Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Connecting with God

1 Sam. 3:1-10
1 Cor. 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

Today we have three passages that all talk about recognizing or hearing God in different ways.  In the 1st Samuel passage, Samuel is learning to recognize the voice of God when it calls him.  It takes him time and the words of his mentor/teacher to realize that the voice that is calling him is coming from God, but he does eventually learn to hear and recognize God’s voice.  In the John passage Nathanael is challenged to recognize Jesus as the Messiah or Emmanuel, God with us.  Nathanael recognizes Jesus because Jesus can tell Nathanael what he was doing when Jesus wasn’t there.  The Corinthians’ passage is perhaps the hardest to understand.  But even there the Corinthians are being challenged to recognize where God is in our actions, in our behavior: what is Godly behavior.  The Corinthians had been arguing over the necessity of obeying Jewish law, Biblical law: whether or not they needed to be circumcised, whether or not they needed to follow the food laws that are outlined in books such as Deuteronomy.  And Paul basically told them that no, they did not need to follow these laws.  Their faith in Christ gave them freedom from Law for the sake of law.  But, he added, out of their love for God, they were stilled called to do what was right – or in other words what showed love to God, neighbor and self.  And while we might argue about how to do that, as obviously the early Christians were, hence the argument between Paul and the Corinthians, the message is important.  We are called to discern what is most loving to God, self and other, and we are called to do our best to behave in ways that express that care for all three.
These three passages, then, represent three challenges that are really part of the same.  The challenge to recognize what is Godly behavior, the challenge to recognize the Godly person and the challenge to recognize the voice of God when it speaks.  In today’s world some might say that these challenges are easy – we know that Jesus is the Godly person, we hear the voice of God in scripture, and the Biblical instructions help us to know what is Godly behavior.  But in other ways, I think that all three of these remain very challenging.  How do we hear God’s voice in the world around us?  How do we discern it from the voices of so many others around us?  How do we see who is leading us in God’s path and who might be pushing us into a path that may not be what God calls us to?  And there are times when it is not clear what is the most loving path to take.  Also, and what is harder, there are times when we have to choose between what is most loving to one person over another person or even what is most loving to others vs ourselves.  Those challenges confront us regularly, and can make living a Godly life very difficult.
Sr. Joan Chittister told this story: once, the ancients say, a seeker asked a group of disciples: "Does your God work miracles?" And they replied, "It depends on what you call a miracle. Some people say that a miracle is when God does the will of people. We say that a miracle is when people do the will of God."  If discerning the will of God were easy, this parable would not make sense.  But it does.  It rings true to us because living the life that God calls us to live is a miracle, and part of the reason it is so hard is that discerning the voice, the will, and the presence of God can be a real challenge.
I have heard it said that life can be understood by looking backwards but must be lived going forward.  How do we do that, how do we live life going forward when we can really only see where God’s hand guides us by looking back on our lives?
A while ago for Film and Faith night we watched the movie, “The Help”.   In it, an African American maid named Abileen in Jackson Mississippi in 1962 is asked by a white woman to help her write a book about the experiences of black maids working for white women in the South.  Abileen knows how dangerous it would be to tell her story – that she would be risking everything, including her very life, to share her experiences.  She refuses, therefore, to do so.  But then she goes to church, as she always does, one Sunday when the preacher is talking about the call to be brave.  And he says, “Courage isn’t just about being brave.  It’s about overcoming fear and daring to do what is right for your fellow humans.  It’s about being willing to speak the truth.” As Abileen sits there and listens, she hears God’s voice calling her to do what she knows to be risky, but what she hopes will begin to make some changes as people come to understand her experience and the experiences of other African Americans in the South during the 60s.
In early 2013 the Pope resigned.  The last time that had happened had been in 1415.  He read from a statement that said, “Both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.  For this reason and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of St. Peter, entrusted to me by the cardinals on 19 April 2005.”  It takes a strong person to give up power, to acknowledge ones limits.  It took incredible strength to recognize his time was over.  It took courage.
I found myself reflecting on a poem written by Ken Untener, later bishop of Saginaw, called, “Prophets of a Future that is not our own.”  Sometimes attributed to Archbishop Romero.
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. 
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete:
            which is another way of saying
            that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that should be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
 No set of goals or objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted,
            knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
            far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything
            and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
            a step along the way, an opportunity for
            God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
            but that is the difference between the master builder
            and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
            ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future that is not our own.
Once again I believe that through prayer, through gathering together in worship, through time with God, through building our relationships with God, but also by weighing everything against the central call and message of Christ – to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves  – that is how we learn to hear God’s voice when it speaks to us.  In that relationship to God, we learn to recognize God’s presence and God’s call for us.  Samuel was just a boy at the time that God first called him.  But through his mentor and teacher, Eli, Samuel began to learn to discern when it was God’s voice calling him.  Nathanael began as a doubter, but when confronted by the Jesus who looked into his eyes and knew him, he believed.  The Corinthians came to know the will of God through conversations, and sometimes arguments, with other Christians.  We come to hear, to see, to recognize God’s voice, God in our midst, God’s call for our lives by spending time with God.  When our hearts are open, God does come in. When our minds are open, sometimes we are given the grace to hear the call, to recognize the voice, and to see God in our midst. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Enemies? Love? Loving enemies? Definitions and challenges

