Holy Strangers

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12

When I was growing up, I thought my grandmother was the most faithful Christian I knew.  I thought this primarily because of her piety.  She was a devout Catholic who was old enough that she had a hard time getting out of the house, increasingly so as I grew up, but she made sure to watch mass on television each week. I would often watch her sitting on her chair praying the rosary, beads in hand.  And when we talked she would add “God willing” onto the end of any future plans, no matter how simple.  It may have been mostly force of habit, but it was also an acknowledgment of the truth I so rarely thought about as a child, that the future isn’t entirely up to us.

When I was in college, my campus minister, David, became my mentor and model of a faithful Christian.  Among many reasons, one was his knowledge.  I admired the way he could quote C.S. Lewis or Dietrich Bonhoeffer just like that, not just as a matter of trivia, but always bringing something new into the conversation.  David opened up new and richer ways for me to think about my faith, bringing in the wisdom of people who had traveled this path before, always inviting reflection and conversation in a way that helped me to experience the call to follow Jesus in an entirely new way.

When I was in seminary I once heard a sermon preached by a United Methodist deacon named Nancy, who had served as a missionary overseas and was then working at a church in Atlanta.  Part of her job at the church was receiving people who showed up asking for help, and in the sermon she talked about a time a young woman showed up at the church in tears.  This young woman was an immigrant from Pakistan who had found herself here in a bad situation with no place to go, and so Nancy brought her home, and she ended up living with Nancy and her husband for six months.  One of my favorite Bible passages even then was Isaiah 58: Isn’t this the fast I choose: …to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house? And as I listened to Nancy tell this story, I thought, wow, that’s not just rhetorical – people really do that.  In just one sermon, she challenged me to practice my faith more boldly and more literally – and I thought she must be the epitome of a faithful Christian.

Do you know people like that?

The truth is that no one of these people was probably a perfect model of faith in all its aspects, but my own faith was blessed by each of them in turn, and by their commitment to prayer, to thoughtful theological reflection, and to boldly living out the Gospel.  And of course, my faith has been formed and defined and deepened and challenged by many other faithful Christians along the way, all of whom have blessed me with the particular gifts they had to impart.

Today is Epiphany, the Sunday of the church year when we read the story and sing songs of some people who ride into the Christmas story bearing gifts of their own.  It is the end of the Christmas season and a time to celebrate God’s unfolding self-revelation in Jesus.

The three wise men, or magi, or sometimes kings (and actually Matthew doesn’t even say there were three of them) who come from afar are familiar faces in most of our nativity scenes.  They roll into Jerusalem asking the Roman-Empire-sanctioned puppet king Herod for information on the whereabouts of this new king whose star they have seen at its rising.  They find him in Bethlehem, where they kneel in front of the manger and worship. They return home by another route, careful to avoid giving the current king any information on where to find the new one.

The story doesn’t end there, because when Herod realizes they’re not coming back, he gets angry, and vows to kill all the children in Bethlehem who are under two, just to cover his bases; and the Holy Family flees to Egypt, leaving home to seek safety across borders and risking their lives on the welcome they will receive in a foreign land until Herod dies. That’s our obligatory reminder that the charming and rustic Christmas story is actually shrouded in violence, which probably makes it more relevant to today’s world than we usually care to remember.

But before they go and set all that in motion, the wise men impart gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (possibly the strangest baby shower ever.) Whether or not Matthew intended it, tradition has given these gifts meaning, as we sang about in the song: gold for a king; frankincense for a god; myrrh, the embalming spice, foreshadowing death.  Their gifts give us new information about who this baby is.  Somehow, it seems, from their reading of the stars, they knew something others did not.

That’s all the more interesting for the fact that these wise men are not Jewish.  We don’t know where they are from except that it’s somewhere in the east, beyond the borders of Israel and Judah. The hope for a Messiah born among the Jewish people is not their hope.  The Scriptures that are said to foretell his coming are not their Scriptures.  The kingdom over which he will be king is, as far as they know, not the kingdom or empire or land in which they live.

In the words of Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Holy Envy, “their appearance in Bethlehem is as surprising as a delegation of Methodist bishops arriving in Dharamsala to recognize the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama.”

