Sermon: Seeking, Offering, Subverting

“Seeking, Offering, Subverting”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
January 7, 2018

Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Today we celebrate Epiphany, a holiday whose name stems from a Greek word meaning “to reveal.” Today is the day we commemorate Jesus being revealed to the Wise Men as the newborn king they had been seeking.

When I read this morning’s Gospel passage illustrating Epiphany, I immediately thought of Baboushka and the Three Kings, a book I read as a child. Baboushka is cleaning her cozy little house during a snowstorm not unlike the one we had this week when three august personages arrive, asking whether she knows the whereabouts of the Christ Child. Seeing that she does not, the three kings invite her to come with them as they continue their search. But Baboushka declines; her dishes need washing, the floor needs scrubbing, and there is firewood to cut. The next morning Baboushka wakes up and realizes she wishes she had gone to see the Christ child after all… and she sets out to follow the three kings.

This is a spoiler, if you haven’t read the book: freshly fallen snow has covered the kings’ footprints, and she never catches up to them. Indeed, she never even meets the Christ Child. She spends the rest of her life searching for him, meeting along the way various people in need whom she helps with a gift, a smile, or a meal.

As a child Baboushka’s drive to find the baby resonated with me. I wondered why we couldn’t have Jesus here with us, now – why he couldn’t be revealed to us in the flesh like he was for the disciples and the crowds and the three kings. Wouldn’t it be so much easier to be kind, to be just, to love, if we had been inspired by Jesus in person? Wouldn’t it be so much more obvious how we needed to grow and change to be more like Jesus if we had come face to face with him? In the absence of time travel, my first solution to this problem, I figured a nice second choice would be a mystical experience where I heard Jesus’ voice or saw him in a vision.

As I grew older, I realized that waiting around for an otherworldly visitation that might never come was cheating me out of a rich faith experience right now. I started to wonder how I could not just seek Jesus, but find him revealed, in ordinary life. I went from seeing Baboushka’s neverending search as a sad story with an unfulfilling end to seeing it as a metaphor for a deeply fulfilling Christian life.

The magi are the exception – they seek and find the baby in person, offering him precious gifts as tribute to the Child king. Most of us will never have that opportunity – not in this life, at least. And that is where the challenge – and, I have found, the joy – comes in. We are instead given the gift of seeking and finding Jesus in other people, particularly in those in need.

About a month ago, through the generosity of the deacons’ fund, PACC gave the gift of permanent shelter to a modern-day holy family. After he had stayed home to nurse his wife Josefina through her recovery from a debilitating medical condition, Juan lost his job. They were soon evicted from their apartment; they and their two-year-old son Javi moved into their car, where they were living right as the cold Boston winter began to crank up. If they could make it back to Florida, their home state, Juan had a job waiting for him and a friend’s basement the family could live in. After I gave Juan the gas gift cards that would see them safely home, I went outside to meet Josefina, who gave me a warm hello, and Javi, who despite being strapped into his carseat for most of the day was full of smiles. In that beautiful smile and dark curly hair I saw revealed the face of the Christ child who long ago made a similar journey to find safety and security.

The three kings offered gold, frankincense, and myrrh – gifts of extraordinary material price. We, on the other hand, have the chance to give offerings of infinitely greater value. Our time, resources, and attention can do so much to get someone through a difficult spot, to help someone feel valued and noticed, to honor someone’s dignity or to enable a family to stay together through difficult times.

The most precious offering of all, though, is our heart – the willingness to have our hearts softened and shaped by the love of the Christ child. In offering our hearts, we find love for difficult people or appreciation for the difficult situations in our lives. We become open to what we never would have considered; we change our attitudes and our priorities. Baboushka herself undergoes such a transformation: once a practical, zealous housekeeper, she finds herself changing into a wandering, joy-scattering seeker after Christ.

How, we might ask, can we offer our hearts to God? Maybe your relationship with your in-laws or your neighbors is marred by unspoken resentment. Maybe you constantly nag your child out of a worry that she or he will fall into the same mistakes you made at their age. Maybe your grief over a painful loss has calcified into bitterness or despair. Maybe you flip past stories of people in need because you believe there is nothing you can do. STORY?? Epiphany calls us to offer our hard places to God, trusting that God will give us everything we need to live life with an open, vibrant heart.

