Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on Epiphany Sunday.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.
As I prepared for this first sermon of a new year, I decided to look back at how I ended the same one last year, when the calendar year of 2020 was all fresh and clean and shining before us. It was our second year of passing out star words, words to guide us through our year, words to notice in our everyday life.
This is what I said, your poor, naïve, pre-pandemic pastor: “I encourage you to keep the star somewhere visible, whether that’s on your bathroom mirror, your car visor, or cut out and stuck in your wallet. Somewhere where you can be reminded of God’s guiding light through all the ups and downs this year will inevitably bring. … I pray that in 2020, your star word will change you; give you peace or purpose, help you see God or others or yourself in a new light. I pray that you will not leave this Christmastide unchanged, but in 2020, you will go home by another road.”
And boy howdy, did we ever.
I never really thought about what it meant, that the magi took another route home. I never thought about how anxiety producing that must have been, how confusing, how full of unknowns. How they had to navigate a whole new set of directions and customs and landmarks to reach home in safety.
All of us certainly took another rote through 2020. One full of strange landmarks and customs. A route none of us imagined this time last year, even as we dutifully prayed for folks “over there” in China who were battered with COVID before we were. I had a full list of expectations for 2020. A road all mapped out. Appointments booked. Expectations set. And… well, I think we all know how that went.
Last year, we all sat in this sanctuary together, breathing in unison as we sang our lungs out. Last year, we all drank from one communion cup and dug our hands into the same plate of gold cut out stars. And we each walked away from worship with a word to guide us—through a year where we needed every bit of guidance we could get, medical, scientific, and divine.
Those of you who are on our email list received a link yesterday to get your own star word, and I’ll post on our Facebook page this afternoon as well for those who would prefer I draw one for you.
I was curious how the practice of star words ended up playing out in this most bizarre year. I asked on Facebook for star word stories, and many of you were kind enough to share.
Marlene Reichert’s word was faith. Simple enough, but, she said, “it has helped me get through this year. I put it on my mirror of my dresser in my bedroom it’s the first thing I see when I wake up. It helps me everyday to know Faith will help us all to get through this together!” It’s been a gift to see Marlene’s faith in action this year, from donating school supplies to the kids at River Ridge to joining Facebook and getting email so she could stay connected to this congregation to her prayers for her family to her constant kindness and compassion whenever we talk. Marlene’s faith bolsters my own.
Carolyn Greene was one of the women who raised me in my home church in Virginia. She’s irreverent and sassy and so in love with the faith she’s found as an adult, even while she rejects any kind of rose colored glasses. She wrote that her star word was “persist. It was on a post-it note on my work computer,” she said, “and it reminded me several times to keep putting one foot in front of the other. And it sometimes made that slog a bit more bouncy.” In a year when persistence was such a challenge, I love the bounce that Carolyn found from her faith.
Amy Rigney’s word was Embrace. Oof. A tough word, when hugging was, in her own words, “a no no for most of 2020. But when this pandemic is over I will be giving lots of hugs again.” I for one am looking forward to her hugs, and to having her back in the pews! Amy always looks engaged with my sermons—she just has a great listening face. She’s someone I look to when I feel like I’m floundering, and I’ve missed that so keenly this year. Amy also wrote that she combined her 2020 word with her word from 2019—nature. Embracing nature helped her get through 2020. I love seeing the layers of God’s blessings in her life!
Rev. Hailey Malcolm is a friend who, late in 2019, got married, moved from Cincinnati to Texas, bought a house, and started a new job all in the span of about a month—only to find that new job turned inside out just a few months later when the pandemic hit. Like most young professionals, Hailey sometimes struggles to have her gifts recognized. But her word was confidence, and, as she said, “I couldn’t have asked for a better reminder for life in a new city with a new call in a new ministry context. I’ve thought of it as I’ve found my voice in this place in many ways. I’m glad to have had it.”
Crystal Harden’s word was bless. She wrote, I frequently looked at my word and thought about my blessings and whether I could do something that could be a blessing. I also kept up last year’s word which was endure. I needed both in 2020.” And my goodness, was Crystal a blessing to me, making the switch to clerking a virtual session and keeping records for an online congregation with a single grumble—at least, not one she directed at me!
Erin Murphy’s word was focus. Her focus made a drastic shift this year, changing to keeping her family and community safe and healthy while caring for COVID patients and learning all the new routines and rhythms of medical service in a pandemic.
