Our first worship service for the New Year is an opportunity to ponder the story of God offering the Magi “another way” to get home after their visit to Jesus, which allows them to avoid having to report back to King Herod.
“Another Way” is a theme of this worship service. In the grip of a pandemic, and under lockdown rules, we are all finding ways to adapt to circumstances. We can celebrate communion in a new way.
Back during the first lockdown, in March and April, I adhered carefully to the guidance offered by the General Council Executive of the United Church of Canada, that “virtual communion” could happen, if the video of the worship service was livestreamed to those watching on their own devices. We were discouraged from having a recorded service. The idea was to retain the sense that we are all “together”, while still being safely apart.
I still agree with that idea, and also think that it is impossible to limit God. God existed before time started, and some theologians say that God is present in all moments of time, simultaneously. So who is to say that God can’t be with each person, at each moment, while they watch the communion video, and ask God to bless their bread and cup?
We do the best we can, and find “another way”.
Our service includes some beautiful music, old and newly recorded, as well as a lyric video of the James Taylor song “Home by Another Way”, and a clip of Naomi Woods reading “Refuge” by Anne Booth and Sam Usher.
Here is the text of the Learning Time: “Going by another way”
I remember going to a hardware store in Windsor with our landlord, a wise, practical, chain-smoking, hard-working, big-hearted wiry little old Ukrainian man.
John and I were looking for a kit to install an air conditioner in an attic window. The store clerk had trouble understanding what John wanted, and maybe couldn’t get it all through his accent. It was a frustrating conversation, and we ended up leaving the store, to look elsewhere. As we walked away, we heard the clerk mutter “stupid bohunk”.
John was such a good man. He must have read my face, because I really wanted to go back and have words with the clerk. John shook his head, and gave a look that seemed to express both gratitude for my indignation, and resignation to the cruelty and ignorance of some people.
John said, “Whaddaya gonna do?”
We went on with our mission, picked up what we needed at another store, and installed the air conditioner. It was one of those times when an elder’s wisdom won out.
John was right, I think, to have us walk away from the guy in the hardware store. Who knows why the clerk spat out his racial hatred in that moment. As the Scottish theologian Ian McLaren wrote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
People are facing all kinds of hard battles these days. We have all the usual things like racism, and misogyny, and homophobia. We have poverty and its related diseases and issues. People struggle with mental health, and addictions. People live with the cruel legacies of childhood neglect and abuse.
People get sick from things in the air, the water, the soil. Sometimes there is help for them.
People live with grief, and regret, and loneliness, and fear. Some people are so weighed down by debt and obligation they never want to answer the phone. Some people have made big mistakes, or little ones, in relationships, and feel like life is spinning apart, leaving them in pieces.
Parents worry about children. Children worry about their parents, while at the same time trying to find a way to be themselves.
Hospitals and care facilities are filled with folks who struggle with illness, and aging. Families face tough decisions about the care of loved ones. Ailments, accidents, diseases, and illnesses come upon people, and cause devastation with little warning.
We get old. We get sick. We think about death, or try not to think about death. All of this just comes with being human, being alive, making our way in the world.
Then a pandemic comes along, and adds whole new layers of complication, crisis, limitation and sometimes desperation. Businesses, and jobs, and our basic patterns of life are all threatened. Things we have taken for granted have been taken away, or drastically limited, changed, under lockdown.
There is so much that seems beyond our control, that just happens to us.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
One of the problems we face is that even though we may feel like we are fighting a hard battle, there may not actually be anyone to fight.
Who should we get mad at, because the pandemic has led to a lockdown? Does it help to call our leaders names, or pass on weird conspiracy stories that claim to explain the secret reasons we are all wearing masks, and waiting for vaccine shots?
When the guy in the hardware store was so stupidly rude and cruel to my friend John, a part of me wanted pick up something sharp or heavy- it was a hardware store after all, and explain things to him. As if that would change anything, make anything better. John’s “Whaddya gonnna do?” reminded me that there has to be another way.
The wise men, or magi, or as James Taylor calls them, those guys, had an encounter with King Herod, who personifies evil in this story. He wants the magi to pay him a call on the way back from meeting the newborn, to tell him how to find the baby. Herod does not want this little one to grow up to be a rival to his power. His invitation to the magi to come back and see him was an offer they were not supposed to refuse.
After having successfully followed the Bethlehem Star, the wisemen are warned in a dream to go home by another way- to avoid a confrontation with Herod. I love this story about God using stars and dreams to guide them, and offer them another way.
Jesus was born into a world in which rich and powerful people make decisions that cause poor people to leave their homes, and seek shelter against the cold night. It is a world in which an evil ruler can hatch plots against real or imagined enemies. It is a world in which violence is perpetrated against innocent and defenseless children. It is a world in which it is possible to feel insignificant, helpless to make things better. In other words, it is our world.
The gospels bring the Good News about God’s love for all people, and were written for people like us, living in a world in which there are many hard battles, often against faceless, nameless enemies.
Epiphany is the English word that comes from ancient Greek words “Epi-phanos”, which translate roughly as “manifestation” or “appearance” or “making known”. It means that something previously hidden has been revealed. A sunrise is a kind of epiphany, a moment when darkness is sliced open by light, and everything changes.
The word epiphany gets used in non-religious ways to point to the moment in which something suddenly becomes clear. A good example is when the apple fell on Isaac Newton, and he had a sudden insight into the existence of gravity. There is a similar story about Albert Einstein struck as a young child by being given a compass, and realizing some unseen force was making it move.
In the Gospel according to Thomas, an interesting, and strange, and mystical text that did not make it into the New Testament, Jesus is quoted as saying, “I’m the light that’s over everything. I am everything; it’s come from me and unfolds toward me. “Split a log; I’m there. Lift the stone, and you’ll find me there.”
That is a way of expressing the startling news of the Incarnation, the claim the Christian church has made almost from the beginning, that one of the things we learn from Jesus is that God is not distant, and uninvolved, looking down on us from some lofty height. God is with us in the midst of this reality.
We don’t wait until we die and depart this existence to meet God. God is in the apples, and compass needles, and in the light, and in the split logs, and in the vulnerable child of Bethlehem, and in you and I. This is not to say that you are God, or that I am. The poetry of the Incarnation says to us that God is here, with us. God is with us, and there is hope of another way. Amen