Monday, January 07, 2019

Blessed Strangeness

Sermon preached on The Epiphany, Sunday, January 6, 2019 at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY.

          This is a strange story about strange people.

          First of all the magi.  That’s the word I use for them because that is the Greek word used in the story.  Who were these people and where did they come from?

          Despite the song we just sang, they were not kings.  That makes no sense at all, or, rather, it makes too much sense of these strangers.  To call them kings means that the notable and powerful were seeking the notable and powerful and that is not what this story is about.

          We’ve tried so hard to make sense of this story.  We decided there were three of them because there were three gifts.  But the story doesn’t say how many there were, only that they were plural, more than one.  In the 7th century we even given them names, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.

          But the story is that these strangers came from the east and they were perhaps religious figures of some sort, but Matthew the Gospel writer doesn’t give us any details because the only thing he wants to make clear is that these were foreigners, strangers, aliens.

          And they knew something, saw something in the night sky that drew them to the land of the Jews.  They went to Jerusalem, the capitol, and to Herod, the king, which is really the only sensible thing that happens in the story.  Where else to go to look for a new king of the Jews?

          But in Jerusalem the strangers found the even more strange.  Herod, a strange and evil tyrant who lived in the trappings of power but really had none at all.  He was a puppet of the Roman occupiers.  His court was all pretense.  The Romans let him build great monuments to himself, and they looked the other way when he chose one of his four sons to be his successor and just to make sure his choice was honored murdered the other three.

          Herod was a man who believed his own press releases, and the strangers from the east, whoever they were, were certainly smart enough to figure that out, but, at least, his religious flunkies could give them a clue as to where they should take their search.

          So, no doubt with a great deal of relief, they left the strange king behind and headed for Bethlehem.

          But what they found there was nothing like they were looking for.  The strangers again found the strange.  Not a king, but a child, found in a common house, with two unimportant parents.  But the child more than the child, the star in their eyes could see his strangeness, the strangeness of God, as a vulnerable baby, a human being, destined to live, but also destined to die, just like them and all the rest of us.

          But in this meeting of the strangers from the east with the stranger who gathered heaven and earth into himself, a spiritual super nova.

          Conventional religion explodes.  Conventional religion, which seeks to divide the world between the godly and the ungodly, the sinner and the righteous, the accepted and the unacceptable, the welcomed and the stranger—is obliterated in this child.

          In the centuries that follow we have tried to make this religion conventional and we have, unfortunately, succeeded, mostly, but no one can ever quite get rid of this uncomfortable and amazing truth—that the strange is the blessed, the strangers are welcomed, the unacceptable made acceptable, sinners declared righteous, and all men and women drawn into the divine.

          Whoever these wise guys were, they knew that what they had encountered was the ultimate stranger declaring himself to be more than a king—a friend, a friend to all who seek him.

          And they were smart enough not to do the conventional thing, and return to the seat of power, check in with the religious officials and the king, but to find a different way home.

          And they left us with this one question that we should carry like a star in our eyes all of our days:  Is there a different way home than we thought? Is there a different way to see? Is there a different way to be with one another, and, most importantly, with the stranger?  Are we willing to live our days as blessed stranger to blessed stranger?

          To seek to answer these questions is to find a new way home.

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