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An Occasional Blog by The Reverend Grace P. Burson, Holy Trinity's Associate Transitional Pastor
Holy Trinity, Newington
Feast of the Epiphany (Transferred), Year B
January 7, 2017
Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright …
These familiar words remind us that the simplest and most memorable symbol of the feast of the Epiphany is the star. And no wonder; from the time when Matthew’s Gospel was written, when the stars were believed to be set in a crystal sphere rotating around the fixed point of the earth, to now, when we know them to be huge balls of flaming gas around which the planets move in orbit, the stars have always enticed and fascinated us.
And they are a clear and compelling symbol for the light and love of God, revealed to the world at this time in the coming of Jesus Christ.
The question I want to ask today, though, is where do we locate this light?
Is it far away in the heavens, beckoning us to a place we can barely imagine now?
Is it shining forth from the manger, from the innocent baby who is Imanuel, God with us?
Is it on a distant hilltop, where the nations are drawn to its brightness?
Or is it here, now, with us, among us, in us?
The answer, of course, is “all of the above”, but today I want to look particularly at the last answer on that list.
Each of us is called to shine our own unique light, given to us by God, into the world.
Each of us is called, in fact, to be a star for others.
In just a few minutes, we will baptize little Henry Moore. Baptism is, among many other things, an affirmation of the light that God has already lit in the form of a new human life; and it is also the lighting of a new light, the light of God, the flame that is passed on from one person of faith to another as we bring new members into God’s family. We will represent that light with an actual candle, lit from the Christ candle, and passed to Henry’s parents and godparents, which they can light every year on his baptism anniversary, to remind him as he grows of God’s love and light in his life. (Then they can light it again a week later on his birthday! This is quite a week for the Moore family.)
As we celebrate God’s light coming into the world and its particular manifestation in the life of one of our youngest members, I invite each of us to reflect on the light that God has lit in our lives. Is it shining brightly, or is it veiled or shadowed by difficulty and sin? Do we have people in our lives who can reflect God’s light back to us, and encourage to shine our own light brightly? How are we nurturing the light in the lives of children and others whom we love? In other words, how are we being stars, for ourselves and each other?
Perhaps this year, instead of resolving to lose five pounds or always balance the checkbook, we can instead make an intention to cherish and tend our star-light, and resolve to let it shine a little brighter in a world that desperately needs it.
And in order to give you a sense of what I mean, I want to tell you all about how you have shined a light to me in the past two years. Which requires going back a ways. Many of you have heard parts of this story, but bear with me as I tell the whole thing.
A little more than eight years ago, when I was a new curate (I had been a priest for about 9 months) the Rector of the church where I was working had a nervous breakdown. Overnight, he had to resign. While the Diocese acted quickly to bring in capable interim clergy, I was the only full-time priest on staff until just a few weeks before I left in August of 2011. Needless to say, I did not come out of my three-year curacy with the formation and mentoring experience that I was hoping for.
From there, I went to Plymouth, where I combined being the not-quite-full-time Rector of the small local church, with working as a chaplain at Plymouth State. Hoping to put down long-term roots, I bought a house, planted asparagus and apple trees, and got chickens. I loved living in Plymouth, but over the course of four years, the situation in my church deteriorated (in some ways that were my fault, and a lot of others what weren’t) until it could no longer provide me with a viable living, and I had to leave.
And it wasn’t just about whether the church could provide a viable living, although that was the precipitating factor that forced my resignation. By the time I left, I was burned-out and ground down by years of pouring energy into a system that was unable to respond in a healthy way.
To be clear – most of the people in Plymouth were lovely people who were doing their best. Stars, even, in their own way. There were systemic forces at work, some of them going back generations, that made it close to impossible for me as a new, first-time rector to manage the multiple interacting factors in the situation. And the attempt to do so drained me dry.
When I left Plymouth two years ago this month, I was applying for disability coverage from the Episcopal Church Pension Fund, based on how my job situation had exacerbated my anxiety disorder. I was hoping to gradually build up a doula practice, and was not at all sure when, if ever, I would work in the church again.
But the disability claim was denied. And denied again, on appeal. And in the mean time, Hannah Anderson (the Diocese’s equivalent of Tim Roser) had called me letting me know about this Lutheran church on the seacoast that needed an associate transitional pastor …
As you all know, the clergy search process can be long and drawn-out, because everyone involved wants to make sure they, pray, and discern, and wait on the Spirit, and find the right fit for their gifts and needs, and so on.
Not this time. I had been through that process twice, resulting in the experiences I’ve just told you about. This time, I met with Pastor George, we verified that I had a pulse and no outstanding warrants, and that my paychecks wouldn’t bounce, and off we went.
Perhaps there’s something to be said for having low expectations.
In fact, I had a speech all prepared for Pastor George, as my supervisor, in which I would outline my history of anxiety and burnout and warn him that he might find himself having to navigate some of the aftereffects.
Well, I never had to deliver that speech. Because I didn’t need to.
I first met the people of Holy Trinity on a day just under two years ago, a day very much like this one, when we Skyped with the Isimani pastor and told him it was 10 degrees out. And from that moment, you embraced me. You eagerly welcomed my gifts. You enthusiastically jumped on board with my ideas, however out-there they sounded (sure, let’s do a Christmas pageant that focuses around a giant tree in the middle of the church and involves dancing in circles around the altar. Why not?!). You told me, over and over again, how much you appreciated my presence and contributions.
Friends, you gave me back my joy in ministry, which was something I was not sure would ever happen. You restored my faith that church could be what Jesus wants it to be – a place where people welcome each other in love, grow in faith, and go forth into the world to serve.
To return to the Epiphany star image, my light was shining very weakly when I got here, and you held it and cherished it until it grew strong and bright again. You have been my stars.
So today, on this Epiphany feast, when we celebrate a baptism and remember our own baptisms, all I can say is: Thank you. And keep it up, church. Keep welcoming the stranger. Keep getting to know each other more deeply, and caring for each other through life’s highs and lows. Keep teaching children, and keep learning as adults. Keep being happily grateful for the gifts you have been given. Keep reaching out in generosity to those in need. Keep standing up for justice for this in our community who need an ally.
Keep shining your lights, friends. Raise up little Henry Moore to be a Christian like all of you. And know that as I go forth from this place, much of the light I carry has been nurtured by you.