Thursday, January 28, 2016

It's In There

Sermon preached January 24, 2016

Texts: Luke 4:14-21

            Over years of watching television, commercials are among the memorable moments.  I would guess many of us know who Flo is – the woman from Progressive Insurance, or Jan, the Toyota spokesperson.  I have enjoyed the GEICO commercial where we have a scene from an action film, some kind of agent battling the bad guys on a roof with a helicopter flying overhead.  His phone rings and we see a woman in a house calling.  “If you’re a mother, you call at the worst times, that’s just what you do.”  This line as the mother is discussing squirrels in the attic with her spy agent son.  “It’s noisy there.  Are you taking a Zumba class?”
            Television ads can stay with you for a long time.  Some of you probably remember the Alka-Seltzer ad: “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”  An ad for a burger chain became a tag line in a presidential political debate.  “Where’s the beef?”  Then there was the spaghetti sauce commercial, Prego.  “It’s in there.”  Fresh herbs and spices – it’s in there.  Chunks of garlic – it’s in there.  Fresh tomatoes – it’s in there.
            Do you want a single Scripture that seems to wrap up the central features of the Christian faith?  How about this text from Luke, Jesus reading at his hometown synagogue?  When we think about what the Christian faith is about, I think it’s in there.
            There is God.  “Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee.”  Jesus reads in the synagogue, choosing a text from Isaiah 61 which begins, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”  Christian faith is about God, but more later.  Bookmark that.
            What does the Spirit encourage, the sharing of good news.  Sometimes we use the term, “gospel” to describe the Christian message.  “Gospel” is simply another word for “good news.”  Christian faith is about good news, and this good news has both personal and social dimensions to it.  Need good news for your life – it’s in there.  Need good news about the larger world – it’s in there.
            “He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”  The good news has something special to say to the poor.  What’s this about?  The poor rarely get good news.  Often they are castigated for their poverty.  Surely it was something they did – not enough initiative, didn’t pay attention enough in school.  There may be truth in some of this, but does it help those in poverty find a way forward?  Are they condemned to be there forever?  Yet little good news is offered about a way forward.  Not enough words are spoken about the complexity of poverty, or how difficult it can be to get beyond it.  Perhaps there is some good news when people are willing to at least question whether a world in which the 62 richest persons have as much wealth as the bottom one-half of humanity – 3.5 billion people (Oxfam, Duluth News Tribune, January 19, 2016)  Isn’t there something amiss in this, particularly when since 2010 the wealth of the 62 has increased 44% and the wealth of the bottom half has decreased 41%?  The good news is that God notices, and that God calls humanity to something different.  It is not that the fabulously wealthy are bad, it is that we have a system that allows such accumulation for the few and provides too few opportunities for the many.  Challenge to injustice – it’s in there.
            There is also being poor in a spiritual sense.  Sometimes our inner resources for life are at a low ebb.  We are discouraged, downtrodden, been down so long it looks like up to me.  Some days it feels like crisis after crisis until we have little emotional energy left.  God notices that too, and God seeks to wrap us in love and care and bring us together into community so that we can find inner resources for life.  That’s in there too.  It is interesting that Jesus quote from Isaiah 61 differs from what you read when you turn to Isaiah 61.  There you also read about binding up the brokenhearted.  Being broken hearted is a kind of spiritual poverty that is addressed by God’s love and care.  It’s in there.
