Synagogues and Cell Phones

Screen Shot 2019-01-27 at 4.33.26 PM.png
Or, “When simple things mean everything and post-church theological diatribes are merely annoying.” 

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

In case you’re pretty new here or you’ve just never thought about it — no, I don’t pick out what text I’m preaching on every week. Most of you probably know by now that our texts are on a three year cycle following the church year, and that I love that the texts that I preach on are not pulled from my own personal favorites or whatever I happened to land on that week, but something that we tackle with Christians all over the world. (1)

There are drawbacks to this three year cycle, however.

Well over ten years ago now, renowned New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine said at a conference I was attending: “Oh, the lectionary. God bless the lectionary. Sleep in one Sunday and you miss the story for the next three years.” 

Dr. Levine isn’t a pastor; she’s Jewish, actually. This gave me a great perspective, however, on how people in the pews — that is, you — might see the lectionary. You see, because from this side of the pulpit, after a few years, it can all begin to feel awfully repetitive. It only takes three years of preaching every week, after all, to get what I like to call the “complete set” – a sermon from each Sunday of the whole church year. And after that, every Sunday brings memories of sermons you’ve preached before.

I admit that I had a hard time sermonizing this week, so I decided to let the memories take me where they will and trust that the Spirit is working in them.

This story comes up quite a lot in the lectionary, too. Sleep in this Sunday and you won’t miss it for three years. It makes sense that we read it a lot: during this time of year, the season after Epiphany, we’re telling the story of Jesus’ light being revealed to the world bit by bit. Last Sunday, we heard about him turning water into wine in his first miracle. And this Sunday, we’ve got Jesus in his hometown, preaching, sort of, to his home congregation.

MEMORY ONE
This is where my memory takes me back to my second sermon ever. 

Let me pause briefly to say that way too often, the Church makes preachers out to be Saviors, and we preachers are often happy to play along. The cardinal rule that I was taught about preaching, however, is that if you look at a Gospel story and the character that you most strongly identify yourself with is Jesus, you probably need to look a little more closely at what the point of your sermon is. So by way of preface, I will remark: while this story includes me preaching “at home,” in a sense, I’m not Jesus in this story. In fact, I’m not Jesus at all. 

Moving on.

So my second sermon ever was delivered on this particular Sunday sometime around 2009 in a tiny church in rural Alabama. I was in seminary, and a friend and first year pastor who was out of town that Sunday and asked me if I’d be willing to drive from Atlanta just over the state line into Alabama to preach for him. I agreed, although what they paid me would barely cover the fuel to get there, because I did need more preaching experience. I was only one sermon into my preaching life, after all, and my first sermon two years earlier, while theologically sound, had lasted a total of three and a half minutes. 

So I took the pulpit in this tiny church and began my sermon. I wasn’t two sentences in before I felt a tug on my sleeve. “Use the other microphone,” a kind-faced woman said; “that one doesn’t work so good.” 

I switched microphones and continued, preaching a sermon on this story that was indeed longer than three minutes and thirty seconds and was also, I thought, my okayest sermon yet. Feeling pretty good about the whole thing, I exchanged pleasantries with members of the congregation and began to pack up my things to drive the two hours back to Atlanta.

That’s when I noticed the tall and lean bass player from the praise band sidling up to me. He was about my dad’s age, with a long gray ponytail and several leather accessories telling me that he took his role in the praise band seriously. He had a hard look in his eyes, but I could tell he was trying to look kind but stern, in a fatherly way. As a young woman finding her way into church leadership, I had already learned to recognize that look and brace myself. 

As I remember, he got right to the point.

“I’m a member of an organization that seeks to bring Jews to Christ,” he said, “so I know a thing or two about synagogue services. I just wanted to let you know about what you got wrong about how they go.” 

I resisted the full body cringe that those two simple sentences were bringing on, and I and politely smiled as he told me how the liturgy of a synagogue service generally runs.

There hadn’t been any such details in my sermon, so I was unsure about what he thought I got “wrong” that wasn’t just me reading from the Bible itself, but I let him go on, smiling and nodding in that way that everyone, especially women, are pretty accustomed to doing when we’re being polite to someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about but doesn’t know that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

When he finished, he handed me a brochure for the organization. I’ve kept it an entire decade later, and it stays in my Bible because — well, I’m not sure why, but it does.

One of the life skills I think we all learn fairly quickly is to know when someone is just doing what they think is right and being patient with them when they aren’t actually harming anyone. Sure, you can make a good argument about this organization doing harm, but I somehow doubted that he was willing to listen to my opinion on evangelizing our Jewish neighbors. He was following Jesus as best he knew how; that was for sure.

