Tonight We Travel with the Magi

I delivered this sermon on January 6, 2015, at Church of the Ascension, 16 Linwood Avenue, Buffalo, NY.

Tonight we travel with the Magi.

On this night we follow a star to the place where God is leading us.

This is our last service in this building. The Church of the Ascension has been on this location for 165 years. It is a leave-taking, a farewell, a time for saying goodbye to this church building — though not to each other.

It’s a night for traveling together as this congregation moves three miles away to take up residence, as the Church of the Ascension at Good Shepherd on Jewett Parkway. This is not a funeral; it is a rebirth.

We travel into an unknown future, just as the Magi did. It is their arrival to worship the infant Jesus and present their gifts that we celebrate each year on January 6, this night of the Epiphany.

We know almost nothing for sure about the Magi. If you read Matthew’s Gospel carefully, you’ll see that he never says there were three of them. We’ve just made that assumption because they presented three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Tonight is all about gifts.

And they’ve been referred to as kings because of the royal quality of the gifts they brought. But again, Matthew never calls them kings. He refers to them as “wise men from the East.”

What made them wise? Some people think they were priests from Persia — who interpreted the heavenly signs the way we now get to know our own signs of the Zodiac, and then we read our horoscopes in the paper every morning.

Others say they were astronomers, scientists, who saw a strange bright star in the sky and were moved to explore it — without the help of the Hubble Telescope.

It was very common at that time to believe that unusual actions in the natural world heralded the birth, or death, of an important person. Bright stars, comets, eclipses of the moon and the sun — all of them were signs that something unusual was taking place, something worth paying attention to.

Other people have theorized that they were interpreters of omens and dreams. Or they were fortune-tellers. Or they were magicians. Indeed, the word “magi” later was transformed into our very word “magic.”

But regardless of who they were, and where they came from, we do know five things about them:

  • First, they were adventurous.
  • Second, they were risk-takers.
  • Third, they were willing to leave behind all that was friendly and familiar and take off on a journey, following a star — a star instead of a reliable GPS? Where is Siri when we need her?!
  • Fourth, they knew there was something out there that was worth exploring, worth discovering.
  • Fifth, they heard a persistent call, an insistent voice that said, “Go. Now.” And they obeyed that call.

The Magi sound a lot like the congregation of the Church of the Ascension.

When you leave this place for the Church of the Good Shepherd, you are taking a risk. You’re stepping out into the unknown. You’re listening to God’s persistent, insistent call to do a new thing. To risk the known, the familiar, the loved and cherished … to see what is out there that is worth discovering. And all of this is what the Church of the Ascension has been doing for a very long time.

Tonight we travel with the Magi, following our own star, and your precious identity as a congregation has been your star.

When you get to Good Shepherd, I know you will receive a warm welcome. That historic church, with its Tiffany windows, built and led over the decades by people with names like Jewett and Darwin Martin — names that are synonymous with the history of the City of Buffalo — is ready to open its doors to you.

And like the Magi, you bring gifts: Yourselves. Your unique worship. Mark Digiampaolo’s wonderful music. The pet food pantry. Your energetic and imaginative clergy. This precious identity, your unique history is your gift.

The gifts of Ascension are to be groundbreaking but also a church founded on love of the community, family community, and an embrace of the whole human community.

Five bishops ago, during the time of Bishop Scaife, Ascension was our first white parish to be racially integrated.

In the early twenty-first century, a previous rector wrote an courageous public letter to the Buffalo gay and lesbian community. He made an invitation with these words: “Ascension is a safe home for you, your partner, and your children.”

Two stories illustrate both of these gifts.

First, a home. It was the family of Al Price, his parents, at great personal cost, who were the first African-Americans to join this church. Some white members left Ascension, some white acolytes left the altar when Al Price began serving there.

After college and graduate school, now Prof. Al Price moved back to Buffalo for a faculty position at UB. He admits that he was pretty focused on using his graduate education when he returned to his hometown. But because he was a good son, Prof. Price agreed one morning to accompany his mother to church soon after he returned. That Sunday morning Al noticed his mother placed two offering envelopes in the offering plate. Upon inquiring, Al learned that the entire time he was away from home, his mother had pledged twice, once for herself and once for her son, saying that everyone needs a church home. Ascension was Al’s home.

Embracing the beloved community of humankind.

