"Going Home a Different Way"
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
January 7, 2018
University Baptist Church
Way back on Epiphany Sunday of 2001, you got your first chance to meet me and my family. I was here for what Baptists call a candidacy weekend. I met with many of you, preached a sermon, answered questions at the forum, and then retreated across the street to the buffet at the Pizza Hut that was on the site of the present Purple Onion. Diane and Alan Ehr kept our family company while the congregation voted to call me as your 27th pastor. What were you thinking?
My first official Sunday was in March of 2001 after we moved all the way from San Francisco—in the winter no less. It’s been a wonderful ride so far. I looked it up and my tenure here is the second-longest in UBC’s 168 years. That’s saying something. I’m not sure what, but it is saying something.
Think of what is different from 17 years ago.
There have been three presidents
There have been countless wars
There have been terrorist attacks
Locally, Dinkytown has changed: Good-bye Marshall/Utech, parking, hello lost of housing: The Venue, The Marshall, Riverton, the Bridges, Flo Co, and others.
When I arrived, they were just putting the finishing touches on the Loring Pasta Bar. Gone are Bobby Z’s, Uncle Franky’s, Baldy’s BBQ, the Dinkytowner, Brueggers, Autographics, Da Afgan, the Podium, Simms hardware, Cummings books, Espresso Royale. Purple Onion was a block away where Potbelly now stands, The Kitty Kat Klub, Kafe 421 and Target had not yet arrived, but Annies, Vescios, Shueng Chang, Camdi’s, Al’s and the Bookhouse were here.
We’ve had 4 music directors, three Administrative Assistants, four janitors, eight seminary interns and lots of custodians
At UBC, we had mission partners including Second Foundation School and North Country Coop. Now we have two dozen groups who use the building every week, including 4 congregations.
We put in an elevator, storm windows, carpeting, sound and lights in the refurbished Adele Fadden Assembly Room.
We have been a part of the Rochester/Genesee Regions of the ABC for eleven years now.
We helped resettle four refugee families from Burma
In my family, Kim and I have both lost a parent.
We have had three suicides and one suicide attempt.
My kids used to hide under my robe while I preached. Now they are both in college.
I used to have dark hair, and more of it.
I’ve run 9 marathons, 3 triathlons, and taken three sabbaticals
I was looking through the archives this week and came a cross a parking study conducted by UBC in 1963! Some things never change. It was calling at the time for buying property around the church for a parking lot. It could have been written three years ago.
My sermon on Epiphany of 2001 had the same title as today. “Going Home a Different Way.” It’s a good New Years and Epiphany theme. How do we wish to be different in the year or years ahead? I spoke about going home to Cleveland, but I’ve now lived in Minnesota almost as long as I lived in Cleveland. I’m different every time I go back. And so is my hometown and the people I encounter. How will our kids come home a different way? Are we ready for that? Well, intellectually yes, but emotionally, existentially? Spiritually? Hold that thought.
Matthew and Luke are the two gospels to record infancy narratives and they are very different from each other. Luke seems to be a more working class account—what with all the shepherds the marching to Bethlehem at the whim of the governor so they could pay the right taxes, Mary’s Magnificat, her revolutionary manifesto as the prelude to the story of Jesus.
Matthew is interested in putting the story into the larger Biblical narrative—“this was to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah said…” Matthew is interested in people in places of authority. Only Matthew mentions Herod. Only Matthew mentions the magi.
Now contrary to any pageant that children have staged around the Christmas season, the magi did not show up on the night of Jesus’ birth. It was probably a week or two later, maybe even a few years later. Remember how Herod ordered the killing of all children under two and not just the newborns? As you know, this is Epiphany Sunday. That means we sing the hymns about the Magi that we skipped at Christmas in our pursuit of liturgical correctness. It also means we remember the Magi and the gifts that they brought to the baby Jesus.
Let‘s face it, we don’t know much about the Magi. Matthew’s second chapter is the only time we see them.
We don’t know if they’re kings or not, despite any Christmas Pageant you may have seen.
We don’t know their names despite any Opera you might have heard.
We don’t know where they came from exactly.
We don’t know if they started out looking for Jesus.
We do know they were co-opted by Herod, like many wise people are.
We don’t know how many magi there were. But we know they were men. Their gifts were impractical. I can just imagine Jesus taking a little bit of Myrrh and sticking it in his mouth. That’s what babies do. If the magi were women they would have brought practical gifts, like a diaper service. They would have cleaned the stable, brought a hot dish, and maybe established peace on earth.
A midrash on Exodus 1 in the Babylonian Talmud speaks of Pharaoh’s astrologers perceiving that the mother of the future redeemer of Israel is pregnant. Pharaoh then orders all the Hebrew boys drowned. Herod does the same thing 1300 years later.
What we know from Matthew is that the Magi came to see Jesus, and subverting the desires of Herod, they brought him gifts which were to symbolize a new relationship with the world. The wise men wanted to worship Jesus. Herod wanted to kill Jesus, for he feared the implications of the formerly voiceless having a voice. He feared the poor being empowered. He feared the truth being made known. He feared that he would not be able to wield so much power with this child.
