Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York, January 6, 2008, on the text Matthew 2:1-12.
Home by Another Road
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Let’s notice several things about this seemingly simple little detail at the end of the Epiphany reading. The magi made a simple, clear decision, but there are several things that are true about that decision.
First of all, it was based on a dream. It was not based on hard evidence. The dream fed an intuition, perhaps, and the magi acted on it. But still, the decision was based on a dream.
Second of all, the choice was a choice not to go back to the seat of power and luxury. I have no doubt that when the magi were first in Jerusalem they were treated like visiting royalty. They had a long trip ahead of them, it would have been perfectly reasonable for them to choose to make another pit stop if, for no other reason, to get a good night sleep and a few good meals. The decision, however, was a decision not to take advantage of the available power.
And third, the decision was to take a different way home, one they hadn’t carefully planned out. They knew the way they had come, and they had made it that way, avoiding the dangers of long travel. Going home by a different road met new exposure to new dangers. The decision was for risk.
The decision was based on a dream. It was a decision that turned away from power. It was a decision that entailed some risk.
One could speak about two alternative roads here, two different ways. The Holy Family would, in the next scene of the story, choose a similar different way. The two ways are the way of Herod and the way of Jesus.
As I said before, the choices that the magi made for their different road seems to have made perfect sense when we read or hear them. But they were also that which I have also said: dreamy, vulnerable and risky. The way of Herod, of course, had its own risk, but they only knew this by a dream. In truth, especially for the magi. The way of Herod was seductive in almost every way except for that dream.
The way of Herod is seductive. Herod was a ruthless king—after he had chosen which of his four sons he wanted to succeed him, he simply had the other three killed—but he was also very, very powerful. He built grand things. I am told his fingerprints remain all over the landscape in and around Jerusalem. Despite his ruthlessness he made many proud again to be Jews. Despite Roman overlordship, the Jewish nation seemed to be thriving again. What’s a little ruthlessness if everyone feels safe and secure?
Sound familiar? It does. And it should sound familiar not only in our national life, but in our personal lives as well. We all have our Herod’s with which to deal, both outer and inner—seductive ways of power and control, the amassing of wealth and privilege and respect (even if these things are based on fear).
I have had such a seduction and now I am here today trying to go home by a different road. In this case you are my home, but in a sense you have also been my seduction, so this different way is especially tricky and fraught with peril.
In its own way my seduction has been for power and control, aided by a genuine illness, that in many ways enabled me to be even more successful. I have desired to be super priest, admired by everyone for my hard work and accomplishments, my drive and my talent.
Now I still want to be a good priest. I still want to work hard, be creative and help us accomplish things. But this is the tricky part, I also want to do so not at the detriment of my own health, my own well-being, and, as well, the well-being of this community. My two ways are that of super priest or good priest, the way of frantic, frenetic exhaustion or the way of balance and well-being.
I don’t think I have to tell you that the seduction is still great, partly because this new road I want to embark upon is, like that of the magi, based on a dream (which is to say, it doesn’t seem to be grounded in the practical reality of trying to make this parish thrive), it is a decision not to exercise so much control, and it is a risky decision, partly because it is a road so parallel to the old road that it will be so very, very easy to slip over to the old way.
The seduction is so great I cannot do this choosing alone. I need you, all of you. We need each other. I need outside support as well, because it is so easy to live in a community like this and develop blinders.
But I am here to announce that for my well-being and ours, I know I need to choose to go home by a different way.
We all do. That’s why I think it is all right to talk about this, even though I know some of you are uncomfortable with how much I am talking about it, and are perhaps fearful that I won’t be able to stop talking about it.
All that I can say is that I do not have the intention of talking about it all the time, only when it aids in the proclamation of the gospel, like today, the good news (but also hard!) that there is a different way to choose to go home.
I also hope that you can see that I can be a better pastor because of what I have been through and that in one sense you should be more comfortable coming to me with your struggles because I have walked this way. If you need a pastor who has all the answers, it’s true that you’re not going to be very happy. But if you want a pastor who can walk with you through the valley of the shadow of death, not knowing exactly where we are walking but trying to do so faithfully then most days I can do that.
This may seem to have ended up being a sermon all about me, but I do not believe that it is. I believe it is all about us as a community, and all about you as individuals. As a community and as individuals we have our temptation to walk the way of Herod and it takes a very intentional act to discern that different way.
May God be our primary companion in this journey, in yours and in mine and in ours.