Date Sunday January 06, 2019
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
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The Epiphany of our Lord

Text: Matthew 2:1-12


     I learned a new word this week. It’s coddiwomple. Isn’t that great? Coddiwomple, which is to set out in a purposeful way, and yet the direction (or destination) is vague. The way I want to use this word today is to describe having a purpose, but the way to reach it is unclear. What do you think, is it a positive or negative? We’ll get back to that question, but let’s reflect first on the possibility that the Magi of today’s Gospel reading were coddiwompling when they left “the east”, probably Persia, to find the new king whose birth the heavens announced.

     By the way, we call them Wisemen or Kings, but they were neither – the Greek word referring to these travelers is “magoi” which refers to ancient Zoroastrain priests. They were the astrologers, scholars, fortune tellers, the holy men of the official religion of Persia before Islam.

     They too, like the Jews, were anticipating the birth of a Savior, and believed the appearance of a new star in the night sky was a sign that the Savior King had been born. So, they set out to find him and their destination was vague, but their purpose was clear – locate and honor this Savior King. His birth was indeed good news.

     But that was not the case for King Herod. When these foreigners, these Magi, came knocking on the palace door seeking a new king, pointing out the bright star, King Herod was worried. He consulted with his own priests and received word that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. To him, this was indeed bad news and his purpose was clear – get rid of the competition. That’s what he had in mind when he told the Magi to find the child and bring a report back to him.

     When the Magi do not return, Herod goes to terrible lengths to secure his position of power; he orders the murders of the boy babies in and around Bethlehem. But, Mary, Joseph and Jesus are safe; refugees in Egypt, able to flee to safety because the Magi were flexible enough to follow God’s direction. They fulfilled their purpose but allowed enough vagueness for God to guide.

     If there’s an advantage to coddiwompling, that’s it, to be purposeful concerning one’s goal, but vague enough about achieving it that God’s directing is needed and welcomed. In Wednesday’s newspaper there was a story about a man who stepped out with purpose 34 years ago, when he was only 13. His sister had died in a village in Congo, Africa, and Gaspard Nzita made a promise that someday he would build a hospital there. And, he did; it was dedicated in the village of Boma at the end of November.

     As the article noted, the path to fulfilling the promise was long and arduous. Gaspard came to United States at age 17 and was working as a nurse’s aide at a nursing home when he shared his story with a resident, who then suggested he meet with the Rev. Joseph Kraker of Akron’s St. Vincent Catholic Church. So, he did, telling the priest his dream and receiving two things in return: one was reassurance that God could help him build a hospital and the second was $1 to start the cause.

     That was 12 years and many fundraisers ago. At one point, it seemed as if all was lost when a container full of items, from medical equipment to books to computers being readied for shipment to Boma was set on fire. But, news of the loss actually fired up donors who worked to replace what was destroyed and more. (1)

     You see, the purpose was clear, but the means of achieving it took a detour. It’s a case of coddiwomple! Gaspard says that God used him, and Father Kraker, to make the hospital a reality.

     Another example appeared in the same edition of newspaper. It was about a 7-year-old boy named Aiden who heard his grandmother say that homeless people need socks to warm their cold feet. He decided he would give them socks, and so he set out in a purposeful way.

     Aiden was not sure when he started how he’d accomplish his original goal of 500 pairs of socks, so he started telling people the simple truth: homeless people need socks. He did so in the school newsletter, an obvious tool, but also used social media. He ended up with 3500 pairs of socks – that a lot! I like his simple conclusion: “All you have to do is tell them about it, and then the next day they just donate ‘em.” (2) He did a coddiwomple!

     Now, I know this is not a new concept, even if the word is new. Often in our lives we have a purpose in mind, but how to get there is vague. Like the Magi, we set out not knowing exactly where we’ll arrive. They had a bright star to follow, and God spoke to them in dreams, so they ended up in the right place. I guess you could say they were paying attention. Are we?

     That’s one of our greatest challenges, I think, to discern how the light of Christ is guiding us and how the voice of the Holy Spirit is speaking to us. I imagine we all would like a “how to” list when it comes to such discernment. How do we acquire a God-given purpose and the flexibility required for God to guide us?

     I once read a book titled, Flunking Sainthood in which the author, Jana Riess, detailed her year-long attempt to focus on a particular spiritual practice each month – things like fasting, Bible reading, centering prayer, focusing on daily gratitude and showing generosity. Her goal was to deepen her faith and connection with God. As the title indicates, she was not as successful as she hoped to be. In fact, each chapter of the book details how she fell short. But, that was not the end of the story.

     After the book’s manuscript was turned in to the publisher, she faced a daunting situation – she was called to the bedside of her dying father who she had not seen and from whom she had not heard for 26 years. She felt like it was a test to find out if she was really a grown-up and a Christian, she wrote. Let me share her test results in her own words:

     “Here is what I learned from my father’s sudden reappearance and death: all of those spiritual practices, those attempts at sainthood that felt like a dismal failure at the time, actually took hold somehow. They helped to form me into the kind of person who could go to the bedside of someone who had harmed me and be able to say, ‘I forgive you, Dad. Go in peace.’ Although I didn’t see it while I was doing the practices themselves or even while I was writing the chapters in this book, the power of spiritual practice is that it forges you stealthily, as you entertain angels unawares.” (3)

     I guess she learned that moving in God’s direction was the right direction, and was good enough, even if that did not seem quite true at the time. So, we begin 2019 with that in mind; we coddiwomple. We set out to fulfill a purpose that is focused on God’s will in a purposeful way, and even if the direction is vague, we will end up where God is. AMEN       


(1)   “Hospital Dream Comes True” by Craig Webb, Akron Beacon Journal, January 2, 2019, pg. A1

(2)   “Boy Gathers Socks for Homeless” bu Davy Vargo, Akron Beacon Journal, January 2, 2019, pg. B1

(3)   Flunking Sainthood by Jana Riess, 2011 Paraclete Press, pg. 168