ST. PAUL’S CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH

“Star of Wonder”

Matthew 2: 1 – 12; January 5, 2020

Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds

Let us pray: O God, may the star we follow be the steady radiance of your mystery which we discern only in part but can forever trust. Amen

I wonder what it was they saw in the sky that first night. What was it that got them thinking? What was it that motivated them to pack and begin a journey to who knew where? Something had been revealed to them. But what was it? Was it in the sky, in their mind, in their heart?

We don’t have much historical information about these wise men and their journey. Matthew’s gospel says they came from the East. Some have speculated they were from Persia. We like to think that there were three of them but Matthew doesn’t say that -only that they brought 3 gifts. We call them Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar but those names didn’t come about until the seventh century. And what about “the star?” Was it a supernatural phenomenon, just a regular star, a comet, a conjunction or grouping of planets.

Maybe this lack of historical information is a reminder that this story, this Epiphany journey, is not just the wise men’s journey; it is everyone’s journey, it is our journey too – into the mystery. The truth of sacred scripture is never limited to or contained only in the past.

I don’t know what was in the sky, what they saw, that first night. I don’t know what was in their minds; what they thought, asked, or talked about. I don’t know what was in their hearts; what they felt, dreamed, or longed for.

But what I do know is there have been times when we each have experienced Epiphany; times when our night sky has been lit brightly, times when our minds have been illumined, times when our hearts have been enlightened. Those times have revealed to us a life and world larger than before. They have been moments that gave us the courage to travel beyond the borders and boundaries that usually limit our lives. Epiphanies are those times when something calls us, moves us, to a new place and we see the face of God in a new way; so human that it almost seems ordinary, maybe too ordinary to believe.

That’s what happened to the wise men. They began to see and hear the stories of their lives. Something stirred within them and they began to wonder, to imagine, that their lives were part of a much larger story. Could it be that the one who created life, who hung the stars in the sky, noticed them, knew them, lived within them, and was calling them? Could it be that the light they saw in the sky was a reflection of the divine light that burned within them, that burns within each one of us?

To seriously consider these questions is to begin the journey. That journey took the wise men to the house where they found the answer to their questions in the arms of his mother, Mary. We may travel a different route than the wise men did but the answer is the same. Yes! God knows each of us – calls us – loves us.

This is the story of our lives too – and friends, these are the stories of our life together as the St. Paul’s Congregational Church, United Church of Christ: epiphanies that forever change who we are, how we live, and the road we travel. They are moments of ordinary everyday life in which divinity is revealed in humanity and we see God’s glory face to face. These moments are gifts from God.

And that’s what Epiphany is all about – how do we let this story wash over us, comfort us, challenge us, empower us: as individuals on a journey, and as a church on a journey, as a church at a crossroads. How do we receive these awesome gifts of God and then pass them on?

I invite each of you to reflect on one of your own epiphany stories, to remember a memorable time of growth and discovery. Maybe there was a time when you realized that you could no longer keep quiet in the face of injustice. Maybe there was a watershed moment that moved your life in a whole new direction altogether. Maybe there was a period of time when everything seemed to come together for you, or maybe there was a person who significantly altered your understandings. When, how, did you recognize this time of receiving such an awesome gift from God? When, how, did you realize you had to stop and savor the gifts you have received from God? And then, what was your reaction? What changes did you make? How did you pass them on?

Let’s make that journey into epiphany together – as individuals and as church. Many churches have begun a “Star Words” project, beginning each year on Epiphany Sunday. I’d like to propose that this project is a gift from God for us to share at this time of discernment, of our journey together, finding ourselves at a crossroad in our life together here at St. Paul’s.

The season after Christmas and before Lent can often seem like a “down” time in the church year—maybe it’s because we are suffering from holiday fatigue or influenced by gloomy winter weather, the season of Epiphany can go by unnoticed and unheralded – sort of a waiting time between the great festivals of Christmas and Easter.

The Rev. Susan Foster writes, “This was the case in our congregation until we introduced the concept of “star gifts.” A star gift is simply a star-shaped piece of brightly colored paper with a word printed on it. Every person who comes to worship on Epiphany Sunday receives a star gift and is asked to reflect on that word for the coming year: to ponder what significance this word might have in their lives, and how God might be speaking to them through that simple message.

