A young man was learning to fly a plane. It was his first flight at night. Looking into the darkness, he asked his instructor what we should do if the engine failed. “Get the plane gliding in a controlled descent,” said the instructor, “then attempt to restart the engine and make a ‘Mayday’ call. The only difference between day and night flying is that the terrain below will not be clearly visible, so you should point the aircraft toward whatever looks like a clear area and it should be pointing into the wind.” “Then what?” the young student pilot asked. “Conserve your battery,” said the instructor, “so don’t turn on your landing lights until you’re close to the ground. If you like what you see, land.” “Okay,” said the student, “but what if I don’t like what I see?” His instructor gave him a compassionate look inside that dim cockpit, then said softly, “Turn off the landing lights.”
Twenty-twenty felt like we were careening toward danger and we couldn’t really see where we were going. Many days I just wanted to flip off the landing lights and crash into the dim and unknown future. Or as Civil Rights Activist Valarie Kaur puts it, “Is this the darkness of the tomb, or of the womb? I don’t know. All I know is that the only way we will endure is if each of us shows up to the labor.”
We’ve been living in fear, laboring in the dark, fearing the places we couldn’t plan or predict. We’ve been searching for any twinkle of light to show us where to go so we could land safely, so we could birth something new. But the laboring hasn’t been sweet. It’s been difficult and exhausting. We’ve felt more in the tomb than in the womb. We’ve gotten to the end of the year and Covid has killed more people. Our son, Ford, stopped breathing on Christmas Eve and was hospitalized… again. The hurt and loneliness of isolation has become maddeningly worse. We, like the magi, are searching, now, for the light in 2021 and we aren’t sure if we will ever find it. We scan the heavens, hoping for a sign, yearning for a convergence of the planets, those billions of tiny lights to join into a star that would light the way, light the way to the God who came in the flesh, who provides light in the darkness and hope in the midst of fear.
And that is what today, Epiphany Sunday, is all about. It is about finding light in the midst of the darkness, that piercing clarity and calm when the world is spinning out of control. Epiphany is the manifestation of the divine when the magi, those star watchers, saw the celestial event and went to find the promised Messiah. It was a new day when humankind could finally see God face to face, and in so doing, could begin to see their way through the pain and darkness.
As the church, we celebrate Epiphany on the Sunday nearest to January 6th, which always puts it at the very beginning of the new year. And I think Epiphany is the perfect liturgical moment to begin each year because we need that Epiphany hope to light the way through the upcoming darkness, when fear tends to cloud our vision and despair buries our souls. We need that glimmer of defiant hope that Epiphany brings to help us trod the right paths and to not fall into danger and doubt.
We went through another kind of Great Convergence at the end of twenty-twenty. On December 21st, Saturn and Jupiter joined in the night sky in an event called the Great Conjunction. This particular joining of planets in the night sky hasn’t happened in over eight hundred years. This planetary phenomenon was also called the Christmas Star as many wondered if this bright combination was what the magi, the star watchers, saw in the sky to signal the coming of the Messiah to earth. The Great Conjunction two thousand years ago was the brilliant and vivid hope that the rule of Herod would end, that the one who feared a little baby, the one who oppressed God’s people, the one who sowed injustice, would soon be brought into the light and redeemed by the birth of the divine.
And that’s what it felt like for me seeing the Great Conjunction several weeks ago. Because when I think of a great conjunction or a great convergence, I think of heaven coming to earth, heaven meeting earth and all things becoming clear and seen. I think of Jesus merging and dwelling in the flesh, bringing us salvation, wholeness, freedom, and hope. The Great Conjunction of God with humankind in Jesus helped us to see what we were not normally able to see.
It seems that these convergence occurrences are not just once every eight hundred years. In fact, astronomers are saying another one will happen in sixty years. I would dare say that being a people who follow Jesus, that we can look up and see an epiphany every single night. If we choose not to miss it, we can see the “bright hope for tomorrow” even when the world feels dim and dark today. The fear of the dark is oppressive, isn’t it? Yet, God is born in each one of us, every single moment, if we choose not to miss it.
For over thirty years, Scott Macaulay, a vacuum repairman in Melrose, Mass., has been hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for people who have nowhere else to go. Beginning in 1985, he ran an ad in the local paper, offering to cook Thanksgiving dinner for a dozen guests. Macaulay realized his family wasn’t going to get together for Thanksgiving that year, and he didn’t want to eat alone. The annual feast has grown since then. Last year, nearly one hundred guests showed up at the church where it was held.