      I speak and write constantly about the call to love our neighbors, and yes, even our enemies, as ourselves.  This is central to my faith, central to what I believe we are supposed to be about: offering love even in the face of hate, non-violent protest in the face of violence, empowerment in the face of oppression, justice in the face of greed. I believe nothing as strongly as I believe that this is our primary call: to respond, always, with love.
     Many of my parishioners hear this as a political message, and in many ways it is.  I don't think there is room in our faith to tolerate, let alone condone the "isms" (which are forms of hate, the opposite of love) that we see so rampant in our leadership these days: the sexism, the racism, the heterosexism, the nationalism, the "this person/people is better than this other person/people and therefore is more deserving, more worthy of resources, well-being, survival, safety, care" thinking.  We are called to stand up to all of that, to say "no" and "enough" BY loving even our enemies and modelling something different, by choosing and insisting on something different.  But this causes confusion.  Some tell me it is impossible for them to love those who are creating such pain and injustice for our brothers and sisters.  After all, how can they feel love for people who espouse hatred and entitlement with every decision they make and every word they speak.  Besides, they ask, isn't loving the same as condoning?  Isn't loving a passive thing that says we tolerate abuse and injustice?  Isn't forgiveness about letting go of what has happened and giving more chances for that abuse to occur again?
      No!  No, no and no.
      First of all, love in this context, is not about a feeling.  It is not about liking the other.  It is an action and a choice, every single time.  I find it just as impossible as anyone else to like what is happening or to like the people who are greedy, self-promoting to the cost of others, and hating/judging of other people.  I can't like them.  But I still believe in the call to love them.  So what is love?
       Love to me is "working for the highest good for the other."  And while I realize that this, too, could be confusing, I will try to offer some clarification here.  "The highest good" for the other is not riches beyond belief for one person while other people in the world are starving to death.  The highest good is not happiness and ease for some while others struggle daily, often working several jobs simply to put food on the table.  I believe deeply that as long as any one person is without, is struggling, is in pain and does not have what they need to live, that all of us are lessened, that every one of us is less than whole because of it.  The "highest good", then for everyone, is for each person to have enough, to have what they need, to be able to live full, healthy lives.  I do not see it as in anyone's best interest for them to be able to amass riches beyond belief while others don't have their basic needs met.  I believe strongly that the highest good for those who have too much is liberation from their greed and extreme wealth even as the highest good for those who have too little is to be able to have enough.  I believe the highest good for those who live in their fenced in, security ridden houses is to create a world where those walls that keep others out are not needed because each person has what they need and doesn't need to threaten those who have more.  I also believe the highest good for any one person is not allowing them to be abusive or harming to others.  How can it be good for you to be allowed to be a bully?  It is for your highest good as well as everyone else to be stopped from bullying and harming others.  I could go on.  The point is that wanting the highest good for any one person means wanting the highest good for all people.  To me this makes things easier at some level because I believe people having what they need really is best for everyone.  Easier, I say, but still not easy.  It is still hard to respond to hatred with love.  It is still hard to respond to injustice with nonviolent action.  It is still hard to refrain from judging or condemning and instead to work for the best for everyone.  But that is the job, it is the call, it is what we are to be about.
        In another blog post I want to talk about this more personally.  But for now, I will just repeat that to me, this is the call; to love our enemies, personal, political, economic: individual, group, national - to love them all as ourselves. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

