Isaiah 60: 1-6
MATTHEW 2: 1-12

January 8, 2023 EPIPHANY SUNDAY

It was just last Sunday … New Year’s Day, when I was up here at noon celebrating the start of another year with joy!! I clanged the bell and I preached that in 2023 we, as the collective church family known as St. Paul’s United Methodist Church of West Deptford New Jersey, needed to celebrate our faith by sharing our faith and being invitational to those we know … I said that none of us know how long we have here on earth or how long we will have those friends and family members with us.

And, then the day moved on … poor Patty Fish … she was the one calling me not once but twice telling me that our church family had lost two beautiful women; two women of faith … two souls who will never grace these pews again. First Eve and then Pat; they had gone home to the Lord. Later in the day I heard from Carolyn, a friend, her brother Harvey had chosen to end his life on New Year’s Day leaving the always present question for the family members who survive WHY … and I was being asked to answer that.

Friends, by the close of the evening of the first day of 2023 I was desperately in need of prayer. I was sad … oh so very sad. I didn’t know what was next and where the journey was going to take me and the world. I wanted 2022 to come back because I knew it.

Monday was a day when I didn’t want to talk to anyone because, yes, the sadness continued but, I knew I had an escape on my schedule that evening and then my plans were to spend Tuesday night with my brother in DC, another escape. My Monday escape was to watch the Buffalo Bills game. But then Damar Hamlin changed the narrative.

The prophet Isaiah reminds us that all we have to do is turn around from life’s paths and we will discover that God is with us. One of the incredible gifts of faith is the truth we heard this morning, “Though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations, the Lord WILL shine upon you; God’s glory will appear over you.” That is why I can declare that I “Always rejoice in the Lord, again I say I rejoice!” God’s love!

In front of millions of viewers an incredibly giving young man who while in college had established a fund to buy toys for inner city kids with nothing … who when the reports of the racist terrorist’s killing of ten beautiful people in my home city of Buffalo New York this young man Damar Hamlin was one of the very first professional athletes to show up at the Tops Market to offer love, hope and reassurance. There is more to his life story but on Monday Night when I wanted to watch my football team win a game to make me feel better .. Damar Hamlin had a massive coronary and fell straight backwards onto the football field leaving a hush around the world as trainers rushed in to keep him alive.

The game no longer mattered … the playoffs were irrelevant … the television commentator, Booger McFarland, with tears in his eyes said CANCEL THIS GAME! Life matters more than any game!

It was a game … but friends the journey of every day truths is not a game but a serious matter with consequences both during and at the end of the journey. And, today we woke up again … we are here in person or online … we are breathing the breaths of life and have opportunities to make choices as to whether we use our God-given gifts to bring love, peace, hope and faith to the world’s we each live in with joy or if we instead choose another path. We can connect with God and Jesus Christ or embrace the world … only two choices and we each have to decide.

It is Epiphany Sunday … the magi had received a message to follow a star with gifts. They came looking for “the newborn king of the Jews.” They had come face-to-face with King Herod, an evil representative of the earth, but they knew there was something much more and so they left Herod. And, then … friends, if you can imagine the joy … they rediscovered the star. The star they had been following … the star of God … and “When they saw the star they were filled with joy … they saw the child along with Mary and FELL TO THEIR KNEES before Jesus Christ. And, they shared their gifts.”

On this Epiphany Sunday of the year 2023 I hope even amidst the darkness of the world that you are turning around to see that God has your back! Would you fall to your knees before Jesus Christ? Are you focused on the rediscovery of the Light of Christ for each day of your life leading you to Jesus for another day filled with joy … focused on the gifts that you can bring for Jesus … for God … out into the world rather than thinking about what you deserve to receive?

They found Damar’s mother, who was at the game, and together with her son and trainers from the Buffalo Bills he was rushed to Cincinnati’s Trauma Center where the world would find out if this 24 year old young man who played football but was not a star … just a young man still trying to raise money for kids in urban settings … the world paused wondering if they had just watched this young man die live on Monday Night Football.

And, friends what did the world do? THE WORLD PRAYED together … for Damar Hamlin … even though only a very few amongst those praying knew anything about him. We saw two teams on television pray …. We heard commentators on TV saying we need to pray … black, white, and brown people were praying …. People of all faith traditions and political affiliations were praying together for one man to ONE GOD, the God of Creation … the God of all. Those whom some church leaders continue to attempt to ban from roles in church prayed along with the church leaders who are trying to restrict church leadership to people only like themselves. They prayed for ONE MAN … one football player … most did not even know that he was always there for others before he collapsed flat on his back and the CPR began. On the second day of 2023 almost every person in the world was demonstrating that they believed in GOD … because GOD was the only one they could reach out to asking that Damar Hamlin’s life continue.

