Sunday, January 31, 2021

A New Teaching

January 31, 2021
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Mark 1:21-28[1]

The Gospel According to Mark is the story of a new teaching, a new way at looking at familiar things. Mark moves rapidly from scene to scene, skipping the transitions, moving from moment to moment with words like “immediately,” “just then,” “at once.” This pace builds the larger story – the Kin-dom of God breaking into the world – while leaving it to us to fill in the details.

Here, in Capernaum, we get a glimpse of two of the main things Jesus will do – teach and heal. In this short passage, only a paragraph of text, we don’t get much of a description of the scene. Jesus and the new disciples have traveled to Capernaum, and he taught in the synagogue on the sabbath. What did he teach? What scripture was read? Who was there? What was the town of Capernaum like? The key thing we come away with is that “They were astounded at his teaching” (v. 22). This was something new, a teacher that captured their attention in a way others had not.

The synagogue was a focal point in the community. It was central to “communal life: they functioned as courts and place for political discussions, storage of archives, education of children, public reading and teaching of Torah and prayer.”[2] Much like many folks in this country grew up at the church, attending worship, Sunday School, Monday prayer group, Wednesday Bible study, and Thursday choir rehearsal, people would have come to the synagogue most days of the week. It was common practice for various people to teach on the sabbath, so Jesus teaching was not surprising. What set him apart was the manner in which he taught. Rather than leaning on the scholarship of well-known scribes and rabbis, Jesus taught as an authority.

The teachers that they were familiar with, called scribes in this passage, would have studied the Torah in detail, examining the law of Moses through the insights of respected rabbis who had come before. They were practiced in explaining and applying the law to specific situations. Jesus, the “Holy one of God” (v. 24), spoke from his own authority, connecting closely with his audience. He brought the dusty scriptures to life, engaging their imaginations, and challenging them to consider the broader meaning and implications of the law of love and justice.

What would we find amazing if Jesus were to teach in our sanctuary? Would we hear the same familiar stories, or might they come to life in new, bold, and prophetic ways? Would we hear something we haven’t heard before? Would we be surprised, shocked, or offended? Would we sell all we possess, give it to the poor, and follow him? He might send us out to heal the social, moral, economic, and ecological illnesses of our society. He might ask us to face the unclean spirits, the evils of the world, and overcome them with goodness and love.

Like a student disrupting the class, the teacher encounters a man with an unclean spirit. Is it demon possession, or impurity and dirtiness that infects him? There are many ways that one might be identified with evil, influenced by malevolent spirits, or driven to distrust and paranoia. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (v. 24). Go away, we don’t want your kind here. The presence of the man is not surprising: people believed the world was inhabited by many spirits, which were mostly malevolent. Judaism, as well as the pagan religions of the Greco-Roman world, understood that people needed to be freed from the power of unclean spirits or demons. The unclean spirit exerted control over the human being–mind, body, and soul.

Was the man seeking for Jesus or simply entering a holy place and encountering Jesus? Was he as surprised at finding Jesus there as the others were amazed at the teachings of Jesus? However he came to be there, this man is a captive and needs to be set free. This is the moment Mark has brought us here to see. Jesus rebukes the spirit, and the spirit is cast out. Jesus commands, and even the unclean spirits obey. “A new teaching—with authority!” (v. 27). Jesus heals, releasing the captive, and restoring the man to wholeness. A miracle takes place. The Kin-dom of God appears on earth.

This scene takes place in a synagogue, a holy place. Jesus will heal and cast out evil in many places. It is the other holy place – within the human body – that is significant here. What has been profaned by evil has been made holy by the Holy One. This person, these people, and even us, set free from the power of evil and made whole again. Jesus astounds them with his teaching, demonstrates authority through this miraculous act of deliverance.

In our time we need a new teaching. We need to better understand our history, our politics, and our relationship with one another, the earth, and with God. We also need a miraculous healing, to be released from pandemic disease, economic turmoil, and ecological ruin. We need the one whose “fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (v. 28). The good news is, the disciples of the Teacher are right here.

