Posted in Sermons

“The Gifts of the Magi”: A Sermon for Epiphany 2020

This sermon preached January 5, 2020 at Seattle First Baptist Church

Matthew 2:1-12

Today we are celebrating Epiphany, the time when the wise ones from the East finished their journey and finally met the Christ child. These folks are important figures from all over the world, despite the fact that we don’t know how many of them there were or their names or what all they gave to Jesus. All we know for sure was that there were some special visitors from a far off-land and some gifts were given. This room for interpretation leaves exactly that…and so, of course,  every Christmas there are an abundance of cartoons depicting the wise men and their off-the-mark gift giving. There are many cartoons about the wise men bringing gifts to baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph, and having that be nice, but then the wise women show up and have practical gifts like diapers, freezer casseroles, and milk pumping tips. Or pointing out that the wise women would have asked for directions and arrived on time and not made a pit stop with Herod in Jerusalem at all. 

But really, what was it like for the wise ones to show up with the wrong gift? The wise ones, you may remember, were powerful Zoroastrian astrologers, respected in society. They traveled a long way, probably from the area known as Persia, from what today would be known as Iran or Iraq or Saudi Arabia. And during their travels, they got a little sidetracked. No, let’s be honest, they got A LOT sidetracked. We can understand their train of thought, right? There is a new, important king on the block and we will go find him. Kings live in palaces. Palaces are in political centers. Jerusalem is a political center. Therefore, the king will be there. Oh, wise ones, why did you use the logic of human power arrangements rather than divine humility?

And find a king they did, as they met with Herod and inquired as to the location of the new king. And, as we discussed last week, Herod the Great was a ruthless ruler, and a cunning, manipulative politician. So we shouldn’t be that surprised when Herod, who was always insecure about his power and position, attempted to get the magi to do his legwork and find out more about this child. The magi agreed and left Jerusalem, and apparently somehow got back on track and went to Bethlehem. They found the house where the mother and child were, and entered. 

And something miraculous happened. They recognized Jesus. They recognized the importance of this child. And they knelt down, assumed a position of respect, and paid him “homage.” Some Bible translations make this clearer to modern readers by saying they “worshipped him.” 

Then comes the gift giving. So the expensive, extravagant gifts were given to a poor, unwed, teenage mother in a small town and her young child, who was more likely to chew on a brick of gold rather than know what it was for. These were not the right gifts for the situation. Perhaps that’s why they went astray toward Jerusalem. They had brought gifts fit for a king, for a wise ruler, for someone more like the Son of Herod than the Son of God: gold and frankincense and myrrh, sweet and expensive spices…surely the powerful in Jerusalem would have a use for these, would know what to do. 

But I wonder, if even though the wise ones had misread the situation, or made assumptions about what kind of king they would find, if they did have the right gifts with which to adore baby Jesus. 

The exact right gift was the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, because that’s what they had. The right gift was to spend time pursuing the feeling they had that something special, something important, something big had just happened in the birth of this child. The right gift was to put aside their power, their privilege, their status, and kneel down at the feet of a small child. The right gift was paying attention to dreams, recognizing the dire political situation and choosing the side of justice. The right gift was to humbly recognize one who would show the way towards living justly with his life, no matter what the powers that be demanded or expected.

My friend Al reminds me of these wise ones, someone not afraid to divest themselves of their privileged status in favor of honoring the way of justice.

If you were to visit Oberlin, Ohio on a Saturday around noon, you may see some kindly Midwestern folks sporting homemade cardboard signs fixed to yardsticks saying things like “Peace is possible” and “War is unjust.” The weekly Peace Vigil has been going on every Saturday since September 15, 2001, the Saturday after the 9/11 attacks, when my dear pastors Mary and Steve Hammond from Peace Community Church of Oberlin gathered with some congregants to demonstrate against escalating violence in the Middle East. Up until last June, you’d have seen a tall, gangly elderly man wearing a bright yellow raincoat or a “No Nukes” t-shirt holding a “No War with Iran” sign. That man was Al Carroll, a dear friend of mine and longtime peace activist, including involvement in the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. Al was a physicist, and during the Vietnam War he worked at the famous Brookhaven lab on Long Island, experimenting with small particles. During this time, there was a proposal for his lab to experiment with a process that would basically make nuclear weapons smaller and more accessible. Al and his colleagues protested this use of technology, and were ultimately successful. 