MEMORY TWO
Years later, I found myself at the Wild Goose Festival, a progressive Christian outdoor festival in North Carolina that loves talking about proclaiming release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind — the things Jesus finds himself reading about in the synagogue in this passage. Many kinds of Christians come to the Wild Goose Festival, not all of them progressive, but most all of them willing to get along with everyone and live in community for a week. 

Typically, several outlets throughout the campground are dedicated to power strips set up so that people can charge their phones. The campground is happily situated in a part of the Appalachian Mountains that doesn’t have a lick of cell service, but there is a cafe with WiFi nearby for people who want or need to contact the outside world, so we all had reason enough to want to charge our phones.

I had had a problem previously with my phone not charging, and I stood at the charging station muttering curses under my breath before the volunteer manning the station noticed me. He appeared to be at that age where you don’t know whether to call him a boy or a young man, but since I’m a terrible judge of age, let’s assume that he was probably at least in college. He, too, had a ponytail. He had kind brown eyes and an easy smile.  Seeing me struggle, he said humbly: “Can I help? I’m pretty good with these things.” 

Desperate, I handed him the phone and the charger and watched as he carefully cleaned off the charger with his shirt and blew a puff of air into the port. Then he carefully placed the charger into the port, and BAM. Charging.

These years later, I still mimic that kid who was probably my age whenever my phone charger won’t work, and it usually gets it working.

Those two stories stood side by side in my consciousness this week as I contemplated what it means to follow the Jesus who proclaimed “release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.” Those things seem big, and cosmic, and daunting, but I think it’s no real mistake that right next to this text, we also read Paul’s little diatribe about the Body of Christ, and how we’re each parts of that body.

I think Paul’s whole point is that we are parts of Christ’s body, and that can get us feeling like we have to save the whole world — including evangelizing everyone and making sure that young preachers get all the details of synagogue services right. It can lead us preachers into thinking that we’re the Saviors. It can lead us all into convincing ourselves that we have to save the world.

But we’re not, and we don’t.

So instead of trying to be the boss — the head — all the time, I’ve taken to thinking that I prefer to be a strong arm, or a hand, or a calloused but experienced foot, ready to kick butt and take names.

I know — that can go off the rails pretty quickly, so I’ll stop. But take this to our annual meeting, and then take it home: we are not the Saviors. We are not the brains of the body of Christ. Those jobs are taken.

What we can be instead is like that guy at the Wild Goose Festival: humble, helpful, practical. We can be hands and feet, following the directions of the brain, taking the callouses, and the pain, and the joy of work and the joy of moving things and making a difference in the world. Believe it or not, that is enough — enough to save someone’s life and enough to make sure they have a charged phone. Either is helpful, and either is enough. 

We like to imagine ourselves as important pieces in this cosmic struggle between good and evil, putting all kinds of pressure on ourselves and other people, finding ourselves deeply bitter and critical before we know it. 

But you don’t have to be the Savior, or the brains of the operation. Position already filled. What you have to do is what’s painted above the coats in our narthex: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God. 

So love someone however you can. Help someone, even if it’s in a small way. You might save a life — or, you might just teach them a trick that they can use to charge their cellphone for years. Either one is worth it. Either one is enough. Amen.

1. An easy-to-use “what’s next in the lectionary” site can be found here, complete with the passages themselves as well as related art and prayer.

Jesus Brings the Good Wine

Screen Shot 2019-01-20 at 1.36.09 PM.png
Ever feel nagged by your parents? You’re in good company. Just look at the Lord’s face. “MOOOOOM…”

John 2:1-11

1913 Nobel prize winning Bengali poet, musician, and general renaissance man Rabindranath Tagore said, “The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.” 

That sounds so nice, but really, the future is terrifying, usually, at least on some level. It’s a thing that fills us with anxiety these days and always. Up until last night, I had my own worries about whether anyone would make it to church tomorrow. But look at you: here you are.

Jon Lovett, host of one of my favorite podcasts, said something pretty profound recently: it was something to the effect of, “What’s with everyone trashing ‘looking back on the past’? It’s the only way we can look!” For sure, the future is always unknown and today is no different. How will the roads be when you leave? More, what’s going to happen with this government shutdown? What’s happening with the future of our country? What’s going to happen in Syria? And it’s not just the news, either: it’s personal. Are the kids alright? Many of you worry about your children and grandchildren, no matter how old they are, and you always will. Whether you have kids or not, you probably worry about things like long term finances, getting older, your general health and the health of your loved ones. The future is scary, and it always has been.

