The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, "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." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They 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.'"
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then 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." 9 When 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. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
One of my favorite authors and spiritual mentors is the late Madeleine L’Engle. You may know her for her fiction, A Wrinkle in Time, being her best known work. She also wrote poetry, personal memoir, books of spiritual and theological reflections on art, scripture and seasons of the church year. I turn to her writing when I need hope. In her book of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany writings, Madeleine shares a very early childhood memory. Her family was visiting her grandmother’s house on an almost uninhabited beach in North Florida. Born in 1918 this night time experience took place well before the days of light pollution. She writes:
“It must have been an unusually clear and beautiful night for someone to have said, ‘Let’s wake the baby and show her the stars.’ The night sky, the constant rolling of breakers against the shore , the stupendous light of the stars -– all made an indelible impression on me. I was intuitively aware not only of a beauty I had never seen before but also that the world was far greater than the protected limits of the small child’s world which was all that I had known thus far. I had a total, if not very conscious, moment of revelation; I saw creation bursting the bounds of daily restriction and stretching out from dimension to dimension, beyond any human comprehension. This early experience was freeing, rather than daunting, and since it was the first, it has been the foundation for all other such glimpses of glory.”i
I wonder if the magi who followed the star to Bethlehem experienced a night like this night in Madeleine’s life. The brilliance of the stars overhead, the radiance of the new star they followed out shining all the others, the sound of breakers on a beach, or perhaps, wind whistling across desert sands and rattling the dry leaves of palm trees. Surely they did, even though I also imagine their journey was long and tedious at times, even dangerous.
Matthew writes that the revelation of this new star in the east, a first glimpse of glory, set them on their pilgrimage. What other revelations might they have had along the way? Small glimpses of glory in their daily travel experiences? What bits of heart light and intellectual insight did they gather as they traveled that illuminated their journey? I imagine that they each had a fine collection, bits and bobs of glory glimpses, when they finally they reached the place where the star stopped over the house that held the One they sought, the new king, the Light of the world.
The season of Epiphany which we entered yesterday on the twelfth day of Christmas is a season of light, a season of the revelation of God’s glory, particularly in Jesus the Christ. One of its primary images is the shining star that led the magi. The scriptures we will encounter as we journey through this time of year leading us to Lent will all hold images of brightness, of stars, of new days dawning, of miracles, of the deep mystery of God with us in human form. Epiphany is a time of gathering light and glimpses of God’s glory even in the darkest hours.
I know that we preachers talk a lot about light in the darkness. About trusting in God to guide, about the need to keep on keeping on. Maybe to the point of our listeners’ exhaustion. And ours. We talk about such things to keep our hope alive along with yours.
We live in exhausting times. We long to figure out solutions to the problems of the world. To make ways for peace and justice. To be the change we long to see. Epiphany is a time to gather light for our journeys of justice, to gather hope in the stories of mystery and miracle that will sustain our ministries here at Plymouth and our personal pilgrimage through the year. It is a time to tend the stars that guide us like the star cleaners, to listen to their music, to receive their tears of joy. And all so that we can hold them in our hearts.
In a poem titled, “Into the darkest hour,” Madeleine L’Engle wrote:
It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hunger yawned the abyss – and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.
It was a time like this
of fear & lust for power, license & greed and blight --
and yet the [One] of bliss came into the darkest hour in quiet & silent light.
And in a time like this how celebrate his birth when all things fall apart?
Ah! wonderful it is
with no room on the earth the stable is our heart.ii
When we open our hearts like the stable doors and once again they are filled with the light of Christ .... what then? I think you know. It is our privilege and responsibility to show up in the dark places of the world and let the stars of God’s love shine.
We let God’s love shine in the dark places of our own hearts and souls and minds. This is important and sometimes hard work. It takes prayer, study, a community of faith for support....sometimes even therapy or counseling. Its all worth it because we cannot share what we do not have. Its all worth it because each of us deserves to know in our heart of hearts that we are beloved beings made in the image of the Holy One.
