Sermon, January 3, 2016

We Observed His Star at Its Rising    
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
January 3, 2016   Second Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany Sunday
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

The Wise Men were Magi, priests of Zoroastrianism in ancient Persia. Zoroastrians sought wisdom and truth to help the world progress toward its perfection. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the Magi studied stars and dreams to guide them.

That may or may not have been true for Zoroastrian priests, but it certainly is true in the Christian story about the Wise Men. Dreams, visions and signs play a huge role in the life of Jesus and the early church. Christian wisdom involves guidance from a higher power that speaks in ways that analytic reasoning cannot comprehend, requiring intuitive interpretation.

To be wise in Christianity is to know things in our spiritual heart, or literally our gut. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit that guides us to all truth wells up like rivers of living water flowing from the believer’s belly. (John 7:38 KJV)

Jesus talked about those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. For those who have the eyes and ears of wisdom, the world is full of burning bushes like the one Moses saw and heard. God speaks through nature and through the written word and music and works of art, and through our experiences every day.

The Gospel of Thomas was not included in the Bible, but it provides some beautiful insights about this wisdom way of knowing that are consistent with the canonical gospels. In it, Jesus says, “Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find…. The realm of God is within you and it is outside you…. There is light within a person of light, and it shines on the whole world. If it does not shine, it is dark…. If you bring forth what is within you, it will save you; if you do not find and bring forth what is within you, it will destroy you…. I am the light in all things…. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up a stone, and you will find me there…. The realm of God…. is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.” (adapted from the Gospel of Thomas, 2, 3, 24, 70, 77 and 113)

Jesus is saying that to be wise, we need to be persistent in our quest until we can see the realm of God’s light already here within and around us in all things. We need to shine that light once we find it, we need to bring forth and live out what our wisdom teaches us. It is urgent that we do this, a matter of life and death for us and for the world. The season of Epiphany reminds us of these truths, starting today with the Wise Men following the star and their dreams to make the long, dark journey to Bethlehem.

The wisdom of our tradition insists that this way of seeing and finding our path through life is absolutely real, and it is the way that we are called to take. If we are not following intuitive, spiritual guidance, we are lost. Its wisdom is essential to establishing and living in God’s realm of mercy, justice and peace on earth. Yet how many people truly believe in the Holy Spirit or practice following it? No wonder the world is full of hostility and injustice and violence. No wonder we feel so lost.

The question for those of us who do believe and want to follow the Spirit’s path is how do we do it?

A letter attributed to the fifteenth century friar Fra Giovanni offers some answers. It says, “The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach is joy. There is radiance and glory in the darkness could we but see—and to see we have only to look. I beseech you to look! Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by the covering, cast them away as ugly, or heavy or hard. Remove the covering and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love, by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow, or a duty, believe me, that angel’s hand is there, the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing presence…. Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty—beneath its covering—that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage, then, to claim it, that is all…and the knowledge that we are all pilgrims together, wending through unknown country, home.”

We need to look for the guiding light within ourselves and within the world in order to see it. We need to have the courage to look beneath the “ugly or heavy or hard” surfaces of our struggles or the people or events we find challenging. We need to look for the “purpose, meaning and beauty” that is undercover all around us and within us in order to find our way like the Magi “through unknown country, home” to God’s realm on earth.

But how? In the language of Star Wars, we need to learn to feel and trust in the Force. In the language of the book we read this Advent, we need to “practice the presence of God.” In the language of today, we need to practice mindfulness, or what ancient Christian tradition called watchfulness.

The Episcopal priest and author, Cynthia Bourgeault, wrote a book entitled The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart. In it she tells the story of a woman whose car broke down on a lonely, remote stretch of road in Maine. She was a potter, and had her entire inventory in the car on the way to a trade show that her livelihood depended on. She panicked. It was late on a freezing cold day. What if no one came along? What if she missed the trade show and lost all her income? What if she froze to death? Or what if the wrong person came along and did her harm? She was busy spinning the wheels of her mind, when suddenly she remembered the Spirit. She said to herself, “Well, I’m still here. God is still here. I wonder what will happen next?”

And what happened was that she became calm and present to the winter scene around her, the late afternoon light, the rabbit tracks in the snow, the flitting chickadees, and all caught up in that delight, she did not hear at first the rumble of an approaching truck. It just happened to be a tow truck. It just happened to be going exactly where she needed to go.

Bourgeault says, “Where there is surrender, synchronicity tends to follow.” Letting go of our usual way of thinking and instead practicing mindfulness and being present to God not only open us to intuitions that can guide us, but once we are immersed in that sacred way, we find ourselves carried and empowered by its flow. Things work out in surprising ways. We learn to trust and feel at peace that all shall be well even when we are lost, or when all we can find to follow is a star or a dream.

Next Sunday our Search Committee for a settled pastor will have its first meeting with Associate Conference Minister Pam Lucas and we will have a service of dedication. The Conference guidelines for the Committee call upon its members to listen to the Holy Spirit and open their hearts to follow where it leads. The service of dedication will ask them, “Will you seek decisions by the coming together of your minds, hearts and souls in God-given consensus?”

Cynthia Bourgeault used the term surrender, which means to let go and open to the presence of what is and the manifestation of God and the Spirit within and around us. The Magi had to clear their minds and clear their vision to observe the star at its rising and understand its meaning. They had to trust in epiphanies of spiritual intuition and inspiration more than the rational analysis of factual information. We are asking our Search Committee to do the same, to use their heads but more, their spiritual hearts.

It takes courage, faith and practice to live this way. It helps to have a community where we can be supported and reminded of the wisdom that has been handed down through the ages by people who have followed their own stars and dreams. I will do all I can in the coming months to help you practice living this way of the Magi.

I invite you to let go of your thoughts now, and open yourself in prayer to the presence of God. Let God speak to you in the rhythm of your breath, or in silence, or in inner or outer light or in a feeling of love.

Let us pray a wordless prayer, allowing the Spirit to rise up from our depths like a river of living water to guide us into all truth…