welcome the magi

January 8, 2017

Bible Text: Matthew 2:1-12 |

This Christmas I saw a meme posted on Facebook. It was snarky and provocative – but certainly got the point across. It said something to the effect, “This is what the Christmas crèche looks like if you take away the unwed mothers, political refugees, social outcasts, and Middle-eastern foreigners.” And all you saw was an empty crèche flanked by a cow and a sheep.

Because of course, Mary wasn’t married to Joseph yet, the Holy Family did flee to Egypt because the King was trying to kill Jesus, the shepherds were at the bottom of the social scale, and the magi were foreigners, who did come from the East.

And it’s these magi we remember today – those non-Israelites, who are nonetheless sincere in their faith that came from the east bearing gifts, to worship the newborn king.

Who were they and where do they come from, exactly? We don’t know. There’s plenty of speculation and picturesque traditions that have developed about their identity and their origins. But St. Matthew himself gives us virtually nothing.

This is what we do know:

First: they come from the East – that non-Jewish place, that place of exile for Cain when he murdered Abel. How far East? Most say Iraq. Others India. Some even China. Nobody knows.

Second: they were summoned by that star. The very notion of their observing a star in its rising and attaching significance to it – in essence: practitioners of astrology – stands in utter contrast to the monotheism of the Jewish faith and its strict commands about magicians and soothsayers.

Yet, nonetheless, these are men who watch the stars and see something through their spiritual traditions that brings them to Jesus.

The Jews knew to seek God through the law and Temple Worship. These magi looked to the stars. And by a star they discovered Christ. How extraordinary. What does this tell us about God and the nature of God? It seems to suggest that God will beckon us in a way that we understand. It might not be the way we finally know to worship in the years to come, but it will do for the present.

It’s like the woman who couldn’t stand Christians or churches, but she did care about the poor. And there was a church in her neighborhood that fed the poor regularly, so – much to her chagrin – she began volunteering there. And in time, she discovered something beyond the food panty. She discovered the table – the Eucharist – and that she herself was the poor being fed by Christ.

Or the agnostic PhD student who – following a rabbit trail – starts reading Julian of Norwich for his thesis and – what began as an academic exercise – gives way to spiritual attentiveness and, over time, becomes the context of his conversion. He thought the church was nothing but hypocrisy and smugness. But through his love of academics, he discovered the voice of a 14th century mystic who could reveal to him the true nature of the church and its Christ in whom the church finds its identity and meaning.

And so these magi are beckoned to Christ through their astrology. And they find him. I’ve got to tell you: I love this about the story.

After all, none of us – saint or sinner, bishop or crook – has got God all figured out. We have a handful of information about God – some of it right, some of it wrong, jumbled together – that we view through the lenses of both our brokenness and our dreams. Yet beyond all this confusion, God remains holy and true, completely unthreatened by any of our behavior or our beliefs, even if they’re “wrong.” In the great mercy of God, anything can become the path for discovering the love of God for which we are made, especially those who are seeking God with sincerity.

And so the story of Christ begins with God joining the human race and summoning unto him the most unlikely of worshipers: filthy shepherds and suspicious foreigners. And there in his birth Christ himself has shown where to look if we want to find God. Look to the humble places where the unwelcome gather, and there you will find the light that is beckoning us all.

Gerald Hughes, the Scottish Jesuit priest and author of God of Surprises, [tells a] story of Jesus visiting a modern family. The family is absolutely thrilled to have Jesus in their home. So thrilled that they decide to throw a party to introduce him to their friends. They love showing off Jesus. The party is a great success. The problem comes, however, when Jesus decides to stay. In fact, he decides to move in!

This is very different from throwing a party. Jesus begins to bring all sorts of questionable types from the city streets back to the house.  A lot of food is being consumed. The neighbors are complaining about plunging property values. It is all becoming far too demanding for the family. But then one of them has a bright idea. When Jesus is having his afternoon siesta, they will brick up his bedroom door. Then they will place a little altar in front of it, with beautiful candlesticks and a silver crucifix, and every time they pass the bedroom they will genuflect. This is how to deal with Jesus![1]

This is one of those stories that – on the outside – makes us laugh. But on the inside, we shudder. Because, of course, we do have an altar with candlesticks. You do see the altar party genuflecting every time we pass it. And – as much as we talk about loving the outcast and the poor – look around. Our church and our lives and our attentiveness is still largely populated by people who look and think and live just like we do.

