Since we don’t have a service on Epiphany, my sermon for this Sunday turns to the sages following the star (Matthew 2:1-12). Here is what I found on the road with them. The song that follows is “May I Suggest” by Susan Werner–one of my favorites.
Ginger and I moved to Boston about thirty years ago, before smart phones and GPS devices. Boston is notorious for not having street signs. People who live there give directions by landmarks, often a Dunkin’ Donuts or a local liquor store chain called Kappy’s Liquors. In fact, we decided good directions always began with, “You know where Kappy’s Liquors is, right?”
I learned another thing about getting directions in Boston that I thought of reading this passage. Rarely were the directions for how to get somewhere the same as the directions of how to get back. The proliferation of one way streets and then just craziness of a city that just kept adding on to itself meant most of the time we, like the wise ones, had to go home a different way than we had come.
This past week, I spent a couple of days in Stonington, Connecticut on a personal retreat—a Christmas gift from Ginger and my mother-in-law Rachel. The time was rich and restful and meaningful, but I mention it this morning because of what it felt like to drive those small roads lined with stone walls, trying to find the Airbnb where I was staying. My iPhone narrated my travels, telling me where to turn. I was aware, as I made turns down roads I hardly even knew were there, that without the app on my phone I would have gotten lost–or, at least, I would have had to ask for directions. And, when I went to pick up my pizza one night, Siri took me back to my cabin by a different route.
As we tell the story of the travelers from the east–the magi, the sages, the wanderers, the astrologers–I am mindful that they set out following a star. We don’t know where they started from, but the implication seems to be they had come a long way in hopes of finding someone important. The gospels say nothing about them being kings (or male, for that matter), but perhaps we have inferred that over the years because they felt comfortable going to the palace to ask Herod for directions when they got to Jerusalem.
Actually, the gospel doesn’t tell us why the sages felt compelled to go to Herod instead of trusting that the star would lead them. I have heard explanations–that they were following political pleasantries, or they thought one king would know about other royal births–but none of that is in the text. Their visit appears to be the impetus for Herod to decide to massacre the Judean children to thwart any challenge to his power because he didn’t appear to know anything about the birth, though that was not what the travelers intended to set in motion. With the help of his scholars, Herod pointed them towards Bethlehem and the travelers went back to following the star and, perhaps, asking around town until they found the child. They offered their gifts and prepared to go home the way they came until, Matthew says, they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, which helped them see they couldn’t trust him. So, they went home by another way.
That sentence sounds so simple, doesn’t it? They went home by another way. But we don’t have any indication that the star made the return trip. Nor do we have any sense that these people were necessarily well-traveled. They just knew to go home, or at least head east, without stopping by Herod’s house. They couldn’t just retrace their steps.
As we move from 2020 to 2021, I think it’s fair to say we are glad to leave last year behind. We spent the best part of it wandering in uncharted territory because of the pandemic. As we begin the new year, with the promise of the vaccine and the hope that the pandemic will wind down, we are talking more and more about life getting back to normal. I have a list of things I miss doing: eating in restaurants, hanging out with friends, singing hymns in church, going to concerts and plays, shaking hands, passing the peace, hugging. But, even as I offer that list I want to say I hope we don’t go back to the way things were.
For all that was difficult and tragic about 2020, I hope it gives us to act like the wise ones and go home by another way. Rather than reconstructing the life we knew before COVID-19, we have a chance to tear down things that need to be torn down, to leave behind behaviors that divide and discourage us, on both personal and societal levels, and to do the work to find a better way to live together.
More than once, or perhaps a hundred times, I have heard people refer to these days as “unprecedented times,” which is another way of saying we don’t have good directions on how to get out of here–and we certainly don’t have a star to guide us. The pandemic and the political division in our country have left us feeling lost. But, like the folks in Boston have Kappy’s Liquors, we have some landmarks of faith to help us find our way. The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, giving them directions on how to find their way to each other; he called them the fruits of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Those are pretty good signposts for us as well.
Gathering around the Communion table, even though we can’t see each other, is another landmark of faith. We come to the table to re-member ourselves—to put ourselves back together in Jesus’ name. It is not the same when we are sitting in different rooms, but its still another way to find one another.
The road ahead of us is a journey towards each other, and it is a road different from the ones we are used to traveling. We can’t get there overnight, any more than the magi made it across the desert in a day or two. But the journey starts now—not when the pandemic is over. We need to be working on finding new ways to each other even as the roads we know are blocked with obstacles. Oleta Adams wrote a song in the 90s called “Get Here.” The first verse said,
you can reach me by railway, you can reach me by trailway
you can reach me on an airplane, you can reach me with your mind
you can reach me by caravan, cross the desert like an Arab man
I don’t care how you get here, just get here if you can
Let’s do whatever we can. Call. Write. Zoom. Bake. Walk. Share. Pray. Let’s find a way to one another, even though it’s not the path we are used to. Amen.