We have, it seems, been living from scene to scene, skipping the transitions, moving rapidly from moment to moment. Maybe this pace has left us missing some details, but the bigger story continues – the Kin-dom of God is breaking into the world – and we’re participants in the mission of bringing truth and healing, hope and courage to the world. There is evil which must be confronted and cast out. There is justice and love that must be taught. We are called as the Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to seek with Christ the restoration of the world.

He comes with justice speedy to those who suffer wrong,
to help the poor and needy, and bid the weak be strong,
to give them songs for sighing, their darkness turn to light,
whose souls, condemned and dying, are precious in his sight.[3]


This sermon was guided by the work of the Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, “Sermon Seeds: Coming Through the Holy Places,” January 31, 2021 from:

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Eckhard J. Schnabel, Mark, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017).

[3] James Montgomery, “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed” v. 2, in Chalice Hymnal (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1995).

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Being Called

January 24, 2021

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Mark 1:14-20[1]

Please pray with me. Insistent God, by night and day you call your people. Wake us with your voice and shine the light of your grace into our lives so that we may respond to the call of Christ in mission and ministry. Amen.

“So, what do you do?” That is the question that often begins a conversation with someone new. What we usually mean by that is “What do you do for a living?” or “How do you make money?” or even “What sports do you play?”

That question can sometimes give a good impression of who a person is, at least on the surface. But it usually doesn’t go deeper than that. What do I do? I’m a minister. And if the conversation doesn’t end at that point, there is the can of worms of explaining the United Church of Christ, how I can be a “priest” and be married with kids, etcetera. But after all that, you really have only scratched the surface of who I am.

I love ice cream; I’m very particular about my milkshakes. I watch sunsets. I dream of travelling to Mars, or taking my family to Honolulu. I miss my friends in Denver. I play guitar, from time to time.

So I tried asking a different question once. “What would you be doing if you could do anything?” And the first person to whom I posed this question startled me with her answer. “What I do right now. I’m an archaeologist. I am helping to excavate ruins in Mexico.” Wow, right? She didn’t even have to think about it.

I wonder what would be different if we answered that question, “What would you be doing if you could do anything?” with “What I do right now. I follow Jesus.” We are Christians after all. We are the modern-day disciples of Jesus, and following him is what we do. “What do I do? I follow Jesus.” Whether or not we choose to follow is up to us, but we have been called. We have been invited. We have been seen by Jesus, he has fixed us in his gaze, and he has said, “Follow me.”

Now, you and I were probably not called in the same way as Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Jesus didn’t appear to me and say, “Come on, time to be a minister.” My calling sprouted in high-school when I joined group of youth planning and leading retreats each year at a camp called La Forêt. I served two years on this committee learning skills for leading groups and planning meaningful experiences. I was, as a youth, in ministry with young people and adults. After college I served as a camp counselor as often as possible, taking on more and more responsibility, and was eventually asked to direct the program.

I served as a delegate to the UCC General Synod in 2001. Through the workshops, worship, and speeches, I heard God’s clear and persistent call to ordained ministry. My peers recognized God’s call on my life and my skills for leadership. My pastor and other leaders in my church encouraged me to go to seminary, and I entered Chicago Theological Seminary in 2003.

However it may differ from the way the prophets and disciples were called, we have been called by God. We have been called by God, who formed our inward parts; who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. We have been called by God who knows who we are in the depths of our being, who gave us our talents, our gifts, and nurture our abilities. We were called by God before we were born. We have been invited to participate in the captivating, ensnaring work of the master. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

Not everyone responds with an enthusiastic “YES!” when God calls them. We might respond to God by saying, “Me? Are you sure?” “Who am I that I should go?” (Exodus 3:11); “What shall I say to them?” (3:12); “What if they do not listen?” (4:1); “Send someone else” (4:13). You hesitate. You are reluctant. You feel inadequate to the task. Well, I’ll tell you a secret. You’re not the only one. These are the same objections that Moses raised when God spoke to him out of the burning bush. “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” said Jeremiah. Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jonah all questioned their call. And that is actually a good thing. Why?

