Sermon by the Rev. Abby VanderBrug on Sunday, January 3, 2021.
When I was in seminary, I lived and worked in the residence life program at Emory University, which meant living in a dorm with college students. For the most part, we got along swimmingly. Our biggest difference was that on Saturday nights, I would pull on my pajamas to relax before an early morning at church, and they would pull on sparkly tops and miniskirts to hit the clubs in midtown. During the week, I developed relationships with the students and as the semester progressed, eventually they would trickle into my office hours and tell me about how it was really going.
One student, a freshman at the end of his second semester, told me about how he’d fallen in love with the art classes he was taking and wondered if he was making a mistake claiming a business major. His family had many connections in the business world and he had all the brains and the charm to succeed at it, although he was bored out of his mind every class. He thought about going along with it just because he felt like it would pay the bills and make his parents proud. It was what he was supposed to do.
His story wasn’t unlike many others I knew of – a graduating nursing student forgoes a well paying job offer to work, unpaid, in Uganda, a pre-med student works his tail off for three years and then decides not to apply to med school.
For many of us, at least for me, there seems to be a path that guarantees us safety or it’s the one that we’re supposed to follow. One that is obvious, clear, comfortable, one that makes sense because we’ve spent all this time walking on it. It’s not clear who sets this path out for us. It could be our parents, our culture, ourselves, or a combination of it all. And I’m not saying it’s a bad thing either. But there comes a time when we wonder if we want to keep walking our current path or if it might be time to make a new path, one we could’ve never suspected when we began. For some reason or another, or for no reason at all, we feel a pull towards a different route.
I wonder if the Wise-men felt this way when they found the star in the sky that night? Because the Christmas story is so familiar to us, it can be easy to forget what it would’ve been like to actually live out the story. The wisemen from the East, of whom Matthew’s Gospel tells us basically nothing about – not how many there were, not where they were from, not how long it took them to travel, not if they were friends before this adventure or not. Maybe they were excited to get out of town for a few days, maybe they had just returned from another trip, maybe they left families or work that needed to be finished. We simply do not know.
What we do know is that they took time from whatever other wisemen duties they had going on, to make this journey all because of a star. The bright light rising had pulled them off their path and they had to go and find out what it was – forsaking all else.
At first it leads them to Jerusalem, which would make complete sense – it was where the wealth, authority, and power were concentrated, and surely a star this compelling would lead to a place such as this. But they arrive only to find out from some clergymen that the child was probably born in Bethlehem, middle of nowhere Bethlehem. Can you imagine the suspense they felt as they followed it through the night, and what kind of person you must be to travel all this way because of a star?
Then, after finding the baby, Herod asks them to return to Jerusalem and tell him where the child is, although they decide to disobey and go home by another way all because of a dream that told them not to.
It takes guts to do something like this – to listen to the instincts of our hearts or the stars rather than what we know to be the route, or what we were told to do. Maybe that is why we call them wise-men, for their ability to notice something as ordinary as a new star in the sky and understand it as a message from God. Or the courage to obey something as fleeting as a dream instructing them to go home by a different way. And maybe the beauty of their anonymity is that they could be you, or me, or all of us, trying to make sense of our path and trusting our decision to forge a new one.
In retrospect, the decisions of our lives seem clear and direct – of course, we changed our majors, took a different job, decided not to marry that person, or to live in a part of the world, but when we are in the moment these decisions don’t just happen, they are taken into consideration.
In the Episcopal tradition, and I’m sure many other religious and spiritual traditions, we place a high value on discernment, an intentional time to listen and wonder where God is calling us. Parishes enter into deep levels of discernment when they are calling new priests, lay leaders enter into discernment to find their spiritual gifts, varying ministries discern how they will evolve, aspiring priests form “discernment groups” of people who are willing to listen with them as they wonder if ordained ministry might be the right fit.
It’s not just inside the church where we discern, it’s our lives as well. How do we know when to step off the path to make a new one? When is the time to go a different way home? How do we know if we are seeing a star or just some figment of our imagination?
I wish I could give you a recipe, but I can’t. The way that God speaks to us is as wild and as unpredictable as stars in the sky. We have no idea when, or where, or why it happens, or how long it will take. I first felt a call to ordained ministry on a Greyhound bus, on the way home from the Grand Canyon, and it took nearly 8 years, a quarter of my life, later to say my priestly ordination vows.
There are practices though that help us to discern where God is calling us. Being quiet is a good place to start – turning off the noise in our lives and in our heads is the only place we will ever hear anything, especially from God. It’s a tough practice, uncomfortable some say, but start small, maybe 2 minutes is a good goal.
The reason the wise-men saw the star in the sky and knew it was something special was because they had probably been out there before – looking silently with wondering eyes up at the vast sky. They had been practicing for such an occasion as this. When we slow down, take a breath, and open our hearts, who knows what we will find. Maybe not every time, but once and awhile, we are struck and we know it.
Listening to our lives is another route. Theologian Frederick Buechner advises, Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments.”
For me, and I suspect many of you, welcoming in the New Year couldn’t come soon enough. It was a wild, wonderful, and difficult year. But, as Richard Roar claims, in God’s economy nothing is wasted, so before you go making 2021 resolutions, reflect back on this wild year. What did it teach you about yourself? What was your most valuable mistake? What was your most unexpected joy? What do you want to take with you into 2021, what do you want to leave behind? What might God reveal to you about your path in the midst of a tumultuous year? I wonder.
And finally, prayer. However you define that – whether a long walk, or joining our Morning Prayer group on Zoom, bedtime compline, a journal, or just a minute of rattling off some gratitudes – prayer is often the channel through which we get the courage and peace to make a new route.
Wherever we go, whatever the route, we can be sure that what’s waiting for us in the end, is pure love, God incarnate. The gift we bring is our truest, most alive, self and the courage to go home by a different way.