In the Beginning

Genesis 1:1 - 2:4
John 1:1-5
Mark 1:4-11

            According to the gospel of John, what is “the Word”?  It’s Jesus, actually.  Not scripture.  The Word of God is Jesus.  And we are told that, in the beginning, this third person of the trinity already existed.
            “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people…The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
            The Word was already in the world, it was there since the beginning.  Jesus, as the Word, was there from the beginning.  And yet Jesus was born and Jesus was baptized as one of us.  What does that mean? 
            As I’ve said before, Epiphany actually has three parts, or three events.  Epiphany is the revelation or revealing of who Jesus was.  The first part of the epiphany is the visit of the Magi, their recognition of who Jesus was, through the star, through their study and wisdom and their declaration of who Jesus was by their commitment to travel, to bring him gifts, to honor him.  The second part is what we read today, the revelation of Jesus by the Spirit descending on him like a dove, with the voice that came from heaven saying: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”  The final piece of the epiphany is Jesus’ first miracle or his turning the water into wine.  The Magi represented the revelation to the Gentiles of who Jesus was.  The Baptism was God’s own naming of who Jesus was.  And his first miracle was done for his own community, for those attending the wedding, or other Jews. 
            But baptism, the piece of epiphany on which we focus today also has other meanings for us.  And the fact that Jesus was baptized shows the extent to which God, the Word, joined us in this human journey, including this, the baptism or the second revelation of God’s coming to be with us.  It was, for Jesus, as it is for us, a renewing.  It is a commitment to living in the way of Christ, in the way God calls us to be.  Mostly, it is a commitment and an acceptance of our being God’s children.  We accept God’s claiming us as God’s own and we honor and celebrate that claiming.
A seminary professor was vacationing with his wife in Gatlinburg, Tennessee . One morning, they were eating breakfast at a little restaurant, hoping to enjoy a quiet, family meal. While they were waiting for their food, they noticed a distinguished looking, white-haired man moving from table to table, visiting with the guests. The professor leaned over and whispered to his wife, “I hope he doesn't come over here.” But sure enough, the man did come over to their table. “Where are you folks from?” he asked in a friendly voice. “ Oklahoma ,” they answered.  “Great to have you here in Tennessee ,” the stranger said... “What do you do for a living?” “I teach at a seminary,” he replied. “Oh, so you teach preachers how to preach, do you? Well, I've got a really great story for you. ” And with that, the gentleman pulled up a chair and sat down at the table with the couple.  The professor groaned inside and thought, “Great.. Just what we need.... Another preacher story!”  The man started, “See that mountain over there?" he said, pointing out the restaurant window. “Not far from the base of that mountain, there was a boy born to an unwed mother. He had a hard time growing up, because every place he went, he was always asked the same question, 'Hey boy, who's your daddy?' "Whether he was at school, in the grocery store or drug store, people would ask the same question, 'Who's your daddy?' He would hide at recess and lunch time from other students. He would avoid going in to stores because that question hurt him so badly. When he was about 12 years old, a new preacher came to his church. The boy would always go in late and slip out early to avoid hearing the question, 'Who's your daddy?’  But one day, the new preacher said the benediction so fast that he got caught and had to walk out with the crowd. Just about the time he got to the back door, the new preacher, not knowing anything about him, put his hand on his shoulder and asked him, 'Son, who's your daddy?' The whole church got deathly quiet. He could feel every eye in the church was looking at him. Everyone wanted to know the answer to that question and finally, they thought they would get it because surely this kid would not lie to the preacher!  This new preacher, though, sensed the situation around him and using discernment that only the Holy Spirit could give, said the following to that scared little boy. 'Wait a minute! I know who you are! I see the family resemblance now. You are a child of God.' With that he patted the boy on his shoulder and said, 'Boy, you've got a great inheritance. Go and claim it.' The boy smiled for the first time in a long time and walked out the door a changed person. He was never the same again. Whenever anybody asked him, 'Who's your Daddy?' he'd just tell them, 'I'm a Child of God.''' 