We let God’s love shine in the dark places of our communities, family, work, school, through the outreach, calling and caring, Christian formation ministries of Plymouth. We show up here to care for one another and to let that care spill over into the world, through working for justice for the homeless, for the immigrant and refugee. We show up here for the sustenance of study and prayer and fellowship with one another. So that we may more effectively work for the sustenance of Plymouth, this beloved community, and its ministries, to work for peace in the world.
We let God’s love shine in the dark places when we gather to worship God each week. To give ourselves up wholeheartedly to God’s presence in community as we sing and pray and listen to God’s word in scripture and sermon. Our mission here at Plymouth is first and foremost to worship God SO THAT we may shine like the stars with the light of Christ. SO THAT we may experience glimpses of God’s glory in one another and wherever we else we may be.
On his much beloved 1980’s science show, “Cosmos,” the late astrophysicist and cosmologist, Carl Sagan made famous the notion that we human beings, as well as most of the matter on Earth, are literally made of the stuff of stars, of star dust. Sagan said, "We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We're made of star stuff.”iii Sagan’s statement sums up the fact that the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our bodies, as well as atoms of all other heavy elements, were created in previous generations of stars over 4.5 billion years ago. Scientifically, we are made of star stuff.
And in the mystery of theological and spiritual metaphor/truth, we are made of star stuff....made of the light of God. We hold that light within our hearts, hold the One born in the light of the stable within our very being, the One born to be God with us. How can we not share the glimpses of glory, the light we gather along the way?
I leave you an invitation to this season of gathering light through the power of Madeleine L’Engle’s poem, “Epiphany”:
“Unclench your fists Hold out your hands. Take mine.
Let us hold each other.
Thus is God's Glory Manifest.”iv Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2018. May be reprinted with permission only.
i “The Light of the Stars,” Miracle on 10th Street and other Christmas Writings, Madeleine L’Engle, (Harold Shaw Publishers, Wheaton, IL: 1998, 39-40).
iv L’Engle, 49.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
Matthew 17 .1– 9
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC
February 26, 2017
The season of Epiphany opens with light: the magi seeing the brilliant star in the dark night sky that leads them to Jesus. And today it ends with light, as well, as Jesus is robed in radiance.
We follow the star throughout the season of Epiphany, and if you think about the hymns we often sing during this season, many have something to do with light: “Arise, Your Light Is Come,” “Jesus, the Light of the World,” “Many Are the Light Beams,” “O Radiant Christ, Incarnate Word.”
Perhaps, it’s because of the short days and long winter nights in the northern hemisphere at this time of year, but there seems to be a cycle of lightness and darkness in the seasons of the church year. As the days get longer in the spring, we enter the season of Lent, which culminates with the Office of Tenebrae (or shadows) on Maundy Thursday. And after the crucifixion on Good Friday, the risen Christ emerges again in the brightness of Easter Sunday.
We go through cycles in our own culture as well: seasons of light and seasons of shadow. It is what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last week called the great pendulum of American political culture, which swings back when it veers too far in either direction. But I diverge from the metaphor of light…
There are other ways in which we identify light as the image of divine presence or of divine favor. The halo that we often see in artistic representations of holy people are clearly a representation of the light that emanates within them. If your someone who believes in auras, the halo can be a visible reality.
Because I’m a visual learner, and I know some of you are, too, I’ve prepared a few slides of artistic representations of the Transfiguration…described in today’s text as Jesus’ face shining like the sun and “his clothes became dazzling white. So, I’d invite you just to look at these images and try to be observant of the light in these different paintings. [LIGHTS OFF]
The first three images are Orthodox icons from Russia and Greece and Byzantium from the 13th through 16th centuries. One of the things you’ll notice in icons is the use of gold leaf to project light, and you can see Jesus surrounded by a circle of light, as well as the prominent halos of all three figures: Moses, Jesus, and Elijah:
The second image shows the circle of light and actual beams projecting out from the center, and there almost seem to be spotlights illuminating Jesus. And if we could see the gilding on this icon, it would seem even more radiant.
You’ll notice in several of these images from the medieval period that Jesus is surrounded by an almond-shape frame called a mandorla (Italian for almond).
Duccio was a 14th century artist born in Siena, and was the most influential Italian artist of his day. This painting has the feel of an Orthodox icon with its extensive use of light, halos, and even the positioning of Jesus’ right hand with two fingers extended in the position of teaching.