Along with that, here in the church we’re worried about the future too. As we talk about our upcoming retreat, I’ve sensed a little bit of anxiety from more than a few of you: what will the future look like for Our Savior’s Lutheran Church? We all see the numbers falling and we know it’s not just us: the church in all of New England and in the United States has started to take hit after hit as people find plenty of other things to do with their Sunday mornings. 

I still think it’s an amazing opportunity that we have, don’t get me wrong. I think that pastoring and growing a church was quite different in the South, where most people still feel some obligation do the church thing, even in the cities. I’m happy to be here, though, and not just because by this point I’m practically allergic to religious obligation, far preferring people who are here because they want to be here — even when the roads are icy or they have to tune into some silly Facebook live thing. 

I love being here, you see, because the church in New England is exactly where the Church in the South is going, but like many cultural things from region to region, it’s on a delay. I’d rather be part of figuring out the future than trying to preserve a status quo that certainly won’t stay.

Even when you frame the problems of the future as an opportunity, though, it makes sense that the future would cause us anxiety, and no romantic quotes from Nobel-prize winning poets about trees are likely to make us feel much better about it. 

And here comes Jesus in today’s Gospel text. He’s doing a remarkably mundane thing for a Savior of the world: he’s attending a wedding. Along with new births and coming of age rituals, weddings are about the future, too, and they tell us something about how to approach the future. Namely, that we don’t know the future, so we might as well have wine and dance and celebrate the love that is.

Along with that, I have to tell you: of all the ways that Jesus is portrayed in the Bible, I think I like the one contained in these eleven verses the best.

Sure, there’s Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons and decrying the abuse of the poor. There’s Jesus the good shepherd, Jesus the playful, Jesus the sharp-witted. There’s Jesus the gentle, cradling children in his arms, and there’s Jesus the wild and political, flipping over table after table in the temple and making an actual whip (don’t miss that) out of cords. That Jesus will show up about three verses after this text is over, actually.

But for right now, he’s at a wedding, and there’s no whip, only wine.

Yes, my absolute favorite Jesus is the Jesus of John 2:1-11. First of all, he’s relatable. He’s the one who gets nagged by his mom then saves the party immediately before he turns the party. The Jesus of John 2:1-11 is like a good best friend, specifically, like my best friend Samuel: I love him and relate to him and I remain a little in awe of him, even after all these years. It also helps that he always shows up at just the right time with the good wine in tow.

Times were hard in first-century Israel, though, and they worried about the future in ways that we can’t even fathom. Their world was far more unstable than even ours. Rome had them conquered and suppressed. Jewish folks like Jesus and ostensibly the other wedding guests often feared for their lives. 

They lived as the very definition of a minority: those who had power were very different than they were, and like minorities often do, they often found themselves on the wrong side of violent actions, state-sanctioned and otherwise.

As always, however, life went on in the first century as life tends to do; people were born, people died, people got married and sometimes people even fell in love. But times were hard and the future was unknown. The text doesn’t even tell us why the hosts of this wedding ran out of wine. Maybe they were poor, maybe the harvest was bad that year, or maybe they were just bad planners. The Gospel writer doesn’t think that’s an important detail. The point is, they ran out of wine. And Jesus’ mom, a guest at the wedding with her son the Son of Man noticed.

I imagine that she whispers her dialogue to him across the table at the reception. Back then, receptions could be days long, but for our purposes, just imagine it like any reception today. It would seem that Jesus’ mother knows that he can do something about this little wine shortage. And you know how the story goes: Jesus’ first miracle is one of his most famous, after all. With a good dose of motherly cajoling including Jesus never actually verbally agreeing, Jesus instructs the servants to get some water and he turns it into wine, and not just any wine: good wine, and a lot of it.

(As my adult ed students from last fall will remember from our study of John, in John, wherever Jesus is, there’s a lot of everything good: food, wine, perfume, spices.) 

Now, arguably the best part about this wedding wine: in the story, only the servants, Jesus, Jesus’ mother, and Jesus’ disciples ever actually knew what happened. It’s the hosts of the wedding that get the compliments for bringing out the good wine. As readers, we are privy to knowledge that characters in the story aren’t; specifically, as one of my seminary friends used to say, that “Jesus kept the party going.” What’s more, this is the first time that John’s Gospel says that Jesus’ disciples “believed in him” (v. 11). Jesus turns the party, and they believe.

