Text: Matthew 2:1-12
Oscar Wilde once said, “There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating – people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing.” A better known saying about the two kinds of people in the world comes from Gandhi. He writes: “My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition.” Robert Frost said it this way, “There are two kinds of people: some willing to work and the rest willing to let them.” And yet, it may very well be that Oliver Wendall Holmes penned my favorite saying about the two kinds of people in the world. He writes: “There are two kinds of people: those who go ahead and do something, and those who sit and inquire, ‘Why wasn’t it done the other way?’”
It is human character to divide people into categories. We identify people as introverted or extraverted; thinking or feeling; happy or sad; open-minded or close-minded; conservative or liberal. There are takers and givers; talkers and listeners; glass half-empty and glass half-full people. Suzanne Britt, a former Pullen member, who used to write a column for the News and Observer, once wrote a column about the two kinds of people in the world – beach people and mountain people.
Listen as Suzanne describes the two:
Beach people live in and through their skins, taking life in, letting it go, picking up here, leaving off there…the smell of suntan oil or low tides carries beach people, wherever they are, into porch swings and wet bathing suits. They can land, when a foghorn blows, in the middle of an inner tube on the green Atlantic.
Beach people love wind, salt, sensuality. They seek peace, freedom, conviviality. Their idea of fun is the whole family gulping down oysters over spread-out newspaper…they don’t care much about their hairdos and wouldn’t consider fixing a big meal in the middle of a gorgeous day. A cucumber or fifty-seven chocolate chip cookies will hold them until supper…Beach people are just out there, one with the universe, willy-nilly. They are having a snooze at lunch, scrambling eggs at dusk, raring to go at midnight. Beach people are hit or miss, but when they hit, they sometimes hit big…Beach people are, of course, in constant mortal danger. If beauty doesn’t get them, truth will.
Mountain people are firm, pale and traditional. They love fires, sweaters, hot drinks, leather books and holidays. They are maple trees, blue china, church, plaid and sunrise. The closest they get to a high passion is the spot of color in their cheeks after a jog through the bitter cold. They are prone to invigoration, not rest; solitude, not sociability; abstinence, not indulgence…They like a place bigger than they are.
Mountain people count on nature to tell them where they are and what time it is: they are up with the sun, chopping down trees, piling up mulch. They watch the seasons, live in anticipation, stand apart, give a grade to things. They are at the picture window, cozy and enchanted but ever objective. They do things right if they do them at all…From them we get memories of home, shelter from storms, warmth against dark, order against chaos, dry instead of wet. They send us out with hot breakfasts under our belts and solid ground under our feet.
I know. I have lost you. You are either trying to figure out if you are a beach person or mountain person given Suzanne’s descriptions, or you want to turn to your neighbor and declare: “I am a beach person.” Or, “I am a mountain person.” I’ll ask you to hold off on your declarations until we pass the peace in just a moment. For now, I want you to think with me about this idea of there being two kinds of people in the world and what, if any, its connection is to the story we have read of the magi’s visit to the Christ-child.
It seems to me that this Epiphany story also reveals two kinds of people: the Herods of the world and those who are the magi. There are the Herods – those who respond to life from a place of fear, jealousy, and mistrust. They react to life by wielding their power and enacting violence, defending what they believe is theirs to possess. They stand with their fists clinched tight, arms folded to protect and ready to defend. And then there are magi – those who live life from a place of trust and openness, following the mysterious and uncertain stars of love and mercy, and welcoming others with gifts of belonging and acceptance. They are the ones with their hands open and their arms outstretched ready to embrace what they know cannot be possessed but must surely be shared. Yes, there are the Herods of the world – those who respond to a school shooting by suggesting that we arm our teachers in the classroom with guns as if violence can prevent violence. And there are the magi – those who ask us to consider reaching out to the lonely and disturbed and mentally ill living in our communities letting them know that we care, that they too belong, that they are not forgotten.
You know what I must say next. There is a part of Herod that lives within all of us. That part that withdraws, defends, and lives small when faced with the uncertainty of school shootings and fiscal cliffs, concerned mostly with protecting what is personal. And there is a part of the magi living in all of us: that part that knows that when one person suffers from need, we all suffer, and so responds with generosity and acts of love and mercy.
Epiphany Sunday reminds us that there are two kinds of people in the world – the Herods and the magi. And the truth is that within each of us both live. For certain, the shadow of Herod does not represent the best of who we are, but to deny his presence puts us in danger of not recognizing or seeing him when he appears within us – those times when we live out of our fear rather than our freedom; when we seek to control from our place of power and privilege rather than allowing our acts of compassion and love to change us and others, and therefore the world.
Gandhi said that there are not only two kinds of people in the world; there are also two kinds of power. “One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear.”
The Epiphany story of the magi’s visit to the Christ-child is a reminder that any real power we possess is based on our acts of love one to another. It is a reminder that while there is a Herod in all of us, we are at our best when we are living as the magi – following the star that leads us to loving our neighbor, offering hope where there is despair, creating peace in places of conflict and bringing joy by generously sharing what God has entrusted to us.
The question on this Epiphany Sunday is not whether you are a beach person or a mountain person; extraverted or introverted; conservative or liberal. The Epiphany question is whether you will be a magi in 2013. Will you follow the star that just might lead you to new places, new ways of thinking and being, and then return you home by another road? Will you welcome the child that asks for compassionate arms to embrace those who are different, forgiving hearts that beat forgiveness to those who have hurt us, and faithful feet that march for justice for those who have no power or privilege or voice in our society? Our world needs fewer Herods and more magi. Will you, will we, be the magi?