As we entered into a new year and new decade this month we invited our members to join us around breakfast tables for worship. We filled our dining room with all ages of folks with good appetites. We even granted permission for attendees to wear pajamas if the celebrations welcoming the new year wore us down too much to put on our usual Sunday best! Quite a few of the kids, our youth pastor and wife welcomed the opportunity to come to church in footed, flannel pajamas. We had some church-y words in our bulletins that day: Ceilidh and Charism. Our communion service had a different name attached to it. I had to rely on google translate to know how to translate this odd word that dares to end with the odd combination of a D and an H: Ceilidh. It is pronounced Kay-Lee and this unique celebration of the sacrament comes from the Iona Community in Scotland. The word is gaelic and, by itself, it means a social visit. It may include dancing and playing Gaelic folk music in a social venue.
So we began the new year, 2020, with a joyful celebration of communion. It seems fitting to choose joy for a new year rather than fear or pessimism or some other negative emotion. It’s also appropriate because the main players in the Matthean drama for that Sunday are a few wise guys who are described as being overjoyed when their long journey leads them to the Christ Child!
The passage from Matthew 2 introduces us to the magi or wisemen who are called by God to leave their homes, follow a star and seek the gift that God has for them. They obey at great cost to themselves. They sacrifice their time, energy and maybe even social standing for this harebrained pilgrimage that they undertake. I can’t imagine that their families or community thought they were wise when they described why they were going to leave home for an indefinite period of time. Something about a star and an infant king? Honestly! They obey God’s prompting but have the courage to disobey human authority. After worshiping Jesus and presenting His astounded parents with costly gifts fit for a king, they do not return to King Herod as instructed. Rather they return home JOYFUL by another way.
The lectionary combines the Matthew 2 passage with Isaiah 60. In this Old Testament reading, the prophet assures the Israelites that God is going to gather them from the distant corners of the earth to which they have been scattered as a vanquished people. Families will be reunited and allowed to return home. Other nations will recognize that they are a blessed people and will bring valuable treasure to honor their God. Verse 5 describes a whole different mood for these former slaves: “Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.”
The news was too good for them to believe! It would seem impossible that God had the power to liberate us if we’d been oppressed for half a century. In Isaiah 51:12, God challenges the exiles, asking them why they don’t trust in God’s sovereignty: “I, I am he who comforts you; why then are you afraid of a mere mortal who must die, a human being who fades like grass?” Do you hear the emphasis at the beginning to assure the downcast people that they are in good hands? “I, I am he…” Nine chapters later there is fulfillment of that reassurance when the prophet speaks words that we hear often in Advent: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Things are about to change as God redeems a captive and despondent people!
Dayton Castleman is an artist who lives in Bentonville, Arkansas with his family. As an artist, he was asked to help with the designing of the local arts district. There was a 60-foot unused antenna pole in that area so he was asked to do something creative with it. He turned it into an arrow. At the top of the pole he attached three half feathers which makes the art hub look like an arrow has identified it as the bull’s eye for prospective shoppers: This is the place to be. A Christian, he chose the lashing of the arrow that holds the three feathers in place to reflect the colors talked about in the Book of Daniel: Clay, copper, bronze, silver and gold. The setting for Daniel is the same as it was for Isaiah: the Babylonian Exile. God speaks through Daniel, affirming that earthly kingdoms will come and go but God’s realm will last forever. The promise was fulfilled when the Jews were allowed to return home and begin their lives as a free nation in their own land. Castleman didn’t largely publicized his choice of materials that represent the prophecy of Daniel. But somehow transforming a useless, rusted pole into an arrow that mixes a theology of restoration with a fledgling artist’s district seems very fitting.
I’m not sure that we’re comfortable wrestling with our understanding of God’s involvement in our bungled human lives. The Church that has withstood 2000 years of governments and despots has become known as the Church of the ready-made definition. Our love for predictability has led us to settle on certain pat answers and get stuck there. But the story of the magi reminds us that following Christ takes us out of our comfort zone—way out, as their journey illustrates. Are we willing to ask hard questions about our understanding of how Christ is at work in our present generation? Can we humble ourselves by asking God and others for help? Or are we quite sure that we have all the answers we need? Have we learned from experience that God will use us when we are candid about our own places of vulnerability? Or do we keep our masks firmly in place, even in church? Being real with each other encourages authentic dialogue that is nearly impossible to find in our culture these days. One of the questions we invited folks to discuss that Sunday morning was how they feel when we take risks in our order of worship? How does it feel to worship around breakfast tables with children in PJs? Do we celebrate that we can make bold changes in the way we worship or does it push our panic button? In the fall I asked our parishioners to complete this sentence: Blessed or wise is the congregation who…. One of the answers I heard from a speaker at the Vital Worship Grants colloquium was, “Blessed are the flexibles for they shall not be bent out of shape.” Are we flexible enough to be able to worship in new ways or does it make us feel bent out of shape?
“Charism” was perhaps another new word for our people on the first Sunday in January. We offered the definition in the bulletin: a gift, a treasure, an extraordinary power given by the Holy Spirit for the good of the Church. We each have charisms that enhance our worship. If anyone holds back their talents, even out of modesty, our community life is diminished. Sharing them out of a love for Christ brings healing to others in the congregation. Is there a specific time in worship when you felt God’s healing presence. Is there a moment when you were made over? Who or what was responsible for that? Is there a prayer you offer as you enter the sanctuary for worship, a prayer for the Spirit to move in you and in the congregation? Or do you slide in with your teeth barely brushed and an assumption that others need to do the work of leading worship? Does your week feel different if you are not in worship, if you aren’t able to use your charisms for the good of the body? Do you miss being on the receiving end of other people’s gifts? Are you flexible enough to be able to worship in new ways, taking out-moded forms and giving them a contemporary message? Or do innovations “bend you out of shape?”
Thomas Ellsworth submitted a story for Reader’s Digest that reads this way: “My husband, an American Coast Guard pilot, served in England. Everyone who drove through the base’s gates was required to hold an official ID card up to the windshield for inspection by the guards, who never seemed to be particularly vigilant. So my husband’s squadron started flashing different forms of ID, such as a driver’s license, just to see what they could get away with. The winner: the guy who breezed past waving a piece of toast.” (Off Base, readersdigest.com 9/11)
As we entered a new year, what ID card are you flashing as you go into your workplace? What charism is listed on your ID card as you enter into worship? With what joy and sense of fun do you move into 2020, having full confidence that God will lead you home, even if it’s by a route you would not have chosen? What neglected areas of your life can be re-fashioned to point others to the work of Christ deep within? Is there baggage you need to check at the door that hampers your vision of God? Is there guilt that has derailed your travels for far too long? Is it the gods of consumerism and patriotism that need to be discarded? Are you focused on social climbing or continuing construction on the Kingdom of Self that pre-occupy your thoughts? Are you asking God to humble you so that you find your way home?
Human governments and powers will come and go but the Church of Jesus Christ stands firm. Do you carry an ID on your heart for that community? We are called, like the magi, to be willing to travel long distances at great cost to ourselves to follow in the way that Christ sets before us. The great news is that, as we make our way together, we will be overjoyed and may even break into Ceilidh dancing and song! This could be a pretty awesome decade!