Sunday, January 13, 2008

Choice and Journey

Matthew 3: 13-17

1. Preface

Here it is after Christmas.

Our week began with one Hillary crying, and ended with one Hillary dying.

Here it is after Christmas.

And what do we have to show for it?

An empty manger. A family taken to flight. Herod on the rise. Kings come and Kings gone. And now, in just a few days time, Jesus meets us grown full. What did all that Christmas singing and speaking mean? It does not seem like we have very much to go on. Not much to go on.

The manger of Christmastide. The star of epiphany. And today the river of baptism. Hay and Star and Water. Not much to go on.

We are left with choices and the journey, choices which shape the journey, choices which are the journey. Choices that bring tears, and the journey that ends in death. Crying and dying. Our Hillary week, beginning with one and ending with the other, could not be more liturgical appropriate. Joseph chose and traveled. The Magi followed and worshipped. Jesus chose and dipped.

Take the Magi. They chose—to worship. They traveled—to follow. And so, we too. Left with little to go on. Daily choices and a long day’s journey. Choice and journey. It is a spare existential Gospel for Epiphany, and a true one.

Dark nights. Lonely trails. Unforeseen delays. Risky decisions. Vague premonitions. Misleading intuitions. Distorted powers. For all of the Eastern religion and miraculous birth embodied in the Christmas and Epiphany stories, what stands out is the empty frontier of living, in choice and journey. It is enough to make a grown man, or woman, shed a tear.

We do not think enough about tears, until or unless we are jolted by them. Tears are the river of life. Think of the verses that cry out from memory…Jesus wept… Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning… There is a time to weep and a time to laugh… Blessed are those who weep now, for they shall be blessed…Rachel wept for her children…My tears have been my food, day and night…The Lord God will wipe away every tear from their eyes… She washed his feet with her tears…

We do not think about tears until they overtake us. So it is with the journey and its end. Shakespeare sharply describes our condition:

Tir’d with all these, for restful death I cry:
As, to behold Desert a beggar born,
And needy Nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And purest Faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded Honour shamefully misplac’d,
And maiden Virtue rudely strumpeted;
And right Perfection wrongfully disgrac’d,
And Strength by limping Sway disabled,
And Art made tongue-tied by Authority,
And Folly, Doctor-like, controlling Skill,
And simple Truth miscall’d Simplicity,
And captive Good attending captain Ill -
Tir’d with all these, fro, these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.

2. Choice and Journey

Choice and journey. What guidance are we given? Very little. Starlight and hay and water.

We are invited to make choices in response to a mute manger. We are welcomed to make our choices in front of weakness incarnate. We are encouraged to make our choices under the innocent gaze of a newborn. We are called, addressed, summoned to make the choices that themselves make us, make our lives, standing on hay. The revelation, if it is one, is a haymow revelation. Poor. We are to make our choices in front of human weakness, ‘asleep on the hay’. It is not much to go on.

We are invited to make our journey in starlight. We are invited to make our journey forward in the near darkness of starlight. We are invited to make our journey under the flickering littleness of a lonely star. We are called, addressed, summoned to ‘wonder as we wander out under the sky’. It is not much to go on.

3. Epiphany Gifts of Choice and Journey

The choices and journey of the wise ones lead into the choices and journey of the Lord at his baptism. All these stories, from hay to star to water, proclaim choice and journey.

After all, those wise folks who carry the burden of the gospel story as it begins in Matthew, and who bear such expensive gifts to the scene of Jesus' birth, also bring you gifts. We certainly can be glad for the gold and incense and medicine with which they have again showered the Prince of Peace. What gifts, other than our whole selves and our every resource, are worthy of a Messiah? But, in their journey, remembered again today, the wise professors from Iraq also present you with holiday presents, gifts of the spirit. It is good to receive as well as to give.

The kings are seekers and searchers. They embody the dominical saying, "seek and ye shall find." They do search, diligently, and they do find their hearts' desire. One card given me this year ended with the phrase, "may you find your heart's desire." These magi would applaud such a note. Not for them, the one storey life. Not for them, the one horse life. Not for them, the overly easy, overly simple. To search diligently for your heart's desire means work and loss and failure. To seek means to question, to reject, to give up. It may even mean changing your mind or your plan. Today at least some have come to church searching, or have come to church to represent to themselves that they still wonder, they still care, they still are yearning for the heart's desire. Here is a kingly gift for every one who is searching diligently. Our wise men bless you. They may represent God's benevolence toward you, the benevolent watching and guiding of a shepherd, or of a parent, or of a teacher. If no church will encourage your search, if no popular movement will animate your soul, if no family member or friend finally will validate your seeking--fear not: the kings of the East know the precious value of your search, for it has been theirs as well.

