First Reading: The Day Millicent Discovered the World.
The Day Millicent Found the World
Every morning Millicent ventured farther
into the woods. At first she stayed
near light, the edge where bushes grew, where
her way back appeared in glimpses among
dark trunks behind her. Then by farther paths
or openings where giant pines had fallen
she explored ever deeper into
the interior, till one day she stood under a great
dome among columns, the heart of the forest, and knew:
Lost. She had achieved the mysterious world
where any direction would yield only surprise.
And now not only the giant trees were strange
but the ground at her feet had a velvet nearness;
intricate lines on bark wove messages all
around her. Long strokes of golden sunlight
shifted over her feet and hands. She felt
caught up and breathing in a great powerful embrace.
A birdcall wandered forth at leisurely intervals
from an opening on her right. “Come away, Come away.”
Never before had she let herself realize
that she was part of the world and it would follow
wherever she went. She was part of its breath.
Aunt Dolbee called her back that time, a high
voice tapering faintly among the farthest trees,
“Milli-cent! Milli-cent!” And that time she returned,
but slowly, her dress fluttering along pressing
back branches, her feet stirring up the dark smell
of moss, and her face floating forward, a stranger’s
face now, with a new depth in it, into the light.
The Way It Is
#670 in Singing the Living Tradition
The Way by Edwin Muir
I turned out as a minister to be like almost all other preachers, in that I had only one or two sermons, which I preached over and over again. One lesson in life, which, of course, is a common piece of wisdom, that we all know, but forget again and again.
You don’t know what your one sermon is going to be when you start, but over time, certain images, particular songs, favorite themes start to come into focus. What I found myself preaching about again and again was the power of today, this moment in time. Today is the one day in all of time that is alive, and so it is the one moment in all of time where something, somebody, me, you can change. The past is more or less locked down, and the thing about the future, the one great thing about the future is that it has not happened yet.
I look at my calendar, and I say, “change”, when do I have “change” scheduled in. Can’t be today — today is all booked up. Not a spare minute in here. Today is the one day in all of time that is alive, and I am all booked up, from morning to night.
I’m not really talking about time, now. It’s not that we are too busy to experience change. It’s that there is a powerful inertia, a momentum, that took shape and gathered strength in the past, and propels me, maybe you, through today. Promises we’ve made, commitments that we are committed to, beliefs that we are loyal to, even though we have not examined them lately, traditions that we fallen into upholding. It’s like water flowing, and as time goes on, the current gets stronger. It also gets stronger when it is going downhill.
A case in point: I am wearing this robe to preach in. A long time ago, I decided that I was going to be one of those UU ministers who wore a robe to preach. For a while there, it had gone out of style and, during the 60’s and 70’s, especially out west, by which I mean past Hartford Connecticut, male ministers started wearing suits and ties, and I don’t know, sport coats, and turtlenecks, and dashiki’s to preach. Very hip. And there was counter-movement, as there always is, to stick with the tradition, and wear the robe.
Then in the early 70’s women came back into our ministry, and it wasn’t long until they started wearing robes to preach. After all, they had gotten tired of hearing the constant comments about the color, style and length of the dresses and suit skirts. So robes really came back.
(side challenge: for you who watch cable news, make it a habit for a week, to critically evaluate the shirt and tie combination of all the men who appear on the shows. Is that the right color? Is that tie too fat for his skinny face, or vice versa, is the tie centered in the collar and, — how do you feel about the striped tie, checked shirt thing going around?)
Back on the robe: So when I was in my first year of seminary and I had my first preaching gigs, I went to the local Methodist church store, and bought a robe, this robe I am wearing here. It was 1995 or 1996. Twenty plus years ago. The robe still looks OK, if you’re nearsighted and sitting in the back row.
But this little piece of velvet is hanging loose. And there a couple different kinds of buttons where they have been replaced. And inside, where you don’t see, there are ripped seams and loose linings. Just a general air of shabbiness about the whole endeavor. But I wear it because somewhere in the past, I merged my sense of self, with a trend in our ministry, which was itself a a continuation of a much longer tradition of priestly garb, to which we were reverting because of women coming into our ministry, and so here I am in this slightly shabby old robe.
The thing is: underneath this slightly shabby old robe, I am wearing a brand spanking new suit, one that fits me better than any suit I have had for decades. It’s gorgeous. The guy said I was going to like the way I look, and I do. So what’s up with that? It’s the way that today is shaped by the past, and yet, today is the day that is alive, but it is often encumbered by the loyalties we have to our past commitments.