The star gifts are passed around to the congregation using the same offering plates used later on in worship to gather up the tithes and offerings. As people help themselves to a star gift (without looking—just reach in and grab!), the significance is profound. In this moment, people are not asked to give; they are invited to receive. It reminds us that this is always the order of things in God’s realm—God always gives first, and then we are invited to respond with our gifts and ourselves.

The wise men who traveled great distances to offer their gifts to the newborn Christ-child were responding to the gift first given to them. They received God’s gift, then offered their gifts to God. As we commemorate the arrival of the wise men and remember their offerings, we receive this paper reminder that symbolizes God’s generosity in our lives.

Why, how can such a simple gift take on such deep meaning? What is it about receiving a word on a piece of paper that touches people? I believe that people are yearning for tangible, clear signs of God’s presence. Congregations are filled with compassionate people who do the work of the church: serving on various committees, singing in the choir, providing fellowship at our coffee hours, visiting people, praying for those in need – making financial offerings: most congregations are good at being busy and “doing” for God.

But our Epiphany Sunday celebration can represent a change in our routine; we are all offered the opportunity to “be still” in the presence of God and to receive God’s gifts, not because we have done anything to merit those gifts, but we receive God’s gifts simply because of God’s abundant generosity. This project offers us an opportunity to explore the “being” of our faith, not just the “doing.”

In a few moments we’ll pass the offering plates with stars in them – gifts from God for the people of God. You are encouraged to take one home and put it where you will see it every day – on the bathroom mirror, taped to your computer screen, on the refrigerator, next to the coffee pot – wise words and encouragement as a reminder of God’s presence in our lives.

Allow this word to speak to you – just reach in the plate and take one without looking at it first - maybe you start by looking up the word in the dictionary – we hear the word grace all the time but what does it mean? A word that seemed unclear at the beginning may gain new meaning as the year goes on.

Often the words seem very timely, as if they are indeed designated for you. Susan reports that a woman whose husband recently died received the word perseverance; a student off to college turned over her star to read responsibility; the music director received the word harmony, much to the delight of the choir.

Susan continues, one year she drew out a star with the word faith printed on it. Her congregation thought that was pretty amusing—their pastor was receiving the gift of faith! Several people joked on their way out the door following worship: “I guess you didn’t really need that gift, did you?” “I’m the one who could use more faith, not you, Pastor!” As it turned out, that year was a year to try a minister’s soul. Tragic death was followed by heartbreaking crises. She often felt as if her own faith was being put through a wringer: but her star gift offered a context in which to reflect. How could she receive the gift of faith when she needed it most? Months later, she spoke in a sermon about those dry periods when God seemed distant and her work as pastor and leader was especially daunting, and she reminded people of her star gift. Faith, she learned again that year, is always a gift, something to hang on to especially in times of trouble, and never to be taken for granted.

Throughout the year, you all are encouraged to share some thoughts, either briefly or at length, about your star gifts: reflections on the God who continually encourages and strengthens all of us, as individuals and as church. Hopefully we’ll all find that these star gifts truly are a gift that keeps on giving, even long after the Epiphany season is over.

Like any other gift, star gifts can either be received with joy or discarded and forgotten. We need to be intentional about our response to our star gift. Will they be stuffed into a pocket or jammed into the bottom of a purse, never to be considered again? Or will that word be considered an opportunity—a chance to reflect on how God speaks to us? What might we learn from one word? What new ideas might evolve, what treasured wisdom might resurface? How might this strengthen our relationship with God? How might this empower us to strengthen our ministry as a community of God, the Body of Christ in the world?

Epiphany is the celebration of God’s presence breaking through to shine as a light in the darkness: may each of us rejoice in the reminder of our generous, giving God—one star gift at a time.

Ask the ushers to come forward and pass out the star gifts: then prayer:

Gracious God, we acknowledge that we are not always ready to receive your best gifts for us. You have given us an epiphany word in order that our searching will bring us to you.

Help us to be open to the gift that you offer us now through our star words. We acknowledge that we do not fully understand what this word might mean for our faith, but we receive it from you with gratitude and pray that your Spirit will enable us to live into our word with intention and faithfulness. All this we pray in the name of your Son, the Light who has come into the world. Amen.

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