In 2017, Loretta Saint-Louis, a newly ordained American Baptist minister, saw Macaulay’s ad in the Melrose Free Press and called him up to make a reservation. She was new in town and needed to connect with people on Thanksgiving so that she wouldn’t be alone. Macaulay was delighted when she called to make a reservation; he’d been searching for someone to say grace for the meal. Saint-Louis said, “I was blown away, all the care that [he] put into it. It felt like I was going to a family Thanksgiving event.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Macaulay won’t be hosting his normally large gathering this year but plans to give coupons to a hundred guests to receive a full Thanksgiving dinner from a local restaurant. But Saint-Louis said, “It’s nice to know that [he] still wanted to feed us, but it’s the togetherness of it that’s important.” Macaulay always loved the diverse people of all different backgrounds who came to his dinner. It didn’t matter who you were or what situation you were going through, this was a meal in which you would not have to be alone.
Macaulay responded, “My philosophy is: I can’t fix the country or the world or even the town, but I can brighten my own corner.” He said, “It doesn’t matter what any of the differences that we can divide ourselves with – if your neighbor’s house is burning down, you run to help. You run to put the fires out. I’m not going to sit around, talk about it, I’m just going to do something about it. And that’s sort of what the Thanksgiving dinner is all about. That would be my hope for America, that everybody would just brighten the corner where they are.”
Maybe that’s what we are being called to do on this Epiphany Sunday. Maybe we are lost in the dark and need a bright soul to guide us to more illumination, togetherness, understanding, and love. Maybe it is up to us to be that light in the world, on whatever corner we reside. And I think that is true for Royal Lane in 2021. We are on this corner of Hillcrest and Royal to brighten the lives of all those who pass by our church and come through our doors and join us online.
But, even with virtual church, you and I are meant to be sparks of hope in our own corners of our own worlds. You might not yet know how you will illuminate peoples’ lives this year. You may not know how Christ will shine through you. You might not know how you will change your corner of the world for the better. But what we do know is that there has been a Great Conjunction, a convergence of heaven and earth that brought light to the world where there was only darkness; a convergence of heaven and earth that brought peace to the world where there was only chaos; a convergence of heaven and earth that brought joy to the world where there was only sadness; a convergence of heaven and earth that brought hope to the earth where the was only fear.
But that star sometimes doesn’t shine when we want it to. The fear of the dark can be overwhelming and scary. It’s difficult to just stay put and be patient when the bills come in, when the health deteriorates, when the children mess up, when the depression hits hard. It’s difficult to be patient as we get used to the darkness and believe that the conjunction of heaven and earth was born not only on Christmas Eve, but each and every day in our own hearts.
My good friend, activist, and Presbyterian minister, Rev. Amy Moore, says it like this: “When I rise before the sun, I have the habit of not turning on any lights. It’s harsh on my eyes. But without artificial light, I must remember where things are so I don’t stub my toe or knock something over. When I open the drawer that holds my toothbrush, I can grope around frustrated looking for it. Or, I patiently notice when I’ve found it by its familiar shape and feel – ahh yes, there it is. I know it when I feel it.”
She continues, “Groping around in the darkness of these days can get me frustrated. My mind is searching for a sign, an assurance of newness coming; that the wearisome darkness will not last. The more determined I am to see, the more discouraged I can become. I can use artificial light and grab onto things I think I need. Or, I can patiently notice in the dark, knowing the hope and promise of God’s presence when I feel it…”
2020 was long, dark, and lonely… and 2021 is still going to be pretty tough. But let’s be patient, Church. Let’s not miss where God wants to shine our lights this year. Let’s not miss where God is showing up on earth to bring peace and love and light. Let’s not miss it, for “those who missed the Majesty’s arrival that night missed it not because of evil acts or malice,” author Max Lucado said. “No, they missed it because they simply weren’t looking.”
Let’s be patient as our eyes get used to the dark. Let’s be patient as we fumble around for the hand to hold, or the friend to hug, or the mouth to feed, or the shoulder to cry on. Let’s be patient and try not to be afraid. Because we have work to do this year, even in our fears and even in the dark. As Macaulay reminded us, “That would be my hope for America, that everybody would just brighten the corner where they are.” May you be patient, not fear the dark, and brighten the corner where you are.