Due to his long career in physics and his close brush with nuclear power, Al spent most of his retired life continuing his love of learning by auditing classes at Oberlin College, my alma mater. Though I met Al while attending Peace Community Church of Oberlin, I also took a few classes alongside this dear man about 60 years my senior. One of these classes was a class on Islam, with the Professor Jafar Mahallati. 

Professor Mahallati was Iranian, from the historically significant city of Shiraz, the ancient hometown of the mystic poet Hafiz. During the 1980s, he had served as an ambassador to the UN and was instrumental in brokering the peace deal that ended the Iran-Iraq war. Following this, he had returned to one of his great loves, teaching, and wound up at Oberlin in the Religion and Language departments. Among the assignments for this class was meeting Professor Mahallati for tea and talking about peacebuilding, or perhaps memorizing a verse like this for recitation in front of the class:

A Great Need by Hafiz

Out

Of a great need

We are all holding hands

And climbing.

Not loving is a letting go.

Listen,

The terrain around here

Is

Far too

Dangerous

For

That.

 

Al Carroll and Professor Mahallati became good friends. Out of the tense situation post-9-11, Al had decided he needed to learn more about Islam and peacemaking in different religious traditions and pursued education in this area. The class I shared with Al was one of many he had taken with Jafar, and sometimes he would invite Jafar to the weekly Peace Vigil. 

For Al and for Jafar, friendship is key to peacebuilding. 

The honest, open encountering of the other; the willingness to see yourself in another’s situation; the compassion to witness how another human experiences the world and recognize that your wellbeing is bound up with theirs. Recognition is key to friendship. As Rumi says, “What you seek is seeking you.” 

Perhaps this is what the wise ones discovered. They were seeking a king, and had only envisioned this king one way, in a way that would appreciate gold, frankincense, myrrh, fine clothes, whatever they had brought with them to honor him. But unbeknownst to them, that king was also seeking them: in encountering the child Jesus, their lives were changed. Like a former nuclear physicist shifting from using the gifts of his knowledge and curiosity to benefit war to lay down his gifts and humility in the work of peace building, setting himself against everything his career had been about, the magi divested themselves of the status given by Herod. They disobeyed Herod’s orders. They let dreams guide them on a path that would not lead to Herod’s murder of Jesus. They were not ashamed to humble themselves at the feet of a child, recognizing the way of Love in front of them, the way of Love that was seeking them all along.

Today, at this challenging time in history, I sadly say that I recognize a feeling that we are on the verge of war. And I think I would know what this feels like, since this country has been at war for over 67% of my life, and over 95% of my brother’s life (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2017/08/22/heres-how-much-of-your-life-the-u-s-has-been-at-war/). And since Thursdsay and the assassination of General Soleimani, I have seen Facebook and Twitter and news outlets sharing stories of more young people taking oaths to serve and protect, going off to basecamp and being deployed to Iraq. I have also seen news outlets jump at every bit of information, and I am reminded that war is a lucrative endeavor, of course not only for media, but especially for weapons manufacturers, arms dealers, security companies, fossil fuel companies, tech giants like those in our own backyard, and politicians who buy into the idea that supporting war guarantees re-election. There are voices crying out about “patriotism” and “support the troops” and “protecting America’s interests” and “safety and security,” voices that do not question why new recruits are mostly poor and working-class people under the age of twenty; not questioning why it is not supportive of those who have given their lives over to the military to protest war and keep them home in their communities. Honestly, figuring out to say this week was hard…until I talked with some of my fellow millennial pastor friends, who spoke truths like, “But aren’t we on the brink of war every Sunday?” This shouldn’t push us towards normalizing war into apathy, but to question why there is so much of it. 

In considering what Epiphany means today, what encountering the Christ child has to teach us here and now, I remember the lessons from Jafar Mahallati, and I turn to poetry, one of the greatest teachers of friendship, compassion and empathy, a great source of wisdom. In exploring Iranian poetry in particular, I ran across this quote from an article by a USAmerican poet regarding her experiences attending Persian poetry readings: “In the US, if a person is under stress, they are told to sit in a room and meditate. In [Persian] culture, they are told to read poetry.” 