Like a I said, I went to a Methodist seminary in Dallas Texas, so even though I was raised a Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist, I learned all about the Christian liturgical calendar. And the two days that I really liked in that whole cycle were Pentecost, which is in June usually, and Epiphany, which is today.
These two days, seemed to me, out of the whole calendar, to be most alive. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit falls upon the believers, and tongues of fire sit on their shoulders, and they start talking in foreign languages and whole scene just blows up in a wild carnival — what a blast — you had to be there.
You want to be there, when the day comes alive, when the new breaks through the crusts of habit and inertia. We all want to be there when a congregation comes alive and its essential spirit shows itself.
The other cool day in the calendar is Epiphany, today. The day of the Kings. The 12th day of Christmas. The day some people take down the Christmas Tree, although some already have, and some do it on Mayday or the 4th of July.
Epiphany is about the sudden appearance of the holy in the midst of ordinary life.
So on Epiphany, Millicent goes into the forest, and there in the heart of the forest, where she knew that she was “Lost. She had achieved a mysterious world where any direction would yield only surprise”
“Never before had she let herself realize
that she was part of the world and that it would follow
wherever she went. She was part of its breath.”
And when she returned:
“… her face floating forward, a stranger’s
face now, with a new depth in it, into the light.”
Have I mixed up my stories?
I don’t think so…
Here is the other original story of Epiphany:
‘Then Herod summoned the astrologers to meet him secretly, and ascertained from them the exact time the star appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said “Go, and make a careful search for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, so that I may go myself and pay him homage.
And then they follow the star, and find the stable, and go in, and open their robes, present the child with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
“Then they returned to their own country by another way, for they had been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod.”
There is a mystery at the heart of every story of Epiphany. Someone sees something, experiences something and they are changed, the day’s aliveness came through. And what is that something? It’s hard to say, because from the outside, that elusive something can seem quite ordinary. A clearing in a forest. A poor newborn babe, and a poor family, in a place where they should not have had to be.
You never know what can change someone’s life. You will not know when something changes yours. So, be open to the possibility that today is that living moment. Don’t let the current of your life carry you past it. My one sermon.
I think that most of us who have grown up with this story of the three kings have interpreted it that there was something so divine about the baby Jesus that it convinced the Kings that he was the Son of God. Maybe the halos were a hint. And so, these fabulously wealthy kings showered this poor family with ridiculously extravagant gifts, almost comically inappropriate presents.
But today, I am more intrigued by the thought that it was something more relevant to us that changed the Kings.
Remember they were on a mission from Herod, to find the baby and report his whereabouts back to him. And we know that Herod was not intending to pay homage to the child, but to kill him. So, this story is up-to-date, isn’t it? It has themes and questions that are relevant today: surveillance, governmental repression, violence against children, migration.
So, the Kings went home another way, because they were warned in a dream, the story says, which tells me that no one knows why their minds were changed.
But it would have been the most natural thing in the world for them to go warn Herod. The strong current of inertia that carried their lives would have led them back to Herod and telling him where the baby was. They were Kings, and Philosophers, and Wise Men, probably tenured faculty at a very prestigious University. They had the kind of disposable income to give away over the top gifts to babies they just met. They had been asked by someone of their own social class, or better, to do this one favor. Everything out of their past was pushing them to say “yes” to Herod.
Most of us know that the privileges and advantages that we have in life can make it hard to see what is going on in the lives of people around us, especially those whose lives are harder. Think about that as a current, or a momentum, that carries you past what you need to see, or hear. We know that is true in general, and certainly true of some people we know, even though we hate it when someone points it out in a particular situation.
So we know a little about what the three Kings of Orient are, had to shake off, or let go of, or resist to take seriously whatever it was that made them think that they should go home another way.
How can a person prepare themselves to heed the warnings? To read the signs of the time, and break with all the habits of yesterday, and do the right thing today. To be fully present today, which is the only day alive in all of eternity.
It takes an old virtue that has always been one of the aspirations of the liberal church: self-possession: a firm grounding in right and wrong, a confidence in one’s own judgement combined with the ability to see yourself clearly, and self-critically.
When we send our children off to their classes, we hope that they return with a greater self-possession than when they left us.
And when we leave this service each week, we hope that we have been blessed by this experience with the self-possession that we will need for the journey of the week to come.
After all, we cannot stay here, for the way goes on. The way goes on.