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January 10, 2017, 10:36 AM

Tag! We're It!


Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
 
Tag! We’re It!
 
Each generation of youth ministry has its signature game to play in the church in the dark. Our youth have had the joy of playing Aliens and Manhunt, loudly, here in the dark. But for my generation, there was just one game…Sardines! Sardines is a reverse Hide-and-Seek. One person is designated as the one to hide, the hider. Everyone else plays the part of seeker. A home base is chosen and everyone gathers there and counts to the designated number while the hider does his or her thing, hides. When the count is up, everyone heads out to find the hider. Here is the fun catch. When you find the hider, you join them in hiding. So as the hunt ensues, the number seeking get smaller and smaller, the number hiding gets larger and larger, and the hiding place gets more and more crowded. Hence the name, Sardines. By the time the last person finds the group, everyone feels like a bunch of sardines packed into a can. It is fun to listen to the game being played in a dark church. If the hider was especially proficient in selecting the hiding place, and the seekers slow to find, the hider starts making some noise to guide them, to attract their attention. If the hiders are particularly eager to end the round, some of those sound effects can become rather amusing.
 
As I spent time with the familiar and beloved story of Matthew 2 this week, the crazy game of Sardines kept popping int0 my mind. This story of the star of Bethlehem and the visit of the Magi has been layered with so many myths and traditions over the years that it is hard to peer through to the original scripture. We listen to it read every Epiphany, this original story, but we hear the Christmas pageant version. Three kings see a star, pack up their camels with their three gifts, and travel at warp speed so as to arrive at the manger right after the shepherds who were abiding in nearby fields.  The scripture is read word for word from the bible, but our imaginations see that lovely silhouette of the nativity story. The quaint stable stands in the center with Mary, Joseph and the Babe in the manger. Shepherds and sheep trail out on one side and the kings with their camels trail out on the other. It is a holy Sardine game. Everyone is searching for the Messiah and when they find him, they climb on into the stable with him—a cramped animal shelter, indeed.
 
Not only is this image of Christmas and the visit of the Magi part of some wonderful memories for many of us, it has become a practice of being church that, let’s face it, we prefer. It is a nice and comfortable model for discipleship. We search for Jesus, and when we find him, we snuggle up with him and wait for other seekers to join us. If the seekers are slow, we will do some things to draw their attention, to attract them to the right location. If the number of seekers slows down, or even seems to halt, we will become more and more creative with our actions of attraction, or perhaps we should say, more desperate. Certainly if we have something new and cool, something shiny and sparkly, the seekers will pick back up again. We play our own version of holy Sardines. The problem is it isn’t crowded in our comfy hiding space anymore, and this model isn’t biblical.
 
The Nativity Story and the Epiphany Story are not even remotely a holy game of Sardines. After all, they don’t even reside together in the same gospel. Luke and Matthew’s stories of God shedding transcendent divinity and taking up form in human vulnerability are more like a wild and startling game of Tag. You remember Tag. One person is selected as “it.”  And then we’re off! Kids running everywhere giggling and squealing. The one who is “it” chasing after them trying to tag them. And if you are tagged, you become it as well. And then you are the one running everywhere trying to tag people. Tag involves a lot more movement than Sardines. It is much messier and it leaves you gasping for breath. It is much more what God was about in Matthew 2.
 
Just consider this wild and wonderful story. An unnumbered group of scientist pagans from another country, maybe even a few borders over, are tagged by God through the science they love, and they are “it.” They gather gifts and begin what appears to be a two year journey across unknown wilderness in response to that tag. They try to tag the religious and government leaders in Jerusalem along the way, unaware of how threatened those powers would be. This is the biblical model of discipleship. We get tagged, more than once…a lot, actually. And the purpose of that tagging is to make us “It” as well, and to send us out to tag others with God’s grace and love and acceptance. This is the model of discipleship that occurs over and over and over again, across Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is in the Book of Acts and throughout the letters of the New Testament. We can see it in the Hebrew Scriptures. God seeks to send us out, with good news, to invite others into relationship with God and with other followers. So what happened? How did we get from Tag to Sardines?
 
We are human. We mature and age and grow and change. The game of Tag requires us to stay energized, passionate, and focused. But in the busy world we live in, we lose the excitement and vision. Even Sardines can become stale. The games haven’t change, but we have lost the zest and excitement and love. This happens to us as individuals, and as a congregation. Churches have life cycles too.
 
Over 175 years ago, a group of people in Oneonta had a vision. They saw the need for a congregation here at the corner of Church and Chestnut Streets. They came together and developed a plan around that shared vision to start a congregation. There was excitement and passion and love. First Methodist Episcopal Society was born. Because our founders were filled with passion and excitement, they eagerly ran out and tagged others; shared their vision and passion, connected new people with that vision, implemented missions and ministries to see that vision realized. Their love and passion was contagious and the church grew.
 
As the church grew, it developed more and more ministries, more and more activities. People were busy in the church together. But with this increased busy-ness, came a little less excitement. The sharing of the vision became overshadowed with the planning for the next event. We were doing lots of ministry, lots of activities, but we began to lose the connection to why we were doing these lovely things. And as that connection dwindled, growth slowed, and then attendance and participation plateaued. I think First UMC hung out on that plateau for quite a bit. Our busy activities were fun and they kept our congregation together for quite a while. But those who had the original vision were long gone. Those who knew the why of many activities passed away, and the excitement was gone.
 
Our congregation is in decline. This is not news to anyone, I hope, but we haven’t been saying it out loud. Not only are we not playing Tag, Sardines is getting old for us. But here is the good news, we are a people of the Resurrection! We are a people of life everlasting and new creation! God’s dream for us is still here, waiting for us to dream it again. God’s vision for who we can be together is ready for us to see it and embrace it. We can dream the dream, cast the vision, reclaim our passion, rekindle our love.  But we have to do it together. A word of warning, we have to be willing to listen to some mad-seeming wandering scientists whom God may be tagging without all our awesome worship and liturgy and music and ministry. And we have to be willing to go out that door (points to main sanctuary entrance) with passion, intentionality, and purpose. Not the courtyard or church street doors—those are the Sardine game doors; safe and comfortable and home. No, that big main door that so few of us enter by, that’s the guest door for most, isn’t it? Visitors come in that door because they are certain it leads to the sanctuary. They have no clue where the other doors lead.
 
It is a New Year. It is Epiphany. It is time to admit where our church is in its lifecycle and seek that rebirth. Next Sunday, as we splash again in the waters of baptism, as Jesus rises from the Jordan, we will seek to breath some new life into our congregational DNA and spark our love and passion. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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