            The good news is about release for the captives, or freedom for the prisoners.  For many of us this is a scary thought – just open the doors of the prisons and jails?  Recall that in the time of Jesus, people could be sent to prison for their debts.  Again, the poor were given little opportunity to change their lives.  In the time of Jesus, one could be imprisoned for sharing ideas seen as threatening to the empire, not unlike all too many places in our world today.  God notices this kind of captivity, these offenses against freedom, and God envisions something different – freedom.  It’s in there.  We may also want to ask about this verse in relation to the enormous incarceration rate in our country.  Prisons have gone for-profit, and the effect is not always socially beneficial.  Again, concern for justice, it’s in there.
            But captivity takes many forms.  Human beings lose their freedom when destructive patterns of behavior become habit – addiction, learned emotional responses that cut off life-energy and limit freedom.  God notices this kind of captivity too, and God’s Spirit is about setting us free.  Inner freedom, it’s in there.
            The good news is about recovering sight.  How often our sight is limited.  How often we fail to see the big picture.  Our seeing can become habitual, blinding us to important parts of reality.  We can become persons who see only what we want to see.  God’s Spirit seeks to open our eyes so that we can see the world more truthfully in all its wonder, beauty, mystery, tragedy, destructiveness and tenderness.  To see only the easy beauty or good can set us up for deep disappointment or being taken advantage of.  To see only the ugly side of life leads to protectiveness and cynicism.  God’s Spirit invites us to see more fully so that we can live more fully – with gratitude for beauty and wonder and love, with determination to make right the destructive and unjust.  A change of heart and soul, an invitation to deep reflection – it’s in there.
            The good news is about letting the oppressed, “the burdened and battered” go free.  Again, this is personal, for we are sometimes the burdened and battered.  Again, this is social, oppression for reasons of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation remains very real.  God notices and invites us to work for a different world.  It’s in there.
            “Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee.”  Jesus reads in the synagogue, choosing a text from Isaiah 61 which begins, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”  Christian faith is about God, and it is time for me to return to that as I said I would.  The good news that is at the heart of Christian faith and life is good news about a God of love who acts to heal and free, who is at work in the world to make our lives more free and whole and our world more just and free.  This God of love has always been about healing and freeing.  Jesus stands in a long tradition, stretching back centuries to the prophets like Isaiah, who were themselves rooted in an even older story about a God who heard the cries of people enslaved in Egypt and acted to heal and free.
            The good news of the Christian faith is that God is love, and this God of love is at work to heal and free.  This God of love has always been at work to heal and free.  When we know this God of love we can think more deeply, dream more imaginatively, pray more playfully, live more freely, work for a newer world more joyfully.  It’s in there, in this text, in life lived with this God of love.
            And one more bit of good news, now is the time to reconnect with this God of love. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  God’s time is always now.  God’s Spirit calls and invites us in every present moment to hear and live and be good news.  Today, we can hear the good news again.  Today we can be good news.

