Picture above is entitled "Waiting for the Wise Men"
"In the Beginning Is the End"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
January 6, 2019
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Beginnings and endings often come together, don’t they? Endings and beginnings. Nearly at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, the story of the magi is an end – both in narrative and purpose. In the story of the magi, it was their goal, their destination, to find the royal heir that was heralded by a new star on the horizon. For the locals, that heir was hoped to deliver them from bondage and oppression. The magi knew nothing of that. It was merely their practice as astrologers from Babylon to seek out and acknowledge foreign rulers at their nativity – even at great time and expense. If in fact the star in question appeared at the moment of Jesus’ birth, digging into the details of the story indicates it took the magi nearly two years to arrive in Judea. And in the meantime, the star seemed to blink off and on, causing the magi to stop at one of Herod’s palaces – possibly assuming that Herod had a new heir himself. The magi may have been sent as emissaries to curry favor with neighboring rulers on behalf of their own monarchy. Only after learning of Micah’s prophecy from the local religious scholars did they head to Bethlehem.
For Matthew, the end – the purpose – is to illustrate that despite the paranoid and disingenuous allegiance of Herod to anything or anyone other than himself, the end is to proclaim that God can work through mysterious and unexpected ways – even through natural phenomena and arcane divination. The magi’s end was not to acknowledge the birth of the Son of Yahweh, but of the son of a mortal king – who nonetheless sought to be treated like a god. One consequence of the magi’s visit was to cause Jesus’ family to seek asylum in Egypt – underscoring the connections between Moses and Jesus as well as connections with our own world situation today. If we keep reading in Matthew, we learn of another consequence of the magi’s visit – the genocide by Herod of all potential contenders to his throne born in and around Bethlehem in the preceding two years. It’s been said that to truly understand Jesus we must keep Herod in Christmas.
Perhaps you can hear that I am conflating or relating the various meanings of “end.” One meaning is “termination” or “cessation.” Another meaning is purpose or goal. Both are true meanings. Mortality – our mortal end – has been on my mind a lot lately. The truth is that mortality is at the heart of our faith – our experience, our trust, and our hope. Christianity is a confluence of many streams. We are familiar with the Hebrew origins of Christianity. The Greco-Roman origins of the way the church evolved as an institution lay in the funeral societies – voluntary associations in which individuals invested and pooled their resources so that when they died their families could draw on those pooled resources to properly mourn their passing. In my experience as a pastor, I have officiated at far more funerals, memorial services, and graveside services for strangers than for active members of my congregations. The church may not be highly valued in the world today, but when a loved one dies, those who have not darkened the doors of a church in decades will call a pastor first.
Not all pastors enter the ministry specifically called to a ministry of care for the dying and their mourners – but it is at the heart of what we do, along with meeting the broken and poor at the door. We become deeply acquainted with the diversity of responses and understandings of our common end. Pastor Craig Barnes shares his experience at the deathbed of fellow pastors in an article titled, “Grateful Even at the Grave.”
“Last month I had conversations with two pastors who were dying. In both cases we knew it would be the last time we talked, so we took our time and chose our words carefully.
“It’s an honor to be in a conversation with anyone who knows death is coming soon, but it’s overwhelming to listen to a dying pastor. After spending most of their lives climbing into pulpits and standing up at countless church dinners when called upon to “offer a few words,” dying pastors are ready when the end of life calls for their last words.
“As I listened to these two pastors, the most striking thing to me wasn’t their fearlessness at dying. Nor was I in awe primarily of their amazingly sturdy faith, which was why they had so little fear. The thing I keep thinking about is what both of them kept talking about at the end of their lives: gratitude.
“All pastors have a few moments of glory and disaster along the way, but neither of these is what defines their ministries. As I discovered, people rise up to call their pastor blessed at the funeral because their congregation had someone who was with them, in search of God, through all of the ordinary days. There was always another widow holding their arm at the graveside, another confirmation class of bored teenagers, another committee meeting that went on forever and accomplished little. There was always another wedding for a couple who had no idea what they were vowing to do, another hospital visit with someone who teared up during the prayer…, and of course another sermon that tried to make holy sense of it all.
“This is how pastors spend their lives. And at the end, this is what they remember, and why they die with gratitude on their lips. They don’t tell the stories of their successful capital campaigns or how many new members they found for the church. Nor are they particularly bothered by their ideas that failed badly and almost drove the congregation into the ditch. They believe in grace too much to care about what went well and what did not. But they tell a lot of stories that essentially boil down to another day in the life of the parish, and the great faith in God’s faithfulness that was formed along the way.
“This is what the old pastors remember, and why they are so grateful at the end of their lives. They got to spend their years functioning essentially as angels who keep saying, “Behold!” They knew the ground of the church was holy even when it was a holy mess.
