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Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘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.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 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.” 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Well, here we are – at the first joint service of St. Matthew’s United Church and Bloor Street United Church. Who knew? Who knew just two months ago that this would happen? Who knew just two months ago that we’d be in the biggest wave yet of our pandemic and back to online worship? Who knew that 2022 would begin with as much anxiety as the last two years? It’s auspicious that our coming together happens in the week of Epiphany. Our bright new venture is taking place with a backdrop of dark shadows. It’s good to have these stories of light emerging through darkness. It’s also good to have a story of encounter between people of different backgrounds.
It begins with these words: ‘In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.’ We need to pause here to say something about the term ‘wise men.’ That’s a translation of the word ‘magi.’ Christian tradition has it that the magi were wise men or even kings, and that there were three of them (named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar). In fact, the story never identifies the number of magi and we cannot be certain that they were all male, because there were female magi. Also, the term ‘magi’ is better translated as either ‘priest’ (of the religion of Persia) or ‘magician.’
For those who grew up in a church, we are so used to Christmas carols about ‘three kings’ and so accustomed to seeing cute kids playing wise men in pageants that it’s almost impossible to understand just how difficult and dangerous was the journey of the magi. Who in their right mind would set out on a 2000-kilometer journey in the dead of winter, over mountain passes and freezing deserts, through lands filled with fierce tribes and bandits, and then pass through Roman legions – all to take a look at a baby? These priests must have felt one powerful call to pilgrimage. Theirs was a journey through darkness in every sense of the word: the darkness of winter; the darkness of violence; the darkness of imperial oppression; the darkness of clashing cultures and religions. I’m sure their families and friends tried to convince them not to go. But really, they had no choice. Something more powerful than safety and comfort was calling them out into the dark.
This weekend I am taking a pause to be with you. I am spending the rest of the weekend in an online retreat/workshop. It’s with a remarkable man named Richard Strozzi Heckler. Now in his late seventies, Richard has been on many journeys: tours of duty with the US Marine Corps; an academic journey to a Ph.D.; a seeker’s journey through Asia, studying eastern religions; the quixotic journey of trying to teach peaceful conflict resolution to US special forces; and a journey into ‘somatics’: using the wisdom of the body to treat trauma and foster growth.
Friday evening, he talked about his magi moment, about a journey that came about when he stopped moving. Thirty years ago, Richard decided to return to his native California and look for a place to live. After a day of looking at properties, he and his real estate agent were driving through a rural area in Northern California when they saw a sign that said: ‘Property for Sale. By Appointment Only.’ They decided to take a look anyway. When the owner greeted them, he said, ‘Look I have great affection for this land; I’m not going to sell it to just anyone.’ Looking at the property and talking to its owner, Richard had an ‘epiphany,’ a moment of sudden enlightenment. ‘I just knew,’ he said. ‘There was a very powerful sense of bestowed mission, and I knew I was going to buy this land and open a center where people will practice healing arts and contemplative arts together.’ He hadn’t convinced the owner to sell. He didn’t have the money for a down payment. Family and friends tried to talk him out of it, but he just knew. A mission was bestowed. Thirty years later, the land holds the Strozzi Institute, where people daily practice meditation, Chi Gong, aikido, somatics, and other restorative arts. Richard and his proteges have multiple publications, offer globally recognized courses, and are at the cutting edge of using body practices to heal trauma.
Listening to Richard, I was reminded of this sentence in our Isaiah reading: ‘then you shall see and be radiant.’ ‘Then you shall see and be radiant.’ There is something radiant about Richard: a presence, a light, the gentle power of someone who allowed himself to be transformed by an epiphany. More importantly, there is something radiant about the institute that will outlive him. A healing light that shines in a time when so many are traumatized, in a mental-health pandemic. I’ve known others who had this radiance. My own meditation teacher abandoned a life of wealth in Westmount (Montreal’s Rosedale) to follow a teacher in India. She came back penniless, radiant and has changed hundreds of lives.
There is something else that rings true about Richard’s story. Bestowed mission always seems to come out of the blind spot. Enlightenment always seems to come out of the dark. Richard had been journeying, practicing, struggling, fighting, seeking for decades when his mission was bestowed by a little sign on a country road. Without the decades of seeking, there would be no sign, no driveway. Similarly, for the magi; without the miles and the dangers and the privations, there would be no star. Listen to Isaiah again: ‘For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.’ ‘Darkness will cover the earth, thick darkness will cover the people. Then the Divine will arise upon you, the light of God will shine on you.’ Light comes out of darkness. Mission comes out of the blind spot. Both after struggle and suffering.
And what of us? I have to say that this partnership between St. Matt’s and Bloor Street has come out of the blind spot. Who saw it coming? And it has come together with such speed and such goodwill. Do we have a bestowed mission? Do we have a light to shine against the darkness of a pandemic, against the darkness of a mental health pandemic, against the darkness of the chronically ill church, against the darkness of economic inequality?
Let’s go back to Isaiah’s promise: ‘then you shall see and be radiant.’ We have something here. It shines. Let’s hold this thing we have, this nascent partnership, carefully. Let’s not speak of it glibly. Very often when we talk about Divine inspiration or about ‘seeing the light,’ we mean it metaphorically. That’s fine. But a deep dive into the wisdom of both Judaism and Christianity tells us that light isn’t only a metaphor for God, it’s a manifestation of God. You shall see and be radiant. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine …. Can we shine? Can we hold our partnership like a candle, see the light and be radiant? Are we open to having a bestowed mission come through our blind spot? Can we do things differently in a world that needs a different church? Are we, like the magi, honest enough to admit that the world is calling us out of the familiar into uncertainty and risk? Are we brave enough to venture into the worlds’ darkness to find the light newly revealed? The darkness has already taught us a few things.
The world needs a different United Church. Not one that thinks it has the answers, it knows what to do. Rather, one that believes there is light to be found and that when we look deeply into it, we will be radiant. One that is more comfortable with the volatility of Spirit, more embodied, more grounded in the land, more willing to venture out and be changed by partnership with people very unlike ourselves – even to accept that they may be the source of our light.
Can we accept the darkness? Will we venture out into it? And when the light comes through our blind spot, will we see and become radiant? Will we, like the magi, accept the possibility that the light that will make us radiant is to be found in traditions very different from our own?