Saturday, January 12, 2013

Pass the Paperwhites

Scripture for the Feast of the Epiphany includes Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

The first step in this sermon is to entrust into your gentle careful hands these paperwhite bulbs. Narcissus papyraceous, named for its paper-like sheathing. I’d like you to be touching and tenderly handling these elegant little vessels of new life as I talk for a while. Doing the math, I expect each bulb will need to be passed among perhaps three people during the next few minutes, for each of us to get our hands on one.

Folks who have been around St. John’s for a while know that near each new year we plant paperwhites in big pots and place them in the vestibule, the upper room, the library, as a natural cure for the common case of winter blahs. You can’t watch a paperwhite rise, bud, and bloom without knowing there will be a spring. In the same weeks that the Berkshires can look and feel like Narnia, locked in winter, these paperwhites tell us, “Up periscope! Raise your sights!” Or, even more sweetly put, “Soon enough the winter will be past… the flowers will appear on the earth; the time of singing come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land… the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

But that’s jumping ahead a good deal faster than skiiers want, so let’s agree to be fully present to the gift of the precious present moment of now, Sunday, January 6, 2013, the Feast of the Epiphany, when the three magi finally arrive at Bethlehem and the cast is complete at the manger. In the hands of each of our three quings (I like that, do you?) is a gift, something that is more than it appears.

Gold, the king of precious metals, for Jesus is the King we need;

Frankincense, that a priest might burn as an offering to God, for Jesus is the priest we need;

Myrrh, a fragrant ointment to prepare a body for burial, for Jesus will carry us through death into eternal life.

And I am putting a paperwhite bulb in your hands today—why? Because I think it can be another gift we bring to the Christ child, a fourth gift that is more than it appears, a symbol carried by the fourth wise one, the fourth quing, you.

We already know what the paperwhite makes us think of: new life, quiet growth, the beauty of being just what God wants it to be.

One of our Christmas carols asks, “What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him, give my heart.”

Is the paperwhite a good symbol of the heart that wants to grow closer to God? Let me tell you why I think so.

For one thing, the paperwhite bulb sweats just like you and I do. I didn’t know that until last week when I opened the big plastic bag the florist used to bring the bulbs here, and they were just covered in their own perspiration. It’s not as easy as it looks to be a paperwhite.

And watch out that you don’t knock off one of those brave new sprouts on your bulb—every sign of new life needs to be carefully protected, just like with us.

And even if your bulb won’t do well if it gets its vulnerable sprouting roughed up, it’s amazing how flexible the paperwhite is. It will grow in a pot of pebbles, or in a pot of soil, just as long as it can rise to the light and sink its roots to find water. Come to think of it, the paperwhite makes us think of baptism, doesn’t it?

Now, those pots we set out won’t all bloom at the same time. The amount of light in each setting, and the temperature in each place, will affect when and for how long all those tight-slippered buds will bloom, and how tall or short the stalks and leaves will grow. But it’s all perfect.

Until the moment when the law of gravity demands to be obeyed, and top-heavy blooms leaning towards sunlight weigh those stalks down and they need a hand to tie them up, bind them back—in Latin that verb is religare, and from it we get the word religion—the gentle binding of the heart to God, whose loving care guides our growth, growth that shows itself in our keeping the baptismal vows to love, love, love.

So let’s plant those bulbs. If you’ve got one, bring it out now to one of the pots here at the front. Let this planting remind us to offer our hearts to grow closer to God in this new year.