If you ever want to hear a good story, ask me about the New Year’s Eve I spent in Paris when I was 19 years old. It’s a long story, full of twists and turns, so I can’t tell you the entire thing now. But, sufficed to say, the fact that I still love to travel is a bit of a wonder, because that New Year’s Eve is the reason I am now adamant about staying home in my pajamas when one year ends and another begins.
Anyway, I can’t tell you the entire story, but I do want to tell you how it ends. My best friend and I found ourselves in the middle of Paris, about 1am, needing to walk back to our hostel on the other side of the city with no street map. All we had with us was a Metro map, or the subway map. That didn’t show any streets, just stations across the city. We couldn’t take the Metro, didn’t have money for a cab, and needed to figure out our way across one of the largest cities in the world in the middle of the night when we had been there for less than 24 hours. It was a perilous and frightening journey, but my friend – Kristin – who has an analytical and scientific mind – was able to figure out our route by following the Metro station signs on the road. A few hours later, we ended up back at our hostel, safe – though we both collapsed in tears as soon as we sat on the bed.
There was one moment as we were walking through the city that night that I wanted to give up. While our inexperience had sent us out the door on a big holiday in a big city completely unprepared, we did know enough that we were in a really dangerous situation. I wanted to stop and find refuge somewhere. And as we walked near Notre Dame, I thought – maybe we could find refuge there. I looked at that Cathedral – which was dark in the middle of the night – and longed to walk in the doors, sit on a pew and perhaps find a kindly priest to offer us something warm to drink until morning. But I knew, in 2002, those doors were locked and the priests were tucked away in bed. So, we kept walking – but I kept looking back at the church wishing it was a different age and I could just give up on the journey.
My middle of the night journey through Paris cannot be compared to the journey the wise ones made following a star – I know that. But I can’t help but wonder – did they want to give up along the way just like I did? Did they understand just how dangerous their trip was and see places of refuge along the way and desire to just stop? Did they think, just like my friend and I did, what we are doing is crazy? Who knows, but I assume so. They were human after all and humans have doubts and fears. Humans, no matter how determined or faithful, are tempted to give up or give in when they are tired, overwhelmed, or just plain scared of what comes next.
But they kept going. And I am guessing, when each of you look back on your lives you can think of many times when you kept going as well. When you were overwhelmed but didn’t give up. When you were frightened, but didn’t give in to your fears. When you felt alone in a strange place, but didn’t let yourself be defeated by the unknown. The journey of humanity is fraught with so many obstacles and twists in the path that it is a wonder sometimes we ever leave our sanctuaries, whatever those may be. But, we keep going.
And I am also guessing, those times when you didn’t give in or give up, you often found something extraordinary. The Wise Ones, following a star and a call from God, didn’t give up along the dangerous road they were traveling and found at the high point of their journey, God. God in flesh. The realization that God had fulfilled God’s promise and came to be amongst us. So, on this Epiphany Sunday, the day when we celebrate the star and the brave journey the Wise Ones took – we also celebrate that they did not give up. And we celebrate that we have not given up either. Because, just as those Wise Ones were following a sign from God under the protection of God – we are also blessed with that same protection and presence. In the midst of this life and all of the journeys it takes us on – God is with us. God, Emmanuel, is with us. God was not content to stay above it all and just watch over from a distance. God got down in the mud with us and experienced the journey of humanity just as we do. And there is no greater hope or miracle than that.
A new year, a new decade has begun and God is still shining stars for us to notice and follow. And sometimes, oftentimes, following those stars will take us to unknown, even perilous places, but there is also a promise from God – that if we follow God’s path for us, we will find that God is with us along the way. Sometimes God is pointing the way and hoping we will follow. Sometimes God is pushing us out of whatever comfortable place we are in and propel us to what is next. Sometimes God is holding us up when we feel like we cannot go it alone. And sometimes God is sitting next to us as we take refuge in a sanctuary, building ourselves up for the next fork in the road. Again, there is no greater hope or miracle than that.
For those who were here last year, you received a star with a guiding word on it. These were meant to be a guide for you and a source of strength. And all year long I was so thrilled to hear stories about your Star Words, how they helped you notice things, gave you courage, and reminded you that God was with you in the midst of life’s journeys. This year, I offer you another set of words to guide you throughout 2020. These words, paired this time with a scripture verse, are a gift from me to you. How you use them is entirely up to you. But they come with a blessing and a reminder that God’s promise has been and will always be fulfilled. And, know this: wherever these words lead you, God will be with you along the way.
We will receive our Stars during communion, but first I want to bless them by reading an Epiphany blessing written by Jan Richardson, an extraordinary poet and theologian. This blessing is entitled For Those Who Have Far To Travel
“If you could see the journey whole, you might never undertake it, might never dare the first step that propels you from the place you have known toward the place you know not.
Call it one of the mercies of the road: that we see it only by stages as it opens before us, as it comes into our keeping, step by single step.
There is nothing for it but to go, and by our going take the vows the pilgrim takes: to be faithful to the next step; to rely on more than the map; to heed the signposts of intuition and dream; to follow the star that only you will recognize; to keep an open eye for the wonders that attend the path; to press on beyond distractions, beyond fatigue, beyond what would tempt you from the way. There are vows that only you will know: the secret promises for your particular path and the new ones you will need to make when the road is revealed by turns you could not have foreseen.
Keep them, break them, make them again; each promise becomes part of the path, each choice creates the road that will take you to the place where at last you will kneel to offer the gift
most needed— the gift that only you can give— before turning to go home by another way.”