Happy anniversary! Today is our six-month anniversary, yours and mine, and if we were married I’d expect a present. That first year of marriage every significant anniversary is celebrated, no happiness taken for granted, no memory-in-the-making overlooked. We’re building up love-collateral in those days… collateral that’ll be needed when times are hard, and we don’t feel like loving. Today is not just our anniversary; it’s also Epiphany Sunday, which is known as Three King’s Day, and Little Christmas, and Women’s Christmas. Today could also be called “Love Sunday” because of the revelation of love on this day. Epiphany means revelation, or manifestation, or a sudden intuitive insight. On this day, Matthew’s gospel tells us, outsiders, heathens, astrologers, followed a star that led them to the Christ-child (the revelation of God’s love) and they brought gifts for a king.
There’s a lot of drama in this story of the Wise Ones, including a cruel and paranoid king named Herod, whose response to the news of a newborn king was murderous rage. But Herod would eventually fade from history, although he’s been replaced multiple times by other cruel and paranoid leaders. Love is the star of this drama. God’s love, manifested in Jesus Christ, was first revealed to shepherds – unclean, outcasts, dirty, mistrusted – shepherds tending their flocks under a starlight sky; the news delivered by a chorus of angels. That God’s audacious love (to become one of us, to live our life) was revealed to shepherds should have tipped us off that God leaves no one out, there’s room enough, and more than love enough, under this chuppah for everyone. A chuppah is an open-sided tent that Jews stand under as they are married. I love the image of a chuppah (which symbolizes a home, and a marriage bed, and a place of welcome) as the symbol of God’s love housing and embracing and welcoming all humanity. God’s love for us, revealed in Christ Jesus, is referred to in scripture as a marriage covenant. The good news in thisrelationship is that God always loves.
On Epiphany Sunday there was another revelation just as shocking as God’s revelation to the shepherds. (As an aside, when did we stop being shocked and offended by God’s reckless and indiscriminate love?) Author Annie Dillard writes, “Does anyone in the church have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us to where we can never return.”
On this day, Epiphany Sunday, when little boys walk up the aisle in churches in bathrobes, or older bearded men process in wearing crowns bought from Oriental Trading Company… on this day the world has been scandalized again that God’s love was revealed to people who were “spiritual but not religious.” These men, called magi – were occultists, astrologers, and perhaps magicians – who studied the stars looking for signs and wonders. And so for a second time in the revelation of God’s love in Jesus Christ, the people to receive this revelation, this spiritual insight, were outsiders. This is possibly more telling than anything else in Jesus’ story about how God loves us, and how God expects us to love. Most of us are able to love people who are loveable, and who are like us. But this isn’t the love revealed to shepherds and astrologers. Epiphany-love is heart-expanding love, it’s love without walls or borders, it’s care and compassion and kindness for the “other”, the outsider, the different, the unappealing, the unlovely, and even the enemy.
This is the first Sunday of the new year, and there are 359 days before us in which to learn to love as God’s love has been revealed to us in the Christ-Child. I read an article yesterday about the love and the human heart. “Neurocardiologists and other researchers are discovering the heart is the psychophysiological means to create physical health, emotional well-being, cognitive abilities, and greater wisdom. There is strong evidence that by connecting with your heart (by consciously bringing up the feeling of love) that you affect others around you. Your heart produces 2 ½ watts of electrical energy each time it beats, creating an electromagnetic field identical to the electromagnetic field around the earth. This field takes on a torus, or an egglike donut shape, that extends beyond your body from three to twenty-five feet. Some speculate that we may be able to link our hearts with those of others, perhaps to promote well-being in others. At the very least, this practice of tuning in to your heart dramatically reduces stress, improves your creativity, and helps you feel more at peace and compassionate.”
I also read a letter yesterday written by the United Methodist Council of Bishops to the LGBTQ community. It’s not a profound message and it hurts my heart that there’s a splintering in the church of Jesus Christ concerning people perceived to be “outsiders, the other, and different” (which sounds like a description of the shepherds and the Wise Ones.) The church seems to be mirroring a country that’s dividing and splintering, where power and position are valued above all else. Where no love is revealed.
One of my clergy colleagues posted on Facebook, “This is the year of my body” and she told of her intention to take better care of herself. I’ve also told my friends about my intention for this new year, because I want some accountability and support for making my health a priority. It is, I do believe this, it is the church’s intention to love as God’s love has been revealed to us, and for us. And yet, we are not so good at it. We are not providing communities of accountability and support where others help us to stay between the lines of love and mercy. But we can, if that’s our intention. The Martin Luther King Jr. celebration is coming up and I’ve been rereading some of his work. He said, “I believe that unconditional love will have the last word.” That he could believe such a thing gives me hope that love will change the church and the world.
At the beginning of a marriage or a significant relationship, love-messages are written all over the place. Maybe we’ve written “I love you” in lipstick on the bathroom mirror. Or we’ve drawn hearts on notes in our beloved’s lunch sack. Part of the power of these love-messages is that they reinforce our intention: it is my intention that you know you are loved. I suggest that love be our intention – yours and mine – for the new year. Love for the other, the outsider, the enemy, the stupid, the uninformed, the right-winger, the left-winger, the politician, and love for our imperfect selves… and I suggest that we write love-messages where we can see them to remind us of our intention that others know they are loved. So take that golf-pencil from the pew in front of you and write it – LOVE – on your bulletin. And then write it on a post-in on your computer or on the inside of your front door or on a kitchen cabinet. Maybe draw a shepherd’s crook or a magi’s crown to remind you that your intention to love is fueled by the revelation of God’s love for all humankind. And that includes you, dear friends. Love starts with you, and with me. You’ve got to know that the revelation of God’s love was meant as a gift for you.
Speaking of gifts… I want to thank you for your generous affirmation for the gifts I bring to ministry. Every pastor comes with their own gifts and graces, and every one of us builds on the gifts of the pastors who’ve come before us. I stepped into big, beautiful shoes following Pastor Lee, and Pastor Doug, and Pastor Ginny Person, and many others, and I thank God for each of them. All of us who follow Jesus are called to the ministry of revealing God’s love to the world. You are an amazingly gifted congregation, and I am proud and humbled to serve with you. All our gifts are needed to build God’s Kingdom, and to help heal the world, and to reveal Jesus in the world.
Christina Rosetti wrote a poem in 1872 that was set to music and it’s in our hymnal. It’s called In the Bleak Midwinter. The last verse says, “What can I bring Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet what can I give Him… give my heart.” A commentary on this hymn notes “When Christina Rosetti wrote these words women were largely excluded from the professions and from higher education. Like the shepherds, she was not employed; like the wise men, Rossetti held no degree. But she invites us to offer our own gift to the Christ Child just as the shepherds and wise ones did. Rather than the present of a lamb or expensive gifts, however, we offer the most important gift – our hearts.”
Let it be our intention in the new year to practice love, and to offer the Christ-child the best gift ~ our hearts. I invite us to sing together, In the Bleak Midwinter, and to sing “If I were a Wise One I would do my part” as we remember the gifts that all wise men, and wise women, and wise children bring to reveal the love of God. Amen.