Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Three People from Somewhere

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 2:1-12:

Today represents the last vestiges of Christmas.  Kids go back to school tomorrow, and adults who have been off for the holidays return to work.  People have taken down their trees and the ornaments and decorations have been packed up and returned to storage, or maybe like me everything has been piled in one location waiting to be packed up.  The surprises and the excitement of the season are gone, along with the songs and the decorations, and yet today we celebrate epiphany, which represents the official end of the Christmas season, this is another one of those times in which the church is out of sync with culture.

Some of you have heard me say this before, as much as Fox News might like to talk about a war on Christmas, I have to be in agreement with Diana Butler Bass that it’s not a war on Christmas, it’s a war on Advent, because Christmas doesn’t end on December 25, Christmas begins in December 25, and it officially ends tomorrow with Epiphany.  Epiphany, means appearance or manifestation, and it commemorates the arrival of the wisemen as the manifestation of Jesus to the gentiles.  In many cultures, especially in Latin countries, Epiphany is more important of a Holiday than is Christmas and is celebrated through gift-giving and parties.  In the Orthodox church, it is the third most important day of the year following only Easter and Pentecost, and for many years the Orthodox church celebrated Christmas not on December 25, but instead on January 6 and there are still some churches which follow that tradition.

But before we get into the meaning of today’s passage, there are some things we must clear up.  First, even though all of our nativity sets say differently, the wise men and the shepherds are never in the manger together.  In fact, Matthew does not have a manger scene, and it is impossible to harmonize the birth stories of Luke and Matthew.  To even try is to do violence to the text and to miss what each writer is trying to accomplish in the telling of his story.  Matthew’s birth story is particularly sparse, in which we are only told that Jesus was and then we move into today’s readings.  So let’s start by wiping our minds clean off all images of a babe lying in a manger surrounded by shepherds and angelic farm animals.

Second, let’s also remove most of the ideas that we have been taught, seen or read about the wise men and who they are.  As an extra credit question on her final exam each year, my worship professor at Boston University would always ask what the traditional names are for the wise men.  Without failure each year she would get Huey, Dewey and Louie as well as Manny, Mo and Jack. While traditionally the names are given as Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar, the simple fact is we have no idea what their names are.  The names do not come to us until a document, usually attributed to the Venerable Bede, which dates to the mid 8th century.

This document is also the one that describes one as being Asian, one as African, and one as Arab.  If you look at your nativity set, they will probably have these characteristics.  It is also where we have an interpretation of meaning behind  the gifts, with gold as being representative of a king, frankincense as something which was burned in the temple as part of the sacrifice, and myrrh as something used in embalming, therefore the gifts seemed to have symbolic representation for what was to come.  But, not only where these things probably unknown to Matthew but they were unknown to the church for the first 750 years as well.

Next, even though we sang “We Three Kings” we don’t know how many there are.  Three has been the tradition in the western church because of three gifts, but in the Eastern church the tradition has been 10 or 12, because the text doesn’t say.  The wisemen were also not kings.  This probably comes from imagery found in the 72nd Psalm and/or Isaiah 60.  There are only two kings in this story, Herod and Jesus, and there can only be two because that is the dichotomy that plays out, the conflict and power struggle between the kingdom of Rome, represented by Herod and later Herod’s son and Pontius Pilate, and the Kingdom of God, of course represented by Christ.  To add any other rulers to this scenario, even if they are giving alliance to Jesus, diminishes what Matthew is setting up, and it the tension between worship and hostility to Jesus which is also being emphasized.

Finally, there is lots of debate and information about the star.  If you do a Google search for Star of Bethlehem you’ll get about 1.4 million hits.  There was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BCE, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars in 6 BCE and Jupiter and Venus in 3 BCE, among others which are given as possibilities for the star.  But it my opinion this is all ridiculous speculation that totally misses what is going on in this story.  This star does not and cannot correspond to just any normal astrological event.

Again, paying attention to what the scripture actually says shows us something radically different.  Even though this seemed to be a significant event for the wisemen, at least enough to bring them hundreds if not thousands of miles, it was not noticed in Israel, as Herod has to ask them when it occurred, and then the star appears to them again after they have left, although apparently only they can see it since Herod and his people don’t follow it, and then it leads them to Bethlehem and then stops over the house where Jesus lives.  Now I’ve spent some time looking at stars, but I’ve never been able to tell what house someone might live in based on a star, it would have to be sitting right over the house and so this is unlike any star I have ever witnessed and so speculation about natural events misses the importance of the star and of God’s guiding purpose, which leads me to the point of this message.

