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Sermon, January 2, 2022

Sermon delivered by the Rev. Cristina Rathbone

Matthew 2: 1-12 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] 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,[b] 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[c] 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[d] my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] 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,[f] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Community 

Today is almost Epiphany – which falls officially on the 6th, of course, but which we are celebrating unofficially today.  And today is almost the 9th birthday of Grace Church – which also falls of the 6th and which we are also celebrating unofficially today.  One way or another, online or in-person, we will celebrate this birthday more deeply at our annual meeting on January 30th — but before I say another word, let’s just cheer for a minute and give thanks for the miracle of this community and for the love which formed it and forms it still… 

Happy Birthday Grace!! 

So… just the other day, not much before Christmas, a member of our community – I won’t mention their name – said to me: “You know, I’ve been thinking: community is where you go to share what it is you are looking for.” The phrase stopped me in my tracks.

“What was that?” I asked

“Well… I’ve been wondering whether it isn’t true that community is where you go to share what it is you are looking for,” they repeated, and I asked them, then and there, if I could write the phrase down, which I did – and so I have it today:

Community is where you go / to share what it is / you are looking for. 

It is such a powerful statement, I think, because it gives words to the complex, undeniable truth that we find when we gather together. I should be honest and admit right off-the-bat that I don’t understand how this process works. How are we able, after all, to share that which we ourselves are looking for? Surely if we are looking for it, we don’t yet have it. And if we don’t yet have it, then however can we share it? It’s beyond me, and yet it’s true, I know – not because I understand the mechanics of the process (which clearly I don’t) – but simply because I experience the truth of it all the time. Over and over again I stumble into the manifest fact of love and mercy and generosity and, yes, grace in community with you all. As many of you do too – no? 

It’s as if we gather to share, one with another, that for which our hearts most deeply and consistently long for and, somehow – by God’s grace it surely must be – that desire meeting desire is enough to make it real and manifest between us. 

It happens all the time.  Just last week on Christmas Eve, for example, it happened when Ryan, John, Lee, Robert and I managed to find rapid tests – a  minor miracle in and of itself – and so were able to gather in the little chapel with my tiny lap-top and a beautiful creche and a few gorgeous bright red pointsettas and, honestly, not much else, and wove together there, through love, and care, and laughter, and desire –most of all desire — a service that was almost literally nothing like the one we’d been hoping for, but which ended up being real and open enough for us all to actually meet and be met not by each other only, but also by the One we had been longing for.  

And it happened again Last Sunday – remember? – when we gathered here, a reduced crew, but, again, palpably full of desire, and then spread out through the space as we have again today – two sitting here, three over there, — and sang and sang and sang the hope we so needed into being.  

And it happened again – if you need another example – on Thursday during Centering Prayer, as it does most every Thursday truth be told, when four or five of us spoke out of the silence of our hopes for this brand new year, and – through the sharing of them, again — those very hopes emerged manifest between us: mutual support, shared laughter, love. 

And again it happened during Rick’s last vestry meeting as Sr. Warden a couple of weeks ago, during which Sue read the most deeply moving speech about all he has done and has been for this community, which made all of us cry.  And – let’s face it – it happens here too, every Sunday morning even before the service, when nothing but desire leads so many of you to transform this space into a home for anyone who wants to be here, by setting up the altar with pressed linens and cloths, and the welcome table with baskets and framed invitations to ask for prayer, and the coffee tables with delicious food and drink, and the kids room with bright colors and tape, and by bringing flowers, and by setting up zoom equipment, and by practicing the readings with care… 

It happens regularly, then, reliably even, this process of gathering in community to share “what it is we are looking for.” It’s a miracle, really. And yet, for all its truth, it’s easy to miss – or at least to discount – especially when we are surrounded on all sides by very real crises which demand very real responses from every one of us. 

On this first Sunday of 2022, on which we remember the feast of Epiphany, and our own almost 9th birthday — let me say straight out that as a parish, and a county, and a state, and a nation, we must continue to prioritize the work of ending racism, and shrinking the ever-widening ravine between those who have more than they can ever use and those who don’t even have food for their families, or a roof over their heads, or sufficient medical care just to get by.  We need to find ways too — and soon — to bring an end to the pandemic, and to our division, and to the muddled and sluggish ways our institutions (secular and religious both) work towards bending the arc towards justice.  We need all of these things to be righted with some urgency. And if we unite, and work together, and keep the faith, and take step after step after step after step, it will all come to pass.  It will. In the fullness of time, all of it and more will come to this blessed and troubled world. This is the bed rock of our faith. And we must cling to it.  

