January 6, 2019

Epiphany Sunday, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Matthew 2:1-12 

I started my year with the return of Mary Poppins. Not a bad way to begin with its reminder that the most meaningful parts of life are understood best from a child’s perspective.  Goodness, love, kindness, and playfulness are “the spoon full of sugar that make the medicine go down”, to quote the old Mary Poppins movie.

In the new movie, it’s not the chimney sweeps that dance through London. It’s a group of leeries, people who light the gas lamps.  The song is called, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.”  And it could be an Epiphany hymn with lyrics like,

So when troubles are incessant,

Simply be more incandescent.

For your light

comes with a lifetime guarantee.

Come on, trip a little light fantastic,

With me.

In the movie, after that big finish and energetic dance number, after the children, along with Mary Poppins, are dropped off at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, the last scene is Jack, played by Lin Manuel Miranda, walking alone into the dark, pushing his bike, and he does one of those jumps and kicks his heals together.

I noticed a lot of comments as I was researching lyrics of the songs. The first one caught my eye. “Lin doing that little kick and jump after the song as he’s walking away is my religion.”[1]

Maybe that’s right.  Religion is simply what our bodies do in memory of “all that we have seen and heard,” even as we’re wheeling our way into the dark.  Religion isn’t a set of ideas in our heads as much as it is the memory of an encounter with the light.  It’s the little practices of prayer or kindness, love or justice that we kick up as we go. After the dance has receded into the night, after the chorus of angelic lamp-lighters announcing that human life is incandescent have receded into the cloud, we take the life we had, even with all its troubles, and head into the darkness: the trip, now filled with light fantastic.

There’s so much richness in the story of the magi, journeying from their Eastern home, likely Zoroastrian priests and astrologers, practitioners of another set of kicks—religion–altogether.  They learned Jewish history from the time when the Judeans were exiled in Babylon. They heard those exiles dream of a star rising to herald the birth of a new age, a new ruler, that would make everything right again.  And, lo and behold, they see the star in the East.

What courage it must have taken to set out on the journey, bearing gifts that spoke more truth than they even imagined:  gold for the king, frankincense and myrrh for a priestly burial.

Of course, they stop in the capital city to meet King Herod, who in this story represents governments as they tend to be:  frightened, narcissistic, terrified of losing power or face, determined to silence dissent, lying in public to get what they want in private. Herod shakes their hand, looks right into their eyes and says, “Come and tell me where he is so that I can worship him, too.” Yet they don’t.  Matthew tells us that “they returned to their own country by another road.”

This has to be one of the most evocative, powerful verses in the Bible. Having come face to face with the child; having seen God, glimpsing the world as God intends, offering themselves to it, they can never travel in the same way again.  Fully aware that Herod stands just to the side of the next intersection, they lift up their brocade and flowing robes, kick their heels, maybe even tip their crowns, and turn the other way. Their religion is now this ongoing and eternal turn from darkness into light; their journey home on a different road.

I’ll admit it.  I cried during parts of Mary Poppins.  It might have been because it was New Year’s Day and I had been up late.  It might have been because I was still exhausted from Christmas and travel and eating and drinking too much.  It might have just been nostalgia.

It might have been because Jack’s kick in the dark, after the big dance number, represents the world I want to live in; the world I yearn to give my life to.  It represents what we try to do as the church.  It’s our hope that there is something going on worth offering our lives for.  There is love that is at work that is greater than our fear or our failure. For the last twelve days, we’ve been nurturing this tender and joyful memory that there is, indeed, another road. After all our celebrations, we head into January, into all that we face in 2019, into a prolonged government shutdown that makes listening to the news like a stop at the palace in Jerusalem, not overcome by it all but convinced that there is light and a community of magi journeying home by a different road.

Maybe we haven’t seen it with our own spiritual eyes, but the person sitting just behind us has. There are those among us who have wisdom enough to follow the star light.  Truth be told, each of us has the star light.  We carry it in our souls, in the depth of our being.  Maybe you’ve seen that billboard, “Wise Men Still Seek Him.”  Along with being sexist, it’s just wrong. We don’t have to go find it.  We have it.  Christ is God’s gift embedded in human life. Wisdom is simply trusting that, if we could see past our cloudiness, we would behold a star coming to rest over the place where we live.

The future isn’t decided by all the forces of darkness or death.  This afternoon isn’t even decided by the forces of darkness and death. Our books aren’t finally written.  Our journeys aren’t finished.  The musical number isn’t over. There’s another way to do all this—to walk this road; another way to live in the face of all our Herod’s, whether we interpret his character politically, emotionally, physically, or spiritually.

Maybe the truth looks like a kick, or a shrug, or wink, or a hug, or a taste, or a splash, or a moment of treasured grace when we did not deserve it. It’s the intake of breath as we make a different turn on the road.  In the end, it’s not finally up to me, or you, or church leaders, or a political party, or even our favorite advocacy organization.

It’s up to God.  From the very beginning of time, this creation has been constructed to move light into darkness.  Stars arise that lead us forward, not into just darkness, but into new creation.  Even dying, extinction, in the care of God, gives birth to something new. Light comes; light returns; healing and justice are woven into the fabric of the universe.  It bends down that road.

And the joy, God’s wisdom, Sophia, Christ, like Jack in Mary Poppins, winks, and dances off with the invitation, “Won’t you trip a little light fantastic, with me.”