These days, most of us are feeling tired and anxious about the future.

The news moves at a pace that even professional journalists have a hard time keeping up with. Many of us worry about the state of the nation and the state of the world and the state of the church.

What’s more, this season of Epiphany always contains some of the worst weather New England has to offer. We worry about what storm will be next and how bad it will be. And many, many more people in New England and elsewhere live under conditions so difficult that the weather is the least of their worries.

In the midst of all of it, this text finds us, in the middle of January during yet another year in a universal church with an uncertain future, in furious America and in a furious world. This is where Jesus shows up to the wedding, brings the good wine, and toasts to the future.

John 2 is a text so full of joyful abundance that if you listen, you can hear the characters giggle in tipsy glee and newfound belief. They dance, even as they are in the midst of a furious and violent world and an uncertain future. They dance because they are at a wedding, and because God showed up. In the midst of everything, they find something to celebrate: each other, and Christ’s presence among them.

Yes, of all the ways that Jesus is portrayed in the Bible, I think I like this Jesus best. So don’t forget to dance at the wedding. Even in the midst of your worries, find the time to toast to the future as we continue to build all our futures and our church’s future together.

Rabindranath Tagore said, “The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.”

I agree. I also think that when we think of the future, we shouldn’t forget to toast to whatever may be, if we are to let Jesus be our guide: we shouldn’t forget to dance at the wedding, either. So bring out the good wine and put the bread on the table. We have a future to celebrate, this Sunday and every Sunday. Amen. (1)

1. The basis for this sermon was an article I wrote for the lectionary blog Modern Metanoia. You can find it here.

Baptism of Our Lord: Enough, Beloved

Screen Shot 2019-01-14 at 4.09.07 PM.png

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

When the new year turns over, some people make new year’s resolutions. And then other people trash the very concept of new year’s resolutions.

As for me, I stopped making vague new year’s resolutions a long time ago: you know, the ones where you promise yourself you’ll read more, or exercise more, or be more kind. Those might work for some folks, but they’ve never worked for me; by January 3rd, I’ll have read nothing but Instagram posts while I sat on the couch feeling as unkind as the year before. 

No, if I’m going to have new year’s resolutions, they have to be specific and measurable and actually realistic: I’ll read four books this year, I say, because despite what you might think, reading actually doesn’t come naturally or easily for me. I’ll sign up for a three month program at a local gym. I’ll try going for a whole week without yelling at someone in traffic. (Okay, that’s probably not realistic.) 

Even then, though, some fall by the wayside, and I join the chorus of people who like to make fun of new year’s resolutions.

So, if you make resolutions, how are yours going? Or did you give up on the very concept of resolutions long ago? (Honestly, many years, I’ve thought, “I can’t do resolutions and Lent, and Jesus only asks me to do the thing for forty days and not three-sixty-five, so I choose Jesus.”)

I’ve lamented the way that we’ve started to increasingly trash the very concept of resolutions as a culture, but recently, I’ve been rethinking the whole phenomenon. Maybe we’re not so much trashing other people’s resolutions to be better. Maybe we’re just being more realistic about ourselves and other people. 

Because you see, it’s a really common human thing to assume that everyone else has it more together than you do. As we age, I think, we start to realize that just about everyone around us is faking it and just doing the best they can with what they have, but even then, our tendency to assume that other people are more on top of things than we are is pervasive. 

As an example, take this: every now and then, I catch a mood to watch an historical documentary. I especially like the ones from contemporary history, that is, history that I either remember because it happened within my lifetime or the lifetimes of people still alive today. It’s the history that I feel closest to, for obvious reasons: we can talk about the events that we all witnessed together. While all history is putting together a puzzle, we simply have more of the pieces from the most recent past, and we don’t have to do as much imagining as we do, say, when we talk about the American Revolution. When we think about the American Revolution, we often romanticize our brave forebears. We assume that they were brave and had it all together. When we talk about the 1970s, we do far less romanticizing. 

I watched a documentary a year or so ago about the 1960s. I had forgotten just how turbulent the 1960s were, and to this day I can’t imagine the seismic shifting that occurred during that decade: fears of nuclear annihilation, assassinations of key figures all over the place, including the President of the United States, hugely shifting social sands, the draft, and much, much more. After watching this documentary, I sat at coffee hour in our fellowship hall and somehow the topic came up. I asked three or so of you who can remember the 1960s a lingering question that I had, a simple one: 

How did you all not freak out for that entire decade?

The answer came swiftly: we did. 

