Home By Another Road – A Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany

 

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Has your life ever ended up somewhere you never expected?

I am a planner; I have had a lot of plans in my life.

  • I thought that after I left high school, I would always live in a big urban area. Cincinnati is the largest city where I’ve lived.
  • I thought I’d go to a big-name, top tier university in one of those big cities. The one where I felt I belonged was Drake, a good but not particularly well known school in the booming metropolis of Des Moines, Iowa.
  • I thought I would be a doctor – a neurosurgeon to be exact. I think we can see how well that worked out.
  • I went to seminary planning for a PhD and a career in teaching. I said I would absolutely never, ever, in a million years, ever be a pastor.
  • I thought I would have published at least one book by the time I turned 40. I’m working on it, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Has your life ever ended up somewhere you never expected?

You might think that, given the number of things I wanted to do and didn’t, and places I wanted to live but haven’t, I might be filled with some looming sense of disappointment that my life hasn’t been exactly what I always planned – and there have been times when I’ve been deeply disappointed at plans gone awry and hopes thwarted. But what has been amazing to me is how often the thing I didn’t know I wanted has been exactly what I needed, and how often the path away from my plans diverted me from a choice that would have been the wrong one anyway. My dream of being a neurosurgeon, for example, would have come to an abrupt end when I started having seizures, or from the slight tremor the seizures have caused in my hands. Other former dreams I’ve put away by choice, like that PhD, when I realized it would require me to stop doing pastoral ministry – you know, that vocation never ever ever wanted to do, that I ended up loving.

And I have been blessed to find home in places I wasn’t even sure I wanted to visit: in Minnesota where I grew up waiting to leave but keep finding it’s still part of me, in Iowa (which I was pretty sure would make them revoke my Minnesota card), in western Michigan and its peculiar religious culture, in a town on the Gulf coast of Florida where the average age was 78, in a hamlet with several times more cows than people and a small city that everyone makes fun of in upstate New York, and now here in Cincinnati, where I get to be an urban girl at last, albeit in a bit smaller urb than I anticipated. Somehow, no matter what strange and unexpected path I’ve been traveling, no matter how rocky and winding the road has been, it has been guiding me home.  

Has your life ever ended up somewhere you never expected?

I wonder sometimes about those Magi. They come out of nowhere, for all the stories people have created about them. We sing about three of them but the Bible never says how many there are. Tradition has named them Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, but that’s not in Scripture either. They appear seeking the “king of the Jews,” but no one knows why sages from eastern lands knew or cared about a Jewish king. All we really know is that they set out, following a star. Why this star, and how does one follow a star anyway? So many more questions than answers. But they had a plan. Follow the star, find the king. That much of the plan worked.

But so much of the plan didn’t go as planned. A meeting with Herod, a different kind of king, and one not happy to hear of a potential usurper, even one who was still an infant. The king they were looking for, found in a house in Bethlehem – just an ordinary house, with ordinary parents, nothing terribly royal or even remarkable. The fortune in gifts, rich chests of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, opened and left in this carpenter’s house in this small town. And then the long trip home, going a different way from the one on which they had come. You know, we never even find out whether they made it back. But somehow, I suspect they made it home.  

Has your life ever ended up somewhere you never expected?

Have you wondered how you got there, what happened to the plans you had before, what you would do now, whether anything would ever feel right again? I think we all have. Epiphany is our holiday, a celebration of wanderers, a feast for people who are getting home by an unexpected way, but who keep following that star. Epiphany reminds us that the light is always there, even in the shadows of night. Even the word itself – epiphany! – suggests that the most powerful discoveries come to us as a surprise.

And so today, as we take communion, we will also receive small paper stars with a word on them. The word that comes to you will be a surprise. You may not even like it. And they’re not magic; you can stick it away in your pocket or throw it in the round file as you leave today if you want, and nothing bad will happen. But sometimes even a single word can reframe the way we see the world, and draw our attention to significance we might have missed. So I’m going to invite you to take a star word, and sit with it, pray with it, live with it, and see if it comes to mean something to you over the course of the year. You may be surprised at the ways it calls you home, if perhaps by another way than you expect.

 

 

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