Faith, Practice, and Magical Thinking Epiphany Sunday January 5, 2020
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. 2 They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. 4 He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote: You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah, because from you will come one who governs, who will shepherd my people Israel.”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” 9 When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.
Today is Epiphany, when we celebrate the Wise Ones, the Magi, who followed the star that led them to the Christ-Child. How can we experience this story as something new, as if we hadn’t heard it a hundred times before? One way is to have three handsome men in tuxedos process in singing, which is pretty different from the memories many of us have of Christmas pageants with children dressed in bathrobes, and with towels tied onto their heads.
This past week has been New Year’s Music Camp, and every morning we’ve heard a piece of the nativity story. I’ve used a few different nativity sets so if porcelain statues of Joseph and Mary looked too clean and too Euro-American, the featureless ones roughly carved from olive wood would perhaps tell a different story. Music Camp wouldn’t have been how I chose to spend the week after Christmas, following six worship services in three days. But as often happens, I saw God in the children, and I experienced these old stories in new ways. Music Camp had a different theme each day: open hearts, open eyes, open hands, open minds, and on Friday, Epiphany, and the Wise Ones who followed the star.
Epiphany is a sudden, intuitive perception into the essential meaning of something. Every morning at Music Camp was an epiphany for me as I told a piece of the nativity story and heard both silly and profound responses to it from the children. By the second day I realized that some of the children were hesitant to wonder aloud or to respond to questions, so I started saying, “There isn’t just one answer.” That opened them and me up to hear and see and feel these old stories with surprise and delight. An epiphany is a surprise, and I sometimes think God’s middle names are “Surprise and Delight.” I realized again with the children that there isn’t one way to respond to these old stories, and that we are to listen to them with open hearts, and open eyes, and open minds… because God is always revealed in new ways in these old stories of our faith. So even if we’ve heard this Epiphany story dozens or even hundreds of times… there’s still something there for us to discover… and maybe even something to surprise and delight us.
“What’s in your wallet?” is the tagline from Capital One credit cards. An explanation follows of all the perks of having a Capital One credit card, that we wouldn’t receive from a rival credit company, and then we’re invited to think about it (and there is only one answer to “What’s in your wallet?”) This morning I invite us to imagine that in this new year we are the Wise Ones packing essential things for our journey, as well as precious gifts to take to the Christ-Child. What’s in your suitcase? What are the stories of faith that are most precious to you? Pack them in your suitcase for this journey into the new year. What are life’s most valuable gifts? Pack them in your suitcase too for this journey into the new year. Legend is that there were three Wise Ones who followed the star that led them to the Christ-Child, and that they were kings, but scripture says only that they were astrologers or magi and there’s no number given, even though they brought three gifts with them.
I invite us to imagine that we have been so captured by a sign (perhaps the brightest star ever seen) and we have a gut-feeling or unshakable faith that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of discovery, of revelation, of epiphany, and we are compelled to follow the sign. We’ve heard murmuring about a prophecy of a new king and we see this as more confirmation of an important sign. We are drawn to discover what following the star will mean for us, and the possibility of meeting a newborn deity. We pack carefully for who knows how long this journey will be. The porcelain camel in one nativity set has many colorful blankets on its back and a braided rope as reins, and looks fit for a king to ride, but the rough-carved olivewood camel looks bony and uncomfortable. There are lots of unknowns as we journey into the unknown but we’re taking it on faith that this sign is meant to be followed and will be an epiphany.
I told the nativity stories at Music Camp, not like the once-upon-a-time stories of Narnia, or The Hobbit, but as stories that are faith-forming. We can hear a bible story for years and years and still hear something new in it, still find something compelling, and find a sign to follow. When we share faith stories (and when was the last time you told a bible story or your own story of faith to a child or a young person? With a show of hands and no one taking notes… would you like to have the opportunity?) When we tell these stories of faith, we can find more layers to be uncovered, and might have an epiphany of something we’ve taken for granted. Part of being a Wise One is believing that we have faith stories to tell that are signs of a deeper understanding of ourselves, of others, and of God.