When God calls people to service in the world, it is not those who think they have certain skills or who seek leadership. Rather, God calls those who understand how inadequate they are for the task, yet are humble enough to depend upon God for guidance and empowerment. The great leaders of the Bible did not campaign for the position; they were placed there by God, or by the community. Not a single leader of the Old Testament is portrayed as having in themselves the abilities to be a great leader.[2]

In fact, if you look at who God chooses to do special things, they are usually people who are totally outside the traditional power structures: David, the youngest child; Deborah, a woman; Abraham, a wandering Aramean; Jacob, a scheming liar; Gideon, a coward; Peter, a simple fisherman; Mary, a teenage girl from a remote country village.[3]

What made them, and makes us, capable of doing what God is calling us to do is found in the answer that God gives to the objections: “I will be with you.” We don’t need to rely on our own strength and abilities. God promises to give us the power and the ability to accomplish our task. God is with us, even, as the psalmist says, in the valley of the shadow of death. The most frightening places we can imagine are filled with the presence of God.[4]

OK, I’ll go. So, what is it I’m supposed to do again? Where is it, exactly, that we are called to go? It’s not really a specific “job” or occupation, but rather a call to live out God’s beautiful purposes not just for our personal lives, but for our communities and for all of creation. It is living with an understanding of ourselves and everyone around us as precious children of God.[5]

Now, it is easy to see the beauty and wonder of God’s creation when we gaze at the stars, the purple mountain majesties, the endless oceans. It is easy to see God’s purpose in a newborn baby, a child discovering the thrill of the swings, or when a poet takes our breath away. What is harder is to see that same beauty and purpose in ourselves, especially for those of us who have been alive a while and know our failures, our shortcomings, our faults. Even though we spend a lot of our time trying to polish our image, to hide our weaknesses, and gather up credentials to prove to others how good we are, we know the truth.

Yet the truth is more than what we think about ourselves. We are not worse than we should be. We are better than we think and better than we deserve to be. Why? Because, underneath everything, we are created in the image of God, in the image of goodness, and beauty, and strength. One day you may lose everything you have, everything you have earned and all that you value; but, no one can ever take away from you the fact that you are a child of God and that God’s image is embedded in your very soul.

The author and spiritual guide, Marianne Williamson, put it this way:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.[6]

You, my friends, are fearfully and wonderfully made. You are precious children of God. And God is calling you to live like you believe it.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Dennis Bratcher, “The Prophetic ‘Call’ Narrative: Commissioning into Service” from

[3] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of "A Course in Miracles" (New York: HarperOne, 1992).

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Come and See

January 17, 2021

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

John 1:43-51

What brought you to church today? What compelled you to log on to the live-stream? It is a four-day weekend for the schools, after all, and a three-day weekend for many businesses. Some of us, of course, have to be here. But even if we didn’t, I suspect we would be here anyway. There is, certainly, the joy that comes from gathering as a community, even at a distance. We all enjoy the music of the organ and the hymns. And it is good to set aside time to hear the scriptures read, to pray, and sing. But could it be that we are attending worship today because we hope to catch a glimpse of God at work? Could it be that we want to see someone who knows us, who understands what we’re struggling with, sees into our hearts, who shares our hopes and our concern for the world? Could it be that we want to see, somewhere among us, Jesus son of Joseph?

What brought you to church for the first time? For most of us it was our parents. Somehow in a congregation somewhere, maybe even here, they encountered something holy, something sacred and worthy, and they wanted us to have that experience too. But if it was a choice, whether to come to this church or another, was it because of someone who invited you? Did they say, “Come and see”?

We don’t like to use guilt to get people to come to church. Yes, we try to track attendance, but not so that we can call up the people who weren’t here and tsk, tsk at them. We don’t use the cram-it-down-your-throat kind of approach. If you’re here on a Sunday morning, we’re glad to see you. And if we missed seeing you this Sunday, it’s because we hope you’re alright and want you to know we care. You came here today, I hope, because you were invited and you felt welcome, and that feeling never went away. You’re here because the gospel of God’s love for us and all the world is so good that someone invited you to check it out. It is news that is too good not to share with those we care about.

