January 5, 2020
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him,
‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The first time I heard the Muslim call to prayer was at sunset. My seminary classmates and I were staying at Tantur, an ecumenical retreat and study center just south of Jerusalem, a few miles from the boarder wall with the Palestinian Territories, next to Bethlehem. We were on the roof of our dorm, having just settled in for a month of exploring and learning about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and movements for peace, and the view of the sunset was suddenly punctuated by loudspeakers proclaiming in Arabic God’s greatness, a call to come pray. Five times a day, we would hear this call, from our Abrahamic siblings, and after a while, I started to notice that many in our group would bow their heads and close their eyes. Being called to prayer, by people of a different tradition, it reminded many of us to give thanks to God, to share with God the injustice we witnessed as we traveled, to join the Holy Spirit with sighs too deep for words amidst a broken and hurting world.
When we encounter and learn about other religious traditions, it’s not uncommon for us to discover new depths to our own. There might be similarities or differences that provide us with new perspectives, insights, or appreciation of the gifts we have received from our ancestors in the faith. But we can also respond with fear, with a sense of being caught off guard; what if there’s something about our tradition we forgot or overlooked? What if there are parts of the tradition we’ve inherited that are being used for the cause of oppression?
Our scripture passage this morning is full of fear kindled by interfaith encounters, and God reaching across human boundaries to give new insights. The Magi, sometimes referred to as wise men, were likely priests in the Zoroastrian tradition that arose within the ancient Iranian empire. Their tradition speaks of a god of wisdom engaged in a fight to overcome the forces of chaos. Followers could join in this struggle through engaging in good thoughts, words and deeds, while waiting for the emergence of a messiah, through whom the holy would overcome chaos, injustice and evil. King Herod is afraid of the arrival of these mystical priests for many reasons. In this story he’s an agent of chaos, injustice, and nearly unspeakable evil. And it’s not just King Herod who is afraid; it’s all Jerusalem with him, and for good reason. The people know that the emergence of someone who challenges Herod, the puppet King of the Roman Empire, who ruled Palestine, can’t end well. Herod has faced challenges to his claim to power, and Romans, like Persians, don’t like chaos. Rome and their local representatives have a way of creating peace and order. It isn’t through good deeds, but instead through terrifying violence and brutality, something that had been seen all too recently at the time of Jesus’ birth. Near Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, for example, a town had risen up to challenge the Roman occupation, and was utterly destroyed. The empire decided to build a new city upon the smoldering ruins, a shining city upon a hill, to remind the locals what would happen if they disobeyed. It was built to be beautiful, to show the people what was possible if they submitted. This was an opportunity to show off Roman wealth, engineering skills, and to try and influence Jewish culture. The town was a shining example of the Roman way of being Jewish, what the empire thought was the right way to practice. And if you didn’t like this example? Just remember what lies beneath those buildings. This kind of interfaith influence would make anyone cautious of cross-cultural encounters, of challenges to those in authority. And yet the Magi priests come, and they want to talk with Herod. The Magi are truly wise men, and they realize this king is not to be trusted. He’s not interested in paying homage to this child, but has far more sinister plans. And so with cunning and wisdom, they find Jesus, and then discover another road to take home, avoiding Herod, a way to avoid adding to the chaos of the world, of upholding, in their own way, God’s mission of making all the world new. They buy the family some time to flee.
My time in the State of Israel and the Occupied Territories was full of cross-cultural and interfaith encounters. But one of the most stunning parts of our time there was how often we learned about ourselves and our tradition while we were there. Spending time with Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians, we learned more deeply about the fear and violence American Christianity can inflict. We saw the damaging influence of Christian Zionists who help support illegal settlements in the West Bank. This has led to an increase in tensions, and that was the stated goals of many Americans we heard about. These actions come from a bizarre theological perspective, one held by our country’s Vice President and many of our Evangelical siblings, that in order to usher in the Second Coming of Jesus, American Christians should do all that they can to ratchet up tensions in Israel, in the hope of unleashing a war in the region that will spark their understanding of the Apocalypse. It was shocking to learn about this tradition held by American Evangelicals, a part of our national life together that is not often spoken about. The disregard for human life and suffering, the bizarre understanding of how to honor the Prince of Peace, left many on our trip feeling angry and hopeless. But we also heard, over and over again, about the influence that Black American Christians have had on the Palestinian People, both Muslim and Christian. Often when we would go to meet with local groups that were organizing to resist oppression in the Palestinan Territories, we would be invited into a classroom or meeting space and see a photo of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It happened so regularly that after a while it stopped surprising us. The Lessons, organizing principles, and tactics of the non-violent civil rights movement were foundational to many of the groups we met. Learning about Rev. Dr. King through the eyes and insights of communities of different religious and cultural traditions gave many of us hope, and challenged me to delve more deeply into Dr. King’s theology and worldview. Here was a person I had grown up being taught about, but that I realized had been sanitized and historicized in a way that removed the continuing power of the movement he was a part of. Encountering this legacy of demanding and organizing for justice from the powers that be changed my understanding of what it means to be Christian. In learning about my own tradition from those who were different from me and my classmates, I discovered what I had overlooked because of my cultural position as a White American Christian, and the importance of cross cultural experiences to be able to know the Jesus we follow, and whose work we continue.
Beloved, today we celebrate Epiphany, the dawning of the realization that the Holy One has come into our existence in the Person of Jesus, and that the Holy Spirit is continuing on the work of making all things new. This is a story some of us have heard many, many times, and we can find ourselves dusting off past understandings, and continuing on with a sense of “so what?” But one of the gifts that the Magi still bring us, through the Millennia, is an invitation to observe God at work in our world, and risk getting involved. And one of the easiest ways I’ve seen this happen is through encountering people that can hold up a mirror to us and our tradition and invite us to take another look, from a new perspective. Maybe you’re feeling stuck. Feeling weighed down, this season. Our community is carrying a lot of heaviness, illness, and grief. Sometimes we need someone outside of our family and friends who can listen to us, and give witness to God’s presence with us. Leigh and I are always available to meet with you, or to help you find a therapist. Maybe you’re someone who knows the healing that is possible when we can be fully ourselves in this family of faith, and want to invite others to be part of this community, or to learn how we can be in relationship with those who share Jesus’ vision for making all things new. In two weeks we will be meeting after worship to learn how to have relational meetings with parents and teachers from Bridges Montessori school. I am sure we will be surprised by what we hear. Or maybe you’re someone who wants to get to know people who are different from you, folks in this congregation you don’t know yet, or would like to get to know deeper. We will be having another round of Feasting in Faith dinners this year, which will give you a chance to hear one another’s stories, and share a little bit of your own. Or maybe, as our world burns with acts of violence and the threat and rumor of war, you’re someone who wants to build relationships across religious and cultural differences. This Lent, I invite you to join us for our book study. We will be reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Holy Envy, which explores the gifts of interfaith relationships and study. We will be organizing opportunities to visit and worship with our Jewish and Muslim neighbors.
I don’t know what new insight’s the Holy One has in store for you this year, this Epiphany, but I know this; there are gifts prepared for us all, some that will unsettle, others that will bring us peace. In all of it, we do not journey alone. Jesus walks with us, especially when we risk welcoming the stranger, those who are different from us, those we are told we should fear. Deeper than all that tries to separate us is the divine light that reminds us we are all Beloved children of the source of hope, love, joy, and faith. May we journey towards the light we trust is in those around us. Amen.