Eileen Dunavan’s word was Holiness. With her passion for music, it reminded her of the old hymn, “Take Time to Be Holy,” which continues “speak oft with thy Lord.” It prompted her towards the tried and true practices of faith, of prayer and piety.
Grace-Marie Thompson, who injured her leg badly in a work accident in April, wrote, “My word was listen and it slapped me in the face this year… I have had to listen to my body when it comes to recovery. It’s a very long process and I get discouraged and impatient often, especially when I am not meeting goals that I expect to meet at a certain time. I have learned a lot about my body and how it moves this year and I would not have known if I didn’t (get forced to) slow down and listen.” I love how Grace has wrestled a blessing out of her struggle. She did add, though, that this year she would like to request an easier word like joy or love!
Kathy Gerber was the DCE at the church where I interned. Kathy takes no prisoners and has a heart of gold. Her word for 2020 was dream—a word she was kind of so so about when the year began. “Although I could have never dreamed the challenges 2020 would bring,” she wrote, “it also reinforced many positives I may have been taking for granted: a comfortable safe home, technology that allows staying in touch with family and friends, luxury of napping, enough resources for daily living, ability and time to read and many talented authors, and even good health. My happiest dream came true in August when my youngest daughter became engaged to the man of her dreams. My dream came true for her as I witnessed their love grow for each other. It has been inspiring to see the imagination and dreams of others become reality as we continue to adapt to new ways and new thinking. Dreams can come true even those we don’t even realize we need.”
Grace Loughhead was a college boss of mine who has become a true friend. Grace is brilliant, witty, and loves anyone who comes into her orbit fiercely. She’s married into a Presbyterian family, so sometimes we chat about that too. Her life has not been easy, but she has met it with sincere kindness and integrity at every turn. She wrote, “My word for last year was “gladness,” and I feel like I lost sight of that word for much of the year post March. When I looked back today to remind myself of what my word was I was struck at how much sadness this year held for the world and for me personally—just the sadness that can feel pervasive when you hit a certain age, when you are dealt a certain hand, and the fallout from dealing with that hand.
But I’ve been transferring dates into my new planner, and for the first six month of 2020 I was diligent about marking down the small victories, and in juxtaposition to the gift of the star words, that’s where I found the gladness of 2020–the small miracles that happened. In January after being told I’d have to wait until August we got a miracle appointment for my older son Harry and we were given the gift of his autism/ADHD diagnosis—it wasn’t what we wanted to hear, but it was a relief to put words to the lens he sees the world with, with is with so much joy and gladness. In March I pulled off our scholarship competition just a week before the world stood still, and those students brought such joy to a dark and scary time. In May a cat wandered into our yard and Harry spent the summer “training him” to come and visit and make friends with our dog; three weeks ago the owners decided they couldn’t keep Malone and that gift has slept at my feet almost every night since he officially became a Loughhead. My younger son William and I walked up and down our street more times than I can count and slowly but surely he found his tiny and precious (and very naked) voice, and because we were home I was here to hear it. And work sort of forced me into a leave of absence this summer, and in those 6 weeks (and the weeks before and then the weeks after) I officially spent more time with my children than I ever did on both maternity leaves combined.
Gladness was always around the corner of my sadness when I picked my head up long enough, and I’m grateful in looking back over my notes and calendars to see that I did pick up my head more often than I give myself credit for.”
This is the gift of star words. Those gold paper stars didn’t create focus for Erin, or make dreams come true for Kathy, or ensure Hailey’s confidence. All they did was help these amazing, faithful people pick up their head, and notice what God was already doing all around them, just the way the magi picked up their heads to notice the star shining in the western skies.
God’s goodness is always peeking through, glimmering all around us. Even in a year like 2020.
I expect many of us are being a little more hesitant about our calendars this year. Perhaps we’re using pencil and not pen; perhaps we’re trying to balance hope and realism about what might be possible when. We are keenly aware that no matter what happens, this year will not erase last year; the losses and struggles and learning and growth and hardship and pain are real and true and deep. While we celebrate the turn of the calendar, many of us come limping into 2021. We’re hurting, and we’re still a little lost.
I can’t give you an exact roadmap. I’d love to have a reopen date for CSPC, love to know whether our kids will go to Montreat, love to know when we’ll be able to sing together again. But I don’t have a map to follow.
Like the magi, all I have is a star, and a sense that this journey is God’s journey. And so I pray that we will each of us have the faith to move starwords, not in the certainty of our final destination, but in wonderment of what God might have in store.
May your star words guide you this year, as you go home by yet another road. And, by God’s grace, may we find home at last in 2021.