Philip encountered something in meeting Jesus that was more than he expected. Surely there must be something missing between Jesus-found-Philip and Philip-found-Nathanael. Maybe it was that quick, but I suspect that it was more than the words “Follow me” that gave Philip the idea that Jesus was “him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.” We don’t know, however. What we do know is that Philip found a person so intriguing, who had such good news to share, that he had to share it. So, he found his good friend, Nathanael.

That Philip picked Nathanael to introduce to the Messiah is an interesting choice. He must have known Nathanael well, and if he did, he must also have expected Nathanael to be skeptical. Nathanael scoffed at the unimpressive résumé of Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Nazareth was a small village, maybe 300 residents. One scholar relates that “The Hebrew Scriptures never mention Nazareth, much less associate it with messianic expectations.”[1] Nazareth is nowhere special. In Nathanael’s view, Jesus’ hometown is a rather insignificant village in Galilee. Wouldn’t the Messiah have more prominent parents and come from a more significant town? And yet, when he does come and see, Jesus looks into his heart and knows him, and Nathanael is never the same.

God often chooses people who don’t seem like they’ll amount to much, those with an unimpressive résumé. Samuel was a young man, only twelve years of age, serving as a Temple assistant to Eli, the High Priest at Shiloh, when God first called him. Samuel became the last of the Hebrew Judges and a prophet in Israel. It was Samuel who anointed the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David. David, the famous king, was the youngest son and a shepherd. An unwed, pregnant girl named Mary became the mother of God-With-Us. The son of a carpenter from an insignificant town grew to become the most significant figure in history. Something good did indeed come from Nazareth, and he overcame the world.

There was a young man, inexperienced in public leadership, his theological diploma still wet with ink, who was called upon to lead a movement for freedom. He lived in a city from which “nothing good” had come. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr. In December of 1955, King was elected head of a newly formed protest group, the Montgomery Improvement Association. This was four days after Rosa Parks was arrested for violating segregation laws.

On that day, over sixty-five years ago, when the bus boycott began, no one could have predicted we would erect monuments and establish a holiday to commemorate the life of Dr. King. But God has been known to call upon people much less prepared, and much less gifted than Dr. King, to rise to the occasion and take on what seems insurmountable.

And it did seem insurmountable. For far too long the African-American people of Montgomery, Alabama, faced shocking and humiliating treatment for simply trying to ride the bus to work. Early the next morning, the day after Parks’ arrest, Edgar D. Nixon called King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and together they called for a meeting of ministers and civic leaders to discuss a proposed boycott.

The decision to boycott the buses was exciting, and the next morning an army of women and young people took seven thousand leaflets and distributed them by hand. Yet, as King describes in his autobiography, an article in the Sunday morning newspaper caused him to have doubts about their approach, and he began to think seriously about the boycott method. He asked himself “Isn’t it a negative approach to the solution of a problem? Was it true that we would be following the course of some of the White Citizens Councils (the white-supremacist organizations opposed to racial integration)? Even if lasting practical results came from such a boycott, would immoral means justify moral ends?”[2]

Ultimately, King came to a different understanding of what the boycott was really about. “As I thought further,” King wrote, “I came to see that what we were really doing was withdrawing our cooperation from an evil system, rather than merely withdrawing our support from the bus company… From this moment on I conceived of our movement as an act of massive noncooperation. From then on I rarely used the word ‘boycott.’”[3]

On Monday morning, after a long and worrying weekend, wearied but no longer doubtful of the morality of the protest, King waited with his wife, Coretta, to see what would happen. King heard Coretta cry, “Martin, Martin, come quickly!” Outside their window they saw a slowly moving empty bus. As he drove through the morning rush of traffic, it became apparent to King that “A miracle had taken place. The once dormant and quiescent Negro community was now fully awake.”[4]

A year later King spoke at an address to the First Institute for Nonviolence and Social Change. These were his words:

