Signs of Nature: Epiphany 2019 at New Life
Sermon: Epiphany 2019, New Life Lutheran Church in Dripping Springs, Texas
Pastor Carmen Retzlaff
Gospel: Matthew 2:1–23
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’
Though we are a young church, here at New Life, we already have traditions and things we hold dear. We are committed to being part of our local community, and to our relationships with local organizations —like the Girl Scout Harp Troop. And their playing in worship on the Sunday closest to Epiphany is now a long tradition for this relatively short-lived church.
Though we are an outdoor church, and casual in that way, we are rooted in the ancient rhythms of the Christian liturgy. We follow the lectionary. We are connected to Christians around the world through our stories, and through our worship. We stand on the shoulders of those who come before us.
We also have a tradition, for a few years now, of veering slightly from the lectionary and reading all of Matthew 2 on this Sunday, including the flight to Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents with the story of the Magi. We are committed to children here, to involving them, and making them a priority. And part of honoring them seems to be telling the truth - to them and about them. We tell them hard parts of Bible stories, of our sacred stories—and there are a lot of hard parts. And we balance pretty phrasing about children and loving their innocence with the real stories, like this one, of their precariousness- the truth that they are vulnerable in the face of greed and power. Like the other marginalized people this baby Jesus will live among and be in relationship with. First, though, God came as a child, and came so close to mortal danger at the hands of a tyrant king.
But of course, he came close to mortal danger before that, as all babies do. Being born is dangerous business, as is giving birth. Infant and maternal mortality are still significant causes of death, even here in this place of general, if not evenly-distributed, wealth. God came to earth as a vulnerable baby in a low-income family in a place of political unrest. Mary, the mother of God-with-us, narrowly missed crying with the other mothers, descendants of Rachel, a long line of mothers with fierce love for fragile infants.
This story is rich in meaning for us as Christian people. And each year we hear it in a different way, and think about it in our time and place. We are committed, here, to be close to and connected with nature, in God’s creation. This year we are joined by Lutheran bishops, travelers, from many parts of the continent, also hearing this story on this day in this place, with us. And this story sounds different outside.
Stories of travel are more real here, outside, since travel includes being subject to the elements, being cold or hot, walking far, being out of our familiar surroundings. That has been an unexpected gift of being an outdoor worshiping community: the gift of vulnerability. Thinking about worshiping in nature brings up images of beauty, and we have those in abundance. But we also have a lot of minor discomfort, things we don’t have to think about when our sanctuaries more resemble our living rooms. And things like weather and dust and wind are constant reminders that we are not in control here. That we live in God’s world, God doesn’t live in our buildings. In nature, outdoors, it is easier to remember that we are small, vulnerable—and that we are connected. We are connected to our neighbors who are building houses around us, and we can see them when we pray. We are connected to the deer, who maybe get up and move along from their grassy beds earlier on Sunday mornings when the worship set up crews arrive. To the birds who come to the feeders by our bird blinds, who often join in our songs of praise.
Worshiping outside we are reminded that beauty is connected to vulnerability. And that coming close to God often involves taking chances, with real risk. The wise men from the East surely took a risk when they followed a rising star, taking the chance that this was indeed the sign of the birth of a new and important king. They had to travel, surely at great expense, and their risk could only have been made greater by carrying valuable gifts. But it was worth the try: what if they hadn’t gone? They would have missed the chance to see the baby king, more important than even they could have realized.
They risked following a star, then following a dream. They were not disappointed. They found the child not in a palace in the city, but in a humble spot in a small town, and they didn’t go away disappointed: they were filled with joy. They knew. They gave their gifts. And they listened to a dream to go home by another way.
Then Joseph took a risk, following another dream. A dream about an angel, who told him to travel, too. To take his new family and move to a foreign land, leaving everything to save the one important thing.