From the poet Hafiz: 

I know the way you can get

When you have not had a drink of Love:

Your face hardens,

Your sweet muscles cramp.

Children become concerned

About a strange look that appears in your eyes

Which even begins to worry your own mirror

And nose.

Squirrels and birds sense your sadness

And call an important conference in a tall tree.

They decide which secret code to chant

To help your mind and soul.

Even angels fear that brand of madness

That arrays itself against the world

And throws sharp stones and spears into

The innocent

And into one’s self.

O I know the way you can get

If you have not been drinking Love:

You might rip apart

Every sentence your friends and teachers say,

Looking for hidden clauses.

You might weigh every word on a scale

Like a dead fish.

You might pull out a ruler to measure

From every angle in your darkness

The beautiful dimensions of a heart you once

Trusted.

I know the way you can get

If you have not had a drink from Love’s

Hands.

That is why all the Great Ones speak of

The vital need

To keep remembering God,

So you will come to know and see Him

As being so Playful

And Wanting,

Just Wanting to help.

That is why Hafiz says:

Bring your cup near me.

For all I care about

Is quenching your thirst for freedom!

All a Sane man can ever care about

Is giving Love!

(translation by Daniel Ladinsky)

Perhaps we don’t have the right gifts, the relevant gifts, the gifts that will make all the difference. But look at what we do have: The gifts of recognizing ourselves in others. The gifts of poetry. The gifts of giving to those in need. The gifts of humbling ourselves in favor of encountering a different way of being, a new way of loving justly. These are the gifts of the magi. 

May it ever be so. 

 

artwork by He Qi. 

Posted in Sermons

Home by Another Road: A Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12

Today is Epiphany Sunday, the 12th day of Christmas, when we consider those famous travelers of old, the “wise men” or “magi” or even “kings.”  The word “magi” refers to astrologers who made it their business to interpret the cosmos. It was common in ancient times, and still is among some today, to look to the stars for portents of cosmically significant events in the lives of humans. And can we blame the ancients for placing so much store in the stars? Throughout the season of advent, we have looked to the stars. You may have noticed the covers of our bulletins and the advent booklet Jim Segaar wrote included a photo from the NASA Hubble telescope, a rare moment of witnessing a star being born. You may have noticed this Moravian-style star hanging over Bethlehem in our baptistry. You may have noticed our advent theme of already/not yet applied to the stars that shine above us, already burning for millions of years and yet some of their light has not reached us. Though today we do not follow in the tradition of those who look for the star of Jesus in the astronomical record, we can understand how these magi must have felt their intuition tingle when they saw the bright star heading towards Judea.

john august swanson epiphany magi
John August Swanson, “Epiphany.”

As we gather today, we celebrate that these foreign visitors, these astrologers, these people who trusted more in horoscopes than in the God of the Hebrews, set aside their wealth and knowledge and superstitions and homeland to follow the star that ultimately led them toward the Christ child. Throughout history, many traditions have developed around the magi and their gifts. When I was a child, my favorite story in a collection of “A Story a Day ‘Til Christmas” was O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, recalling a poor young couple who sell their only treasures in order to supply a meaningful present for their partner. Or perhaps you are more familiar with Amahl and the Night Visitors, wherein the three wise ones stop to rest with a young boy and his mother on their way to the Christ child. At times, Matthew’s magi have been read in amazement that Gentiles from afar would recognize the royalty, divinity and salvific death of Jesus, symbolized by the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, respectively. In all of these stories, what remains the same is the risk of seeking and giving as a response to meeting Jesus.

In many places around the world, from Mexico to Ethiopia, Epiphany is a bigger holiday than Christmas because it marks the beginning of adoration of the Christ child. Last night, particularly throughout Latin America, children set their shoes outside of their homes filled with grass or straw, hoping that as the wise ones passed by, they would appreciate the snack for their animals and leave a gift in return. In the late 1950s, my grandparents moved to Puerto Rico so grandpa could continue his work combatting agricultural pests. My dad and uncle were born in San Juan during their stay there. As children in Puerto Rico for the first five years of their life, they learned how to celebrate El Dia de Reyes, or Three Kings Day, alongside their friends, stuffing shoes with straw on the eve of the magi’s visitation. After returning to the mainland, my family kept this tradition alive, and my dad passed it on to my brother and I. Each year we would wake up on Epiphany to find the magi had left some treasure for us on their journey to the Christ child: a book or some warm socks or another wise, practical gift.

