January 6, 2019
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The Magi, a caravan of foreign travelers, are a group of scholars and astrologers who have left their studies to journey west to Ancient Palestine. There are enough PHD’s, teachers, and librarians in this room for us as a community to know that scholarly types, they don’t leave their scrolls and laboratories easily. It takes a lot to pry a scholar from their texts and research. And yet, in this extraordinary story, they do. They get up and go, following a star that they have observed at it’s rising, having realized it is a portent telling of the birth of the Messiah of the Hebrew People, and indeed all peoples.
They have been observing and reading for so long, but somehow they know that this is the journey they have been preparing for, and being prepared for, their entire lives. We don’t know too much about their studies, except that it seems like they know a little bit about the Hebrew Scriptures. They observe the stars, although again we don’t know what they are hoping to discover. Something in their studies and observations has told them that this sign holds good news for them, and is worth the journey.
I love the story of the Magi, because it is so very odd, a sign that God’s presence among us turns the world upside down, brings people together who are surprised to be interacting, and that the God of Israel, is in fact the God of all peoples, especially when the powers and religious leaders try to limit the breadth of God’s revelation.
This year, I’ve been wondering about what it is that moves the Magi. They have a long and strange journey, and we don’t really get to hear about what motivates them to make it all the way to Bethlehem. Somehow, their observations of the world kindled within them a cold, intense fire; it’s not some kind of flash in the pan epiphany, but a realization that motivates them to stay the course. Something burns within them that imparts determination and persistence for a journey to a foreign land, to approach political leaders who don’t rule their lives, and get involved in something much larger than themselves.
A cold fire, you know, isn’t all that cold. The term a cold fire, or a cold determination, it refers to the blue flames and the deep orange embers? This is not the fire of flashy flames, but the powerful coals that burn for the long-run, that are the goal of anyone who wants a fire that can last the storm, or cook food fully, the kind of fire that warms a home, that allows the glass blower or silversmith, the blacksmith to forge and transform simple elements into tools and items of beauty.
I find that the task of the Spiritual Life to be akin to cultivating a cold fire, of building a bed of deep embers. It’s the cultivation of stories and experiences that can give us the persistence and tenacity to head out on our spiritual journey, to find ourselves in relationship with people very different from ourselves, to risk confronting the powerful of this world with the in-breaking of God’s presence.
I grew up in a community of people who observed, not the stars, but scripture and the world around them, to try and figure out what being a Disciple of Jesus called from within us. These are folks who have always been a little different, outsiders in their own community. They saw the wisdom of cultivating the cold fire in their lives. II loved these misfit Presbyterians. Our church was in the next town over from where I grew up, and in the world of my school and my day to day, the members of Tualatin Presbyterian might has well have lived in a different country. My hometown of Sherwood, home of the Bowmen Football Team and host of our Annual Robin Hood Festival, was an interesting place. The residents of my town loved the Flag, Freedom, and Jesus, and probably in that order, although most would claim Jesus came first.
I grew up in a town whose citizens were largely members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who were in close competition for power with a wide range of Evangelical Fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and for good measure a sprinkling of Methodists, Episcopalians, and a tiny minority of Roman Catholics. Talk of Jesus was everywhere.
And yet in Middle School and High School, with the help of my church family in Tualatin, I started to observe that there was something about the Jesus of the Bible that seemed to be a little bit different from that of my neighbors.
It was subtle differences at first. I remember when my friends’ youth group leaders told them that they shouldn’t listen to secular music. I had no idea what the word secular meant and I had to look it up in the dictionary at our library, from an actual physical book! What was so threatening about music that wasn’t released by a Christian record label? Even more confusing to me, what was I to make of all the songs that spoke to my faith, but also had curse words? What about the music of protest and social movements that seemed aflame with the Holy to me, and full of the dangers of Rock and Roll to them?
Things got a little less subtle in seventh grade. There were a few kids who started bullying me because they realized that maybe I was different, that maybe I liked guys. Their tormenting didn’t make sense to me because they claimed to follow Jesus, and I had learned from meditating on scripture that God cared about the people who were friendless, and in those moments that seemed to pretty clearly describe me.
With the help of my Church, A fire was starting to kindle within me, as I observed the world and people around me. A fire fueled by the realization of how the world should be, and my observations and experiences of how the world actually was.
