Sermons: By Another Road

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, Matthew says, they had been watching. We don’t know how many nights they had been up, but finally one of them saw a star, the star, that signaled the One for whom they had been waiting. "Hey," one says with an elbow. "Is that it?" They begin packing.

In that time, Herod’s time, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem. Magi, which can mean anything from astrologers to sorcerers, came with a question: "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?" We don’t know how quiet they were, or if they had a long caravan, but somehow the question found its the way to the throne room. But there is already a king here, Herod said. He was frightened, Matthew says, troubled, anxious, and when Herod was troubled, the rest of the city knew they should be, too. The king’s chief of staff pulls in his counsel – priests and scribes, researchers and think tank fellows, folks whose job it is to know things. Who is this One? Where is he to be born? What are we to do about this inconvenience?

They gather and negotiate, quoting Micah 5 and 2 Samuel 5, pointing to Bethlehem, the village of David, the shepherd-king. Herod listens to his official counsel, sneak in the magi on the side. He plays dumb, inquiring of the time of the star’s appearance, then leans back with a smile, in a line that Andrew Feiler played with perfect irony at the Christmas Pageant: "Go and search for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage," so I may go ‘worship’ him….

Herod lets them go, and their caravan passes all sorts of monuments to that King’s glory – the turrets up high stone walls, soldiers by the gate. They leave the city behind, down the hill to Bethlehem, as the star slows, knowing they would soon lay eyes on the one who will be the king of the Jews. And they end up walking in to meet the son of a carpenter. I wonder if anybody asked if they were sure they were in the right place? Yet soon their joy became worship. They scrambled to the camels and brought in gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh. We don’t know whether this was right after the baby was born, or some months later. But there was something in that encounter for them, for Jesus, and for these new parents short of sleep, that God was among them. They knelt down, fell down to worship, proskuneó, they prostrated themselves on the ground before him, the Lord, Emmanuel.

Then it was time to go, one reminding another of a dream he had a few days prior. Matthew has shown us the power of dreams. After the genealogy to begin his gospel, we meet Mary, engaged to Joseph, "found to be with child from the Holy Spirit." Matthew tells us that once Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy – and her assumed infidelity – he had resolved to dismiss her quietly. But an angel appeared in a dream. The angel’s words in the dream are the heart of Matthew’s telling, telling us what is going to happen and, more importantly, why it matters, quoting Isaiah in chapter 1 verse 23 just like the scribes quote Micah and Samuel in 2:6, with the introduction to Mary and Joseph before and the simple birth announcement afterwards. The dream changed everything, and after it Joseph wakes up, marries her, and the baby Jesus is born. So, when Matthew says 14 verses later that the wise men also have a dream, this means something. The mighty King asked them to report back and they, implicitly at least, had agreed. But something in this dream was powerful enough to persuade them to go against the wishes of mighty Rome’s representative in the Middle East, to head out of the country by another road.

I think it’s this other road, another way, which has something for us as we begin 2016. The magi left the centers of power, following the star to a house in a village, and were shown the true King, not with power over governments, over military might, but power to redeem all creation. The power wasn’t where they thought it was, and that tells us something critically important about who God is. Especially this election year, with so much overwhelming news attention – of every little thing a particular candidate says or does, what his or her hair looks like, what slip-up they made because they are recorded 14 hours a day, when that slip-up reveals something important, and when it doesn’t. But this text tells us – so much of scripture tells us – that we are to look to below, to ALL of God’s extraordinary creatures, most often the ones that don’t make the news. THAT is where we find Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. In the shelter line, in the aisle of Wal-Mart. Taking out the trash, listening to a neighbor. Leaning against the halls at school, alone. That doesn’t mean that politics are unimportant or things people of faith should stay out of all the time, but too often the NOISE is a distraction from where the real work is happening. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in a powerful new book called, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence – he says that religion finds its heart… "not among the rulers but among the ruled, not in the palaces of power but in the real lives of ordinary men and women who become extraordinary when brushed by the wings of eternity. It becomes the voice of the voiceless, the conscience of the community, the perennial reminder that there are moral limits of power and that the task of the state is to serve the people, not the people the state."1 Faith at its best, the Christian faith at its best, tells us that civilizations, churches, people, are judged not by power but by their concern for the powerless; not by wealth but by how they treat the poor; not when they seek to become invulnerable but when they care for the vulnerable.2 When they meet their neighbors, white or black, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, of any faith or no faith, still as beloved, created in the image of God. And we serve ALL people, and we serve together.