Someday, thirty, forty years from now, I imagine some punk will watch a documentary and ask the same question of me: how did you make it through such turbulent times? 

I’ll be thinking about my answer until then, but for now, all I’ve got is prayer, good friends, and not a little whiskey. 

You see, just like we assume that other people around us have it together, keeping their new year’s resolutions, improving their lives, being good parents, having everything on track, we assume that our forebears in history and in faith did too. Whenever someone says to me, “Things were so much better in America when I was a child,” I can’t ever help thinking, “Of course they were. You were a child.” It was the adults who did the freaking out when you were a kid, and now the job falls to you.

Life is messy, and we’re all faking it, trying to do the best we can and improve our lives during turbulent times. This has basically always been true. A quote often loosely attributed to Mark Twain goes like this: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” 

We are always going into an unknown future, and we are all faking it. 

And today we’ve got Jesus in the Jordan River, baptized by John, at the beginning of everything. Just like we assume our forebears in history had all their stuff together, so we assume the same is true in the Bible. You can hold the whole story in your hands, and you know how it ends. It seems clean, finished, inscribed in religious history forever. 

What we forget is that all of history, including religious history, is full of humans who couldn’t see the future any better than you can and didn’t have it together any better than you do. 

Yes, one of the characters here is the Son of God. You can make a solid theological argument that he could tell the future and had everything under control. But I don’t need to remind you that none of us is that guy in the story, and that’s kind of the point of why we’re all here. 

It’s not a clean story: the Jordan River wasn’t, isn’t, a crystal clear stream. What’s more, people didn’t shower every day or wear deodorant. So here at the beginning of everything, the thirty-something Son of God plops his feet into the mud and wades out with John, John, the religious fanatic crazy person known for wearing camel’s hair, and is submerged below the cloudy water. When he comes out into the sunlight, muddy water flowing from his hair, the heavens open and he is declared the beloved Son of God. John didn’t know how all this would end, or that he wouldn’t live to see it end. The crowd didn’t know how it would end, either. But it began in the water with the word “beloved.” 

And that is why we welcome babies into the world and into the church with water and the word “beloved.” 

Because we do not know how this story ends; we only know that we do not walk alone. 

Maybe, despite everything, our worth isn’t in how much we produce or how much we have everything together or keep our new year’s resolutions or don’t freak out. Maybe being more fully human means admitting that we don’t have it together and that we need each other to make it through. God’s promise to us and our promise to each other is that we do not walk alone. 

Back in 2013, I was a hospital chaplain in midtown Atlanta for a year. Being a chaplain is a weird thing. You see, these days I go into hospital rooms and care facilities offering the same comfort and accompaniment, but nearly always these days, the person I’m seeing knows me and has often even asked to see me. 

As a hospital chaplain, you go into these waiting rooms and ER bays and hospital rooms where people are in crisis and you say “Hi, I’m a religious person you don’t know!” 

Just what everyone wants, let me tell you. 

It was always a wonder to me that everyone didn’t immediately throw me out. But almost no one did. 

To begin with, I never knew what to say, but quickly, I learned: I am powerless. I’m not Jesus; as yet, I’ve been completely unable to raise the dead or heal the sick. But what I learned is that that wasn’t what anyone was asking for. Those who wanted me to stay with them just didn’t want to be alone. I learned the lesson that my dog had been trying to teach me all along: we can’t change anything, we creatures, and none of us has it all under control. All we can do is be beside each other and let that be enough. 

So today, as we remember the muddy water and the Son of God, take this: in the waters of baptism we are bound together. None of us has it together; all we can do is be beside each other and let that be enough.

When I was the staff chaplain at Camp Calumet this summer, I had the pleasure of chatting with the mostly college student counselors for the summer. After having a talk with them that’s not dissimilar to this one, I ended with this poem that defines our baptismal promises to me. It’s by poet Naomi Shihab Nye, a poet born to a Palestinian father and an American mother in 1952, another turbulent time. It goes like this.

“A man crosses the street in rain,

stepping gently, looking two times north and south,

because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.

No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo

but he’s not marked.

Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,

HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.

He hears the hum of a boy’s dream

deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able

to live in this world

if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing

with one another.

The road will only be wide.

The rain will never stop falling.”

