Rev. Jill Komura Epiphany Sunday, Year C
Prayer: Gracious God, illuminate our reading of your gospel today, and keep your beacon star
leading us on the path you call us to follow, day by day, seeking you and living into your
When I was growing up, I was fascinated by the subject of celestial navigation. I read
avidly the accounts of ancient mariners traveling unknown seas and explorers trekking
through plains and deserts, and wondered at their ability to orient themselves by the stars,
even amidst vast land and seascapes devoid of traditional landmarks. We all have beacons,
physical and metaphorical, which draw us from afar, or which we use to navigate amidst
life’s constant change. What are the stars by which you reckon? What are the stars which
beckon to us, as a community?
Even though we always include the magi among the crèche characters at Christmas,
most of the Jesus birth story comes to us from Luke’s gospel, and is completely
disconnected from today’s story from the gospel of Matthew, about the magi visiting Herod
and following the star to Bethlehem. Luke’s story world is the countryside of the working
poor, with shepherds, sheep and a manger; Matthew’s story world is the capital city, and
deals with wealthy kings, foreign emissaries, and the powerful priestly class. Just as the
Lukan gospel writer’s birth story anticipates his themes, such as Jesus’ ministry to the
marginalized, today’s story illustrates many of the Matthean gospel writer’s themes. There
is the juxtaposition of two kingdoms that the gospel writer will contrast: the divine
kingdom of God represented by Jesus, and the earthly one, represented by Herod. There is
the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leadership, depicted here as knowing the scripture
promise of a coming savior, but not taking action, like the foreign magi, to search out and
pay homage to the promised Messiah. This is the same priestly class starkly depicted later
in Matthew’s gospel as Jesus’ accusers and prosecutors. And there is the significant note
near the end of today’s story that the magi were “warned in a dream” not to return home
the way they had come. This is also a typical Matthean device, illustrating the role God
plays, intervening actively but subtly to shift events, such as conveying life-direction
changing wisdom in human dreams.
The “wise men” of Matthew’s gospel were not kings, despite the famous song lyrics.
They were most likely master practitioners of the occult, from Persia, Assyria and Babylon;
the word “magi” in the gospel, translated from the Greek, comes out closest to a word
meaning magician, astrologer or sorcerer. Such watchers and readers of the universe’s
changes and signs in pagan cultures often made note of new astral phenomena as
portending major events in the human realm—such as the birth of a new ruler or shift in
the fortunes of a people. Some scholars believe that Matthew’s gospel story of the magi
journeying far and wide in their search for the new king illustrated the strand of Jewish
tradition that even Gentile nations would send emissaries to honor the Messiah’s coming,
and that the star was God’s grace, reaching out to invite salvation for all nations.
Despite being outsiders, the wise men are portrayed as spiritual seekers, motivated
by the desire for understanding and divine wisdom. After enduring long journeys from far
away lands, they arrive in Jerusalem asking qustions: Where?” they say to Herod and the
Jewish priests and scribes, experts in the law, supposedly the people in charge and in the
know. “Where can we find this newborn king of the Jews?” Despite being Gentile outsiders,
they seem to know whom they seek. Herod, meanwhile, is portrayed as the scheming liar.
He was an Idumean, a man who did much for the cultural achievements of Jerusalem, but
who was viewed as a puppet of Roman imperial rule. He turns to the priests and scribes to
tell him about the messianic prophecy involving Bethlehem, tells the wise men to go, find
the infant savior, and come back and tell the king where the child is, so Herod himself can
–err – “go pay homage.” Everyone reading or hearing the story knows that Herod’s motives
are much more murderous than that.
If Herod is the villain of today’s story, though, the magi are the heroes and the
models to be emulated in their seeking for God. As people of God, we, too, spend our lives
seeking and searching, praying for that epiphany moment when we might meet our savior
face to face; when we might kneel and offer whatever gifts we might have to bring.
However, the stars by which we generally reckon are even more transitory than the one
that drew the magi from their eastern homelands to Bethlehem.