In the village of al-Qosh, in the northern, Kurdish region of Iraq where Iraq, Syria, and Turkey come together, a narrow doorway opens into a courtyard. The path to the wooden door of an 800 year-old synagogue is overgrown with weeds and shrubs; its walls are crumbling and, in parts, completely fallen down. Nestled between densely built Iraqi homes and the ancient Assyrian churches of al-Qosh, the synagogue, believed to be the burial place of the prophet Nahum, lies in near-ruin. The Jewish residents are long gone, many having fled after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Since then, a man named Sami Nasir and his extended family has taken over the upkeep of the abandoned synagogue. They unlock doors, sweep the floors and remove trash brought in from the wind or left by visitors. Nasir is a Christian, like most of the residents of al-Qosh, and took over this responsibility from his father. When Nasir’s father passed away, he told him, "No matter how much God gives you in life, you must take care of this place."

It keeps becoming more dangerous. Numerous villages in the region have fallen under the control of ISIS militants. Fighting has not yet reached al-Qosh, but a village 20 minutes away was besieged, then recaptured, and is still a location of fierce fighting between ISIS militants, Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Christian factions who have emerged. The synagogue seems largely forgotten excerpt for the occasional Danish or German tourist. Nasir is increasingly concerned about the safety of his family, for good reason, but for now feels called to stay, to take care of this holy place, to be a steward of its history, out of his own faith, for the people of another. His father’s words ring in his ears: "No matter how much God gives you in life, you must take care of this place." And so they have followed a different path, and in a region defined by religious conflict, and choose to sweep, pick up trash, repair barbed wire, and set out candles for the handful of tourists who come and pray.3

It’s easy to get drawn towards the seats of the power -the allure is awfully tempting. And there are times for the church to advocate broader, structural change. But the world’s power can’t save us. The angel in the dream didn’t send the wise men to the Herod’s palace, but by a different road. I’m going to work my hardest in 2016, and I hope you’ll join me, to not get distract by ceaseless chattering in or about the halls of so-called "power." I’m going to look some different places, with regular people acting with kindness and compassion. Where people get their hands dirty picking up a broom like Sami, to tend someone else’s faith and history, to pick up trash in our streets. Working to build authentic bridges in a world of brutality and terror and too much demonizing of "the other," too much fear. Here in a few moments we’ll gather around our Lord’s table, to which He welcomes all who seek to follow. And we’ll pray that God might give us too some small glimpse, some epiphany, of that kind of way, for the year to come.

All praise be to God. Amen.

1. Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, (New York: Schocken Books, 2015), p. 236.
2. Also Sacks, 236.
3. "On IS front line, Iraqi Christians left to care for abandoned synagogue," Middle East Eye. With thanks to the Rev. Mark Davidson.


Sermons: By Another Road

Psalm 147:12-20
Matthew 2:1-12

After all of the buildup, thanks be to God, the baby is born. The messiah. The king. As the angel Gabriel says to Mary in the text from just two weeks ago – though it seems like an eternity: "…you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus…. and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

But, as Matthew makes clear as chapter two begins, there is a king already. In that time, in his time, King Herod’s time, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem. Magi, which can mean anything from astrologers to sorcerers, came with a question: "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?"

This question echoed all the way to the throne room. But there is already a king here, Herod said. He was frightened, Matthew says, troubled, anxious, and when Herod was troubled, the rest of the city knew they should be, too. The king’s chief of staff pulls in his counsel – priests and scribes, researchers and opinion page editors, folks whose job it is to know things. Who is this One? Where is he to be born? What are we to do about this inconvenience?

They gather and negotiate, quoting from Micah 5 and 2 Samuel 5, pointing to Bethlehem, the village of David, the great shepherd-king. Herod gets advice from the priests and scribes, calls in the magi on the side. He plays dumb, asking for the time of the star’s appearance, then leans back with a smile, in a line that crackles with sinister energy:1 "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage."

The wise men’s caravan passes the stonework, the turrets up high, the crowds at the market, soldiers by the gate – down the hill to Bethlehem. Their heart rate increased as they got closer, as the star froze in the sky, knowing they would lay eyes, soon, on the one who will be the king of the Jews. And they end up, with all these fancy gifts, walking in to meet the son of a carpenter. I wonder if anybody asked if they were sure they were in the right place? Can the One to rule over all come from these people? Yet in that moment of confusion something happened, their joy became worship, overwhelmed. They saw the child with his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then came the gifts, as they scrambled back to the camels and brought them in, gold, frankincense, myrrh. For a few moments they just knelt there, staring. Then it was time to go, as they back out of the house, one reminding another of a dream he had a few days before, warning them against Herod the king. They plot their return by another road.

It’s this final verse, tagged on, that interests me. "And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road." This is part of what Matthew does – Joseph dreams in chapter one, there are a couple of examples here in chapter 2, sending them both to and away from Egypt. This dream sends them out a different road, hodos, another way, another road, a different journey.2 This is a word that can be used both literally – as road, ground, what you travel on, as well as more metaphorically. Journey. The way, like later in Matthew – the way of righteousness (21:32) or as we get into the book of Acts as The Way, a name for the early church (9:2). But in this case the dream, God, offers the magi a different chance. Safe passage. Possibilities. A route they couldn’t have imagined, to tell that good news of the king, the true king, born for the world.

It seems like an appropriate thing to think about this Epiphany, the first Sunday of 2015. I wonder if God might have ‘another road’ in store for you – a nudge towards an area in your life in which you need to listen really carefully to God. Maybe there is a relationship you need to work on. Or a problem you need to address slightly differently. Maybe it’s something about the contours of your faith that you need to think about. This is not a silly new year’s resolution to go to the gym or lose weight or pay more attention to your family, though those are fine things. This is about a way God might show us. I pray for another way for so much of our world….for people in poverty and for those trying to help. For our leaders. For brothers and sisters who struggle with addiction. Who fight mental illness. Who are exhausted caring for someone they love who is sick. For our city. For us, that we might be a church that shines brightly, that by our prayers and our living transforms lives in Durham, rolling up our sleeves, committing all of ourselves, not for us, but as we point to Jesus. A different way for our world filled with so much violence. For God to show us something, to – in the midst of the brokenness that surrounds – be given a glimpse of the possibilities that God is creating.

My brother-in-law Robert sent me a note a few weeks back about a story he had read in the book April 1865, by Jay Winik. On the 9th of that month, Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, formally ending with Civil War. So much uncertainty remained. "And the people looked," Winik wrote, "for some sign of healing." Later that spring, he writes, it was a warm Sunday at St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. An older man, one of the church’s distinguished communicants, sat in his customary pew. With his shoulders rounded, his middle thickened, his hair snow white and beard gray, he attracted the attention of the church every time he moved. But then, later on in worship proceeded, someone else did. After the preliminaries, after the sermon, as communion began, a tall, well-dressed African American man sitting in the western gallery stood up and walked to the communion table. This had never happened before. Whites received communion first, then blacks. This is the way it had always been done, this one small act, Winik writes, a great frontier separating two worlds: the first being the antebellum south, the second being that of post-civil war America.

The congregation froze. The minister froze, too. The man lowered his body, kneeling. Yet after what seemed like an interminable amount of time the white man – the one from earlier – rose, his gait erect, head up and eyes proud, and quietly walked up to the rail. His face was a portrait of exhaustion, and he looked older than most people remembered from when the war had begun. These days had been hard on him. Recently, in a rare, unguarded moment, he had blurted out – "I’m homeless – I have nothing on earth!"

"Yet these Richmonders," Winik writes, "and much of the south, still looked to him for a sense of purpose and guidance. No less so now as, with quiet dignity and self-possession, he knelt down to partake of communion, along the same rail with the black man. Watching Robert E Lee [come forward], the other communicants slowly followed in his path, going forward to the altar and, with a mixture of reluctance and fear, hope and awkward expectation, into the future."3

We know Lee’s act didn’t solve a set of really complicated problems, issues still quite real to us today. It didn’t make reconstruction go smoothly. But for a moment these anxious folks were given a glimpse, an epiphany, of a way home by a different road. Of people kneeling together, in peace. Here in a few moments we’ll gather around our Lord’s table. And we’ll pray that God might give us some small glimpse, for the year to come.

All praise be to God. Amen.

1. This great language comes from the Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s paper at The Well, 2012, Montreat.
2. I am thankful for this note from MaryAnn, too.
3. From "April 1865: The Month That Saved America," by Jay Winik. My thanks to Robert Edgecombe for pointing this out to me.