The times will always be turbulent, beloved. So wade into the muddy waters with me and remember the promises. We don’t have it all together, but we are all together, and that is enough. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Epiphany: Light Returns

Screen Shot 2019-01-06 at 3.00.06 PM.png

Matthew 2:1-12

When my now-teenage cousin was little, for a little while there, we all rued the day we taught her to turn on the lights. From that day forward, every time she entered a room, she turned the lights on. It sounds cute, I know. Until you’re in the middle of watching a movie or taking a long winter’s nap when suddenly the overhead fluorescent lights in my parents’ living room come on.

During the winters here in New England, I’ve noticed that I’m not all that different than that toddler version of my cousin. I wake up just after sunup most mornings in the winter, turn on the lights, put a morning news podcast in my ears, and go down stairs and turn on light by light ending, during Advent and Christmastide, with my Christmas tree.

The lights go out as the light outside gets gradually brighter, but in a few hours, I go through the same routine: light on, light on, light on.

Here in the dead of winter, we long for light. We adults watch the light wane at 2PM. We take Vitamin D and invest in full spectrum lamps.

I never understood before moving here why every winter photo in New England looks like it was taken at dusk: because it’s essentially dusk all day. Ever since December 21, we’ve been counting every extra minute of light. 

It makes sense, then, that our ancestors in the Church would have us begin a season of light just as we’re noticing the sunlight grow a little brighter each day. In the dead dark of winter, the Church starts speaking in earnest about light, starting with that star the magi followed.

Shine a little light.

That’ll preach.

The season of light kicks off with a little story about how people from across the known world — sorcerers or kings, doesn’t matter, point is, they weren’t Jews — but they still found Jesus and were welcomed into his house by Mary and Joseph. 

We don’t know who the magi were, really. We don’t know how many there were. (I know, we say three, there are three in your creche — but Matthew doesn’t actually give us a number.) Truth be told, we’re not entirely sure what gender they were. All we get from Matthew is magi, which some folks translate “wise men,” because we all got assumptions, but it most directly translates to “magician.” 

I need to pause here to say how crazy it is that after some fundamentalist-types today make quite a fuss of condemning such people — fortunetellers, magicians, Harry Potter — they are welcomed by the Holy Family.

By this point, you have to think that Mary was maybe almost used to random people showing up to see her young son. The night he was born, random laborers, shepherds, showed up. Now it’s likely a year or two or three later, and these foreign magi show up. Matthew doesn’t tell us about her reaction, but from both the culture and the rest of the story, we can infer that Joseph and Mary welcomed them right in. Ancient Middle Eastern culture (and current, in fact) places a high level of value on hospitality. If a guest shows up at your door, you are expected to welcome and feed and house them.

The magi follow the light, and they find light and welcome with Mary and Joseph and their little son. 

The magi do, in fact, spend the night there, where they have a dream telling them not to return to Herod. Mary and Joseph shelter them, keep them safe, and send them on their way. 

And so it’s also no wonder that our ancestors in faith determined that this would be the day that we bless chalk to bless our homes for the new year, praying that we may in joy welcome guests from near and far into our homes this year.

Being a guest and welcoming guests — you know that hospitality is part of making it through the winter, too. Most of us welcome guests aplenty into our homes: friends, family, and other loved ones may drop by just to chat or to stay for a few days. Welcoming a guest or being one yourself is a bit like turning on a light in winter. Rooms are cozier with company. Together, we shed the light of hospitality.

January sixth, the end of Christmas, when we remember how the magicians from far away followed a star to meet a baby Savior. 

These days, there usually aren’t any new bright stars in the sky. Epiphany is just a holiday of light and hospitality in the dead of winter. Light and hospitality – common things that mean everything. Common things that mean everything are what church is made of. Light, hospitality, bread, wine, water, words, love. 

We think of Epiphanies as these super rare moments when everything seems crystal clear. This year, I’ve been thinking maybe Epiphany as a holiday isn’t so uncommon and isn’t so specific. 

Light and hospitality. Bread and grapes. Love. Greenery. The familiar and the cozy. 

These are what Epiphany is about. 

Tradition holds that tonight is the night we’re supposed to take down all our decorations and bless our homes for the new year. Away goes the tree, away go the lights, away goes the wreath. 

As for me — I’m leaving up just one strand of greenery with simple white lights to remind me to shed a little light on others as the light returns to us in the sky, day by day, as winter rolls on. Because the winter will be cold, but spring is coming.

So go ahead and turn on all the lights as we wait together for winter to end. And let’s come to the table where all are welcomed with hospitality and love, because all are family. Even if you don’t welcome many guests these days, you can always be a guest here. 

Turn all the lights on and welcome all the guests and crank the music up loud. Epiphany is here, and the light is already returning. Amen.