As Pastor Tim reminded us last week, by the time December 26 rolls around we are plumb tuckered out of Christmas and so want to put the decorations away and move on, even though the season of Christmas just began. But over time, as I have learned more about various nativity traditions, I have come to appreciate the tradition of celebrating the 12 days of Christmas as a way of embracing the fullness of the season. As I have turned my mind from the manger to the magi this year, I have wondered if I, too, would take the risk of following the star. Following in the magi’s tradition of gift-giving, I contemplate what gifts I would bring to Jesus, Mary and Joseph. What is my heart’s response to the grace of incarnation in Emmanuel, God-with-us?

Though the magi were knowledgeable about cosmic subjects and practiced in spiritual rituals, their real wisdom was knowing what they didn’t know and going out to find it. Each of us in our own ways understands how easy it is to remain observant yet unruffled, aware yet complacent, as we notice something bright shining in the sky overhead. It is easy to be satisfied that we have all we need right where we are, that things should just remain how they have always been because that’s what we are used to, that we know all we need to know, that there is no more learning to do. It is much riskier to seek out that which we do not know, to grow into The New and prepare ourselves to respond to it.

I’ve often talked about how the children in Godly Play ask “wonder” questions. This is an important part of their spiritual development. Wondering can be a risk…and it is a faithful task that the magi undertake. They had no certainty of where they would go or what they would find in the course of their journey. This story sticks with us because, as Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews writes,

“It’s deeply moving to hear of three foreigners traveling a long, hard way because they had an inkling – just an inkling – of something very important unfolding in a distant land. Something inside them must have been restless, or upset, or hungry for understanding; despite the reputation of “the East” as the place of wisdom and learning, there was something they still needed to find.”

I wonder if they packed their gifts feeling somewhat silly, sensing that something bigger was going on but not knowing what would be asked of them. I wonder what it was like for them to have every kind of knowledge…and yet have their hearts pulled towards a humble home where Jesus was playing with Mary. And I wonder if they sensed the danger as they neared Jerusalem and decided to ask King Herod where the King of the Jews was. I mean, really, how wise was that?

As some of you might remember from Pastor Tim’s sermon last week, Herod was the puppet governor of Judea, placed there by the Roman Empire to control the region…in a sense, Herod was King of the Jews, as he governed people of Jewish descent, descendents of the twelve tribes of Israel. And the magi want to ask this guy where a different king was?

And yet, it is understandable that these wise ones, these privileged scholars of the stars, would seek royalty in the capitol city from someone wearing the seal of the empire. The magi looked for royalty in places they recognized as powerful: government institutions, even risking upsetting the powers-that-be. This seemingly-simple question, “Where is the King of the Jews?” becomes ironic when taking into account that Herod adopts the magi’s title for Jesus. “King of the Jews,” is a name that is only used again when it is written on the cross bearing Jesus’ body.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says that when the wise ones arrived in Jerusalem as they followed the star, they miscalculated from Jesus’ location in Bethlehem by a mere nine miles.

“What a long nine miles it is from the halls of power and glory…from the powers-that-be…or should we say, the powers-that-have-been, to what God is doing, out there on the margins… Even if it’s only nine miles, then it’s the longest nine miles we will ever travel, the longest nine miles this world, including the church, will ever travel” (“Missing by Nine Miles,” Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann).

The gospel even says the magi lost sight of the star and did not see it again until they went toward Bethlehem where the true royalty, the true liberator, would be found. As we consider the magi’s miscalculation, we must also notice that the clergy, the chief priests and legal experts that Herod summoned to confirm the prophecy of the Messiah’s birth, those folks did not follow the star. They did not even venture out of the palace to pay homage to the birth of the one foretold. As we rejoice in the magi’s eventual arrival in Bethlehem, we remember how the magi show us that much of our faith is comprised of searching for truth and miscalculating, being drawn into discomfort, and stepping out into the wilds of uncertainty as we prepare ourselves to respond to whatever we find.

Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that the magi are notable not only for the prophetic dreams and glamorous gifts and discernment of Herod’s will, but they are also the first Gentiles to recognize the coming of the Messiah in the gospel of Matthew. She said the Gentile magi “foreshadow the comprehensiveness of the coming kingdom [Jesus] will one day proclaim” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1). This kin-dom of beloved community is not one with walls and fences and a strict membership policy. In the Feasting on the Word commentary, Stephen Bauman writes of the type of seeking which Jesus calls us to, even from the moment of his birth: a radical departure from status-quo thinking. Bauman says,

“any seeker, whether by chance or authentic pursuit, can find [their] way to the manger. Certainly the church would not exist but for the determination or simple faith of seekers who stumbled into the hay surrounding Jesus’ birthing trough…Yet among the various amateur spiritualists… may be some who are better able to kneel at the manger than those who have worshipped for a lifetime. Not every committed Christian in name has a taste for actually kneeling in the dust and muck of a barn in a backwater town with astonished recognition that this is where God prefers to make an entrance” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1).

And this is one of the miracles of the Christmas story: that at first, these traveling magi sought wisdom in the halls of power…but upon encountering the young Jesus with his mother, they experienced the incarnational God. They found, as one scholar writes, “an economically limited toddler, in modest surroundings, lying in a teen mother’s arms…To the intellectually perceptive, this scene was not a scholar’s formula for future success. Yet, by grace, the magi had the faith to experience unbridled joy.” What then could they do but worship upon bended knee, in awe at the vulnerable child containing all the cosmos? During this visit, the magi soon realized Herod’s power did not come from heavenly knowledge, but from concern for preserving his own status and the status quo of the empire. And so they disobeyed his wishes to report back to Jerusalem with the location of the Messiah. And when the time came to leave Jesus, they returned to their origin by another way.  They could not help but be changed by the child they did not even know they were seeking, the one they risked all to find. The reward to their risk was the opportunity to respond to pure grace.

Again, Rev. Matthews:

“Don’t we want to find ourselves in the story, too, to hear what happened so long ago, and to connect our own lives with it? We want to feel ourselves, strangers from a distant land and far-off time, kneeling with the wise ones from the East, in awe and joy for the gift before us. And we want to know how God is still at work in this world we live in now, how God is still speaking to us, today, as God spoke through the prophets, through dreams and angels and a bright, shining star, so long ago.”

Perhaps the answer is in the circular grammar of Matthew’s gospel that begins and ends with a diverse group of people paying homage to Jesus Christ. Perhaps we find ourselves as we seek alongside the wise ones, brush against then confront power and privilege each in our own way, and wonder what we have to offer as we kneel manger-side. William J. Danaher, Jr. writes in Feasting on the Word that the gift of Christ Jesus is an expression of God’s infinite generosity… to this,

“there is no way to enter the economy established by the Christ child as equals or to offer anything in return that can match the gift that has been given. Rather, the gifts of the magi are symbolic, even sacramental, offerings signaling that disciples of Jesus are called to participate in this infinite generosity by giving themselves to God and others freely” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1).

And so as we transition to welcoming the epiphany, the divine revelation which the wise ones sought so long ago, the magi’s quest calls to us. I pray that our encounter with Jesus the child draws us in and empowers us to take risks to seek what we do not know. I pray witnessing the star in the sky and the star in the form of a vulnerable baby leaves us passionate to reflect the abundance of God to the world. I pray the generosity of the magi opens our hearts to discern between the powers of the empire and the grace of the Holy One.

When we, like the wise ones, meet the infant Jesus, the toddler, the child of compassion and grace, we are given the opportunity to respond to Emmanuel.  In our responding, we return to ourselves and our communities by another road, a well-traveled road paved by those who find our home in God-with-us. As we sang earlier, “As with joyful steps they sped, to that lowly manger bed, There to bend the knee before One whom heaven and earth adore, so may we with willing feet, ever seen your mercy-seat.” Rejoice, Emmanuel has come. All shall be well. 

 

 

This sermon was originally preached at Seattle First Baptist Church on January 6, 2019.