I wonder, how many of us at some point in our lives have scrimped and saved for what we hoped would be a trip of a lifetime. Maybe it was to go to some exotic place, or wonderful resort. Perhaps you and your significant other spent weeks dreaming of what your days on vacation would be like. And oh, how you looked forward to those few days of relaxation and pampering as you pictured yourselves lying in a beach hammock as cool ocean breezes sweep over you.
To some degree, Maureen and I did exactly that this summer as we anticipated the cruise we took to Bermuda. The cruise line made everything appear to be perfect with their pictures of luxury cabins and pool side couches. Oh how, we had visions of ourselves sipping exotic drinks as we laid pool side on couches and enjoyed the gentle rocking of the boat. And of course, we could not wait to take in the mythic beauty and peacefulness of Bermuda’s beaches.
I will not deny we enjoyed our vacation. But. . it didn’t quite live up to expectations. Yes, those exotic drinks were available everywhere, but at a price that would rival any bar in New York City. And those couches. . .all ten of them by the pool, were there, but they were prime real estate and therefore sought after by 2000 other guests. And if you did manage to snag one, when they were in the direct sun, lying on one was like lying in a frying pan on full heat. And yes the beaches of Bermuda were beautiful, but miles from the boat, and of course while we were in Bermuda, the weather was hot, humid and rainy. Not great weather for lying on a local beach.
This morning we celebrate a journey filled with hope and expectation. the journey we celebrate is the journey of three men, astrologers by trade, who chose to follow a star to wherever it would lead. Based on Matthew’s account, the journey took the better part of a year as Jesus is described as a small child when they arrive. They began their journey somehow knowing the star would lead them to a new born King..
I wonder if they were disappointed when they got there. Because I don’t think Jesus was who they were expecting to find. I suspect if they were seeking a king, they assumed the child would have been of the noble class and be found in a palatial setting. Instead, the star lands over a humble home located in the small village of Nazareth. Now
granted, this setting was probably far less humble than the manger scene in Bethlehem, it still was still humble and makes me wonder if the wise men thought twice before knocking on Mary and Joseph’s because they were disappointed by where they were led .
I wonder how many of us have been disappointed by God. One of the best statements Malcolm Boyd makes in the video course Via Media is “at some point the church will disappoint you”. How many of us have joined a church expecting the congregational life to be a reprieve from the bickering and mellow drama of the world, only to find more drama. How many of us want to put clergy on a pedestal, only to discover like all of us we too are human. Unfortunately, we too, like the wise men, eventually discover that the Star of Bethlehem does not lead us to glitz and glamour but to the Incarnate Word in its most vulnerable form. And somehow we are expected to find perfection in the midst of imperfection.
Just before I was ordained, my mentor told me about his ordination to the priesthood. His ordination took place in the rural south. He had been assigned to be the vicar of a poor rural congregation. The sanctuary space was in an old chicken coop, and as you can imagine it was not a very attractive space by any stretch of the imagination. Music was lead by an older gentleman on a broken down electric organ someone had donated after a relative had died. And the choir, well, we can only imagine the rough but joyous sound they were able to make each week.
This was not the setting he had imagined his ordination would take place. As his ordination date approached, he admitted to feeling a sense of disappointment and sadness, but that all changed when he arrived with the bishop. It appears the people of the congregation were far more excited about his ordination than he was. The women of the parish gathered earlier in the day to thoroughly clean and decorate their small church. The choir,for weeks, had worked hard on a simple anthem for the event. That night, as he knelt before the bishop, he told me, tears began to roll down his face as he realized he could not have been ordained in a more beautiful place. Yes, the imperfections of the chicken coup were still present, and yes, the choir and organist didn’t get every note right. But somehow, as he knelt in the glow of the candle light, he was overcome by how perfectly loved he was by God through this tiny, struggling congregation, and there was nothing more beautiful and perfect.
It is easy to get bogged down in what is wrong with the church, the clergy or any congregation on earth, especially when we expect perfection from those who profess the love of God in their lives. And possibly like the wise men, we often have to let go of what we expect things should be like in order to find the divine that resides with in.
These past months at St. Luke’s have been difficult ones for the wardens and vestry as we have had to make difficult decisions on behalf of this community. No decision of importance, no matter how obvious is ever made without pain and loss. And as a consequence we as a community have experienced some loss as we have been challenged by the messiness of our own humanity. As Jerry Wright and the wardens can attest, I know how easy it is to become too focused on the messes that are a natural part of congregational life. Yes, like many of you I can easily get bogged down by the glass being half empty and forget it is also half full. Or forget, that the wise men did not find God in a palace but in the modest and imperfect village of Nazareth.
And so, as I look back over the challenges of the past few months, I have, at times, had to force myself to turn my head away from the messiness and look to find perfection within our imperfect reality.
There is no doubt the Kingdom has shone through this congregation.. Our Altar Guild, through all of December, has not only meticulously prepared the church each week for worship, and then decked it out for Christmas despite their obligations at home, they have also demonstrated the depth of their commitment and ministry by taking down decorations and resetting the church to prepare for the three funerals that took place here in and around Christmas. And they did all of this with great joy. Our hospitality committee has also demonstrated how the Kingdom is among us through the food and hospitality they have provided. Again, Christmas is a difficult and busy time for everyone, and our hospitality committee, on top of their own Christmas baking, found time to make sure our tables were heavily laden with food and coffee for all who came to solace in their grief at St. Luke’s this month.
The light of God did not stop shining there. Who could miss the presence of God during the greening of the Church when so many worked together to set up the nativity sets and decorate the Christmas tree. And finally, no one can deny an experience of the divine when this church glowed brightly as friend and stranger a like, gathered to give thanks for the birth of Christ on Christmas Eve.
There is little doubt, one of the lessons we can learn from the wise men is that God is rarely found in the midst of perfection, but instead is often found as perfection in the midst of imperfection. And that is what we will find every time we choose to follow the star.