The distinguished gentleman got up from the table and said, “Isn't that a great story?” The professor responded that it really was a great story! As the man turned to leave, he said, “You know, if that new preacher hadn't told me that I was one of God's children, I probably never would have amounted to anything!” And he walked away. The seminary professor and his wife were stunned. He called the waitress over and asked her, "Do you know who that man was who just left that was sitting at our table?” The waitress grinned and said, “Of course. Everybody here knows him. That's Ben Hooper. He's governor of Tennessee!”
In doing some background checking, some parts of that story are factual (for example, Ben Hooper, the governor of Tennessee, really was born to an unwed mother) and some parts aren’t (he did know who his father was and eventually he ended up living with his father), but regardless of the historicity of the story, it is a story that I find to be true.  If we can really claim our identity as children of God, if we can be aware of the awesomeness of our baptisms, of God’s claiming us as our own, we should be changed by that awareness, made new and humbled by the greatness of that claim. 
On this, baptism of the Lord Sunday, we remember our baptism in which God comes and claims us as God’s own.  The Spirit revealed Jesus as God’s son for all of us.  And when we are baptized, we are called to celebrate our revealing as well – God’s children, God’s chosen, called, loved into being.  Baptism of the Lord Sunday is the day when we celebrate that God calls us first, claims us first, even before we are able to ask for it, even before we are able to recognize it, even before we are able to respond.    
But what does that mean to be God’s child?  As I worked on this sermon, I was reminded of a Star Trek Next Generation episode called “The Defector” in which a Romulan (an enemy) appeared to be defecting and asking for asylum from the federation (those are the “good guys” for those not familiar with the series).  He said that he had defected in order to prevent war.  He believed his own people were taking an action that would lead to a terrible war and he wanted to prevent that by giving information to the Federation so they might stop the war from beginning in the first place.  When pushed, he kept saying, “I’m not a traitor! I love my people. I’m here to prevent a war!” As the story unraveled, it became clear that this was a man who was deeply grieving.  He did not want to leave his home, he did not want to leave his family.  “What I did had to be done. But to never again see the Firefalls of Gath Gal'thong, and the spires of my home as they rise above the Apnex Sea at dawn. It's a bitter thing to be exiled from your home.”  When it was pointed out that his people would believe him to be a villain, that they would see him as a traitor, and that because of that he would never, ever be allowed to see his children again, let alone return anywhere near home because of his actions, his response was simple, “There comes a time in a man's life…when he looks down at the first smile of his baby girl and realizes he must change the world for her.  For all children.  It is for her that I am here.  Not to destroy the Romulan Empire, but to save it. For months, I tried desperately to persuade the High Command that another war would destroy the Empire. They got tired of my arguments. Finally I was censured, sent off to command some distant sector. This was my only recourse. I will never see my child smile again. She will grow up believing that her father is a traitor. But she will grow up.”  
That kind of love, the kind of love that cares so much for the other that it is willing not only to die but to suffer humiliation, rejection, exile – that is the kind of love God had for us in coming to be with us in another human person.  That is the kind of love God has for us when God claims us as God’s children.  When we accept our baptisms, when we remember Jesus baptism, we are both accepting the love of this kind of God, AND we are promising to try to love with that same self-less depth.

