New Year's Eve 2013...

Today is New Year's Eve day and I am thinking about my friends Peter and Joyce.  They are in the midst of serving a tour as peace-makers in Jerusalem.  I hope you will go to Peter's blog @ http://walkinginbethlehem.blogspot.com/ and keep on top of his encounters. He gives a loving, human face to the current occupation of Palestine. (It is also my hope that in January we can do a skype-link during Sunday worship and, Inshallah, bring them to the US after they return.)

For those who don't know, Peter and I first became blogging buddies about four years ago.  Joyce was a pastor with the United Church of Canada and Peter worked with First Nation peoples.  We discovered a common love of music through the Internet - a questioning and very challenging faith, too - and, in time, we became "ether friends." Then they took a trip South and visited Di and myself in Pittsfield for a few glorious days.  We played music, gabbed, went to Tanglewood and church and grew closer as the days have become years.  And now, in retirement, they are serving God's people in Jerusalem. (Please, take some time to read Peter's postings for more vibrant details, ok?)
What grabs me this morning is the juxtaposition of their work and mine.  Let's just say that the beauty and quiet I am celebrating today as we move into our winter retreat part two stands in contrast to the tragedy they confront every day. And maybe what really pulls at my heart is that this weekend marks the Feast of Epiphany.  In the West this has become the celebration of God's grace shared with the gentile nations beyond Israel. We know of the Magi - or Wise Ones - so after we sing, "We Three Kings" life goes on.

But this story is filled with wisdom and challenge.  In popular culture, for example, an epiphany is considered to be something of a sudden and unexpected "aha" moment.  It could be an out of nowhere insight into a personal problem.  It might be a surprise revelation about a relationship.  Or even a satisfying solution to something that has been vexing you for a long time.  In reality, however, epiphanies are rarely a sudden gift from beyond, but the result of a great deal of thought, study, conversation, prayer and reflection. It may feel like a sudden aha, but the truth usually cuts much deeper.

That's part of what the gospel story in Matthew 2 about the Magi suggests: the wise but mistrusted travelers from the East not only journeyed for a long time before reaching Bethlehem, but they also spent years of prayer and practice in their own religious tradition before they were able to trust the sacred signs revealed in the star.  So let's be clear: the Wise Men didn't just show up. They worked hard, they overcame fear and prejudice and they prayed deeply as a part of their sacred journey. As Peter sometimes writes:  there are hints of God's presence all over the place in the midst of this mess.

In my worship notes for this feast, there are three insights that I have found valuable:

+ First, the Magi were religious scholars from the East - literally from modern day Iraq - who were honored in their own home, but feared and mistrusted in by those in Israel.  Remember, many of Israel's invaders and conquerors came from the East. So the Wise Ones evoked fear, hatred and mistrust.  And while it is true that Father Abraham once hailed from the East, too his descendants had long ago broken any ties with their immigrant past. Part of what we honor today is that the Magi were faithful risk-takers eager to seek out and share something of God's grace in new ways.

+ Second, the Magi were agents of humility.  They realized that they needed the kindness of strangers in order to survive their trip. They were dependent upon radical hospitality to stay alive. What's more, they accepted that they didn't have a monopoly on wisdom for they had to consult and cooperate with Jewish scribes and priests to understand the meaning of the star. Not only did they have to own their own limits with humility, the also had to honor a religious tradition very different from their own. If you will, the Magi were practicing and encouraging religious tolerance and respect millenia before it became politically correct.

+ Third, the Magi show us something about what it means to be generous guests.  They showed respect to their hosts, they brought the Christ Child gifts and they invited everyone at the manger to join in their worship of the Lord regardless of history or racial background. One way of reading the text suggests that when the Wise Ones were overcome by joy at finding the Christ Child, they fell to their knees and worshiped God. Not necessarily Jesus, but God as they knew the Holy One. They invited those where were there together with Mary and Joseph to join in the prayers.  Together we see people of different religious, ethnic and cultural traditions worshiping the presence of God in their own ways.  

I am holding Peter and Joyce close to my heart today as they honor and incarnate the wisdom of the Magi in their own unique ways.  They, too are risk-takers for understanding and compassion - humble people of God's spirit who are encouraging religious tolerance and cooperation - strangers in a strange land practicing generosity and humility.  God be with them.

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