This fresco by Fra Angelico, who was both a Dominican and a brilliant painter, adorns one of the monastic cells at the monastery of San Marco in Florence. Look at how Moses and Elijah seem to be peeking in at Jesus from some other dimension. And there is also a mandorla, which seems like the source of light.
You may know this painting by Raphael, which is in the Vatican, and if you look at where the light is, again, it comes from the cloud of divinity behind Jesus and it’s blinding the disciples, who are there on the mountaintop. It’s strange, though, because this one seems to blend the transfiguration with the ascension of Jesus…or the antigravity field stopped working, because Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are airborne.
This is an altar painting in Venice by Titian, who was known for painting with light and there is radiance all over Jesus and behind him. Look at the contrasting darkness in this painting.
Images of the Transfiguration didn’t stop in the Renaissance. This one is by the 19th c. French painter, James Tissot Look at where the light is in this image. Jesus is wearing dazzling white, but the great source of light is no longer behind Jesus…it IS Jesus.
In this modern representation of the Transfiguration from Cameroon, there is a swirling cloud of divine light surrounding Jesus. And it’s interesting that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are all portrayed as Africans. So, the hue of our skin has nothing to do with the way light is identified as divinity.
This transfiguration by Cornelius Monsma is almost abstract, and maybe that is one of the fundamental ways we experience Christ…as an abstraction.
So, those are the visual identifications with light. Some of the most amazing passages of scripture also have to do with light. The Psalms have great images: “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” (Psalm 27) And Isaiah’s prophecy: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” And in the gospels, Luke and John tend to use the most light imagery.
John’s prologue tells us that “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” And the gospel writer tells us that John the baptizer “was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light which enlightens everyone.” And John’s portrayal of Jesus includes the great statement, “I am the light of the world.”
So, why am I telling you this? Why does it matter if light is used frequently to portray the presence of God?
For me, God is less anthropomorphic and more like a source of energy. One of my favorite metaphors for God is The Force. (In fact, you saw an image from the end of The Return of the Jedi, there is a scene in which three Jedi masters, Anakin Skywalker, Obi-wan Kenobi, and Yoda, all appear in spirit form, bathed in light. Sounds like the Transfiguration to me.)
That may sounds kind of strange to you, but light is energy.
Photons are elementary particles and the basic unit of light.
And it’s the sense of the mystery of God that we get in this image that makes it so rich. Perhaps for you, different images – more concrete images – of God work well. But there may be some among us who don’t relate as well to Mother or Father, who need a sense of God as being more elemental, more pervasive, and less describable or identifiable with an anthropomorphic image.
Too often we put God in a box…a box that we define. Even the name “God” over-defines the reality of the divine.
So, where do we connect with this fairly abstract notion of God? How do we have a relationship with light or energy or the Force? There are times in our lives when we seek mystery and other seasons of our lives when we find a need for more intimate human connection with the divine – the times when Mother or Father or she or he are more congruent with our experience of the sacred than “it.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our language had a special pronoun for the divine that could embody both the immanent relationship of parent and the transcendent mystery of light?
Sister Joan Chittister, one of the wisest voices of Roman Catholicism today, says that “Our role in life is to bring the light of our own souls to the dim places around us.” And if we see that we
are created in God’s image, we have the flicker of divine light within us.
“There two ways of spreading light,” wrote Edith Wharton, “To be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” And when we, as the church, are at our best, we illumine the way for each other and we reflect the light of God, holding a mirror to shine the light in the shadowy corners of each other’s lives.
So, how does this play out in your experience? Are there times in your life when you have been the recipient of light from another person? Are there moments when your light has brightened the life of another? In these days when our society is in the depths of political anxiety, how might we be a beacon for one another?
And on a larger scale, how can Plymouth be a beacon of hope for the community?
May we, all of us, use the light we’ve been given to illumine the path for each other and for all God’s people. To close, let me share with you a prayer I learned from Marcus Borg more than a few years ago…it’s one of the prayers I say every morning: Lord Jesus Christ, You are the light of the world, fill our minds with your peace, and our hearts with your love.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.