Today, on this second Sunday of Epiphany, we are called to reflect on the amazing gift of baptism that God has given to first Jesus, and then us.  It is a gift of remembering that God calls us into relationship with God.  It is a gift of remembering that God initiates care for us, call to us, purpose and meaning for our lives, before we are even old enough to choose to respond. It is a gift that says, “because I first chose you, because I first brought new life to you, because I begin your life by giving to you every day again and again; now you are called to return that gift to all God’s people which are all people, to all creation, caring back, giving second chances to others, choosing to love and live and care for others in the way that I have cared for you.”  It is a gift, like the star of last week, that shows us the light and invites us to use it to see just how much and how deeply we are loved by God.

Friday, January 12, 2018

What did you ask for, for Christmas?

What did you want for Christmas this year?  I’ll admit I had a pretty extensive list of wishes for things that I can’t really afford, don’t need, and am just fine without.  But as I moved  through Advent I found in reading so many scriptures that tell us that the coming of Christ looks like nothing other than a turning of the world on its head, and which challenge us to love neighbor truly and fully as self, that my true wish list, my deep wish list, was not for objects or material possessions, but for more important things.  For my neighbors I wish for relationships that are honest, real, whole, healthy, positive, and life-giving.  For the people of our community I wish for healing from physical, emotional or spiritual distress.  For the world I wish for peace, compassion, generosity, understanding, grace, wisdom, courage, justice and discernment.  And then I found that I was wishing for these things for myself, too.  I wish for the relationships in my life to be honest, real, whole, healthy, positive, and life-giving.  I wish for healing for myself, my family, the church, the community from distress.  I wish for clarity in decision making, and the strength to make necessary decisions and necessary changes.  I wish for the serenity to accept the things I could not change, the strength to change the things I could and the wisdom to know the difference.  I wish for courage, justice, grace, compassion, and forgiveness both towards others and towards myself. These gifts – the real gifts that we yearn for, wish for beyond all else, these gifts come from God. 
And so this Advent and Christmas I was more intentional about praying for the things I believe we are called to pray for, for our neighbors, for the world and for myself.  And when I did, when I sat in silence, asking God for God’s guidance and reign of love to come for all people, and then listened, I found guidance.  I am not always given the strength right away to act on that guidance, but God’s timing is better than my own.  When I continue to pray, when I continue to ask, when I continue to listen, when I continue in relationship with God, the directions that I am given that I sometimes feel I lack the strength to follow, eventually become…well, not easy, but doable, necessary, inevitable.  I find myself doing the very thing that days before I knew was impossible for me to do.  I find myself stepping towards wholeness when I was certain it could not be found.  I have a little more patience with the people in my family who need my attention and care.  I have a deeper appreciation and respect for those who are trying, as I am, to live their faith to the fullest.  I see needs I never saw before, and more, I see ways to respond to those needs.  And finally I find I am able to step away from hurtful or destructive things that I cannot change, trusting God to take care of them, to heal them, to transform them into new life. 

This Advent we again offered Monday evening Taize services as a time for intentional prayer and meditation.  I am so grateful for those times of prayer and meditation and to those who joined me.  I am even more grateful to God, who also shows up every time I pray to listen, to communicate, to be present, to be in relationship with us.  Our relationships with God are the beginning of the answer to all of the desires on my real Christmas wish list.  And for that I am eternally grateful.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A new season

1.  I've been worrying about the changes in church demographics... worried that I would have trouble supporting my family in the difficult career I have chosen.  I've also been missing AFDA - the Academy for Dramatic Arts program that was my dream and vision and that we began in Ohio.  I'd found myself thinking that I wanted to start something like that here, and that if I did, maybe on church campus, things might change either for the church or for myself.  But I didn't know any drama people, any directors, that I could really work with to put something like that together.  And then last week, a director called me, out of the blue, to ask about how he might start a similar program in this area...
2.  I've had a dream about a co-housing situation in which people might all live in houses in a compound: each would have their own individual places, but we'd also have common places and common times.  We could share some meals, create community, be there for one another in a more concrete, less individual way.  This has become more real as I've found myself talking with six different individuals who are in challenging housing situations and could really benefit from something like that, from cheaper housing supplemented by a large community center, and I found myself thinking about tiny houses and a big/main house.  What if I had a house on a plot of land that was big enough to add tiny houses as we needed them for folk who need a place to stay, either for a while or permanently?  I shared this with a friend and found that they were really excited about the idea as well.  I'm putting it out there to the Universe to see what we might do, but I see possibilities in this.
3.  I had put work on my book down for awhile: too hard, too intense to face all of our story again.  Yesterday, despite the fear, I picked it up and began editing.  I need a real editor, so if someone is interested, let me know.  It's a book about justice, and it's our story as well.  Not easy. But the work has started again.
4.  Today we had new people come to our adult ed at church.  We've had other new people showing up at church and at other events as well.
5.  And now, just a few minutes ago, I found a set of keys I had lost over the summer.  As odd as it sounds, it felt like a sign: the tide is turning, things are changing for the better, new life is on the way. We've all been going through a tough time.  Even when each step seems a little better, there have also been backwards steps and pain and frustration, but it feels like the season is changing.  And I am seeing glimpses of the spring.