In his poem “For the Time Being”, which talks about the time just after Christmas, W.H. Auden says “once again, as in previous years we have seen the actual vision and failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility, once again we have sent him away, begging though to remain his disobedient servant.” For more than a month we have been hearing the story again and making our way to the manger, and so we look again to the star and seek meaning.

There is a star out there for each of us guiding us not only to the Christ child but also to the cross.  The problem, just like with Herod, is not only in seeing the star but also in following the star.  What makes this story important, and the only reason we know about it, is because the wisemen where willing and able not only to follow the star but more importantly to move their worship from their head to their heart, to make it a part of who they were.  In this they are like the only other people we know who came to see Jesus, and that is the shepherds.  Earlier in Advent I asked how many other people who the message from the angels, but didn’t respond, didn’t do anything?  How many other people saw the star, and didn’t do anything?  That is the piece with which we struggle.

Katherine Mitchell is a Methodist minister in Rhode Island.  Before coming to seminary Katherine had worked as an emergency mental health counselor, and so she is very good at always being able to be in control of situations, telling you exactly what she is thinking and what is going on because in many cases her life depended on that ability.  If you are in a group and wonder who is going to be in charge, you can bet that Katherine will be one of the first to step up and take a leadership role.

Recently she was asked to participate in a program similar to dancing with the stars to help support one of the community groups in the town where she serves.  At the time she agreed to it, she assumed she would just have to show up on the day of the event do some dancing and then everyone would vote on who was best.  But shortly after saying yes, she received a call from Arthur Murray dance studio asking when she wanted to come in and start her dance lessons.  She put if off for as long as she could, came up with as many reasons as she could, in other words struggling with the commitment, before she finally had to give in and go.

Katherine is about fifty, stands maybe 5’5” and as I said, fully in control of her life.  When she showed up for her first lesson, she was assigned to a dance instructor who was 23, although she side he looked like he was 15, and he was shorter than she is.  They danced for their hour appointment, and when it was over he said to her, “you have the skills and the ability to be a good dancer, but in order for this to work you are going to have to let go and let me lead.”  And Katherine’s response?  She said “now look here little man, do you have any idea who I am.  I am Pastor Katherine, and I’m the one in control.” To which her dance instructor said, “You’re a minister, aren’t you used to following God’s lead, this should be easy for you.”

As you might imagine, this floored her and she had to look deeply at what she was doing and how she was living her life, and what she found was that she was not so good at following and so she made a conscious effort to let go.  This decision has not only radically changed her relationship with her family, her relationship with her congregation, but most importantly it has changed her relationship with God.  Since that day she has had some life altering experiences that she knows God has led her to, that she would never have had before, because she would never have to let go of what she wanted to do long enough to allow them to happen.  For the first time in her life she now feels as if she is truly being guided by God, everyday of her life from the time she gets up to the time she goes to bed, and sometimes even in her dreams, because she was willing to let go and let God lead the dance of her life.

How are we doing?  Are we able to let God lead, or are we fighting and trying to be the one who controls where, when and perhaps even what dance is being done?  I would have to say that I am not very good at this myself.  I have trouble giving up and giving over to God.  Even though some of the most profound experiences in my life have occurred when I have turned myself over to God to be led, but that is always the struggle.  But giving ourselves over to God is not about giving up, or being passive.  Being a dancing partner requires both parties to be involved and participating.  Dancing is a give and take relationship.  If one person does nothing but let the other person do all the work, then they are like a rag doll and that does not make a beautiful dance.  Instead, both partners need to be in relationship with each other, working with each other, but one person has to be in control, and if that person is us then the dance is not as beautiful as it could be.

Where are you being called?  “What is your star?  What is it that has you questioning meaning or your purpose?  What has seized your attention and made you start wondering what is going on?”  The star still shines for each of us, and all of us are called to respond, but to do that we have to be willing to step out of our comfort zone and to follow God and be willing to allow God to lead and guide us, and that’s where the difficulty begins.  The wise men acted in response to God’s initiative to guide them to the child.  God’s grace always precedes our actions, so where is God’s grace reaching out to you?  Where is God guiding you, and are you willing to respond?  Let us give thanks to God sisters and brothers for the guiding star in our lives.  Amen.

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