So it is in the world. There are always those in power who will try to lord it over others. There are always those who control the access to information which will put their own slant on the comings and going of the days. And it is up to us to seek the truth as God would have it.
Herod calls the magi into his chambers when her heard they were in town. It behooves a leader to visit with dignitaries when they are in the land. When they are in your territory, so the theory goes, you can use your homeland advantage to get something you want.
We know that Herod felt threatened by the crowds. He felt threatened that if the people embraced the Christ child, they would stop marching to his tunes. So he gave the magi an offer they could not refuse, or so he thought. I like to think that the polite request of Herod’s to reveal the Christ child’s location so that he could worship him was the way the press played it up. I bet underneath it was a threat that if they did not give up the location of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, that there would be serious repercussions for them in particular and their home countries in general.
The magi, of course, saw through Herod’s trickery. They knew the ways megalomaniacal rulers thought. They had dealt with such unsavory characters before. They saw through the sham welcome. They refused to do what Herod wanted. They chose not to report back to Herod the exact location of the Holy family. They could have done the safe thing by going back to Herod. But to do so would have cost them their souls. They would have lost their freedom. And these foreigners saved this Israelite family from its own government. The wise magi, so say the scriptures, went home a different way.
These days, faith communities are housing people who might face deportation. Offering them sanctuary from the government. It’s holy work. Some of these faith communities are letting the powers that be know that people are staying in their buildings. Some are not. Both are doing brave, may we even say majestic work. We are poised to do the same thing in the coming year—making home a different place—all the while redefining what it means to have a home church or a church home.
One of my colleagues Jim Hopkins, pastor of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland reminded me that 22 years ago on Epiphany Sunday, the American Baptist Churches of the West disfellowshipped four churches in the Bay Area for being welcoming and affirming of the LGBTQ communities. It was a sad day. I was there, but not permitted to speak. I was pastoring a former southern Baptist church that had tried for 8 years to get into the ABC, but had our application tabled because we were a welcoming and Affirming church. In fact, none of the churches in question were allowed to speak in their own defense. African American pastors spoke in favor of retaining the churches and that kicking them out was the same thing that majority folk had always done to minority folks.
As Jim recalls it, “We were all in full compliance of the, then, five requirements to be a congregation in good standing. In the morning they added a sixth requirement, something about conducting our ministries in a way that was "sensitive" to theologies of the other churches and in the afternoon they found us all to be in violation of the sixth requirement and voted us out.”
It was a railroading, another example of white evangelicalism being on the wrong side of history. There were no tears on our part—just disgust at the way people put us under the bus. Those of us there saw how those resembling Herod used fear, intimidation, slander and fear-laden hyperbole to say that churches like ours were a threat to God’s work on earth. And we found solidarity together. Each of the churches found a home in a region far away from them geographically but close-by theologically. Each church needed to go home a different way. UBC found a new regional home ten years later, in 2006. It makes a difference to be with people who want you there, who are not threatened by our presence, who think doing liturgical dramas called, the Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, the Illegitimacy of Jesus and the Gospel according to Kermit the Frog is a cool thing. We have used our energy on things that make a difference.
The theme for this worship year is reversals. The Biblical narrative points us toward redemptive work that just might be dangerous, might seem impossible, and yet is incredibly good news. If you have been caught up in that, then you have gone home a different way. And that’s the point.
My kids came home from college after exams. It’s wonderful to have them home. It’s way too quiet without them. And yet, I know that they came home a different way. They came home with different learnings, life-experiences. They’ve tasted freedom and their room looks like a time capsule of the past. So do their parents. How do they make sense of it all? How do we, who want them to try new things and still long for a return to a familiar rhythm of life that has passed.
New Year’s is a time when people try on a new way. We try on a resolution that will make us better, or well adjusted. That’s all well and good while you’re away, but coming home adds a new twist, a new set of challenges. Being different away from home is easier than it is when you are home. That’s why children decide they want to live elsewhere even when finances say it’s prudent to live at home. I guess it all goes to the point of making a home that is worthy and reflective of the emerging new you.
And now we are here, 17 years into this journey together. I have no plans to go anywhere else anytime soon. I know some of you have experienced such loss that going home means something completely different. The person or people who occupied the house are no longer there.
We have seen each other through some tough and some joyful times. As Ordination candidate Matty Strickler says in his ordination paper, church is a touchstone, a constant in the turmoils of life. We can go back, read the same scriptures, even sing some of the same old hymns, but our task is to be challenged and moved by that story to make something better for ourselves and for the generations that follow.
The Magi went home a different way to save a child on the run. Mary and Joseph went home a different way as they fled to Egypt, becoming refugees. The only documentation they had was in scripture, which was not recognized by government. And we go home a different way that looks for the light of hope in a blizzard of bad news.
We are the ones who are called to follow that light, even when it means going home a different way. For a different way is all about hope, possibility and blessing. The Magi went home a different way so that they could be connected with the light of God that they found along the journey. May we seek out that light. May it cause us to do brave, foolish and redemptive things. For that is what a faithful life is all about. And may we always be surrounded by similar rebels with a cause. May we find hope, joy and purpose even as we go home a different way.