AND, in the meantime, we must not let our anxiety trample over the truth of who we are right now whenever we offer that which we are looking for to each other, together.

Think of the three wise ones whose arrival at Jesus’ manger we remember today. They too were looking for something, and they felt its lack keenly enough to travel together for years. undergoing who knows what trials and adventures and dangers and joys as they followed their path towards it.  It must have been such a strong pull that kept them going, such a deep hope, such a fierce need.  And when they finally arrived at the place that had drawn them they found… What? 

Nothing big. Nothing impressive. No inspiring or elegant leader to guide them. No wise teacher, even, able to answer whatever questions pressed close up against their own hearts.  No, after years of searching, these men, already rich themselves in power and wisdom and strength and success, found instead a run-of-the-mill place, a scattering of animals just like the ones they’d been walking past for months, a couple of exhausted young people from out of town, a few reeking shepherds fresh from the fields – and a new born baby.  And somehow – through some mysterious and also palpable movement of Spirit, they knew instantly that their deepest desire had finally been fulfilled and – at last – they presented their strange gifts of gold frankincense and myrrh.  

And again, here’s the thing: the source and the object of their desire couldn’t even speak, let alone make stirring speeches. He couldn’t speak, or move much even, or dress, or feed, or soothe himself, and yet it was indisputable to all of them gathered there, just as it’s so often indisputable to us gathered here, that somehow, through some mysterious process whose mechanics we can never quite follow, this tiny, utterly real and particular infant in front of them was, in fact, what they had been looking for all along. 

And they were right as it turned out. We know, because time and time again our own quest is answered in the same way.All I’m really trying to say today is that we can sometimes spend so much time thinking and worrying about the big and important things that we become blind to the fact that the One who best holds us up and helps us to grow is already here, and has been with us all along — just waiting to be noticed and upheld and then shared by us all as he reveals himself through the community we make — with his help. 

God is as real today as he was in that manger thousands of years ago, that’s the thing. The new born one is as alive now, among and within and between us, as he was with that beautifully diverse and entirely unlikely crew in Bethlehem.  And even as we work together with others to confront the injustices that surround us day by day, we, like the wise men and the shepherds and Mary and Joseph and the animals and the tiny baby Jesus himself, are all offered countless, perhaps even continuous, opportunities to reach out to each other in love and friendship, ready both to offer and to receive the very real gifts we each one of us have to give not in jars and chests, of course, but through miniscule and largely forgettable instances of saying yes to each other, instead of no; of saying come in, come in and have some tea! instead of I’m sorry I’m too busy right now; of saying: tell me, I want to hear, rather than listen up!;  of saying help me, or, I’m scared, or, please would you? or, I need….

So, in the spirit of the tiny, too often overlooked and seemingly unremarkable new born baby who was and is at the same time the savior of the world, I’d like to share with you my own tiny epiphany on this day. And it is this: 

We still have a long, long way to go, because the world is hurting badly, and there is much real, hard work to be done, AND we have everything we need to do what is needed, right now, just the way we are.  Because the truth is we are already making miracles for each other right now, just the way we are, not because we are impressive or grand or powerful or central to anything much at all, but because – by God’s grace — we are just weak and vulnerable and frail enough to remember our need for each other —  and for God.  And because, somehow, that remembering redeems us all. And heals us all. And makes us one the way Christ longs for us to be one, in love and mercy and grace.  

So Happy Birthday Grace Church. I am so grateful you were born, because I too need a place to both offer and receive what it is I am looking for. Because we all do, in fact. Every one of us, kings and paupers, shepherds and sheep, adults and kids, native peoples and newcomers, workers, retired people, and those who have no work, though they long for it.  

Happy Birthday and God bless you all… 

Community is where/ we go to share/ what it is we are looking for. 

May this mystery continue to be real among us – and may we all be strengthened by it as we continue to work together towards the day ‘when justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’… AMEN