Text: Matthew 2:1-12
The blessings of our God, whose Word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. Amen.
I was in getting my shoes shined yesterday before presiding at a wedding, and I struck up a conversation with the shop owner.
“So, you busy these days?”
“Yeah, lots of extra business.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that down economies are good for cobblers,” I offered.
“I’ve heard the same about your line of business,” he replied.
It’s true. In hard times people slow down their consumption of new goods, repairing and resoling shoes instead of replacing them. People who may have felt blissfully unattached to the community around them begin to see common cause with their neighbor and look for places where they can connect to each other, building networks of safety and support to hold them through the difficult and challenging circumstances they’re facing.
On one level, even making this observation can sound crass. I’ve had lots of people ask me in the past few months how the economy is affecting St. Luke’s. It’s not an easy question to answer. On the one hand, I’m aware that we’re all living with less, or the prospect of less, and that affects our confidence in the future. We’re looking for ways to economize. I purchased a new cookbook last week, “Going Solo in the Kitchen,” looking for ways to conserve money on my grocery bill. Friends that usually meet me for a weekend dinner eating out suggested that we all cook for each other in the new year instead. The cobbler gave his gloomy forecast, “I think 2008 was just a hint of what we’re in for in 2009.”
So, money is tight. We saw it in our Sunday morning offerings last year, which remained relatively flat with our 2007 giving, despite our modest growth in membership. It appears that we have more people giving less. I’m not saying this to invoke any feelings of guilt or shame – I don’t think there’s any cause for those feelings. I’m actually very proud of how generous the people of St. Luke’s are with their wealth, with their treasuries of time and skill and money. We are a congregation running a significant deficit, but making headway toward closing that gap in the next few years. When we began our redevelopment in 2006 our best projections estimated that we would run out of resources sometime in 2009 – this year. Now our projections show us solvent through 2011, perhaps into 2012. That is tremendous growth in a very short period of time. We are one of the only congregations in our conference that is growing, and whose contributions to the synod to support the wider ministries of the church have grown over the last three years. We have much to be proud of.
Still, the future is uncertain. We can’t know how this redevelopment effort will end, we can only each examine the value this community brings – not only to our own lives but to the lives of those who live around us – and then determine what we will do to make sure that this ministry, now in its 109th year, continues on.
Thinking of the value our community brings to the life of this neighborhood, of Logan Square, I’m reminded of a conversation I had a few months ago with Dawn Marie Galtieri, the executive and artistic director of Voice of the City, our partner in providing early childhood music education to the neighborhood. It was just as the news about recession was beginning to break, and she was worried about her organization. In tight times, funding for the arts is often among the first to disappear. She was worried not only about the future of the programming Voice of the City provides to youth in our neighborhood, but about her own family’s future. What would they do to provide for themselves.
Then she shared an epiphany she had while she was fretting. “I was worried about the future, and then I realized that if things get really bad we’ll just move into the church and work for food. The working artists we support can come to the pantry, we can cook meals and make sure everyone has enough to eat. We can keep making and teaching art. Art for food!” At first, I’ll admit, it was a depressing thought, but quickly it became a reassuring one. Dawn Marie saw the vision for the church that has been its calling throughout our history as people of God: doors open to all, caring for the needs of all, and sharing with each other out of the abundance of what God has given each of us to steward.
That really was an epiphany, perhaps not a grand one on the scale of the star that guided the wise travelers from the east to the manger where the Christ child lay, but perhaps not so different.
There are any number of perspectives on what that bright star that guided the travelers was. Was it Haley’s Comet? Was it a supernova, an exploding star lighting up the sky with the memory of light traveling across the galaxies long after the death of its originating star? In medieval times theologians didn’t seek scientific answers, they took it on faith that the star was, in fact, a bright angel mistaken for a star guiding the travelers across long miles.
Considering the meaning of the star, Augustine wrote, “Christ was not born because the star shone forth, but it shone because Christ was born; we should say not that the star was the fate for Christ, but that Christ was the fate for the star.” Dante wrote that God is “the love that moves the stars.”
Translators of scripture have called these visitors by many names: wise men, kings, astrologers. I think I prefer the last one best. Three astrologers, three students of the night sky’s mysteries. The practice of astrology went back even before the time of Moses. It was an outlawed practice under Hebrew law, seen as a foreign religious practice. Many have written about the journey of the travelers from the east as the beginning of God’s new evangelical mission to the entire world. The good news of God in Christ reaching out for all the world’s people begins even at the manger, as the radiance of God spills over the lip of the crib to bless foreigners and practitioners of other religions.
But I like the astrologer translation for another reason. Astrology involved looking at the night sky, the same sky we all live our lives under, and finding meaning in the chaotic pattern of lights. I like to think that the bright star that guided the visitors bearing their gifts was nothing more than the ordinary sky. However, guided by their studies and the faith that life is not meaningless, these visitors saw the extraordinary hidden in the ordinary and made their fantastic voyage to celebrate the divinity that leaves the comforts of heaven to bless our ordinary lives with something extraordinary as well.
I have been asked by some of you just what it is that the church has to offer, what gift the church has carried with it as it journeyed across the far miles of time to arrive here, today, in our lives. “What difference does it make in my life?” It’s a good question, and a fair question. It may, in fact, be the most important question we have to ask before we commit ourselves to the mission of this community.
Here’s what I’ve seen so far: this church exists to hold you in life and in death. I have married and I have buried here. I have watched you care for each other, those of you who are life-long members as well as those of you who have just met. I have seen strangers come through our doors and leave as friends. I have seen us feed each other, and feed visitors. I have watched people trying to raise their children with a vision of the world that encompasses everyone, that clears a space for each of us regardless of our standing in life. This church exists for you, and you – as the body of this church – exist for the world. In this moment of deep cultural anxiety about financial insecurity at home and war abroad you are blessed to
be a blessing. That is the treasure we carry together as we come to the manger in Bethlehem to offer our praise to a God wrapped in fragile flesh and living a life like ours.
We are an epiphany. We are a manifestation of the grace of God, given freely as a gift to the world. We are absolutely necessary to God’s unfolding plan to mend the world with love. To those with eyes primed to see the extraordinary wrapped up in the ordinary, we are a bright constellation of stars pointing the way toward hope. In light of that revelation, let’s journey on. Let’s take the next step of this pilgrimage to the place where God’s mercy meets our need, bringing the most precious gifts we can think to offer, even our lives.