Little did we know on that night that we were starting a movement that would rise to international proportions; a movement whose lofty echoes would ring in the ears of people of every nation; a movement that would stagger and astound the imagination of the oppressor, while leaving a glittering star of hope etched in the midnight skies of the oppressed. Little did we know that night that we were starting a movement that would gain the admiration of [people] of goodwill all over the world. But God still has a mysterious way to perform wonders. It seems that God decided to use Montgomery as the proving ground for the struggle and triumph of freedom and justice in America. It is one of the ironies of our day that Montgomery, the Cradle of the Confederacy, is being transformed into Montgomery, the cradle of freedom and justice.[5]

The call of God often comes to those the world believes to be insignificant. The invitation to come and see brings us face to face with much more than we expect. It brings us into an encounter with God, with Jesus, and with a new understanding of who we are. In Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael found the one who could look into his heart, and he called him the Son of God. Through Martin Luther King, Jr. and the citizens of Montgomery, God performed wonders and revealed to an oppressed people a new expression of human dignity. They showed us all that day that the sons and daughters of God are not the few, not the many, but all of us. They showed us that each person is important to God.

When we hear God calling “come and see,” when we encounter Jesus in the room with us, it changes how we understand our inherent worth, the value of our human life and all human life. When Nathanael encountered Jesus, he encountered the presence of God fully expressed in human form. And when we learn to see and value the image of God that resides within ourselves, and within all other people, then we can no longer be complicit in the violence of the world. We can no longer be complicit in the oppression of others. We can no longer cooperate with an evil system.

The struggle for justice and peace continues. You have seen what is happening and that people still march in the streets. You have seen too much that makes you suspicious, that makes you doubt yourself and your ability to make a difference. You have seen the power of violence to destroy human life. But that is not all there is to see.

There is non-violent resistance to see. There is courage in the struggle for justice and peace to see. There is bravery in the face of terror to see. There is equality and respect to see. There is beauty, peace, and love to see. There is music and prayer, laughter and tears to see.

I invite you to tell others, come and see. We’re just a nowhere church filled with nobodies, but come and see. Come and see the Body of Christ that gathers on Jefferson Street in Union. Come and see what a community of faith can be. Come and see the family that we can be together. Come and see how we walk through grief together. Come and see how we celebrate together. Come and see the power of faith, hope, and love at work. Come and see the people who remind me of Jesus. Come and see the loving spirit of the living Christ. You’re invited. You’re welcome here. Come and see. Amen.

[1] Leslie J. Hoppe, Exegetical Perspective on John 1:43-52 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 261.

[2] The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson (New York: Warner Books, 1998).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] "Facing the Challenge of a New Age" by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., address delivered December 3, 1956 at the First Annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change, Montgomery, Ala. Available from:

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Baptism and Prayer

January 10, 2021

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Mark 1:4-11[1]

We are in the midst of a global pandemic, and now an unprecedented assault on democracy. All of this hurts. This is hard and exhausting. I feel it. Be kind to yourself. Ask for help if you need it. Extend a hand to others. Continue to seek a more just world. Know that God hears our prayers.

This is not a sermon about current events.

Did Jesus sin? Most people would shout “Of course not!” But why, then, did Jesus get baptized? John was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (1:4). The Nicene Creed, adopted by the Church in 325 CE, states that Jesus “became truly human.”[2] Jesus was born, lived, and died as a human, and we likely agree that all humans sin. Now, I’m not really trying to make a theological argument, or even really focus on whether or not Jesus sinned, whether or not he was perfect. My point is this: Jesus was born in to a world where no one is without sin, and he sought out the baptism of John.

Our world is not dualistic; there is no pure black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. There are only shades of gray. Every decision we make, every action we take exists in a complex web of interaction with every other person, every other being. Perhaps an illustration here would help.

Exodus 20:15 reads “You shall not steal.” It is one of the Ten Commandments. Roseanne (not her real name) was caught stealing from Jewel. At her trial, it became clear that, while she was guilty, she did it in order to feed her child. She is a single mother, the baby’s father long gone. Her parents died in a house fire a few years ago, and she doesn’t have any relatives that she knows. She can’t hold a job because she can’t leave her child alone, and can’t afford daycare. Was it absolutely wrong for her to steal? I’m not so sure. But let’s take a step back.