Seeking, offering – there’s one more element to this story. The kings seek the baby, offer him gifts, and are ready to return to their own countries. But they must make a choice, because Herod has asked them to travel through Jerusalem on their way home and tell him where the new king has been born, so that he might kill the child before he becomes a threat to Herod’s power. We aren’t told how the wise ones feel as they contemplate their decision, but as three lone travelers far outside the jurisdiction and security of their own kingdoms, fear and uncertainty must have been part of the equation. Do they comply with Herod’s command, putting the holy Child in danger, or do they ignore Herod, safeguarding the Child but risking the wrath of the well-armed king appointed by Rome?

Seeking out Jesus and offering him our hearts to be transformed can sound rather butterflies-and-rainbows from afar – but then comes a moment like this, where the journey you’ve been on to find Jesus brings you smack into conflict with the powers that be or with powerful expectations of how things ought to proceed. You are asked to make a decision that may not be easy and is potentially not without consequence. You know the right thing to do but it seems so radical; you feel trepidation at the thought of sailing off into uncharted waters.

It may not seem like it, but along with seeking out Jesus and offering our hearts to God, subverting unrighteous authority can be a mark of Christian faith. Martyrs under the Roman empire, abolitionists and civil rights activists, clergy and nuns living under despotic regimes, members of the Confessing Church who resisted Nazi Germany have all defied the law of the land in order to remain true to their understanding of Jesus. Many paid a steep cost for speaking out in accordance with their faith.

We are lucky to live in a country where merely believing in God doesn’t put our lives in peril. But there are many moments, large and small, where encountering the living Christ in someone else’s face impels us to stand in opposition to authority figures.

This past May, the Cambridge Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition welcomed another holy family – a young woman and her two children – to live in University Lutheran Church as a protection from deportation. A victim of trafficking, 26-year-old Ana had been brought against her will from Ecuador to the US where she was arrested and detained for a year, unable to pay her bail. According to the Boston Globe, Ana was eventually released pending the outcome of her case, so she came to Boston where a friend helped her get on her feet. She lost her asylum case and an appeal, and was ordered to leave the country by December 20. But she is afraid to return to Ecuador because the man who forced her to come here has threatened her life and the lives of her two little girls, a 3-year-old and a 16-month-old, echoing Herod’s threat to kill the Christ child.

Kris Rhude, a member of the University Lutheran Church community, heard Ana’s story, looked into her children’s faces, and decided to help train a rotation of over 150 volunteers to help shelter Ana and her girls. Though sheltering an undocumented immigrant is illegal, there wasn’t a substantial risk for the church, he said. Still, he “had a lot of fear about what it might mean for our congregation.” Yet he said something curious about this fear: “I…think that because it was frightening, [that let me know] that we were doing the right thing.”

Whatever your opinions on giving shelter to undocumented immigrants, Kris’ words about fear echo the Wise Men’s risky decision to defy Herod. Indeed, they echo decisions we all face in our lives as we strive to honor the Holy Child: do we report harassment or unethical behavior at work, risking demotion or dismissal? Do we help our child stand up to a bully on the playground, knowing that protecting a vulnerable kid might place our own son or daughter squarely in the bully’s sights? Do we speak the truth on behalf of a vulnerable relative, aware that naming aloud family secrets might ruffle feathers and estrange kindred? Do we challenge bigoted remarks our friends make, even if it will kill the atmosphere at an otherwise convivial dinner party? These things are not easy; plenty of times I’ve let fear of challenging what’s expected stop me from heading after the Wise Men. If the idea of striking out in the direction we suspect Jesus is calling us makes our palms sweat a little bit, though, it may simply be a sign that we’re on the right track.

Seeking. Offering. Subverting. Who knew the simple, sentimental story of the Three Kings had so much going on – that it could challenge us in so many ways? To see Jesus in the face of those around us who need what we can give. To give our hearts to God, not knowing how we might be changed, what comfortable illusions we might have to give up. To subvert unrighteous authority, knowing that a higher authority will give us the courage to do what is right.

No wonder Baboushka wanted to stay home! But friends, I promise you that just as Baboushka did, if we strike out after the Kings in search of Jesus, we will find a life richer and more fulfilling than we could ever imagine – a life of Epiphany, of Jesus revealed to us, all year round.

May it be so. Amen.