The Magi arrive at Herod’s, and realize there’s something different about the cold fire that has sustained them on their journey, and the power King Herod wields. The Magi are not filled with fear about the child they seek, quite the opposite in fact, and yet they find their message terrifies the powerful. Later, I wonder what they observe as the scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures gather. I wonder what the Magi hear from the ancient texts of the Hebrew Prophets that Herod in his fear dismisses. The reaction of these Magi, when they arrive to see the Boy Jesus at his family’s home in Bethlehem, it’s not one of fear, but of overwhelming joy. And they encounter a power, a force in the world that is full of light and hope and peace. So with courage, they embrace the message sent to them through dreams to head home by a different road, and to bypass the powers of this world that defy God’s love for those far off and different, overlooked and marginalized in the pursuit of power through fear and violence.
As I left Middle School, I had a fire kindling within me, of God’s presence in my life. Growing up I had seen the beauty of the Christian tradition, and the summer before school started, I experienced at church camp what Christian community could be; mutual love and support, acceptance, honestly, and encountering the Living God in community. That fire was strong, when, my freshman year of High School, a young couples life was turned upside down. They had met in youth group at one of the local mega churches, and quickly fell in love. When they got into High School, these two lovers of Jesus were invited to help lead the middle school youth group as mentors, which they loved to do. So when their entire world turned upside down when they discovered they were going to have a baby, it was only natural that they would approach their church to seek help and guidance, support and love.
What they received was quite the opposite. They were forced to confess and ask for forgiveness in front of the entire congregation, and were removed from having any kind of leadership in the church, because, as their pastor explained, they clearly didn’t understand the Gospel teachings, and shouldn’t be instructing others.
This situation riled my small school. It was on the front page of the student newspaper, and was all anyone was talking about. I quickly saw fear grip most of my classmates and their parents and churches. But this wasn’t the tradition I had been raised in. That spring break, my youth group went on a mission trip, while we were driving out to a reservation in Washington State, we stopped to have lunch and I brought up what had been going on at our school with our Pastor’s wife, Cindy. The other kids around me, who attended a different school, all shook their heads in disgust. And Cindy shared that if any of us were concerned about pregnancy or found ourselves in a situation like this, she and the church would never shame us, but would embrace us and walk with us. She reminded us that sexuality was a gift from God, and that shame had no place within a sacred gift.
On that trip, I saw the way much of the church was, and what it could be, and it banked the bed of a cold fire within me. I wasn’t crazy, and I wasn’t alone, seeing the calling of the church to be a refuge, a place of liberation and empowerment, somewhere we could be full, flawed people who encounter love, where the struggles of our lives and our communities can encounter the transformative presence of the Living God.
Beloved, I have heard so many stories from so many of you about those experiences that have set cold fires within you, the Bank of coals that keeps you warm through the dark nights of the soul, these difficult days when the howling winds of our world seem to snuff out too many lights in our midst. We are a community of Magi it seems, on journeys towards epiphanies. Journey’s that have been set into motion because of the injustices you’ve experienced or witnessed, the questions about God that your former communities of faith wouldn’t make space for, the people in your life who set you aflame with a dedication to the common good in an uncommon way. There is something powerful when people dig deep and find what their cold fire is, where their deepest motivations are. Because that can provide us with a power that is the answer to the abusive powers of this world, the fearful politics of this age, the estrangement of neighbors from one another.
The Magi, they return home by a different way, finding a different path than that assigned to them by the powers of this world, and in High School, I realized that the Progressive Church had alternative ways of being in the world, and that I needed to journey to encounter and experience these ways of being, of observing God, and of acting to partner with that power, that transformation taking place all around us.
Siblings, I want to invite you to dig deep into your own stories, through our book study exploring what it is you believe, both on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings. I invite you to dig into your story for those moments where your resolve was formed and kindled and tended. Because those stories, they hold the power to be in relationship with others to move the world from how it is, to how it should be. Those stories are what can forge connections with people very different from you along lines of race, class, ability, education, immigration status, you name it. When we kindle cold fires, we can connect with the desire in others to move the world closer to how it should be, and that is powerful.
This process won’t be for everyone, but I promise, there are folks here that this can be a way to journey towards the epiphanies and empowerment you seek, and that our world desperately needs. May we seek to be the Beloved Community. I invite you this month, and this Lent, to explore how Community Organizing can transform us even more deeply into a community of refuge, liberation, and empowerment for those who don’t find a spiritual home anywhere else. I invite you to see how the cold fires that burn within us, and so many around us, can move the \world from how it is, to how it should be. Let us head out into the world when our cold fires are kindled, to encounter the Incarnate Christ, who is our Rock, the Liberator of all Creation, and the light that the darkness cannot overcome. Amen.