She lives in an apartment building a few blocks from my house. I have seen her before, but never spoken to her. I am her neighbor, yet I can’t honestly say that I love her as myself. I live as if completely detached from her existence, yet we both shop at Jewel. I vote and pay taxes, so I am an active participant in the legal system that will imprison her. Is it a sin to force a mother to abandon her child? If so, then isn’t the system itself implicated in sin?

Many of my clothes were made in a sweatshop in China or Vietnam. Is it a sin to oppress workers? The natural gas that cooks my food came from a fracking operation that has poisoned the well water of hundreds of people in North Dakota. Is it a sin to poison water? Sin surrounds us; that’s just the way it is. However much we wish to distance ourselves, we are linked with school shooters, drug dealers, and soldiers who tortured prisoners in Afghanistan. I don’t intend to harm others, to exploit the environment, or to sin against God. But sometimes it just can’t be helped. All I can do is to make the best choices that I can in an imperfect world.

This is the world that Jesus was born into. Did he sin? Probably not intentionally, but he was a real human being living in the real world where sin permeates the very air. He is one of us and all of us, every one of us, need forgiveness. So, let’s go down to the river to pray.

The people were filed with expectation, and they hoped John would have some answers for them. One after another they ask him, “What should we do?” The world is full of sin, and so am I, so what am I to do? The economy is struggling, jobs are scarce, people are sick and scared, and we are still at war. What are we to do? So, they came out to be baptized by John. It helped to be baptized, to be washed clean inside and out. But still, something was missing. Something more powerful was needed in order to really change things. The water was nice, but where was the fire? Where was the Holy Spirit?

Jesus was baptized, along with “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” (1:5). The baptism of Jesus wasn’t something unusual. There was no special ceremony just for him, or even a bit of dialogue between John and Jesus in Mark’s story. Instead, Jesus just gets in line and is baptized along with everyone else, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sinners. It is only after the baptism, when Jesus comes up out of the water, that the Holy Spirit descends from heaven. For Mark, this is where it all begins, down by the river, with baptism and prayer.

Jesus, in this moment, was more like us than we expect. He didn’t just appear and march right off to save the world. Before he started his ministry, he went with the sinners through the waters of baptism; he was washed clean, made ready for a new beginning. He prayed for strength and received power beyond himself. He faced the temptations in the wilderness, testing his commitment.

Messiah, son of God, member of the Trinity Jesus may be, yet the power of God’s Holy Spirit had to be received. And just as he did, we receive the Holy Spirit through baptism and prayer. We celebrate baptism only once, though we may remember it from time to time. It is through prayer that the disciples learn the power God from Jesus, and prayer will renew and strengthen the disciples and to enable them to endure suffering, face hardship, and find guidance for their ministry, through all the centuries, even to this day.

Baptism is where we find renewal. We acknowledge who we are, and what has come before, and we ask for forgiveness. We repent of sin, turn away from evil, and turn toward God. We ask for a new beginning, and we are given a fresh start. Every time we remember or celebrate a baptism, a confirmation, or welcome a new member, we renew our promise to be Christ’s disciples. And it is in prayer that we receive the power to fulfill that promise. Through prayer we open ourselves to the influence of God’s Holy Spirit.

Like a dove it came, as the heavens were torn apart, descending upon Jesus. It was the Spirit, filling Jesus, which powered his ministry. And the Holy Spirit is not limited to Jesus alone. The message of Pentecost is the promise that the Holy Spirit is available to all of us. In the second chapter of Acts, when they were all together in one place, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4).

Just as the Holy Spirit gave Jesus the power to teach and to heal and to continue on in the face of opposition and threats, we are also able to tap into that power. The Holy Spirit gave the disciples the encouragement, the patience, and the strength to carry on the ministry of Jesus, and to love an angry, sinful world, and angry, sinful people, again and again. We too can depend upon the Holy Spirit to give us the spiritual stamina to carry on through difficult times, to make a difference in people’s lives, and to bring love and peace to our sinful world.

But if we are to trust in that power, if we are to trust that prayer really does connect us to God, perhaps we need to remember what else happened in that moment by the Jordan River. “A voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (4:11). Jesus, born as a human being, one of us, is identified as the child of God. It was in that moment that Jesus knew who he was, and whose he was. When Jesus heard those words from God, they changed his life forever. And they can change our lives as well.