So, church … you amongst the faithful … you who are a praying church … did you see? Did you hear? Were you, like me a witness to this extraordinary moment in time … and are you ready and willing to use the gifts that God has given to you to invite people to worship God with you? The global community clearly believers there is a God … they were praying … and perhaps in those moments you, like me, felt a certain sadness realizing that many of the millions praying had not been able to find a place to worship God where there is love, joy, and peace like we are blessed to have at St. Paul’s.

Do you in your hearts want all of the world’s community to discover the God of Creation? To know that Jesus was more than a winter holiday of gift receiving? Are you willing in these moments to activate a missing something from your life … a sense of invitation? The prophet writes, “Lift up your eyes and look all around: they are all gathered; they have come to you. Your sons will come from far away, and your daughters on caregivers’ hips. Then you will see and be radiant.”

But it takes you accepting ownership of your faith … it takes people like you and me to step up with a caring and loving and yes, joy-filled heart knowing that sharing our faith is not a judgment on others but potentially the giving of an everlasting gift someone we care about just might need. Church should be a joy-filled experience on most occasions although we do grieve together in the difficult times. Church must be a place where God is worshiped and praised with enthusiasm … “our hearts should tremble and open wide” when we have the opportunity to praise the Lord just as the magi did.

NFL quarterback Josh Allen said that he opened his home to his teammates who wanted to come over and PRAY … he was not afraid to tell the world that his home is a home where prayer occurs and that his friends and co-workers were invited to come to his house to PRAY!

And, then the week moved forward. On Wednesday morning at breakfast a man named Dion Wills stood amidst a breakfast crowd in Washington DC to very loudly and clearly tell those gathered from all corners of the world that he loved us … that his co-workers loved us … that he and they were there for us. I had the chance to interview Dion on St. Paul’s Facebook stream so you can check out what he said …. There is a sermon coming from that encounter.

But on Thursday Damar Hamlin’s condition improved. He was able to communicate …. The first message we heard was for his teammates but then yesterday he shared a lesson for the world … a lesson for you and me on this Epiphany Sunday about who we need to be … a faith lesson from a hospital bed where this 24 year old young man still is in critical condition.

If you accept the truth that God loves you … if you believe that God considers you to be a special person who has shone God’s light of Jesus Christ on you … you need to know you are gifted by God to do amazing things no matter what your gifts are but unless you choose to give the gifts of faith back because you followed the star to Jesus those gifts will remain dormant and perhaps friends, family, neighbors and others whom you could have been a difference maker for … will never experience the truth of Christ even if they were amongst those praying to God this week.

Here’s what Damar Hamlin shared yesterday from his hospital bed in Cincinnati, less than one week after collapsing to the field, having his heart stop, receiving CPR, and being incubated “When you put REAL LOVE into the world … it comes back to you three times as much. The love has been overwhelming, but I AM THANKFUL for EVERY SINGLE PERSON THAT PRAYED for me and reached out!”

REAL LOVE … when you share love it comes back to you … THANKFUL FOR EVERY SINGLE PERSON THAT PRAYED … clearly Damar Hamlin is living a life of a faith-filled person … using his gifts, his heart, and his time and now he is in a hospital bed after a week of doing what no politician could do … Damar Hamlin united the nation. And, that toy fund that he started in college with little or no money and the goal of raising $2500 has now raised over $7 million.

When I woke up this morning a song was in my head … perhaps a Holy Spirit moment. The song comes from the 1960’s … a top ten hit for a group called THE VOGUES but surprisingly written by Glen Campbell. Today, it is my prayer … for you and me about God’s relationship with each of us … we have gifts; we have opportunities … and God never stops caring and loving us: “There is someone walking behind you; turn around and look at me. There is someone watching your footsteps; turn around and look at me. There is someone who really needs you; it’s my heart in my hand. Turn around; look at me. Understand … understand.”

Friends, God wants us to stop in this journey to stop and allow God’s loving embrace to change who we are so that we receive the courage to take that love out into the world using the gifts we bring to be the Light of Christ God needs us to be in the world today.

ARISE!! SHINE!!! Your light …. And your light .. and my light has come! The Lord’s glory has shone upon all of us! Be radiant with joy!!! And then as Damar Hamlin encourages us to do … “Put real love out into the world …. It will come back three times to you!” And, keep praying without ceasing so you can rejoice always in the Lord! AMEN

© 2017- St. Paul's United Methodist Church, West Deptford, NJ