So often because when a phase of our life existence comes to an end, all the
motivations that drove us, and the markers that accompanied that period of our life also
disappear. Diapers and strollers and carseats have their day and then are gone as the
children around whom we centered our lives grow up and move on to their own lives.
Working months and years and decades spent living according to the rhythm of tax season
or the quarters of the fiscal year, may end with retirement and leave us feeling out of sync,
with no goals or deadlines. If you spend years raising children or working in schools, it may
take decades before you stop looking around expectantly in August, feeling vaguely guilty
that you are not attending meetings, planning curriculum, writing syllabi, or shopping for
binders and sturdy shoes. Or maybe someone you oriented your days and years around has
departed, you realize one day that you no longer see the pill case and jump up to remind
someone to take his or her medication. Or maybe your route home no longer involves
stopping by the veterinarian’s office to pick up that special kidney diet pet food.
When we experience some big change in our lives, it is the language of
disorientation we use. We talk about feeling “at sea” or just “lost.” Disoriented, maybe still
grieving, we look around for familiar landmarks, and find they are gone, or our relationship
with them has changed irretrievably. Like the wise men, we are left asking, “Where?”
Where to next? Which star to follow? Where is God leading me now?
In his classic book, Transitions, William Bridges talks about coping with the difficult
changes in life. He points out that we are generally taught in our schooling that moving
ahead in life is an additive process; for example, we are not expected to unlearn what we
absorbed in first grade in order to move on to second grade. Yet, so many of life’s biggest
transitions require distancing ourselves from, or simply letting go of the signs and
identifiers of our past before we can move forward in a healthy way into the next phase of
our lives. Unfortunately, this means that what is already a scary-feeling process feels even
more unnatural. Not only do we not want to let go of what is known and familiar, but to do
so seems to be giving up a piece of our identity that we may have worked long and hard to
develop. Without that former identity, we worry that we will be left with a reduced sense of
ourselves, or even worse, no identity at all.
This is especially true when the end of the last phase is precipitated because some
negative event has occurred: you’ve been fired or downsized from your job; your
relationship breaks up; your loved one dies. We are all horders of our own identities in this
sense. We do not want to let go of the selves we have been, even if the settings and
relationships where that self once thrived and had a part to play are now gone. We may
horde not only our identities, but the physical and symbolic objects that represent those
identities as well. Mementoes and photographs are one thing. Gotta keep some evidence
around to explain the past to the next generation. But—when the old stuff piles up so that it
prevents us from making space for the life-giving growth of the new (and you can envision
entire rooms, homes, garages and barns full of long-since obsolete, un-used equipment,
files, clothing, vehicles, logbooks and manuals), we have a pathology and a problem.
This is also worth considering as a congregation in transition. What were our old
reckoning points at The United Churches? What will our new ones be? What parts of our
denominational and congregational identities are we still trying to horde? What physical
and symbolic objects – liturgically, structurally, organizationally– from the 19th and 20th
century identity of “church” do we’ve found alternatives that are more appropriate and
relevant to our 21st century lives together as a community of faith? We are not plankton in
the sea, bobbing along in the tides waiting for the wind and the waves to wash us in some
new direction, or leave us in a stagnant eddy. It is up to us to find our new stars, and that
goes far beyond finding a pastor to walk with us on whatever journey we choose.
In faith communities everywhere through the course of history, it was the people of
each congregation—who provided the anchoring continuity and grounding hope, despite
merry go rounds of pastoral leadership and fractured and warring polity. In the eyes of the
gospel writer of Matthew, the magi may have symbolized the bridge between the old ways
of pagan Gentile wisdom and Jewish scripture and tradition, on the one hand, and the new
path to salvation through Jesus. What will be our new path as we journey together in faith
as The United Churches? What star will we follow for guidance as we continue to seek
God’s way in the year 2016? Like the magi, we must watch the horizon carefully, expect to
journey long and far, and make careful note of any messages in our dreams. Amen.