            Want to know what Christian faith and life are about, it’s in there in Luke 4.  And the words of Jack Kornfield about the Buddhist Dhammapada apply forcefully here.  “One page, one verse alone, has the power to change your life.”  This story from Luke has that power if you will open yourself to it today.  It’s in there.  Amen.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Lighten Up

Sermon preached January 10, 2016

Texts: Nehemiah 8:8-10; John 2:1-11

            Well, Powerball fever is over for now.  None of the winning tickets was sold anywhere near Duluth, so I’m not expecting a huge infusion of cash into our Capital Campaign.  Of course, the United Methodist Church discourages gambling, but I bet if I were to ask, some tickets were purchased by some of you here.  It’s probably not the best $1 or $2 or $5 you ever spent, but…
            So amid the Powerball fever, someone posted on Facebook that if you took the $1.2 billion prize and divided it up among 300 million Americans, every person in the country would receive $4.33 million.  Wow – except the math was all wrong.  Divide the prize among 300 million people and you would give each $4.33.  $1.2 billion is a huge prize, but it is not as much as you would imagine. It is not as abundant an amount as you might think.
            That image is very different from the gospel text in John.  Here wine runs out, and Jesus’ mother calls his attention to it.  His initial response is a little cold, but she thinks he can help.  Six stone water jars, twenty to thirty gallons each – that would be120 to 180 gallons – we want to be better at math than that fuzzy Facebook post about the Powerball.  The jars are filled with water at Jesus’ request, and the water is brought to the steward who finds it is wine.  This is an image of great joy and overwhelming abundance.  The story as it is told is rich with symbolism.  A sign occurs on the third day.  Jesus time, it seems, has arrived, even if his mother needed to nudge him into it a bit.
            This is a wonderful story in many ways, but bringing together text and context, our context today on this weekend when we are celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., makes this text seem rather odd.  We remember Martin Luther King, Jr. as a person who grappled with the difficult issues of his day.  In the preface to his book, a collection of sermon called The Strength to Love, published in 1963, King would write: In these turbulent days of uncertainty the evils of war and of economic and racial injustice threaten the very survival of the human race.  Indeed, we live in a time of grave crisis. (ix).  King worked to alleviate racial injustice.  He spoke out about the war in Vietnam.  He marched with sanitation workers, fighting for economic justice.  King worked in a time when those struggling for racial equality, for an end to segregation were sometimes beaten, and a few even killed.  He worked at a time when African-Americans were systematically denied the right to vote in parts of our country.  Black Americans marched during this time with placards that read simply, “I Am a Man,” because for too long there were those who denied their humanity.
            What does this story of Jesus turning water into wine have to say to a turbulent world?  What might this image of joy and abundance have to say to us today, in a world still marked by war and marred by racial and economic injustice?
            This story reminds us of the importance of joy even in troubling times, even when our lives are a struggle.  Joy.
            Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream was a dream filled with joyous images.  I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.  I have a dream that one day, even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.  I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  I have a dream today!...  I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and moutain made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.  This is a dream filled with hope and abundance and joy. 
            In one of his sermons (“Three Dimensions of a Complete Life”), King preached about life in relationship to God.  But with him, we are able to rise from tension-packed valleys to the sublime heights of inner peace, and find radiant stars of hope against the nocturnal bosom of life’s most depressing nights.  With God there can be joy.
            Even in his final public speech, King would speak of happiness.  And I’ve seen the promised land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.  And I’m happy tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
            King’s dreams and visions for life and for the United States are dreams and visions of joy.  They recall for me the words of a hymn, a more recent hymn and not one we’ve done a lot – “A Place at the Table.”  God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice, justice and joy!
            As people of faith, as followers of Jesus, we are drawn toward visions of the world that are joyous.  Even more, joy gives us energy for living toward those visions.  In that sermon he preached on the three dimensions of a complete life, King preached: Set yourself earnestly to discover what you are made to do, and then give yourself passionately to the doing of it.  Discover what you are to do, how you might contribute to God’s work, be about the work of justice and joy, and do it with joy.
            King’s words pre-shadow words later written by Frederick Buechner.  In writing about “vocation,” that is, what God calls us to in our lives, Buechner writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Wishful Thinking, 119).  I know when there is a certain lack of joy in my life it is an indicator that I need to pay attention to something.  I need to recalibrate in my relationship with God and with life.
            I think we hear something of this importance of joy in the very ancient story of Nehemiah.  Returning from exile, rebuilding Jerusalem, we hear that both Ezra and Nehemiah encourage the people.  This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep….  Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
            The joy of the Lord is our strength.  No matter the challenges in our world or in our lives, joy is to be a central part of who we are.  We work toward a joyful vision.  We are energized by joy.
            The poet Rumi wrote, “The soul is here for its own joy.” (“Someone Digging in the Ground” in Bly ed., The Soul is Here for Its Own Joy, 166).  The Christian spiritual teacher, Henri Nouwen wrote: Joy does not simply happen to us.  We have to choose joy and keep choosing it everyday.  The joy of the Lord is our strength.  No matter the challenges in our world or in our lives, joy is to be a central part of who we are.  We work toward a joyful vision.  We are energized by joy.
            Joy is not a shallow “happiness” where one ignores the difficulties of life or the pain in one’s life.  Joy sees truthfully, yet also sees that God continues to be at work.  There is joy in knowing we are loved, beloved.  There is joy in knowing that we can work with God toward God’s joyful vision for the world.  There is joy in making a difference.  I think of the movie that some of us watched last Sunday afternoon, a Twin Ports United Methodist Ministries youth event – the movie “Inside, Out.”  One of the lessons of the movie is that sadness has its place in our emotional palate, that sadness and joy are not antithetical – and it is an entertaining movie.
            When we can lighten up, that is, know joy – the joy of being loved, the joy of working with God in the world – when we can lighten up with joy, we lighten up the world, we shine more brightly with God’s love.
            When we lighten up, we lighten up.

            I would like you to help me wrap this sermon up.  Turn toward someone and encourage them – “Let your light shine with joy!”

Thursday, January 14, 2016


Sermon preached January 10, 2016 

Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-22

            It is movie award season again.  If you are not a football fan – and we will have you on your way in plenty of time to watch the Vikings game – you may know that tonight is the Golden Globe Awards show, an awards show that often gives some clues about who will be nominated for Academy Awards. 
Perhaps, like me, you enjoy both football and the movies.  Our family has had some wonderful times over the years watching movies together.  A number of years ago, we also started a tradition of watching the Oscars together, and our older daughter Beth does her best every year to see as many of the Oscar nominated films before that award show.  Last year she saw them all.
You may remember last year, the Academy Award for best picture went to a film entitled “Birdman.”  How many of you saw that movie?  It was an odd film in many ways – quirky, artsy, a little magic realism.  One of the things I particularly remember when we watched it was the flash of recognition that hit me early in the film.  The film is about an action movie star trying to produce a play on Broadway.  In an early scene in the Broadway theater, a rehearsal, we have four people seated around a table drinking and as they begin to talk, I recognized dialogue from a Raymond Carver short story.  Sure enough, the film “Birdman” was about this action movie star trying to bring a Raymond Carver short story to the stage.  By the way, I can play a mean game of trivia.
The particular Raymond Carver story the film uses is a story entitled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”  Two couples, both divorced and re-married are sitting around a table, drinking gin and talking about love.  What is particularly memorable about the story is that one of the women talks about her abusive former partner, and then says, “Say what you want to, but I know what it was.  It may sound crazy to you, but it’s true just the same…. Sometimes he may have acted crazy.  Okay.  But he loved me.”  It is a haunting short story, and the author Raymond Carver was considered a master of the form.
Carver also wrote poetry, and some of his poetry is about love.  I have been particularly moved by a poem he wrote simply called “Late Fragment.”  I have shared it a few times at funeral services.  We used it in an Invitation to Worship in Advent.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

            Imagine yourself at the end of life, posing that question – “Did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?”  The “even so” reminds us that life will have its ups and downs, its disappointments and heartbreaks as well as its wonder, beauty and joy.  Through it all, what might you say you wanted most?  Carver’s answer strikes a deep chord, I think.  Don’t we all want to call ourselves beloved, to feel ourselves beloved on the earth, to know deep in our flesh and our bone that we are beloved, deeply loved?
            Now when all the people were baptized, and when  Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.  The focus here is certainly on Jesus, but being beloved by God, that statement is there for us as well.
            Don’t we all want to call ourselves beloved, to feel ourselves beloved on the earth, to know deep in our flesh and our bone that we are beloved, deeply loved?  Years ago the psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote, “All other things being equal, psychological health comes from being loved rather than from being deprived of love” (Motivation and Personality, Second Edition, 186).  Maslow’s work reminds us of the deep needs we have for love, for knowing we are loved, for feeling that we are loved – a need as deep, though different, from our need for bread and safety.
            The heart of the good news of the Christian faith is that we are beloved, that we are loved by God, by the God of Jesus in and through Jesus.  Just as Jesus heard the Spirit telling him that he was beloved, so God’s Spirit wants to speak to each of us those same words – “You are Beloved.”
            The words Isaiah over two thousand years ago to a people in exile, are words God’s Spirit would speak to us today.  I have called you by name, you are mine….  You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.
            Hear the good news today, you are loved, you are beloved.  You can call yourself “Beloved.”  You can feel yourself beloved on the earth.
            To know that we are loved does not preclude the possibilities for or need for change in our lives.  We are loved, and we still mess up sometimes.  We are loved and there is still room to grow.  After last Sunday’s sermon Geoff Bell posted this wonderful takeoff of the Serenity Prayer on my Facebook page:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change,
The courage to change the one I can,
And the wisdom to know it’s me.

I find that much more helpful than the other Serenity Prayer takeoff I’ve seen:

God grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway,
The good fortune to run into the ones I do,
And the eyesight to know the difference.

