January 7, 2018 – Pastor John McNeill
One of the central pieces of the Christian Story, the Christian understanding of cosmic reality, is that the infinite God has taken shape in a vanishingly small bit of the world: in fact a baby that weighs no doubt at most 10 lbs. The theological word for this is “incarnation.”
The reality of God that encompasses the universe squeezes into a very particular small place is an important part of the plot.
Nowadays, of course, news of a celebrity birth can be instantly spread around the world via Instagram or twitter or Facebook. Instead of neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city, trade route by trade route.
The Incarnation is a micro-event. But big signs call attention to its significance. We have angels singing in the heavens, and then we have the appearance of a star in the sky that provokes the story in our bible reading this morning.
Some astrologers recognize that a new star has appeared and they determine that it means that a king has been born and they further come to the conclusion that their response must be to show their reverence for him.
Our tradition recounts this story of the magi as the sign that Jesus’ birth is not just a parochial event that is of interest only to the Jews. It is a cosmic turning of the universe with significance to all the world and to all nations.
The Magi are the sign that the whole world is to take note of this. God is not just reaching out simply to the so-called “Chosen People” but to all the Gentile, that is, the non-Jewish world as well.
But this story might also have significance as we think not just about their particular role in elucidating the meaning of the incarnation, but as we look at the Magi as a kind of model for finding and maintaining our way on our own journeys.
As we might imagine the story, the journey of the Magi that we recall this morning required
–> A clear sense of direction
One way to look at this:
The Magi had to persevere in a quest. They set their priorities and put the rest of their lives “on hold” to make the journey. They were very goal oriented.
And their story might lead us to ask ourselves: Are we willing to respond to God’s call on our life with that sort of dedication and commitment to set off on a journey to follow the star that has been set before us?
This is often a good question to ask. There is a clarity of being led off into a new direction with holy purpose.
But it could be that this sort of heroic, romantic quest image might not always be the most helpful as we discern how the Spirit is leading and transforming us.
Perhaps some of you are familiar with what’s been called the story of the fourth wise man. Henry van Dyck published a novella in the 1890s called “The Story of the Other Wise Man.”
It tells about a “fourth” wise man a priest of the Magi named Artaban. Like the other Magi, he sees signs in the heavens proclaiming that a King had been born among the Jews. Like them, he sets out to see the newborn ruler, carrying treasures to give as gifts to the child – a sapphire, a ruby, and a “pearl of great price”.
However, he stops along the way to help a dying man, which makes him late to meet with the caravan of the other three wise men. Because he missed the caravan, and he can’t cross the desert with only a horse, he is forced to sell one of his treasures in order to buy the camels and supplies necessary for the trip.
He then begins his journey but arrives in Bethlehem too late to see the child, whose parents have fled to Egypt. Meanwhile, Artaban saves the life of a child at the price of another of his treasures.
He travels on to Egypt and to many other countries, searching for Jesus for many years and performing acts of charity all along the way.
As van Dyck tells the story of this other Wiseman, after 33 years, he is still a pilgrim, and a seeker after light.
He arrives in Jerusalem just in time for the crucifixion of Jesus. Artaban spends his last treasure, the pearl, to ransom a young woman from being sold into slavery.
He is then struck in the head by a falling roof tile and is about to die, believing that he has failed in his quest to find Jesus, but having done much good through charitable works.
A voice tells him “Verily I say unto thee, Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me.”(Matthew 25:40) He dies in a calm radiance of wonder and joy. His treasures were accepted, and the Other Wise Man found his King.
Van Dyck wants to tell us that the journey to Jesus is not the point. The important thing is seeing Jesus on the way.
If we are waiting for some dramatic change of direction, some new star to guide our way ahead, we will probably wait our lives away. For most of us, the life journey filled with all the details of our work, our play, our relationships, our study, our prayer, are all opportunities to be in touch with Christ.
The church – St. Paul’s and others sponsor particular mission activities. And they are good and necessary.
But one of the things that I would like to make sure that we pay attention to is that all of our lives are “missions activities”. Whenever we are conveying love into the world, whether dramatic or not, whether we feel it is some sort of sacrifice or not, whether it something we would do anyway or not. When love passes through us we are connected to Christ.
I invite you to recognize first that whatever journey we are already on is already a holy pilgrimage. And it may even be that those small pilgrimages involve driving.
It is sometimes forgotten that Pope Francis, like all the popes, is bishop of the city of Rome. While we as United Methodists, do not subscribe to much of the dogma and polity that are held by Roman Catholics, I do urge us to respect him as an important international Christian leader.
In any case, as a part of his activities as a local bishop, he delivered a brief homily at a Vespers service on New Year’s Eve in which he gave particular thanks for the people of the city of Rome. He said,
Therefore there prevails that gratitude, which, as Bishop of Rome, I feel in my soul, thinking of people who live with an open heart in this city.
I feel a sense of sympathy and gratitude for all those people who every day contribute with small but precious concrete actions to the good of Rome: they try to fulfil their duty to the best of their ability, they move in traffic with purpose and prudence, they respect public places and they point out things that are wrong, they are attentive to or those in difficulty, and so on. These and a thousand other behaviors express love for the city in a concrete way.
Today, in giving thanks to God, I invite you to express also recognition of all these artisans of the common good, who love their city not in words, but in actions.
I confess that I’m not in the habit of keeping track of Pope Francis’ homilies. I only became aware of this one because David Brooks referenced it this past week in one of his NY Times Op Ed columns entitled “How Would Jesus Drive?”
In calling attention to Pope Francis’ homily, Brooks elaborated on his calling attention to people as they “move in traffic with purpose and prudence.” He cited Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution, who points out that driving is precisely the sort of everyday activity through which people mold the culture of their community.
If you speed up so I can’t merge into your lane, you’re teaching me that the society around here is basically competitive, not cooperative. If, on the other hand, you give me a friendly wave after I let you in, you’re teaching me that this is a place where a kindness is recognized and gratitude is expressed.
Driving means making a thousand small moral decisions: whether to tailgate to push the slowpoke faster, or to give space; whether to honk only as a warning or constantly as your all-purpose show of contempt for humanity.
Driving puts you in a constant position of asking, Are we in a place where there is a system of self-restraint, or are we in a place where it’s dog eat dog?
Driving puts you in a constant position of asking, Are my needs more important than everybody else’s, or are we all equal?
How would Jesus drive?
In short, driving puts you into social situations in which you have to co-construct a shared culture of civility, and go against your own primeval selfishness, and it does so while you are encased in what is potentially a 4,000-pound metal weapon.
…it was good to get a reminder, from Pope Francis in his New Year’s Eve homily, that the people who have the most influence on society are actually the normal folks, through their normal, everyday gestures being kind in public places, attentive to the elderly. The pope called such people, in a beautiful phrase, “the artisans of the common good.”
We may not be called to dramatic journeys of following stars to a cosmic reckoning of the universe, but we are – all of us – called to be artisans of the common good. Every day, as we drive, as we work, as we play, in all the dimensions of our lives.
May each of us be a sign that God has entered into the world, entered into our life, and that God’s love continues to shine and echo as we practice being artisans of the common good together and find ourselves in touch with Christ.
Thanks be to God.