We struggle to fund a budget that will pay for the priests as well as our mission. And so begins the scramble for solutions. Those who are wearied by it all figure out what we need to slash. Others strategize how to squeeze more money out of the congregation. Then there are the idealists who insist, “Faith, faith” and keep plotting their schemes for social activism and transformation.

And let’s be clear, to be a church with priests and staff and a place where we can gather in our shared life of worship and faith, we’ve got to be able to pay our bills. And to be a church that follows the heart of Christ, we’ve got to be able to care for the vulnerable and the voiceless. So for all those who worked tirelessly and with much hand-wringing to create a responsible budget for this year (while I was off traipsing in the Scottish highlands!) I am truly grateful. To all of you who pledged support, to the stewardship and finance teams, to Laura and the vestry and especially to Lisa who as at the center of it all, I thank you. You have created a budget that responsibly reflects who we are at this stage in our life as a parish.

But let me also say this. Who we are today should not be who we are tomorrow. The whole nature of the spiritual life is one of ongoing conversion. And to what we are being converted? We seek to become more like Christ. And what I believe to be at the heart of Christ is compassion.

Again and again the scriptures say of our Christ that when he saw the crowds, when he saw the sick, when he saw the suffering…he had compassion.

When it comes to how we choose to share our lives, the compassionate heart is the one that no longer says, “I ought” – but rather – “I desire.” So long as we are operating from a position of “I ought,” our good deeds and charitable giving are still largely motivated by duty and guilt. We have some real sense and conviction of how the world ought to be, and how we ought to be, and to that end we give of ourselves. But there’s some sense in which we’re stealing from our first and truest desire which is still largely centered on our own comfort and security.

But when we have shifted to “I desire the other’s good” – that is a converted heart. At that point, giving and action flow together from the desire and conviction that our place is rightly found where it intersects with the other’s good. How we spend our time, how we spend our money, how we discern the mission of the church or the policies of our nation is rooted in a sincere compassion for the other – even when [especially when] the “other” is the one you neither like nor understand. That is a converted heart, a heart I can hardly yet claim to be my own.

I did not become a priest to manage a church for the sake of the church’s survival. I became a priest to join a community of people in becoming disciples of Christ – people willing to choose this life’s most arduous but worthy journey of becoming converted from darkness to light, from selfishness to love of neighbor, from fear to hope. For in all these things will we will find the source and purpose of it all, and that is God.

This weekend the vestry went on retreat to spend time together preparing for the year to come. The vestry at St. John’s is composed of nine elected leaders who each oversee an area of the church’s ministry. Each person on the vestry, and both of us priests, have chosen to make our first priority this year, the development and fostering of a “Way of Life.” That is a deliberate way of taking stock of all the significant categories of our lives, person by person, category by category, and figuring out what God’s call is to each of us in making the next faithful step in becoming more like Christ. If we are going to live out the leadership of our ministries with any integrity, then we must be rooted in our own commitment to transforming our hearts towards the heart of Christ.

Everyone in this life is looking into the night sky, as it were, seeking the star that will guide us to truth. But many give up, despairing and cynical, and turn their back from the window and grab the remote control instead – to resume their endless feasting on the drivel that keeps us distracted by modest contentment.

It is my hope and desire for our church, that we would be a people who choose and support each other in the better and truer path of ongoing conversion into the way of Christ. It will look different for each person because each of us is coming from a different place and have different areas of readiness to perceive the star in the east that beckons. So part of fostering a compassionate community will be the peaceable spirit that can appreciate that another’s journey in faith may differ in appearance from our own. What will be common amongst us is the pattern and the summons which have defined the followers of Christ from the beginning: “Repent and believe.” And bit by bit, repentance by repentance, belief by belief, we shall be formed – not into some culturally constructed “insider” code of denim dresses and hair buns – but into a community of people whose compassionate hearts all beat with the heart of God.

Did you notice that the story of the magi ends by their having a dream that warns them to go home by a different route? Now, you might think that following a dream is just as hocus-pocusy as following a star.

But think about the role of dreams in this story. That is the means by which Joseph and the Holy Family are always guided. At every step of their journey, Joseph has a dream and they respond with obedience and faith. And in Matthew’s telling of the story Joseph is the epitome of a good and righteous Jew.

So, now that the Magi have come and worshiped the Christ – now that they have beheld his glory and made offerings to him – what happens? They become as Joseph. They, too, no longer observe stars in the heaven to guide their course. Now they perceive the voice of God in the angel’s message. And they obey. They’ve seen Christ and they have been changed.

So may it be with us. May God show us the stars that will lead us to Christ, and may God give us the dreams that will bring us home.

[1] Quoted by J. P. Newell, The Rebirthing of God, p. 24