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2 Samuel 7:17
So much do we love the story of the magi that we sometimes forget we don’t know the half of it. Right?
Matthew begins the story nearly at the end, after the wise men had made it all the way to Jerusalem and, beside themselves with excitement, started asking for the whereabouts of the baby king. They had a feeling they were close, but after all that time, after coming all that way, they were just too impatient to wait for one more sunset and one more look at the star.
And so Matthew tells us about paranoid King Herod and his lackeys, and how the magi were directed just a few miles down the road to Bethlehem. By then it was dark, and the star led them straight to the house where a young woman was changing the diapers of a giggling infant while her husband sat at a bench carving spoons out of olive wood.
The magi were so smitten with the boy that they immediately fell to their knees in awe and praise of this small and smelly lord. And then they remembered: the gifts! They opened their treasure chests and pulled out nothing but their best for him.
Theirs was a pure and successful quest, and yet their story, and the story of the boy, is from the beginning fraught with politics and power. While the magi were heading back home by another route, Herod was planning a killing rampage to protect his throne from 2-year-olds.
It is a great story but, as I said, we don’t know the half of it. Matthew doesn’t tell us when or how the magi and their people first saw the star or what they thought of it. He doesn’t write about the endless meetings or their different perspectives on what to do, if anything. He leaves out the arguments about what danger the star might portend or what catastrophe might befall anyone who dared follow it to the end of the earth.
There is nothing in the story about whether the community of the magi settled the matter by voting or by declaration of consensus, nothing about the fundraising campaign, nothing about the months of planning and packing and gathering provisions, not a word about who decided what to put in those treasure chests. There is nothing about how the magi felt when they set out, knowing that the journey would be long and the outcome uncertain; there is nothing about the setbacks they encountered along the way.
Which is to say: As much as we love this story, as much as we might love Epiphany and its mystery and unfolding revelation, we know it had to be way more complicated than Matthew let on.
We know because we weren’t born yesterday.
We know because, as much as we love the widening of our building’s welcome—the amazing lift, the bright and airy connector, the extra bathroom, the wide and gorgeous sanctuary doors with their new yet old-looking glass arches, and how the sidelights on the new, automatically-opening front door let light into the narthex and bring the world into this space,—as much as we might love all that, at least some of us know at least some of the backstory.
Raise your hand if you were here in 2009 when we received word of a million-dollar bequest from the estate of Ben and Midge White.
Raise your hand if you attended the meeting in the dining room where we placed dots on various pieces of paper representing ministries and passions and put play money in plastic bowls representing allocations of our resources.
Raise your hand if you attended any number of holy conversations, special worship services, and congregational meetings about whether to spend money on our building.
Raise your hand if, at some point, you thought you would scream if you had to attend another meeting about what we wanted to do and what we should do and what was possible—or not.
Raise your hand if you sometimes wondered if we would ever make a decision.
I’m not going to ask you to raise your hand if, after all that discernment and prayer and listening and frustration and learning and dreaming, you dug deep and made a multi-year contribution to Project 275, giving over and above your annual pledge to the church. I just want to thank you for your trust and generosity.
Thank you so much. I hope that every time you walk into the connector or take the lift or see Main Street from the narthex you will realize what generosity can do.
And I’m not going to ask those of you who weren’t yet here when all this was going on to raise your hand if, when construction started, you wondered what this crazy church was doing now. I’m not going to ask you because, whatever you thought, you stuck around and you threw your lot in with ours. And I want to thank you for that, for giving us the benefit of the doubt, and for going along with something you had no say in.
Thank you for loving and trusting us enough to stick it out.
You see, in this long, complicated, sometimes frustrating, and seemingly never-ending story, we are the magi.
Yes, we are the magi. Because we trusted God, we signed up for the journey even though we didn’t know exactly where it would lead or how it would go. Because we trusted God and one another, we opened our hearts and minds to the unknown and the impossible. And because we love this church and we love each other, we opened our treasure chests: giving of our bank accounts, our time, our skills and commitment.
And now, praise God, here we are.
When a journey is long and fraught we may not have much energy for rejoicing when we arrive. When some of the dear ones who cheered us on the way are no longer with us, our success may feel bittersweet. When the fruit of our labors is overshadowed by our busyness with other projects and ministries, all our wonder and awe, joy and gratitude may get lost in the shuffle. And when the end of a project is far away from the beginning, we may forget what it was all for, what inspired us to risk so much and what motivated us to endure.
As so we come together today, not only to celebrate the completion of a project but to remember our guiding vision, to name the star the led us through the wilderness, to give thanks for arriving at this day, and to recommit ourselves to the One who’s been with us through it all.
Why did we do all this? Why did we spend not only the Whites’ money but also our own? Why did we devote countless hours to meetings about design and materials and details? Why did we walk around our bifurcated building for months on end and make do with a porta-potty in the bell tower?
Believe it or not, I think a headline on MassLive.com pretty well sums it up. It says:
“First Congregational renovation project makes Amherst church as welcoming as its programs.”
For decades we have, more often than not, been ahead of the curve when it came to welcoming all God’s children to this community of faith. But our building lagged behind. Some of God’s children we openly welcomed and lovingly affirmed couldn’t even get in the door or, once inside, couldn’t get from one floor to another.
Well, now they can.
We have not spent a million dollars to build God a house; we have given of ourselves and our community to build a house for all God’s people. We have worked and waited not to make our building look better (though it surely does), but to better live out our call to love one another and our neighbors.
We have built a house not on sand, not on our own ideas, but on the bedrock of God’s extravagant love. We have built a house not by our own doing but by grace and generosity. We have built a house not on impulse, but on a foundation of prayer, discernment, listening, and love for one another and our neighbors.
Construction began at Pentecost with everything but fire, it seemed. Walls and windows came tumbling down. The connector staircase likewise disappeared; and then the bathroom. There was noise and drama as the familiar went away and we were left discombobulated and exposed. It was exciting!
And then came the ordinary and quieter and much longer time of internal electrical work for the fire alarm system. Just as we sometimes wonder if Spirit is still with us, we wondered if anything was happening. We had to wait and watch—and we did, all the way through Advent, as the reality of what was coming became clearer.
And now we come to Epiphany, the season of revealing, a time of ever-increasing light, an invitation to come and see what God is doing in us and in the world. And so it is worth wondering: What will our more accessible building reveal to us? What will it tell us about who we are? What will it show us about who God is? Even as we rejoice in the light in brings in, how we will let our light shine out?
Let us never forget the way it used to be. Let us not become so comfortable and pleased with the way things are that we stop discerning and opening and letting Spirit continue to transform us. Let the story of how we widened our welcome—and all the time and prayer and generosity it took—become part of our congregational story: a story of faith and persistence, and story of commitment and justice, a story of hope and love.
Let us continue, as the hymn says, “to build a church where love can dwell ad all can safely live, a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive. Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock and faith and vault of grace, here the love of Christ shall end divisions: All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place!”