Follow the Light

Sermon delivered January 6, 2019 by Joliene Wade Gatlin, MDiv, at Peace United Church of Christ
When I was younger, the only thing I really knew about Jesus was the manger story. My grandparents had the manger scene with little porcelain figures and a manger my grandfather had made of wood and newspaper. I knew about this little holy family, and that the stories said Jesus was born in this manger-thing (I mean, what even is a manger?), and that there were animals and a shepherd and 3 wise men or magi.

I was basically the only Bible story I knew. For those of you who don’t know, I wasn’t raised in a religious environment. I grew up among my Irish Catholic family in California, but my parents left their religions of birth. So my younger sisters and I had only been to church a handful of times as kids, and I really couldn’t tell you what happened. I was mostly playing with She-Ra dolls in the pews.

My grandma and grandpa had this big painting of Jesus in their bedroom. I was at their house all the time because mother’s parents, the Irish Catholic ones, while my parents were at work.

Well, when I was little, I thought it was my dad. Because all I really knew Jesus was that little baby-in-a-manger Jesus that sat on my grandparents’ piano at Christmas time.

So when I was little, I knew very little about Jesus. I knew he was important, I knew Christmas as supposed to have been his birthday and perhaps apart from a couple anecdotes, all I knew was the simple Christmas story– Jesus was born in that manger thing and the magi followed a star to bring him gifts that sounded fancy. I knew gold was fancy, so I figured frankincense and myrrh must have been, too.

And they are fancy. They’re gifts that were for kings. Back in the time and place of Jesus, a King was really the most powerful and important thing you could be, which is what this story is trying to tell us. But Jesus clearly isn’t an actual king.

The passage mentions King Herod, right?

But this baby, with a strange birth, born a very poor refugee, is important and powerful, but in a way wholly unlike what power looked like at that time, right? Powerful people are born in big, fancy places, not among farm animals to a scandalized woman. But these wise men give these super fancy gifts to Jesus.

It’s flipping ideas of power at the time on their heads. It’s royal offerings to a poor child. It’s setting the stage for someone who will challenge power and claim that true power is among the people, maybe even among the animals, and comes from something else.

It’s calling for a different way of looking at things, a different way of leading.

When I think about what’s going on in our world, I think I kind of feel like the writer of the Gospel of Matthew. I’m not super happy with all of our leaders right now– I think some of them are pretty terrible.

The Gospel of Matthew was written during a time of struggling powers. In those early times in Christian history, the communities that followed Jesus were doing something pretty different.

And these communities tell stories of leadership that says “NO” to an ugly use of power and decides to share wealth with a poor family.

They celebrate weekly feasts at which ALL KINDS of people– rich, poor, indentured, free, Roman citizens and occupied peoples, those healthy and sick– all together… which was super taboo at the time.

And this kind of thinking starts from the very beginning of the story, right?

This story with the 3 magi is only in two gospels and we have very few stories from Jesus’ early life. I don’t know if this story happened this way– it probably didn’t happen this way– but I think it’s true.

These magi or astrologers find a different way. They don’t go back to King Herod. They choose the path of light and life and giving extravagantly. They know where the true power lies– humility, respect, sharing– using power for good and resisting power when it does things wrong. They give what they have of value to Jesus before they go back home.

When I think of this story, I always ask of myself, “What do I have to give?”

So I want to share a poem that helps me think about how I can best serve:

This is “Clearing” by Martha Postlewaite

Do not try to save

the whole world

or do anything grandiose.

Instead, create a clearing

in the dense forest of your life

and wait there


until the song

that is your life

falls into your own cupped hands

and you recognize and greet it.

Only then will you know

how to give yourself

to this world

so worthy of rescue.

So my hope for this year is that we all find ways to best give of ourselves, whatever that means. Whether it’s to turn around your story and flip expectations, to give extravagantly and unexpectedly, or … or and/or… to continue trekking forward toward whatever light we’re following.

May it be so.