“That’s the real job description of the pastor: revealing the presence of God in the ordinary life of a flawed church.”[i]
Please help me to remember that it is my end – both in narrative and in purpose – is to be with you, in search of God, through all the ordinary days – trying to make sense of God’s mysterious presence in this beautiful and fragile creation.
And speaking of a flawed church, and making sense of a holy mess, our denomination will soon reach an end that has been beckoning us for decades. We are not magi. I often doubt we are very wise. I know that some of you would rather not talk about this, but, in seven weeks, delegates from United Methodist conferences around the globe will gather in St. Louis – a far cry from Bethlehem – to receive and act upon a report about what direction the denomination will take in regard to inclusion of LGBTQ persons and to what degree we can remain one denomination. I’ve not talked too much about it because almost anything could happen – even nothing. And regardless of the actions taken or not taken, some will be angry, some will choose to leave, and some will be forced out. It’s the potential death of the denomination. We will hold a discussion about some of the possible decisions and ramifications after worship on the first Sunday in February. Then, on the first Sunday in March we will hold another conversation about the possible impact of the decisions that have been made. As with facing our mortality, it’s easy to fear the worst. It’s also easy to pretend that nothing will change – to live in denial. But, as I said at the outset, the truth is that mortality is at the heart of our faith – our experience, our trust, and our hope. And we believe that there is something beyond the cross and the tomb. To convey that message better than I can, I would like to share this message for Epiphany from our Western Jurisdiction bishops.[ii] I think it will give you hope!
Bishop Minerva Carcaño: As the three wise men came to the place where the Christ child was, with mother Mary and father Joseph, they saw the light of God’s mercy and grace. They had been led there by this brilliant light, but that light did not begin to compare to the light upon the face of the Christ child.
Bishop Robert Hoshibata: That was the point at which they became aware that God was revealed to the world in this little child. We call it the Epiphany.
Carcaño: In that moment, they knew without a doubt that God was with us, that God was with the world and all of God’s creation. They experienced the fulfillment of God’s divine promise that we would see, and that we would feel, the presence of Emmanuel—God with us.
Bishop Elaine Stanovsky: The Sunday after Epiphany we celebrate the baptism of Jesus and that always comes to my mind when we are thinking about Epiphany.
Bishop Karen Oliveto: We celebrate the time Jesus came to the river Jordan to be baptized. It was a time when the Holy Spirit appeared, and the voice of God proclaimed, “This is my beloved child, my Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”
Stanovsky: I was baptized when I was age three, it’s one of my earliest memories—standing outside the sanctuary with my parents waiting to go inside the Church to be baptized. I was raised in the Church and the Church introduced me to an amazing variety of people and we were always led to understand that when we were baptized, God defined our family.
Oliveto: Every time we gather around the bowl, the font, God is there claiming us as children of God, saying that we are of worth, that there is grace abundant for each of us. And not only that, at this font our family is extended as we see in brothers and sisters and siblings that we didn’t even know we had but with whom Christ has claimed as his own.
Stanovsky: When I was 17 and a member of the District Youth Council, we were planning a youth retreat and I was on the phone with a 16-year-old from a neighboring church. And in the course of the conversation he said to me, “I think I’m gay, and I don’t know if there’s a place for me in the Church.” It never occurred to me that my job was to judge him, or to change him, or to somehow draw a line that said you’re not in the Church. This was a baptized brother in Christ and so I walked a journey with him. I’ve always carried him through all these years with me into the conversations about how open and welcoming is the Church and what is the Church’s attitude towards all people who are LGBTQ, but specifically to baptized brothers and sisters in the family that God has created for us.
The future of Christians is not to decide who’s pure and who’s impure, and to draw lines dividing us, and to find comfortable communities, sub-communities within the Church where we don’t have to be stretched.
Carcaño: As we prepare for our special called General Conference, I want to share with you that I have no doubt that we will have a God-sent epiphany at the General Conference, that God will be with us because God is ever faithful.
Hoshibata: In this time of Epiphany of the revelation of the glory of God to the world through Jesus Christ, this is an invitation for all of us to hold in our hearts the light of Christ.
Oliveto: That no person’s experience of God, no person’s walk with Jesus, no person’s selfhood will be demeaned, diminished or discounted, for truly we are here as the beloved children of God to let the light shine bright in the world and in each one of us.
Bishop Grant Hagiya: Let us be thankful for the great light that shines through the darkness, but equally important, may we be the light for others in need.
Hoshibata: Because no matter what happens at General Conference the important thing is that we emerge as the Church continuing to do what God asks us to do, to be the revelation of God’s love, God’s peace, God’s joy, God’s hope in the world. Amen.