On that note, dear friends, keep calendars cleared for the week after Christmas next year... more info to follow.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Epiphany and Gifts

Matthew 2:1-12

When you hear the story of the Magi, what thoughts or questions come to mind for you?  I want to review a quiz that I gave you the first year I was here and see what you remember:
               First of all, in what book or books of the Bible do we find the story of the three kings?
               None.  There are no kings mentioned and there is no number mentioned.  Instead we are told “some wise-men” or magi from the east came to Jerusalem searching for the king of the Jews. 
               What, then, are magi?  Are they kings?  No.  Astrologers.
               About how old was Jesus when they came to see him?  Between 41 days and 2 years.  While some say it would have taken only slightly over a month of travel (one direction), others estimate that it was a year or more out of their lives that this entailed. So, then, did they come to the stable?  No, of course not.  The story says “to the house”.  They would no longer have been at the stable since we are talking between 41 days and 2 years.

               Why did they bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh?  What were these things and why were they important in this recounting?  Frankincense is often used as incense or in an anointing oil that was often used in the temple for religious reasons.  Myrrh is similar and can also be used as an oil or incense, but mostly was used to embalm the dead.  These things were incredibly valuable, monetarily, but they were also symbols of what was to come.  Symbols of a recognition of Jesus’ holiness, but also, his death.  Both are purifiers, and readiers for death, for sacraments, for religious tasks, all of which would be Jesus’ life.   The magi travelled far, took time away from families, occupation, home: significant time.  They gave most precious gifts, gifts that required all of who they were – their resources, their time, their commitments, all to come and see this baby and to bring this baby their gifts.
               What are we this committed to?  What do we care about enough that we would leave home, leave FAMILY, sell all we have to spend on a gift for someone whom we’ve never met before and may never see again? 
               I think about the pilgrims and what they gave up to start a new life here in the United States.  Many of them gave their lives, dying in the travel, with the hopes for something better.  Many gave up family, leaving them behind or knowing that they risked some not making the journey successfully.  The same remains true of many of our immigrants today.  Many of those who come here as refugees or as people escaping their countries of origin are truly risking everything they have and everything they are to try to find a better life, usually for their kids.  They make this commitment, this journey, all to begin again, to start something new.  I think about this, how they gave these most precious gifts of starting in a new place, travelling, their resources, to create a new life, new possibilities, for their children, their children’s children, their family.  But these magi, they gave these most precious gifts for the hope of a new tomorrow for Israel.  They gave these most precious gifts for strangers in a strange country, in a strange world.  For a future they would never see.  For a time they would not and could not be a part of. 
               Can you imagine that?
               God loves us in this way, giving up everything to give us the most precious gifts, of life, of Jesus, of salvation.  As Bonhoeffer said it, "God does not love some ideal person, but rather human beings just as we are, not some ideal world, but rather the real world."
God also calls us to love in return in the same way.  Of course we aren’t always going to succeed in doing that.  And sometimes it won’t look like giving up everything to follow God.  But the willingness and faith to give all we have to further God’s reign, God’s place, God’s LOVE here on earth, that is our call. 
Michael Piazza told this story: Harriet Richie, a writer from Anderson, South Carolina, wrote a story that her family had been to a Christmas Eve service that ended at midnight. After worship, her husband announced that he was hungry and wanted breakfast. Of course, it was almost 1 a.m. on Christmas morning, so none of the usual places they might have gone were open. They made their way to the interstate where an all-night truck stop was still open. A few big diesels rumbled outside. Inside a few truckers sat at the counter. A jukebox played country music. On the front window was a string of colored blinking lights. The place smelled like bacon grease and stale coffee. A one-armed man behind the counter nodded the family toward a booth. Soon a waitress named Rita sauntered over, handed them their menus and asked what they wanted to drink. Harriet looked around. She felt a little bit like a snob and out of place. Her family had just come from a beautiful Christmas Eve service. And soon they would be heading to their lovely home for the night. She thought one day they would look back with a laugh and say to each other, "Remember that Christmas we ate breakfast at that truck stop? That awful music and those tacky lights?" She was staring out the window when an old Volkswagen van drove up. A young man with a beard and baggy jeans got out, walked around and opened the door for a young woman who was holding a baby. They hurried inside and took a booth near the back. After Rita, the waitress, took their order, the baby began to cry, and neither of the young parents could quiet him. Finally, Rita set down her coffee pot and held out her arms for the baby. "Hon, just sit there and drink your coffee. Let me see what I can do." Soon it was evident that Rita had done this before. She began walking around the place showing the baby to first one of the truckers and then another. One began whistling a Christmas tune and make silly faces. Quickly the baby stopped crying and began cooing. Rita showed the baby the blinking lights on the jukebox. She brought the baby over to Harriet's table. "Just look at this little darlin'," she said. "Mine are so big and grown they don't need me no more." The one-armed fellow behind the counter brought a fresh pot of coffee, and, as he refilled their mugs, Harriet felt tears in her eyes. Her husband wanted to know what was wrong. "Nothing," she said, "just Christmas." Reaching in her purse for a Kleenex and a quarter, she said to her own kids, "Go see if you can find a Christmas song on the jukebox." When they were gone, Harriet quietly said almost to herself, "He would have come here, wouldn't he?" "Who?" her husband asked. "Jesus. If Jesus were born here tonight and the choices were our neighborhood, the church or this truck stop, it would be right here, wouldn't it?" Her husband didn't answer right away, but looked around the place, at the people there. Finally he said, "I suppose either here or a homeless shelter." "That's what bothers me," Harriet said. "When we first got here I felt sorry for these people because they probably aren't going home to nice neighborhoods where the houses have candles in the windows and wreaths on the doors. And listening to that awful music, I thought, I'll bet nobody here has even heard of Handel. Now I think that more than any place I know, this is where Christmas is. But I'm not sure I belong."
As Harriett walked with her family to the car, her husband leaned over and said, "You know I heard something earlier at church. They said what the angels sang that first Christmas was, 'Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.' Maybe they meant us, too." –

