Friday, January 07, 2011

guide us to thy perfect light: the new year as a spiritual journey (matthew 2. 1-12)

We begin the new calendar year with the very end of the Christmas story, which for the church coincides with the Epiphany of the Lord. Epiphany is a word that simply means the perception or intuition we have of an experience. The gospel for Epiphany is always Matthew 2. 1-12, the journey of the Wise Men, or Magi, who come from the East to offer their gifts to the Christ Child.

We are so familiar with this story that we often miss the scandal of it. I was visiting with my family in Georgia this week and we were having dinner, my mother, sister, nephew and my sister’s grandson, who is two. He had played the role of a magi in their church’s Christmas drama. We are familiar with this story because we have seen the play, or performed as a character in it. The scandal, according to Matthew, is that the visitors come from the east, biblical scholars tell us most likely from present day Iraq, they were more like astrologers than wise men, and so their horoscope told them to go in a particular direction, and they did. For a good Jew, waiting for the coming of the Messiah, this was not very kosher at all.

So here we are, with this old story and a brand new year. I find it to be an endlessly compelling story and actually perfectly suited to the confluence of all that is happening on this weekend, the calendars roll over, maybe we have taken the tree down, maybe not, the feel still of a holiday weekend, family coming and going. It is all perfectly captured for me in W. H. Auden’s poem, For the Time Being:

Well, so that is that.
Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes -
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week -
Not that we have much appetite, having …[ ]
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully -
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away

Of course, the gospel for today gives us hope that we have not sent him away, that we are actually considering the possibility of moving toward him. A new year gives us that possibility. Matthew’s story of the magi is one of movement, ordinary people moving from one place to another, on a journey. Along the way they and we ask questions: what is my purpose here? Where are we going?

On New Year’s Eve we watched some of the coverage of the evening, the ball dropping,… We had ordered Chinese food, but we forgot to open the fortune cookie, that might have given us a hint of what lies ahead. The commentators offered analysis of where we had been, where we were going, some trying to find a kind of soft secular hope in the middle of it all.

I like to return again to this story, one we all know, some of us have actually been a part of its drama, and reflect on it in relation to a new year. What is my purpose? Where are we going? Is it luck? It is fate? Or is there a God out there, guiding our steps, actually walking with us from one place to another. The good news of Matthew’s scandalous gospel is that God can work with anyone, even people a great distance away, and bring them to a place of epiphany, perception, discovery, even joy.

To bring the question into even sharper focus, this is a biblical story not only about moving from one place to another; it is about moving in a purposeful direction, toward the light, toward Christ. And so we could ask the questions not only “what is my purpose here?” and “where am I going?”, but “where do I discover Christ?” I grew up in a culture where you met Christ, once, and that was enough, that settled the matter, but as I grow older, as these calendar years seem to move by faster and faster, I sense that I must meet him again and again, and each time the meeting is different because I am not the same person, and the world is a very different world.

Where do we discover Christ? In a personal relationship? In a spiritual practice? Among a small group of trusted friends? In a decision to forgive? In the experience of being forgiven? In the poor? In setting aside my own agendas and preconceptions and seeking to discern his?

Something like that is going on with these wise men. On their journey they see star in the sky and it leads them to the place of discovery, and they are overwhelmed with joy. A child is always a gift, the Christ Child is always a gift, an experience of God is always a gift. Like the wise men we can make the journey, we can follow the star, and all in the hopes that we will find God or better than God will find us.

One of the earliest ministers of Providence was a man named Doug Corriher. His picture hangs in the hallway outside my office here and I see it most every day. I knew Doug Corriher when I was in my late twenties, which was a few years ago! He had also been the minister of the church where I was serving as an associate minister, Christ United Methodist Church in Greensboro, and he was active in that congregation . He would die during my time there. The only people on Providence who ever spoke about him in detail with me about Doug were Walter Nelson, of blessed memory, and his wife Carolyn, who now resides at Aldersgate.

Doug Corriher was a man on a spiritual journey, and he took groups of pilgrims on retreats to Dayspring, in rural Maryland, not far from Washington, D.C. I would go to Dayspring later, and would take a number of groups there myself. One of my most valuable possessions is a newsletter article Doug wrote in 1976, thirty five years ago. How many newsletter articles do you save for that long, really? But this one I have. I want to read it to you. Listen for his words about journey:

“Twelve [of us] made a journey over last weekend to Dayspring, near Germantown, Maryland the retreat center of the Church of the Saviour. It was a journey to make retreat, an effort to re-establish vital connections in our spiritual lives, seek (during 48 hours of silence) to rediscover the urgency of God’s call in our souls and to strengthen the emphasis on devotional disciplines without which our own commitments weaken and eventually die.

“To drive 700 miles to find “the Lord within” could seem a little foolish on a Monday morning---could, that is, if one were to permit himself to forget what life is all about. Life is relationships---not business, not education, not wealth, not power---and the seeking soul would be willing to go to the moon to find the God-in-Christ in a new clarity and closeness. We had better begin soon to identify the “far country” and make a judgment on where we are; for it may turn out that each of us needs to “come to himself” and go back to the Father who waits with open arms.

“Dayspring is a Mecca of Christian hopes and discoveries. You know it by the quiet confidence of the Retreat master, who stands in a long tradition of wisdom, gleaned from years of making the inward journey/outward journey. …You know it as you soak up the atmosphere of Gods’ beautiful earth, sky, trees, birds, etc. You know it as you awaken in the night to meditate on the Lord’s word to you in your dreams. You know it as you watch your friends permit their real selves to surface and reach out to you in a fellowship that is eternal.

“Everybody needs to make this journey---not necessarily to Dayspring, but everybody needs to journey to where the Lord Jesus Christ is, and there to fall in step with Him whose big intention is to lead us into life, and life to the full.”

Christmas does linger, and with it the possibility that we have not sent him away, that we continue to struggle with the questions, “what is my purpose”, “where are we going?”

As we come to receive Holy Communion this morning we have the promise that God meets us, in this place. May we be, literally, overwhelmed with joy, and may we offer our gifts---the gifts of ourselves, all that we are and all that we have---to the Lord Jesus Christ. And may all of it lead us to life.

Let us pray:

Star of wonder,
star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading,
still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

Source: W. H. Auden, For The Time Being. "We Three Kings", United Methodist Hymnal, 254.


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