Guy Richards was a longtime and beloved member of Ascension. Before Guy left Buffalo he planned his funeral with the then rector Armand Kreft. When Guy died, the family asked Armand to return for the funeral. A blizzard on Cape Cod kept Armand from getting back to Buffalo. With no priest, Tom Zimpfer called Mother Cathy Dempsey to ask if she could step in to help. After the funeral, the Ascension search committee met and decided that Guy had spoken to them about who should be their new priest, through a blizzard and the inability of Armand to get here for the funeral. Listening to the Spirit, they decided to approach Cathy and Good Shepherd about a possible covenant.

The rest, as they say, is history, and then exactly two years ago tonight, the priest of Ascension, Cathy Dempsey-Sims, and the deacon of Ascension, Pete Dempsey-Sims were the first same-gender clergy couple in the history of our diocese to be married by the bishop, by me, in this very space.

Risks and community: the gifts of Ascension.

* * *

The bare-bones description of the Magi that we read in Matthew’s Gospel has been embellished over the centuries in beloved carols and great works of art. Each in its own way illustrate these two themes. The three have been given names and ethnicities and they began to look like this: Caspar to be Indian, Melchior, Persian, and Balthazar, traditionally to be represented as dark-skinned, thought to be Arabic. The notion was that God was reaching out to the Gentiles, to all the peoples of the known world, as a way of indicating that the Messiah came for all of them, not for Israel alone. Just so this congregation strives to be a richly diverse church family. That is what you will take with you on your trip north to Good Shepherd.

* * *

And after all, the journey you are taking is only three miles up Main Street, but it is a very significant journey for the Episcopal Church today. In every diocese, in every city, there are churches like Ascension: small congregations that want to survive but find themselves with property they cannot heat or cool or maintain. They are burdened with far more space than they need, or space that does not support the way we do ministry now. Every single one of my brother and sister bishops is wondering what to do about those congregations. Merge them with others? Close them? Sell them?

You are Exhibit A in how creatively to solve this problem. I want to tell other bishops what we are doing here: your move as a continuing congregation to be housed at Good Shepherd … and the transformation of this sanctuary into a community-oriented space for music and art, and social services … and the construction of affordable senior housing on this site, both developed by the Episcopal Church Home & Affiliates.

We gathered here tonight also can be a light to the nations — well, at least to the rest of the Episcopal Church — in how to rethink property and buildings and mission and ministry to serve our communities and our congregations.

We have other examples of this mission of our diocese, at Grace Church, Lockport, and at St. Simon’s, South Buffalo, where we are engaged in projects of adaptive reuse to turn buildings that are part of these church facilities into community-services centers also—centers that meet the needs of those outside our doors.

As your bishop, I am proud of this congregation and Good Shepherd for your willingness to show the wider church what it might mean to “do church” in the 21st Century …

to be a model to other churches in our diocese for what is possible when a congregation can think together prayerfully and faithfully and creatively, and with serenity about the future …

to show churches of all denominations and civic leaders in the City of Buffalo how we can use our resources wisely and in untraditional ways to meet the needs of humanity and to strengthen both our congregations and our cities when we do so.

* * *

The wise men followed the star to where Jesus lay, and when it was time to return home, they knew they needed to go by a different road to avoid King Herod. He would have pressed them for details about where to find the child so he could harm him.

They were not called wise men for nothing.

So Matthew’s Gospel tells us that “they left for their own country by another road.” They went home by another way.

Before too long, senior citizens will find safe, warm, affordable housing in the apartments to be built on this site. The elderly will find their new home, here, by another way.

The residents of Linwood and Allentown will find a welcoming source of beauty and artistic life, needed services and community when this sanctuary takes on its new purpose. They will find a new home, here, by another way.

You, the congregation of the Church of the Ascension, will have a new location for your spiritual home, a place of fellowship and love, mission and ministry. As your rector, Mother Cathy, said recently, “We are not an address, 16 Linwood Avenue. We are a community of people dedicated to serving and loving God in all we do.” You are going home by another way.

Tonight we travel with the Magi — with our fears, with our uncertainties, with our memories, with our sorrows … AND with our curiosity, our expectations, our joy, our willingness to take chances and to be open to how God is calling us to do church now. What an opportunity!

Tonight we travel with the Magi — to find ourselves home by another way.

In the name of our God.

Amen.

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