            God give me the courage to change the person I can change and the wisdom to know that it’s me.  Growth continues. Change is possible and needed.  Yet, it begins in being beloved.  It begins in radical acceptance, in knowing that we are loved by God.
            This good news also does not preclude God’s call for us to be part of God’s work to change the world.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his recent book Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, writes, “It is our task to be a blessing to the world” (5).  It is our task to be a blessing to the world.  It is good to know we are beloved, necessary to know that we are beloved.  Yet this same God who calls us beloved invites us, calls us, to join in God’s work in making the world a place where belovedness is more real – making the world kinder, more just, more peaceful, more compassionate.  Still, it begins in being loved, in knowing we are loved by God.  Without that inner knowing, our work in the world can easily go astray.  I am reminded of the words of Michael Eigen: You can’t just work on institutional injustices without the actual people who are involved working on themselves, and you can’t just work on yourself without working on the injustices in society….  Without work in the trenches of our nature, we may wreck what we try to create. (Michael Eigen, Faith, 96, 7). 
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

            We can call ourselves beloved, feel ourselves beloved on the earth, because God in and through Jesus calls us beloved.  One constant reminder of our belovedness is the baptismal font.  This particular font comes from the old First Methodist Church building downtown.  When I first came here as the pastor, it was not here.  When we baptized, we brought a bowl of water to the front of the church.  When I first came here I also did not know of the tradition of carrying the baby through the church.  I think I owe Emily Sapyta a walk through the church, but she is about as tall as I am now, so that would be awkward!
            Anyway, this font was in the atrium holding a plant.  I saw it one day and asked about moving it into the sanctuary.  It is a bear to move – heavy, in three parts.  We moved it in here, and moved it once since, for tile replacement.  It gets in the way a little bit with the bells, but we are not going to move it, and that is o.k.
            God’s love for you is as solid as this baptismal font.  It is as anchored in the world as this font is anchored in this place.  Here, where we use water again and again to let children and adults know that they are loved by God.  May this be a constant reminder of God’s love.  Just as the smallest of those children gets wrapped in the arms of the pastor, so God continues to embrace each of us in love.  Here God offers love and forgiveness.  Here we pledge to each other to be a community of love and forgiveness.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

You are.  Amen.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Happy New You

 Sermon preached January 3, 2016 

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

            One of the fun parts of the holiday season is children’s programs, at church or at school.  Now that our own children are grown, I do not see school holiday concerts as often as I once did.  The range of comfort of the young performers at school programs is always fun to observe.  There are the very timid children who seek always to hide behind other children.  There are the children whose sole focus seems to be on their family members. They wave and smile at parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles.  Then there are those children who really want to be heard.  They sing with vigor and expression.  I have in my mind a vivid memory of a young boy at a children’s holiday program, and I cannot remember the exact occasion of it, I think it was at Lake Superior Elementary when I went to listen to a boy I was mentoring, but there was a boy in a first grade class and the song was “Must Be Santa.”  He sang with such vigor and expression that I retain the image to this day.  He sang with his entire body.
            I heard a story about another such program in which another little boy sang with his entire being, except he got the words just a little bit wrong.  The song was the final song for his class – “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”  But instead of wishing people a “Happy New Year,” he sang out, “We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New You!”
            Happy New Year and Happy New You.  In the church we are not quite done with the Christmas season even as we turn the calendar on another new year.  Today we read Matthew’s Christmas story, though it is not really a birth story.  That happens in 1:25, where we read that Joseph “had no marital relations with her [Mary] until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”  Then we continue with the story we read today, which takes place sometime “after Jesus was born.”  From the context of the gospel (v. 16), it is up to two years since his birth.  It took the wise men from the East some time to get to Bethlehem.  That reminds me of one of my favorite comments on this story.  What would happen if it had been three Wise Women instead of three Wise Men?  They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts.
            Of course, we cannot simply change the story like that.  The story is about three wise men from the East.  They took up to two years to arrive on the scene. They brought with them gold, frankincense and myrrh.  They had stopped and asked questions on the way, but in doing so they tipped Herod off, and that led to some awful consequences, a story told later in Matthew that has come to be known as the slaughter of the innocents.  We wish that could have been different.  Detrimental and destructive use of power mars human history well beyond the story of Herod told in Matthew.  When will we ever learn?
As we begin the new year it seems a good time to ask what can be different in our lives and in our world?  What can we change?  Are there possibilities for a new you?  What possibilities are there for a newer world?
When I consider change I often think about what has come to be called “The Serenity Prayer.”  We often see and hear it in this version (A. A.):
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

