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Studying the Stars

IMG_9912A simple star cut from paper bearing a word – received as a gift from God on Epiphany or the Sunday closest to Epiphany.

That is the essence of Epiphany Star Gifts. As far as I know, the first Presbyterian congregation to experience Epiphany Star Gifts was Carpinteria Community Church in Carpinteria, California when the Rev. Sam Roberson served as pastor. Sam and his partner, Joanne Sizoo, took the idea with them to St. Mark Church in Cincinnati. An article about Epiphany Star Gifts appeared sometime during the late 1980s in Presbyterian Survey. A number of congregations picked up the idea, including Noble Road Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights where my partner and I served as co-pastors.

Today, on the Feast of the Epiphany 2013, many congregations received Epiphany Star Gifts as an ongoing tradition and others received them for the first time including the Church of the Covenant in New York where I preached and the Church of the Western Reserve in Pepper Pike, Ohio where the Rev. Tricia Dykers (my partner) preached this sermon. Matthew 2:1-12 served as the text.

They were men who studied the stars, as Matthew’s Gospel tells it – alert to heavenly signs and their implications for earthly events.  They understood that something momentous was happening, something so important that in order to be part of it they would set out on a long journey into the unknown, laden with the most precious of possessions.  They sought the truth wherever it might be found, and their search brought them to an obscure house in an obscure village in an obscure country, there to worship an infant whom they knew to be king.  By their homage we know that he is king, not just of the Jews but of all the earth – he is our king.  Because of their gifts we celebrate his birth with our own giving and receiving; we celebrate his Epiphany, his manifestation to all people, by rejoicing in his manifestation in our lives.

One way that God is manifest in our lives is through the spiritual gifts bestowed upon us – gifts that make us aware of God’s presence, that enable us to participate in God’s purpose, that witness to God’s promise to love us ultimately.

When I was co-pastor at Noble Road Church, Epiphany was one of my favorite Sundays of the whole year because of a tradition that began a few years into our tenure.  The idea came from an article in the Presbyterian Survey magazine that was spotted by one of our elders – Libby Wills, who died this past summer just a few weeks before her 100th birthday; I later became friends with the pastor who initiated it in the congregation in the article.  Although as far as I know we at Noble Road were the first to adopt the practice in this presbytery, it did spread to other congregations around here.  I was pondering whether to share the tradition with you – after all,  I am not your ongoing pastor and have no idea whether you will want to continue it – but while I was wavering, I read on Facebook of how meaningful it has been to others in far-flung places, and since we have gotten to know each other this year, I thought, why not.  That these gifts may abound in your lives and in the life of this community of faith is my prayer for you going forward.

Ephiphany stars at church of the covenantHere’s how it works: When you come forward to receive communion, you will have the opportunity to pick out of a basket a paper star.  The star will have a word on it, naming a gift from God; visually, nothing special, as God’s gifts are not always flashy.  Sometimes the gift is known by all to be one that you already evidence or experience in abundance.  Sometimes you will feel that it is something you’ve needed, a challenge to work on.  Often it’s something you don’t understand, or could learn more about.  In any case, it will provide you an opportunity to ponder and pray in the coming year.  It’s suggested that you display it during the year in a place where you will see it often – in the course of my ministry I have seen them on walls and mirrors and refrigerators, and my collection is propped prominently on a bookshelf in my office.  This morning you are encouraged to attach it to your clothing, so that we can rejoice and wonder together with one another over the gifts received.  It’s been known to happen that people have had revealing insights into other people’s stars.

Sometimes people looking at one another’s stars are tempted to trade.  I encourage you to receive whatever comes, with the assumption that the Spirit of God has a hand in the process, and to remain open to surprise and mystery and whatever might happen.  Resist the urge to be in control; accept the gift for what it is, a gift freely given.  Many have discovered that the gift that seemed daunting or disappointing at first turned out to be the most meaningful in actual experience.  Perhaps God has something in store that is beyond our planning and imagining.

At Noble Road, one reason the tradition became so meaningful was that the sermon time each year after the first included time for all who wished    to share a reflection about their experiences with their stars during the year.  I remember especially the young woman, long frustrated by inability to conceive, who received “joy” on Epiphany Sunday and came the next year with her newborn in her arms.

My first gift was “contentment,” and I wrestled with it all that year.  It came at a time in my life when I was experiencing an odd combination of unusual satisfaction in some areas of my life and abnormal stress in others.  Was I too contented, or not contented enough, or should I be contented with my level of contentment?  Obviously I had reached the stage of over-analysis, at which point it is best to laugh at oneself and not worry about it.  And it was then that one of God’s most helpful epiphanies came to me – contentment is a gift, not an accomplishment.  Should have been obvious all along, right, given that I had received it as an Epiphany Star Gift, but in truth that insight was late in coming.  Contentment is a gift, not an accomplishment – what a liberating reality!

Another very meaningful gift was “laughter” – when it came to me, I wondered – is that a promise, or a challenge?  Then just a few weeks after receiving it, I experienced perhaps the most traumatic event of my life, an assault while out walking.  In addition, my family in Virginia and friends from my previous congregation in Iowa experienced a series of trials that made that year one we were glad to be rid of.  And yet, it was not uniformly bleak – there were many joys, not least the love and support received as we dealt with the sorrows.  I thought about the gift of laughter, rather a bittersweet gift as it turned out; but then, perhaps I should have known that, as evidenced in phrases like “it only hurts when I laugh,” and “we laughed until we cried.”   There is a connection between laughter and tears that is more than physiological.  What I learned was that the gift of laughter is the gift of perspective – of realizing that God gives joy in the midst of great sorrow, that indeed there is no sorrow that can overcome the joy of knowing God’s love.  To laugh in the gifted sense is to keep one’s perspective, to find the joy in sorrow’s midst.  It is a gift I will always treasure.

It would take me much too long to recount all the Epiphany Star Gifts I have received over the years, and all the comfort, challenge, promise and growth they have blessed me with.  There is an element of demand in every gift, an aspect of challenge – what will you do with it? – but the fundamental reality of gift is that it is freely given, and must first be received, then appreciated, if it is truly to be yours.  If you receive the gift, the challenge implicit in it can then be experienced as an opportunity rather than an obligation, as an invitation rather than an imperative.

I hope that you will experience your Epiphany Star as a gift that blesses you in 2013.  If it’s meaningful, perhaps next year you will want to share that in worship and receive another star, though there’s no rule against sharing your reflections anytime during the year.  Every spiritual gift is a particular aspect of God’s freely given love, that you might know God’s love concretely and live out God’s love in the other relationships of your lives.  God wants to bless you – receive the gift!  Amen.

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