New Things

Passage: Isaiah 42:5-9
Date: January 15, 2017
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

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Several years ago, the United Church of Christ came up with a slogan that expressed the heart of their outreach. It was in ads and on signs. It read, simply, “God is still speaking.”

God is still speaking. Do we believe that?

In some ways, I imagine that for the long-ago magi of scripture, the wise men of the nativity story—the three kings of tradition—they must have believed that God is still speaking. They were moved to leave their homes to go to King Herod, to seek the person being heralded by the star. These magi saw only the tiny light shining in the darkness. But hope drove them to find the infant king. They were ready to go to whatever lengths necessary in order to pay him homage. Their thirst for knowing led them finally to Jesus. These magi were Gentiles. Not the “chosen” people. Not the religious insiders.

In contrast to the magi traveling the unknown path is King Herod, who was frightened, along with the chief priests and Pharisees, the religious leaders. Herod’s fear of losing power was so great it led to the slaughter of children. It’s a bit less clear why the priests and Pharisees were also afraid. But it is the magi in their journey to the star and king that shines through in this story.

The Epiphany message is that God’s light is for everyone. It’s a message that we human beings have not trusted in our long and violent history.

We begin this new year with the heartbreak of more senseless shootings. With raw anger vented and fear rising. This week’s new moon rose against the world backdrop of war in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, continuing floods of refugees, chilling relations between Russia and the U.S., and polarized politics all around the world. I agree with Fr. Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest who said:

     “I’m convinced that the manifestation of our present evils, political corruption, ecological devastation, hating each other based on religion, race, or sexual orientation” are all symptoms of “the greatest disease facing humanity: our profound and painful sense of disconnection.”  

     “The ultimate sin is to think we are separate from one another, any race, any religion.” Any movement that wants to deem itself  “better than” is enslaved to the ego, which always wants to be separate and superior.

     “We’ve got to have a God who is at least as big as the universe. The mystery, beauty, and awesomeness of the universe gets bigger and bigger,” and we get stuck with an image of an angry God who only likes one particular group of people.

At Epiphany, we seek the Light that is for all the people: deep and profound Love of God that ends all painful separation.

In Portland, I often feel the separation that happens around religion. When I meet new people and tell them I’m a pastor, I sometimes feel the wall go up. And I admit it: As a preacher’s kid who sat at the end of the second pew every Sunday while dad preached and mom led the choir, as one with two degrees in religion and my whole adult life as a pastor—I am a religious insider.

Here in this sanctuary, many others of us are also religious insiders. In this year of 2017, Westminster will celebrate 125 years of ministry in Portland and the world. We claim and follow Christ. We are the religious insiders. As we hear the story of the magi, the foreigners of the East who follow the path of the star to find the light in the person of a child—this is a reminder that God’s light is for all.

This morning we heard from Isaiah:

     “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,
     to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
     from the prison those who sit in darkness. . . See, the former things have come to pass,
     and new things I now declare.”

This is the dream of God, and we are part of fulfilling that dream. God is still speaking. Perhaps it is our calling this year to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures to the single one that comes of narrow vision. Maybe we do it through the arts ministry, our literary fair, our relationship building in Guatemala, through building closer community with youth and young adults, through continuing to address poverty and hunger in our community. Perhaps we will hear God speak to us in completely new ways!

“I am in the world feeling my way to light amid the encircling gloom.” That was said by Mohandas Gandhi, who through non-violence, led to change and unity between differing religions and economic castes. He warned that the most important thing was not to prepare speeches or to organize marches, but to prepare oneself for “mountains of suffering.” That is also the message of the cross: New creation doesn’t come cheaply or without confusion, doubt, and loss. But we can trust in the Holy Spirit working in us and through us to bring more than we can imagine.

Our God is not an angry sky deity, smiling on one chosen group. God is an infinite outflow of love, working in and through us, always to bring about new life.

Fr. Rohr, who I quoted earlier, has a new book on the orthodox theology of the Trinity. He has found that his latest work is resonating in unexpected places. He recently offered a talk based on his book to staffers at Google in Silicon Valley. Executives at Apple have also expressed interest hearing his latest teachings. Though recent days reveal a heightening of xenophobia, racism, and misogyny, the growing interest in traditional theological ideas in non-traditional places and among non-religious people is a sign that God is still speaking.

Our tradition at Westminster on Epiphany is the casting of stars. After the sermon and silence, and during our carol, we will each be offered a star with a word on it to receive for 2017. This word is a gift for you, and a message of God’s love for you. You can take the star home and put it by your bedside or mirror or desk as a daily reminder of the love God has for you and us.

How will you let God’s light shine through you this year? How will we light the way for the world? God is still speaking! Are we listening?