am weary with you and confounded by the complexity of decisions that must be made to keep one another safe. I find this discernment growing more difficult as the pandemic wears on . . . knowing the right thing to do is elusive. So let us be kind to one another as we face the next hard decision, whatever that might be.
I am acknowledging a first today: While I have recorded other elements of worship from my home and officiated a special service a time or two via Zoom, I have never had to record my sermon away from the sanctuary, without the significance of that space as a background or the pulpit as a sure foundation. As always, I am grateful to Cody Bourdot for helping me do this and for his continued stellar work on all things virtual. I cannot be in the sanctuary this morning with the other worship leaders because of Covid. On December 23, my oldest daughter, Ellie, tested positive, and so we quarantined through Christmas, praying for her symptoms to subside. Thankfully, she has recovered, and she returned to Boston on January 4. Hannah and I thought we were out of the woods regarding our exposure to Ellie, but on January 5 Hannah tested positive, and the virus has attacked her in a vicious way. On Thursday night we spent many hours in the emergency room, as Hannah had an uncontrolled fever and labored breathing, with a shockingly high heart rate. After medications and IV fluids, we were able to return home, and Hannah continues her journey of mending yet is still very ill. Now I fear the ramifications of the virus after her symptoms improve and what indelible mark this might leave on her fragile system. And yes, both of my daughters were fully vaccinated. I share this with you not to glean sympathy, although I would never turn down offered prayers for my children. I also know many of you have walked similar paths, tending family members who were ill or fighting for life yourself. I wanted you to know why I am not in the sanctuary today, as my quarantine will continue for awhile, and also share with you some real-life experience as to why we must stay vigilant in our efforts to protect one another, to do what we can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and to care so much for each other that we are willing to go even beyond the CDC and the MDH in preventative measures. Because I do not want any other parent to have to stroke the forehead of their child who is struggling to breathe.
Today we celebrate Epiphany, a word that means “to reveal” or “to make manifest.” The words from the gospel of Matthew I am about to read may be familiar to you. It is the biblical interpretation of Epiphany, as travelers known as wise ones followed a star to find the Christ child. The Divine was revealed. Listen to these words today with open hearts, perhaps hearing something new in this long told story:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise ones from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise ones and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
At Plymouth, we read this scripture on Christmas Eve as part of our lessons and carols. I will admit: I am not a fan of this practice, since Christmas Eve is about the birth of Jesus and this story comes later . . . perhaps some time later. These words from scripture introduce us to the famous wise ones, those whom we know little about yet have contentedly made many assumptions. But the purpose of these scriptural words is found through the guiding light of a star, directing the travels to meet and greet Jesus, humanity’s savior, in the flesh. The divine is revealed and made manifest in the hearts of travelers from afar. And they emerge from this experience transformed by joy. Isn’t that a beautiful phrase: “transformed by joy”? Right about now, on the cusp of a new year plagued by illness and dissension and political trauma and natural disaster . . . I want to be transformed by joy, too.
The wise ones, or the magi as they are also known, followed their heart by noticing a star in the sky and allowing that to guide their way. I wonder what it might be like to abandon all logical pathways and instead use a constellation to navigate, trusting more in the possibilities of the destination than in the risk involved in the journey. Right now, I think we are all in need of a spiritual GPS, something to help us make meaning in these unsettling times. Like most things in the Bible, there is much conjecture about the mysterious star in the sky supposedly identifying the location of the Christ child. Was it a comet? A supernova? Two planets colliding: Jupiter and Saturn in conjunction? If what matters most is the what and how of the star of Bethlehem, then I would say we are sadly missing the meaning of the Epiphany story. Because the star may not have been a celestial event at all, but an ordinary constellation seen through the extraordinary eyes of the magi. What they saw compelled them to leave their homes and discover something for which they had long been waiting. They had “eyes to see,” while Herod and his scribes did not.
The wise ones paid attention to their own yearnings while waiting and wondering just where to go. One of the gifts I have noticed in this time of pandemic is that some are intentionally searching for that which gives life meaning, realizing the necessity of letting go of all the superfluous stuff that used to fill our time. It seems to me that we are reading more, enjoying poetry more, allowing music to fill our living spaces, noticing the art in our environment so as to provide both nurture and tangible resources that guide us towards meaning. How many times have we named what we will no longer take for granted when this time of pandemic shifts into whatever is next? Do we have the courage to live those stated convictions? Maybe the Epiphany story holds the key for us.
While the magi relied on a star to invite them into something they did not realize they needed, I offer you an Epiphany gift that may shape a new pathway for this complicated time in which we live: Star Words. This is the fourth year at Plymouth I have invited you into the spiritual practice of Star Words. As the wise ones discerned their journey by the celestial light in the sky, Star Words offer us a possibility for direction. If we were together today in the sanctuary, I would offer you a basket of hand-cut paper stars from which you would choose just one star with a meaningful word printed upon it. Technology continues to be a gift in this time, so I have another way for you to receive a Star Word. At noon today an email will be delivered to everyone on our distribution list, with a note from me referencing this sermon and an online way you can receive your Star Word. There are hundreds of Star Words, all centered in faith and spirit. Your Star Word can help ground you in prayer; it might lead you to insight; it becomes your spiritual companion for the year. There are many possibilities for Star Words, and if you are feeling a bit lost, adrift, out of focus, or in need of direction, your Star Word can become your rudder, a word to lead and lift you on your journey. If you are already feeling centered and are assured of where God is beckoning you, your Star Word can provide an opportunity to stretch your understanding or explore new territory. If you do not receive an email today, then please reach out to me at BethF (at) plymouth.org and I will happily send you instructions on how to receive a Star Word.
I believe firmly that we do not choose the Star Word, the Word chooses us. Some folks feel initially disappointed by their word. Take two weeks and let the word resonate in your heart for awhile. If it still unsettles, use the word generator again. Consider your word in prayer or meditation. What is God inviting you to through your word? How does your word show up in your life? How many ways can this word be interpreted? Consider how this meaning can evolve and change over the year. A good way to start is with the dictionary. We may think we know what the word means, but perhaps we need to expand our understanding. Deciding to receive a Star Word may be one of your firsts, something you might never had participated in before the pandemic. Others of you have joined me in this practice, and I have enjoyed our conversations about what gifts your word brought to you. Like most spiritual practices and unknown endeavors, you determine the energy you want the Star Word to return to you.
Epiphany is the celebration of God’s presence breaking through to shine as a guiding force in a blurry world and acknowledging the brave travelers who risked much to find that exquisite light. Consider your Star Word your spiritual GPS. Perhaps you will see something in your word that others may not . . . like the magi who determined the Bethlehem Star marked their destiny. What might we learn from one word? What new ideas might evolve? What treasured wisdom might surface? As we seek respite from the complexities of today’s world, may your spiritual quest and your sacred work include possibilities from a star.