Welcoming Star Seekers
Preached at the Inter-Church Council of Wollaston and North Quincy
“Feast of Lights” Epiphany Service
on January 6th, 2019
at Sacred Heart Parish, Quincy
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
This is our 43rd time of reading the ancient story of the Epiphany together. The star, the wise men, the holy family, are gathered in tableau again. And the readings, the music, the hymns, the candle light warm our hearts and the ancient story continues to speak to us.
And so, let us visit Jerusalem in Judea, once more, and listen to what the wise men have to tell us.
You will remember that the magi, or the wise men, come from the East. They are the ones who observe the heavenly bodies looking for signs and portents. Buried somewhere in their ancient writings, there is a prophecy that links this particular star with a momentous event in human history.
They know this means the coming of a new king for the Jewish people who live to their west. This nation has a reputation throughout the ancient world, as people of the book. Their revelation comes to them through prophecies and scriptures. They are learned and respected, their ancient religion is tolerated by the Roman Empire.
And yet, the Jewish people are oppressed and undermined by the Romans who occupy their land. Judea is ruled by King Herod, who pays only lip service to the requirements of Judaism. He resides in the palace in Jerusalem, and is a puppet king for Rome, compliant with the occupiers who indulge his appetites.
The magi journey westward for weeks, with a camel caravan of travelers. The star they followed to Jerusalem is no longer visible. Perhaps it is daytime, or the lights of the city obscure the night sky. They stop here at the palace and consult with the current ruler of the Jews. Wouldn’t King Herod by overjoyed to hear of the coming king, a child, who is going to shepherd all of Israel?
The guards at the gate survey the magi with suspicion. Offerings from their treasure chest buy them an audience with the king. Herod languishes on his plush couch listening with half an ear to the magi’s story of a guiding star, his ears prick when he hears the words “new king of the Jews.”
Herod is not at all overjoyed. These words arouse his deepest fears. He knows, in his heart, he has been acting against the God of Israel.
The magi are taken to a waiting room, not even offered a cup of water. Meanwhile Herod nervously consults the chief priests and scribes to see what they know. Ancient writings tell that the anointed one is expected to be born in Bethlehem of Judea, just a few miles outside of Jerusalem.
Herod calls back the magi and asks them to search carefully for the child, and to return to the palace to tell Herod where to find him. Herod feigns devotion, but he is plotting something sinister.
The magi return to the road. As they turn in the direction of Bethlehem the star appears again. It leads them right to the humble home where Mary, Joseph and Jesus live. The parents are astonished to see these dignified travelers arrive at their doorway.
They appear as foreign kings, and the young parents are intimidated. And yet with characteristic Middle Eastern hospitality they invite them in. Mary pours tea, and offers them a share of their simple supper.
As the magi stoop to enter the humble home, they are overcome with joy. Here is what they are seeking: a little child, squirming in Mary’s lap.
Their eyes fill with tears and they kneel on the dirt floor, worshipping the infant. They are moved to open their treasure chest, exposing all that they possess. They offer precious gifts: the items look incongruous in the simple home of human love.
Once the magi recover their composure, they tell stories of their distant homelands and their journeys to this place. Mary and Joseph are amazed to hear of the star that led them, and wonder what all this could mean.
The magi take a room in the local inn. They are exhausted and filled with peace. As they sleep God warns not to return to Herod.
There’s no need for the warning, though. The magi’s hearts were warmed in the humble house, which felt like the home they never knew. The cold palace seems a million miles away. It is the wrong place to take news of a vulnerable infant king. And so they leave for their own country by another road.
As they travel, they reflect back on their visit.
In the palace they had found a paranoid ruler, curious about the “newborn king.” Still he was too lazy to get off the couch and go down the road to Bethlehem and see for himself.
The religious people who surrounded the king had found some esoteric knowledge to guide the seekers on their quest. But these experts also seem unmotivated to make the trip to Bethlehem. “Let us know how you make out … come back and tell us when you find him,” they say. And then they return to their temple finance meeting.
Then the magi remember the aroma of a homey stew, in the humble home. They recall Mary is balancing the baby on her hip as she stirred the pot, and Joseph, inviting them in to sit with him and talk. They had never been in such a place, and yet it felt like home from the moment they entered.
I so I wonder, do our churches, our places of worship, have the potential to be either Herod’s palace or the holy family’s humble home? Recently, at Wollaston Congregational Church, we seem to have been entertaining a number of star seekers.
They often come in disguise, but they are always seeking something. They may have caught a vision, somewhere along the road in the dark night, that inspires them to broach our doorway. They come convinced that our community, gathered around Jesus is what they need in their lives.
Seekers can be idealistic about the church, and sometimes they are disappointed to find that we are simply flawed human beings. They frequently come with visions of stars and holy messages about how we might live more deeply into our call to be the church. They inspire us to reach out to the poor and marginalized, they remind us of the plight of those we think of as “other”, they tell us their own stories of exclusion and pain.
Some of these seekers sit through their first worship service, and silently leave never to return. Others engage quickly and tell us about their life experiences, and of the spiritual journey they took to arrive at our door. Some know what they are looking for, and some do not. Sometimes they seem to find it with us. They inspire us with their vision, especially if we continue the journey together.
On our best days, our church is a warm homey place, with a stew on the stove, and wide-open arms, welcoming the travelers in. Right now, we are sensing a dramatic shift in our culture, but we embrace it. We focus on new beginnings and opportunities, and are willing to let go of the past.
But on our not-so-good days, we are taken up with our worries and fears. We find the cultural shifts frightening, we operate out from a sense of scarcity. We fear don’t have enough volunteers to fill all the openings, our building is falling down around us. We lament the loss of things past.
Sometimes we’re so preoccupied with our fears for the future, that we barely notice the seekers poking their nose in the door. On days like these, they may depart to look elsewhere for the light.
Our hope, of course, is to be warm, open and welcoming every day. Our hope is to keep a look out from our doorway, into the dark night for star seekers. After all, these guests may be the ones who lead us into the new era, with a vision for what God would have us do.
I hope that if we remember our commitment of hospitality to the stranger, remembering our covenant to listen to where God is leading us, we will maintain a hopeful, welcoming outlook.
I wonder if magi seekers visited North Quincy and Wollaston some 43 years ago. I wonder if their vision was set upon the star of ecumenism: all the churches coming together in a hospitable way.
Perhaps they inspired the Quincy churches to create places of shelter for the hungry and the homeless; places of security for those who were experiencing domestic violence and other crises. These ministries are alive and flourishing still today.
As we look back on our years together, hearing the story of the magi seekers, year after year, I wonder where the seekers’ vision is set these days.
We cannot know unless we welcome them in. And so, this afternoon, may we imagine our churches both singly and jointly as places where many magi seekers may stop and rest. May we be free from fear – of what is coming next - so that we allow them to bring their own vision of the Christ child among us.