What God values – we see throughout scripture – is not what we are told is important.  God does  not value wealth, does not rank people based on what they have, what they have achieved, or how much others like them or know them. Jesus was born in poverty, to an illiterate, unwed, teenage mother.  The shepherds to whom this story was proclaimed were not wealthy, high standing members of society.  These were poor people, rejected people, people who were not valued.  And that is where God chose to come, chose to announce God’s presence. 
The magi, on the other hand, did seem to have resources.  And the value in this story is that all are welcomed.  All are invited.  All are called to be willing to give all of what they have to be part of the kingdom that is coming, part of celebrating what God has done, part of bringing in what God would do.
         Of all the gifts we have to give, our time, our attention, our faith, commitment and love are by far the most important.
               Our most moving Christmas stories are all about giving.  The Littlest Angel who gives his dirty childhood box.  The little drummer boy who gives the gift of his music.  In Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim gives his faith and love: and later, Scrooge, when he gets it together turns around and gives his time, his love, and his resources.  In It’s a Wonderful Life it’s George Bailey who gives all of who he is to serve the people of his town and in the end, it’s their returned friendship that saves him.  The most moving Christmas stories are all about what we have to give and how we choose to give it. 
               We aren’t the magi.  We aren’t paid by kings to deliver gifts of gold, frankincense and Myrrh, or our current equivalent of gold, stocks and investment properties.  Some of us have resources, lots of them: others don’t.  What is important is not the amount that you give, but that you give from your heart the best that you have to give.  That you follow the stars to seek out God and to give to God the best that you have.
I’m reminded of a wonderful Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. 

               As we’ve done for the past two years, today we pass out stars.  Each of these has a word on it with the name of a gift or “virtue”.  These are gifts for you to reflect on for the next year, to focus your thoughts, prayers and attention for the year.  Next year on Epiphany Sunday I will ask you to share stories about how those words or stars might have touched you this last year.  They are upside down in the baskets and I ask you to pick one without looking at it first.  These aren’t “magical”, but I do think that there can be a gift in focusing on one of the many blessings God has given to each of us for a set amount of time.  I look forward to hearing how your lights will show and touch the world this year, how you will have been touched by God’s light this year.  Amen.