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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Sunday, January 04, 2004


Epiphany Sunday
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12

“Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking ‘Where is the child who had been born king of the Jews?’”

This is the bit of inquiry that sent Herod into a tizzy, and eventually resulted in his ordering the merciless execution of all the children in Bethlehem, two years old and under. And it may also be the best justification I’ve ever heard for refusing to stop and ask for directions. “No way, honey! Remember what happened last time?” The one really sensible, logical thing the magi do, and it really goes wrong.

Speaking of sensible, I'm reminded of a piece of internet humor that’s made the rounds for years. Maybe you’ve seen it-- it crops up especially frequently during the Christmas season. It asks the question: How would things have been different if wise women had seen the star in the east? According to the latest version I’ve seen, they would have:

arrived in time to help deliver the baby;

cleaned the stable;

made a casserole;

and brought more practical gifts.

I have to tell you, this appeals to me. I’m a practical gifts kind of person. I don’t buy baby clothes smaller than 6 months’ size, because odds are good that the little cherub will outgrow anything smaller before he or she ever gets a chance to wear it. And when my cousin Kristy got married last summer, I was delighted to find for her the coolest crock pot you have ever seen. It was huge, and included a set of different sized crocks, so she and her husband, Mike, can either cook two separate things at once in it for a family meal, or an enormous quantity of a single dish for a crowd (I’m hoping to see it at the family reunion next summer!). Got a nice cookbook to go with it, too, so they can really make use of it. Yep-- very practical.

So when I read the Gospel story for today, my initial reaction is not particularly impressed. There’s a lot of impractical going around.

Okay, the gold is nice. Depending on the amount of gold, you could buy a lot of baby clothes-- and a fair kitchen-full of crock pots. But frankincense and myrrh do not carry the currency today that they did with the original hearers of Matthew’s gospel.

The footnote in my study Bible says that frankincense and myrrh are “aromatic gum resins obtained from shrubs found in tropical countries of the East.” Okay, I understand that these were very valuable items back then, worth their weight in gold and then some... but we’re living in middle America, in the 21st century. Quite frankly, my first reaction, hearing this on the first Sunday in 2004, is something like: “Oh, goody. Overpriced tree sap."

Even the fact that the wise men made the journey in the first place is not a particularly sensible move. They’ve traipsed halfway across the known world, from God only knows where, in order to bring expensive gifts to a child of unknown parentage... because they saw a new star in the sky?

But this is one lesson I’m continuing to learn: “practical” and “logical” and “sensible” are not always the standards to live by. The measured, careful response is not necessarily the right one. The world’s economy, and God’s economy, are often two very different things.

Think about our church, for example, the community that is St. Paul. From a practical, worldly standpoint, we are not anything special. It’s true that we have a lovely building to worship and work in; but it comes with a millstone of a mortgage that has us struggling, financially. We are not a large congregation, the kind that makes the papers with satisfying stories of phenomenal growth and expansion. And the press we in the Episcopal Church have been getting lately has been both controversial and, for many, very painful.

But oh, my brothers and sisters, in God’s economy we are incredibly gifted. Look in the windows of our mortgaged home. There you’ll see images that represent the gift of our biblical heritage: people whose words and actions convey the Word of God, which continue to provoke, and inspire, and lead.

Next look around you, in the pews-- even over on the side you never sit on-- and see the gifts of Christian fellowship. In this small community there are some very large hearts, worshipping and working and seeking God together. God's gifts are shared here, every day-- by the people who serve in the liturgy, as well as bible study, education and outreach. Spiritual gifts of tongues and healing, as well as those indispensible casseroles.

Then, in a few minutes, be watching as bread and wine are brought forward to be blessed and broken-- to be for us the body and blood of Jesus, the Christ, given as the greatest gift of all. Think about what that means. Rather than taking a tidy, pragmatic approach, and trying to redeem creation by scrapping sinful humanity and starting over, God cared enough to choose a far messier path: one that led from from childbirth in a stable, to an ugly, bloody execution.

Paul remind us of this in Romans:

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us”

In other words, God, in her infinite wisdom and love, sees something in us worth saving, even at tremendously impractical cost. I won’t pretend to entirely understand it. I'm not sure that we can. I think all we can do is accept it, gratefully.

But there’s the next question: what does that mean, to accept? Can I just say, “Jesus lived and died and rose again for me. Isn’t that nice?” and go back to whatever I was doing? I don’t think so. It’s like any other relationship-- there has to be a connection between word and action, or it’s not real, not whole. I can tell Bruce I love him all day long, but if my behavior towards him doesn’t also indicate my love, how sincere can I be? Likewise, if we truly own God’s love and presence in our lives, we are necessarily forced to act on it. Like the magi, we can’t just sit home and admire the pretty new star from the comfort of our living room. As James reminds us, we need to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only.” Otherwise, we’re only deceiving ourselves.

Now, I’ll admit that the idea of living out this sort of Christian commitment can feel uncomfortable. It might mean changing in ways that we can't anticipate. It can be intimidating, and even a little scary. Ben said something about this, on the first Sunday he preached here, remember? He said the Gospel-- the Good News-- can seem more like a Good News/Bad News story. The Good News is that God loves us, each of us, exactly where and as we are. The Bad News is that he’s not inclined to leave us there.

And if we're being practical... well, it doesn’t always seem to make much sense, either. I’m very aware of that in my own life, right now. I mean, really-- look at this: I am currently in the middle of a 3-year seminary program, stretching our family’s resources, scrambling for scholarships and student loans, trying to earn a degree that will qualify me for a job that might pay almost as much as the one I held with only my bachelor’s degree, 20 years ago. And worse, my crazy husband thinks this is a good idea.

But you know, my pragmatic character is finding that this is a wonderful place to be. This is where faith comes in. And trust grows. And I’m learning to believe, more every day, that whenever God calls, God also provides, in innumerable, immeasurable ways. That’s the nature of the call to discipleship that we all share, and gifts for ministry we are all given-- whether lay, or ordained, or somewhere in between. All of God’s gifts are precious, and given to us to be given by us.

So, follow those impractical magi. Bring your gifts-- your time, your talents, and your treasure-- and lay them all at the feet of the Christ child.

Love, when it’s easier to be indifferent.

Step forward, when it’s easier to sit back.

Speak, when it’s easier to be silent.

Listen, when it’s easier to ignore.

Stay, when it’s easier to leave.

Take a deep breath, and give it all, knowing that it is for this purpose that we have been given-- and will be given-- “infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”


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