“Go West, young man!”

Text: Matthew 2:1-16 (the birth of Jesus; and the flight of the Holy Family)

When I was 19, I hitchhiked out West in search of adventure. I had finished my first year of university in Ontario; and I planned to take a break from school to seek my fortune in the Canadian West.

Unfortunately, I only made it as far as Winnipeg. After staying two nights in the YMCA there, I let fear get in the way and I hitchhiked home.

My childhood had been constrained by fears whose origins, even to this day, remain obscure. My decision to hitch-hike out West was a sign that a year at university had increased my courage. But the fact that I only stayed on the journey for a week showed that my fears still held the upper hand. My ability to trust in myself, the world, and the Loving Source we call God was weaker than I had hoped.

I didn’t come out West again until 2009 when I was sent to Didsbury Alberta as a student supply minister, and once again I was scared. In particular, I was afraid I would not be able to provide a healing presence for grieving families. But in the event, I loved being the minister at Knox United in Didsbury, including the work of walking with grieving families and of presiding at funerals.

I had imagined that those 10 months in Didsbury would be the end of my time in the West. In June 2010, I drove back to Toronto for the last year of my Masters of Divinity degree. Then in winter 2011, I took another leap of faith and applied for settlement as an ordained United Church minister.

I had hoped to be settled in or near Toronto, but was sent instead to Borderlands in southern Saskatchewan, which is by far the most rural and isolated place I have ever lived. But while Borderlands was not the settlement for which I had hoped, I appreciated my two and half years there. I enjoyed the three churches, the people of Rockglen, Fife Lake, and Coronach, and the beauty of the area. My fears of isolation were overblown.

In the summer of 2013 when I had been in Borderlands for two years, I started to look for a first call. I had expected that I would return to Toronto. But Mill Woods in Edmonton was looking for a minister and I liked its profile. When I met with the Search Committee in September 2013, we clicked. So I moved even further West after Christmas 2013, and I have now finished my first five years here.

Today as we reflect on journeys of faith, we do so against the backdrop of a story about the Holy Family after the first Christmas. Joseph, Mary and Jesus flee west from Bethlehem to Egypt when Joseph has a dream in which an angel warns him that King Herod is plotting to murder the baby Jesus.

The warnings given to Joseph are about fears bigger than anything I have faced. Nevertheless, I identify with him. The Roman Catholic Church venerates Joseph as the patron saint of workers; but I think he could equally as well be called the patron saint of step-parents. Despite not being the biological father of Jesus, Joseph cares for him with complete devotion.

The role of minister strikes me as a cross between a step-parent and a foster parent. Ministers are called to an existing family of faith. Their role is to love the members of this family and to allow themselves to be loved by them. Then, when the call is over, the minister moves on to another family.

The idea of God’s call intrigues me. In today’s Gospel reading, Joseph and the Magi respond to calls they encounter in dreams and in a wandering star. My own experience has not been as clear cut.

I returned to church 17 years ago in the face of a disintegrating marriage. As I engaged with Kingston Road United Church in the east end of Toronto, I was surprised by the strength of the pull of the Spirit there. Of particular importance to me was Holy Week. When I was a child, I had missed the power of this story in which Jesus is arrested, tortured and executed by the same evil Empire that had tried to murder him as a child.

Coming to grips with Holy Week changed my life. Finally, here was a story that reminds us of how false gods die in the painful ups and downs of life, and how, out of the ashes, the God who is Love rises to new life in our hearts.

The stories of Jesus provided what I had lacked in previous journeys. They help move us from self-preoccupation to faith in a God as big as the universe and as powerful as Love. Seventeen years later, I continue to follow their pull wherever they lead.

On a Sunday in July 2007 in Toronto as I walked from Kingston Road United to my apartment southwest of it near the shore of Lake Ontario, I made a decision to pursue ordination. The “call” I experienced wasn’t a wandering star; nor a vision of an angel in a dream; nor God’s voice speaking to me as to a prophet. It was the simple pull of gravity as I walked down a steep hill on a sunny summer’s afternoon.

Sometime later, I read an interview with the atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett in which he was asked, “Surely, professor, you must believe in some sort of higher power that orders and creates the universe?” To which Dennett replied, “Of course I do. It’s called gravity!”

I don’t know if that quote invalidates my call to ministry. All I know is that responding to the call feels to me like surrender. It is an acceptance that our small selves are utterly dependent on vast forces, which the church names as the God who is Love.

When I decided to seek ordination, it was not clear to me that at the end of the process there would be congregations. But when congregations showed up — first in Didsbury, then Borderlands, and now in Mill Woods — I got it. Congregations are a crucible in which ministers can confront fear and to try to accept Grace.

Any family would do, I suppose. But since I didn’t raise children of my own, I am grateful for the role of foster parent that is given to ministers. As an inexperienced minister, I am aware of some of my sins of omission and commission; I am grateful for all that I have learned by worshipping and working at Mill Woods United these past five years; and I look forward to the years that lie ahead for us.

Joseph responds to God’s call amid the violence of Herod’s rule. He obeys without hesitation. Unfortunately, this does not mean that children are not murdered in Bethlehem. Nor does his success in keeping Jesus alive as an infant save Jesus from arrest and execution as an adult.

Some ministers say they dread preaching on dark biblical stories like the one we heard today, and I can understand that perspective. But the horror of today’s story strikes me as realistic.

Like the journey of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to Egypt, our journeys of faith are not without warnings, danger, or pain. The point is not to avoid pain, but, with the help of Grace, to confront and then shed our fears.

When we respond to the pull of the Spirit, we don’t know where it will take us. Nor does it mean an end to heartbreak or to the evils of a violent society.

But responding to the call reminds us that no matter the immediate outcome, in the end, everyone returns to the Love from which we have come.

In 2014 I was called westward, as had happened when I was 19, when I was sent to Didsbury in 2009, and when I was settled in Borderlands in 2011; and I am grateful for these journeys of faith.

The call can take different forms — a star; a dream; or just the pull of gravity as you walk down a hill. Whatever form the call takes, I pray that we will keep a look out for guiding stars, visionary dreams, and the pull of higher powers. May they become for us stars of wonder, stars of night, stars with royal beauty bright. Westward leading, still proceeding, may they guide us with a perfect light.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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