The original version written by twentieth century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, is a little different.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change what should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the on from the other. (Justice and Mercy)

            I don’t mean to be picky, but I prefer Niebuhr’s original version.  When you spend sixty pages to write about someone’s theology as part of your doctoral dissertation, as I did with Reinhold Niebuhr, it is o.k. to have a keen appreciation for his work.
            This prayer tells us that not everything can be changed.  God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things we cannot change.  It is important to acknowledge this, that there are somethings that cannot be changed.  We cannot change where and to whom and when we were born, nor our genetic makeup.  Some things cannot be changed, and primary among them is the past, including this past year.  For some of us, 2015 was a delightful year. For others of us, it may have been a difficult year.  For our world, we experienced violence.  Fears were heightened, anxieties increased.  While we can learn from the past, and should continue to try to learn from the past, we cannot change it.  We can change our understanding of the past, which is powerful, but we cannot change the past.  We cannot go back to a time before Charlie Hebdo, Charleston, Paris, San Bernardino.
            The prayer does not leave us only to consider what cannot be changed, but is also a prayer for the courage to change.  Here I think Niebuhr’s original version is much to be preferred.  The prayer asks for courage to change what should be changed, not simply what can be changed.  Not everything can be changed.  Of those things that can be changed, not all of them should be changed.  Not all change is good, but some change is positive and some change is necessary if we are to follow Jesus faithfully, if we are to share in God’s creative and redemptive work in the world, if we are to embody the Spirit more fully in our own lives, if we are to be stars leading others to Jesus, if we are to change toward faith, hope, love – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
            The prayer inevitably leads toward praying for wisdom.  We need wisdom to distinguish the things that might be changed from those that cannot be changed.  We need wisdom to decide which of those things that can be changed should be changed.
            God, give us the grace of wisdom.  Let us be like those wise men who traveled from the East, who discerned that something was happening and decided to make changes in their lives to follow a light, follow a star.
            The prayer for wisdom doubles back.  When in grace we discover what should be changed, we need the grace of courage to act.  Change can be difficult.  Change can be a kind of dying.
            I am reminded of T. S. Eliot’s poem reflecting upon the Matthew story “The Journey of the Magi.”  The poem imagines the wise men, the magi, reflecting back on the journey to Bethlehem.  “A cold coming we had of it,” “a hard time we had of it.”  Then, more profoundly, there is a meditation on what happened to them.  This Birth was/hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death./We returned to our places, these Kingdoms/But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,/with an alien people clutching their gods.  The poem expresses powerfully the challenge of change, how change can feel like a kind of dying, even when it is needed change.  We cannot be the church of the 1950s and 60s, even when we may remember that time fondly.  The Minnesota poet Robert Bly, in one of his early poems penned these lines:
It is not our job to remain unbroken.
Our task it to lose our leaves
And be born again, as trees
Draw up from the great roots.

            Great courage is required for change, but for us, courage is rooted in grace, in a grace that arrived in the world in a powerful way in the birth of a child in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago.  In Jesus as the Christ, we discover a God who continues to work in the world toward beauty, justice, reconciliation, peace and love.  To use some rather sophisticated theological language, God is the “lure toward novelty” (Marjorie Suchocki, Theology and the University, 150).  “God is the divine Eros urging the world to new heights of enjoyment….  It is God who, by confronting the world the world with unrealized opportunities, opens up a space for freedom and self-creativity.” (John Cobb and David Griffin, Process Theology, 26, 29)  With God, newness is possible.  With God, change is possible – a genuinely new year.  In God’s grace there is wisdom, courage and serenity - possibilities for a new you.

            And what is the end result of following this Jesus, of responding to this God of creativity and novelty?  Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.  Open to God’s Spirit, open to possibilities for a new you, we can shine with God’s grace and beauty and love, leading others to Jesus.  May 2016 be a year in which, in our lives we shine more brightly.  May 2016 be a year in which, together, we help our church shine more brightly with God’s love in Jesus.  We may not know yet what that will all look like, but we can be on this journey of a new year and a new you together.  Amen.