Sermon: January 8, 2012
The day after I arrived in Jerusalem, I hopped a city bus for Bethlehem.
Walking to Bethlehem or riding to Bethlehem from where I lived in the
holy land took about the same amount of time.
Busing was just easier; easier when ascending the long hill to the Church of the Nativity, the place where Jesus was born.
The day after I arrived in Jerusalem, I was dropped off in Manger Square.
Manger Square seemed to be about the same size as our capitol square.
But its surface was all concrete.
There were few trees, no flowers or grass that I remember.
In its center there was of course no state capitol, just large rectangular boxes painted on the pavement marking the spaces for tour buses.
“WATCH FOR TOUR BUSES! WATCH FOR TOUR BUSES” (This is what we were told.)
“IF YOU ARRIVE AT BETHLEHEM’S MANGER SQUARE AND YOU SEE NO TOUR BUSES, LEAVE IMMEDIATELY! YOU MAY BE IN GRAVE DANGER!”
Tour bus drivers always know. (This is what we were told)
“They will not go to places where rumors warn of more than the usual danger”
On one side of the square stood the Church of the Nativity. Huge. Multi-angled. Fortress looking, with bricked up ancient doors (large enough for chariots) while outside the cacophony of street hawkers in languages ever changing shouted
“Buy your crosses here! Buy your postcards here…..”
After hopping off the bus in Manger Square and locating the entrance to the church, I entered through the small door to the place where Jesus was born.
Twenty years ago, going to Bethlehem seemed so easy.
Today, this Epiphany Sunday, the day when we remember the arrival of the Wise Men. And as part of this church’s tradition for a few years, it is also the Sunday when we emphasize and celebrate the Prison Ministry Project as rooted here in this church.
Today, when walking or riding to Bethlehem……all people, whether walking majestically as in the Gospel of Matthew or riding on a donkey as Mary, all will line up at the primary check point on that very same road from Jerusalem;
with proper documents,
with proper appearance,
waiting for approval after answering many questions
(Why are you going…to Bethlehem.?
Who are you seeing in Bethlehem
how long will you be in Bethlehem?
watching for the gates to open allowing them into the city where Jesus was born.
If carrying gifts, you have just complicated the border crossing …
your gifts will be X-rayed.
your gifts may be opened.
Then maybe confiscated.
As a frequent traveler to Bethlehem said to me recently” if carrying gold,
frankincense or myrhh, just forget it.”
Once upon a time, getting into Bethlehem was easy.
Now it is strangely familiar to trying to get into other places around the world where there are walls with razor wire and gates with guards or soldiers, separating peoples on one side from those on the other
Christ has been born!
The Wise Men have entered the story and have managed to find Jesus.
Welcome again to Epiphany Sunday.
This story from the Gospel of Matthew has snagged human imaginations for 2000 years.
Poets like William Carlos Williams and William Butler Yeats have wrapped their words around the visit of the wise men. Longfellow gave them their names.
Artists around the world have painted the scene, music has been composed in their honor and most every year, Garrison Keillor gives them his own spin.
Yet, truth be told, so much has been made about which we know so little.
We do not know who they were. We do not know where they came from. We do not know how many….( Only that there were three gifts.) We do not know how long it took for them get to Bethlehem or how old Jesus was when they arrived. We are not even sure about the star.
It’s not that facts don’t matter. Because they do matter. It’s just that they don’t matter as much as the story.
There’s something about this story that continues to draw us in.
COULD IT BE THAT somehow, we too know a time when we were just minding ourown business, doing what we had always been doing when ….. a light lodged inside our heart or a thought swirled inside our head,or a vision appeared…
Something beyond our self, our singular self, seemed to call us away from all that we had known.
Calling and saying Get up. Leave the familiar. Move to another place.
Name that something what you may: God, a higher power, a divine nudge, a star. The men in Matthew 2 were most likely astrologers. A Star was as good an explanation as any.
Before that nudge or that vision or that star, each of us in our own country had been diligently working on many things in life to find whatever we were looking for;
that comfort in our own skin and we excelled in many things too!
We excelled through books and lessons of all kinds, even yoga lessons.
Some of us in our own country began reading fortunes, others doing magic, but one day, when applying mathematics and scanning the heavens everything changed.
OR COULD IT BE THAT this story (this one with so few facts) continues to fascinate because once in a while we find ourselves in the Jerusalems of the world with all
the power brokers
and all the egos> …
face to face with ones who built the walls in the first place, who
unjustly then make the rules
about who finds favor or who does not, that in this story there is the story of perseverance for those who need it (That was one whale of a long walk., Caspar! But you did it! Good for you! )
That in this story there is a story of courage for those who need it (Belthasar, you went where? to the King Herod ? You said what to him? Are you nuts? Well you survived! Good for you!)
Could it be that in this story we also find sprinkled in, bits of subversion ? After all, the three did not obey orders
On Christmas day while just minding my own business, cooking and stirring, listening to NPR I heard a snip of an interview with a Jewish scholar who was asked about the Story of the Wise Men as found in Matthew.
This rabbi and a group of Christian scholars from Vanderbilt had just finished reworking the gospel of Matthew from a contemporary Jewish perspective.
What do you make of this story? “ the interviewer asked. “Very odd one to be sure. Travelers searching out King Herod , the absolutely crazy King of the Jews asking where is born the king of the Jews// Either the wise ones were terribly naïve asking such a question of such a brutal man… or there was another reason to the story.
Our group wondered, “she went on” if this story was placed here as a bit of humor.
Early Jewish people would have gotten the joke… we not so much.
So much has been made of what is so little know. And here we are: 2000 years later, still peeking in through layers of history …. ; pulling back the velvet, gold and marble, putting aside the smells of incense ,candles and animals, hearing the hum of continual prayers in the night air,
pulling it all back to the
soil and straw and desert sand with the cold and dampness all about.
But somewhere off this very day, can you see them? Still another group is sitting around a campfire waiting for the all clear signal from Jerusalem.
They may look a little disheveled now, exhausted from worry and fear; the hems on their noble robes are now frayed and dragging on the ground ; that happened of course from tripping over road blocks not printed on their maps. Their crowns have lost their luster. Yours would too running around after camels behaving badly,.
But they are together sitting in the circle and they are reorganizing. Tossing out old maps , shoring each other up for the next try while smells of supper fill the air.
They know how important it is to have food for the journey. The time is nigh..
Night is beautiful and stars are out in full delight.
Yes, the travelers may not look good, but they still have their crowns and they still have their gifts for Jesus.
As they get up from around the campfire, we hear them reminding one another To hold their heads up high (easier for crown wearing) and stay Brave as they begin once again to slowly put one foot in front of another.
After all, this is also a story about faith. Not always knowing where you are going but going anyway.
And lastly something else is happening, as we end this story. If we listen
very carefully we
might be able to hear the melody that they are beginning to hum….
“Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder……