Text: Matthew 2:1-12
In my adult life I have been fortunate enough to have visited six foreign countries: Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, Russia, the Republic of Georgia, and England. In March, I will make a visit to our sister partnership in Nicaragua. On each of the six trips I have taken to other countries, part of the preparation has been deciding on what gifts I would take to those who would serve as my hosts. Over the years, I have learned just how important this ritual of traveling with gifts is when visiting foreign places. In fact, when I went to Vladivostok to get Nora, the suitcase carrying the gifts I would leave for the orphanage and the people coordinating her adoption was larger than the one carrying my clothes and other essentials. While I have never traveled with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, being a good Southerner, I have taken North Carolina jams and jellies and other tasty Southern delights to the people who would welcome me into their country. I imagine the good people in Tbilisi are still eating strawberry jam and North Carolina peanuts. It has also been my practice, when traveling to distant countries, to travel with a few extra gifts for those unexpected stops and stays—another good Southern practice. Handkerchiefs and scarves don’t take up much space in one’s suitcase.
The story of the magi traveling afar with their mysterious and precious gifts reminded me of my own travels and participating in what seems to be a long-standing tradition of showing up bearing gifts. I was reminded again of my trip to Tbilisi with Jack McKinney and how we spent quite a bit of time discussing ahead of time what gifts each of us would take. It would seem that men and women have different ideas about what gifts are appropriate to pack when traveling. Some have speculated that if the wise men had been wise women Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus would have received diapers, casseroles, and a helping hand cleaning the stable instead of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I’m not sure such type-casting is really helpful, but it is interesting to think about how we reflect who we are in the gifts we give. I tend to give gifts that have symbolic meaning or represent a memory or hope, rather than something practical or useful. I suppose, though, that both are important, for I rather like getting gifts that I can use as well as those that hold symbolic meaning. And who, in their right mind, would turn down a little gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
In truth, we really don’t know if the magi were wise men or women. The story has been translated to say wise men, but in the Greek the word is actually magos meaning magi. The term refers to a priestly or religious caste of people who paid particular attention to the stars and gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at the time highly regarded as a science. We also don’t know how many magi actually made the journey to look for the baby Jesus. Christian tradition has surmised three because of the three gifts, but more than likely there were more than three. We also don’t know how long the journey took them. Again, Christian tradition has them traveling for twelve days, but other traditions note that the journey could have taken up to two years. What we do know is that their journey, as told by the gospel writer of Matthew, has captured our biblical imaginations for centuries. In all too real ways, it reminds us of the Herod among us and within us—power gone amuck—while encouraging us to be the one who follows the star, who listens to our dreams, and worships the God who came to us in human form—Immanuel—God with us.
I was surprised this week when reading this story, of how relevant Herod is to our times and just how applicable his display of power and greed is to our society. Herod was a political power—he was literally considered the king of the Jews. And that position of power was so important to him, specifically maintaining that position of power, that he responds to the news of a newborn, who could threaten his position, with aggressive violence. It is the dangerous dance of power and fear, one that feels familiar to us, a nation of power and powerful people, who have responded, out of our own fear, to our world with aggressive violence to protect our own position. When a new threat to political power is born, we are immediately uncomfortable, even reactive. It is what we hear in the political debates today: reaction, aggression, and fear. As I thought about this story this week, it seemed unconscionable not to see this story in the political framework within which it happened, and to consider what that means for us as people of faith living in a highly politicized world.
This week the lectionary group decided to take a field trip and visit the Occupy Raleigh encampment. We had no agenda other than to read the lectionary text before leaving the church and then see what, if any, connections we could make to the text and the Occupy movement once there. We didn’t debrief as a group once our visit was over, but throughout this week I have continued to think about the connections. Whether you see the Occupy movement as an important, valid movement to challenge the status quo or as an aimless bunch of obstructionists creating chaos in our streets, it is undeniable that it has created a strong response. And I would argue that the strength of our collective reaction to the Occupy movement shows how attached or invested we are to the current power structure in our country. When I asked the woman coordinating the Occupy Raleigh movement why she had become so involved, she said that it was her way of showing up and saying that she doesn’t believe that our country is headed in the right direction. When I asked her, in a follow-up question, if she believed she was making a difference her exact quote was, “I wouldn’t have slept out here last night in 18 degree weather if I didn’t think what I was doing was making a difference.” It made me wonder if, indeed, sometimes just showing up makes a difference.
We often cite the mantra here at Pullen, “Show up. Pay attention. Speak your truth in love. And don’t be attached to the outcomes.” Maybe there is a reason that showing up is the first step. Maybe it is our presence that truly matters when it comes to making a difference in our world. Before we can offer our gifts, before we comprehend where the star might lead us or where our dreams take us or what other road we might travel down, we first have to show up and be present. It is so easy to focus on the gifts—to think about what we are giving or what we will bring for someone else. But what if the real gift is simply showing up? What if the real gift is being present to the moment—to God leading and speaking? How would we be different as a community if our individual gift this year to the church was showing up?
The story of Herod and the magi is both a political and spiritual narrative. It says something about what happens to us when we allow power and fear to control us. And it says something important and significant to us about the spiritual power we possess when we show up and open ourselves to God’s presence in the world. In showing up, the magi discover the truth of Herod. They also discover the source of the joy they felt when they first saw the star at its rising. It was in showing up that they learned what it meant to follow their dream and return home by another road.
At the first meeting of those preparing for the March Nicaragua trip, one of the participants who had been before reflected on his first trip. He said that in preparing for that trip he wondered why we didn’t just send all the money that was being spent on airfare and travel to help financially support our AMOS partnership in Nicaragua. But he then reflected that after having gone to Nicaragua what felt most important to him was our presence there—showing up and offering our support through actually working alongside our partners. He reminded me that while our gifts are not insignificant, it is in showing up and being present that we give our most precious gift.
If you are looking for your star, if you are trying to follow your dreams, if you are looking for another road by which to go home, what I can say to you today is that you don’t need to know the answer or the end-point or even what gifts you need to pack. All you have to do is listen to that calling that is within you, be present to it, and show up.