I often wonder about this dream following in this story. Did the other mothers and fathers dream? Did they see the angel at night but think it was just a nightmare, as we sure would have done? Did others flee too? Were some not able to leave? Or was there something about living with the infant God that was clarifying - did this holy child magnify his parent’s dreams? After a visit from foreign dignitaries, was Joseph more attentive to signs?
What makes us more open to hearing God’s messages clearly? We pray a lot here, in this mission church. We have prayed to be open to God’s will, and we have tried to listen, to go where we think we’re led, and to take risks for the sake of this same baby - the gospel, the good news - the Word made flesh.
We felt like our prayers led us here, outside. Not just for the love of this particular piece of land, but for the love of people in this community. We moved out to the land for the sake of our neighbors, the ones who were not here yet. To say, “Yes, we find God in nature, too—AND that is not separate for us, from church and from the need for each other, for a faith community.”
And we are growing deeper in our understanding that being connected with a place means connecting with the earth, and all of creation. This worshiping outside has begun to show us that knowing one place well and deeply is how we love this whole planet. Loving this piece of land means learning about the plants. It has meant learning to make communion wine from wild grapes. It has meant learning what foods grow well —and which of those our neighbors really want to eat. We have learned what foods the birds prefer, and we have fallen in love with a family of giant jackrabbits. The children have found trails and hideouts and made more. The adults have seen their love of hiding places and intentionally created and left more. We have moved our chairs in worship to follow the shade under the 100-year-old oak tree. And we have shivered in the wind flapping the sides of our winter tent.
Which I think are all ways of following a rising star. The idea is romantic, but the reality of that desert trip surely was not all beauty and wonder. The wonder of the stars and the tiny ears and toes of a newborn baby come hand in hand with long tedious desert crossings and poopy diapers. The unfathomable glory is bound to the messy mundane—which is the whole story of Jesus: God born as a baby human, to live with us, and show us that all of the glory of the universe is right here, in this precious place, moment, people, stars, rocks, trees. This beautiful story of a baby in a manger being adored is not separate from the story of other babies being hurt and discarded. It is all connected, and nature helps us remember that.
The wise ones from the East had to go out into the unknown to find the baby King who would change everything. They took a risk, and they brought tribute. They brought the riches of their lands to that baby; And at the end of there journey, they gave joyfully to an ordinary baby in an ordinary place, the things that were rare and precious from their place or places.
Knowing our own place deeply makes us better visitors to new places. If we were to bring tribute from here, from this place, we are starting to learn what it might be. By being here, praying here, by caring for this little piece of earth, and loving it.
Our gifts might be wine from our grapes. It might be the shell, the abandoned and outgrown and perfect exoskeleton of a cicada. It might be a tiny beautiful cactus, carefully transplanted. It might be one of those two wild orchids we found on our grass walk, out in the meadow. We might bring figs, or persimmon jam, or dewberries or tuna fruit. It might have to be a picture: of a giant oak tree or a crazy-big jackrabbit.
That is what we’d have to offer that was especially from our church, from the place we worship - the best things. That is what we’d bring to a baby who was part of a new thing, that would be how we would show our connection, across peoples and places - our mutual connection to God and the wonder of the divine, right here on earth.
The one who came as a baby to a stable in Bethlehem came to show us that all babies are filled with God, all places are filled with wonder. This baby came into the mess of the world - not just a stable, but a massacre, a war, the cruelty of humans - to show us that the wonder is still there, right alongside the pain and the mess. The tiny cactus and the gorgeous hawk that we only see if we also risk the wind and the bug bite.
I don’t have words for it, we are just learning this by experience, by touch and feel, like you do in nature. And like the magi, the words we have of praise are sometimes not words but - precious metals found in the ground, and sweet smelling sap resins that could be burned in worship, making magnificent odors. The baby to whom they brought those precious gifts was the same one who made those things, maybe just waiting for the wise men to see how holy they were. So we pray, we notice, we take note. And sometimes, here, in this raw and beautiful world, our prayers are just—orchid, live oak, sunset, starry skies, sage leaves.
And the good news is that those are God’s words to begin with, so the baby Jesus understands.