The wise ones offer you a gift which may not seem very religious, nor very fit for epiphany. Yet it is a princely possession for those who will receive it. I refer to their capacity to sift and measure, to sift and separate wheat from chaff, true from evil. These kings remind you of your own high calling, to discern, to test everything, to consider and ponder and think. Life is more than activity and work. Life is more than running and stopping. Life is more than selling and buying. Actually, none of these outward acts means much, without the heart's desire. Here the magi have shared a remarkable, choice possession, yours for the asking. Herod's information is accurate but his motives are unclean and his purpose is malevolent. Herod is a wolf, in sheep's clothing. Wisdom knows the howl of the wolf. The kings could overhear the deception in Herod's claim to worship. Herod lives still, and the wise of this world learn to distinguish true from evil.

The kings give you another look at the star. They encourage you to trust the inner sense you have of guiding, of light, of direction. You were not born without a moral compass. You have a conscience. It lives as long as you live. Through all of the valleys and hills of life, this inner sense will orient you, if you will receive it as the royal gift it is. All too often we forsake our own best insight, out of false humility, out of laziness, out of fear, out of self-doubt. Just here, the three kings have a post-Christmas gift to offer you. Train your ear to hear your own conscience. Strain your mind and heart to know the pure tones of the heart's desire.

Strange gifts, for a strange story, and a strange season. Wise men from the east bring gold and frankincense and myrrh. Also, they bring you some gifts this morning. They are yours for the unwrapping. A blessing upon searchers. A blessing upon thinkers. A blessing upon believers. Go and search. Go and measure. Go and trust. Choose and travel.

Choice and journey.

4. Jesus’ Choice and Journey at Baptism

For the legend repeated and refurbished in Matthew, bearing the account of Jesus’ baptism, forcefully continues the same spare, existential gospel of Christmas and Epiphany. Choice. Journey. This is what we have day by day, our choices and the journey made from them. Look at how much has been left open, left free, left undone, left to you and me. What confidence, divine confidence, is so expressed in beings, human beings.

Jesus chooses to enter the roiling river Jordan, and to go on from there, beloved and beckoned. Jesus’ choice—to enter. Jesus journey—to die. And ours. And ours.

Matthew has added to Mark’s earlier account a rejoinder to those of his later congregation who worried about Jesus needing forgiveness, and who worried about Jesus needing John. He chose, judges Matthew, he chose. Matthew has further added to Mark’s earlier account a redirection of divine voice. In Mark the voice from heaven speaks to Jesus, ‘thou art’. But in Matthew, the voice speaks out to all, ‘this is’. He steps out, judges Matthew, he steps out. So the voice of heaven prepares the earthly journey.

Here we are. After Christmas. In life, in choice, in journey. A spare existential gospel for epiphany. In a week that began with one Hillary crying, and another Hillary dying, we might meditate on choice and journey.

5. Application

One gathers over time wisdom sayings about choice. Here are a few.

Plan for the worst, hope for the best, then do your most, and leave all the rest. Under Palm Trees in San Diego Ken McMillan, a dear friend, once gave us this proverb. It has been a help to me. Particularly in church, in denominational life, wherein not every relationship has been as dear and friendly as that with Ken, the saying has helped. It preaches.

Show up, pay attention, tell the truth, do not get overly invested in the results. This proverb’s origin I know not. It does help one survive committee meetings, though, setting the bar low, as it does. I have had occasion in academic life, which admits of some committee work, to remember it.

Here is my own Methodist handshake on choice, five fingers for you. As you decide ask yourself: Have I truly prayed about this? Have I learned as much as I can about the choice? Have I talked with four close friends? Have I lived with it, letting the soul breathe? The last is hardest to say: Have I felt for grace along the way? Prayer, Study, Conversation, Fasting, and Mystery—another way to consider the means of grace.

We prepare for choice.

Furthermore, for our journey we might remember, as from a more distant past, fellow travelers, with us, on hay and under star and in water.

Paul Tillich is one.

During the larger part of my life I have tried to penetrate the meaning of the Christian symbols, which have become increasingly problematic within the cultural context of our time. Since the split between a faith unacceptable to culture and a culture unacceptable to faith was not possible for me, the only alternative was to attempt to interpret the symbols of faith through expressions of our own culture”.

Wendy Wasserstein is one.

The gospel of choice and journey, a spare existential epiphany gospel, can be heard at the Huntingdon Theater, in Wendy Wasserstein’s fine play Third. At the drama’s climax, we are placed before the meaning of the journey we share, and asked, in a young man’s voice, “do you really want to sacrifice hope for the sake of irony”?

Sir Edmund Hillary is one.

We might think of the summit of Everest and its first visitor. His famous journey took him high. But his life journey took him wide. He found in the Sherpa people, in their need as well as their strength, a cause to serve, a way to give, a folk to love. Sir Edmund found himself by losing himself in faithful renovation of culture and cultural expression of faith. In our time we may not need a theological reformation as much as we need a cultural revolution, one whose summit again enlists the heart and mind in a common hope, a common hope.

We prepare for the journey.

Are you ready for choice? Are you ready for the journey?

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