Based on Matthew 2:1-18
In the TV sitcom `Friends’, there is an episode where they are discussing old movies and the conversation turned to `Old Yeller’ – a story about a boy and his golden lab dog. Phoebe, the ditsy `blonde’ in the series, gushes about what a wonderful and happy story it is. Her friends stare at her incredulously. Old Yeller? Happy? The boy has to shoot the dog he loves at the end of the movie because it’s been bitten by a rabid racoon! Phoebe insists that this can’t be true. She watched the movie over and over again, and they all lived happily ever after. It turns out that her mother always turned the movie off, before the racoon shows up, telling her it that was the end of the story, because she wanted to save her children from horrible things!
It seems that the compilers of the weekly Bible readings (the lectionary) must have had the same thing in mind, because they suggest ending today’s reading with the Magi overjoyed and giving Jesus a bunch of presents. End of story. Next week we get to hear about Jesus being baptized.
We wish it were that simple, and lovely and clean. But it’s not. In the midst of the joy and the suffering of this story what can we take for our living into the year 2016?
This story is rich with symbolism. In the Magi pilgrimage, we find an openness, and vulnerability; a willingness to seek the higher good, to recognizing the holy no matter how unlikely its’ appearance, and recognizing it, revere it, and be changed by it in some way. If we today are not prepared to seek and be in relationship with God, to be changed, challenged and grow in love, why are we here?
This story is also a universal tale of what happens when power and greed are threatened. Devastation is poured out on the weakest and most vulnerable in society. I’ve often wondered at the language we use – why are victims of war are called `casualties?’ `Casualties, casual’ – as if it’s no big deal.
How do we not get stuck in these verses that are so disturbing that no one will put them in the lectionary? If people just read the happy parts, `Jesus gets birthday presents, we get to eat candy out of a sock, and everyone goes home,’ then we are devastated anew and without compass, by the news of modern day brutality – stories of children forced to be soldiers, innocent victims of terrorist attacks, the millions of refugees on the move, or living in the limbo of refugee camps. We can be paralyzed by it, broken by it, or we can let love be stronger than hate.
We gather together as a church, not because we are pure and perfect, but precisely because we are broken and flawed, and also tempted by greed, worried about scarcity and a hundred other fears that keep us from being authentic and generous. But it doesn’t mean that we choose to be destructive.
We are here precisely because we want to choose a different way to be in the world. We want to be on a spiritual pilgrimage like the Magi, finding and honouring truth and beauty where we find it and offering our best gifts to God, and to the ministry to which we are called. We want to be part of something bigger and more meaningful than our individual lives. Reinhold Niebuhr said “Nothing worth doing is ever completed in our life time.” That takes some of the pressure off, but we can play our part in the bigger story, even if we can never finish what we started, or if we bring completion or the next phase, what others have started.
As we live into the New Year, in a world rocked by violence and so many seeking safety, I hold to the knowledge that our faith is centered on a child born under military occupation, who had to flee his homeland shortly after his birth. The Christ child was no stranger to conflict, to poverty, to a world in deep need of compassion. It was his life’s work to bring that compassion to a hurting world. In our small and imperfect ways we, as a congregation and thrift shop ministry, try to continue that work for the healing & blessing of the world.
As we go home, from this worship today, from each encounter where we seek the truth, where we strive to offer the gift of our best self, may we see behind the face of each person, a soul at work. May we, like the Magi, find God at work in unexpected places, especially in our own hearts.