The Rev’d Richard Smith, Ph.D.
[Watch a video of this sermon.]
My last sermon at St. John’s…
Maybe you’ve heard the story of the crotchety old priest who announced his departure to his people. He’d been at that parish far too long. He didn’t like them, and they didn’t care much for him either. His last day on the job finally came, and he walked into the pulpit and said, “Well, this is my last day. I’m leaving. I know you’re sorry to hear this, and you hate to see me go. But you’ll just have to accept it as the Lord’s will.” And with that, he returned to his seat.
At that point, the music director stood and said, “Let us now stand and sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
Well, before you crank up the organ and join in the chorus, maybe I can say a few words about today’s gospel.
In the Christmas stories we’ve heard these last few weeks, the characters who have it the easiest are the shepherds. In their journey to the newborn child, they have a chatty angel lighting up the night sky with a hallelujah chorus, and sending them joyfully racing to where the child is, with directions that are clear and easy to follow.
But here at St. John’s that’s not how it works. Our path to the newborn child is usually not so clear and direct. Around here, we muddle. Around here, we’re not shepherds. Here we are magi.
It’s the Feast of Epiphany, and we remember the story of how the magi found the child by putting one foot in front of the other, not always sure where they’re going, trying now this way now that, with only a remote star in the night sky to guide them. Sometimes that star was fiercely bright, but on cloudy nights you could barely see it.
But they kept going. Together.
As they traveled along, their camels bleating and bellowing, maybe they’d talk of cabbages and kings, share stories, an occasional glass of wine, a few songs. Sometimes maybe they’d argue, ask strangers for directions, hope for the best.
At one point, they meet King Herod, a deeply insecure man, desperately grasping for power, known for his abuse of women and his cruelty toward children, for his inflated self-image and for driving the poor among his people into greater poverty while he and his friends got richer still. (I’m talking about King Herod here, by the way, and not our current president. It’s easy to get the two mixed up. :-))
But, anyway, these magi do not follow Herod’s decree. He tells them that once they have found the child, they are to return to him with details about where the child is. But their hearts tell them something different: that doing so would put this new child in great danger. So, in one of the first recorded acts of civil disobedience in the Christian scriptures, they go home another way.
During these last five years, we have been magi, putting one foot in front of the other.
- We’ve watched our kids grow: Elena Claire and Audrey, Harper Dandridge, Rhys Monroe, Ben and Pilar and David and Iris, Isaac and Hannah.
- And we’ve buried our dead: Dennis Turner, Barbara Colt, Nico, Amilcar, Alex Nieto, Luis Gongora Pat, Dennis Gould, Judy Eastwood.
- We’ve welcomed new members and said farewell to some who moved away.
- We’ve supported each other through bad falls, heart surgeries, cancer, grieving the loss of parents and a spouse of many years, a kidney transplant, the physical challenges of aging.
- We’ve gathered many times around this table: activists and professors; monks and computer nerds; black, white, and brown; straight and gay and everything in-between; nonagenarians, millennials, and babes in arms; middle class and homeless; most of us happily clean and sober, some of us three sheets to the wind.Each with our own stories of love and loss, each with our own ragged edges. How did we all manage to get here?
It’s how we roll here. We are magi who, through all of life’s rhythms, keep putting one foot in front of the other, focused on a remote star in the night sky. This is how we find the Christ child.
- The one who would later say, “Blessed, blessed, blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn, and those who hunger and thirst for justice;
- Who would throw aside all the laws of ritual purity and touch the untouchables: the leper, the lame, and the blind;
- Who would sit at table with those deemed shameful and repulsive, and by eating with them, render them beautiful, acceptable, outcasts no more
Through these very ordinary rhythms, our journey as magi, something happens, almost imperceptibly, inside us. Our hearts change. And, like magi, we, too, find ourselves offering gifts.
- Some of you have shared your voices in the choir, given your assistance in the altar party, arranged flowers, cleaned this space and arranged the vestments all to make our liturgies more beautiful.
- Others have generously given their time and expertise on the Bishop’s Committee, as parish treasurer, as delegates to the deanery
- Several of us have gone on nightwalks along some of the more violent streets of our neighborhood, pausing at times to talk and pray with the families and friends of those killed by gun violence and to call for peace.
- We continue to support young people fleeing the violence in their own struggling countries in Central America, and, much to our great joy, we’ve celebrated Allan’s baptism.
- Some of us have come on Saturday mornings to the Julian Pantry to distribute food to seniors and parents struggling to feed their kids.
- Some have headed to Mission Police Station to spend time with the Frisco Five in their hunger strike calling for an end to police brutality, and demanding justice for Amilcar.
- Some have gone to rural villages in Nicaragua with El Porvenir to help people there get clean, safe water.
- Others have helped neighborhood kids through school through the amazing work of Mission Graduates.
- Some of us have stood outside Senator Feinstein’s office with undocumented leaders demanding simply that our government stop tearing their families apart,
or at the Federal Building silently calling for an end to the longest war in our nation’s history.
Along the way we’ve discovered something about ourselves, perhaps to our surprise: That we, with all our loose ends, can matter. That our own wild and precious lives can make a difference.
These things we do are part of a magi’s journey that leads to the child, to Jesus who, as Mother Teresa used to say, often comes to us in a distressing disguise. We are magi. It’s what we do.
Our patron St. John came to know this in his own way–that we draw close to God by loving our lives, and by the people and creatures of this world.
One part of our tradition says John was the one our scriptures call “the beloved disciple” who, when all the other men had fled, stood with the women at the foot of Jesus’ cross. The one who, when the disciples reclined at table, would lean back and rest his head on Jesus’ chest.
And there, in that moment, in that privileged and intimate place, he would listen to Jesus’ heart, learn what made him tick, what made him happy, and what made him sad; what made him angry and what made him laugh.
John leans against the heart of Jesus, and from that amazing place, he looks out at the world, seeing it all now with the eyes of Jesus.
When I started as Vicar five years ago, I had a suspicion that the same grace offered to our patron John was also offered to us in this community that bears his name. Five years later, I’m even more convinced of this: that you in this community of St. John, like your patron, are especially invited to listen to the heart of Jesus and from there to look out at this neighborhood and world, becoming the hands and feet of Jesus in this time and place.
And now it is time for you once more to put one foot in front of the other; your journey continues. And in the days ahead, as you, magis that you are, go through all your ordinary rhythms–
- watching your kids grow,
- and burying your dead,
- and welcoming new members;
- and marrying off your friends
- after all your coffee hour chats about cabbages and kings,
- the ministries you do together,
- all your triumphs and setbacks,
- your laughter,
- your fights,
- your joys
–through this entire journey, one question will remain: Through it all, have your hearts, like that of your patron, like that of magi, become more in tune with the heart of Jesus: full of more joy, more compassion, more life, more love. Yes, more love.
My brothers and sisters, I love you all very much. Blessings on your new beginning. Amen.