I imagine the wise men were blessed by this encounter, their epiphany.  How could they not have been?  Whether they knew all the details or not, they got to look in the face of God.  Their appearance at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel immediately opens up the significance of this child’s birth, taking it from local to global – the blessings of Emmanuel, God With Us, extend beyond our cultural identities and borders.

But the wise men bring their own blessings to the story, too.  Not just precious metal or incense or spices, but new insight into who this child is and how to honor him that potentially even goes beyond that of those closest to him.

And yet, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “Once they deliver their gifts to the starlit baby boy, they go back to where they came from, presumably to resume their vocations as Zoroastrian priests.”  They come into the story as outsiders, and as far as we know, that’s how they leave it, too.  They “enter stage left,” Taylor says, “deliver their blessing on the Christian gospel, and exit stage right, leaving their mark on a tradition that is not their own.”

I opened today by telling you three stories of faithful Christians who gave me gifts that shaped and transformed my faith.  But now let me tell you about three other people who have done the same.

When I was in high school, I knew a girl named Alisa, who was Muslim.  I never knew Alisa very well, to be honest; I’d be surprised if she remembered me now.  But we were in Model UN together, and one day we stayed after school to set up for a Model UN conference together.  As we set up, the time came for her to pray, as Muslims are instructed to do five times a day, and I watched her find an empty corner of the room, kneel facing Mecca, and bow as she said the prayers.  In the years since I have traveled to majority-Muslim countries on multiple occasions and heard the call to prayer sounding from mosques at the appointed times throughout the day, and I have always thought it was beautiful to be reminded to stop and remember God in the chaos and busyness of one’s day.  But I also remember Alisa, who did it on her own, who made that time when no one around her was reminding her or making time, and I wished that my Christian commitment could be as great as her Muslim one.

When I was a sophomore in college, I took my first class in the Religious Studies department, called History and Religion of Ancient Israel.  It was basically an overview of the Hebrew Bible and its historical context, taught by Julie Galambush, an American Baptist pastor turned Reform Jew.  I had always considered the Old Testament to be a little on the dry side, to be honest, but the way Professor Galambush told its stories and filled in the gaps made it come alive for me.  I can still hear her voice telling us about the debate we can read in the pages of 1 Samuel about whether or not the people of Israel should be ruled by a king: We want a king! We want a king! the people said, to the prophet Samuel’s chagrin.  Despite having learned all the top Bible stories in Sunday School as a kid, I honestly don’t know if I would be here in front of you today if I hadn’t fallen in love with the Bible for the first time in Professor Galambush’s class.

When I moved here to Arlington, I met a local imam named Mehmet.  Maybe some of you have met him, too, at the dinners we were sometimes invited to at his mosque during Ramadan.  Mehmet’s job has since changed, but his calling has remained the same, and that is to work for friendship and understanding among people of all faiths and to work together for peace and justice in our world.  Mehmet, as far as I can tell, lives his faith with such consistency and integrity that nearly everything he does, even everything he posts on Facebook, points toward this purpose, and I have found myself challenged and inspired to be that committed to these things I also believe in.

My Christian faith has been deeply shaped by other Christians who have showed me in different ways what it looks like to love and follow Jesus.  But it has also been blessed by the gifts of these Jews and Muslims, among other people of other faiths, and sometimes people who profess no faith as well.

None of that is to say that our differences don’t matter, or that we’re really all the same when you get down to it anyway.  These are people who told a somewhat different story than I do, who believed some different things, and practiced their faiths and lived out their core values in ways that I do not, and yet they had gifts to give to me that have made my own faith richer, just like my grandmother and my campus minister and a Christian preacher did.

It seems to me that as the world stands on the brink of war, as our denomination stands on the brink of schism, as all the cultural forces around us demand that we see ourselves as “us” and “them,” creating enemies out of people who don’t have to be, that it couldn’t hurt to move through this world with our eyes a little more open to the gifts of holy strangers.

And maybe along the way I’ll part of someone else’s story, too – someone who will perhaps never quite tell the story the same way I do, but who will know a little more of God’s love and mercy and welcome through me; who will be richer for the gifts I have to offer, from my Scriptures and my beliefs and my spiritual practice and my faith.  I at least hope that that might be the case.

I know the story I have to tell.  It’s the story of a God who became one of us, who embodied love and broke barriers and invited us into bold, sacrificial, abundant life.  And it’s a story that’s big enough for all of us – faithful friends and holy strangers alike.

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