The world is a hard place to live when you don’t know who you are. We wander as though we are lost, searching for ourselves. But we need not be lost. We need only remember our baptism. As the water dripped down from our hair, with family and friends gathered round, we heard these words: “The Holy Spirit be upon you, child of God, disciple of Christ, member of the church.”[3] You are a child of God. You are loved. God is pleased with you. The words that came from heaven that day were not for the ears of Jesus only, but for all of us. As we pray for the strength to live and to love, let us hear what God is saying to each of us: “You are my child. I love you. You make me very happy.”  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] First Council of Nicaea, 325 CE. Translation used by permission of the United Church of Canada.

[3] Reprinted from Book of Worship © 1986 by permission of the United Church of Christ Office for Church Life and Leadership, p. 143.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Celebrating Epiphany

January 3, 2021

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12[1]

After what has been a year filled with shadows, turmoil, contagion, fear, and stress, it feels to me as if there is some light ahead. Nothing much changed on Friday morning at midnight, just abstract numbers that we use to track the passage of time. What did change, what is really different is the shift in our paradigm, the way that we view the world. We have a new year, a new chance to get things right, to fix the broken things, to overcome the virus and heal. There is light ahead of us, closer than it has been in a long time.

I hope you have noticed the advent candles are still illuminated. According to the Gospel of John, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:3-5). The Epiphany, God’s appearance in the human form of Jesus, brings light into a darkened world, in a sense echoing the first act of creation when God said, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). It is fitting that we pay attention to light as we celebrate the visit of the Magi, for they paid special attention to the light.

Much of what we know about the Magi comes from traditions outside the Biblical narrative. The Gospel of Matthew is the only one of the four Canonical gospels to mention the Magi. It tells us that they came “from the East” seeking the child “born king of the Jews.” Matthew does not tell us how many they were, but the three gifts seem to imply three visitors. And we know that they were most likely astrologers, or star-watchers, because they “observed his star at its rising.” Just as we watched the convergence of Jupiter and Saturn this past month, they saw something special in the heavens.

The Magi[2] are usually referred to as the Three Wise Men or the Three Kings. The word magi is the plural of Latin magus, borrowed from the Greek μάγος magos, which was used in the original Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew. The word magos is itself derived from an Old Persian term referring to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars and gained a reputation for astrology, which was at that time a highly regarded occupation. The word is also the root of the English term magic. In the King James Version of the Bible, Erasmus translated the word as “wise men,” and that seems to have stuck.

In the Western church, tradition gives them the names Balthazar, Melchior, and Gaspar. Balthazar is often represented as a king of Arabia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India. These names apparently derive from a Greek manuscript composed in Alexandria around 500 CE.

The Magi, on entering the house and seeing Mary and Jesus, “knelt down and paid him homage.” This gesture indicated great respect, typically used when venerating a king. Inspired by these verses, kneeling and prostration were adopted in the early Church as part of prayer. While we don’t kneel as a regular part of our worship, kneeling has remained an important element of Christian worship in many churches.

Matthew tells of three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These are gifts that would be given to a king. Gold is valuable as money, frankincense was used in religious ceremonies throughout the near East, and myrrh was commonly used as an anointing oil for rulers and for the dead. The three gifts have a spiritual meaning as well: gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense as a symbol of deity, and myrrh as a symbol of death.

The visit of the Magi is the source of a number of celebrations around the world[3], and particularly the tradition of gift-giving. Epiphany marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which I’m sure you’ve heard of in song. In some Latin countries, it is Epiphany, or “Three Kings Day” when gifts are exchanged, not Christmas.

In many Eastern countries, Epiphany is celebrated by Orthodox Churches as a celebration of the baptism of Christ. In Amman, a parade takes place with thousands of Christians along the River Jordan. Once the parade is complete, there is a blessing of the water. A wooden cross is placed under the water three times, representing the baptism of Christ. On the way back to town the priests carry olive branches and sprinkle holy water on the crowd.

