Reader: Colleen Nichol. audio begins with the scripture passage; sermon begins at 2:24.

Epiphany   Text: Matthew 2: 1-12

I thought we might have heard the fuller story from Matthew’s Gospel this morning … how it goes on to describe Herod going berserk when he discovers the Magi are not returning to inform him about the whereabouts of the Christ child … and how in a rage he unleashes terrible violence.

I thought we might have made room for all of that today --it’s a painfully cotemporary story.  But then, yesterday happened … yesterday right here, with the Celebration of Joan’s life. Something happened that I think broke through to us, broke through in us, as we touched into some of what matters most, that calls for our lingering with just a little while longer. So last evening I thought we don’t need Herod coming crashing into this space … but rather, what would it be for us to allow ourselves to be held in that energy of yesterday.

As a way of coming back into yesterday, there’s this piece of Mary Luti’s that I’d like to share about the season of Epiphany … because that’s what happened yesterday … we had an epiphany! Here’s what she writes:

"Our planet has come full circle: things should feel new; yet for many people, the calendar is cleared only for business as usual, and the soul’s season, like the weather outside here in the North, is winter.
But the church has entered a different season – Epiphany.
A season of signs, it starts with a star in the east and ends with fire on a mountain.
(So what’s she’s referencing here are the stories from scripture that frame this season that stretches over about 6 or 7 weeks …
how the season of Epiphany begins with the story we have today of the Magi following the star, and concludes with the story of the Transfiguration … that mountaintop story where the disciples witness Jesus, transfigured, shining like the sun, and the voice from out of the cloud urges, “listen to him.”)

So Mary writes: "the church has entered a different season – Epiphany. A season of signs, it starts with a star in the east and ends with fire on a mountain. A season of voices, it starts with directions in a dream and ends with acknowledgment from a cloud. A season of unveilings, it starts with a glimpse of baby skin and ends with a display of gleaming garments. A season of worship, it starts with the homage of kings and ends with the prostration of disciples.

In the dead of winter, the church gives us God-sightings, gives them as if to persuade us that our world only appears solid, still, dark, and cold, but is in fact stirring all the time, ardent, vivid, and porous.
As if to say that this stretch of predictability we call our daily life is really, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, a startling game of hide-and-seek with the divine. As if to say that heaven’s flame burns hot here too, not just on the other side of Peter’s gate.

Starfire, dream-clouds, baby’s flesh, garments of light, kings on their knees and disciples on their faces — Epiphany is the church’s way of impressing on us that discipleship is as much being spoken to as it is speaking, as much adoring as serving, as much perceiving as doing, as much finding as seeking.

Seeking is never over, there is always more to find. But in Epiphany, the Spirit seems to desire for us a momentary end of seeking. She brings us to an encounter with the immense and saving beauty that burns in Jesus, the bright beauty destined for us all. She lights the lamp and leads us:  “Come closer,” she says. “You’re getting warm. Now over here. A little more. Yes, yes. Now do you see…?”  And if we are attentive, we do perceive it. We fall on our knees." [1]

So yesterday we had this experience of coming closer … of seeing … of seeing that bright beauty that burns in Jesus, that is destined for us all. It was through the words that Daniel shared that we caught a glimpse of it. And so I’ve asked Daniel if he would bring that to us again. …

From the moment I began my work as music director here at James Bay United in 2011, I found a deep and impacting friendship in Joan and Lyman Butterfield. They both embraced me with such wide-open arms and hearts, from the very beginning, that it is actually hard for me to recall having first met them. It truly feels as though I have always known them. That kind of easy familiarity we usually have with family or childhood friends.

Joan and Lyman…Lyman and Joan. A duo if there ever was one. It is so hard for me to reconcile the separation.

Nearly every Sunday morning since I have been music director here, Joan and Lyman were among the first to arrive. Ubiquitous fixtures in the front row, closer to me than even the choir in the choir loft. Every Sunday morning, I was greeted by this warm, deep, overflowing affection. No conditions. No questions. Just pure outpoured love. Such a thing is so, so rare to receive in this world.

This is one of the things about Joan that just amazed me: her incredible capacity to give such true affection…such true love so freely. But not just giving it away like it didn’t matter. Just the opposite. She had a way of looking at me and saying, (and she would say this every time I saw her), “I love you. I’m very fond of you. Lyman and I think very highly of you…we appreciate everything you’ve done for us” and making me feel like the fullness of my personhood and been seen and lifted up and affirmed—like receiving a blessing.

Joan was like a grandmother to me…in the no-BS-honesty with which she expressed her care and concern to me: “You always move so fast. You need to slow down. You look tired. You need rest.”

The other thing that amazed me about Joan was the fierce and loving way she looked after Lyman. She always, always, had his back. Lyman and I get together a few times a year to sing together, and for Lyman to prepare a solo to sing on a Sunday morning. Like most people my age that are working full-time with a young family, it is often hard for me to stop and make time. And I have a bad, bad habit of putting getting together with Lyman off. So many excuses… “After the holidays” or “Once I get into the swing of the new semester” or “After mid-terms” or “After finals”…. And Lyman, always gracious, never complains. But Joan….no, her love for Lyman will not abide seeing him run around. The number of times she would stop me on a Sunday morning, or call me on a weekday evening…”When are you and Lyman going to get together? Lyman wants to know. I want to know.” She would remind me: this is important.

I cannot imagine this place without Joan. This room that we are in right now. The absence she has left is, for me, deeply palpable.

The world is less with her not in it.

I learned so much from Joan, from her way of being in the world. Don’t hold back your love for others. Why be stingy in expressing your love and affection for others, when you can choose to let it over flow?…Why wave when you can embrace?…why say “Hello” when you can say “I love you”? Why say “How are you?” When you can say “I appreciate you.”

Why not choose to let those you love know it…over and over and over again?
Because we all need that…to be told (over and over and over again) that we are seen and loved and appreciated. That is what Joan did—what an amazing, inspiring thing that is.

Written for Joan Butterfield’s memorial service.
James Bay United Church, January 5, 2019

What I hear Daniel helping us to see is that Joan showed us another way … this way of affirming our value, simply because we are, simply because we breathe.  Joan showed us another way home to each other.

It’s not uncommon, and it was certainly part of our conversations during the reception after the service yesterday… how we discover so much more about a person at their memorial service when we no longer have the opportunity to deepen that relationship. So why do we wait? … that’s what we often come away asking ourselves … why would we wait to come to know and care about each other more deeply when it’s too late? Why would we miss the opportunity that we have now to receive from and offer to each other the gift of ourselves?

Imagine the gift to a perfect stranger who walks in among us and what it is to sense that kind of open-hearted care and regarding of one another. What would it be for us to be intentional about cultivating more of that spirit among us?

Those of us who had the experience of those 1-1 conversations during the Wednesday evenings of Advent -- without exception we found ourselves deeply blessed. So much so that we’ll be creating opportunities for that again.
And for sometime now there’s been the invitation to belong to a small group … A Deeper Dive I’ve called it … the opportunity to meet monthly with a small group to reflect on our lives, our faith together.
There are any number of ways to deepen our connection, our care for each other.

So what might that look like for you as we move into this new year, if we really heard this call to return home by another way … return home to each other, by another way?

I’m suggesting we take some time in the silence now to let what has happened for us this morning to move in us.

[1]  Mary Luti, "Hide and Seek With The Divine," posted on December 28, 2017