I suggest to you that the Wise Ones had been practicing for this occasion – following the star that led them to the manger in Bethlehem – for a long time. Searching the skies. Listening to prophecies. Reading the signs. Packing and unpacking the camels. Practice is part of being a Wise One. Practice in “Methodist-speak” is having regular (not stuck in cement but regular) spiritual practices, like prayer. Prayer is talking with God, listening for God, looking for God, singing to God, silence, walking… and more. There isn’t just one answer for what prayer is, but it’s a spiritual practice every Wise One needs to… practice. Showing up is another needed spiritual practice. Presence is a gift God gives to us and a gift we can give to others. Like showing up at church to worship with others, to offer support and presence. We don’t ever know ahead of time who needs to see us on a certain Sunday. Show up to be with God, and to just be. Searching the scriptures (searching is a word John Wesley used, and I love it. Not necessarily studying but searching) is a way to show up to God. Be present to the stories in scripture that tell you about God’s love, and God’s desire to share our human life, and to use us to help mend the world. We know nothing about the spiritual practices of the Magi, but I like to imagine that they practiced showing up to read the stars, to look for signs, and to listen to the voice of wisdom that came to them in a dream, warning them to go home another way.
Monday’s theme at Music Camp was open hearts, and we looked at Mary, whose hands in the porcelain nativity are across her heart. We all rubbed the area around our hearts, realizing the calming effect it has. Tuesday’s theme was open eyes, and we met in a darkened room, needing to adjust our eyesight to see what was right in front of us, and with the help of a flashlight and imagination, we looked for Jesus in each other’s faces. Wednesday’s theme was open hands, and we spelled out S-E-R-V-E on five fingers, remembering that Jesus came as a baby, as a king, and as a servant, and that when we serve others with love… they can see Jesus in us. Thursday’s theme was open minds, and we rolled out a giant felt tree and put felt nests and birds in it and heard Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed… and we wondered about the deeper meaning of this story. This was my favorite day as everyone shared what the parable said to them about a tiny mustard seed growing into something huge that sheltered birds and their nests. Thursday felt like an epiphany, as the children and adults identified the parable of the mustard seed being about love, and about home, and about the insignificance of small versus large, and about everyone having something to offer. Friday’s theme was today’s theme: Epiphany and the Wise Ones. All week our focus was on faith and practice. Hearing the stories of faith… and how we practice them, how we live them, in our lives. Music and crafts and snacks and exercise were part of each morning, because again, there isn’t just one way to experience or explain God.
Faith, Practice, and Magical Thinking is the title of my sermon. Sometimes on Thursday afternoons when Dianne is giving me that expectant look that says “If you gave me a sermon title I could run the bulletin” I take a deep breath and blurt out something. And then when the bulletin is copied and the title is there in print and I have to wiggle into it, and sometimes it’s like I imagine spelunking to be. But the more I’ve thought about Wise Ones (those in the bible and in legend and song) and the Wise Ones here (and I believe that is all of us) I’ve realized that Faith, Practice, and Magical Thinking are attributes of the wise. So a word about magical thinking, which according to dictionary.com “presumes a causal [kaz-ul] link between one’s inner, personal experience and the external physical world.” It’s believing that your thoughts can control the world around you, which is what young children do. Magical thinking is found in primitive cultures, and in religions that teach that human behavior can change or manipulate God’s behavior. Magical thinking in the extreme isn’t wise, but to have the ability children have… to suspend disbelief, or rational thought, and enter into imagination… to see with the eyes of the heart, to enter into the story of inanimate nativity figures… and to trust that the Baby in the manger was the human face of God’s love… this is a gift the young Wise Ones give to us.
How will you enter into this story of the Wise Ones? Will it be through a sign – for the Wise Ones it was a star – that leads you into the new year? Will it be a critical and compassionate look at the two kings of this story, the One born to bring peace and justice to the world, and the other paranoid and murderous, protecting his crown by having all baby boys in his kingdom killed before one of them could claim it? Will it be offering your most precious gifts to the Christ-Child, and realizing that serving others with the gifts you’ve been given is a gift to Him? Will it be paying attention to warnings and nudges from the Holy Spirit, telling you to travel a different path? Today is Epiphany, the first Sunday of the new year, and an invitation to us to enter into the story of the Wise Ones… to learn from them, to travel with them to the Christ-Child, and to expect to be surprised and delighted by Him. Happy Epiphany! Amen.