In Greece, a festival called “The Blessing of the Waters” is held, during which young men dive into the water to retrieve a cross that was thrown in by a priest after being blessed. The first man to find it is believed to have good luck for a year.

In Bulgaria, Epiphany is known as Bogoyavlenie “Manifestation of God.” On this day, a wooden cross is thrown by a priest into the sea, a river, or a lake and young men race to retrieve it. As the waters are often close to freezing, this is considered an honorable act and it is said that the swimmer who is the first to reach the cross will be blessed with good health. This may be the origin of the Polar Bear plunge that folk around here participate in.

A story from Russia tells of an old woman, Babushka, who met the Three Kings but at first declined to join them in their search for the baby Jesus. She later regretted her decision, packed up toys and trinkets for the baby and left on a journey to find the new king. She could never find him, and it is said that to this day she still searches with her bag of gifts.

In Argentina, it is known as Noche de Reyes “The Night of Kings.” Children leave their shoes by the door, along with grass and water for the camels. In the morning of January 6, they get a present.

In England, the 6th is known as Twelfth Night and is a traditional time for masked parties and drinking wassail. The Yule log is left burning until Epiphany, and the leftover charcoal is kept until the next Christmas to kindle the next year’s Yule log. Twelfth Night is a popular time for plays, as when Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first performed in 1601.

In Italy, according to the Roman author Macrobius, the word Epiphania was transformed into Befana. In popular folklore, Befana visits the children of parts of Italy on the eve of January 6 to fill their socks with candy and presents if they have been good or a lump of coal or dark candy if they have been bad.

In Romania and Moldova, Epiphany celebrations include winter horse races. Before the race, the riders line up with their horses to be blessed by the priest who sprinkles them with green branches that have been dipped into holy water. Winning the Epiphany race is a great honor for both horse and rider, while the post-race celebrations, winner or not, are highly festive.

In the United States, in Manitou Springs, Colorado, Epiphany is marked by the Great Fruitcake Toss. Fruitcakes are thrown by participants dressed as kings, fools, etc., and competitions are held for the farthest throw and the most creative throwing device.

Have you ever heard of a “King’s Cake?”[4] It is a cake that has a toy baby hidden inside, and it represents a symbolic search for the baby Jesus. In Spanish it is called Rosca de Reyes. I remember something similar that my grandmother would do, though it is totally unrelated. She would hide coins inside the birthday cake! It was a great joy to find the quarter, and a total bummer if it was your birthday and you only got a nickel.

But back to the King’s Cake. There is another, more subtle meaning to be found in this tradition. As Christians gather around the table to share a meal, it is a reminder that Christ is found where two or three are gathered. It can also remind us of that story in Luke 24 called the “Road to Emmaus.” “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:30-31). As we celebrate Epiphany, we participate in the search of the Magi, and we find God in a surprisingly familiar place: the table.

Hospitality was a key aspect of near-Eastern culture, and there is a reciprocal nature to hospitality. Often when guests receive hospitality and food from a host, they will bless the household that welcomes them. A Polish Epiphany custom is to “chalk the door” with special markings. The markings might look like this: 20 †K † M † B † 21. The numbers correspond to the calendar year, in this case 2021. The crosses stand for Christ. The letters have a dual significance. K, M, and B are the initials of the of the Magi, Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. They are also an abbreviation of the Latin blessing Christus mansionem benedicat, which means “Christ bless this house.”

There is a liturgy of blessing, including the passage from Matthew which we just read, which is used to bless the house, and I will end with this blessing:

Peace be with this house and all who dwell in it,
and peace to all who enter here.
In keeping the feast of Epiphany,
we celebrate the Magi’s search for the infant king,
the Christ child’s appearing to the world,
and the peace and hospitality shared
between the Magi and the Holy Family.

May this home in the coming year be a place where Christ is pleased to dwell.
May all our homes share the peace and hospitality of Christ
which is revealed in the fragile flesh of an infant.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.



[4] The information about the “King’s Cake” and the “Blessing of the Magi” are from Amber and John Inscore Essick, “Distinctive Traditions of Epiphany” © 2011 Center for Christian Ethics, Baylor University.