We Need Wise Ones
A Sermon for the Feast of Epiphany
Most mornings I start my day in pretty much the same way: I get up early to pray before work begins. I started this practice when I began to wake up routinely, in the middle of the night, to answer the call of nature to my aging body. One night, when I went back to bed but just couldn't go back to sleep, I thought, This might not be just nature's call. This might also be God calling, saying, Tom, there's something we need to talk about! So I got up, and began to pray, and, as it turns out, there WAS something we needed to talk about. When I woke up early again the next morning and the next, I prayed, Should I be doing this every day? Yes, came the answer. For years now, I've routinely risen early, to pray through the time ancient soldiers, when serving as sentinels on guard, called the “night watches.”
I observe another ancient practice before settling into my prayer chair: I light a candle. Before the dawn's early light, I touch match to wick and wait for light to fill the room. I light a candle, then read a bit of old Scripture or some new spiritual writing, because in dark times, I need light. And for those of us who claim to follow Jesus in dark times, such as these times often are, we need some Wise Ones. We need Wise Ones to lead us to the Light of Christ.
Actually, they're here today! Did you notice? Did you see them? Those ancient Wise Ones came again in our Gospel story today. On this, the 12th and final day of Christmas, called the feast of the Epiphany, three wise men completed their journey to the Light. Who knows what they actually looked like on that first Christmas, when they followed that star of “royal beauty bright” to Bethlehem? Legend has turned them into men from three different regions: Balthazar from Arabia, Melchior from Persia and Caspar from India. One carried gold, worthy of royalty; another, frankincense, for a god; and the third, myrrh, commonly used to embalm. The three came to see the Three-In-One: a king, a god and a man, who was to die – not for just one race or religion, tribe or nation, but for the whole human family. Three Wise Ones led the way to the Christ child, seeking to follow the perfect Light.
Wise Ones have a certain “way” about them. In fact, these three “Magi” may seem almost magical to us! But all they did was to study the heavens, gaze at the stars and dream. (All?! ) And on that twelfth night, more than 2,000 years ago, they saw God's dream for all God's people, for all time. They've come to life, here, today, in Frederick and throughout the world. Yes, there are indeed Wise Ones in our midst. They've come to help us seek the light of Christ. But when we leave here today, how will we know a Wise One when we see one?
Let me suggest two qualities of Wise Ones, those seekers of perfect Light. The first quality has to do with their alien or strange nature. Wise Ones are often “not from around here,” at least not in their beliefs. St. Matthew, the only Gospel writer who tells us the story of the Magi, describes “exotic foreigners” who are better informed about this true Light than King Herod and probably most natives of Jerusalem. And they are not afraid to look for the Light. The Magi were stargazers who were fearless about venturing into foreign vistas.
In our own time, consider those seekers, now the fastest growing segment of the population according to recent polls, called “spiritual but not religious.” This group now rivals Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics in size. They even have their own acronym: SBNR (New York Times or www.sbnr.org). SBNR folks may see strange to some, but the church would not exist today, as one scholar puts it, “(without) the determination of simple. . .seekers who stumbled into the hay. . ..Some. . .are better able (ready, and willing) to kneel at the manger than those who have worshiped (Jesus) for a lifetime” (Stephen Bauman, Feasting on the Word, p. 214). When the Wise Men saw the child and Mary, “they knelt down,” Scripture says. They “paid him homage” (Matthew 2:11). Homage is about respect and honor, about being humble enough to receive Light – even from someone who is younger and somewhat strange to you. Homage is something Herod was unable to pay anyone, let alone someone who threatened his throne and his power.
These biblical Wise Ones, then, seem to have had the qualities of both chutzpah and humility. Chutzpah – knowing that, no matter how strange they might seem, they, too, had a God to seek and the right to seek their God. Humility – accepting the fact that they needed to listen, with openness and respect, to the God who would someday speak through this child.
Who are our Wise Ones today? Who do you know to have the wisdom both to speak God's truth and to listen to God's truth in others? I want to mention a 21st century Wise One who introduced me to wisdom's dynamic tension of “chutzpah-humility.” Parker Palmer is a Quaker teacher and spiritual guide whose writing speaks deeply to people from all walks of life. His 2011 book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, ties together wisdom from the political, social and spiritual dimensions of our lives, wisdom he distills into five “habits of the heart.”
- We must understand that we are all in this together.
- We must strengthen our capacity to create community.
- We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.
- We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency.
- We must develop an appreciation of the value of 'otherness.'
(For more information on the book or the author, go to www.couragerenewal.org.)
It is the last habit of the heart, the practice of appreciating and valuing those who are “other” or different from us, that this new season of Epiphany, a time of Christ's light shining in the darkness, is all about. If we read the next few verses of Matthew's second chapter, we will see how the Roman emperor Herod had such an inability to appreciate the “other” called Jesus, he ordered all male children, aged two or younger, to be put to death. Until Jesus, a Jew, came along, Jews always struggled with the otherness of Gentiles, including those three Magi. Christians today still struggle with non-Christians and even other Christians who just aren't Christian enough, especially Christians who can't seem to see true Light the way we do.
No one – no Christian, Muslim or Jew will ever be Christian, Muslim or Jewish enough to claim to have acquired all of God's wisdom, to have come to know all of God's truth or to have seen all of God's light. Except, we Christians say and believe, for Jesus. For us, Jesus is the light of the world. That is why those Magi, who were not practicing Jews, but an early delegation of spiritual-but-not-religious folk, the Wise Men wanted to find and see Jesus. On the first Epiphany, the Light of Christ was not limited to a select religious few. It still isn't.
Epiphany is about mission. It's about, as we at All Saints' put it, “reaching out, creating sacred space and welcoming all.” Epiphany is about spreading God's mission, God's light in Christ Jesus, to all nations, throughout the world. But first, we need some light ourselves. Before we dare go out into a world of deep darkness, before we take this little light of mine and yours through these doors, let's light a candle. Let's bend the knee of our hearts. Let's pay homage to the Christ child once more. Let's speak our Christian truth, remembering, as the great wise one Abraham Joshua Heschel once put it, the truth lies somewhere between us.
Yes, we need the light and truth “others” bring us. We live in times of deep darkness, and we need strange, Wise Ones to lead the way. And yet, God plants a spark of divine light in each and every one of us, because we cannot live without God's light. That's why we light candles, to remind us: We need light – whether it is the night or the day we rise to watch.
—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
January 6, 2013